By Bernar Yslaire & Jean-Claude CarriÃ¨re, translated by Joe Johnson (NBM ComicsLit/Louvre: MusÃ©e du Louvre Ã‰ditions)
A few years ago the prestigious Louvre gallery in Paris began an intriguing and extremely rewarding collaboration with the world of comics, and their latest beguiling translated bande dessinÃ©e is now available in English courtesy of those fine folks at NBM.
The Sky Over the Louvre is a lush and beautiful, oversized hardback graphic novel which explores the very origins and philosophical underpinnings of Franceâ€™s national art collection whilst peeling back the motivations and ambitions of the twisted visionaries who steered – or perhaps simply rode – the human wave of Chaos deemed â€œthe Terrorâ€ of the French Revolutionâ€¦ catalyst for the galleryâ€™s very existence.
As always, these tales are produced in close collaboration with the forward-looking authorities of the MusÃ©e du Louvre, but this is no gosh-wow, â€œNight-at-the-Museumâ€, thinly-concealed catalogue of contents from a stuffy edifice of public culture. Rather, here is a gripping, intense, informative and insightful glimpse into the price of art as engine of change and agent of obsession.
Jean-Claude CarriÃ¨re was born in 1931, studied at the Ã‰cole normale supÃ©rieure de Saint-Cloud and wrote a novel before becoming an actor and one of Franceâ€™s greatest screenwriters. He worked with Luis BuÃ±uel for 19 years, scripting such classics as Diary of a Chambermaid, Belle de Jour, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, That Obscure Object of Desire and many more.
Other notable credits include working with directors such as Milos Forman, Louis Malle, Andrzej Wajda, Nagisa Oshima and others on iconic films like The Tin Drum, Danton, The Return of Martin Guerre, Max, Mon Amour and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, although three generations of British television viewers will probably revere him most for his adaptation of the Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (starring Robert Hoffmann and featuring that iconic theme-tune) which ran on BBC1 at tea time from 1965 to about twenty minutes agoâ€¦.
Belgian artist Bernar Yslaire (Bernard Hislaire) began his career in 1978 drawing kiddieâ€™s strip â€˜Bidouille et Violetteâ€™ for Spirou before creating the historical epic â€˜Sambreâ€™ in 1986 (still going strong) and was one of the first creators to fully embrace the potential of the internet with his online strip â€˜Memories of the XXth Skyâ€™. In 2006 he produced the moving doomed romance â€˜Sky over Brussellsâ€™.
The Sky Over the Louvre compellingly blends history and drama by focussing on the revolutionary artist Jacques-Louis David and close associate Maximilien de Robespierre (who called himself â€œThe Incorruptibleâ€) as they planned how to replace religion, monarchy and the Old Art with something unique and truly worthy of their revolution. David and his School (Drouais, Greueze, Girodet and students Serangeli and GÃ©rard) have taken residence in the old Louvre Palace where past kings left their grandiose aggregation of treasures when they vacated Paris for Versailles. Here the Revolutionary council aspires to create a new aesthetic and new thought for their New Societyâ€¦
Jules Stern is a 13-year old wanderer from the Black Sea, roaming the dangerous streets of Paris seeking his mother and claiming to have an appointment with David. On the 15th Fructidor, Year 1 (8th August 1793 for those of us not wedded to the Republicâ€™s new calendar) the angelic lad confronts the artist whilst he inaugurates the Louvre as the first Museum of the Nation, dedicated to public ownership of art and the notion of beauty as a revolutionary ideal. Later they meet again and Robespierre forms a hostile opinion of the child, although David is clearly fascinated by the headstrong, beautiful boyâ€¦
As the high-minded idealism of the Revolutionâ€™s early days dissolves into factional in-fighting Robespierre and David become increasingly concerned with the spiritual and aesthetic, determined to excise and replace every vestige of the old regime and society. They seek images and concepts to embody their cause and plan a festival to the concept of Reason but across France backsliding and foreign invasion threaten their progress. In September 1793 the Convention (ruling body and parliament of the Republic) decrees â€œTerror to be the order of the Dayâ€â€¦
Blood, betrayal and horror rule the streets as David, from his apartments in the Louvre, begins work on a brace of pivotal works: The Supreme Being and The Death of Joseph Bara. It is difficult to assess which caused him the most grief and triggered his ultimate downfallâ€¦
The Incorruptible is becoming more arrogant and ruthless, desperate for revolutionary images that will fire and inspire the masses. He presses David to produce the ultimate physical representation of the conceptual spirit of the New France – a Supreme Being – but as time goes by and no image emerges, one too many people are whispering that what Robespierre actually requires is a portrait of himselfâ€¦
Far less troublesome should be The Death of Joseph Bara; a boy who became the first martyr of the Revolution and one scheduled to become the nationâ€™s uniting icon. However, Davidâ€™s obsession with Jules Stern brings more trouble when Robespierre objects to the boy being selected as the model for Bara the Myth…
Nobody baulks The Incorruptible for long, but the obsessive nature of the creative impulse is insurmountable and eventually Robespierre can only achieve his ends by sending Jules to the guillotine. Incredibly, not even death separated the artist from his modelâ€¦
Set solidly in the very heart of a moment of epochal historical importance, this is a stunning and utterly compulsive tale of humanity at its wildest extremes when grand ideals wedded themselves to the basest on bestial impulses, yet from that Yslaire and CarriÃ¨re have crafted a magnificently realised tale laced with staggering detail and addictive emotion.
With extra features including biographies and a listing of the actual artwork woven seamlessly into the narrative, this is a truly magical book that no aficionado of the medium can afford to missâ€¦
Â© 2009 Futuropolis/MusÃ©e du Louvre Ã‰ditions. Â© 2011 NBM for the English translation by Joe Johnson. All rights reserved.