All You Need Is Louvre
The Louvre is to art as the Mall of America is to shopping. The Louvre (French for "humdinger") is the museum that will not quit. It goes on for miles. It claims, on its Web site, to have 35,000 works of art, but that is actually just the number of Cupids. When you visit the Louvre you may become so saturated in great artwork that you'll suddenly crave a Charles Bronson video or a Jackie Collins novel. (This is known in art circles as Masterpiece Fatigue.) The ambitious Louvre patron must sprint through the halls in track shoes, gulping Gatorade, just to have a prayer of seeing one small section, such as the Italian Mannerist collection. On numerous occasions thieves have tried to steal the "Mona Lisa," only to collapse in exhaustion as they looked for an exit.
On this vacation, I've made three trips to the Louvre and seen about 1 percent of it. I plan to go back once more, and if I don't reappear by the end of the month, please look for me in 18th-century French sculpture, the crypt with the Sphinx, the Babylonian room with the Code of Hammurabi, or the food court, respectively.
Not everything in the Louvre is a masterpiece. Some of the art is in the category of Moderately Priceless. And often you come across something that you know, on first glance, is just a piece of crepe, as they say. Look at the Sumerian relics with their cuneiform tales, and you'll see that a lot of the writing is hackwork. Puns, cliches. Editing and revision are just so difficult when you write with a chisel.
The Louvre captures the collective genius of the human species, but it is a genius that long struggled to overcome artistic rules and regulations. Artists for centuries lived in monarchies and theocracies. In the Louvre you get the feeling that, for much of the history of Western Civilization, the main occupations were martyred saint and madonna with child. Every artist had to paint the "Flight Into Egypt" at least once. They had to paint the king almost weekly, in different wigs. To be an artist was to be told by a royal courtier: "Today, His Highness would like to pose in the wig that makes him look like Cher."
Certain artistic quirks lasted centuries. In the Middle Ages, painters packed their canvases with so many people that you would think they were getting paid by the head count. In the Renaissance, a disproportionate amount of human activity took place on the steps of Greco-Roman temples, as though no one would go inside because of the lack of air conditioning.
Within these restrictions, the artists still try to one-up one another, often by ramping up the gore. There are people getting hacked, eviscerated, cleaved, bludgeoned and, of course, decapitated like there's no tomorrow. It's a palace of mayhem! But it's all beautifully rendered, like a Sam Peckinpah movie. Clearly we've always been a civilization obsessed with violence, and also celebrity, which is why artists loved Saint Sebastian -- he was famous, and he got pincushioned with arrows.
Some artists compete by producing ever-larger paintings. This one cat, Le Brun, the favorite of Louis XIV, fills an entire room with four giant paintings of the life of Alexander the Great, a narrative of people fighting and dying on the steps of Greco-Roman temples. There's more Le Brun in other rooms. The man obviously had a lot of palace wall space to fill up. You kind of wish you could go back in time and confront him: "Drop the brush."
The great revolution was to paint ordinary people. Or, as Caravaggio did with the "Death of the Virgin," paint a sainted figure as though she were an ordinary person -- her plain, bare feet sticking out from the end of her deathbed.
Which brings up the "Mona Lisa." I pointed out to my kids how the painting has all these unfinished elements (she has no eyebrows; she has six fingers on her right hand; her left ear is protruding from her neck like a goiter). Across the room looms a massive Veronese, a painting that could cover the side of a barn. It shows a raucous "Last Supper." The Veronese screams: Look at me! But no one does. Everyone crowds around Mona.
Therein lies a mystery, because it is hard to detail precisely why, in a museum jammed with countless masterpieces, this one painting became the icon. Maybe it's partially because she is, in a place of kings and saints and messiahs, just a woman, rather plain, but full of depth, full of life. No scriptural back story is necessary. It's as though Leonardo had discovered something new, the individual. She's interesting, even noble, even though she is not a queen or a saint, and doesn't ride in a chariot.
She alone, on her little canvas, would make the Louvre a great museum.
Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.