The louvre

The intrigue of the Louvre Palace, as a paint job leads to a lawsuit

PARIS — In the midst of a pandemic, with empty galleries, closed doors and plummeting revenues, the Louvre is facing new turbulence: a legal battle over the color of its walls.

stucco cream? Or hot terra cotta?

Such are the hues of the intrigue of the palace of the famous French museum, which awaits the imminent decision of President Emmanuel Macron on the appointment of a new leader or the extension of a third term of its current president, Jean-Luc Martinez.

Some freshly painted walls in the museum are now at the center of a transatlantic legal dispute between the Louvre and the Cy Twombly Foundation in New York over major renovations to its bronze hall. This gallery, today emptied of its Greek antiquities, houses a monumental fresco with a blue ceiling designed in 2010 by Twombly, the American abstract painter, who died in 2011, a year after completing the work.

A debate over the appropriateness of the new color for the walls – specifically “Marron Côte d’Azur”, a reddish and black hue – has been circulating in the French press in recent weeks. On Friday, lawyers for the Twombly Foundation filed a lawsuit in a Paris court, demanding to cancel the renovation of the Louvre – part of a project to makeover in what were once the royal chambers – and to restore the neutral walls of the Salle des Bronzes. The foundation claims a violation of the French concept of “droit moral”, or the moral right to protect the integrity of a work of art.

Twombly’s mural, the color of the Greek Aegean, once dominated the room with its pale stucco walls and limestone floors. The new look includes wooden floors and terracotta walls that were chosen to resemble the Second Empire style of Napoleon III, who established the gallery to display Etruscan antiquities in the mid-19th century.

In early February, a clandestine photo of the renovated gallery, taken by someone inside the closed museum, ended up in a text message addressed to Nicola Del Roscio, president of the Cy Twombly Foundation. Soon, an article appeared in a journal specializing in French art, followed by other articles in the French press, notably in the daily newspaper Le Monde.

“It’s offensive,” said David Baum, a New York attorney for the foundation. “Why don’t you at least tell us?” So that it comes by SMS with a photo where everything is done. We hit the roof.

The group’s lawyers immediately sent a flurry of letters to French officials and the president of the Louvre demanding that the gallery be restored to its previous state, denouncing the “dark red” painting as an “aberration”, criticizing the “rough workmanship” and “unsightly materials”. .”

Credit…RMN-Grand Palais; Louvre Museum

To bolster their legal case, the US foundation teamed up with two former senior Louvre officials, presenting a statement from Henri Loyrette, 68, the museum’s former president, who slammed the new color and flooring as “disfiguring”. “.

Marie-Laure Bernadac, 71, a former Louvre curator who wrote a book about Twombly’s ceiling, also expressed her contempt in a statement against the foundation’s lawsuit: “This sudden and inappropriate modification would have deeply affected” the artist, she said. (The Louvre declined Friday to discuss Loyrette and Bernadac’s statements.)

The two former employees played a central role in enlisting Twombly – then in his eighties – to design and create the mural with the help of assistants. They covered about 3,800 square feet of the ceiling in deep blue, marked with circles and the names in Greek letters of ancient sculptors.

The critical moment of the dispute and leaks to the French press made the Louvre suspect that there was a story behind this story. Jean-Luc Martinez ends his last term in April after eight years as president of the museum. He is under consideration for a third three-year term, with an announcement expected in the coming weeks.

“The way it was handled was a form of intimidation. This is not normal procedure,” Mr. Martinez said in an interview before the foundation filed the lawsuit.

“Imagine someone coming to your house and telling you that I have the moral rights, and you can’t change the artwork behind you, and you can’t touch it, or move your mirror,” did he declare. “For the Louvre, the work of art is the ceiling and not the room.

The research for the renovation was carried out for ten years by Michel Goutal, the chief architect of the historical monuments of France, an independent post of the Louvre. He sought approval for the restoration plans from a French historical commission and matched the colors of a 19th-century painting from the gallery.

French press critics such as Didier Rykner, editor-in-chief of La Tribune de l’Art, an art journal, wondered why anything had to be changed in the Salle des Bronzes, just over ten years after the ceiling was painted.

In an interview, he compared the new look to a “pizzeria”. However, some Le Monde readers were less impressed with Twombly’s art. In letters about the dispute, one reader remarked that “Twombly is not Michelangelo” and later offered to trade the ceiling fresco to an American museum for a Renoir.

Within the Louvre, there are other major contemporary works including those of Anselm Kiefer and Georges Braque who in 1953 painted amorphous birds on the ceiling of the Henri II room, which adjoins the fresco by Twombly.

Martinez, the president of the Louvre, said the foundation’s lawsuit would discourage secular museums from working with contemporary artists in the future, creating fear of legal issues. “Some colleagues in historical monuments will never work with contemporary art again,” he said. “What signal”, he added, “is the Cy Twombly Foundation sending?”