Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Museum Vaults

The second book in the Louvre’s series of graphic novels is Marc-Antoine Mathieu’s The Museum Vault: Excerpts from the Journal of an Expert. It’s a simple book to describe, but a difficult one to explain. It starts with Eudeus Volumer being hired to appraise the collection of the Musee Du Revolu and then presents, in an episodic fashion, the next (almost) fifty years as he and his assistant, Leonard, discover more and more about the museum, its collections and its workings.

But there is far more to it than that. From the dress and technology one would think the story took place in the 19th century, early 20th at the latest, but the museum’s origins have long been forgotten. No one even remembers its original name, though anagrams of Musee du Louvre appear throughout the book: as its current name, as its alternative names, as Volumer’s own name, and as the name of several pieces of art. An early discovery by the two men is that the foundations of the current museum are actually the top of a much greater edifice. The museum is, in fact, a giant ziggurat, with the public areas crowning a vast series of sub-basements, each larger than the one above. The book then follows the men as they go from one area to the next, from one sub-basement to the next, meeting with museum staff and learning about the place from a variety of perspectives.

Throughout the book there is a strange inversion of reality. It goes beyond the many anagrams. I’ve already mentioned how the foundation is the top of the building. They visit the Repository for Molds, made of the museum’s many sculptures. It’s a great collection of negative space that has grown so large that new halls have to be tunnelled out to provide storage space and the oldest pieces are found furthest in. But isn’t that backwards? If the tunnels are constantly being built, the newest areas would be furthest in. Why would the oldest art be put there? This isn’t a mistake. A topsy-turvy reality permeates the place. The fragment room is building something colossal and bright paintings are put in the dark to preserve their colours.

Mathieu manages to work comics into the discussion. There’s a reference to Copi, a cartoonist, and the cover of Glacial Period is featured as a work of art, but more interesting is the discussion that occurs in the framing department, where an expert talks of the organization of paintings and the possibility of turning a series of paintings into a much greater whole. Volumer later dreams of a great painting, called ‘The Museum of the Louver’, which is within an even greater painting, ‘The Museum Louver,’ a massive work that features a museum and, on its walls, that museum’s collection of paintings. Paintings within paintings, panels within a larger board.

In the end, this organization remains a dream. The museum is too vast to allow any one person to grasp the whole. Each department has its purpose, its contribution, but not even Volumer and his predecessors can truly appreciate the great design. Mathieu isn’t trying to produce a counter-argument to De Crecy, but if De Crecy’s experts sought to impose an order on knowledge, Mathieu’s seem overwhelmed by the task. They have been absorbed into the place, as much a part of it as their artefacts. It’s a fascinating book. If the next two books are as good as the first two have been, this will prove to be an important series.

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