Beyond The Mona Lisa | Verve Magazine
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January 16, 2012

Beyond The Mona Lisa

Text by Clea Chakraverty.

On his recent India visit, Henri Loyrette, director of the famed Louvre in Paris, meets Verve, and reveals his hopes to work closely with Indian collections

“I am here to learn from India, to build projects together….”
–Henri Loyrette, director of the Louvre, Paris

In a four-day marathon between Mumbai and Delhi, Henri Loyrette has met with prominent Indian art curators, museum heads and business magnas. But, for the 58-year-old president-director of the ‘most beautiful museum of the world’, this is another routine trip, and perhaps, the first of a long series in India.

Loyrette is not just impressive by profession: as he enters the Taj Mahal Hotel’s room where we meet, I discover myself facing 1 m and 98 cms of expertise on the 19th century, with a weakness for Degas and a sharp eye for innovation. Portrayed as the youngest Fine Art academician (Académie des Beaux-Arts) in 1997, at the age of 42, this former resident of the Academy of France in Rome, had already been a curator in 1978, of the Orsay Museum, the most known French museum for the arts of the 19th and 20th centuries.  In 2001, he was offered the direction of the Louvre. In 2011, Henri Loyrette celebrated his 10th year in the royal palace. That not only means that he actually approaches the Mona Lisa really closely once a year to inspect the lady’s frame, but also that he has turned the Louvre into the most visited museum in the world. Indeed, under his influence, the museum has gone through several changes and ambitious projects, like the antenna Louvre-Lens (to open on December 4, 2012), a national museum in the city of Lens that will host several Louvre collections, with the objective to democratise and decentralise the royal palace. Henri Loyrette is also known to have developed heavy sponsorship for the Louvre, very necessary since French Government subsidies have been considerably reduced in the past few years. He created the American Friends of the Louvre, who, thanks to charity balls, francophile socialites and various functions, encouraged donations to the old French palace. This allowed an interesting mix of arts in and out of the museum. In 2008 the group Duran Duran  performed in the museum. According to the website, Artclair, the events of the first edition realised a profit of 1.9 million euros. For the second one, in 2011, Janet Jackson, the star pop singer performed a private concert on behalf of the room (and only that room!) for artifacts of the 18th century. No doubt that behind his traditonalist looks and up-bringing, Loyrette, whose good humour and vivacity are striking, is profoundly convinced that the Louvre should be all but actually stuck in traditions.

So, is it sponsoring, partnerships or a discovery tour that brings him to our shores? “Actually, there are many reasons to explain my visit. The first being the increasing number of Indian visitors to our museum. From one year to the next, the figures multiplied by 10!” explains the director who is visiting India for the first time. “I only know Indian classical arts from books and the Guimet museum (museum for Asiatic arts in Paris). I am eager to see more of it.” Another motive, he says, is to discover the Indian contemporary art scene, of which he had had a mise en bouche in Beaubourg, with the exhibition, Paris-Delhi-Bombay. “The vitality, the energy of the Indian scene is incredible. The artists seem to be able to capture modernity in its various shapes while giving a thoroughly distinctive feel to the Indian-ness of their work.” But why would a classic museum director be so interested in contemporary work? “I want to visit institutions, museums that work on the exchanges between heritage and contemporary arts. The Louvre today is hungry for such involvement, for projects that bring a contemporary overview on classical work.” The French museum has indeed already been very much involved in this practice.

The body of work  ‘Museums are worlds’ (Les musées sont des mondes) will present exhibitions, lectures and meetings with artists from various fields from November 3 till February 6, 2012. The originality of the event is the fact that famous French writer Jean-Marie G. Le Clézio has curated the show. Before him, the Louvre and its partners had invited many celebrated contemporary artists such as Toni Morrison, Anselm Kiefer, Pierre Boulez, Umberto Eco and Patrice Chéreau. Le Clézio’s approach is to present works and cultures absent from the museum collections such as North Japan, Vanuatu, Korea, Mexico, areas he is familiar with, without distorting the prime vocation of the museum: confronting arts and cultures from the world, an ambition nourished by Loyrette. “I want people to rediscover the Louvre for what it was: a museum oriented towards universalism on all fields, and that since the French Revolution. In 1945 most of the Far-East art works left the Louvre, mainly for space reasons. Today, we want to renew this original tradition of the Louvre presenting works from all over the world but with a distinctive touch, an element of the contemporary.”

Loyrette hence specifies the opening in September 2012 of the Arts of Islam (till the 19th century). “This new wing is adding our proximity with India as most of the work comes from the Indian Mughal era. I want to privilege the universal reach of that particular exhibition, especially in our time.” Indeed the Arts of Islam – which will be displayed in the Visconti wing – promises to show the ‘enlighted’ side of Islam. About Asia, he reminds us of the collaborative work done between the Louvre and China, more specifically, with the Forbidden City (2010). “We had a very beautiful exhibition in Paris on the Forbidden City and China had done an outstanding work presenting the Louvre. Why not imagine something on those lines with India? I am looking for opportunities to work together.”

Could we imagine a Louvre in India? Loyrette admits he is already quite busy with the Louvre in Abu Dhabi, a long term project coming to an end soon, as the Emirati museum, curated by the Louvre team, will open in 2014-2015.  “The Louvre Abu Dhabi is not an antenna of the Louvre, but an Emirate project where we are bringing our knowledge,” specifies the director. Indeed the expertise of the Louvre in museography is yet another field of prospect for Loyrette. “We can bring a lot to India in this field. At the same time we need to spread more awareness in India about the Louvre, its history, the palace itself. In Paris, we have to imagine how to link the Louvre collections and the Indian collections. I am not here to bring a ready-made project. I am here to discover India, to find common ground, to learn from India and to build projects together.”

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