Just before Christmas a superb new museum—a subsidiary of the Louvre in Paris—opened in the ex-coal mining city of Lens in northern France. To promote this breakthrough in museology, the curators chose the familiar icon of revolution, Eugène Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People,” one of some 200 artworks on loan from the parent institution, the world’s most popular museum. Richard Ingersoll paid a visit.
In Delacroix’s painting, the eyes of Marianne, as the French affectionately call the figure of Liberty, dart boldly to the left while her bared breasts point defiantly toward the viewer. A stunned infantryman stares in awe at her revealed treasures as she marches over the corpses on the barricades. Accompanying her are a well-dressed man in a top hat (a self-portrait of the artist) and an adolescent boy flailing a pistol in each hand (immortalized as Gavroche 30 years later in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables). Delacroix seemed to revel in the equivocation that liberation would be achieved either through weapons or through the sexual charge of the gown that so conveniently slipped off the firm bosom of his Amazon warrior. Painted shortly after the revolutionary events of July 1830, the artist intended the work as compensation: “Since I never won battles for my country, the least I can do is paint for her.”
Over the past few months the walls of the Paris metro and other publicity venues have been slathered with Marianne stripped down for action, tagged with an invitation to visit one of France’s bleakest and most economically depressed regions. The pyramidal terrils (slag heaps from abandoned coal mines) offer the only visual relief to the broad plains of this desolate land. From inside the new museum one has a privileged view of a pair of them, which—true to the theme—project a breast-like profile.
By coincidence Delacroix’s Liberty also served in mid-January for the demonstrations in Paris promoting the movement for same-sex unions, Marriage pour tous, with the slogan, “Marianne was a lesbian!” Be it in the name of human rights or, in the case of Lens, a radical rebirth, her naked midriff embodies the quest for liberation, sexuality, and revolutionary renewal. Placing the painting in the terminus of the new museum’s shimmering grand gallery gratifies those who have made the pilgrimage to this cherished relic, including many from that region who had never been inside a museum.
Paying a visit to Lens February 7, I joined several hundred others who followed the breasts of Marianne from the station to the new museum. Among the last entrants that day was a 28-year-old woman from the nearby town of Hersin-Coupigny, who when she got to Delacroix’s painting whipped out a black marker and scrawled an enigmatic “AE911” beneath the feet of Gavroche. First reports hypothesized she may have been referring to “Architects and Engineers for the Truth about 9/11,” but soon after the motive was attributed to mental instability. Conservators repaired the damage in situ within 24 hours, requiring only a one-day interruption to viewing the painting. I doubt we’ll ever know if the act was an attack on Delacroix’s revolutionary concept of freedom, on Marianne’s immodestly exposed torso, or on the elitism of high culture imposing itself on the bitter realities of the region, but there was certainly no question in the woman’s mind about which artwork to attack.
Inverting the Louvre
One of the reasons Louvre-Lens’ publicists chose the breasts of Marianne rather than the facades of the new museum must surely have been the difficulty of photographing the 360-meter-long building, which due to its buffed aluminum cladding almost disappears when you look at it. Spreading evanescently as a bright horizontal band in a slightly elevated position overlooking the town, it rests lightly on top of an abandoned coalmine known as “well nine.”
Designed by the Pritzker-Prize-winning team of SANAA (Kazuyo Seijima and her partner Ryue Nishizawa), originally assisted by the New York firm of Imrey-Culbert, who specialize in museum design, the architecture of Louvre-Lens generates an even greater sense of liberation than Delacroix’s painting. It inverts the atmosphere of the old Louvre: the architects wanted it to seem light and unassuming rather than monumental; instead of entering via a majestic staircase and proceeding through a labyrinthine sequence of somber rooms with items classified according to age and style, they tried to keep the public activities on one level and distribute the works in an open, random manner. Above all they wanted to give people the sense of being connected to the rest of the world rather than trapped amid ornate frames in claustrophobic galleries.
Louvre-Lens is thus an anti-Louvre, from its central, crystalline entry hall to the two open, column-less sheds of the galleries on either side. The architects limited their palette to three primary materials, each of which contributes to the project’s extraordinary luster. The six-meter-high aluminum panels covering the exterior of the two major galleries (and the interior of one of them) dominate the whole. They compliment the blanched, polished concrete floors, which extend from the interior into the surrounding landscape. Glass, the final notable material, either appears in the form of narrow floor-to-roof panels, or as shorter curved sections used to enclose the seven rounded chambers set within the glazed entry pavilion.
Illusions of lightness
As with many of SANAA’s other works a mystery lurks beneath the seemingly impossible lightness and thinness of the volumes and elements. The entry hall in particular looks as if it might capsize during a strong gust: thin aluminum mullions hold the glass panels in place while slender steel poles placed at ten-meter intervals on a conventional grid hold up the roof. Such a skeletal frame does not seem strong enough to sustain a space that extends roughly 60 meters in each direction. One of the structural secrets, worked out by Sejima and Mutsuro Sasaki, the trusted craftsman-engineer who has helped her achieve some the grandest illusions of architectural lightness, involved treating the ceiling of the entry hall, which is glazed and protected by layered screens, like a bridge set between the two solid longitudinal volumes of the galleries at opposite corners of the space. Here the thick reinforced concrete walls that are hidden behind the aluminum cladding perform as buttresses to the fragile central space. The walls at the juncture are nearly two meters thick but then taper to half that dimension as the move away from the entry. One should hesitate before calling these oblong volumes simple boxes in that all of the external planes contain subtle curves, a new version of the “refinements” used by the ancient Greeks, although in this case the bending may function more to create rather correct distortions when viewing an orthogonal volume.
The two large exhibition spaces extend from the entry hall like hangars without windows or relief, the largest 120 by 25m, the other 80 by 25m. They seem as closed as the entry pavilion appears open. Yet once inside another perceptual manipulation occurs: the entire ceiling is glazed and the floor gradually slopes, dropping a meter from end to end. Daylight filters through fins set in perpendicular layers that protect the works from UVA but still allow one to see the sky. If the curators need to completely block the natural light, as they did in the smaller gallery for an exhibition involving many fragile drawings, a final set of fins can be fully closed. To create this immense skylight required another engineering trick involving a unique trabeation system of 12 millimeter-thin steel blades that bear the weight with significant tensile strength to the thick walls. The highly reflective walls in the large gallery seem like thin plates because there are no reveals for windows or doors that would show their considerable mass.
Reinvention and revival
The outgoing director of the Louvre in Paris, Henri Loyrette, insisted that the major display space not use the walls for hanging pictures, which led the designers to continue the metal surface to the interior. Adrien Gardère designed the installation as a series of staggered monoliths on which to either prop up or hang the works. The sequence is in chronological order, but rather than taking a straight path one must meander and thus find associations between diverse cultures and genres from a Sumerian figure of Gudea (ca. 2000 BCE) to a seventh-century Greek Kouros, from Persian tile-work to Florentine pietra dura table top. There was not an uninteresting work to found, and the Louvre courageously lent out some of its most famous pieces, including Raphael’s “Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione” and Georges de La Tour’s “Magdalene with a Candle.” That I encountered two portraits of Denis Diderot, the founder of the Encylopedia, made me associate the curatorial mission as an extension of the Enlightenment.
The freedom of Marianne has been further matched by the participation of another female protagonist, Catherine Mosbach, who organized the 22-hectare landscape, transforming what an inaccessible industrial dump into a magnificent public park. She articulated the margins of the museum, which with its aluminum elevations nearly vanishes into the clouds, with irregularly placed punctures in the concrete paving alternating with crescent-shaped berms of grass. Soon to be completed, the park already generates a social life unknown to Lens and allows a privileged path from the station to the museum over what once was an elevated rail for carting coal.
The project for Louvre-Lens, excluding the landscape, cost €150,000,000. Considering the cost of artworks nowadays—a Rothko painting goes for $80 million and a Delacroix drawing for half that—it’s almost a bargain. The technical services of the new building would cause envy in anyone working at the old Louvre, as there are two underground levels for storage, restoration laboratories, and circulation of works. The atmosphere is light, and the scale, 200 works on one side and almost as many on the other, offers a full art experience without attendant museum fatigue.
While the 120 jobs created by Louvre-Lens cannot significantly solve the area’s chronic unemployment, it does establish a serious alternative source of work and an invitation to creativity. The success of the enterprise, which in two months has attracted over 200,000 visitors, must be measured in time, once the novelty factor wears off, but for the moment seems to be alerting local residents to new possibilities. Personally, despite its modernizations, the old Louvre in Paris has always given me a headache, while the Louvre-Lens feels like drinking Champagne. Whether Marianne’s struggle to revive the region will succeed or not in the long run, for the moment some liberation has already begun.