BOOK REPLIES/REVIEWS (2014): Enki Bilal’s (2014) Phantoms of the Louvre

21 September 2014

Summary (TLDR Version)

Perhaps a very subtle condemnation of museums as institutions, which makes a lovely irony if a museum (the Louvre) essentially commissioned it.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: E. Bilal’s (2014)[2] Phantoms of the Louvre

I have much less to say about this book than I wanted to. Since Bilal has proven himself one of the most reliable graphic novelists I have encountered—amongst his works I’ve acquired, his (1992)[3] Nikopol Trilogy, though perhaps his most famous piece, pales next to (1984)[4] The Hunting Party and (1998)[5] The Dormant Beast—I squeaked with delight when I saw this book on the shelf.

Unfortunately, this amounts to merely a plump piece for some kind of special event for the Louvre. As a sort of “completest” gesture that includes a series of 22 phantoms, it resembles Dali’s (1985)[6] “tarot deck,” which features little if any interesting original work and simply rehashes stuff already done; ditto with Giger’s (1994)[7] tarot deck as well.

Each various photograph of some piece in the Louvre then gets a phantom painted over it and an biographical blurb about this imagined phantom. Whatever blend of fact, fiction, and fantasy Bilal concocts—da Vinci, for instance, turns out to have a hankering after hi male models—none of the narratives accumulate into anything. Each stands quite alone, in stark contrast (for instance) to how Sergio Toppi in his phenomenal and gorgeous (2012)[8] Sharaz-De arranges (or actually composes anew) a sequence of stories that builds and accumulates in meaning. The only two things any of Bilal’s narratives have in common: (1) each ghost attaches to some aspect of the Louvre (sometimes a room or space in the Louvre and not a piece that has wound up there), and (2) most of the time the phantom has a literal artistic link to the piece in question, either being a model in the painting or somehow an artist who contributed to the piece.

In as much as the pieces selected range over a very wide swatch of human history geographically and temporally, Bilal does provide a very internationally diverse selection of ghosts. It suggests the same kind of gesture Wim Wenders aimed for by internationalizing his casts to a vast degree and incorporating multiple languages into his film—an attempt to capture the (literally) cosmopolitan nature of European life. Bilal comes to a necessity of ethnic multiplicity by a less urbane manner, but his work too shows the (often more tense) intersection of large numbers of people from different countries, particularly in The Hunting Party. So perhaps this element tempted him to say yes to the Louvre’s project, painting a sort of “human ark” in a way that points—though I don’t think deliberately or intentionally—at Sokurov’s (2003)[9] Russian Ark.

But whatever the case, Bilal expends very little effort on the art. Perhaps, at some abstract level, he sees the human face or head he appends on top of the Louvre original as a kind of dialogue (with the piece), but just as the specific biographies seem disconnected from one another (however witty at times), very little of any of the phantoms have any captivating aesthetic interest—at least not relative to other work by Bilal.

Ultimately, this looks like he recognized a good opportunity for self-promotion, and he tossed off the minimum required by the project to get it out the door.

One possibly interesting wrinkle, however. To the extent that Bilal starts with photographs of extant pieces in the Louvre, one may say he then defaces them, though “deface” makes for an ironic verb, since he covers over the original partially with the phantom’s face. We might consider this work as a piece of covert (but out in the open) vandalism.

In his brief introduction, Bilal addresses the fact that (simply for reasons of space) some ultra-famous pieces in the Louvre got left out.[10] Of these otherwise unnamed ultra-famous pieces, the Mona Lisa does not get left out. And I have to add, for two of the pieces, Bilal selects architectural elements of the Louvre.

Let me draw some of the strands for this “case” together. Unable to include all of the ultra-famous pieces, Bilal nonetheless “sacrifices” two of his twenty-two narratives to architectural features of the Louvre. And of the ultra-famous pieces left out, the most ultra-famous piece of all does not get left out.

As a plump piece for the Louvre, one might imagine a line item in Bilal’s contract that specifically prohibits him from excluding the Mona Lisa no matter how much he wants to. But, on the other hand, if one were to decide what ultra-famous piece to leave out—as an artistic kind of statement—then the Mona Lisa certainly tops that list.[11] So, the presence of the Mona Lisa in this book seems like a sort of glaring inclusion, and to this one may add Bilal’s enthusiastic expansion of the miasma of homosexuality surrounding da Vinci. Depending upon how up on scholarship the reader, candidly parading da Vinci around as a sodomite might well read to many as a (deliberate and perverse) defacement of one of the loftiest figures of Occidental art history we have.

But we could take this gesture as a kind of key for looking at the whole book generally. One might imagine a certain kind of dudgeon, that Bilal (virtually a rock star in France as an artist) should get asked to participate in a project to promote the Louvre when none of his own work hangs there. Add to this a kind of glass-ceiling effect, since Bilal does not come from France originally—so this becomes as “close” to the Louvre as the gatekeepers will allow this admittedly celebrated barbarian. As such, the slap-dash work—below Bilal’s usual richness and detail (hobbled all the more by the “absurd” constraint, either self-imposed or imposed upon him by the project’s handlers)—again marks a literal defacement of these ”monuments of civilization”. So much so that Bilal declines to included 22 works in the Louvre and spends two of his pieces on architectural features of the Louvre (however attractive or not).

Moreover, in his selection of pieces and ghosts, Bilal goes out of his way to amplify or deface the canon of Europe—amongst the famous names of painters (Delacroix, Dürer, Rembrandt, &c) his ghosts range over countries and entities (and histories) not necessarily well-represented in the Louvre. Here, the slap-dash work (again) shows contempt for, and offers an implicit critic, of a canon that has (1) helped starve any number of artists but almost, much more pointedly (2) provided the “evidence” of Occidental civilization that has travelled the globe and slaughtered people either deemed not aesthetic enough or only as aesthetic as their eroticizing or orientalising gazers deemed them.

Similarly, behind all of these “lofty works of art,” Bilal’s biographies pull the curtain back on the performance, so to speak, and show us the nitty and the gritty, the skirts and the dirt, involved in the lofty production of such art: the exploitation (sexual and financial) of poor models, the tawdry involvements of supposedly great minds, the Nazi sympathies of at least one phantom in the Louvre. Nothing of this sort of scandal ever topples one of the Immortals, at least not with the passage of a century or five. No one thinks of the Vitruvian man as possible porn anymore, &c. And the messiness Bilal lays out in these fictional (or fictionalized) pseudo-biographies doesn’t puncture or demean the loftiness of the pieces, though not because the gesture comprises something other than a kind of defacement.

Still, having said all of this, if the book doesn’t stand as merely a half-assed toss-off because the Louvre pays well, then it runs the immemorial peril of trying to elevate the banal; i.e., the book might aim to make “boring” or “dull” or “non-engaging” into an interesting theme. Always tricky to do, and rarely a success, and even less rarely on purpose with malice aforethought.[12] Little gives one reason to pay attention to Bilal’s contributions here, even in the various decisions as to how he will (or did) photograph the piece that serves as a jumping off for each. And because the phantoms, much like the paintings in the Louvre, have no necessary connection to one another, but just happen to hang next to something on the wall, the “total effect” (both of the museum, the book, and the phantoms) winds up mostly absent.

This, again, illuminates a critique of the Occidental canon as a disparately non-meaningful heap. One visits the museum of Bilal’s book and you come away with a hollow feeling, of having basically wasted time, although you got a chuckle out of a given piece or two. This has next to nothing to do with the inherent aesthetic merit of any given piece (or the affective merit of any give phantom’s biography) and everything to do with the vacuity and emptiness of the gesture of a museum in the first place.

By contrast, whatever conceit a library might make or not make toward some degree of completeness in its collection, it does not especially pretend that one’s primary activity inside of it amounts to wandering and browsing. Even if you go with some vague notion to “check out a book” (though you don’t know which one, this differs fundamentally from a museum, where a picture says a thousand words and each piece (on the wall, behind glass) imposes its presence on you, so to speak, and demands you look at and take account of it.

Thus Bilal’s book similarly points up the hollowness of the museum as a gesture, without necessarily casting aspersions on the content of the pieces (or the quality of writing for the phantoms’ biographies) themselves. The seeming laziness of Bilal’s contribution makes for the sort of necessary gesture in order to openly covertly mock the Louvre (and all museums) as an institution, as it were.

I think one may say that Bilal has included enough markers in his book to warrant this kind of reading. The pretentiousness of the Louvre, the supposed compliment of being invited to participate in promoting it when the museum would never include your work on the walls—or, worse, they will include the pieces Bilal did for this book and so his presence on the walls serves only as an advertisement—the various gestures of defacement, both literal and in accord with the traditions of art history, and very aspects of Bilal’s own autobiography and creative thematics all permit a conclusion that he has flagrantly snubbed the Louvre. In this respect, he appears as the twenty-third phantom of the Louvre, the invisible figure who either creates or stand tangentially related to a piece of art.

Unfortunately, this still leaves the book only more interesting to think about than read, but perhaps the Louvre suffers the same fate. One can get more out of it by thinking about it, rather than going there, so to speak. Again, this says nothing about the specific, often aesthetically profound experience of standing in front of some work of art. Rather, it points to the sum experience of going—the phenomenologically bizarre, inappropriate, and anachronistic experience of going from a three thousand year old bronze helmet to a painting by some anonymous Dutchman, &c.

Bilal also parodies the museum experience in that he provides more text than image. More precisely, each painting begins with a black page and the phantom’s name along with various witty variations on basic birth information; the next page overlays Bilal’s image on whatever original he defaces. And then the next panel presents a smaller version of the original, with its own conventional “vital statistics” (and provenance). Beside this miniature with its pedigree, Bilal provides a whole page of phantom biography, with preliminary sketch version of the phantom on the page.

Over and over and over Bilal repeats this formula, also to the point of too much familiarity and boredom, just as happens in museums. But he has tampered with the proportions, because not only do the vital statistics for the paintings run at least as large as the small-reproduced original, the phantom’s biography totally dominate the page, suggesting the bloatedness of art history scholarship that typically occupies a greater (explanatory) space than the painting itself. As if the original cannot, in fact, stand on its own, but must come with this intense degree of apparatus to keep it propped up, or at least to intimidate the viewer into accepting someone else’s designation that this, friends, comprises an immortal masterpiece.

Not to suggest that all art history scholarship should get thrown out, that no work of Occidental art (included in the Louvre or not) offers little more than dreck, or that viewers can’t have profound aesthetic experiences in museums—I only suggest that Bilal may have broad-stroked a criticism of the pretentious of museums (and the Louvre in general) in its conceits to curate such scholarship or works of art, or provide the opportunity to encounter profound works.

If Bilal’s book “fails,” it does so because the format of the museum as a totality does not do and cannot do what it claims to. But whether Bilal did this deliberately or simply accidentally as a consequence of working in a museum in the first place, like a museum, he still gets paid when people stroll through (his pages).


[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Bilal, E. (2014). Phantoms of the Louvre: NBM Publishing, 1–144.

[3] Bilal, E. (2005). La trilogie Nikopol: Casterman

[4] Bilal, E., & Christin, P. (1990). The hunting party: Catalan Communications

[5] Bilal, E. (1998). The dormant beast. Humanoids Publishing.

[6] Pollack, R., & Dalí, S. (1985). Salvador Dali’s tarot: Michael Joseph

[7] Akron, Giger, H., Designer, M., Giger, H., Designer, P., & Giger, H. (1994). Baphomet: Tarot der Unterwelt: Urania-Verlags-AG

[8] Toppi, S (2012). Sharaz-de: tales from the Arabian Nights. Fort Lee, NJ: Archaia

[9] Sokurov, A., Deryabin, A., Meure, J., & Stöter, K. (2003). Russian ark: Artificial Eye.

[10] He specifically excuses his choices by saying he only painted the phantoms that appeared to him. Not all pieces have phantoms, and some of the phantoms of the most famous pieces, he says, turned out very pedestrian bores, not worth painting.

[11] This elision might resemble that moment when two famous artists—I’ve forgotten their names—went to the Louvre to view the empty place where the Mona Lisa had been stolen from.

[12] Robbe-Grillet’s (1957) Jealousy may offer a successful example.

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