Black Lives Matter. We stand in solidarity with those affected by generations of structural violence. You can help »

The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 19-JAN 20

All Issues
DEC 19-JAN 20 Issue
Art In Conversation

MICHEL LACLOTTE with Joachim Pissarro

“The Louvre is an extraordinary totality. The sum of all its parts keeps astonishing me.”

Michel Laclotte. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Michel Laclotte. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

In 1793, during the French Revolution, the French kings’ art collection housed in the Louvre became the property of the French Nation, and was opened to the public. Although there had been earlier European museums prior to the Louvre, this was a most decisive beginning in the history of public art museums as we know it. In 2018, the Louvre had more than ten million visitors. It is the most visited museum anywhere. And so, when, some years ago, we inaugurated this series of interviews with museum directors, naturally we wanted to interview all three living former Presidents of the Louvre: Michel Laclotte (1987–95), Pierre Rosenberg (1994–2001), and Henri Loyrette (2001–13). In February of 2019 Rail Consulting Editor Joachim Pissarro talked with all three men in Paris.

Here, then, we present the 14th museums director we have had the pleasure of interviewing. Our interviews with Pierre Rosenberg and Henri Loyrette will appear in forthcoming issues. Our consistent discovery has been that museums everywhere share some concerns, and that, in some important ways, national differences matter enormously. Almost all museums have to expand and add to the collection previously unrepresented visual traditions. All of them have to contend with increasing numbers of visitors. But how these expansions of the buildings and the collections are financially supported varies considerably from one country to another. As will be made clear here, some of the differences in American and French funding systems are dramatic and important.

We have consulted with profit Michel Laclotte’s A Key to the Louvre: Memoirs of a Curator, trans. Mark Polizzotti (New York: Abbeville, 2004).

The Louvre. Photo: © 2019 Olivier Ouadah.
The Louvre. Photo: © 2019 Olivier Ouadah.

Joachim Pissarro (Rail): The premise of these three interviews is that all three personalities, each one, of course, with its own personal intonation and distinctive input, took charge of this antiquated and august institution, the Louvre, and you especially, Monsieur Laclotte, accompanied it towards the 21st century, end of the 20th century to 21st century. I think this was an incredible challenge. How did you take charge of such an ancient—two-century old—institution and how did you bring it into its present and prepare its future?

Michel Laclotte: As you know, the Louvre consisted of seven departments, to which was later added the Department of Islamic Art, which adds up to eight. When I was in the Department of Paintings, where I worked from 1966 until my appointment as Director of the Louvre, the highest museum authority of the Louvre at the time was deferred to the Direction des Musées de France [editor’s note: a government position that oversaw all the museums in France]. There was no director of the Louvre per se, except at the very end, when Monsieur Parrot, a great archeologist, was appointed director. But this was more like a dean’s position, and carried no responsibility whatsoever. When in 1981, President François Mitterand decided to clear the Richelieu Wing and build the Grand Louvre, it was a complete overhaul. Very early on, I became connected to this vast project, first as Director of the Paintings Department. I had had the experience of launching the Musée d’Orsay, which opened in 1986 and which I had been responsible for, along with my team. Furthermore, I had always said that I would not be the first director of Orsay, but that I would stay at the Louvre. This experience helped me understand what it takes to launch a great museum and what it consisted of. In 1981, Emile Biasini became responsible for the Louvre. He was an administrator that I knew by reputation and he was incredible. He was one of the people who suggested the idea of the Great Louvre to François Mitterand. He requested that the Louvre should become independent before accepting to be the boss: he thus became president of the EPGL (Etablissement Public du Grand Louvre)—a wholly new administrative and governmental structure, which led to the vast construction project of the New Louvre. That was lucky because Biasini was a remarkable man, very authoritarian, a kind of bulldozer. Early on I got on well with him. And so I became associated with the project.

We created a jury for the programming, which simply consisted of asking each department what they wanted, and writing it all up. I was part of the jury that selected Jérôme Dourdin, who in the years 1981–1982 perfectly defined what we all wanted. At that moment, in the years 1983–1984, I became more and more involved. We decided, at a certain point, with the agreement of the chief curators, to create a new position—a real director of the Louvre. This must have been around 1987. The construction site was already quite well advanced, in particular the foundations and the underground part. In a very clever manner, Biasini had once called me to tell me that he had something to show me. He unveiled I.M. Pei’s pyramid project in front of me, and I was thrilled! All the more so, because I knew I.M. Pei—and I knew his work. The East Wing in Washington is amazing. And I thought the plan for the Louvre was simply wonderful. It was exactly what was needed. And so Pei was selected. We assembled a team, and in 1987 we decided that I would be the director. Beforehand, I contacted all my peers, and asked what they thought, and they said, “Oh, if there needs to be one, it may as well be you!...”

Rail: You were not just a director, you were appointed “president-director,” right? Wasn’t this a wholly new title?

Laclotte: At first, my position entirely depended on the Ministry of Education. And so, the office of the former Direction des Musées de France (previously responsible for the Louvre and all the museums) was vacated and replaced by the Direction of the Louvre. It was in 1992 or 1993, that we decided to make it an Etablissement public [editor’s note: a public institution] and to set its new formal conditions: 1) the director of the Louvre must always have been a curator first, and 2) the president must always be the director of the Louvre. I hope this will last, because as you know, the profession of curator is very particular, but essential to understand what it takes to run a place like the Louvre. In 1987, when I became director, I asked to have by my side a top-notch administrator, which happened: Francine Mariani-Ducray was my number two and worked with me all the time. She obviously saw things with the spirit of an Enarque [editor’s note: Graduate from the top elite administration school in France]—something I fundamentally was lacking in. I instituted a collegial system. We had weekly obligatory meetings every Thursday morning. We would meet, the director (then appointed as president-director) and the seven chief curators, and we would discuss everything. Every Monday, I had a meeting with the chiefs of service, and every month there was a general meeting of the chief curators and the managers. These were managers of different things. At the time, the Louvre only had one room with services, the Salle du Manège. Everything was there. We realized that it was absurd.

Simulation of I. M. Pei's pyramid in the Cour Napoleon, May, 1985. © Musée du Louvre (fonds EPGL). Photo: Patrice Astier.
Simulation of I. M. Pei's pyramid in the Cour Napoleon, May, 1985. © Musée du Louvre (fonds EPGL). Photo: Patrice Astier.

I had previously travelled to the United States a lot. Very early on, I was lucky to get the Focillon Fellowship at Yale in 1955, and so I knew the American system very well. Everywhere there were restaurants, cafés, auditoriums for lectures and events, and a bookstore, of course! The Pyramid carried a significance that wasn’t purely aesthetic, but which was also functional: to illuminate. We had decided to do a large basement that needed to be illuminated as well as possible. I now know that Pei had thought of several solutions, that at some point the pyramid got accepted, but that he continued to nurture a taste for…

Rail: For Egypt?

Laclotte: Not only Egypt, but also all of classical architecture. He built the auditorium, which is magnificent, and the underground portion. Simultaneously, we made some significant excavations around the Cour Carrée, and found traces of the ancient Louvre. The first task was to have a large underground space for everything that the Louvre had been missing. We therefore decided to incorporate a whole service industry, of course primarily museological, but that had never existed before. In order for everything to be finished, the EPGL (the administrative arm presiding over the construction) would cease to exist, and the Great Louvre would finally open in 1993, fully completed (the Richelieu part opened in 1993), we needed strong teams of architects and engineers. The second task was to establish cultural services. It used to be called pedagogical services for kids, but we obviously felt that this was insufficient and that the cultural department, which oversaw the incredible auditorium, should organize conferences, seminars, and this also happened!

Rail: Did you come up with all these ideas, with this whole vision?

Laclotte: That wasn’t me. That was the program. The Louvre always sold many tickets and had plenty of temporary exhibitions. The Cabinet of Drawings, for instance, had always been making temporary exhibitions. It was impossible to have a permanent display of all the works, because of space limitations. For a long time it was Roseline Bacou, who was amazing, and who was responsible for this vast department. Unfortunately, she left before the end and retired a few years later. I don’t remember the exact dates, but there were two temporary exhibitions that I took care of and which were, in a way, an indication of what we wanted to do. First, an exhibition centered around our donors. We wanted to show that the Louvre wasn’t only built from the government’s money, as generous as the State was at that time. We wanted to point out that, from its incipient point, it was the royal collections, then hugely supplemented by considerable and great private donations, that made the Louvre what it is. In fact, some of the donations were constrained by the obligation to keep them together. Others, by contrast, had to be incorporated within other collections. We wanted to show that.

The Friends of the Louvre had obviously always played an important role, and they continue to do so. So, this was an unprecedented exhibition on donors!

The second exhibition, also a little symbolic, was the Polyptych show. This was really my idea, and I wanted there to be room for modern and contemporary painting, for today’s creation seen at the Louvre. That had never happened. And we made an exhibition of a large polyptych by Soulages, that he installed himself. He was advising our technical team—they had never worked with a living artist, of course. And, my specialty is the 14th–15th centuries, Italian and French—a far cry from contemporary art. So I was used to altarpieces, diptychs, polyptychs, and all that. We introduced the idea that the Louvre was also for contemporary painting. For example, we displayed something extravagant, but classical by Magritte, a naked woman, conceived after a certain understanding of the Antiquity, and segmented into different pieces. So these were the two things I put emphasis on. First, an opening towards, and an appreciation of, the role of private donors, and second, an opening to contemporary art. Since then, there have been many exhibitions where contemporary art has been visible. Thankfully, this new direction hasn’t stopped.

Rail: You created a new pattern for the Great Louvre, which was almost unthinkable before you. What is interesting, as you know, is that this is the way American museums function. Without donors and sponsors, the museum collapses. But this wasn’t the case in Europe, certainly not in France. How was this received at the beginning? You very well say that the government continues to be very generous and present. But the goal was to give a significant part to private donors. How was this perceived?

Construction of I. M. Pei's pyramid, March 1988. © Musée du Louvre (fonds EPGL). Photo: Patrice Astier.
Construction of I. M. Pei's pyramid, March 1988. © Musée du Louvre (fonds EPGL). Photo: Patrice Astier.

Laclotte: As natural and simple as can be. This was a very organic process. We continued to receive donations although there were fewer collectors. There was something, which unfortunately is no longer there. I had conceived of an entire section on the history of the Louvre, of the palace with all of Hubert Robert’s projects, etc. For example, two of the paintings of Hubert Robert were available on the market. I had found out that an Argentinian collector who owned them was willing to sell. I went to Argentina and it turned out that the paintings had actually come from the Hermitage, which had sold them under Stalin, in the 1930s. These are two absolute masterpieces by Hubert Robert showing the Grande Galerie, sort of like before and after. I regret that this aspect of the Louvre’s history is not included, it’s a personal regret, concerning the history of a museum that changed so much during the whole 19th century, since its opening in 1793.

From the onset of the new Great Louvre, Balladur, who was the Minister of Finance, dragged his heels a bit, given the funds we needed. But then, once he called me and I showed him the finalized project, and he told me: “Ah! that IS a beautiful project!” That was his sign of approval... And then he left. But he had been dragging his feet and the Richelieu part only opened later, but the preceding part was opened in 1989. Symbolically even, Mitterrand had expressed the wish to have a top meeting of all the main international leaders (Bush, Kohl, and all the others) at the Louvre: a lunch was set up at the Louvre for these dignitaries, and that carried a huge symbolic and political importance: this gave a great boost to our building project. After lunch, they did a little tour of the rooms, which was also quite symbolic.

Rail: This must have been a high time, seeing all these personalities. How did your curators responded to such an event?

Laclotte: I mentioned that I truly believe in the collegial system. I always trusted my chief curators, and two or three times, when they were handling the installation, I wasn’t in agreement with them. I remember, in particular, (I will not mention any names, if you don’t mind), but, at any rate, for the 18th century, the curator in charge of the hanging and the architect, who was Italo Rota, who had worked with Gae Aulenti, they all had chosen colors that I didn’t like. But I finally asked the chief curator to make the decision and I followed his advice, although I didn’t really agree. It’s not ugly, it’s acceptable, but I felt it was essential that chief curators had to retain strength, and power of decision. At all levels, this was my own directorial style, we decided on all things together.

Rail: I remember a joke that you made, I think it must have been in 1995. I was working with Françoise Cachin and Henri Loyrette at the time on the great Cézanne exhibition. Richard Brettell and I came to see you at the Louvre, the brand new Louvre, because it was two years old at the time. We were congratulating you for the work you accomplished and, as usual, you were characteristically modest, and you asked us a question: “You both know, don’t you, what the charge of the president-director of the Louvre is? You know what he’s responsible for? There is only one place where he has a say.” We said, “What is it?” “The auditorium” you told us. [Laughter]

Laclotte: You know, one of the important things for me was the intellectual programming. We did something, which I believe isn’t done so much at the Louvre now—we actually made or produced a lot of films. We called on great filmmakers to produce films on art history. Alain Joubert, for example. We did interviews of very important people. For one of the films, I was lucky to interview Charles Sterling, a truly great art historian whom I profoundly admired. He died shortly after. We did a film on Zeri, on Krautheimer. A variety of films that were made at the time about great art historians, independent of the Louvre. It was art history in general.

Rail: Was that overseen by the Louvre?

Laclotte: It was created by the Louvre. Those films entered the INA (National Audiovisual Institute), but it would be worthwhile to take them out and to make DVDs, or make them accessible in any other way. The truth is that at the moment there is no Berenson, Zeri, Longhi, Krautheimer, or Panofsky. There were such great art historians at the end of the 20th century.

Rail: I want to come back to what you were saying about the history of the Louvre. There’s a paradox that I think is very interesting in this enormous project, this construction site that you developed with a lot of help, including, of course, the help of the government. By pushing the Louvre forward towards the 21st century, with Pei’s pyramid, by opening the Louvre to the world, you were strangely also able to bring back to light the foundation of the Louvre’s history, its very historical premises. I remember my first visit, I noticed the dungeons, the foundations of Charles V, it went even further back, no?

Laclotte: Oh, yes! It went back even to Philippe Auguste.

Rail: Philippe Auguste, that’s right, yes. Is it still being carried on today or do you think that…

Laclotte: I don’t know. I retired quite a long time ago, you know. And I never wanted to bother my successors. But I introduced a whole gamut of different initiatives. There were also musical programs, real musical programming. It was important to me. Today, it seems of less interest, I think. It was Monique Devaux who handled this aspect of creation, and we held concerts of significant importance. When I left in 1994, I said that I didn’t want any kind of celebration or fuss around me, but that’s not what happened. They made a ceremony that ended with a concert and I was presented with a large book, a book that was a tribute, as are often made. We just made one for Dominique Thiébaut, who had recently retired, and I took care of his tribute personally. We asked all his friends around the world to write an article on an x subject, with respect to the century, the period or the country.

Rail: Where is this tribute? Do you have it somewhere? … Oh, I see. This weighs a ton. Was it published in several editions?

Laclotte: Yes, of course. I believe so. It’s useful because there are excellent articles.

Rail: It was published by the Réunion des Musées Nationaux. And it is a truly beautiful publication. And these are articles of peers who worked in your domain?

Laclotte: Yes, but there are also articles on periods that I never worked on.

Rail: You were the first, the first person to be in charge of the Louvre, to get the title of president-director. That means something. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe it actually means that the president-director of the Louvre no longer reports to the Director of French Museums, but directly to the Minister of Culture.

Laclotte: Exactly.

Rail: That must have been a bit of a revolution.

Laclotte: That’s the system of the Public Establishment.

Rail: Was the Louvre the first such institution? Or Public Establishment?

Laclotte: Yes, and of course in the Louvre’s case, there is also a huge resource: the admission prices—10 million x 15 Euros… Just do the maths. At the time, Brigitte Joseph Jeanneney was my number two, after Francine Mariani-Ducray. I hesitated, thinking that it would be a heavy administrative load. There were ultimately some board meetings once in a while, but it happened kind of organically. If you will, in each large museum, the director acquired new general administrative responsibilities that he didn’t have under the Director of the French Museums. But the transition went on quite well. At some point, a new Director of the French Museums was appointed, and these important administrative responsibilities for the Louvre, were no longer his own. This was very simple.

There’s one thing we didn’t discuss, and it is interesting for the period you mention. And that is, the extraordinary rampant objections initially voiced against the pyramid. It was, at first, truly incredible. And it was so violent. We decided to organize a kind of lobby of friends with important personalities, such as Pierre Boulez, for example. So it wasn’t n’importe qui : Soulages and others accepted to express their opposition to this wave of negativity. They proclaimed that the new Louvre was actually a great project, but this didn’t stop the flow of very aggressive articles and the public feared this project. Exactly like the Eiffel Tower, a century sooner. And now it has become completely accepted, and it is revered, even! Go figure! Did you see the rally when president Macron was elected? Where did it take place! In front of the pyramid! But even at the beginning, there were also a few exceptional people: Jacques Thuillier, for instance, a great 17th century specialist, and a great friend, who wasn’t a modernist, but right away, he got it, and he understood the interest, and the beauty, of the Pyramid.

Rail: Thuillier was a great Georges de La Tour specialist.

Laclotte: Yes, exactly, but he wasn’t much of a reactionary. He didn’t follow contemporary art. He supported me right away, and understood its virtues associated with the old.

Rail: How do you explain this resentment, this negativity, this aggression? I remember that it was in fact quite violent.

Laclotte: I think the idea of associating the ancient with the modern … In my book, I retell the reaction of a taxi driver in Nice. It’s astounding. I was taking a taxi to the airport, and he asks me “what do you do?” So I tell him “guess,” and he says, “You’re an architect.” This was a compliment because I really admire architects. In fact, when I was a student, I wanted to become an architect, to build museums. It’s true. Architecture has always interested me. And so he tells me “and what do …” And when I spoke about the Louvre, he had never been to Paris, but he said “Oh, that’s awful.” Isn’t it funny? This reaction is very violent, and was so pervasive…

I had traveled a lot, I had looked at museums, and I was struck by Pei’s triangle in Washington. He also made some beautiful buildings in Boston. He is a charming individual. I sent him a photo from a bus in Paris … there you see in the same shot, Notre-Dame, the Eiffel Tower and the Pyramid….

Rail: It has become one of the great classics. Once again, a paradox. A paradox between this hatred and now this complete acceptance, and even more: celebration. I didn’t know that you had wanted to be an architect. How was your relationship with Pei?

Laclotte: When Biasini showed me the project, I accepted it right away. I saw it again in New York in Pei’s offices, in a more elaborate format. I went there with Wilmotte, who was an interior architect, who mostly worked for the Department of Decorative Arts, or rather against the Department of Decorative Arts. He was more traditional than Pei.

Rail: So the Louvre suddenly became a Public Establishment, in 1993, two hundred years after opening its doors to the public… A symbolic date! This meant two radical changes, right? This meant that you were now reporting directly from your seat at the Louvre to the Minister in person; it also meant that you were presiding over an enormous financial institution, with tens of millions of Euros of revenue…

Laclotte: Yes, but here I would like to mention that the role of the administrator [editor’s note: the CFO in American museum culture] was very important. Especially the sister of Jean-Noël who was remarkable. She was very competent and able to solve all administrative issues. She was the one who prepared all my correspondence. I only signed. There was also a very good manager, Gilles Butaud, with whom I got along very well, and who was one of the chiefs of service responsible for maintaining order in the museum with the day and night security teams. It went well. There were all these people, on whom I completely depended. Some of them had already been at the Louvre for a quite some time, and they carried great pride in dealing with something so prestigious and new as le Grand Louvre. I owe all of them so much!

Rail: There was all this controversy regarding the new Louvre, but there were also waves of support, of backing internationally. It was a huge deal, when it was revealed to the international public. At a certain point, I remember that in the United States, we were stunned, in the best sense, by this new vision of the Louvre that you had articulated with I.M. Pei. You really transformed this establishment. A notable fact is that today it’s the most visited museum in the world, with almost 10 million visitors a year. Maybe you didn’t have as many in 1993, but don’t you think there’s a cause and effect between what you created and what the museum became today—the most important museum in the world?

Visitors in the Grande Galerie. © 2017 Musée du Louvre. Photo: Olivier Ouadah.
Visitors in the Grande Galerie. © 2017 Musée du Louvre. Photo: Olivier Ouadah.

Laclotte: I don’t know because in fact most visitors today don’t know about the controversies that took place then. They go to the museum and that’s it. They can’t imagine that there was such a transformation. At some point, also a personal anecdote, I had dreamt that we had discovered that the Bon Marché—I don’t know if I discuss this in the book, maybe not—that the Bon Marché was for sale. So I said, “we buy the Bon Marché, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs moves there, the Musée Guimet takes the place of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs.” And like this, we’d have everything. It was completely absurd.

Rail: It may not be as absurd.

Laclotte: No, it’s not stupid but, having said that, the Musée Guimet is a wonderful museum and it’s a world that is very different from the others. It would have been a little artificial. So what happened after me, that’s when President Chirac came on the scene, and that’s when the Arts Premiers museums, African and pre-Columbian arts, were installed, in part, with a few masterpieces, in the Flore wing. But that didn’t stop the Musée de l’Homme from having its own collections.

Rail: Were you for this inclusion of certain objects?

Laclotte: This was much later. It was under Rosenberg, I think.

Rail: Precisely, the combination that you spoke about for example with the Musée Guimet.

Laclotte: Yes, that’s right. Now there’s a Musée Chirac.

Rail: Yes, the museum of the First Arts (les Arts Premiers) on Quai de Branly.

Laclotte: Having said that, the objects at the Louvre are very beautiful, and I love them. I also really liked this in my youth: I was always drawn towards pre-Colombian art. I had a head, I don’t have it now, I gave it to a friend, a beautiful little Totonac head from Veracruz. A smiling head. Everything that’s here, that you see in my home, all of it will go to the Museum in Rennes. I am very connected to Rennes. My parents studied there, so I sent a lot of things to Rennes from my library and all these paintings will go there as well. These are paintings that I bought at the flea market.

Rail: So you and Rosenberg are …

Laclotte: Oh, the only difference is that Rosenberg has a lot of money. And I have very little. This was at the flea market. Personally, I was very interested by contemporary art. I have a beautiful Poliakoff here, a beautiful little Hartung, also great. And a Soulages that he gave me personally, and to which I am very attached. It would have been way too expensive for me. When I was a student, it was in the 1950s, it was quite something to discover that I could actually collect, with my friend Jean Coural, even though we were students without money, absolutely no money. I wonder how I did it. We went to galleries a lot. There was Denise René of course, who we felt was a little cold. There was Vasarely there. A very good gallery was Lydia Conti, who had all three artists, Soulages, Schneider, and Hartung. But Soulages was already more expensive than the other two, so I was only able to buy a little Hartung.

Rail: This one? You bought this when you were a student?

Laclotte: Yes. And the Poliakoff I bought from Denise René. I love Hartung, it’s not bad, don’t you think?

Rail: I was going to ask, you once again created a new horizon for the Louvre by introducing there contemporary art. Today, it’s become a major attraction. Incidentally, I just came out of the Musée d’Orsay, that you created, and look what they’re showing: a dialogue between Van Gogh and Julian Schnabel, a living artist. So today everyone prolongs this kind of dialogue between ancient art and contemporary art, but you—

Laclotte: Orsay helped me a lot with the Louvre.

Rail: How so?

Laclotte: The Jeu de Paume belonged to the Department of Paintings at the Louvre, you knew that? It was very well managed by Hélène Adhémar, but from an administrative standpoint it was the Department of Paintings. At a certain moment, in the years between 1970 and 1980, there wasn’t enough space, and it was the period when Art Nouveau was being rediscovered, there was the big exhibition that Cassou made Sources of the 20th Century, where the importance of Art Nouveau was emphasized. Many people tried to reinstate the arts pompiers and symbolism, and all of this didn’t exist. So I came up with a new idea, which was to keep the Jeu de Paume as it is, and to make an underground tunnel under the Tuileries that would take you to the Orangerie, with Monet. It was a little stupid.

Thankfully, we had the good fortune to find that the building of the old train station, la Gare d’Orsay, became available. I tell that story a lot, because that was really me. I am claiming it because the former President of France, Giscard d’Estaing, wrote in his memoirs that he had the idea. Not really! No, he used my idea, and thanks to him, Orsay happened because he gave all the money that was needed, but the idea itself, I often say, was realized on a walk with Rosenberg. We came out of the Louvre, he and I, and we were crossing the Seine and we saw the Orsay train station that had just been emptied out, that was completely empty: there was nothing inside! We entered in there, we saw that it was in relatively good condition, and we saw at the top, what would become the gallery of the Impressionists. I remember this very well: it was a Friday, I was suddenly so excited. On Monday morning, I went to see the Director of the Musées de France, who at the time was Jean Chatelain, and I told him what a great team we were, in the Paintings Department at the Louvre, and that we had found a solution to his problems. In any case, I found out that the building (Orsay) was going to be preserved, not destroyed, which was already a good thing. We then went on to discuss my idea with the minister, who was Jacques Duhamel, an excellent minister, unfortunately he died very early. His cabinet director was Jacques Rigard. Both immediately agreed and went on to ask President Pompidou for an agreement in principle. All of this was still vague. And then it was all confirmed and sealed by Giscard in 1974. At that moment, it was set, the building was preserved and I agreed to handle the organization of the future Musée d’Orsay, while staying in the Department of Paintings at the Louvre, as I told you before, and to assemble a team with Françoise Cachin, to form what would become the Musée d’Orsay.

Rail: Henri [Loyrette] also became the president of two major museums, the same ones as you, but not in the same order: He went from Orsay to the Louvre. I have a question for you, if you don’t mind. It’s not a critique, it’s just a question, really. Regarding the Musée d’Orsay, you could say that you gave birth to a superb baby, you conceived it, it became also one of the world’s most popular museums, in terms of visibility, in terms of cultural impact, programming and other things. You created it, better even, you were the forerunner of the museum, it’s your idea, as you just said. But then, the museum opens and you say: no, I won’t take care of it. Why is that?

Laclotte: Because there was a strong team in place already. They didn’t need me. There was Françoise Cachin, there was Henri [Loyrette], and because I wanted to handle paintings back at the Louvre: that’s my home. I’m not a specialist of the 19th century. And by the way, I am still among those who don’t really like the art of the pompiers. [editor’s note: of Salon painters of the 19th century]

Rail: There’s a beautiful publication by Jacques Thuillier about what is the art of the pompiers.

Laclotte: I know, he defended that a lot, yes. I’m sorry, I prefer Cézanne.

Rail: Yes, yes, me too.

Laclotte: I didn’t break that wall, you know. But still, suddenly, we had to show a few of these Salon paintings, which is what we did. And of course, I was lectured and patronized, you know: “Why did you put up all of these bad works?” Well, that’s something else.

Rail: It’s true that it was a moment of complete change.

Laclotte: It was a decade when culture really mattered.

Rail: And then you handed over the reins to Pierre Rosenberg …

Laclotte: Yes, with whom I had worked a lot because he was my number two in the paintings departments and he was very well known, very hardworking, very knowledgeable, an amazing eye. He hesitated. I think he hesitated. And then he accepted.

Rail: When you passed the reins to Rosenberg, the Louvre then had little to do the institution you had received in the 1980s. When Rosenberg became president-director, what was your relationship with the museum and with him? Were you not tempted to keep an eye on how he was running your Louvre?

Laclotte: Absolutely not. I left him alone. To each one’s own, that is what I believe. And then it was Henri, you know. Now it’s Martinez. Yes. The difference for Loyrette is that Henri was not at all a specialist of old painting, for him it was Degas, above all.

Rail: I am on my way to see him after you. I will ask him these same questions. Is there something that particularly impressed you when you worked at the Louvre?

Laclotte: No, it’s everything together. The Louvre is an extraordinary totality. The sum of all its parts is what keeps astonishing me. You know, I was very busy because until 1986 I had two concurrent construction sites to oversee: the Grand Louvre and Orsay. Then I only had the construction site of the Louvre and we were opening part by part. We opened between 1989 and 1993, so I was right in there. I didn’t have time to do crosswords …

Rail: What was your most beautiful acquisition?

Piero Della Francesca, <em>Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta</em>, c.1450-51. Tempera on panel, 17 1/2 x 13 1/2 inches. Collection of the Louvre, Paris.
Piero Della Francesca, Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, c.1450-51. Tempera on panel, 17 1/2 x 13 1/2 inches. Collection of the Louvre, Paris.

Laclotte: There were many. The most important one for me was the Piero della Francesca, because it’s someone that I profoundly admire and it was almost impossible to find. One finally appeared on the market: I snatched it away. It had been published by Longhi, the Portrait of Malatesta, and it was a huge battle to have.

Rail: Why such a battle?

Laclotte: Because it was extremely rare, for one thing. But you know, I am almost more interested in the paintings I didn’t get! I wish I could do a small photo exhibition of all the works that we failed to get. Of the early titans, we have two important ones, Giotto and Cimabue, but we don’t have Duccio, the third master of the birth of painting in Europe, if I may say. There was one in the Stoclet collection in Brussels, that we were following through dealer friends, but finally it was purchased by the Met. Also Velázquez, our biggest weakness! We only have paintings from the studio. I was in the auction room in London to buy the Portrait of Juan de Pareja. I had a certain sum and I didn’t want to budge. One of my friends was at the auctioneer’s table, and he told me that if you want I will, and I said, I will put on my glasses, and when I took them off, it was finished. It was quick. Again, it was the Met who passed above us… So that’s the second such disappointment. Also a painting that I regret a little bit, that’s much more recent, that’s a large portrait by Le Brun of the Jabach family and in the background you can see two paintings from the Louvre. It was also purchased by the Met! Apparently the English owners did not want to sell it in Europe. Aside from that, there were many acquisitions … the entire team was always involved.

Rail: And there was Cuzin as well, whom I knew well when I was at the Kimbell.

Laclotte: Yes, I am still very attached to Cuzin, who has a great eye.

Rail: I got to know him when we, at the Kimbell, organized an exhibition on Georges de La Tour in 1994, I believe, and then France was also organizing an exhibition of de La Tour’s works with a slightly different concept. Our project was co-organized by the National Gallery, in D.C. and the Kimbell in Fort Worth. That’s how I became quite close to Jacques Thuillier, and how I connected with Pierre Rosenberg as well, another great 17th century specialist. The Kimbell also purchased a Duccio, a predella for an altarpiece. But I find what you’re saying as a museum director focusing on the works you didn’t acquire, extraordinary. Incidentally, that’s exactly what Pierre Rosenberg was telling me. He was more interested to discuss what he had missed, than big acquisitions.

Laclotte: And that’s what I say each time to curators, even the youngest ones. They’re a good recent generation, there are two or three that joined the paintings department who are better than those who are 15 years older than them. The Velázquez and the Duccio are missing. Duccio is unlikely. But Velázquez, there may still be some out there.

Rail: I personally greatly admire Sébastien Allard, you know him, I’m sure?

Laclotte: Yes, very well. He just made some purchases that I haven’t seen yet. He’s very good. He’s a 19th century specialist.

Rail: But the new generation, and incidentally Rosenberg was saying the exact same thing, he thinks that they are very, very serious scholars and curators.

Contributor

Joachim Pissarro

Joachim Pissarro has been the Bershad Professor of Art History and Director of the Hunter College Galleries, Hunter College, New York, since 2007. He has also held positions at MoMA, the Kimbell Art Museum, and the Yale University Art Gallery. His latest book on Wild Art (with co-author David Carrier) was published in fall 2013 by Phaidon Press.

close

The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 19-JAN 20

All Issues