The New York Times
The Louvre Now Accepts the Living
On a recent Tuesday inside the Louvre, the German artist Anselm Kiefer was standing on a piece of scaffolding high in the air, relaying instructions to a group of men manipulating a crane. Carefully they hoisted a mound planted with a dozen atrophied aluminum sunflowers into an oversize niche in the wall.
The mound is part of a major art installation by Mr. Kiefer, the first permanent contribution to the Louvre’s décor since Georges Braque painted the ceiling of Henri II’s former antechamber in 1953. It goes on view Thursday in a stairwell linking the Egyptian and Mesopotamian antiquities in the museum’s Sully wing.
Built in 1808-9 by Napoleon’s personal architects, the stairwell is an elegant space graced by Corinthian capitals and bas-reliefs depicting antique gods and allegorical figures. (History relates that one of the four original sculptors died after falling from the scaffolding.)
On one blank wall Mr. Kiefer has produced a monumental painting over 30 feet high and nearly 15 feet wide that he describes as a self-portrait. It portrays a naked man flat on his back under a starry nighttime sky; a faint beam of light runs between his solar plexus to the constellations.
He’s not dead, but “in the universe,” Mr. Kiefer said with satisfaction.
He named the roughly textured painting “Athanor,” for the alchemical furnace that transforms base metal to gold and mortality to immortality. At the bottom he affixed a layer of cracked reddish soil (from Barjac in southern France, where he makes his home), onto which he poured liquid lead. Farther up there’s a dusting of silver, then gold, representing the three stages of the chemical process. The stars are recycled from Mr. Kiefer’s old paintings of snow. “When snow blows around, it’s like stars,” he explained. “The sky is moving all the time.”
For the two facing niches at the top of the stairs he created a pair of sculptures. He likens the earthlike mound with sunflowers, titled “Hortus Conclusus” — Latin for enclosed garden — to the hill where Jesus was crucified. Across from it is “Danaë,” in which a giant blackened depetaled sunflower emerges from a pile of lead books. (In Greek mythology Zeus impregnated Danaë in the form of golden rain.) At the sculpture’s base a scattering of gold-dipped seeds alludes to the Immaculate Conception.
The symbols will be familiar to followers of Mr. Kiefer’s oeuvre, and it is striking how at home his art looks in the precincts of the Louvre, with its somber tones and ancient references. His art “calls out to this museum,” said Marie-Laure Bernadac, the Louvre’s chief curator of contemporary art, because “he’s a painter of history and mythology.”
His contribution will be followed by those of three other artists over the next three years. The American artist Cy Twombly will paint the vast white ceiling in the Salle des Bronzes, and François Morellet of France will decorate the windows of the Lefuel stairwell. The fourth artist was meant to be Luciano Fabro of Italy, but he died last summer, and his replacement has yet to be announced.
The delicate nature of the undertaking is reflected by its having been in the air for decades. After Braque’s ceiling project of 1953, “a succession of the Louvre’s directors wanted to commission work by living artists, but none of them succeeded,” Ms. Bernadac said.
Then, in 2003, the museum’s current president-director, Henri Loyrette, hired Ms. Bernadac to work full time on integrating contemporary art into the museum.
With the soft-spoken demeanor of an academic Ms. Bernadac seems an unlikely figure to be shaking things up. But the museum hasn’t looked quite the same since her arrival. From Anish Kapoor’s huge curved mirror in the middle of the Khorsabad courtyard to Mike Kelley’s video projections in the medieval moats, she has repeatedly implanted temporary exhibits of contemporary artwork side by side with ancient artifacts.
She said she was following a trend that the French have been slow to embrace. “The Anglo-Saxons had been doing this for more than 10 years,” she said. “I thought, “Why don’t we do the same thing at the Louvre?’”
The selection committee for the four planned permanent installations, made up of directors from European art institutions, looked for internationally renowned artists with experience creating large-scale works for public commissions. The staircases, ceiling and so on were chosen because “they were the only places left,” Ms. Bernadac said.
Mr. Kiefer said he was thrilled when Mr. Loyrette offered him the stairwell between the Egyptians and Sumerians.
Philippe Dagen, an art critic for Le Monde, has followed Ms. Bernadac’s progress with interest.
“She’s had a lot of difficulty with the other curators, who have tried to block her,” he said. “Monsieur Loyrette is on her side, but that’s just two people facing everything from indifference to outright ill will.”
Ms. Bernadac admitted that the new projects have created tensions within the staff. “All of a sudden we’re seeing living artists in a museum where they never were before,” she said. “It seems to go against the very nature of the Louvre.”
Mr. Kiefer put it more wryly: “Living artists are much more complicated than dead artists.”
And yet from the time of its creation this building has been a living space. Various monarchs added new wings to the palace and the museum, hiring painters and sculptors at will, turning it into a monument where the décor remains as attention grabbing as the art. Yet with the arrival of the Impressionists in the 1860s, “there was a divorce between France’s curators and contemporary creation,” Mr. Dagen said. For the following century the museum seemed to project a disdain for living artists.
In 1947 Picasso was granted his wish to hang some paintings in the Louvre’s Grande Galerie — but on a Tuesday, when the museum was closed, and on the condition that they were removed by Wednesday. In 1953 Braque was invited to paint his three panels in the ceiling of the Salle Henri II, but his two-dimensional birds created a public uproar. Similar objections were famously raised to I. M. Pei’s glass pyramid entrance, inaugurated in the Louvre courtyard in 1989.
“Critics argued that the Louvre was an architecturally coherent building and mustn’t be touched,” Mr. Dagen said. “That just isn’t true.”
Mr. Kiefer, Mr. Twombly and Mr. Morellet’s contributions might blend in more easily. All three have classical sensibilities and are comfortable expressing themselves via painting and sculpture. “You couldn’t ask Bill Viola to create something permanent here,” Mr. Dagen said, referring to that artist’s video works. “The building has a weighty history, and it favors traditional modes of expression.”
And though at times the history here might seem to weigh as much as the sixth-century B.C. colossal stone jar a few rooms from Mr. Kiefer’s new work, Ms. Bernadac argues that the contemporary installations are worth the effort. “The presence of contemporary art reawakens our way of looking at art from the past,” she said.
Mr. Kiefer agrees. “Artists don’t create ex nihilo,” he said. “They are rooted in tradition, with a long history.”
Someday, it seems, his contribution will form part of that narrative. He pointed to his towering sunflower, made of lead-coated resin. “Normally I prefer to use real sunflowers, but they disintegrate,” he said. “The Louvre wants this around for the next 2,000 years.”
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