The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2020

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MAY 2020 Issue
Art In Conversation

HENRI LOYRETTE with Joachim Pissaro

Visitors in front of Delacroix's <em>Liberty Leading the People</em>. © 2017 musée du Louvre. Photo: Olivier Ouadah.
Visitors in front of Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People. © 2017 musée du Louvre. Photo: Olivier Ouadah.

In 1793, during the French Revolution, the French kings’ art collection housed in the Louvre became the property of the French Nation, and was opened to the public. Although there had been earlier European museums prior to the Louvre, this was a most decisive beginning in the history of public art museums as we know it, which is found now in almost every country. In 2018, the Louvre had more than ten million visitors. It is the most visited museum anywhere. And so, when, some years ago, we inaugurated this series of interviews with museum directors, naturally we wanted to interview all three living former Presidents of the Louvre: Michel Laclotte (1987–95), Pierre Rosenberg (1994–2001), and Henri Loyrette (2001–13). In February of 2019 Pissarro talked with all three men in Paris, in French separately, in interviews. Carrier did the preliminary editing and provided this introduction.

Here, then, we present the 16th museum director we have had the pleasure of interviewing. Our consistent discovery has been that museums everywhere share some concerns, and that, in some important ways, national differences matter enormously. Almost all museums have to expand and add to the collection previously unrepresented visual traditions. All of them have to contend with increasing numbers of visitors. But how these expansions of the buildings and the collections are supported financially considerably varies from one country to another. As will be made clear here, some of the differences in American and French funding systems are dramatic and important.

We have consulted with profit Michel Laclotte’s A Key to the Louvre: Memoirs of a Curator, trans. Mark Polizzotti (New York: Abbeville, 2004).

Joachim Pissarro (Rail): The premise of this set of three interviews is to have a conversation with the three President-Directors of the Louvre, who each greatly contributed towards opening this institution and helping it transition towards the 21st century. The modernization of the Louvre has gone through several chapters. It began to take shape under the aegis of Laclotte. What would interest me is to hear your perspective with regards to this modernization, and to the transition of this antiquated institution into the present and into the future.

Henri Loyrette: I inherited in 2001 a Louvre that was already very much up-to-date. There were of course many things that still needed to be done. This was the case, namely, with the Department of Islamic Art and regional projects such as the big project of Louvre-Lens. We were really still under the impetus of the Grand Louvre. This momentum was born in the 1980s with an architectural expansion that allowed a much broader presentation of our collections—35,000 objects on display! But even with this considerable transformation, there were still some departments, some collections, that had not yet obtained the space they deserved. Thanks to all these efforts, however, the Louvre had truly entered modernity.

On the administrative reform side, it was more tentative because indeed Laclotte’s admirable efforts had primarily focused on supporting the Grand Louvre architecturally and with regards to the expansion of its collections. A certain number of things had not been done for very simple and normal reasons—compromises with people who did not necessarily follow this movement and who may have attempted to restrain it. Proposals had to be made, it was necessary to find arrangements and to postpone all matters of administrative reforms. Pierre Rosenberg continued, but in a situation that was similar to what I had been faced with at Orsay, where I was the second director after Françoise Cachin.

The circumstances I inherited were therefore remarkable—a Louvre that had already acquired all the tools to make it the largest museum in the world. The teams that enabled us to support this effort were all there. Still, there were some pockets, indeed, numerous pockets of resistance and reluctance, which slowed down the movement, and the whole process. This affected a variety of things. When I arrived, the Louvre was composed of many different departments, each acting as though it were a small museum in its own right: all these departments had little contact, if any, between them. Really, and there was so much feudalism. I am referring to department directors, who were still called the department curators, and who had a hard time tolerating this authority. For instance, when I arrived—I am providing this example because it is absolutely striking and incomprehensible to me today—I , as President-Director of the Louvre, was never kept informed of the exhibition loans that all the department heads were sending! This would happen on their own watch, and without any consideration of the overall larger interest of the Louvre. Once you have organized many exhibitions, you know quite well what is at stake for the institution to negotiate a loan with another institution, and that a certain fragile balance is to be established and kept among larger institutions. It is, therefore, totally normal for the President-Director to not only be aware, but to be actively involved in this process. There was so much feudalism going on in all the departments that it prevented all to work together, that is, from one department to another, there was practically no communication! They were each in their own space. In fact, the term used by Michel Laclotte at the Arcachon seminar refers back to this. He said that it was like “Yalta” because we had distributed the spaces in this manner. (Ed.: A reference to the Yalta conference during World War II when Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin met secretly to divide up the world). The use of such a formula, however, is also a compromise towards each other’s reluctances and resistances. Such was therefore the internal situation that I entered: an executive administrative team that was hardly accepted by all the curatorial departments. This antagonism is quite common, but it had been exacerbated in this instance between the so-called scholars/curators and the past administrative teams, and this obviously did not ease the task. This is the first point.

The Louvre. Photo: © 2019 Olivier Ouadah.
The Louvre. Photo: © 2019 Olivier Ouadah.

Rail: It is absolutely fascinating to hear you speak about this. Your two predecessors did not mention it. This brings to mind Glenn Lowry (whom we also interviewed at the Rail) and who went through a similar experience when he arrived at MoMA.

Loyrette: But he has been there for much longer.

Rail: Yes, since 1995. He did have a similar experience with feudalities. There were different departments at MoMA that had been conceived and governed somewhat autocratically… and the Chief Curators were like mini-directors of a small museum, each. I have no proof of this, but I actually always thought that Alfred Barr probably looked at the structure of the Louvre to apply it to MoMA.

Loyrette: Yes, absolutely. He had his spaces, his managers—

Rail: And the commonality was that these managers, who were also called “director of departments,” like Rubin, did not communicate amongst each other.

Loyrette: Of course, it is also important for the departments to remain somewhat autonomous. We sought to decentralize and to give them more autonomy at the same time, but there should also be a consideration for the whole and for a certain common interest. The Louvre had a very peculiar and paradoxical situation: it was a very old museum, founded in 1793, as you know, and yet at the same time, a very young institution. This is truly quite rare. The Grand Louvre opened in 1993. I was actually the third President-Director of the Louvre. In a way, you could say that the Grand Louvre was a brand new museum! [Laughter]

Rail: I see what you mean. Yes, the Grand Louvre can be regarded as an institution of the 21st century.

Loyrette: Yes, in some ways. You see, the situation was that beforehand, you never had directors at the Louvre, including those who had a solely administrative function. To a certain extent, we always had this feudal endemic system. And for the first time with Laclotte, with Rosenberg, and then with me, there was someone who managed this establishment from the inside. As we know, piecing old and new is a very evangelical concept, but it is something inherently difficult and complex to carry through.

Now, on the outside perspective, there was very little autonomy given to the Louvre because there was a very particular system of supervision, revenue sharing and collaborations with that other administrative structure, called Réunion des Musées Nationaux and we had not been freed up from that administrative weight yet. When I arrived, there was a report from the Cour des Comptes (Court of Audit), which helped me a lot. It stated that the State had wanted an institution that should be perfectly autonomous, if not independent, but definitely autonomous, and that, so to speak, the Louvre did not have the means to achieve this autonomy for a variety of reasons: cross-financing with the Réunion des Musées Nationaux, the limitation, so to speak, of the powers of the President-Director, etc. I obviously tried to remedy all of this in a simple manner, by an instrument that works and that does not have a will to power.

Rail: To summarize for those readers who are not necessarily accustomed to how things function in France, basically the separation of the Louvre from the Direction des Musées de France happened under Laclotte or under your orders?

Loyrette: No, it became an établissement public [public establishment] with Laclotte.

Rail: So, the Direction des Musées de France was no longer there?

Loyrette: Well, yes, it still was. The Direction des Musées de France still exercised control over certain areas: guardianship, or security, supervision, and various other areas of services. The Louvre had its autonomy, its board, etc, like all major museum institutions. But once again, this autonomy was poorly handled because, among other reasons, I was not given the control to manage certain segments of staff who were working for the museum. For instance, when I arrived, the security personnel were managed directly by the Ministry of Culture. And so, when there was a strike or a social revendication, for instance—and there were a lot of them at the beginning!—I would call a meeting with the unions and their delegates, and they would tell me, “listen, you can tell us whatever you want, but the decision is not happening here, it’s happening at the Ministry!” The Louvre was therefore an establishment where, on the one hand, the heads of departments thought of you as illegitimate, or an usurper, and the unions tell you that your own staff is not under your responsibility, but that it reports directly to the Ministry of Culture. And to top it all, our own funding was being partially shared with the Réunion des Musées Nationaux, which also had some say in dictating some of our own programming. This is what I inherited. One cannot say that such an establishment is very autonomous, right? We therefore reviewed all of this and we finally achieved a true autonomy, which is that of the Louvre today.

Rail: Absolutely extraordinary story!

Loyrette: That was, so to speak, the prelude. You must understand that if you wish to have projects and get things done, if you want to bring your projects to fruition, if you want to have a cultural vision, you must have the tools to allow you to do this. Otherwise, you will constantly have problems.

Rail: So, for our readers, the Réunion des Musées Nationaux is a separate institution that manages the publications of all the museums in France, among other things.

Loyrette: Yes, that’s right. There was a kind of monopoly, or some kind of trust, if you will, of the Réunion des Musées Nationaux over all the exhibitions and publications, nation-wide, without any call for competition. This would be unthinkable in the United States. And therefore, there was not even any consideration to give private companies a chance to participate in these projects. There was, in addition, a system of revenue sharing in terms of ticket sales. We basically had our hands tied. On top of that, the president of the Réunion de Musées Nationaux was also the director of the Musées de France. There was, therefore, a form of collusion, if you will, of all these side administrative powers, and we really tried to free ourselves from this.

Rail: This sounds like a nightmare. And how did you succeed in getting rid of these parasitic administrative forces?

Loyrette: Very patiently, by working on each file, one after the other, with each successive general administrator. It must be said that it was also with the support of the public authority at the highest level. I benefited from that report from the Cour des Comptes (Court of Audit), but even more from the Ministry of Culture and from the Ministry of Finance themselves, which soon gave us a lot of support in these matters. You see, I had to be ready to depart on all fronts. I had inherited something that was in operating condition on an architectural level and in terms of the expansion of rooms, even though I did have second thoughts on certain divisions that had been made—and namely, as I said, the absence of links between departments. That aspect worked well for a while, but there was still a significant shortage in terms of management of personnel and of budgets. Once things started going in a new direction, it was quite difficult to go back and this actually enabled us to start projects. And in turn, the projects themselves helped gather fresh support, in a certain way, the feeling of being part of a greater entity. This was in particular the case with the Louvre-Lens project, which is a project that all departments worked on together. This was unprecedented, and I won’t even speak to you about the reluctances I had to face at the beginning. But the Louvre-Lens project encouraged the departments to work together and to promote the beautiful notion of multidisciplinary and interdepartmental collaboration.

Rail: Was this really the first time that you had this kind of collegial interdepartmental project at the Louvre?

Loyrette: In a way, yes, it was the first time. There had been a few multidisciplinary exhibitions but it never worked. That’s a recurring problem. The Centre Pompidou would tell you the same thing. That was a real difficulty. It may seem straightforward and simple to ensure that departments would speak to one another, that there would be more connections between them, that it would be acceptable to display a few sculptures in the paintings department and a few paintings and objets d’art in the sculptures department, but each time this led to unbelievable battles. You have no idea!

Rail: Was gaining a new status of autonomy for the Grand Louvre, what you consider among your biggest achievements during your tenure?

Loyrette: Yes. You see, in a way, this was the completion, in a certain way, or the implementation of what the government wanted for the Louvre.

The Louvre. Photo: © 2019 Olivier Ouadah.
The Louvre. Photo: © 2019 Olivier Ouadah.

Rail: And so, of course the government followed you?

Loyrette: Yes, more or less, because I also often [had] a few clashes with the Minister of Culture, who had a negative view of the autonomy of large establishments. What needs to be said is that the Ministers of Culture were coming and going: there were lots of them. I have known six of them in twelve years! And my presence at the helm of the Louvre, and the Louvre’s inherent grandness and radiance, might sometimes have overshadowed them. But we worked it out. (Laughter)

Rail: You did, and triumphantly. Now let’s look at your legacy, at the other end of your tenure. Today, the Louvre that you have helped to redefine is often valued as a great example, especially in the United States, of a large autonomous institution that succeeded in establishing its own autonomy, and functions by itself very successfully, partly by receiving major donations and gifts.

Loyrette: Yes, this was indeed one of the significant changes. You are right to stress this point because the autonomy of the Louvre, on a larger scale, also meant its financial autonomy with a budget of a little over €100 million—this is not insignificant. First the budget increased, in a rather colossal way, with the construction that we undertook, and with the staff that we hired in areas that were vastly understaffed. But I need to say that when I arrived, the budget of the Louvre was covered with 75% from the government and 25% from our own resources and from private patronage. When I left, it was 47% from the government and 53% from our own resources and from patronage. It was an important increase, and in fact it was supported by the government because during those years the state had the best tax systems in the world in terms of patronage. I never speak of the government’s role in terms of “withdrawal” because, in actual fact, it completely supported the financial autonomy of the Louvre, which I was advocating. There was then a steep rise in public attendance, which obviously increased the revenues, in particular the revenue from ticket sales. I must say, the figures are staggering: we went from 3–4 million visitors when I arrived, and the year of my departure, we almost reached 10 millions. I was especially proud of two things with regards to these numbers: the proportion of young visitors, that is, 40% of visitors were under the age of thirty; and I was also impressed by the importance of our national attendance, that is to say that one third of the 10 million visitors were French. This proportion is much higher than what I had previously known at the Orsay, for instance and it is also higher than the statistics of the Louvre today. Much of this is due to the quantity of projects we were producing, especially for younger audiences.

Rail: Well, the statistics that you’re giving me here are very meaningful. To return to visitor numbers, today we often cite a fact, which is not particular to the Louvre but which is certainly evident at the Louvre today—the considerable number of visitors, mostly from Asia, who come to see the Louvre for two or three works: the Venus de Milo [ca. 100 BC], the Mona Lisa [1503], and perhaps the Winged Victory of Samothrace [ca. 190 BC]. You obviously perceived this phenomenon. How did you address this? You have to bring them in, but in relation to what you told me…

Loyrette: I arrived to a museum where the position of the works had been fixed already. There was no question of changing it. I completed the project that Laclotte and Rosenberg initiated—it opened when I was the director. The only change we made was for the Venus de Milo, when we created the new Greek rooms with Jean-Luc Martinez. The Mona Lisa was placed in the Salle des États with the recurring issues that we know.

I need to correct you, as I have to say that the problem of these works is both a handicap and a blessing. It’s a handicap because indeed it focuses the attention of literally millions of visitors in those two places, which aren’t too far from each other, but it also privileges certain other areas of the museum. This is the main problem of the Louvre: due to its configuration, which is that of a royal palace, its distances are huge, and sometimes difficult to bear, which means that certain areas are hard to reach. On the other hand, when you think about it, there really aren’t that many museums that own so many iconic works. Many of the most important museums today, might be embarrassed to admit, even the Met, that they don’t have the equivalent of a Mona Lisa or a Winged Victory of Samothrace. But this also comes from the fact that the original history and function of the Louvre was not to be a museum, but a royal palace with a very, very old history.

Rail: What often strikes me, and I personally love the rooms of Laclotte, the early Italian Renaissance, where we see the majestic and splendid crowning of the virgin Mary [Coronation of the Virgin (ca. 1430-1432)]by Fra Angelico, and that incredible group of Trecento paintings, and, more often than not, I find that there’s usually not a soul there.

Loyrette: And even though it’s on a path that is busy, very, very busy! And close to rooms that are packed. But it’s true, there are patches, and rooms that are empty at the Louvre. And, I’m not even speaking about French 18th century painting, for example, which is at the other side. That’s one of the real problems. On the other hand, it’s also one of the charms of the Louvre, not to be constantly subjected to such a strong pressure from the visitors. This is really one of the fundamental problems of this institution. In an effort to direct visitors to certain areas, we created itineraries, which sometimes worked relatively well. We did everything to bring visitors to spaces other than those that they were used to visiting.

Rail: Just one more question regarding finances. There is an irony or an interesting paradox, which is that the institution you inherited from Laclotte and Rosenberg was the antithesis of what American museums are. The institution that you passed on to Martinez became the effigy, the perfect example with stores (I know that Rosenberg and Laclotte don’t like the use of the term “store”), but the Louvre now generates a very serious revenue, and has acquired under your watch a quasi-autonomy financially. This is no small accomplishment. So, with only three directors, three president-directors, three decades, you transformed this place—of course all three of you contributed to this, but you completed it, what your predecessors put in place—making it one of the most important cultural and art historical instruments worldwide, but also a considerable economic force. I wanted to ask you, I heard a rumor that, apparently, one of the latest Ministers of Culture came to claim a certain portion. You were so successful that she basically wanted to have a share of the pie…

Loyrette: No, no, that’s not true. One of the difficulties we faced was to keep the money of the Louvre Abu Dhabi to ourselves. But through some struggle, and, indeed with the support, much more of the Ministry of Finance than of the Ministry of Culture—in a way you are right to talk about this—we did retain our financial autonomy and we kept our revenue. The sharing that used to take place between the Louvre and the Réunion des Musées Nationaux ceased very quickly. For us, that was unbearable. And I am very pleased with this result.

Rail: So nowadays, the publication department of the Louvre—

Loyrette: Yes, it is finally completely autonomous. What I wanted, and for me this was crucial because I had known very difficult situations in the past, this is a domain that you too, know very well: acquisitions. When I was at the Musée d’Orsay, there was a global budget for the national museums, and there was the added difficulty in my field, where, in particular with Impressionism, works of art are worth enormous sums of money. There was therefore a true loss of cultural heritage. Many things left the country because we couldn’t afford them, we couldn’t hold them back. What I achieved, and I am very happy about that, is that a percentage of the ticket sales was sliced off, and reserved purely for acquisition of works of art. This is excellent on one hand, because I believe that once you make it clear to your visitors where the money they spend on a ticket goes, they might more easily accept the price of the ticket. And then, on another note, the curators themselves suddenly see an incentive and begin to get concerned about issues of public access, and number of visitors, if, of course, they want to expand their collections. So we had a base which was far from negligible, to the extent that now, I think, some want to cut those percentages. It worked out quite well.

Matters that for me remained unfinished, and I did a lot of work on this, are questions of collection. There is a strong neglect of certain areas, and this is a policy that I had initiated at the Orsay, when I was interested as much by Scandinavian painting as by Russian works of art. We had a vision that hadn’t evolved much from what was going on abroad and, in the case of the Louvre, entire fields, entire civilizations were sometimes omitted. That’s an old story. For example, the Department of Egyptian antiquities never went up the Nile to look to the Sudan, for instance, which was a heritage of the 19th century. It was as though, past Nubia, there was nothing at all. Even though it was in a certain way one of the prerogatives of the Louvre to be interested in these cultures. So, we began archeological digs, and excavations in the Sudan, north of Mouweis. Another example: we also devoted renewed interest towards Russia and produced a beautiful exhibition on the subject. In a similar context, we realized that we were relatively poor in German 19th century decorative arts and acquired important Biedermeier furniture. You see, each time, these actions were very different, but each one aimed to break a little bit the agreed-upon vision, or the preconceptions that we had of a set museum whose collections and borders were, in a way, strictly defined. What was important for me was to encourage curiosity for something that was at the edge, for something that we had never considered until now in the true sense of the term, and, of course, as you can imagine, I often encountered reluctance because, among some of my colleagues, there is a certain dominant idea of the Louvre. Biedermeier furniture, precisely for instance, is an area that I find incredibly interesting and fascinating. Having been at Orsay, one cannot understand the Viennese progress at the end of the 19th century, if we do not consider what was there beforehand, but for many people it was, in a way, unworthy of the Louvre. It was below us, if you see what I mean. Quite a fossilized vision of what is art and art history!

Rail: You also did some significant work to create a new department. The Louvre was the Louvre of seven departments. Today, there are eight departments. I am assuming that it wasn’t an easy task to create a Department of Islamic Art.

Loyrette: For me, it was a necessity, and it’s one of the changes I proposed at the very beginning of my tenure at the Louvre. When I went to see President Jacques Chirac before he appointed me, I had told him that what the Louvre really lacks is a department of Islamic art. For two reasons: on the one hand, Michel Laclotte had already done a lot and paved the way towards this goal, but he had created rooms that were somewhat residual and not very convenient. It nonetheless permitted us to display collections that I had known when they were in storage for about a quarter of a century, and that were suddenly shown at the Louvre for a much longer time. What you should know is that some of these objects of this department were in the possession of the French Crown well before the Revolution. So, there was a real story to these objects and I felt that, for both political and artistic reasons, not to consider the arts of Islam with dignity, not to give them the space they deserved, not to give them an administrative autonomy and not to consider them as forming a whole and important department in itself, was an aberration. I think that it is so obvious today that we don’t even understand the situation of the past, when it was meant to be a mere section attached to the Department of Oriental Antiquities with which it obviously had but a slight connection geographically, but even then, it had absolutely nothing to do with Oriental Antiquities!

Rail: In relation to Syria?

Loyrette: Yes, and with Iran. It basically made no sense at all. And when it happened, it was not only just that these objects gained an administrative autonomy, but this came with whole new rooms. The construction of these new rooms of Islamic art enabled us to display the collections more gloriously. Once a new department is created, teams are gathered, the research policy is increased, there is an acquisition budget, patronage also follows because, of course it immediately interested many people. A new dynamic is formed and it has multiple consequences but, at the source, there was an existing collection that had been largely ignored, and it is one of the most beautiful in the world. My biggest regret, had I stayed on, is that I would have loved to pursue this effort further, but it was unfortunately abandoned by my successor, was the idea of creating a ninth department: a department of the art of Oriental Christians, which sort of corresponded to the Department of Islamic art. At the moment, if you go to the Louvre, everything that touches upon the Copts of Egypt is attached to the department of Egyptian Antiquities, everything that touches upon Armenia, Byzantium, Russia, etc. is all dispersed across different departments, which means that there is no overall view of early Oriental Christianity, even though there is a profound unity which is artistic, geographic, religious, and civilizational there. This is a real subject. I truly regret that this has not been done. Additionally, I think that in this day and age, it would be good to have this element and to place tension on what was and is extremely important.

Rail: What were the one, two, three, four acquisitions that you are most proud of and that you view as essential?

Loyrette: They were varied. I would like to emphasize that I am proud to have brought things that were previously not expected to be at the Louvre. For example, a head by [Franx Xaver] Messerschmidt (Ed.: Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, 18th century German-Austrian sculptor, known for his almost caricatural “character heads” sculptures) that we purchased at an auction for an important price, but the tax benefits of the Louvre enabled us to do this. I believe this was very important for the Department of Sculptures and that was part of a policy I personally encouraged, of paying attention towards artists or countries that were until then given little consideration. There were many such things. Some were national treasures that we were able to get after many successive battles. The painting by [Jean] Malouel (Ed.: Jean Malouel, or Jan Maelwael, Netherlandish artist, sometimes considered French, of the late 14th century who was the court painter of Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy], for example, a truly admirable work, very sought after. This acquisition went through a whole series of complicated obstacles, but we got it in the end. Also things that may seem insignificant, like the Biedermeier furniture, which I mentioned before, because it was also a somewhat new direction for the Louvre. But you see, we did have a kind of financial comfort which didn’t exist before, but for the larger acquisitions, I must admit that it was always a battle. Once again, the national treasure system in France is unparalleled. In a way, not a single other country has this opportunity. It was also a matter of regularly connecting and building relationships with certain patrons. For instance, I’m thinking of the generosity of AXA and of its president Henri de Castries, who has always supported the acquisition of glorious national treasures. These are quite complex situations that involve curators, patrons, and it’s never a one-shot type of situation. These things develop progressively through loyalty, friendship, and recurrence. One of the things I am very proud of is the acquisition of the Venus [standing in a landscape (1529)] by Cranach because it was the first public funding campaign that we launched, and it was the first time it was done in France. It later became quite common, but it worked very well with people who gave from €10 to €500 thousand, sometimes more. We had named this campaign “Tous mécènes!” [All patrons!], and all the donors proudly participated. It was a very moving situation to watch, and to see all of them when they were invited to be the first to see the acquired work, and take pride in this important acquisition, this was something!

Rail: How many donors are there generally?

Loyrette: A large number, very large number…thousands.

Rail: The responses that surprised me from both Pierre and Michel, when I asked them the same question, and I don’t think they had spoken with each other about it beforehand, but they both wished to steer the conversation towards the regrets they had had, rather than the great acquisitions they made. It was fascinating.

Loyrette: Yes, that’s curious, because I am really proud of what we have acquired recently. We have regrets, of course, we always have them. But, you know, in a certain way, I had many more regrets when I was at Orsay. It’s true that we regretted a Velázquez that we almost bought, so we have no Velázquez today! We almost bought one, but for some reasons it went past us and was acquired by the Prado. But in any case, I would say that my most notable regret, yes, it’s maybe the Stoclet Duccio (Ed.: Duccio’s Madonna and Child (ca. 1300), sometimes referred to as the “Stoclet Madonna” after the name of its 19th century Belgian owner) that I regret most, that we couldn’t buy because the price was absolutely enormous and we also ran into another kind of obstacle from the patrons’ perspective who had a problem with a religious painting. When a patron is a corporation, it is always more difficult to propose an acquisition with a religious theme, through a company because it might be supported by some and rejected by others. It is one of the reasons why we did not get the Stoclet Virgin, which was indeed a beautiful piece. The Louvre still lacks a Duccio today as a result. Having said that, there are other things. You see, I was being optimistic, I think more about things that we fought for and ended up getting than things that we regret. There are many things that can be regretted.

Rail: Rosenberg and Laclotte both spoke about the Duccio and the Velázquez. Laclotte said that it might be possible to find a Velázquez, but Duccio is more complex.

Loyrette: Yes, Duccio is more complex.

Rail: It’s fascinating. One of your predecessors specialized in 14th–15th century Early Italian Renaissance art, the other specialized in 17th century French art, you specialized in 19th century art and Degas namely (Ed.: As these interviews are going to press, Henri Loyrette has just curated a fascinating exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay: “Degas à l’Opéra”) What was your experience, scholarly speaking, to suddenly be at the head of an ancient institution like the Louvre, where the 19th century isn’t a period?

Loyrette: Scientifically speaking, you’re right, at the Louvre, the 19th century, it’s the end of the end. But I would say that in any case, when you are director of the Louvre, first of all, you are no longer director of a department. You have your knowledge, but you are still detached from any one particular collection. Once again, this was different at Orsay, where I was both department director and museum director. I know that some people, when I arrived at the Louvre, asked how someone who isn’t a specialist of the Louvre can be appointed. But no one can possibly claim to be “a specialist of the Louvre.” [Laughter] No one has this kind of universal specialty unless it’s an incredible pretentiousness. One inevitably has a field. What’s important, I believe, is to be an art historian, to know what a museum is, what curating an exhibition means, what orchestrating an acquisition involves, etc. And you forget to mention something essential, which is that the Louvre is still the great museum of the 19th century, and this does go back to my field of research and specialty. The Louvre itself is a product from the 19th century. And so, I was maybe more legitimate, in a certain way, than some who worked on previous periods….

The object, if you will, the object of the Louvre and its history, fascinated me. In fact, we published a large history of the Louvre and really focused on what happened between 1793 and now, and the extraordinary growth during the 19th century. It’s more about the way that you conceive art history than it is about a specialization proper. In my research, I was always opposed to a view of art history that is too Francocentric, which brought together a certain number of artists or civilizations and relegated the others to an underserved area. It was therefore a question of considering the situation more generally, of catching mistakes from the past (I was always afraid we might be missing many things) and to literally reconsider artists and civilizations that we had until then neglected. It’s about how we view things, how we consider them, about a focus on multidisciplinary, with a strong attention to contextualization. The museum sheds a sort of unanimous lighting on all things and therefore considers in the same way all objects that it displays, and which become museum objects without seeing that they actually have specific origins, contexts and narratives that are all absolutely different from one another. That they weren’t made to be viewed in the same conditions and that sometimes they were created not to be seen, but to be worshiped, or venerated: that was something important that the museum had previously ignored or overlooked in any case. I wanted to correct this, and had I stayed, I would have done much more in this direction. It was also one of the goals of Louvre-Lens, to correct this univocal vision that the museum casts on the objects and works it keeps.

This issue really fascinates me and all the difficulties of displaying things because, look, you were speaking of works by early Italian artists earlier: well, these were barely meant to be seen in chapels; they were there to be surmised, to be venerated, to be worshipped, with lighting conditions that were very different, and definitely nothing like what we are experiencing today in a museum context. Which brings me to another essential point: at the Louvre, the lighting is the same everywhere. I do not want to say that there is a banalization, but there is a museification, if you will, of all these objects which is a problem typical to the Louvre, that I wasn’t faced with at the Orsay, because as you know, being a 19th century specialist yourself, when an artist works in the 19th century, his ultimate goal was the museum. For an artist working beforehand, the ultimate goal couldn’t possibly be the museum for the simple reason that the museum didn’t exist. The artist had a patron, received a commission, etc. Therefore, it’s an extremely different perspective and I think that it is one of the things that fascinated me and which I continue to work on because it is really incredible.

Pierre Soulages, <em>Brou de noix</em>, 48,2 x 63,4 cm, 1946. Rodez, Musée Soulages © Archives Soulages  © ADAGP, Paris 2019.
Pierre Soulages, Brou de noix, 48,2 x 63,4 cm, 1946. Rodez, Musée Soulages © Archives Soulages © ADAGP, Paris 2019.

Rail: I think here, it seems to me that you share more with Laclotte than with Rosenberg. I was surprised, I learned this about this two or three hours ago, and as we spoke in his apartment, Laclotte was sitting under a Poliakoff, he also has two works by Hans Hartung, and a beautiful Soulages. He tells me, “you know, when I was a student, I had no money, but what I bought was things that I saw at Denise René, etc.” Well, to come to my point, which became quite notorious at the Louvre, namely, the presence of contemporary art. Weren’t you the one who initiated that?

Loyrette: Yes, I was the one who initiated it. Well, it’s both true and false that I was the one who initiated it. Having said that, the Louvre was always the house of contemporary artists. What I did at Orsay beforehand, when I was director, is that I organized several photographic exhibitions that brought together works by photographers from the 19th century next to works commissioned from contemporary photographers. But at the Louvre, this is a museum in which you must hear a number of voices, you cannot only hear voices of art historians. I think that creators from our time should in a way play a role too, by shedding different lights on the works in the Louvre’s collections. For me, this was fundamental. We must hear a plurality of voices around works of art, and so, there is in a way a polysemy, which was missing most of the time, and which is important to strengthen. It then also depends on the genius of the place, because you cannot apply what you did at Orsay in the same way at the Louvre.

The presence of contemporary artists at the Louvre is a very interesting and much overseen problem. The Louvre has always been the house of living artists, not many people think about this. In the 18th century, with Hubert Robert, they lived there, in the 19th century they would return very frequently to the Louvre, for Degas, for Manet, it was their home, in a sense, and what Cézanne said so admirably, it’s the big book where we learn to read. It was really that. In a way, for them it was a familiar place readily on hand. This got a little lost through the 20th century, but bringing back artists to the Louvre was something that was essential for me. The goal was not necessarily to exhibit living artists. It was to ensure that they would work with us on the collections of the Louvre, on the palace, on the rooms, on so and so’s work, etc. Each time this led to a specific commission. The goal was never to remove works in a room and hang new works that had nothing to do with the Louvre. It was always a different and much richer and complex reflection, a commentary on the Louvre, if you will. This is something we regularly did with Marie-Laure Bernadac, who was curator for contemporary art and who is an amazing person. This stemmed from a whole project to regain that, which used to be the Louvre’s tradition, whereby the very Louvre continuously hosted living artists, and participated therefore to contemporaneous artistic creation.

Once again, we are talking about the multifarious facets of the history of the Louvre and that’s why you’ve heard me sometimes say that it’s also a palace, and that in a palace, you find a lot of rooms, designed or redesigned with consecutive decorations, which can for instance be seen with the phenomenal Galerie d’Apollon which started under the young Louis XIV and that in a way Duban (Ed.: Jacques Félix Duban, French architect who was in charge of the restoration project of the Galerie d’Apollon, between 1847 and 1851) and Delacroix completed in the middle of the 19th century with Apollo Vanquishing the Serpent Python at the centre of the Galerie d’Apollon, painted by Delacroix. The last intervention of this kind was by Braque—there hadn’t been many of them in between. At the request of Georges Salles, (Ed.: Curator of Asian arts at the Louvre who subsequently became Director of the Museums of France (and therefore in charge of the Louvre) between 1947 and 1953) Braque painted a ceiling with birds in one of the Henri II rooms. By looking at the palace, I noticed a certain number of spaces that were, in a way, vacant and that asked for new decorations. From then on, we started giving commissions to a certain number of artists. There were three beautiful projects. This was a huge effort because it was solely done under patronage and also because it was complicated, for a variety of reasons since we are dealing here with a historical monument. But we did it, and wound up with an Anselm Kiefer in the stairway of the Department of Oriental Antiquities. François Morellet created stained glass windows. And Cy Twombly painted the large ceiling of the Salle des Bronzes. It’s true that we had taken the three most beautiful spots and that they are now permanent decorations there, as a result of this initiative. These are permanent things that are perpetuating the history of the Louvre, by keeping it alive, and relevant to us today. One cannot be a valid and sharp art historian, I believe, without being interested in what is happening today. To me, it’s quite simple. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure this out.

Rail: I wholeheartedly agree with you, and it is so true that your introduction of living artists, not in an ephemeral way, but in a deep, thought out, and permanent way, has transformed the way we think, we see, we live in the Louvre today. No question!

I think, to me, alas, this dimension has been somewhat lost since you left, but, it doesn’t matter, we don’t need to discuss that.

Loyrette: Well, once again, it isn’t like in other museums, where it later became more of a trend. You can’t do this kind of project anywhere, without giving the deepest consideration. There’s what I called “the genius of the place,” its history, its identity, which dictates a lot of things, what you can and what you cannot do. What is done at Orsay cannot be done at the Louvre, and vice-versa, or at least it cannot be done in the same way. Something that is also very important to me and that I always followed attentively, it’s something that isn’t as visible from abroad, it’s the unity of the national French collections. The Louvre was the only museum in 1793, there were no others. During the 19th century, a certain number of museums were created inside the Louvre. There was an American museum, many things were developed in the 19th century, and then, an Assyrian museum, the opening of the American museum, and all of that. Art of the Far East was at the Louvre until 1945 before joining the Musée Guimet. There was therefore a universality that was much larger and, due to a lack of space for a variety of reasons, the national collections ended up being scattered around. But I was always sensitive, I would say, to the unity of our collections, which today begin at the Louvre, continue at the Orsay and end with the Musée National d’Art Moderne (Ed.: The Pompidou Center). But, to begin with, it’s all part of one collection, bordered geographically, between the Louvre, together with the Musée Guimet for the art of the Far East, and the Musée du Quai Branly for Africa, Oceania and Pre-Columbian Americas. There is no precedent, no example of this type of complementarities in the world, of a single national collection that is incredible, mind-blowing, because as you add them all up together, no other country in the world has anything like this. What I am trying to say is that we should not forget that unity, despite the fact that these collections are today hosted in different venues. And so, working on links between the different establishments has always been important to me.

Rail: These three interviews have been the sources of considerable revelations about the history, the past, the present, and the future of the Louvre—and more. These three narratives, yours, together with Laclotte’s and Rosenberg’s, take us through the span of the past 30 years of the history of the Louvre, and its entry into the 21st century. Laclotte, for instance, told me something,among many things, that I didn’t know. When I was five or six years old, I went to the Jeu de Paume for the first time with my grandfather, and that’s when I heard that the Impressionist collections were an annex of the paintings department of the Louvre. Laclotte told me a story, when he was crossing the bridge with Rosenberg and they came face to face with the empty Orsay train station, he had an epiphany that eventually led to the creation of the Musée d’Orsay. But before that, he had had a different idea, and created a model, a drawing, going from the Jeu de Paume with an underground tunnel connecting directly into the Orangerie. Did you know this story?

Loyrette: No, I don’t know about the underground tunnel story. Maybe it’s more recent? But Laclotte, you know, he existed way before the Grand Louvre, he was at the paintings department and I admired him greatly, because I entered the museum in 1975 and before that, I had done an internship in the paintings department in 1974, in a Louvre at the time that was completely fossilized, where the curators in charge of the departments were not interested at all in these questions of display that were considered futile and unnecessary. He was the first to introduce Paulin, he was the first to introduce things that completely renewed museology. He gave this momentum to the Louvre, which he accompanied, but it’s because he started all that powerful dynamic, that he, in a way, was able to follow it through and to become, I would say, the only one to be able to bear the project of the Grand Louvre, and to pull it through. You should have seen what his loneliness was like in these years. Among the curators, he was completely lonely, isolated. It was painful.

Rail: I am so glad that we are ending this interview, with this full circle gesture. Your salute to Laclotte is beautiful, and so moving. One of the few frustrations—I wasn’t going to say it, but this frustration also is linked to my admiration for him, of course—I mean, he is so, so modest!

Loyrette: Yes, indeed! We must say it because the story didn’t begin in 1989 with the opening of the pyramid. It really was his own struggle, I think, a battle that he fought through, valiantly, in circumstances that weren’t easy at all.

Rail: When I asked him how this epic story of the Grand Louvre happened, it’s interesting, he would use the same words over and again. “Oh, it happened organically.”

Loyrette: No, no, no, it didn’t happen organically. Laclotte did a lot, indeed, Laclotte did a tremendous amount, and fought it through, and the Grand Louvre is essentially attributable to him. He led by his remarkable example and through, at times, painfully difficult conditions.


Joachim Pissarro

Joachim Pissarro has been the Bershad Professor of Art History and Director of the Hunter College Galleries, Hunter College, New York, since 2007. He has also held positions at MoMA, the Kimbell Art Museum, and the Yale University Art Gallery. His latest book on Wild Art (with co-author David Carrier) was published in fall 2013 by Phaidon Press.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2020

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