the imaginary museum inhabiting the louvre building

This museum is not a tradition,
it’s an adventure.

André Malraux, 1947

The museum changed our relationship with art in its being introduced as an intermediator between the observer and the artwork. Museums played a decisive role in the access to artistic objects, founding in the individual a consciousness about the very concept of art from its creation. Moreover, as André Malraux noted, the museum has the power to metamorphose objects, causing a Romanesque crucifix to gain the status of a work of art upon entering into its domains, shedding off its original function. The museum, in bringing together works of art and placing them into confrontation, puts into check all of art history, which, from it, relates not only to the physical museum, but also to the mental place constructed by all the works of art that have been presented.

During their development, museums were predominated by oil paintings, for which the conquest of the third dimension was essential. Contained within this first format were, once again in agreement with Malraux, ancient art, more Roman than Greek, Italian painting beginning with Rafael, the Flemish and Dutch masters, the Spanish masters beginning with Ribera; the French, from the seventeenth century; the English, from the eighteenth century; Dürer and Holbein, a bit on the sidelines; and, even more sidelined, some “primitive” artists.

The Louvre Museum is a paradigmatic example, one of the first museums founded bearing historical responsibility of condensing the passage of a private collection, restricted within small circles of certain social classes, to a public museum. Its form of conserving and cataloging influenced all other museums. Be they of traditional oil painting, modern or contemporary art, all are in keeping with this first museological model.

There is a Louvre on São Luís Avenue in São Paulo; or, better, there is a simulation of it. In this museum scenario, almost everything is there, including the Mona Lisa, the star of any Louvre. This one, it’s the residential building by Artacho Jurado, designed in the 1950s, at the beginning of the city’s verticalization. Several implications arise from this association with the Parisian museum and become more complex with semantic subdivision. The four front apartment blocks are designated with the names of painters: Da Vinci, Velázquez, Rembrandt and Renoir.

This operation constructs in the imaginary of the local elite a simulacrum of cultural values, combining notions of royalty, nobility and bourgeoisie, in order to distinguish itself as the demonstrated ruling class. It blurs aristocracy and bourgeoisie – the Louvre was once the residence of the French monarchy, transforming during the Revolution into a museum at the hands of the new leadership. In fusing these political conjunctions, a European ideal was architected, following the hegemonic tendency to consume culture from this continent, especially from France.

Pirâmide magnética dentro de uma agência de viagem e casa de câmbio no térreo do edifício Louvre, 2016. Fotógrafo: P.Ardid
Magnetic pyramid in a travel and currency exchange agency at Louvre buildings’ ground floor (2016). Photographer: P.Ardid

The Louvre building contains a small parade of Art History. In the entry hall of every apartment block are reproductions of the artwork by the artist it is named after. Following La Gioconda, there is Lady with an Ermine, Las Meninas, Flowers in a Vase, Isaac and Rebeccah – The Jewish Bride. A peculiar choice, seeing that not even all the reproductions are of artwork from the Louvre Museum. Within the Louvre of Artacho Jurado are the Czartoryski Museum, the Prado Museum, the National Gallery of Washington, DC, and the Rijksmuseum.

Entrada do hall social do bloco Rembrandt. Vista da reprodução da obra Isaac e Rebecca - A Noiva Judia, 2016, Fotógrafo: P.Ardid
The entrance hall of Rembrandt block. View of the reproduction poster of the work Isaac e Rebecca – The Jewish Bride (1665) in 2016. Photographer: P.Ardid

At first it may seem a big mistake (modern architects would say that it’s one more of the errors) by Artacho Jurado, but suppose that this choice was not mere chance… Construction on the building began in 1952 and was concluded in 1967, the same year in which Malraux was beginning his Imaginary Museum, 1See. MALRAUX, André. O museu imaginário. Lisboa, Edições 70, 2011. Originally published in 1947, the revised and expanded edition published in 1965. a synchronicity that allows us to speculate. By juxtaposing these painters, paintings, temporalities and museums, we can suppose that Artacho Jurado understood what Malraux meant when he said:

But our knowledge covers a wider field than our museums; the visitor to the Louvre knows that he will not find the great English artists significantly represented there; nor Goya, nor Michelangelo’s paintings, nor Piero della Francesca, nor Grünewald – and that he will see but little of Vermeer. Now that the artwork has no function other than being an artwork, now that the artistic exploration of the world continues apace, the collection of so many masterpieces, from which so many masterpieces are absent, convokes in the spirit all the masterpieces. How can this mutilated potential fail to invoke the entire potential? 2See. O museu imaginário, op. cit, p. 11.

The Louvre building functions like this possible mingling, appealing to everything possible. It provokes a breakdown of the barriers of time and space, in addition to understanding the role of the Louvre Museum, placing the greatness of art as a symbol, accessible and exposed to the entire world. It understands its function of museum metonymy, summoning all the works of art and all the institutional art spaces. It makes the Louvre an island that conducts the viewers of all the Louvres.

Suppose then that the choice of these European painters was not random; they are the Imaginary Museum that inhabits the Louvre building. It is clear that a real Imaginary Museum of collective character is impossible because it is a mental place, a fictitious space that has no limits to contain the work of art that inhabit the imaginary of every individual with the freedom to escape the historic world. For this reason we cannot affirm that the Louvre building is an Imaginary Museum, but we can suppose that the Louvre building is inhabited by one.

The Imaginary Museum profoundly encounters the confrontation imposed by real museums, and the reproductions play a fundamental role in this procedure to approximate works of art that are geographically distant or inaccessible. It’s possible to have access to them via photographs, prints, libraries; and, as a combination of new forms of increased knowledge, what can fit into this mental place is altered and expanded. Reproduction suggests a different hierarchy, evoking the masterpiece and not competing with them. Thus arises the margin of the museum, the widest artistic domain that humans knew.

The choice of Da Vinci, Velázquez, Rembrandt and Renoir in the supposed Imaginary Museum announce an archetype of Art History that projects a foundation of the ideal of what art is: all are works done on easels, all oil paintings, all portray nature in parity with reality. Very much the taste of the eighteenth century, in which a work of art owed its value essentially to the projection, to the imaginary, of figurative forms. What was prized was likeness; and it was hoped that what was represented could be found on par with the real world. This therefore reiterates the genesis of the museum in what is recognized as art is the great European oil painting, extending from the sixteenth century.

In this endeavor of the Imaginary Museum, the Louvre building comprises two front lines. The first is the possibility of creation of a mental place that stores the works of art beyond the physical limits of the museum. The second is that since the emergence of the museum-institution, it has governed Art History. This therefore proposes a rationale for a possible sense of art history in choosing these four artists protected by the Louvre’s designation.

Beginning with Leonardo da Vinci, the high point of the attempt that had been undertaken from the eleventh to the sixteenth centuries in Europe of increasingly liberating the reduced expression of two-dimensionality. Da Vinci is the personification of the Renaissance, having created and systematized a space that had never before been seen in Europe, laying the foundations of spatial illusion, depth, perspective, the sfumato, foreshortening and chiaroscuro. Therefore the choice of Da Vinci is representative: he is the painter who laid the bases and widely disseminated oil painting from the High Renaissance of the sixteenth century.

The Louvre building follows with two representations from the seventeenth century: Velázquez and Rembrandt, who separately produced in very different sociopolitical realities. In confronting these two painters, we also confront the southern Catholic Europe and the protestant north, which they represented for art history. This difference profoundly impacted their painting, for in the Catholic regions artists produced for the Church, princes and kings: paintings glorifying their power. In the Protestant regions the Dutch bourgeoisie who strove for sobriety did not accept the Baroque style full of pomp. But both drink from the tradition officialized by Leonardo da Vinci: a masterpiece was judged according to Renaissance Italianism in order to be admitted to the Academy of Eternity.

Rembrandt, in Protestant Europe, captured the fleeting and the common, without a trace of possession or vanity. His dark tones, light and shadow give more value to truth and sincerity than to harmony or beauty. Dutch painting focuses on portraits, for many commissions came from successful merchants, councillors, mayors, local commissions and administrative boards. It is the beginning of the domain of the right of the artist to declare a work of art finished when they have reached their own goal, as Rembrandt advocated.

For his part, Velázquez was part of King Philip IV’s court in Madrid, his employment to paint the portraits of the king and the royal family. The texture and color of the paintings from Catholic Europe are completely different, for they have the function of announcing the aristocratic and majestic origins of those portrayed. Their acceptance marks the conciliation of Spanish art with Venetian Italianism.

Modern art had already begun to destroy the shadow of Velázquez that began with Da Vinci. For this reason, Malraux placed it as the adversary of the traditional museum, as it denies a beauty that bases itself on a Greek heritage, of the work that attempts to approximate an ideal representation, of a painting that the imagination could not improve, challenging the omnipotent aesthetic. What changes with modern art is a specifically pictorial interest, spots and colors in movement instead of browns and varnishes. Instead of being in the function of nature, painting is in function of the painting itself, inverting the relationship between object and frame.

The representative of modern art at the Louvre on São Luís is Renoir. The building comprises the absorption of this aesthetic of the museum and the impossibility of opposing these two elements. The choice of Renoir is clever: during his life, his work was recognized, he became a national hero and had a large exhibition at the Louvre Museum. Thus this admission of the modernist aesthetic began to further open up space within the museum.

The entrance hall of Renoir’s block. View of the reproduction poster of the work <em>Flowers in a Vase</em> (1866) in 2016. Photographer: P.Ardid.
The entrance hall of Renoir’s block. View of the reproduction poster of the work Flowers in a Vase (1866) in 2016. Photographer: P.Ardid.

Although modern art concerns itself with color, there is still a reference in common with the traditional aesthetic: the exploration of nature. Renoir was the impressionist who most retained a representation similar to the real world. The Imaginary Museum that inhabits the Louvre building is limited within a comfortable place in Art History in designing reality on the bases of the museum and the conservative European aesthetic tradition that is tied to nature.

However, it evokes a problematic and structures a possible future. In becoming a kind of Imaginary Museum, it asks us about what can fit in the museum. It functions as a ready-made museum, an object removed from its context. A Louvre in South America, the precursor of the idea of franchises of global museums. A Louvre ready to use that plays with the notion of public and private, with the notion of official Art History, which stirs the imagination of what is illustration, bold enough to have a pink and blue façade. It introduces commerce onto its premises and maintains the pyramid within a travel agency. A museum that was found, already breaking up the uniqueness of artwork and removing it from its context.

Pursuing the metamorphosis of the Imaginary Museum, the Louvre merges into the museu do louvre pau-brazyl, which emerges to function in another way, to reflect upon this specific space, the Louvre building, and also on the work of Artacho Jurado. We are increasingly more sensitive to the fluidity of the past, as we learn of everything that art changes – through only its creation – of its predecessors. “Rembrandt is not exactly, according to Van Gogh, the same as what followed Delacroix.” According to Malraux. And so we continue our artistic exploration, taking advantage of the path opened by Renoir in the Louvre, and we extend the chorus of temporality, closing the primacy of nature

The museum was a statement, the Imaginary Museum is an interrogation, the museu do louvre pau-brazyl is an adventure.

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This text was originally published in the book the autobiography of monalisa (museu do louvre pau-brazyl, 2016) and revised in June, 2021.

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  • 1
    See. MALRAUX, André. O museu imaginário. Lisboa, Edições 70, 2011. Originally published in 1947, the revised and expanded edition published in 1965.
  • 2
    See. O museu imaginário, op. cit, p. 11.

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