Q&A with with James Gardner, author of ‘The Louvre’

Among Western art institutions, the Louvre looms as a supreme icon of cultural sophistication. But how did it get that way? James Gardner explains.

Courtesy of Nadya Gardner and Grove Atlantic
James Gardner appears with his book “The Louvre: The Many Lives of the World’s Most Famous Museum.”

Art critic James Gardner’s “The Louvre: The Many Lives of the World’s Most Famous Museum” is an indispensable guide to understanding how an obscure fortress became the Western world’s most striking tribute to the power of art. Mr. Gardner spoke about the Louvre’s past, present, and future with Monitor correspondent Randy Dotinga.

Q: What’s behind the museum’s name?

That part of Paris was called the Louvre as early as the late ninth century. No one knows where the name comes from. A lot of people think it has something do with wolves who occupied that part of Paris since louvre sounds like louve, a she-wolf, but there’s no basis for that. It’s nice that the Louvre has not revealed its most fundamental secret to us.

Q: Which came first, the museum concept or the Louvre?

It wasn’t first out of the gate since museums had existed before the Louvre. But it’s a specific kind of museum that no one had thought of before, part of a movement in the second half of the 1700s toward creating these great collections that would bring art to the people. There’s something very noble about the way, back in 1793, the French revolutionary government opened the museum in the enlightenment spirit of bringing culture to the public. There was a mission to instruct the French people by exposing them – and the world – to the greatest visual culture available. Over time, it evolved to become an encyclopedic museum.

Q: Could you describe the quintessential Frenchness of the Louvre?

One of the interesting things about the French, perhaps more than any other culture, is how non-French cultures somehow become essentially French. Think about artworks like the “Mona Lisa,” the “Winged Victory of Samothrace,” and the “Venus de Milo.” None of those things are actually French, right? But somehow they feel essentially French. Even Leonardo da Vinci is essentially French, even though he isn’t.

Q: Would these works of art have the same meaning elsewhere?

The Louvre holds a prestige and standing unlike any other museum. One of the reasons that the “Mona Lisa” has this iconic status is because it exists in the Louvre. If it had been in the Prado in Madrid, it would still be a great painting, but it wouldn’t have this transcendent eminence. Only the Louvre could give it that.

Q: What challenges does the Louvre face after the pandemic?

It’s a victim of its own success due to overcrowding that prevents a full appreciation of art like the “Mona Lisa.” Ironically, the museum helped produce the almost idolatrous regard in which we hold visual culture. Another challenge is the price of art. It’s become so expensive that the Louvre, like most museums, can no longer regularly buy the great art it was able to in the past.

Q: What advice do you have about visiting the Louvre when it reopens?

Apply filter-feeding! Whales just float through the ocean with their mouths open. Whatever flows in nourishes them. When you first go to the Louvre, just float through it with your eyes open and don’t look too intently at anything. Let everything enter you. Then go back and look at what you like.

Q: Could the Louvre ever lose its place as the world’s top museum?

We already have the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and the National Gallery museums in London and Washington. It’s hard to imagine that another museum like these would come into existence. It’s not like somebody’s going to create a bigger museum than the Louvre. And even if someone tried, where would they get the artwork that’s already accounted for? It seems that the Louvre will probably retain its preeminence far into the future.

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