Reinventing the Louvre - how artists have captured the museum on screen
As the Parisian landmark takes centre stage in Beyoncé and Jay-Z's new video, Tristram Fane Saunders looks at how artists have captured the museum on screen
It's not easy to upstage the Mona Lisa, but Beyoncé and Jay-Z have managed it. In 'Apes**t', the first music video from their new collaborative album Everything Is Love, pop's reigning power-couple use the Louvre as their private playground, celebrating its most famous artworks while also using them to make a subtle political point.
Da Vinci's masterpiece appears early on in the video, which has been watched more than 11 million times since it was released on Saturday. As soon as the painting comes into shot, though, it's relegated to the background, while the Carters (the name the husband-wife duo are currently performing under) stand in front of it with enigmatic stares that rival La Gioconda's own.
When we next see the painting, it's even further away, behind a scene that doubles as the album's cover; a black woman gently combing a man's hair with an afro pick. Taken with the rest of the video, it's seemingly a comment on how people of colour have been pushed to the sidelines in the canon of Western art, and an attempt to redress the balance. The gallery is filled with black backing dancers (choreographed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui), in scenes that recall the African-American artist Faith Ringgold's 'story-quilt' 'Dancing in the Louvre'.
Classical art is juxtaposed with current hot-button issues. For instance, the sight of 'Hermes Fastening his Sandal' - an ancient Greek sculpture showing either the messenger god, or a kneeling athlete - is followed by a sudden cut to a group of kneeling black dancers, adopting the 'take a knee' pose recently used by US athletes as a protest against police brutality.
The camera lingers on black figures in the margins of several of the Louvre's best known artworks, such as Veronese's 'The Wedding at Cana', while Jay-Z raps in front of Géricault's 'The Raft of the Medusa' - an 1819 painting which features a black man as its central saviour figure, waving to catch the attention of the ship that will rescue him and his fellow shipwrecked sailors.
'Portrait d'une Négresse' by Marie-Guillemine Benoist - one of just a handful of female artists whose work hangs in the Louvre - also features prominently in the video. Painted in 1800, six years after France's abolition of slavery, it is often taken as a symbol of the egalitarian ideals of the Revolution; the sitter's white dress, red sash and blue velvet cloak mirror the colours of the French flag.
But the painting has also been criticised by recent scholars for treating the subject as a sexualised, exotic "other"; the sitter appears with her breast exposed, and is not granted a name. In 'Apes**t', however, Benoist's painting is put on equal footing with Da Vinci's. Cropped to show a close-up of the woman's face, it becomes a Mona Lisa for our times.
'Apes**t' is not just a good tune, it's a visual lecture in art history - although one might wonder how the Louvre's staff have taken its implicit criticisms of the museum's collection.
When contacted, the Louvre declined to comment on the video. In a statement, however, a museum spokesperson said they were impressed by the affection the Carters had shown for their art.
"Beyoncé and Jay-Z visited the Louvre four times in the last 10 years," they said. "During their last visit in May 2018, they explained their idea of filming. The deadlines were very tight but the Louvre was quickly convinced because the synopsis showed a real attachment to the museum and its beloved artworks."
It's remarkable to think that the whole video was devised, filmed and released in just the last few weeks. But is it really as original as the critics suggest? Jay-Z isn't the first person to have rapped beside 'The Raft of the Medusa'; Toni Morrison hosted a hip-hop poetry slam in front of the painting in 2006.
Nor are the Carters the first to film in the museum. A lot has changed since 1964, when Jean-Luc Godard snuck a camera in without permission, shooting his actors running from real security guards for his film Bande à part. Since 2008, when the Louvre set up a dedicated film unit, it has had a busier schedule than many film studios; about 500 shoots take place in and around the museum every year.
"We can't accept every production that would like to film in the Louvre, but we try to," Joelle Cinq-Fraix, who manages the museum's film unit, said in 2014. "We want to be seen on screens all round the world. It's one of our ways to exist in everyone's dream world."
Taking over the world's largest museum is also remarkably cheap, by Hollywood standards. As of 2015, the top fee for a day's filming was €15,000, according to a recent piece by the New York Times' Paris correspondent, who drolly added, "There are hotel rooms here that cost more than that."
There are certain limitations - most filming has to take place either on a Tuesday, while the galleries are closed to the public, or overnight. But that hasn't stopped Wonder Woman, Fifty Shades Freed and a host of other blockbusters shooting scenes there.
When Will.i.am filmed his 2016 video 'Mona Lisa Smila' in the museum, he produced a delightfully geeky video-tour of the museum, rhapsodising about the antique pocket-watches.
"The attention to detail, the craftsmanship, I wish we could get back to this," he said, "building sustainable art that's functional." The museum returned the flattery by hosting a Will.i.am walking tour, stopping off at every painting featured in the video.
There's no word about a similar 'Apes**t' tour yet, but it would be a smart idea. By casting a critical eye over the museum's collection, the Carters have also generated a huge amount of interest in it. The video may be controversial, but if next year sees a boost in visitor numbers, the Louvre will have Beyoncé and Jay-Z to thank for it.