“Eks- kyou-zay mwarr, miss-your. Ooo esker-say lih loo-ver?”
I can never hear mention of the Musée du Louvre in Paris, without recalling those words, uttered to me by a young man from Akron, Ohio in 1981.
On my recent trip to Paris, I went back to the Louvre. My wife had never been to Paris before and it was on her list. Besides, I hadn’t visited the museum since the advent of the pyramid.
We took a self-guided tour which comprises a brochure and a hand-held device roughly the size of a portable (a cell, or mobile, phone). The brochure suggests a route through the museum and identifies some of the art works one will encounter along the way. At key junctures, you point the portable at the symbol associated with the relevant art work in the brochure then place the device to your ear to hear a spoken commentary on the work. Obviously, the tour doesn’t describe every piece on display in The Louvre. If it did, the brochure would be the size of an encyclopaedia; the portable would require a much larger battery and the tour would take several days to complete. So, the tour makes decisions about what you should know, presumably based on a compromise between artistic merit and popular appeal.
The big three items in the collection seem to be (a) a statue of a woman with no arms, (b) a statue of a woman with no head and no arms, and (c) a painting of a woman with hardly a smile. You don’t really need a brochure or a guide to find these pieces – just follow the crowd. Why these items in particular are so popular baffles me somewhat; and I can only put it down to a good publicist and herd mentality. Even the portable admitted that the Mona Lisa only became really popular after she was stolen by an Italian patriot in 1911 and recovered two years later.
But there is much more to The Louvre than the popular trifecta. Practically anything by Ingres is worth looking at for its exquisite, almost photographic detail – although the Turkish Bath was notably absent on the day of our visit. And there are many beautiful statues of ladies with all of their limbs intact. But my favourite painting didn’t make it into the brochure and there was certainly no description of it available on the portable. It is not a large work like those by David and Delacroix; and it is not a work by a painter as famous as Raphael or Caravaggio. It sits in the main hall, somewhat forlornly dwarfed by its neighbours, as though it only earned a place because it was small enough to fit into the space remaining after the more important items had been hung. But the opportunity to see it again was the only justification I needed to revisit the Louvre.
Ghirlandaio’s portrait of an old man and his grandson is, for me, a painting more eloquent by far than the pompous scenes of coronation by David, the heroic scenes of liberty by Delacroix, or the cool detachment of La Giaconda, too shy or too aloof to share a proper smile. It exudes the beauty of which the soul is capable but all too rarely displays; the ability to see beyond the superficial to the essence that lies beneath. For me, this is not just a portrait of an old man and a boy, but a portrait of humanity at its finest.
Earlier, I’d had to wait patiently while groups of visitors photographed each other in endless permutation in front of the Venus de Milo; becoming so frustrated that, in the end, I began to take photographs of the visitors instead of the statue they and I had come to see.
And later, I would have to jostle my way through a veritable football crowd of fans to see Leonardo’s unfinished ode to beauty. But the nice thing about the Ghirlandaio not being a stop on the tour was that I could walk right up to it unimpeded and stand there admiring it for as long as I liked without bothering anyone.
Of course, we all appreciate the works we can relate to in a personal way. That’s how it is and how it should be. History might give us context; knowledge might give us an appreciation of technique; but in the end, it’s the message that the artist whispers quietly to us through the medium of his art that resonates with us and moves us and ultimately persuades us.
If I ever go back to Paris, if I ever go back to visit The Louvre, I trust that my old friend, Ghirlandaio, will be waiting for me, to resume our conversation.