Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Sky Over the Louvre

Written by Bernar Yslaire and Jean-Claude Carrière
Art by Bernar Yslaire

I vaguely remember writing an essay almost twenty years ago about the artist Jacques-Louis David and his role in helping construct the public image of the French Revolution.  My memory of this is very vague, and I do wish I'd kept my university essays, simply because it would probably be amusing to read it over now.

Anyway, this beautifully designed over-sized hardcover graphic novel caught my eye, because I usually enjoy historical comics, and it centres on David at the time that he was the most famous artist in France, and was struggling to support Robespierre's Revolutionary Ideal, even as the whole endeavour began to descend into madness and Terror.

Opening The Sky Over The Louvre, I figured I'd be in for a real treat - a serious, literary graphic novel that handles an interesting period of history, withe beautiful artwork.  Unfortunately, the book doesn't quite live up to its promise...  To begin with, the art is quite lovely, and I like the way that Yslaire works digital reproductions of David's art, and of the other painters who filled the Louvre at its opening, into his own drawings.  It adds a level of veracity to the book, and the paintings make an interesting contrast to Yslaire's own slightly caricatured representations of the different historical figures.

The book is not just about David's struggles to remain in the favour of the Revolution - a difficult task with Robespierre obsessing over his concept of the 'Supreme Being' as a replacement for a god figure in French society, but also about David's obsession with Jules, a thirteen year old boy.  The art stuff works; the parts with the kid don't.  We are told repeatedly that Jules is beautiful (although the thick swath of a unibrow that Yslaire gives him makes that a little hard to accept), and we are shown repeatedly how the child catches David's eye, causing him to seek him out to use as a model for his portrait of Bara, a young martyr of the Revolution.  The thing is, David never makes a move on the boy, or seems particularly enamored of him, and so his emotional reaction to Jules's trip to the guillotine later in the book feels completely forced and without justification.

I don't know how much of this part of the book is accurate.  I don't remember reading about this relationship, but it does come off as feeling rather forced.  Similarly, the structure of this story relies too heavily on large chunks of narrative text, as if there was no easier way for Yslaire and Carrière to establish what was happening in the story.

I did find this to be an interesting comic, but when compared to something like the old Vertigo series Chiaroscuro: The Private Lives of Leonardo da Vinci, which handled a very similar story, The Sky Over the Louvre comes off as the more shoddy of the two.  Still, I am more than happy to continue supporting graphic novels about important figures in the history of the visual arts, and am curious to find the rest of the Louvre/NBM collaboration books.

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