Museum showcases Louvre masterpieces

Show opens Oct. 10

ATLANTA -- His mane bristling, the roaring lion bares his teeth as he pins down a defiantly hissing snake, every hair and rippling muscle in the big cat's body faithfully captured in bronze.

Sculptor Antoine-Louis Barye's attention to detail and the careful bronze casting by Jean-Honore Gonon make the roughly life-size Lion and Serpent one of the greatest animal sculptures ever produced, said Isabelle Lemaistre, a curator at the Musee du Louvre in Paris and an expert on Barye's work. The 19th-century artist spent hours at a Paris zoo observing the lions and watching veterinarians dissect dead animals, allowing him to deftly capture the scale and physiology of the creature.

The dramatic sculpture with its palpable tension greets visitors in the entrance hall of the third and final installment of a unique and unprecedented collaboration between Atlanta's High Museum and the Louvre. Titled "The Louvre and the Masterpiece," the last leg of the three-year partnership challenges viewers to define what constitutes a masterpiece and explores how that definition has evolved over the years.

"We are attempting to explore this fundamental question in the field of art, a question that has no definite answer, 'What is a masterpiece?"' said Louvre director Henri Loyrette at a preview earlier this week of the exhibit.

The show, which opens Sunday, features 91 works drawn from all eight of the Louvre's collection areas and spans 4,000 years. It centers on three main themes: the changing historical and cultural definitions of a masterpiece; authenticity and connoisseurship; and the evolution of taste and scholarship.

In the first main gallery, the exhibit looks how at ancient objects created before the concept of masterpiece existed can still be considered masterpieces because of their exceptional beauty or the skill and technical expertise involved in their production.

A side gallery features two red chalk drawings by Michelangelo from his "ideal head" series and a third by Giulio Clovio, a follower of Michelangelo (on display through Jan. 25). Though Clovio's drawing is clearly good, it pales in comparison to the fine cross-hatching and amazingly expressive eyes in the master's drawings.

A room set up to explore connoisseurship juxtaposes three groups of similar pieces -- three ceramic plates from 16th-century Turkey, four Greek clay wine jugs from the sixth or seventh century B.C. and two Roman copies of a Greek statue alongside the original. All the pieces are considered great, Lemaistre said, but the viewer is encouraged to find the one piece in each group that stands out as the masterpiece for its technical virtuosity.

The Find the Forgery gallery allows visitors to play museum curator. After examining two heads, one made of black stone and the other of blue glass, they can use one of four interactive screens to go through the process that Louvre curators used to determine in 2002 that one of the two pieces, both from the department of Egyptian antiquities, was a forgery.

"The Astronomer" by Johannes Vermeer (on display through Feb. 15), with its delicate brushwork and masterful use of light, demonstrates how changing tastes and scholarship affect the definition a masterpiece. The Dutch painter, who is so well-known today, enjoyed success and popularity during his lifetime but had faded into obscurity when his work was rediscovered in the mid-19th century.

Hanging nearby in stark contrast is Guillaume Voiriot's "Portrait of a Woman Holding a Booklet," once considered a jewel in the Louvre's collection and now virtually forgotten.

All the pieces shown usually find themselves mixed into the crowded galleries of the Louvre, said High curator David Brenneman. This exhibit, he said, gives them room to breathe and gives the viewer a chance to really focus on what makes them extraordinary.

A new feature in this installment is a 7-foot-by-10-foot interactive touch screen at the end of the exhibit. It allows visitors to browse images of 25 works from the exhibit's three-year run and vote for a favorite. The wall displays a list of the 10 most popular choices that is updated throughout the day and gives visitors suggestions of pieces in the High's permanent collection that they might enjoy based on their selection.

Brenneman said there is a bit of sadness as the final chapter of the Louvre Atlanta exhibit opens, but he and Loyrette both championed its success -- in bringing great art to an American audience and in making the most famous French museum more accessible -- and said the lasting friendship would surely lead to further collaborations.

Over its first two years, the exhibit has drawn nearly 800,000 visitors, and High staff expects to hit the million mark in the coming months.

The partnership began in January 2006 with an exchange of high school students between Atlanta and Paris. The first of three yearlong exhibits at the High opened in October 2006.

After wrapping up its stay in Atlanta, "The Louvre and the Masterpiece" will head to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, where it will show from Oct. 18, 2009 through Jan. 10, 2010 before heading home to Paris.
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