Guardians of the Louvre
Translated by Kumar Sivasubramanian
As cliche as this now sounds, one of Art’s most lauded virtues is its ability to transport the viewer from their immediate surroundings with the power of imagination, and deposit them into a very different place and time. This is a quality exploited with often eye-catching results in the luxuriant watercolors of Jiro Taniguchi. Whether it’s the everyday bustle in the streets of Tokyo, the austere beauty of the Himalayas, or as in Guardians of the Louvre, the majestic halls of one of the world’s great museums, located in one of the world’s most elegant city centers. Taniguchi’s photo-realistic level of detail captures both the works of art on display within, and the architectural splendor of the Parisian skyline. When his fictional avatar beholds the museum’s famous Pyramid entrance and gasps at the structure’s crisp lines, the scene works because the panel reproduces what someone would witness with their own eyes: The modernist blend of steel and glass offsetting the massive Baroque facade of the surrounding palace. The mind-boggling precision of his hand drawn line drawings does not falter throughout the entire book.
The premise of a Japanese artist spending several days exploring Paris, only to fall into a fevered dream which involves the intervention of one the Louvre’s most famous statues, has little in the way of plot. And the educational intent that animated the project doesn’t leave much room for interesting character development. But it does allow Taniguchi to reflect on his artistic heritage. The two most successful chapters center around the artist communing with Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Vincent van Gogh, two painters who’ve had an enormous impact on modern Japanese aesthetic sensibilities. His private reverie on viewing Recollection of Mortefontaine allows him to walk in the steps of Corot and wander the landscape until he meets the master himself. A day-trip to the town Auvers-sur-Oise creates a similar occasion with van Gogh. Admittedly, this is a little reminiscent of a similar scene in Akira Kurosawa's Dreams, though Taniguchi’s touch is lighter and more deft.
Recreating the work of Corot, van Gogh, and Barbizon school painter Charles-François Daubigny traces a line linking these artists to Taniguchi’s own body of work. He shares with them a devotion to landscapes, a similar kind of sensuality, not to mention a reverence for a sublime natural order represented in their paintings. His comic panels are not a form of slavish reproduction, but a recognition of an unspoken personal connection.
Not all the museum’s works elicit the same level of emotional investment. The artist follows the usual tourist tradition and visits the Mona Lisa upon entering the premises. But his main takeaway is to be overwhelmed by the throngs surrounding the Louvre's most famous resident. Large crowds being an inescapable part of famous museums is not a particularly original observation. But having acknowledged the Mona Lisa’s undeniable importance justifying the attention heaped upon it, he quickly moves on.
The Raft of the Medusa, another celebrated work, is only discussed within the context of the Louvre's WW II history. The museum’s caretakers went through a lot of trouble to transport the massive painting to a safe location as the Nazi invasion became imminent. Taniguchi illustrates wartime Paris in sepia tones, imitating archival footage. Sure, this is fascinating stuff in a National Geographic TV documentary kind of way. Moving the museum’s vast (and fragile) collection into hiding was a truly monumental endeavour. But the net effect of Taniguchi’s narrative choices only serves to distance the reader from the story, as his protagonist can only passively observe events from the sidelines.
In the end, this isn't a story about the Louvre. Taniguchi's makes no grand statements and delivers no keen insights about Art itself or the state of art museums. This is a picturesque book about cross-cultural influence experienced by one creative individual, and expressed through the art he produces. The Louvre is too vast a place to be absorbed within a few days visit, or one slim volume. But like Taniguchi's artist, anyone can discover some tiny part that would be of value to them.