Art of the State: The history of the Louvre at the National Museum of China

The largest museum in the world comes to Beijing

Official art history is in large part the history of triumphalism: the process by which a would-be hegemon attempts to establish its legitimacy by appropriating icons, totems, and exemplary works of art from its cultural forebears.

This was the strategy, for instance, of Napoleon Bonaparte, whose military campaigns in Italy and Egypt were instrumental in swelling the early collection of the Louvre, which transitioned from a royal fortress to a public museum during the French Revolution. By looting and importing Renaissance statuary and objects from Egyptian antiquity into France, Napoleon was trying to prove that the centre of Western civilisation had shifted to Paris, and attempting to crown himself as the reigning emperor of it all. 'We must not pass over this earth without leaving traces which recommend our memory to posterity,' he observed in 1807.

This quote is prominently displayed in the centrepiece of Invention of Louvre, a fascinating exhibit currently on view at the National Museum of China, Beijing’s own treasury of triumphalist art history. Invention of Louvre tells, in miniature, the history of the largest museum in the world. Choice cuts from the Louvre’s impressive collection are staggered with busts and portraits of the historical personages that made the institution what it is today, by blade or by trade. The exhibition opens on a glistening, white-marble sculpture of Jean de La Fontaine, a paragon of 17th-century French literary culture, smirking in the general direction of a headless statue of Bau, a Sumerian goddess of healing worshipped more than 4,000 years ago. This opening juxtaposition defines the tone of the show overall, a curious parallel timeline tracing world history writ large alongside the specific sociopolitical development of France and its most famous cultural depository.

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Invention of Louvre includes remarkable cultural treasures from Iraq, Iran, and Egypt; masterworks by Veronese and Rubens; statues of Mesopotamian deities and ancient pharaohs; Athenian amphorae and funerary busts of Roman nobles. These are flanked throughout by likenesses of notable Frenchmen such as Denis Diderot, the Enlightenment philosopher; Vivant Denon, the Louvre’s first director; Henri II, the 16th century King of France who died in a joust; and, of course, Napoleon I. It’s a marvellous and somewhat off putting mixture of soft and hard power, a priceless collection of art acquired by force and a history of colonial occupation, and now circulating as a gesture of international diplomacy.

This isn’t to diminish the exhibition’s quality. It’s an extraordinary display, and an accurate accounting of the invention of not only the Louvre, but of the national identity of post-revolutionary France. Invention of Louvre’s curators temper its embarrassment of riches with more prosaic sections on the Louvre’s architectural history. The exhibition eventually comes around to the 20th century with a few elegant sketches of IM Pei’s iconic pyramid in the museum’s main courtyard – the Egyptian pyramids, of course, being the one thing Napoleon couldn’t nab.

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If you’re planning a visit, here are a few tips. First and foremost: budget a generous amount of time. Given the National Museum’s location on the eastern flank of Tiananmen Square, you have to navigate a series of queues and security checks before you find yourself inside the museum itself. And once you’re in, there’s a lot of ground to cover: the National Museum’s floor space covers nearly 200,000 square metres. Most of this is taken up by the Ancient China section, the museum’s centrepiece and its reason for existence. It sprawls across the entire bottom floor and traces China’s material history from the Lower Paleolithic (approximately 1.7 million years ago) right up to the last days of the Qing Empire in the early 20th century. We recommend seeing Invention of Louvre first, however. This temporary show gives a rare glimpse into the subtext of every State collection, which as a rule consists largely of spoils of war, and tributes to history’s victors.
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