A Key to the Louvre: Memoirs of a Curator

A Key to the Louvre: Memoirs of a Curator

by Michel Laclotte


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Art historian, curator, and museum director Michel Laclotte has been at the forefront of French cultural life over the past half century. This informal autobiography sheds light on his brilliant career with warmth and directness. Highlights include twenty years as chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Musée du Louvre, heading the team that created the Musée d'Orsay, and taking the reins of the Louvre to lead the effort that culminated in the museum's transformation into the “Grand Louvre,” one of the world's preeminent cultural attractions.

Raising the curtain on fifty years of Western art scholarship, intrigue, and achievement, Laclotte introduces an extraordinary cast of characters who set France's cultural direction in the postwar period from Charles de Gaulle and André Malraux in the 1950s to François Mitterand in the 1980s and 1990s. His story overlaps with virtually every major scholarly figure in French art history of the last half-century, as well as Laclotte's mentors and colleagues throughout and beyond Europe, from Roberto Longhi and Anthony Blunt to Sir John Pope-Hennessy and Millard Meiss. An incomparable testament to a period of seismic change in the museum world, this volume will be essential reading for art world afficianados and all students of art and modern culture.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780789208217
Publisher: Abbeville Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/28/2006
Edition description: 1ST
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Michel Laclotte, Director of the Musée du Louvre from 1987 to 1995, also served as Chief Curator in the museums Department of Paintings beginning in 1966. He specializes in French and Italian painting of the 14th and 15th centuries. Laclotte served as the Editorial Director for Abbevilles masterwork, The Art and Spirit of Paris.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1 Learning the Trade

Fifty years of my life have been devoted to art history and museums, and it would be natural to expect a detailed accounting of those decades. But for me to provide one, I would have to adopt the approach of a professional historian, which I am not, on top of which I lack the necessary perspective. Were you to ask my contemporaries about events in our held over the past half-century, their accounts would certainly differ from mine. Rather, what I hope to do in this book is to recreate a sense of the times and to spotlight both the high points in the history of museums (their resurgence after World War II, for instance, or the “boom” in large-scale construction projects) and the low points—around 1970 and perhaps today. And also (though here again my own view is partial and even a bit biased), I hope to highlight the efforts made, after the gray and timid period that followed the war, to revive art history and scholarship in France, the battles won and lost, and finally the vitality of a discipline that not everyone looks upon favorably.

I was born in 1929 in Saint-Malo and, like any good native of that city, was naively proud of my hometown. The fact that so many Malouins have lent their names to streets, hospitals, islands, and even a commercial temple of information technology* “is not bad for a place whose area,” as Chateaubriand put it in his Mémoires d’outre-tombe, “does not even rival that of the Tuileries.” I have always retained my attachment to the city, so much so that I recently bought an apartment there, within the walls, to enjoy the sea air from time to time.

My family left Saint-Malo after my father was killed in 1940, and the following year we settled in Paris. Filtered as they are through our family’s mourning, my memories of the Occupation are naturally rather dark: Germans everywhere, soldiers in the metro stinking of leather and heavy wool...My secondary school was the Lycée Pasteur in Neuilly. One teacher who stood out in particular was Henri Petiot, better known as the writer Daniel-Rops, who would soon become famous as the author of Jesus and His Times. When teaching history, he made frequent reference to the history of art, which was ignored or neglected in schools at the time (is it very different today?), and he took us to Notre Dame cathedral to help us understand the Middle Ages.

Like all children, I read avidly in those years, starting with bland scouting books and adventure stories, comics featuring the “disastrous housemaid” Bécassine (another Breton contribution), as well as The Jungle Book, Jules Verne, Dumas, and many other titles in the white Collection Nelson editions—the paperbacks of that period—which I found in the family library. And, like anyone else, I studied the classics in school: Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, the Russians, and so on.

Paris during the Occupation was extraordinarily rich when it came to shows. I’d had little experience with theater before the war, though I do remember L’Heure espagnole at the Théâtre de Rennes, where, of course, I was more taken with the heroine’s burlesque misadventures than I was with Ravel’s music. In Paris, while visiting my grandmother, I’d seen Around the World in Eighty Days at the Châtelet and—prophetically—a ballet by Lifar at the Opera, Entre deux rondes, in which statues in the Louvre came to life at night.

I spent a lot of time at the theater in Paris with my mother or some friends. It was there I saw Henry de Montherlant’s La Reine morte and Le Soulier de satin by Paul Claudel at the Comédie Française; Renaud et Armide, beautifully staged by Bérard but based on a rather weak play by Jean Cocteau; and many classics, including Raimu in Molière’s Le Bourgeois gentilhomme and Le Malade imaginaire. I still remember Antigone, the resistor, by Jean Anouilh and also Andromaque directed by Cocteau, starring Jean Marais and Annie Ducaux, which caused quite an uproar.

There were also movies. We didn’t go to see German Films, although there were two in color—something extremely rare outside of American cinema—that were very enticing: Baron Münchausen and La Ville dorée, about Prague—a German city, as everyone knew...We had no idea that Les Inconnus dans la maison or Le Corbeau were produced by Germans. Of the films of the period, I especially remember faces: Edwige Feuillère in La Duchesse de Langeais, Pierre Fresnay as Inspector Wens, Michel Simon as Vautrin, American-style comedies with Raymond Rouleau and Annie Ducaux, Falbalas by Jacques Becker, Le Baron fantôme...I also remember two absolutely spectacular films, which at the time were considered “Resistance” movies: Marcel Carné’s Les Visiteurs du soir—in which Jules Berry as

The Devil snickers about “the heart that keeps beating” — and Pontcarral. We were frustrated by the unavailability of American Films, our interest having been whetted by a friend who had seen some in Switzerland, especially Fantasia and Gone with the Wind.

It was also diffucult to see much art, since most of the museums were closed. Still, I was able to view the monumental sculptures at the Louvre, which they hadn’t been able to evacuate, notably the winged bulls from Khorsabad. I also have another “artistic” memory, from what must have been the summer of 1942, at the Bellou manor in Normandy. I was at a Boy Scout camp in the country, and we were visiting the castle that served as a storage repository for Maurice-Quentin de la Tour’s pastels from the Saint-Quentin museum. Some of them were hung in the rooms. I clearly recall the roguishness of Mademoiselle Fels (which today I find a bit irritating) and the smile of Abbé Huber reading by candlelight. But I didn’t come away with an irresistible attraction to the eighteenth century.

Nonetheless, a few memories from those years suggest that I was beginning to grow out of my childhood. I can still recall—I must have been thirteen or fourteen at the time—standing in front of a billboard kiosk in Place Saint-Ferdinand-des-Ternes, excited at the prospect of going to see Gounod’s Faust, the national opera par excellence, until an older friend said, “That’s all well and good, but the real Faust is the one by Berlioz.” I suddenly understood that not all art was of equal value. In a similar vein, I remember our French teacher’s dismayed expression when, having asked us to recite a work of poetry, he found that several of us (myself included) had chosen a tirade from Rostand’s Cyrano or L’Aiglon...

I also remember another epiphany, somewhat more significant and inspired by a sense of shame that I can still feel today. It was during the holidays of 1942 or 1943, which I spent in Laval at my paternal uncle’s, a doctor who was in the Resistance—which I didn’t know at the time. “And what do they think about the Resistance in your school?” he asked me one day. To which I airily replied, “Oh, we’re not really interested in politics...” Arrogant brat!

At the same time, we knew that some of our teachers at Lycée Pasteur (Sartre taught there, though not in my grade) had links to the Resistance—notably our English teacher, Georges Magnane, who had gone back to teaching because he didn’t want to publish under the Occupation. Most of our teachers didn’t spare us their more or less concealed allusions to the war, England, and the Germans, though I don’t recall anyone particularly extolling the virtues of the Vichy regime. I recently came across some class photos from those years: rows of awkward boys, all vaguely cross-eyed or pimply. In the first year (1941—42), I see among the pupils a boy who was one of my best friends, Weys. In the second year (1942—43), Weys is more or less in the same place, but wearing a yellow star on his smock. In the third-year photo (1943—44), he doesn’t appear at all.

I remember the liberation of Paris all the more clearly in that we experienced it from up close (we lived not far from the Arc de Triomphe, which was visible from our balcony): the arrest of a young neighbor, who, as we learned a few days later, was among the hostages shot at the Cascade in the Bois de Boulogne; the arrival of Leclerc’s tanks on Place de l’Etoile; the delirious joy; the sniper shots from “bastards” hidden on the rooftops of the adjoining avenue. Needless to say, our joy was tempered by the fact that my father would not be among those coming home and further dampened by the news of the destruction of Saint-Malo. We went there in September 1944 to find the ruins still smoking, a sight made more horrible in that the bombardments were of no military use. They said at the time that the Germans had set fire to the city as they were leaving after placing explosives in the cellars of the oldest houses. Today we know that it was in fact an Allied mistake. Saint-Malo was rebuilt “in the style of,” stone by stone and facade by facade, especially the largest houses around Porte Saint-Vincent.

In the 1950s the minister in charge of reconstruction was Eugène Claudius-Petit, and my mother was in his cabinet: a remarkable man, a true modernist who supported Le Corbusier and the most innovative French architects of the period, who were rare. It was thanks to him, for example, that the “Maison du Fada” in Marseilles was built by Le Corbusier, against all odds. He would have preferred Louis Arretche’s reconstruction scheme for Saint-Malo to be more radically contemporary—though perhaps he was mistaken in this, for apart from some cheaply made buildings on the ramparts, the urban planning, style, integration of surviving architectural elements, and use of granite are overall quite successful.

I have been asked what I think of Louis Hautecoeur, who was general secretary for fine arts under Vichy. My opinion, of course, is retrospective, as I was only fourteen when Paris was liberated! I met Hautecoeur many years later, when he was already retired and finishing his monumental History of French Classical Architecture, and I found him to be an utterly decent man. Hautecoeur belonged, as did the classical scholar Jérôme Carcopino, to a handful of intellectuals who had sided with the Vichy government. Research is now being done to provide a better understanding of the role each of these men played and his share of responsibility. Hautecoeur had to leave France for a time and took over the Musée de Genève; his name was cleared fairly soon after the war. The fact remains that he had been in charge of the arts under Vichy, and as such he paved the way for the reforms that were put into practice beginning in 1945.

I became aware of all this only later, in 1949—50, when I started frequenting university and museum circles. My sense today is that among the larger components of the state, the museums, headed by Jacques Jaujard, were relatively “well behaved” vis-à-vis the occupying forces. A small number of curators were no doubt attracted by Vichy without necessarily becoming active collaborators. Their main concern was to save the collections, moving them to oppsite locations to protect them from air raids or from being carried away in German trucks. And they were concerned with saving people. Charles Sterling had managed to reach the United States, but most of the Jewish curators remained in France and were sheltered as much as possible. To my knowledge, not one was deported. The curator Suzanne Kahn, whose parents were deported and never returned, owes her survival in June 1944 to her husband’s broken leg, which kept them from getting on the train that would have taken them to Germany. She later told me what it felt like when, for an exhibition of masterpieces from Berlin and Munich at the Petit Palais, she had to welcome some colleagues from Germany and treat them cordially.

I cannot say precisely when I first recognized my museum “calling.” What I do know is that at first (this would be 1945), I wanted to be an architect. But to be accepted in the architecture program at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, which at the time was the only one available, you had to be good in math—unfortunately not one of my strong suits. And so I opted instead for a career in museums, studying for the liberal arts baccalaureate and then for the exams to become a curator. I had been encouraged in this by Jean Adhémar, whom my mother had known during the war when she worked as an archivist for the Ministry for Overseas Territories, where he was engaged in a cataloguing project. A paleographer with an original mind, he had attended the Warburg Institute in London before the war. He advised me that if I wanted to get a job in museums, I should become a paleographer as well. I was especially influenced by the example of Sylvie Béguin, who was several years older than I. Our families had been neighbors in Saint-Malo; we had met up again in Paris, and she told me of her own career path—liberal arts, then art history and museum studies.

One thing is certain: from early on, I was interested in the collections and exhibitions in provincial museums. On my vacations in Colmar, Angers, Laval, Strasbourg, Toulouse, Nancy, and Montpellier, I began visiting all the local museums that had been reopened to the public. I still have the notes in which I completely reorganized the Musée Fabre at Montpellier—a tad presumptuous, to say the least! Why this lifelong interest? This need to index every painting I’ve ever seen, to inventory others I found in every book I could lay my hands on? To itemize all the Rembrandts or Fragonards in French collections? No doubt an adolescent passion for classification. And alongside this went a profound interest in the national patrimony. The result of my family’s traditional patriotism? Perhaps.

From my first serious readings in art history, before my studies made them more systematic, I’ve retained a keen memory of Henri Focillon’s The Life of Forms and Salomon Reinach’s Apollo—an admirable little pocket guide, the equivalent of which I would love to find today—as well as of several “coffee table” books. During the war, the publisher Pierre Tisné had continued to produce lavish books with color plates, which was rare in those years. He had published Germain Bazin’s Corot, which I still have, in a collection edited by René Huyghe. It was my first purchase immediately after the war, along with Charles Sterling’s book on the French primitives, a true masterpiece from 1942. Soon afterward I read Bernard Berenson, and for my own inventories used his “lists” from 1932, a repertory of Italian Renaissance paintings. I also bought, for their illustrations, the volumes in the precious Collection des Maîtres published by Braun.

In the spring of 1946 in Brussels, after having gone to Bruges with my mother to visit my father’s grave, I saw an extraordinary exhibition of masterpieces from Dutch museums, including Vermeer’s View of Delft and The Letter, The Governors of the Almshouse and Lady Governors of the Almshouse by Frans Hals, and Rembrandt’s The Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild, all of which have remained indelibly etched in my memory. It was the first time I truly saw great paintings up close: the Louvre had reopened, but only partially. From that moment on, this stopped being a simple adolescent pastime. I now wanted to see as many works as possible, of all kinds; to read, to travel—in short, to make it my work.

Having decided to follow the museum path, I entered the Lycée Henri IV in 1947 to prepare my entrance exams to the Ecole des Chartes, the school for the training of archivists and paleographers. I stayed there for two years. At the time, to become a curator in a national museum, one had to hold a degree from the advanced section of the Ecole du Louvre. This was one of the reforms begun before the war as part of a large-scale reorganization of museums planned by Henri Verne and Jacques Jaujard and put into practice during the Occupation. The Ecole du Louvre had established a section of its educational program that accepted five or six students a year on the basis of a qualifying examination. The system has taken other forms since, but the number of students remains about the same. Students at the Ecole des Chartes and at certain universities were exempt from this exam.

Since I was fairly young and did not have all the requisite training, especially in Latin—to my shame, as my grandfather taught it—I washed out in my first year at the Ecole des Chartes. Meanwhile, the rules had changed: the administration abolished the exemption that ensured paleographers admittance into the advanced section of the Ecole du Louvre. At that point, I had two choices: either continue studying to be an archivist or take the qualifying exam for the Louvre, which is what I decided to do. Despite my failure at the Ecole des Chartes—in any case, what I learned there helped me pass the Louvre exam in 1950—I have good memories of Henri IV. I met several future chartistes, as graduates of the school are called, whom I continued to frequent later on, especially Jean Coural, who would become my best friend for life.

Like many of my classmates, I followed two courses of study simultaneously: one at the Institut d’Art et d’Archéologie on Rue Michelet, and the other at the Ecole du Louvre. At the Institut d’Art (this was in 1948—50), you had to earn four diplomas to get your degree. One diploma was in aesthetics, which I took with Etienne Souriau, though without stellar results: my lack of interest in abstraction and pure ideas is one of the weaknesses in my intellectual makeup. The other three were more specifically in art history. The great prewar Hellenist Charles Picard, who was then at the end of

Table of Contents


1. Learning the Trade
2. An Inspector of Provincial Museums
3. In the Paintings Department of the Louvre
4. Meetings with Art Historians
5. The Musée d’Orsay
6. The Grand Louvre
7. After 1994: Lavori in Corso

Appendix: Four Mentors



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