Louvre director Laurence des Cars: ‘We have to face all the dark spots of our history’
Even on the day the museum is closed to visitors — a Tuesday — the vast courtyard of the Palais du Louvre in central Paris is teeming with tourists taking selfies in front of IM Pei’s glass pyramids and hawkers selling miniature Eiffel Towers decked with sparkling lights.
But the Café Marly, a French brasserie discreetly tucked into the ground floor of the Louvre’s Richelieu wing, is open every day, and it is here that Laurence des Cars, the 56-year-old art historian appointed by President Emmanuel Macron to head the world’s largest and most-visited museum, has chosen to meet me.
Not a very original choice of venue, I think — but it has taken nearly two years of delicate negotiations, starting when she was still running the Musée d’Orsay, on the other side of the Seine, to persuade her to lunch with the FT at all, so I am wondering anxiously if she will turn up.
I need not have worried. Des Cars is on time at 12.30 sharp — the Marly doubles as a kind of office restaurant for the Louvre’s staff and offers them a cut-price lunch menu — and has plenty to say about her vision of the museum’s role in society, which includes restitution and the need to unhesitatingly return works of art found to have been stolen by the Nazis or smuggled from former colonies.
Limit on the number of daily visitors to the Louvre in an effort to reduce crowding
She was a surprise choice by Macron in 2021 to be “president-director” of the Louvre because her predecessor, Jean-Luc Martinez, was expected comfortably to win a third term, although he is now under formal investigation in France in a case of suspected antiquities trafficking (he denies the accusations) for the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
Des Cars has not disappointed. Without grandstanding, she has already embarked on big changes at the Louvre and has plans for more. Some are practical, such as the project for a new east entrance to ease the queues at the main entrance below the central pyramid for the nearly 8mn visitors who come each year. In the meantime, she has quietly imposed a limit of 30,000 visitors a day. “It’s a decision I took a year ago, actually, but I made it public earlier this year because we wanted to test the proposal during the summer when we have a lot of visitors,” she says. “Otherwise it’s too crowded to enjoy anything.”
Other changes reflect her ideas about what she wants the museum to be in the 21st century. She is trying to attract more locals to a place with a fusty reputation (most visitors are foreign tourists), to host more musical events (she is an opera buff and David Bowie fan, but more on that later) and has already launched a new, ninth department for Byzantine and Eastern Christian art that will open by 2025, filling a gap in the museum’s coverage and complementing the 11-year-old Islamic art department.
“The Louvre should talk to everyone,” she says. “It should talk to the 10 specialists of this type of Greek vase. And it should talk to the kids coming from the suburbs. It should talk to the Japanese people coming back to Paris to enjoy the holidays, to the American audience — the number one foreign visitors are the Americans. It should talk to everyone, because it is for everyone to enjoy.”
The views from the Marly are more spectacular than the food at our lunch, which is what the French might disparagingly describe as correct — that is, OK, but nothing to write home about. Des Cars points to the pyramids in front of her and to the enclosed courtyard behind, displaying statues including Guillaume Coustou the Elder’s famous Marly horses from the 18th century, where a television station is taking advantage of the lack of visitors on a Tuesday to film a classical music recital.
My first question is about the daunting task of running her new empire: the palace alone has 403 rooms, 3km of facade and about 2,300 staff, and the Louvre also oversees the Tuileries gardens running down to the Place de la Concorde, as well as the Delacroix museum on the Left Bank, a Louvre offshoot in Lens in northern France and another, lucrative, outpost in Abu Dhabi, which des Cars helped to establish.
Speaking almost flawless English, she baulks at the word “empire” but agrees that she never expected to run the institution at the heart of France’s art world when she was a young art historian specialising in the 19th century and the Pre-Raphaelites (“I’ve always been interested in everything that is British in art. It’s a curiosity among French curators”).
“It’s not a museum like any other,” she says. “It’s really something that is at the centre of French history, and of museum history. And it has immediate resonance with the whole country, but also internationally.”
93 rue de Rivoli,
1 x Vietnamese spring rolls
1 x green beans and mushrooms
2 x grilled salmon
1 x green tea
1 x coffee
(from the Louvre’s staff lunch menu)
We have each chosen safe, reliable dishes — starters of Vietnamese nems (spring rolls) for her, and green beans with mushrooms for me, followed by grilled salmon for both as mains — and I have acquiesced without too much protest to her decision not to have wine. So we start the meal with the conventional Parisian lament about how habits have changed since the four-hour, wine-fuelled lunches of previous decades. “In fact, we adopted the American way of life,” Des Cars says with a sympathetic smile.
I ask if the Louvre, which became a museum in 1793, is the oldest as well as the biggest museum in the country.
“You can argue about that, but it’s definitely the one that really started the whole creation of museums in the 19th century,” she says. “It was opened during the revolution, which sets the tone of its connection to French history. It was formerly a royal residence for many centuries, and then changed with Louis XIV going to Versailles . . . Then it was transformed during the revolution into a museum giving public access to the formerly royal collection. It’s a very political place also, in the noble sense of the term. And I think that anyone who runs the Louvre knows that and has to live with it because this is something maybe museum directors can be uncomfortable with.”
Why political, and why uncomfortable? “It has this special status in everybody’s mind. It belongs to the French state, the collection belongs to the state, and the [combination] of the royal past and the republican reality of a museum is something extremely strong, and it has become somehow a symbol of Paris, a symbol of France sometimes.
“You cannot go against it and say, ‘We are just an Old Master museum like any other’. It’s also an idea, it’s a vision, it’s something that is still alive, reinventing itself all the time with different chapters in its history.”
As the director who oversaw the Musée d’Orsay’s groundbreaking 2019 exhibition Black Models: from Géricault to Matisse, Des Cars is also seen as the right person to modernise the Louvre’s offerings to the public and connect the museum to contemporary debates about diversity, culture, the restitution of colonial loot, and even climate change.
“I want the Louvre to be, again, an exciting place in terms of cultural programming, where you can experience something that is extremely rare — this long time perspective that the collection can give you,” she says. “We have objects dating back 9,000 years. And we have fantastic depth . . . It is the possibility of opening minds and hearts to the diversity and beauty of the world, the diversity of history. I am a strong advocate of this universal vocation of a museum. But I do think you need to also listen to what the audience tells you about that today, and the questions they have about the collections, the legitimacy, their origins, the fact that some questions have never been addressed before.”
Des Cars does not shy away from contemporary problems, whether they be culture wars or actual wars. She travelled to Kyiv earlier this year with the French culture minister, and the Louvre is helping preserve collections in Iraq and Lebanon as well as in Ukraine during the Russian onslaught. The museum’s antiquities departments have extensive archaeological experience and collections from the Middle East and are therefore in contact with some of the world’s worst trouble spots.
“You’re dealing with very deep questions connecting you to ancient history, to ancient civilisation, many languages, many memories of the world and of man. And I think in a world where things are very complex and pretty dramatic right now, we need places where we can enjoy ourselves, hopefully, but also be confronted to beauty, to big questions like death,” says Des Cars. “Death is a big question for the collections of the Louvre.”
Among the events planned for the future are an exhibition on the art treasures of nearby Notre-Dame this autumn to celebrate the cathedral’s future reopening after the April 2019 fire that destroyed the roof.
Also planned is an exhibition on the figure of the fool in art — think Watteau’s “Pierrot”, also known as “Gilles” and owned by the Louvre — as well as a “Naples in Paris” collaboration in the second half of this year with the Italian city’s Capodimonte museum. And a show of the marbles from Rome’s Torlonia collection.
When I mention that the pandemic lockdowns and travel restrictions made me a fan of the numerous sculptures within walking distance of central Paris, Des Cars mentions a project for 2026 codenamed Rodin-Michelangelo that will reach all the way to Joseph Beuys and Bruce Nauman, on how modern sculptors have looked back to the Renaissance and works such the Slaves of Michelangelo in the Louvre.
“It’s part of a series of exhibitions that I want to dedicate to the ‘Louvre of models’, to remind us that in the 19th century, the 20th century and right now artists are coming to the Louvre to be inspired,” she says. She likes to quote the words of Paul Cézanne that “the Louvre is the book in which we learn to read” and notes that the Manet/Degas exhibition (which she curated — “probably one of the best things I’ve done” — and is showing at the Musée d’Orsay until July) includes copies by the two painters of famous works in the Louvre.
We tell the waiter that we will skip dessert — she chooses a green tea and I a coffee — while she explains how much she loves music and film and believes, Baudelaire-style, in the need for correspondances between different art genres. The previous night she saw John Adams’s modern opera Nixon in China, but I have been dying to ask her whether it is true that she is a David Bowie fan. It is. She is openly jealous of London’s V&A museum, to which the Bowie archive was donated in February.
“I knew very young, as a teenager, that I was going to work in art, but I was quite a movie buff . . . I wanted to become a movie director or write for the movies and for a time I wanted to go to the Fémis, the famous [film] school.” She is also, she says, “a big [Stanley] Kubrick fan”, a cue for me to tell her that my favourite film is Kubrick’s cold war nuclear catastrophe masterpiece Dr Strangelove, which I rewatched as soon as Donald Trump became US president. “It’s still very accurate,” she says with a chuckle, “and very terrifying” as well as funny.
Of aristocratic origins, unlike her predecessor Martinez, who was the son of a concierge and a postman, Des Cars decided in the end to study not film but art history at the Sorbonne and the École du Louvre.
“My father was a journalist and historian, interested in the 19th century. So you see, this is a serious psychoanalysis,” she jokes. “If I hadn’t gone to the castles of Ludwig II in Bavaria when I was eight — and I lived and still live in Paris in a district built by Haussmann — maybe some things would have been different.”
Her grandfather, Guy des Cars, was a bestselling novelist who quipped that he should be known as “Guy des Gares” after the railway stations where he sold so many books. Her mother, “a true Mediterranean”, was born in Carthage: “I think my love for antiquity must have come from that, from the trips we made together.”
Before we leave and I pay the bill — which is mercifully about half what it would be à la carte without the special staff menu — I ask her about one of the most vexed issues for the world’s museums today: restitution.
Ultimately the decision on whether to return a work of art is up to the owner — in this case the French state — rather than the museum that houses it, but Des Cars says there is no argument about the need to give back stolen paintings, including the Gustav Klimt she agreed to return from the Musée d’Orsay to the heirs of a Jewish woman who lost it to the Nazis in Austria and died in the Holocaust.
The same applies to antiquities that turn out to be trafficked, even if she cannot comment on the Abu Dhabi case because the Louvre has joined the case as one of the injured parties. And, I ask, is the Louvre under pressure to return classical statues seized by Napoleon from Italy like the British Museum with the Parthenon Marbles taken from Greece? “No, no, because Napoleon has been settled with treaties at the end of the empire in 1815.”
Des Cars says she belongs to “maybe one of the first generations of curators that has absolutely no problem when it’s about giving back when it’s wrongly there”. She adds: “This is what we should do. They are major acquisitions, they are major restitutions . . . I perfectly understand and respect the anger, the frustration. France has a colonial past, and we have to acknowledge that. We have to face all the dark spots of our history.”
That prompts me to return the next day to the Louvre to look at its African and Pacific island collections. They are less popular with the crowds than the “Mona Lisa”, the “Venus de Milo” or the 450-metre-long great gallery of Spanish and Italian paintings (Des Cars was not joking when she predicted that her 30,000 daily limit for visitors would be reached every day from now until September) but they remind me of her insistence on the universal message of museums.
In troubled times, Des Cars wants African art to be seen in New York or Stockholm or Tokyo or Paris, and similarly for the French Impressionists to be seen abroad “because it’s wonderful to be able to discover the civilisations, the cultures, and to open people’s minds also to the diversity of history”.
She is proud of having bought the first pieces of African art for the Louvre in Abu Dhabi and of having the Jewish Torah from Yemen shown there alongside Koranic and Christian texts. “I think it’s very important because you say something about tolerance, about recognition,” she says before we part. “And the world needs a little bit of mutual understanding and respect.”
Victor Mallet is an FT journalist based in Paris
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