Published: October 16, 2006
In mid-September, when some art-world elite were jetting off to Paris for the Biennale des Antiquaires, curators at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and their colleagues from the Musée du Louvre in Paris were preparing for one of the most notable cultural exchanges since France presented the United States with the Statue of Liberty in 1885.
Called “Louvre Atlanta,” the partnership forged by High Museum director Michael E. Shapiro and his counterpart, Henri Loyrette, president and director of the Louvre, debuted on October 14 in the High Museum’s new 10,000-square-foot Anne Cox Chambers Wing. The galleries are part of the $170 million Woodruff Arts Center expansion, designed by Genoa-based Renzo Piano Building Workshop and completed in November 2005.
“Louvre Atlanta” is something of a coup for the High Museum, which was founded in 1905 as the Atlanta Art Association and has a diverse collection of 11,000 works of art. By contrast, the Louvre, the world’s largest museum-palace complex, has dominated its picturesque site along the Seine since the Twelfth Century. Originally a fortress, it became a museum in 1793. The Louvre’s 35,000-object collection — ranging from antiquities and Islamic art to Western sculpture, decorative arts, paintings, prints and drawings — attracts more than seven million visitors annually, many of them Americans seeking a glimpse of Da Vinci’s “La Giaconda,” better known as the “Mona Lisa,” or the ancient marbles “Winged Victory of Samothrace” and “Venus de Milo.”
The “Louvre Atlanta” partnership grew out of a longstanding friendship between Shapiro and Loyrette, two like-minded directors, both new to their jobs. Shapiro, an expert in Nineteenth Century painting and sculpture, assumed his post in 2000, having joined the High Museum as a curator in 1995. Head of the Louvre since 2001, Loyrette is a historian of Nineteenth Century French art who previously directed Paris’s acclaimed Musée d’Orsay. The men previously worked together on “Impressionism: Paintings Collected by European Museums” and “Paris in The Age of Impressionism: Masterworks from the Musée d’Orsay,” at the High Museum in 1999 and 2002. Substantial credit for the development and execution of “Louvre Atlanta” goes to the High Museum’s chief curator, David Brenneman, and Olivier Meslay, the Louvre’s curator of British, Spanish and American Art.
“In ‘Louvre Atlanta,’ we wanted to explore a cross-section of the Louvre’s collection, and do it over a three-year period,” explains Brenneman, previously assistant curator of paintings at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Conn. “In one of our early meetings, Olivier Meslay proposed looking at the history of the Louvre. With that idea, we began thinking about dividing that history into three periods, each covering very broad themes.”
Before it ends in 2009, “Louvre Atlanta” will bring hundreds of paintings, drawings, sculpture, furniture and other decorative arts to the United States, some for the first time. In conjunction with the displays, the Southeast’s largest art museum is planning educational programs, publications, symposia and film screenings.
Brenneman is borrowing about 150 objects in year one. “For the most part, we got everything we wanted. The Louvre is very concerned about condition and we respect that. For instance, it does not lend paintings on panel or some very fragile pieces of furniture. We simply didn’t ask about those pieces.”
Kings As Collectors
Three introductory exhibitions, two of which continue through September 2007, explore the royal collections at the heart of the Louvre, which was transformed into a sumptuous palace by Louis XIV.
“Kings As Collectors,” the lead exhibit featuring 32 works, considers the contributions of the Sun King and Louis XVI, two of the greatest collectors of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.
“A group of paintings and sculptures — including works by Murillo, Velasquez and Rembrandt — will be on view for an extended period of time. Slipping in and out of the display will be a series of masterpieces,” Brenneman explains.
The first of these masterpieces is Raphael’s “Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione,” an oil on canvas of 1514–15. The painting was admired by both Rembrandt and Rubens, who produced studies inspired by Raphael’s frank depiction of the courtier and author. The painting’s presence in this country is a decided novelty: only one undisputed portrait by Raphael can be found in the United States. It is at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.
When Raphael’s “Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione” comes down on January 28, it will be replaced by another Louvre treasure, Nicolas Poussin’s “Et in Arcadia Ego.” The circa 1638–40 oil on canvas is considered a defining example of French classicism.
Replacing Poussin’s “Et in Arcadia Ego” in June, says Brenneman, will be several triumphs of Rococo painting, by Longcret, Fragonard, Bouchet and others.
The King’s Drawings
On view through January 28, a companion exhibition, “The King’s Drawings,” brings together approximately 60 works on paper from extensive holdings assembled during the reigns of Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI.
“Some of the Louvre’s drawings came from Jabach, a great private collector, some of whose holdings ended up in the royal collections. Other pieces passed through the hands of the art dealer and collector Mariette,” Brenneman explains.
By Grünwald, Dürer, Rembrandt, Rubens, Watteau, Le Brun, Boel, Mignard, Coypel and others, the selection ranges from Old Masters to works by artists who served the French court. One highlight is Raphael’s vigorous charcoal, black chalk and wash on paper drawing, “Study of the Head of an Angel.” The artist made the 11-by-13½-inch drawing in preparation for the Vatican fresco, “The Expulsion of Heliodorus.”
Decorative Arts Of The Kings
Furniture, tapestry, ceramics and silver take the stage on March 3, when the High Museum opens “Decorative Arts of the Kings,” on view through September 2.
Louis XIV and his two successors subsidized manufacturers such as Les Gobelins and Sèvres, as well as individual craftsmen. Luxury items from the last years of the ancien régime include opulent gilt-bronze andirons by Francois-Thomas Germain, a Sèvres service made for Marie-Antoinette and King Gustave III of Sweden, and an elaborately inlaid, stamped inlaid fall front secretary desk by Martin Carlin (1730–1785).
The Ancient World
“When we began to look at the Nineteenth Century, the big story was the Louvre and the ancient world, beginning with Napoleon and his appropriation of paintings and classical antique masterpieces in his Italian campaign and continuing with his assimilation of forms and motifs to create his own style,” says Brenneman, who is organizing displays of classical and neoclassical art and design for shows late in 2007.
“We will also look at the Louvre’s establishment of an Egyptian Wing in 1827 with Jean-François Champollion as its curator,” says Brenneman. A linguist, Champollion deciphered hieroglyphics in 1822. “That enabled him to install the collections according to how they were used in daily life, which no one had been able to do before. In terms of museology, that was avant-garde.”
Finishing out 2008 will be an exhibit of antiquities excavated in the Middle East by the Louvre, which has one of the finest collections of such objects in the world.
Today And Tomorrow
For its final year, “Louvre Atlanta” will study the Paris institution’s place in the world today and its future tomorrow. Says Brenneman, “One of the questions we’re asking is how does the museum engage with contemporary art. We want to show the museum as a changing, innovative institution, not as a tourist destination.”
While “Louvre Atlanta” patrons have a series of changing exhibits to look forward to over the next three years, the displays themselves will remain in one building.
“The notion of a dedicated space appealed to us and to Henri Loyrette,” says Brenneman. “For visitors, the experience begins in the lobby with sculpture and moves up one floor to drawings. On the top floor are paintings and decorative arts. For walls, we’ve chosen rich, saturated colors evoking an older period. We are not attempting to create period displays. The galleries designed by Renzo Piano are very refined, elegant and Modernist.”
International exchanges among major museums are increasing. Masterpieces from Spain’s Museo del Prado were enthusiastically received in Tokyo last spring before moving onto Osaka in midsummer. The State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia, has extensively traveled its collections. The Guggenheim Museum has branches in Bilbao, Venice, Berlin and Las Vegas. The Louvre itself recently worked with the Terra Foundation in Chicago to show American paintings. The Paris museum is reportedly discussing a similar collaboration with the United Arab Emirates.
Brenneman discounts the similarity of these projects to his own. Says the curator, “I can’t think of anything quite comparable to what we are doing with the Louvre. The High Museum of Art is a thriving museum in a major American city. We’re no outpost. We’re engaged in a partnership, albeit one with a much bigger, older institution.”
The total cost of “Louvre Atlanta” has been put at $18 million, $6.4 million of which has been earmarked for the restoration of the Louvre’s Eighteenth Century French decorative arts galleries.
More than $13 million has already been raised in support of this project, which is expected to draw large crowds. The work of two ambitious directors and their staffs, “Louvre Atlanta” may yet set a model in the years to come, both for Franco-American relations and for museum joint ventures around the world.
The High Museum of Art is at 1280 Peachtree Street. For information, 404-733-HIGH or www.high.org.
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