The Louvre's New Look

ANY museum that turns a parking lot into art space must be doing something right, especially if the art belongs to the Louvre and the space is designed by I.M. Pei.

Last month in Paris, French President Francois Mitterrand officially opened the Louvre's Richelieu Wing, part of the renowned Chinese-American architect's renovation of a museum that is viewed by many as the world's finest.

Named after 17th-century Cardinal Richelieu, the wing includes a glass-enclosed gallery - built on land once used for parking - that displays works formerly warehoused in the museum's archives.

In October, another part of the renovation was opened: Mr. Pei's already famous - and controversial - glass pyramid, which serves as access to the Louvre's new underground complex, with its parking garage, shopping mall, and archeological excavations.

The entire undertaking - not expected to be complete until 1997, at a cost of some $1 billion - is an appropriate and richly justified step toward sustaining France's eminent role in Western culture.

With its massive commitment of money and energy, the project makes art a major item on that country's long-term agenda.

It also focuses attention in precisely the right place. The Louvre is the soul of France in a way few other institutions can claim to be for their countries.

The late French movie star Charles Boyer, narrating a memorable American TV special in 1964, described how the Louvre's treasures were dispersed to French citizens for safekeeping when the Germans invaded France during World War II.

After the Germans left, Mr. Boyer went on to say, every one of the priceless pieces was returned by the loyal citizens.

Boyer's voice broke with national pride as he repeated the phrase ``every one.'' He knew that in the eyes of the French, failing to return a Louvre painting would not simply have been stealing, it would have been treason.

Today the new Louvre is not merely an expanded museum, it is an enlarged national spirit.

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