The Louvre Increasingly More (Radio) Active in Japan

N.B. : This article was published on Monday 9th January 2012 on La Tribune de l’Art.

1. François Boucher (1703-1770)
The Three Graces Holding Amor, after 1765
Oil on Canvas - 80 x 65 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Photo : RMNGP

The Louvre will be sending about twenty works from all its departments (except Arts Graphiques) to three Japanese cities from 20 April to 17 September 2012 staying a little over a month at each stop [1]. Once again, alas, an exhibition of this Parisian museum lays itself open to controversy, although there is no question here of rental fees (expenses will be partly funded by Japanese patrons). We shall see a bit further on that what is being called an "exhibition", for lack of a better name, is not really that at all. This is in fact at best a mixture of selected art works from the Louvre collections.

At first glance, its stated purpose appears praiseworthy indeed : an expression of solidarity with the Japanese victims of the earthquake and tsunami of last year.
But we can legitimately wonder if it is the Louvre’s role, in the form of an exhibition, to come to the aid of a beleagured nation after a natural disaster. Why not do so, then, in all the countries reeling from earthquakes, forest fires, volcanic eruptions, or even wars if one wishes to go beyond the scope of natural disasters ? The people of Iraq suffered just as much as those in Japan. Why shouldn’t the Louvre send its works to Baghdad afterwards ?

In point of fact, the Louvre does not have the authority to proceed in this way. Its missions, defined by decree n°92-1338 of 22 December 1992 stating the creation of the Etablissement public du musée du Louvre, whose updated version can be seen here, does not provide for such an operation in any way.

The organization of such a show in Japan, well known for its taste for exhibitions of Western art, often with paid entrance, is no accident. It is always a good idea to maintain business relations with such a partner, as is in reality the case here. The museum in fact told us that "in the last several years, the Musée du Louvre and Japan have established close ties through several joint projects, the organization of several exhibitions in the archipelago and the regular contribution of many Japanese patrons to operations within the Louvre. For several years also, the Japanese are among the most loyal and most frequent visitors to the museum. The ties linking the Louvre to Japan thus go beyond the simple boundaries of a partnership ; this is, rather, a reciprocal and long-standing friendship and loyalty."

Indeed, such an exhibition is hard to imagine in Haiti, which also fell victim recently to a devastating earthquake. Addressing this question, the museum stated that on the contrary : "in the recent past, the Louvre museum already participated in this type of ’post-crisis’ operation in countries struck by natural disasters." But the examples provided, including Haiti precisely, do not fall in the same category. For this last country, "the Louvre [supported the] reconstruction of the Haitian Museum of Art, where the collection had been severely damaged, thanks to funding from the sale of a work by the Haitian painter, Hector Hyppolite, carried out at the time of the exhibition ’Le Musée-monde’ by J.M.G. Le Clézio." We have no objection to this initiative which obviously has nothing to do with the Japanese "exhibition" which we will return to below.

The second example presented to us by the Louvre concerns the exhibition "Images de la femme dans la société française du XIXe siècle" organized at the New Orleans Museum by French museums, "resulting from a promise made to New Orleans only two months after Hurricane Katrina, during the visit of the French Minister of Culture and Communications at the time, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabre, and the president of the Louvre, Henri Loyrette [2]". Besides the fact that this operation stemmed from a political decision which has no place in establishing museum programs, this exhibition did indeed serve a purpose, and was organized for a normal length of time, at a museum which was within a partially distressed environment still, but which presented no danger for the works themselves.

In the present case, this Japanese "exhibition" is exactly the opposite.

First of all due to its subject. Or rather the absence of it. Its title speaks perfectly by itself : "Rencontre, Amour, Amitié, Solidarité dans les collections du Louvre". Sic. ["Meeting, Love, Friendship, Solidarity in the Louvre collections"].

In case this did not suffice to express its vacuity, the exhibition is divided into four sections. One would expect these to be : "Meeting", "Love", "Friendship" and "Solidarity"... only to be mistaken.

The first section is called : "Conversation sacrée avec le divin" (is this an attempt perhaps to illustrate the theme of meeting ?) ["Sacred Conversation with the Divine"]. The third section is entitled : "Amour maternel" ["Maternal Love"], and the fourth "Friendships [3]" (please notice the "s" missing from the exhibition title, probably for a reason which we do not know). As for the second section, the name is : "Three Graces. The Three Graces symbolize joy and fertility". Our question is : what connection is there between the Three Graces, joy and fertility with Meeting, Love, Friendship and Solidarity ? As we can see, not much (although the Three Graces are most likely friends and are sometimes shown with a small cherub hovering over them).

The real reason for this section is that the Louvre is "recycling" part of the exhibition it held in Béthune highlighting the Three Graces ! Recycling. The word was pronounced inside the establishment by certain directors of the museum. The recycling does not really concern the works (which are not very important, as one soon understands) but the packing cases containing them. These were already used to ship the objects to a previous exhibition. Since they were custom made, they cannot be used for other works unless one wishes to save money, in which case the works have to be chosen according to their size... This is apparently a common practice at the Louvre which now tends to multiply the number of traveling exhibitions, with no meaningful purpose (and which certainly will not decrease with the upcoming opening of the Louvre-Lens and that, further away, of the Louvre-Abu Dhabi). Some examples of this are, besides the one from Béthune, the one organized (for the second time) at the request of Bernadette Chirac [4] at the Château de Sédières in the Corrèze region. Entitled, "Visages du Louvre" [Faces at the Louvre], it at least followed the announced program as it displayed a selection of portraits [5]. In 2005, the Louvre had already sent some landscapes there, again at the request of President Jacques Chirac’s wife.

This exhibition leaving for Japan is not only devoid of any sense, it is also dangerous for the works, if only because of the extensive traveling involved. Let us take the example of the painting by François Boucher, The Three Graces Holding Amor (ill. 1). The painting was shipped from Paris to Béthune then back from Béthune to Paris. It will now travel from Paris to Morioka, then from Morioka to Sendai, then from Moroika to Fukushima and, finally, from Fukushima to Paris where it may return to its usual place on the walls of the Louvre, unless one decides to "recycle" it again. There is no reason for any of this, no further knowledge of art history to be gained, and in fact, no real importance for the people who are going to see it as they surely have other concerns foremost in their minds, rather than that of gazing at an assembly of works with no coherent intent. One might go so far as to say that the exhibition’s level of interest is so low as to be almost insulting, as if the public to which they are addressed did not deserve better.

However, this exhibition is debatable on yet another level. Two of the three cities comprising the tour are located in regions contaminated by the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Only the Louvre could seriously tell us, with no attempt at humor, that "the measurements taken in these three cities do not present an unusual radioactive level."

2. Map of Japan.
Prefectures (in red) where traveling for leisure
or tourism activities is discouraged.
Source : Institute for the Protection against Radioactivity and Nuclear Safety

Taking into consideration just the information provided by Japan for the Institut de Radioprotection et de Sûreté Nucléaire (IRSN) [Institute for Protection against Radioactivity and for Nuclear Safety], a public establishment under six different French ministries, which published an information bulletin for French citizens living in Japan dated 12 December 2011 and available here, we can see that this institution : "considers that 4 prefectures received a significant impact, at different levels, from the radioactive fallout stemming from the accident at Fukushima Dai-Ichi : Miyagi, Ibaraki, Tochigi and particularly Fukushima." Particularly Fukushima. These are not our words, rather those of the IRSN (ill. 2).

We will bypass Morioka in our comments, located in the Iwate prefecture which was not affected according to the IRSN, and even Sendai in the Miyagi prefecture, although contaminated as reported by this same institution. In fact, Roland Desbordes, President of the Commission de Recherche et d’Information Indépendantes sur la Radioactivité (CRIIRAD) [Committee for Independent Research and Information on Radioactivity] [6] told us that, theoretically, the zone in which this city is located does not present a disquieting level of radioactivity.

Fukushima is a totally different matter. Here is what Roland Desbordes said to us : "There is radioactivity everywhere around the city of Fukushima. Inside the city itself, theoretically there is none in the streets since they are asphalted, but it is present in the vegetation planted in the ground. And the radioactivity in the countryside can enter the city depending on weather conditions. There is a possibility of radioactivity inside buildings, measurements should be taken in the museums. And in any case, it can come inside at any time since this is an open space which welcomes the public from the outside."
The IRSN confirmed to us that the Louvre had not asked them to measure any of the radioactivity in the museums (and we know from other sources that it did not make the request elsewhere either). The cultural attaché at the Embassy contacted this institution to ask them some questions but without saying why. It was only when we spoke with the IRSN ourselves that they realized that it concerned an exhibition organized by the Louvre.

3. François-André Vincent (1746-1816)
Portrait of Three Men
Oil on Canvas - 81 x 98 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Photo : RMNGP

The IRSN however, was reassuring. According to this institution, and based on previous experience, the inside of the buildings has not been contaminated. It believes that the works inside air-proof packing cases, stocked in protected places without entering into contact with the outside, should in principle not run any risk of contamination.
Still, the IRSN information bulletin addressed to French residents in Japan quoted above, explains (p. 7) that "in order to limit the transfer of contaminated dust particles inside the buildings [we recommend] vacuuming the furniture, the rugs and the carpet on a regular basis."
But so what about the paintings (ill. 3) and the 16th century Flemish tapestry which the Louvre is sending over ? Are these also going to be vacuumed "regularly" ?

Roland Desbordes is more alarmist than the IRSN on the subject. As we saw above, he does not only exclude the fact that an object might become contaminated, but adds : "The radioactivity on an object can either settle on top or incrust itself in it. On a very smooth surface, such as glass, it can be removed more easily, but decontaminating an object with a porous matter, even if it is stone, means having to scrape it off. For a tapestry, a painting, this is much more complicated and delicate."
We are not saying here that the radioactivity resulting from the nuclear accident in Fukushima threatens the works. Fortunately, it is quite possible that they are not in any danger. However, this is not absolutely certain. How can one accept even the slightest risk to an exhibition which is not at all necessary and lacks any kind of artistic objective ?
This is in fact Roland Desbordes’ conclusion : "I find this idea of wanting to take unique and irreplacable works to a place we know is full of risks, rather bizarre. The Japanese say the situation is ’under control’ but there could be more, significant, radioactive fallout. The risk is improbable, but not impossible. On the other hand, it is quite possible that these works return slightly contaminated. Then what happens ?"

Yes, what happens then ? This is a question the Louvre is not even contemplating as the radioactivity in Fukushima is "normal [7]". There is no doubt that this will be taken into consideration when the Commission des prêts et dépôt of the Service de musées de France publishes its opinion concerning this exhibition on Monday, 16 January. Whatever the case, this opinion is simply advisory and only the French Minister of Culture can oppose it. According to an internal document of the Louvre museum presenting the exhibition, he is the one who originally came up with the idea, a fact denied by the Ministry offices.

Finally, we might stop and think about the danger to the curators accompanying these works to Japan [8]. Although the risk of being directly exposed seems very slight, especially in the case of a short stay, this is not the case involving food. According to Roland Desbordes : "the risk for people concerns above all food. It is very hard to find products in Japan today which we are sure are not contaminated. The Japanese government does not control food correctly and allows products to circulate freely throughout Japan, which is unacceptable. We cannot say that there is zero risk and anyone traveling to a contaminated zone should only go if they have a very good reason to do so." The IRSN says the same thing : "even if the potential external irradiation doses from radioactive deposits are low, the IRSN advises people not to go to these prefectures for leisure or tourism activities, so as to avoid unjustified doses.". Are the doses here "justified" [9] ?

Appendix : The list of works as established on 14 October 2011 and still valid on 4 January 2012 is the following :

Section 1. "Conversation sacrée rencontre avec le divin" [Sacred conversation, meeting with the divine].

- Exaltation of the Flower, c. 470-460 B.C., Stele from Pharsalus.

- The Annunciation by Sassoferrato.

- An early 16th century Flemish tapestry representing The Adoration of the Magi (inv. OA 5942).

- Ramses II Offering Wine to Ré-Horakhty and to Hathor, Goddess of Love, an Egyptian stele, c. 1279-1212 B.C.

- Siyer-i nebi of Murad III : The Angel Gabriel Revealing the VIII Surah of the Koran to Mohammed, a Persian miniature.

4. Gérard Van Opstal (1594-1668)
The Three Graces Linked by a Cherub
Marble - 42 x 28 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Photo : RMNGP

Section 2. "The Three Graces" (all of the works in this part have been "recycled" from the Béthune exhibition).

- The Three Graces Holding Amor by François Boucher (ill. 2).

- The Three Graces Linked by a Cherub (ill. 4) by Gérard van Opstal.

- Clock, The Three Graces by Etienne-Maurice Falconet.

- The Three Graces, 2nd c. B.C.

5. France, End of the XIIIth Century
Virgin with Child, standing
Ivory - 162 x 50 x 33 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Photo : RMNGP

Section 3. "Maternal Love".

- Virgin with Child, standing, (ill. 5), Paris, late 13th c.

- The Goddess Isis Nursing the God Harpocrate as a Child, Egypt, c. 664-525 B.C.

- Plaque, Woman Nursing a Child, Mesopotamia, Tello, Amorite period.

Section 4. "Friendships"

- Fragment of a funerary stele, c. 400 B.C.

- Poetic meeting in the garden, Iran, c. 17th c.

- Gubbio, majolica plate, c. 1530-1540.

- Portrait of Three Men by François-André Vincent (ill. 3).

Version française

Didier Rykner, lundi 16 janvier 2012


[1] The dates were provided by the Louvre. The three cities are the prefecture of Iwate (Municipal Museum of Morioka, from 20 April to 3 June 2012), the prefecture of Miyagi (Museum of Arts of Sendai, from 9 June to 22 July 2012) and the prefecture of Fukushima (Prefectoral Museum of Arts of Fukushima, from 28 July to 17 September 2012).

[2] Report of the solidarity project with New Orleans, file of the Ministry of Culture and Communications, p. 8, available online here.

[3] This fourth section is missing from the answer provided by the Louvre to our questions, but is on the list of works being sent.

[4] An article by Pascal Gourmy in La Montagne quotes the statement made by the former First Lady of France in her inauguration speech : "[I] warmly thank Mr. Henri Loyrette, CEO (sic) of the Musée du Louvre and Vincent Pomarède, Director of the Département des peintures at the Musée du Louvre, who wished to please me and thereby please you [...]." "Pleasing Bernadette Chirac" is not, to our knowledge, a mission which is outlined in the statutes of the Louvre museum either.

[5] It goes without saying that the actual content of the exhibition was of no consequence, as confirmed by the themes of the various sections : "men and women of power", "the representation of the artist in society" and "the representation of the family." Seen from a scholarly point of view, this corresponds to about the same significance as that of Fukushima.

[6] A non-profit association of scientists, founded after the Tchernobyl accident and which is highly respected today for its findings.

[7] When we asked the IRSN if the radioactivity in Fukushima was "normal", they answered : "yes, normal, with the quotation marks you used".

[8] One day we will also have to bring up the question of the time wasted in this useless traveling for curators who have more useful things to do.

[9] When posting this article, a reader informed us that the journal XXI, in a short article of issue n° 17 appearing in early January 2012, states : "[...] The atmosphere in Fukushima is today more radioactive than around Tchernobyl in the days following the catastrophe. The reactors of the Japanese nuclear power plant are still not under control, and there are multiple alerts concerning the water, the fruit and vegetables, fish and shellfish... In late September, highly contaminated rice, grown in Nihonmatsu, 56 kilometers away from the nuclear power plant in question, was banned for sale [...]". This magazine, found in bookstores, is well known for its reliable reporting (see for example this article in Télérama).

imprimer Print this article

Previous article in Museums : Our Impressions of the New Installations at the Musée d’Orsay

Next article in Museums : Alain Seban’s Beaubourg Circus not Expensive