In 1933, the philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote that the processes of technical reproduction would serve to remove the aura from works of art. Thus, having a famous work, such as the Mona Lisa, present in various books and reproductions, would be a way to take the painting from its sacred place and make it more publicly accessible. Nearly 100 years later, just the opposite is true: more than ever tourists from throughout the world crowd into the galleries of major museums worldwide to appreciate the works of past masters and contemporary artists. Despite its wide availability in the culture through sophisticated forms of reproduction, more than ever works of art are seen as objects to be worshipped, as if reproductions had only contributed to even further reinforce the aura of these objects.
The sacred character of works of art, however, is not something conferred only by reproduction. In practice, the museums themselves, as they grow in importance with relation to works of art, help to strengthen this characteristic, as true temples for pilgrims worldwide who migrate in search of objects acclaimed by culture. If on one hand, museums with solid collections of historical importance naturally play this role, on the other, over the past decades, a new type of museum has arisen, as a type of postcard of itself, most often based in sophisticated buildings designed by renowned architects, or associated with an innovative urban project, without necessarily having significant works to display.
The Louvre Museum in Paris, the theme of this essay, exemplarily embodies this duplicity – as its collection contains the most iconic works of history, such as the Mona Lisa – and also, above all in recent years, emerges as a brand in itself and an important center of consumption. Under the self-described legitimate argument for expanding the space in order to display its collection, since 2004, the Louvre has initiated a process of expansion with two new large branches. One of them, inaugurated in 2012, in Lens, north of Paris, which dislocated some of its capital, including works such as Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People.” The other, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, scheduled for 2014 but still incomplete, has so far cost over 100 million Euros, and has generated great controversy in regard to its purely touristic character of investment as a result of an agreement between the governments of France and the United Arab Emirates. The project, by architect Jean Nouvel, is part of a cultural complex in which is also present the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, on an island built to be a cultural and touristic center, in a country that struggles to improve its visibility in the West, mainly due to questions regarding basic human rights.
The eastern expansion offers new horizons to the character of the major center of consumption of the Museum, as it moves toward potential new markets, without requiring tourists to travel to Paris. This aspect, however, is not exclusive to the twenty-first century. Since 1993, the base of the Louvre in Paris has divided space with a commercial complex known as the Carroussel du Louvre, an actual shopping mall within the museum, occupying a space that could serve, for example, for exhibitions and institutional activities. Curiously, the Carroussel hosted France’s first Apple Store, inaugurated in 2009 and capable of commanding lines during the launches of the company’s new gadgets that rival those formed by tourists to see the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo. Similarly, last year, the museum installed a new gift shop in one of its exhibition rooms. For this, it was necessary to remove some art works of great value, including “The Boat” by Charles Gleyre (so well analyzed by Monteiro Lobato in his correspondence). The knick-knacks stay, the artwork is hidden.
This Louvre of the twenty-first century gained its main contours with François Mitterand’s project, Grand Louvre, in 1983, which once and for all removed the public bureaucracy of the Louvre complex and was marked by the polemical construction of the glass pyramid, over 21 meters tall and weighing 95 tons, designed by the Chinese-American architect Ieoh Ming Pei. But until it became a great temple of culture and consumption, the Louvre Museum had to come a long way: originally a fort founded by Felipe II, it served as the residence of the royal French family, until Louis XIV moved his family and the entire court to Versailles. We can, for example, see the Louvre as one of the main stages of “The Three Musketeers” by Alexandre Dumas, as the King’s residence and place of work where d’Artagnan and his three companions sought out missions and became aware of political intrigues that they would eventually settle.
And it is exactly as the residency of the French court that the collection of the future museum came to be constructed. Naturally, the collection of the French monarchs was one of the richest and more important of all Europe: for example, the Mona Lisa arrived in France, in 1515, when Leonardo went to work for Francis I, a great patron of his time, who built one of the two palaces of the current Louvre complex. But the transformation of the former residency of the royal family into a museum only began with the transformations enacted by Louis XIV, in 1692, in the former Hall of the Caryatids into a sculpture gallery, a moment in which the palace would also come to be the seat of the French Academy of Fine Arts.
The Academy of Fine Arts also came to be a central institution in the establishment of an artistic canon that would only be abandoned in the nineteenth century, with the beginning of the movements connected to modern art. The intimate relationship of the Academy with the Louvre is attested to in the first academic exhibition, the Salon, famous in the nineteenth century for excluding paintings to the taste of a politically connected and exclusive jury, whose name comes exactly from the salon carré, the name of one of the Museum’s main rooms. In the nineteenth century, when the dissidences with the academic tradition came to grow exponentially, the Academy figured as an institution of the ancien regime inadequate for the world that it designed. Moreover, the Louvre while a museum remained solid as an institution. Renoir, for example, despite his rebellion character that impressionism came to reveal, longed to have his artwork exhibited in the Louvre, which he achieved only at the end of his life.
Despite the contestation, the French Academy remained strong until, at least, the beginning of the twentieth century, and its power emanated beyond France. Painters from different regions of Europe came together in Paris to have access to the art practiced in accord with the prescriptions of the French academy. Naturally, such influence also made sense on this side of the Atlantic, with academic art practiced in Brazil during the eighteenth century strongly tied to the academic precepts radiating from the French institution headed up at the Louvre. Almeida Júnior, for example, was funded personally by Dom Pedro II to study in Paris, where he was the disciple of none other than Alexander Cabanel, contradicting the modernist credo that the painter from Itu would be a painter of the province and countryside, and, moreover, genuinely Brazilian. Pedro Américo and Victor Meirelles, our greatest painters in history, following the style of painting advocated by the neoclassicism of Jacques Louis-David, portraying the great themes of Brazilian history such as the “Battle of Avaí” or the “Cry of Ipiranga.”
It is also in their periods of study in the Academy that some Brazilian painters came to incorporate principles linked to modernist movements, such as impressionism, albeit belatedly, when the movement had already lost part of its vanguardist effervescence, and in a very particular way, in the works of artists such as Belmiro de Almeida and Eliseu Visconti. Impressionism itself arrived to Brazil as a school, and, therefore, devoid of its innovative and anti-Academic character. Here as something already accepted, in the 1930s, in the work of artists such as Georgina da Albuquerque, when names linked with the group of 1922 already made up the official vanguard of Brazilian modernity, inspired by movements such as expressionism and cubism.
In this very particular way, both artistic trends as well as ideas coming from Europe arrived in Brazil in a specific blend that escapes the prescriptions of any manifesto linked to Paulista modernism. Its characteristic can be found not in the modernist movements of the young Paulista aristocracy, but in an understanding of the barriers to development in Brazil. In the 1950s, Celso Furtado identified the modernization of the standards of consumption of the dominant classes as a fundamental characteristic of underdevelopment. In this way, there was a desire for the economic and cultural elite in Brazil to resemble the European way of life, as much from the point of view of consumption as culturally so. This way of life, naturally, would not extend to the majority of the population, and to keep it within a small group would mean keeping the majority of the population in precarious conditions.
This spirit seems to be well reflected in Artacho Jurado’s building, the other louvre of this essay, the construction of which began in the 1950s. Incongruous within the architectural setting of its time, Artacho had a unique style that combined elements of modernism with personal characteristics; owner of a construction company that sought out good deals, not inserted into an architectural school in which philosophical and social pretensions seem to be more important than the buildings themselves. An Artacho building is a type of world apart in which our eyes can get lost and discover a profusion of small details accentuated of his personality alongisde unexpected shapes, which as much individually as articulated in the whole seem to have an aura of enchantment that the pure austerity of reinforced concrete, hegemonic in architecture until then, could never have. Artacho’s louvre is also replete with references to French museums, in a kitsch syncretism in which Rembrandt, Renoir, Leonardo, Velázquez and Pedro Américo divide space as representatives of the art world and of the sophistication that the building seems to want to be associated with.
The elite that would have access to the apartments of the louvre sought a connection to this world of distinction and sophistication that art brings; and in Brazil, as much in the 1950s as today, it is infused with an air of segregation, since there are few who can leave the country to have access to these cultural goods. Naturally, to be related to the art world – seen as completely syncretic despite the particularities and oppositions pertinent to the succession of style – functions as a class monopoly, which helped to delineate the border between the disadvantaged masses and the elite with access to culture coming from abroad. This reveals, at the same time, a desire to approximate oneself with a superior and distant world from the Brazilian reality, and ingenuity in relation to its content, as if living in an elegant building with the name of a museum was some type of cultural legitimation of one’s position.
Walking down São Luís Avenue, in the center of São Paulo, one can easily identify the gap between the worlds of the two Louvres. The French, more than ever, represented in the traditional spaces of exhibition of artwork – which is expanding worldwide, as temples of tourism and luxury consumption –, and that of Artacho, the genuine vestige of the incomplete project of Brazilian modernization. An exhibition that confronts these two worlds, realized outside of the traditional spaces of exhibition, and in itself a reflection of the role that museums play in the contemporary world and in the misdirections of art in a society that still struggles to overcome the problems of underdevelopment.
This text was originally published in the book the autobiography of monalisa (museu do louvre pau-brazyl, 2016) and revised in June, 2021.