October 22, 2017

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Louvre 9: Reading Comics in an Art Museum

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By Bryerly Long

This exhibit, which was held at the Mori Art Gallery from July 22nd to September 25th, 2016, presented works by bande dessinee and manga artists, created for the Louvre Museum Comics Project. Each participating artist created comics relating to the Louvre Museum in Paris, and works exhibited in the museum. This project was started in 2005, as a new way of engaging audiences with the museum, and also to recognize the artistic importance of comics today.

The exhibition was organized into three sections: “The Great Louvre”, “Welcome to a Parallel World” and “Beyond Time and Space”. Interestingly “The Great Louvre”, which focused on the personification of, and visitors’ identification with, art works contained in the museum, was made up mostly of works by French artists. On the other hand, “Beyond time and space”, which saw artists imagining how the works might fare in a different space or in a future time, was comprised mostly of works by Japanese artists.

I related most to the works of the first section, and was impressed by their realistic and detailed portrayal of the Louvre artworks. “La Traversee du Louvre” by David Prudhomme juxtaposed the stance of visitors gazing at the artworks to the characters within the paintings and statues. Art is a form of human expression; and therefore it was interesting to see people of today gazing at the art in the museum, and within the manga, becoming part of the artwork themselves.

In the section “Welcome to a Parallel World”, “Les Fantomes du Louvre” by Enki Bilal stood out for subverting the form proposed in other comics – each vignette was in fact a large tableau depicting a ghost hovering around a piece of the museum. Out of context I would not necessarily have identified these tableaux as comics. The variety of works in this exhibition certainly challenged visitors to rethink what defines a comic.

While some of the comics contained text in French or Japanese, others were made up solely of pictures. Some of the artists participating in this exhibit also work as film directors, and looking at their works, I became aware of the similarities in storytelling between films and comics, which are both highly visual, but can rely heavily on words, too.

The works varied in size; and within the context of a museum visit, it was interesting to see people standing in front of each piece long enough to read the fine print and subtitles. This exhibition challenged visitors to engage socially with a form, which is usually enjoyed individually, in the solitary confine of a bedroom, library or manga café.

I was also struck by the variety in use of color or black and white sketching across the works. In “Un Enchantement” by Christian Durieux, the world that the characters existed in was made up bleak colors in a limited palette, in contrast to the vivid colorfulness of the paintings they discovered, mirroring the enchantment of the artworks.

“Les Sous-sols du Revolu: Extraits du Journal d’un expert” by Marc-Antoine Mathieu featured a framer of paintings, and this caused me to think of how both the comics and the museum serve as frames for the art. Each storyteller viewed the Louvre within a specific timeframe and often in relation to other places, with a greater or lesser degree of fantasy. If you have ever wondered what other visitors imagine when they are walking through a museum, you might enjoy the stories told in this exhibition.

I also realized to what extent comic books, like any other art form, reflect the culture(s) from which their creator stems. Having attended French schools growing up, occasionally reading Tintin, Asterix, or picture books illustrated by Sempe, I connected more easily to the comics by Francophone artists, which I felt were more realistic in tone, narrative and characterization. On the whole those by the Japanese artists were more imbued with fantasy, pop colors and stylized, sharp lines.

As its title indicates, this exhibition defines comics as the 9th Art, in relation to the historical art establishment, which is the Louvre Museum. The exhibit was highly successful in portraying the variety and high quality of works of comic artists, and showing them in a different context to how they are usually perceived. I was reminded of how ukiyoe, Japanese prints of the Edo Period, were long regarded as mass-produced copies with limited artistic value, until perhaps their acclaim in Europe and the United States influenced a reappraisal within Japan.

In the case of both prints and comics, being produced in multiple copies, has enabled buyers to easily acquire them for personal consumption. In contrast, the works showcased in the Louvre draw visitors specifically because of their uniqueness – even if most people have seen depictions of the Monte Lisa, they want to glance at the original painting, even for a second amongst the crowds, when they visit the Louvre.

Today most visitors also want to eternalize the moment when they see an important work, through a snapshot. This exhibition caused me to reflect upon people’s desire to consume, and to acquire ownership, of art. While in the past this was reserved to an elite, today ownership of artistic experiences has become more widespread. The same goes for ownership in cinema – where virtual reality is enabling audiences to take part in a customized experience.

The various comic artists’ storytelling based on their own imagination and perceptions of the Louvre Museum, highlighted the individuality inherent to each visitor’s relationship to art works in a museum. In a world where entertainment has become easily available from one’s home through a couple clicks, cinemas, museums and theatres struggle to continue to attract audiences for might be a relatively passive experience – watching and listening. Here the experience of reading was re-contextualized.

This exhibition will be presented later this year and in 2017 in Osaka, Fukuoka and Nagoya. Check the website for further details: http://manga-9art.com/

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