by Robert J. Hughes
Many of the grand rooms and galleries of the Musée du Louvre have elaborately painted ceilings, scenes of fabled passions or legendary battles that float over the art below like an exuberant, if silent, paean to accomplishments real or imagined. You become almost used to these massive works above you, these amatory putti and mythologized aristocrats hovering out of reach like an unattainable dream while you peer at the paintings and furniture that line the walls and fill the rooms at a more-accessible (if still grand) eye level.
But when you walk into the Salle des Bronzes in the Sully Wing on the 1st floor, your eyes can’t help but lift to the cerulean blue expanse of sea and sky there, an Aegean of the spirit. In his recently unveiled permanent installation, “The Ceiling,” that hangs, as it were, like a radiant morning over the room, the octogenarian American artist Cy Twombly has managed to evoke the brilliance of Mediterranean light while paying homage to the creators of the works displayed below and, by extension, to the great sculptural artists of antiquity.
This beautiful, invigorating and calming work graces one of the Louvre’s oldest sections, home to its collection of antique Greek and Roman-era bronzes. Strangely enough, for all of its startling thereness – it is, after all, a vast stretch of bright, bright blue in a subdued room of weathered statues standing in muted brown calm within their vitrines – “The Ceiling” feels appropriate to the space, and in keeping somehow with the busier representational art on the ceilings you find in rooms farther along this particular wing of the Louvre.
The blue of the sky of “The Ceiling” is punctuated here and there by round shapes in a different shades of blue, yellow, white, that can be stones, coins, shells, even flattened bubbles of surprise or exhalations of breath from an invisible snorkel – witty yet subtle polka-dot evocations of places defined by water and sunshine. Insets around the perimeter of the painting are inscribed with the names, written in Greek lettering, of 4th-century BC sculptors, including Phidias, Polyclitus, Praxiteles, Lysippus and Myron.
Even though the works on display are, for the most part, anonymous, Twombly suggests by citing those names of famous classical-era sculptors an ideal of sculpture, of art itself, a continuum of exploration of how the human form is represented, how the ineffable world is captured by artists then and now, by a Praxiteles, even by a Twombly.
The work is in keeping with Twombly’s recognizable, iconic style: words and tinted splashes. But “The Ceiling” is unlike some of his best-known works, with their sometimes manic scribbles, their almost hortatory, poetic visual incantations. “The Ceiling,” lovely in itself, complements the works below it.
Especially the bronzes that are placed at four quadrants of the room. At the middle to one side is an Apollo from the second-century AD. On the other side opposite is a statue to Athena. Both of them refer to works of an earlier, archaic period in classical sculpture, pastiches of existing styles crafted with grace and affection by later artists.
If you enter the room through the Salles Henri II (which in an interview Twombly said was his preferred way in), the room stretches out before you with its vault of blue, and you see at the far end a beautiful 1st-century BC bronze of Apollo. “The Ceiling” serves as a kind of aerial carpet that carries you to the treasures grouped before you, and you can appreciate not only the artistry of the craftsmen who created the works on display, but the way in which a contemporary artist honors those peers from more than two millennia earlier.
The best time to see “The Ceiling,” indeed the best time to visit the Louvre in any case, is first thing in the morning. While the Salle des Bronzes is rarely crowded – especially compared to the halls of French and Italian paintings – early in the day the sun steals in from the east, and the windows along the Salle des Bronzes filter the morning, allowing the actual day to meet the recreated one, the quotidian commenting on the eternal manmade, much as Twombly has paid homage to a time a place and creations that endure through art.
--Robert J. Hughes
(Images: Cy Twombly, The Ceiling at the Musée du Louvre, 2010, Paris. Photographs: Christophe Ena, Associated Press, all rights reserved)