On the last day of 2012, I decided to head up to Lens to see the celebrated new extension of the Louvre Museum. It is about a 2h drive from Paris north towards Belgium (A1->A26 sortie Lens-Ouest). The building itself is really cool – one story in glass and steel with loads of transparency effects. That being said, the choice of a single story certainly puts a low ceiling on the amount of floor and exposition space which probably explains the watered-down quality of the permanent collection.
The surrounding area is, well, northern French meaning industrial (mountains of coal loom in the background) and muddy (see the photo), and other than the museum, there is not honestly much else for the tourist to do in Lens.
So what about the museum itself? Well, you enter the middle complex and have ticket kiosks and counters on either side with a bookstore, a documentation center, and the cafeteria sitting in various corners of the room. There is a temporary exhibit space over in the right wing (North side?) where they currently have a Renaissance exhibit running until 11 March. There are about 11 rooms covering various aspects of the renaissance: the changes in representation (in a word: humanism), the changes in perception of the human body (including the obsession with the macabre following the millions of dead during the repeated plagues), portraiture, classical influence, household objects, a mock-up of a decorated room, and François I. Perhaps, having lived in Paris for 17 years and having spent a lot of time in Florentine, Roman, Parisian, Munchen, and Londonian museums I am a bit jaded so I wasn’t personally blown away by the exhibit. I found that the audio commentary was OK but a bit confusing at times.
The most impressive piece for me – and the one that I really had only heard vaguely of and never seen – was Maximilien’s Arch by my 15th C idol Albrecht Dürer. Thirty-six pages all incredibly detailed representations of Max’s family, exploits, and lineage, it is a curiously intellectual monument left to us by this Holy Roman Emperor that – perhaps correctly – assumed that a written arch had more chance of being preserved than a physical one. That alone may be worth the trek two hours up from Paris to Lens. For those that have never seen it, the other highlight is the Sainte Anne from Da Vinci which has been moved for only the first time from the Paris Louvre just for this exhibit.
The permanent collection is on the opposite side of the welcome atrium. Here, the collection is arranged as a Gallery of Time. It is pretty much a “Best of” of the vast collection of the Louvre ranging from Sumerian and Cycladic pieces through each major period of art (as classified by Europeans because no American, South American or African artists are present at all) up to The March of Victory by Delacroix which dominates the rear wall of the hall. There is only one piece per artist (again the space constraint) and it is not always the best or emblematic piece. The audio-visual guide that is provided has an interesting 3D interface but a few limitations (if you wish to browse other works, the audio you are listening to is cut off immediately) and unfortunately has a strange selection of commentary – there are minor works from minor artists which feature long commentaries and yet minor works by major artists (Rembrandt included!) where there was no commentary at all. I guess I’ll chalk it up to the relative youth of this particular museum. Don’t expect to do your doctoral thesis on medieval sculpture here though – the reason I subtitled this “Art for Dummies” is that it is really a superficial overview of the major categories (once more “major” according to modern French scholarship inspired apparently by Elie Faure’s classification system as far as I could tell) and does not really give you much depth. The only exception is that occasionally on the right side of the hall, there are pieces from India or Persia to offer a counter to the Western pieces. It is probably good for people that know little about art or for young people that want a taste of nearly everything in order to see what their own tastes are. I think that my 3 and 6-year olds would be too bored though so I am going to wait a few years.
There is a Glass Pavillion just beyond the main exhibit hall which also features some temporary exhibits. There are three smallish cylindrical galeries here that had a theme about time, seasons, and aging with a pot pourri of works and periods represented. I thought that the installations of some of the Carnival costumes from northern France were actually more interesting. In towns like Dunkerque, there are huge processions with interesting floats and giants similar to those in Cologne or in the Macy’s Day Thanksgiving Parade except that these are not inflatable but rather paper maché and worn by a (probably strong) individual parade goer.
So, if you are driving up to Lille, Brussels, or Amsterdam, this could be a nice 1-2h layover for you. The cafeteria is reasonably priced (7€ for a sandwich or parmentier + drink + yogurt or desert) and pretty good. Tous à Lens! 🙂