Thursday, December 22, 2011

A number of friends and colleagues have been asking me for gift ideas for people they know who love Paris and France, and Tuscany and Umbria and Italy, and Istanbul and Turkey,...and therefore who also love art, music, history, and travel in general. Short of an airplane ticket or a hotel gift certificate, I always reply that the best gifts for people who love travel are books, and I don't say that just because I am an author. Rather, I truly believe that books (in any format) offer what literate, curious travelers want most: depth, background, and inspiration.

Without doubt, the book I am recommending most often right now is the one pictured above, The Louvre: All the Paintings (Black Dog & Leventhal, published on November 14th). This is no ordinary book, and it is not an updated version of a book previously published. It is a ground-breaking, extraordinary, gorgeous, must-have work of art itself, and it features every single painting in the Louvre's permanent collection. Every one. Three-thousand and twenty two of them. The book is 766 pages, it weighs a number of pounds (I'm not sure how many, but you need two hands to hold it), it's accompanied by a navigational DVD-ROM, and it's $75. And it's a perfect gift, even one for yourself.

Readers of my Paris book know that I am hugely fond of the numerous small museums in the city, whether devoted exclusively to a single artist (Delacroix, Picasso, Rodin, etc.) or to collections (Jacquemart-Andre, Cognacq-Jay, etc.). But there is no doubt that my most favorite museum on earth is the Louvre, the largest single museum in the world. When I was a student in the Hollins Abroad Paris program in 1979, my art history classes were held once a week at the Jeu de Paume (which then housed the French Impressionists) and once a week at the Louvre. We were required to go to each museum a second time each week to complete homework assignments, but I always returned to the Louvre a third time, every Sunday, when it was free (today it is free on the first Sunday of every month, as well as on Bastille Day and on Fridays after 6:00 p.m. for anyone under age 26). I loved (and still do) the enormity of the museum (I like knowing that I will never see everything), and I loved the beautiful parquet floors in the galleries and I loved the periodic views out the windows and I loved seeing the 'Winged Victory of Samothrace' sculpture that was then at the top of a stone staircase. Most of all I loved the paintings, some of them the largest I'd ever seen.

I know I'm not alone in my love for the Louvre -- it is the most popular art museum among Americans traveling abroad, who represent nearly 1 million of the museum's 8.5 million annual visitors -- and at the celebratory party for this new book last month I met a lot of other fellow Louvre enthusiasts. The party was given by American Friends of the Louvre, and I was initially embarrassed to realize that I'd never heard of AFL, but I now know that this terrific, non-profit organization was only founded in 2002, so I don't feel so ignorant. In addition to fostering collaborations between the Louvre and American institutions with exhibits, educational programs, and scholarly exchanges, AFL also helps finance Louvre projects such as renovations of galleries, restorations, fellowships, and educational programs both in France and in the U.S. AFL has provided grants benefitting all eight curatorial departments of the Louvre, and among the projects it has supported are the creation of Cy Twombly's 'The Ceiling' in 2008; fellowships in Islamic art and American art, 2005-2009; restoration of Greek and Roman antiquities in 2007; and the English version of Atlas, the museum's online collections database with access to the 35,000 works on display. Currently, AFL has pledged to raise $4 million to support the restoration of the museum's 18th century Decorative Arts Galleries, designed by Jacques Garcia and scheduled to re-open in 2013. Additionally, AFL has raised $146,000 toward a conservation program for the Louvre's extensive holdings of pastel drawings.

(Now that I think of it, a truly generous and meaningful gift would be a copy of the book along with, say, a bottle of French wine, some Mariage-Freres tea, a French press and some coffee, or even a bottle of Badoit avec gaz and a membership to AFL (there are 6 levels of membership, ranging from $500 to $25,000 a year). Membership at the Chairman's Circle level ($10,000 for 2 people for 1 year) entitles you to an annual trip to Paris focused on a major exhibition or theme at the Louvre. The description of the 2011 spring trip was among the most distinctive I've ever heard of, including a trip to Metz to visit the Pompidou Centre's new outpost; a private tour in the Louvre on a Tuesday (when the museum is closed to the public); cocktails at the Delacroix museum; visits to the Chateau de Vaux-le-Vicomte and Chateau de Sully; lunch at the Chateau de Courances hosted by the Comtesse Serge de Ganay and the Marquise de Ganay and a tour of the home and gardens; and dinner in the home of a Parisian collector. Wow. AFL is at 60 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan / (212) 367.2645)

At the book party, the Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy, Antonin Baudry, gave the introductory remarks to all of us gathered there in a beautiful room. I was particularly drawn to his comments that, "All together, we are 'les Amis du Louvre' (what a beautiful formula!) because we are friends of art. We are also, I hope, a community that embodies more generally the friendship between France and the U.S. Art is a bridge, as we all know. Between countries, nations, or people. Also between body and soul, the work and the eye, matter and spirit." Baudry later said that a book is not only a book: "A book is a world. Just like a museum: the pages are open, the walls are windows. Body and soul, I said. Matter and spirit." Precisely.

The Louvre: All the Paintings is authored by a ridiculously talented foursome, Erich Lessing, Vincent Pomarede, Anja Grebe, and Henri Loyrette (Loyrette has been Conservateur General du Patrimoine since 1975 and President and Director of the Louvre since 2001, but each of these authors have very impressive credentials). Paging through this monumental edition is an absolute pleasure as I see works I consider to be old friends but I also see others for the first time. And what is especially appealing about a book of this sort is that I can choose to turn to a particular artist or school of painting (in the case of the Louvre these include Italian, Northern, Spanish, and French) and just get lost in it all. Literally, every day since I've had a copy of the book, I cannot wait to spend time with it. Each day has been filled with this lovely surprise.

It's easy to say that this book is for Francophiles and everyone for whom Paris holds a special place. But the truth is it's a book for any art lover, any traveler, any museum goer, any human being who appreciates beauty. Or, as Henri Loyrette states best in the book's Preface, through this illuminating volume, "all people -- from scholars to tourists, art professionals to students, the "learned" to the "unknowing" (to paraphrase the French philosopher Denis Diderot) -- will be able to reflect upon and preserve in their memory the paintings of the Musee du Louvre."

Warm and joyeuses wishes to everyone at this almost-end of 2011! My next posting will appear in early January.

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