The man behind the Louvre's smile

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

"Not bad," says Pierre Rosenberg as we come out of an alley lined with Flemish and Dutch masterpieces -- wise, pinky brown faces watching us over their clear blue-gray collars and elegant black coats -- into a bath of sunlight falling from the ceiling over the Marie de Medicis. He blinks behind his 19 th-century silver-framed glasses and looks up at the Maries with no awe whatever.

A samllish, shaggily balding man in a rumpled, pin-stripe three-piece suit, he gains stature here in the Louvre, even surrounded by these huge Rubens portraits of Marie de Medecis's triumphs. Marie can actually look across the gallery lined with Rubens's paintings of her varios triumphs at all the other billowing, exultant images of herself among the clouds. Against the gallery's handsome, dark red walls, her pink head with its crown of gray hair rises again and again. She could hold a seminar of her various selves, since there are no people coming between them today. It is Tuesday, and the Louvre is closed.

She looks triumphant; Rosenberg, dimpling and looking at the walls, seems pleased, in an intelligent, capable way. Maybe it's the soft sunlight casting a mellow varnish over the faint excitement of the events in her scenes. Maybe it's the electricity generated by all the paintings along the empty stretches of the galleries. After all, half the work of Leonardo hangs on these walls. The place seems to buzz with energy under the sunbeams, like one of those paintings of various saints ascending, so bristling with angelic wings that, despite the serene, otherworldly expressions of everyone involved, you can almost feel little air currents if you put your face close enough.

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Except for workmen X-raying a painting, we are alone with all this art. Rosenberg prowls like a true denizen of this world, looking up expectantly just as we come around a corner to a masterpiece. I am shiftily glancing around, amazed that I am there, and probably look like a criminal.

"Not bad, not bad," he says in his low, French-accented English, down in his throat like a lion's purr. It sounds so internal, and he is so much a part of it all that I think he is talking to himself and keep on gazing. Suddenly I realize he has looked away from the walls for a moment and is waiting for a reply, "Oh! Not bad at all."

A strange thing to say to Pierre Rosenberg. But it's all I can come up with. He has been so calm, explaining who gave this painting, whose collection must hang together and whose has been reshuffled, even noticing a spot on one Italian portrait: "H'm. What is that?" was all he said.

Calm as he is, these are for all intents and purposes, his paintings. as curator of the department of paintings of the Louvre, he sees to their cleaning, hanging, lending to exhibitions, or farming out to provincial museums, and, more important, defines their collective presence by buying their proper complements or companion pieces and devising exhibitions to shed new light on them. But he is so at home with all this power and at ease with the greatness of the art that with him you feel calm in the face of the Mona Lisa. Nice job, you feel like saying to Leonardo, but respectfully, of course.

The Louvre is unique because it combines two types of museums. It has the concentrated, heady wealth of a typical royal collection, and the consciously educational, encyclopedic gathering of the more recently evolved public museum. It began like the Prado and Hermitage collection with Francois I's Titians, Raphaels, and da Vincis in the early 1500s, and was amassed over the years by kings and queens with endless money to buy art, who chose their favorites and only showed them to special people. But unlike the Prado and Hermitage, which Rosenberg says are "dead" museums, because they stopped buying art when their monarchs were deposed and so have gaps in their collections, the Louvre just changed its attitude and let everyone in, not only surviving the French Revolution but becoming a better museum for it.

"The idea of 'public' is a pure idea of the French Revolution," Rosenberg says with some pride, "the idea of equality, which means literally that everyone could go see every work of art every day."

One senses he is proud of the museum's whole tradition, before and after the revolution; after all, Francois i bought the Mona Lisa. Thanks to the work of people like pierre Rosenberg, the two types of museum peacefully -- and elegantly -- coexist.

"He is a classical French museum curator," says Fred Cummings, director of the Detroit Institute of Arts describing him as a connoisseur of "every visual document" in his own right. "He's one of the best examples living today," and his tone of voice implies he is talking about species as rare and precious as the paintings Mr. Rosenberg looks after.

Rosenberg also attends to their rises and falls in popularity -- for example, the Mona lisa was just a portrait of a lady till the 19th century, and he says the painting is now so fashionable it's just "a talisman" for tourists.

("It's by the way a very beautiful picture. It's in very good condition," he says in an aside. "I had the picture in my hands without glass and without frame. As you know, it's a quite unique picture, painted on one wood panel. Must have been a very big tree to produce it." And, he adds, "Famous art is famous for a reason.")

He exercises sympathy for the famous as well as the unsung art, not to mention keeping a shrewd eye on the prices of the moment.

As we walk around the galleries, he checks the dehumidifiers that take the seine dampness out of the air and also protect the paintings from the moist breath of awestruck admirers. He points out the skylights that switch to electric light when sunlight wanes below a certain level; he has to make sure literal as well as figurative light is shed on the paintings, in just the right way for the 3 million visitors who thunder through here each year to appreciate and understand. Or better, to love.

That seems to be the correct attitude to have toward this incredible collection, and that's what Pierre Rosenberg comes back to time and again. Especially when he talks about exhibitions (he's working on five just with the United States right now). He tells of an exhibition of neoclassical art he did when that era had fallen from favor among fans of the impressionists.

"All the neoclassical period . . . was hated some 20 or 30 or 50 years ago for very easy reasons. It's exactly the reverse of the impressionist school, so having discovered the impressionist paintings, it was impossible for the people who loved the impressionists to love also the neoclassical ones," he says.

Impressionism, he explained, you look at from the outside. He decided the reverse must be true for the neoclassicists. So the exhibition was geared toward seeing the paintings "from the outside."

"We tried to use texts to study the artists which were known in the neoclassical period and to see why they were famous. And we did an exhibition . . . in which we showed the most famous pictures of the period, with the result that it was a great revelation and now the period is very fashionable."

The exhibition, known in the US as "From David to Delacroix," and shown, after Paris, in the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1975, is still remembered by museum people and dealers as a landmark. The public's opinion was swayed because Rosenberg saw a chance to show the pictures using "an approach which was the reverse of the approach one would have had 20 or 30 years before. One was able to understand the period well and to love it."

With the help of good shoes and any imagination, one is able to love, if not the entire painting collection at the Louvre, at least several schools of it. The collection is immense. Only about half of it is on display now, with part of it out on loan and the rest in storage while a new security system is installed. A reorganization is under way that will put 4,500 paintings on the walls by 1983, leaving only about 1,000 in storage. All the French paintings will be hung around the Cour Carree, the central courtyard, giving the collection an orderly, chronological center.

The feeling that everything in there is significant can be daunting. One feels pathetically modern when first confronted by what looks like miles and miles of dark, looming canvases on which unknown turmoils are played out in gleaming horse hoofs, swords, and articulate clouds of smoke. One is gazed at serenely by beauties with luminous eyes who seem dismaying certain that you know who they are and why that particular blue mountain in the upper left hand corner went down in history.

The mysterious flicker of firelight licks the sides of other heads and gives them an ancient grace you look at longingly, lighted as your own life is by incandescent and fluorescent globes.

But it all stops looking like art history very quickly, once the Louvre has swallowed you up. Those perfectly dewy grapes, laid among the brilliantly realized folds of gray-blue- white linen, make your mouth water. You look back into the eyes of the beauties, and get a lift from the wings of the cupids. By the time you reach the Mona Lisa and her neighbor Raphael's moist-eyed questioning Balthazar Castiglione, you are looking at paintings in the present, whenever they were painted. Actually, what becomes hard to remember is what century youm came from. You have surrendered. There is nothing to do but gawk helplessly with the other tourists, as soon as enough heads get out of the way so you can sigh at that famous smile, to name just one wonder.

It's an exhilarating atmosphere, and to put yourself inside the doors of this 700-year-old palace is to let yourself in for visions and marvels. All that art in one place has to make some kind of impression, but Pierre Rosenberg himself has a lot to do with that charge in the air. Though it's all art history to him , he has a much livelier sense of it than the rest of us.

"I don't think that pictures are fixed blocks once and forever. They are moving. They are moving [as] we are understanding them differently and approaching them. . . . Our artists are also speaking to different levels in each of us. In changing, one is changing toward the artists."

There is physical movement, too. Paintings move from private owners and estates to dealers to museums, and travel as exhibitions all over the world. No matter that they were created hundreds of years ago. For Rosenberg, at least, painting is a lively art.

The excitement you feel comes from what the painting says to you, but rosenberg is the man behind the scenes, who put it there. He sits up above the galleries all day making phone calls, writing letters, plotting exhibitions, studying X-rays, and generally keeping in touch. After talking to him, you begin to doubt there is anything on the flat surface he is not keeping track of, but you also catch a feeling of the same excitement one might feel when first coming upon one of Vermeer's cool, light rooms or Van Gogh's aggressive skies.

He rushes out to the sale rooms, sees most gallery openings in Paris, dashes around the globe with exhibitions, and heckles his favorite dealers at the Marche Aux Puces, Paris's flea market, with a mixture of charm and shrewdness. He smiles a lot, a sweet smile for someone with so much power and so much to do. When he purses his lips over a painting or a historical point, he has dimples. Perhaps his great love of his job, his immense appetite for every detail of an exhibition, and his thrill at maintaining the collection infiltrate into those galleries he watches over. Perhaps some of the excitement in the air comes from him. Whether this is the case or not, after talking to him you don't really get a feeling for all the effort he exerts, but for the strangely simple delight he takes in the art.

He divides his responsibilities into two categories: acquisitions and exhibitions. Both demand, beyond the obvious sensitivity to art, a sense of where everything is at the time, who owns it, how expensive it is these days, and how likely it is to move -- permanently or on loan. It is a kind of quest he is on, and other curators like him are involved in the same thing. They know one another's collections and politics from cooperating and competing with one another to buy an art or to put it together for shows. They seem to be constantly in motion, as are their charges, and they are searching after such rare and precious items for such noble ends -- to let the public know art -- that they are like a modern knighthood.

"It's an exhilirating obsessive pursuit" that Pierre Rosenberg is on, says alan Rosenbaum, director of the Princeton (N.J.) Museum and a friend of Rosenberg's. "He has an almost moral sense for cause. [A sense] that exhibitions are important work." The nobility of the quest has obviously occured to others; Rosenberg was made a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French government in 1971.

He is thorough. Some curators prefer just to do the scholarship behind the exhibition -- the history of each painting, and what the group means as a group, established by hours of research in a catalog, which, after all, he points out, is all that is left when the pictures are taken down.

Others only want to hang the pictures, which he says "is something very important. How well it's lighted, how well it's hung, and how easy it is to understand the painter through the way in which it's hung."

Rosenberg, however, delights in being "master of exhibition." He selects the paintings, commands the scholardhip, researching and writing the catalog; arranges the details of the loans, insurance, and son on. Then he hangs the show. He absolutely relishes every detail, he says. Even the screw eyes on the back of the pictures? I ask. "I would go as far as this."

It's a nice work, it's a nice work." He sums up all the little tasks that are involved in, say, turning the tide of opinion toward the neoclassic era, or perhaps tuning it in to the small delights of Chardin's pots, onions, and hares.

"The public sees only the exhibition," he says, as if he pities it for missing out on the real action. "It [the public] does not see the tremendous thing which is behind.It's a lot of fun. If I like to do everything in an exhibition it's because of the variety. I like the phone, I like to push pressure on someone who is not willing to lend his picture" -- he chuckles and his glasses glint merrily, and I can't imagine resisting his charm but quake to think running up against his pressure -- "and force him to lend it. I like finding who owns which picture. I like the museum work far and away more than university work . . ." (by which he means art "university work" as Focillon Fellow at Yale and also at Princeton, but never stayed for long. "It's because there is this variety, and also because one has a certain responsibility. I think a university man is alone with his students and alone with his photos."

Rosenberg isn't alone. He always seems to be accompanied by both today's public and posterity, because he's always working for them. "A curator has not only the great responsibility toward the works of art -- if he destroys them by cleaning he will be judged by the future." He has strong opinions on cleaning, and pointed out a Chardin to me that had been skinned by rough cleaning, which he said had lost its "vibrations" and was "dead." You could not only see, but feel, the effects.

But he is in charge of also protecting them from the public, being careful with them during the exhibitions, he is in charge of buying them and of spending the money the state gives him."

His "moral sense" about the importance of exhibitions includes a feeling that they should express some idea to the public, rather than just being spectacles. In France, he says, "we are more interested in an exhibition which, the day it's closed, remains" than are Americans, who fell still have a penchant for "'Masterpieces from Dreden' and so on. . . . An exhibition which does not help [the viewer] to know more is not worthwhile. Once the exhibition is closed, something should remain. It should remain in the catalog. The catalog should be a piece of scholarship."

An exhibition, he says, is a way for museum curators to express themselves, the way scholars express themselves through books. If the future counts in what he does, the past seems to live in his work.

"Until the opening day of the exhibition one never knows what will happen to the artist. Will he come out as one of the greatest artists of all time? [Or] will he be playing all his life long with the same theme and be a slightly boring master? One never knows. One is working on him with a lot of love, of course, and so one is slightly excited and afraid what will happen."

He is talking about Chardin, who died in 1779. Two hundred years later, Rosenberg was curator of a Chardin exhibition which opened in Paris and traveled to Cleveland and Boston. Not only does he sound as keyed up as if the career of a living artist depended on his work, he almost seems to be dealing with his own paintings.

"Exactly," he agrees. "Having done all this work, I feel . . . that I'm engaged with the artist and very much interested in seeing the results. . . . For Chardin . . . I was slightly afraid by the fact that he always paints the same pictures, that he would come out as a slightly boring artist, and I did not find out until opening days that in fact there was a tremendous variety and that the artist had spend his life long on a sort of reflection on what creativity was. . . ."

Not much is lost on him. John Walsh, painting orator of Boston's museum of Fine Arts, says, "He sets a tremendous example for anybody in the field. There are not many of us who are able to live the way he lives [faintly aristocratically and surrounded by art], or command his kind of memory, attention span, ability to focus, appetite to work, and quick eye," he says without hesitation.

Walsh describes a Rosenberg visit to the sale rooms at the Hotel Drouot, Paris's answer to Sotheby's, where he checks three times a week for paintings not only for the Louvre but for France's provincial museums as well. He has a fiendishly accurate sense of the market, dealers say, and also knows intimately the gaps in all of France's collections. "He zooms through as though he were operating a revolving radar scanner on his head." Walsh says.

It's almost impossible to keep up. I went to the Drouot with Rosenberg and a friend one very rainy Saturday. As we dashed in the door of the modern hotel, shaking our umbrellas and trying to keep up, the friend said, "It's just like a steeplechase, you just run after Pierre and don't see anything."

Reporters are supposed to be fast and have sharp eyes, but we are positively sluggish compared with museum curators. I Mean, I sawm all those paintings and drawings go by, while Rosenberg darted in and out, nodded at various acquaintances, and somehow investigated each one, checked out its condition, price, and authenticity, and, if good, considered what it could do for which provincial museum. he would flip through a group of drawings, concentrating like a dog sniffing down at a rabbit hole, then, just as intently, put them down , the way a dog will give a decisive sniff dismissing a certain hole as empty. He darted, pondered, chatted, pursed his lips, strolled, and scanned the lofty walls clogged with art. Nothing that day, he said thoughtfully after we had followed him 20 minutes at a dead run. But he would be back at least twice the following week, keeping an eye out.

"Pierre is sort of like an express train," says Fred Cummings of the Detroit Institute of Arts, "an indomitable force." What drives the express train? What gets him up early on Saturdays to prowl the Marche Aux Puces and keeps him more aware of prices than the cagiest broker on Wall Street?

Probably not just his great love for art, and not just his expertise in French painting. Even his pride in the French patrimony -- which he has power to exercise, since he is on a board that reviews every work of art going out of France and can buy it back from the owner if it decides it should stay in France. It has to do with all these things, but probably that express train is fueled by a down-to-earth understanding of the realities of the art world. Money, in a word.

"I don't think there is eternity in this field," he says, in response to my high-flown question about what intrinsic qualities he is looking for when he buys paintings. "A great artist is a great artist," he admits. But there's more to it than that, perhaps especially in art history. It is the constantly changing fashion of art.

Some artists are ignored for hundreds of years, only to become suddenly appreciated. Georges de la Tour's luminous, candlelit portraits were unknown before the 1930s. Then, his works were comparatively cheap. "If I had suggested," during those cheap years, "that a provincial museum buy a $30,000 picture, in 20 years the painting is a masterpiece, and the value of the picture is $2 million. That's exactly the sort of thing I would be proud to have done, but how to do it? How be sure?

"Art history is moving always, so a great curator, I don't know, I don't think I am one, is the one who buys pictures when they are cheap whose prices will increase in 20 years."

Maybe he doesn't think so, but he is known to his colleagues as a great curator, and a very active one. One would think being a curator is essentially a passive job: looking after the treasures of the past. But just keeping up with the artists who are rediscovered, the new knowledge about periods in art history, and the way different generations' views change make it an active profession. Rosenberg has gone beyond that. His own perception and persuasion have actually influenced art history. He is right, it moves, and sometimes he moves it.

"I like the contact with the work of art, I like to go to sale rooms, I like to go to auctions, to dealers, and I really like also to discover works of art. The active part of the profession is something very important to me, very important," he says.

"He has a great impatience with ideas that haven't been looked at for a while. He's of a fundamentally different turn of mind than most museum curators ," says John Walsh of the Boston MFA. His gift, Walsh says, is the willingness to "be a man of your time, rather than hang back and worry about what posterity's going to think of you."

Rosenberg talks a lot about posterity. But, like his hero, Vivant Denon, who was director of the Louvre during the French Revolution and was probably responsible for the collection's surviving that time and growing into the modern age, he is unabashedly a man of his time. And a man ahead of his time, as well.

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