Tour the Louvre with A Local

As the maxim goes: “the nearer the church, the further away from godliness”, it certainly sums up my lousy record of museum visits since I moved to the capital. A recent visit to the gargantuan, Louvre Museum, was met with a kind of weariness: walking through a museum on this scale is not exactly my idea of fun, especially on a Friday night after a long week at work. But the slow escalator descent into the cold marble bowls somehow quelled my misgivings.

Perhaps it was the Zen-like ticket hall − set out like a temple with the resounding hum of its communicants, which lulled me into a contemplative mood. Or, perhaps it was that latent feeling of fear or awesomeness as I began to drift through the museum, confronted by room after room of beautiful artefact and painting that left me in state of sublime wonder.

Islamic Art at the Louvre

My first destination was the newly built space dedicated to the Louvre’s impressive collection of Islamic Arts, opened in September 2012, and described on the website as one of the richest and most beautiful collections of Islamic art in the world. The new space, an ultra sleek glass box, has been “delicately inserted” into the Visconti courtyard. On entering the space, my view was obstructed by a low ceiling made of wire mesh that resembled thick chain mail.

As I moved forward, the ceiling undulated upwards to reveal the exhibition space, meticulously laid out like a chessboard with tall rectangular vitrines filled with ceramics dating from the 7th and 10th centuries. This wave-like architectural feature did not appear to have a function other than decorative, but I began to question that assumption as I examined the exhibits.

The first was an electronic map that featured a small, yellow dot located in Iran that represented Islamic civilization. The dot began to dilate, spreading wave-like as the whole of North Africa, Spain, and parts of southern France became yellow. With this in mind, I wandered from one vitrine to another and took in the ceramics and mosaics with their elaborate animal motifs; artefacts of varying use and size; and stone tablets with their concise Arabic inscriptions.

Taking the stairs I ventured down into the basement, which reminded me of the Death Star in Star Wars − the walls and surfaces are a shiny black, the light is recessed, and touch-screens are integrated into black angular stands with sharp corners. Cutting edge technology meets medieval Islamic bazaar.

The same type of glass vitrine fills the space as upstairs, but interspersed between them are examples of rugs from Iran and huge mosaics from Turkey depicting battle scenes. One exhibit that attracts my attention is an intricate and sophisticated piece of 18th century armour worn by those who fought in the Mughal Army. Its intricate chain mail reminds me of the material used for the undulating ceiling on the level above and I begin to suspect architectural metaphor for the bellicose expansion of Islamic civilization.

As I wonder the various exhibits I pass a group of people gathered around a guide who is leading a tour of the Louvre. As museum fatigue begins to wear me down I think how much easier it would have been if I had a guide to show me around. These people look relaxed and attentive, I stop and listen for a moment and my ears fill with the music of the guide’s easy interpretations. There is smugness to how these people look, and I assume it’s because they don’t have to waste time and energy reading the laborious information panels that I have had to contend with.

New Frontier: American Art In the Louvre

I head further into the Denon wing of the museum to where the Louvre is presenting the second part of its four-year collaboration with the Terra Foundation for American Art with a small exhibition of paintings under the title "New Frontier II, The Origins of American genre painting". With the aim of introducing American art to the French public this exhibition focuses on attempts by American artists to revive the representation of scenes from daily life in the first half of the 19th century.

Themes as varied as: American expansion into the West, a nation in search of a unifying identity, the trauma of the Civil War, and the crucial issue of slavery are all dealt with in this exhibition. The star painting is The Life of a Hunter by Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait (1856) – a spectacular scene in which a fallen hunter is confronted by a ferocious bear. The exhibition is a lot smaller than expected and disappoints for that reason, but it’s an interesting addendum to the magisterial Italian and Spanish section of the Denon wing.

Set Adrift in a Sea of Art

After a throughout read of all the information, my eyes begin to feel as tired as my brain and I can’t look at any more art. I decide to take a coffee break before I check out the 18th century baroque sculptures by Ukrainian artist Johann Georg Pincel. Pincel’s work is pure baroque at its most ebullient. His biblical figures, intricately carved from wood, rise into the heavens, shrouded in dazzling gold garments that have the appearance of constant movement.

I don’t spend particularly long looking at these wonderful objects because the late night coffee buzz that begins to rise in my stomach severely undermines my attention span. Instead I wander aimlessly through the rest of the museum, taking in scraps of information as though, exhausted by a night of insomnia, I was zapping my way mindlessly though thousands of T.V. channels.

On my way towards the exit I noticed the tour group which I had seen earlier in the Islamic Art section. They are all smiling and chatting. They looked like they might continue on to a restaurant to discuss in more detail what they had seen. I on the other hand, could barely speak.

Upcoming visits to the Louvre with your own private tour guide is strongly recommended in order avoid museum fatigue!

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