JR au Louvre: Celebrating 30 Years and in Memory of Agnès
It’s hard to believe, but the iconic glass pyramid that serves as the main entrance to Le Louvre, designed by Chinese American architect Ieoh Ming Pei, just celebrated its 30th birthday today, April 1st. I can barely remember when it wasn’t there, even though the dramatic contrast of the contemporary design and the fact that the pyramid is a symbol of death from ancient Egypt, juxtaposed against the classic French Renaissance style and history of the Louvre has been controversial as all hell since its birth. The French, who love to complain (I say this in a joking manner, but with some truth), have found it “immodest, pretentious, a megalomaniacal folly imposed by then-President François Mitterrand” as well as “sacrilegious” (Wikipedia.org).
Now, 30 years later, not only have they celebrated it with pride and honor (boy, have they changed their tune!), but they went about it in a very big way. Le Louvre commissioned Franco-American “street” artist JR to honor it with a collage, made of thousands of strips of paper to give the appearance of the pyramid plunging into a vast chasm.
You might recall that in 2016, JR made the pyramid entirely disappear by papering it with an image of the Louvre buildings behind it, so that when viewed from just the right spot, the entire glass structure was obscured from view. (See Parler Paris from Monday, May 30, 2016)
I first met JR at my daughter’s own exhibition in New York in 2011. She traveled in some of the same circles and became friends — this was at the moment of his becoming an international art star and I was enthralled. When she told me a few weeks ago that she’d be working on the Louvre project that took place this past weekend, I was thrilled for her. I just wanted to come meet the illustrious artist who I’ve come to seriously admire, but then just two days before she was scheduled to be on the site, she texted him directly to ask if “she could bring her mommy!?”
“Bien sûr,” he texted back. That’s when my eyes welled up with tears and she got worried I’d embarras her in front of him! (Can’t blame her. I have a history of blubbering all over people I meet who I greatly admire, making a total fool of myself.)
On Thursday afternoon we entered the project’s control station taking the metal stairs down from rue de l’Amiral de Coligny to a temporary structure where we were greeted by some of the crew and given disposable coveralls to don to protect our clothing. On the plaza (the Cour Napoléon) of the Louvre, large areas were blocked off from the ogling tourists where much had already been papered. A camera installed in the upper window of the Sully side of the Louvre was recording the entire action, shown on a massive screen positioned atop a truck bed sitting in the southeast corner. On the truck was a large banner with the words “JR au Louvre.” If you were in the eye of the camera and moved or waved your arms, you could see yourself as part of the action.
Large and long tables of a kind of ply wood were arranged on which we cut the white edges off rolls of paper, using retractable utility knives and long metal rulers. Each roll was numbered meticulously and each imprinted with halftone dots that made up the image. When viewed from a distance, the dots blur together, creating the illusion of continuous lines and shapes. JR had his schematic plan on a large piece of paper that his personal team followed closely and gave us instruction, as we battled the winds that kept whipping up the long rolls of paper now flattened on the tables to make the precise cuts. It took several of us to hold it down, roll it out, re-roll it back so that the number showed on the end, without tearing it. Along the way, there were a few mishaps, but no one got upset — we just did the best we could.
JR was moving around among us all. Journalists and camera crews were there to interview him. He had his own cameraman who was recording the entire event, who interviewed me. I spoke in bad French and everyone watching and listening just chuckled and said they thought it “was cute,” even though I thought I must have sounded awfully stupid!
When Erica introduced me to JR, and we kissed on both cheeks, I didn’t cry like she thought I might, but I did confess to him that I was so thrilled to meet him and be working on the project, and that Erica thought I might blubber all over him. He just laughed and was as cool a cucumber as anyone I’ve ever met. In fact, the guy is a complete charmer, as was everyone on his team and all the people working with us. One was a lovely woman who is a journalist for Marie Claire as thrilled as we were to be a part of it all.
After a couple of hours cutting the paper rolls, someone asked us if we were ready to glue the paper down. “Oui, oui, oui!” And off we went with a huge square vat of glue on wheels and large brushes over to one of the statues to paper the sides of it. If we stepped on a part of ground where glue had not dried, we slipped, so it was a bit treacherous. With the brushes, we dipped them in the vat of glue, then brushed on the liquid paste before laying the paper on it…carefully. This was no easy task! The brushes get really heavy with the glue. The handles were slippery and sticky all at the same time. If you got it wrong the first time, it wasn’t simple to peel it off and start over! Once it was wet, it was like mush, and if you stepped on a wet part, it came off on your shoes. We fretted and laughed and did our best, then patched the mistakes we made if we could.
At the end of the day, the image that now covered the entire plaza around the pyramid made up of all those thousands of strips of paper was almost completely done and we were thoroughly exhausted. The team celebrated the completion on Friday (without us). By Saturday morning it was open for everyone to walk on and view and by Sunday, it was almost gone as it had been trampled to death and people were peeling up paper souvenirs. Le Louvre is selling souvenirs of the event in their gift shops (boutiquesdemusees.fr/en/). We were lucky enough to be given a mug as a gift for our efforts, but we purchased a few more for keepsakes and to remember one incredible afternoon when we were a real part of once-in-a-lifetime celebration…one of those rare occasions that we can honestly say “only in Paris.”
Before it was launched, we got word that Belgian-born filmmaker, Agnès Varda died on Friday at the age of 90. Our first thoughts were of JR, who was very close to her. Together they made the documentary film, Visages Villages (Faces, Places) in 2017, a journey through rural France in which they form an unlikely friendship. In hommage to her, JR posted on his personal Instagram about the Louvre project, “I finished this one for you Agnès Varda, you loved people, pasting an illusion … ? I am sure you can see it. I did something that can be seen from the sky. Promised, I didn’t know that it was for you.” And on his Twitter, he wrote: “For my shooting star wherever you are … Agnès Varda.”
A la prochaine…
(Au Louvre, by Erica Simone)
P.S. I urge you to read more about the pyramid, as it’s fascinating that the number of glass panes is supposedly exactly 666, “the number of the beast,” often associated with Satan, although that number is contested by I. M. Pei’s own office to be 689 pieces of glass. Contrary to that, if you just do the math, the three sides without the entrance consists of 18 triangular panes and 17 rows of “rhombic” ones (a quadrilateral whose four sides all have the same length), therefore 171 panes total times three. The side with the entrance has 11 panes less. The bottom line is 673 panes total. Which is to be believed? How about counting them out yourself if you are curious enough. (Source: Wikipedia.org)
P.P.S. Two more artistic events in which you can participate:You’re Invited! the Book Event of the Season… April in Paris in the Garden of Eden — Sunday, April 7th from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore in Paris:
A fun meet-and-greet book event at Paris’s great new English-language bookstore facing the Luxembourg Garden. Meet author David Downie and buy a personalized, signed copy of the novel. What’s it about? Haunting and luminous, The Gardener of Eden explores the dark secrets lurking beneath the stunning natural beauty of a dying timber town. A mysterious beachcomber appears one day on the coastal bluffs near the small town of Carverville, a place whose best days are long behind it. Who is he, and why has he returned after nearly forty years? Carverville’s prodigal son, James, serendipitously finds work at a gentrified motel, but his homecoming soon takes a sinister turn when he and a local teenager make a gruesome discovery on the beach…
The Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore
9 rue de Médicis
75006 Paris, France
It’s springtime in Paris, and photographer Jason Gardner just returned from his biggest carnaval adventure to date, photographing in six different countries over two months.
“I’m thrilled to exhibit some of my latest images — as well as a few of my ‘greatest hits’ — in a show called “Return to Carnaval: Rituals, Roots, Rebels,”” from April 4 through 19. This work was selected as one of 25 shows for the 2019 Mois de la Photo in Paris, a city-wide biennial festival. If you’re in Paris, you and any guests are cordially invited to the vernissage on Sunday, April 7, from 3 to 8 p.m.
If you’re familiar with his work, the carnavals that he follows are about folklore, ritualistic performance, and transcendence of daily life and identity through masks and costumes, often in ways dark and subversive, clever and captivating.
Return to Carnaval: Rituals, Roots, Rebels
April 4 through 19
Expo 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. (closed Mondays)
Vernissage April 7, 3 p.m. to 8 p.m.
10 rue Bichat