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Tuesday, June 9, 2015

How NOT to Visit the Louvre

Galerie Apollo, Louvre Museum                                      
Copyright, Jim Lane
The Venus de Milo--everyone wants to take
their own mediocre picture.
This spring when my wife and I visited the Louvre Museum in Paris I was anticipating a rough time. I've visited a dozen or so major art museums around the world during our travels the last few years. Let me tell you, the bigger they are the harder they are to manage. Thus it stands to reason that the Louvre, being the biggest I've ever attempted to absorb, would also be the most difficult. It was. (The Getty in L.A. would be a close second). Sheer size is the greatest problem. Size overwhelms. Size draws huge crowds. Size increases the cost of admission. Size saps endurance. Size creates confusion. Size makes photography difficult (at best). Size makes it hard to find restrooms.
Yeah, they give you a map with your ticket, but it might as well be a map
of the universe--four floors each the size of four football fields.
It's no less overwhelming than the museum itself.
Copyright, Jim Lane
The Dying Slave, Michelangelo
In my book, Art Think (right column), I have a section discussing the history of the palace and the background of the museum as it has come to be today. Now, having "been there, done that," let me offer a few hopefully helpful suggestions aimed at moderating expectations and making a visit to this venerable institution of everything and anything artistic at least a little more pleasant. It's not that visiting the Louvre is, in itself, unpleasant. It's stimulating, inspiring, educational, intellectual, and, to use a more youthful term, awesome. The problem is that it's all of these things and more which brings me back to the original dilemma--its size. It's not that the Louvre and the French government are unaware of this problem, or have not done what they could to alleviate it. They've moved everything done after 1850 to the Orsay Museum across the Seine. They installed all contemporary works of art in the Pompidou Center across town. And they employed the Chinese architect, I.M. Pei, to modernize and systematize the museum itself with its enormous collection of what's left into something approaching a manageable art experience. Nonetheless, the Louvre remains, overwhelming.
Copyright, Jim Lane
I.M. Pei's glass pyramid marks one of the main entrances to the Louvre.
Copyright, Jim Lane
Winged Victory of Samothrace,
2nd-century BC.
In France, as nowhere else in the world, art bears all the hallmarks of a religion. If that's the case, then the Louvre is its Vatican, having much the same effect upon the visitor as St. Peter's Basilica. The Mona Lisa is its Pieta, the magnificent Galerie Apollo (top) its Sistine Chapel. Even the shape of the two architectural landmarks is similar, perhaps because both were constructed in the same style (Baroque) around the same time (16th and 17th-centuries). To push the analogy nearly to the breaking point, both the Vatican and the Louvre feature Egyptian centerpieces in the forecourts (a pyramid, albeit one of glass (above), for the Cour Napoleon, and a stone obelisk for St. Peter's Square). The St. Peter's Italian architect, Gian Lorenzo Bernini was even involved in the construction of the Louvre.

Copyright, Jim Lane
The Louvre is rich in sculpture and fortunately,
most of it photographs well (no flash, please).
Copyright, Jim Lane
The Three Graces, 1797-98,
Antonio Canova
Likely the first decision a visitor needs to make in contemplating the Louvre is, to tour, or not to tour. Tours buy tickets in bulk so they may save you some time waiting in line and if you have only a short time or barely a layman's knowledge of art, and don't mind being hustled around from room to room like cattle, by a guide who presumably knows more about art than you do, then a guided tour is probably your best bet. You'll see all the important stuff, probably not get lost, and come away knowing a little more about art than you did before. If, on the other hand, you're the independent sort, with a few classes of art history/appreciation under your hat, you'll likely find the forced migration from room to room disturbing. In not being with a tour group, you can slow down and enjoy that which appeals to you, rather than just what's famous.

Copyright, Jim Lane
Photographing Mona. She's getting tired of smiling (sort of).

Copyright, Jim Lane
Man with a Glove, 1520, Titian.
Yep, that's me near the glove.
Unless you know as much, or more, about photography as you do art (and have the five-pound camera to prove it), don't expect to visit the Louvre and come away with an outstanding digital library of famous paintings. You won't. This goes for most museums, but especially the Louvre. Trying to photograph Leonardo's Mona Lisa (above) is like trying to get an autograph from Lady Gaga. Everyone wants the same thing. Only those in wheelchairs get to see her up close. Likewise, museum paintings are often hung well above eye level causing parallax to be an impossible problem. Although the lighting is reasonably good for shooting without flash, it often comes from a point causing a reflective glare on the work. Again, there's little or nothing even the professional can do about this. Along the same line, and still worse, is the fact that for a variety of reasons, museums often display even oil paintings behind glass. Not only is glare still a problem but reflections add to the difficulty. When photographing Titian's Man with a Glove (left, 1520), for instance, you don't want to see your own face like a ghostly apparition reflected back at you.

Copyright, Jim Lane
David's Oath of the Horatii, 1784, accidentally shot with flash (left) and without (right).
The color is far more accurate in the right hand version.
Copyright, Jim Lane
Bonaparte Crossing the Alps,
1850, Hippolyte Delaroche.
Every art museum I've ever encountered generously allows visitors to take photos of their works (without flash). There are several reason for that. Insofar as paintings are concerned, first of all, using a flash practically guarantees a glare smack in he middle of the painting (I know, I've done so accidentally more than a few times). However without flash, the colors are often very dull and lifeless (above). I mentioned the problem of parallax before (causing paintings to appear to have angled edges), but there's also the difficulty that gallery light may be somewhat less than desirable causing automatic cameras to adjust shutter speed to compensate. Most museums forbid tripods (and with good reason) thus forcing the photographer to shoot holding the camera above his or her head (in an attempt to reduce parallax). But this also frequently causes camera movement. My attempt to capture Delaroche's Bonaparte Crossing the Alps (right) illustrates both parallax and the poor focus caused by even slight camera movement in low-light situations. Sculpture is another matter, often returning excellent views provided the photographer avoids backlighting from windows and an overly cluttered background.

Copyright, Jim Lane
The Head of John the Baptist
Finally, don't be so enthralled by the famous art that you miss the unique and unusual. I was startled in seeing the life-size Head of John the Baptist (above) carved in marble. Likewise, it was fascinating to see Agnolo Bronzino's Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not, below, left) dating from 1561. It was even more interesting to see a fellow artist sitting at her easel rendering a very respectable copy of the work. It was quite revealing to find, in talking to her, that the museum still encouraged such efforts, and that she had paid nothing for the privilege. Other visitors were also quite fascinated by the opportunity to watch her and asks questions to the point I began to wonder how she had ever managed to get the painting so near completion (below, right).

Copyright Jim Lane
Noli Me Tangere, 1561, Agnolo Bronzino
Copyright, Jim Lane
The artist (left) with her copy

The most welcome gallery in the Louvre.


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