Mona Lisa is alone, but still smiling

PARIS – From his bulletproof case in the Louvre museum, Mona Lisa’s smile met an unknown sight the other morning: the void. The gallery where crowds of visitors swarmed to ogle it day after day was a void, deserted under the last coronavirus containment in France.

Around the corner, the Winged Victory of Samothrace floated quietly above a marble staircase, majestic in the absence of selfie-sticks and groups of tourists. In the medieval basement of the Louvre, the Great Sphinx of Tanis emerges in the dark like a granite phantom behind bars.

Yet, out of the rare and monumental stillness, the noises of life vibrated in the great rooms of the Louvre.

The rat-a-tat of a jackhammer echoed from a ceiling above the Sphinx’s head. Rap music hit the bronze hall under Ceiling by Cy Twombly in the Sully Wing, near where workers were sawing hardwood floors for a giant new floor. In the former apartments of Louis XIV, restorers in surgical masks climbed scaffolding to pack gold leaf on ornate moldings.

The world’s most visited museum – a record 10 million in 2019, mostly from overseas – grapples with its longest closure since World War II, as pandemic restrictions keep its treasures under lock and key . But without a crowd that can reach up to 40,000 people a day, museum officials are seizing a golden opportunity to tweak a big makeover for returning visitors.

“For some projects, the lockout allowed us to do in five days what would have taken five weeks previously,” said Sébastien Allard, general curator and director of the paintings department at the Louvre.

Louvre lovers had to be content with seeing masterpieces during the pandemic through virtual tours and hashtags #LouvreAt Home and @MuseeLouvre. Millions of viewers received a spectacular fix this month from the hit Netflix series Lupine, in which actor Omar Sy, playing a thief gentleman, stars in action-packed scenes in the Louvre’s best-known galleries and under IM Pei’s glass pyramid.

But virtual reality can hardly replace reality. Louvre officials hope the government will soon reopen cultural institutions to the public, though the date will depend on how the virus evolves.

Meanwhile, a small army of around 250 artisans has been working since France’s last lockdown came into effect on October 30. Instead of waiting until Tuesdays – the only day the Louvre used to close – curators, restaurateurs, conservationists and other experts flock five days a week to complete major renovations that had started before the pandemic and introduce new embellishments they hope to complete by mid-February.

Some of the work is relatively straightforward, such as dusting the frames of nearly 4,500 paintings. Some are Herculean, like makeovers in the Egyptian Antiquities Room and the Sully Wing. Nearly 40,000 explanatory plaques in English and French are hung next to works of art.

Even before the pandemic, the Louvre was leaning towards managing crowds as mass tourism had forced many galleries to meet up with groups of tourists. While travel restrictions have reduced the number of visitors, the museum will limit entry to ticket holders with reservations when it reopens to adhere to health protocols.

Further changes are planned – as new interactive experiences, with yoga sessions every half hour on Wednesdays near the masterpieces of Jacques-Louis David and Rubens, and workshops in which actors perform scenes from famous tableaux just outside the Web.

“It’s a call to say that the museum is alive and that people have a right to do these things here,” said Marina-Pia Vitali, deputy director of interpretation who oversees the projects.

When I walked through the halls on a recent visit, I felt a thrill seeing the Venus of Milo get up from its pedestal – minus the glow of iPhones – and admire, at your leisure, the sheer drape of fabric chiseled from spotless marble.

In the cavernous Red Room – houses monumental French paintings, including Napoleon’s coronation as Emperor at Notre Dame, and the Raft of the Medusa, depicting gray-skinned souls clinging to life – it was exhilarating not to be swept away by crowds.

In the Egyptian wing, antiques experts have cleaned out a two-ton granite stele that will dominate a new entrance. Workers are also renovating the Mastaba, part of an Egyptian tomb among the most popular objects in the Louvre, in a dust-covered gallery strewn with saws and hammers.

Sophie Duberson, restorer, took a child’s toothbrush and gently removed the grime from the hieroglyphics of the stele, which give instructions to revive Sénousret, head of the Egyptian treasury during the 12th dynasty, in the afterlife.

Vincent Rondot, the director of Egyptian antiquities at the Louvre, inspected a six-story temporary support structure that had been built around the Mastaba, where a new angular entrance wall would be erected in time for the expected crowds to return.

“No one celebrates the virus,” Rondot said, as sparks erupted from a nearby worker’s cutting tool. “But we can congratulate ourselves on this situation because it allows us to concentrate on the work.”

At the same time, social distancing protocols limit the number of workers allowed in confined spaces, which can sometimes hold back progress.

Craftsmen applying gold leaf in Louis XIV’s bedrooms, for example, had to remove masks to blow on metal as thin as paper. Workers need to stay away from each other so that fewer people can do the work and the work can take longer.

The pandemic has also taken its toll with the planning of special exhibitions. The Louvre lends around 400 works a year to other museums and receives numerous loans for special exhibitions.

“It’s really complicated because all the museums in the world are changing their planning,” Mr. Allard said.

As governments order new restrictions to contain a resurgence of the virus, specials are being pushed back. A loan earmarked for exhibitions in several museums can be blocked, making it difficult to deliver the promised artwork, he said.

On a small metal cart nearby, the self-portrait of a young Rembrandt, resplendent in a playful black beret, a thick gold necklace and a confident smile, rested in an ornate oval frame. The 1633 blockbuster was on loan to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, but was stuck there for three months due to coronavirus travel restrictions. A few days earlier, he had returned home to the Louvre by truck through the Channel Tunnel connecting Britain and France.

Blaise Ducos, chief curator of the Louvre’s collection of Dutch and Flemish paintings, usually accompanies loans to and from their destination, but could only watch the Rembrandt’s withdrawal via video. He drove to Calais to obtain the masterpiece when it emerged from the Chunnel, and finally oversaw its change in the Rembrandt Hall of the Louvre.

“We are happy to see him again,” said Ducos.

Nearby, workers climbed a rolling scaffolding to remove a huge Van Dyck painting from Venus asking Vulcan for weapons. Intended for an exhibition in Madrid, the painting was searched in the Dutch corridors, in front of Vermeer’s astronomer studying an astrolabe, before finding itself stuck in front of a small door in the Rubens room.

Workers turned the painting on its side and slid it on pillows to the next gallery, where it was to be packed and – if pandemic restrictions allowed – sent on its way.

“Covid was a force majeure,” Mr Allard said, as a Dutch paint duo were hoisted to replace the Van Dyck. “Right now we have so many question marks – it’s hard to know what the situation will be in two, three or four months,” he said.

“But despite Covid, we continue to work as always,” Mr. Allard continued. “We must be ready to welcome the public again.”

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