Each year, there is a cultural event in Europe, La Nuit des Musées, when for one Saturday night in mid-May participating museums throughout Europe are open free and late.
If you are in Europe in May it is an event definitely worth investigating, if not for the opportunity to enter museums free of charge then for the sheer experience of some of the world’s most famous museums after hours, surrounded by more locals than tourists. Another plus is that as part of the event, many of the museums have special events, such as concerts and guided tours. Attending, however, requires special planning. Paris, the city where I was located during their La Nuit des Musées, had 45 participating venues with 179 events. I utilized roughly the entire time span of the event, 6pm – 1am, and managed four venues.
I couldn’t resist free admittance to the Louvre. During La Nuit, it remains open until 11:45pm, but the schedule of exhibitions I had mapped out relegated my visit to the first two hours of the evening. I spent the extra 11euro for the current special exhibition, Saint Anne: Leonardo da Vinci’s Ultimate Masterpiece. Like most of Leonardo’s oeuvre, The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne is an unfinished painting. He began the preparatory sketches and drawings nearly twenty years before his death, which have been gathered and displayed as a collective exhibition for the first time alongside the newly restored masterpiece at the focal point. At the end of the long gallery with these impressive drawings, The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne is installed next to its famous cartoon, on loan from the National Gallery in London. Leonardo’s final image differs significantly from the cartoon, emphasizing again the long and varied evolution of his major works.
Of course, the painting can always be seen once it is reinstalled in the Louvre’s permanent collection. But the exhibition, on view until June 25, places the work in a full historical context, both for an understanding of Leonardo’s working process and of the painting’s particular time. To this latter point, on view are a number of paintings and objects by additional Renaissance artists that show the various ways St. Anne was portrayed as well as her popularity at the time Leonardo began conceptualizing his own image of the subject. The exhibition ends with a selection of homages to the work, as seen by many significant visitors to the Louvre, such as Eugène Delacroix and Edgar Degas. But the most memorable part of the exhibition is Leonardo’s sublime drawings. Leonardo’s studies for the central figures, displaying his mastery of chiaroscuro, are more than faithfully rendered drawings informed by observational expertise; they simply appear before you, gently untethered to their surfaces.
I returned on the metro to the area of Marais where I’m lodged, which was in better walking distance to the other venues I chose. At Musée Carnavalet, the Museum of the History of Paris, a significant selection of the photographs of Eugène Atget is on exhibition until July 29 (see my next review, Paris’s love affair with Photography). Within just a few blocks of Carnavalet is Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme (the Museum of Art and History of Judaism). The museum opened in 1998 with the mission of presenting the wo thousand year history of the Jewish community in France in the context of the development of the Jewish tradition as a whole. Its collection, an assembly of several private collections, includes fine art by Jewish artists, the repository of the archives of Alfred Dreyfus, and ceremonial artifacts related to the religion, many of which were retrieved from the Nazi lootings.
Their special exhibition, Les Juifs dans l’orientalisme (The Jews in Orientalism), explores the genre of Orientalist painting in terms of its portrayal of Jewish subjects. Orientalism thrived in the nineteenth century as an interest in exoticism that emerged from colonized territories, particularly from contact with North Africa, Turkey, and what was then Palestine. In my studies of Orientalism, the images of a flattened “Oriental Other” were reductive and served to legitimate the stronghold of Imperialist conquest in predominantly Muslim territories. Not knowing the particular Orientalist images of Jewish subjects, I found it intriguing to discover that a number of Jewish artists of the nineteenth century enthusiastically participated in Orientalism as a platform to render faithfully Jewish communities in the Middle East, thus reasserting their presence in the societies of that region. Additionally, they were able to reinforce positive images of Jewish subject matter to a broader audience due to the revitalized interest in images of Biblical history that Orientalism initiated. This exhibition provides a number of these works, in addition to major French painters attributed to the movement such as Delacroix, Jean-Léon Gérôme, and Théodore Chassériau.
Walk just a block west from the Musée du Judaïsme and there is the Centre Georges Pompidou, one of Europe’s most important collections of modern and contemporary art. With lights emanating from the postmodern building and people bustling around the square to its entrance, it seemed as though a concert were about to begin. But the Centre’s permanent collections are open until one am during La Nuit, and around midnight, when I left, people were still alighting the escalators toward the galleries. The collection is so vast that after two hours I had viewed just the Modern floor, from the beginning of the twentieth century to the Post-World War II period as it transitions into the 1960s.
One drawback to La Nuit is the possibility of a significant cue to get into the smaller venues. But with the advantage of entrée gratuite (free entry), blending with residents of the city, and the excitement of hopping from one lighted building to another for art into the night, a line is a minor bother. La Nuit is well worth noting for your future excursions to Europe in May.