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Paris’ Louvre museum appoints its first female boss

France on Wednesday appointed Laurence des Cars, known for promoting social issues through art, as the new head of the Louvre - the first time a woman will be in charge of the world's biggest museum in its 200-year history.

Paris' Louvre museum appoints its first female boss
Photo: Joel Saget/AFP

Des Cars currently runs the Musee d’Orsay, the Paris landmark museum dedicated to 19th-century art. Her legacy there includes boosting young visitor numbers and giving art and guests more physical space. During her four years at the Orsay, the 54-year-old art historian has taken a stance on controversial topics through her work, including some related to race.

On Wednesday, she told France Inter radio that she wanted the Louvre to become “an echo chamber of society”.

She has also come out in favour of the restitution of works looted by Nazis. “A great museum must face history, including by looking back at the history of our owns institutions,” she told AFP in an interview in April.

She was instrumental in the French government’s decision for the Orsay to hand back a Gustav Klimt painting, “Roses”, to the heirs of its previous owner Nora Stiasny. The Nazis had stolen it from her in Vienna in 1938.

Under Des Cars’s leadership, the museum’s 2019 exhibition “Black Models: From Gericault to Matisse” explored racial and social issues through the representation of black figures in visual arts.

“It was a sensitive topic for which I brought together the best historians,” she told AFP. “When I first announced it, I could feel fear around the table. But in the end, there wasn’t an ounce of controversy.”

A museum’s shows should reflect “the big issues in society, and thus attract new generations” of visitors “of all ages and from all social-cultural backgrounds”, she said.

Des Cars, who comes from a family of writers and journalists, will in September succeed Jean-Luc Martinez, the current Louvre chief who is credited with making the museum more accessible and less elitist.

He was rewarded by a record annual visitor number of over 10 million in 2019 before Covid-19 restrictions badly dented visitor numbers, with the museum closed for several months.

The Louvre, best known as the home of the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, is the world’s largest art museum.

It opened in 1793 in the aftermath of the French Revolution, with an exhibition of just over 500 paintings. It now owns hundreds of thousands of pieces of art, with less than 10 percent of the total on permanent display.

In March, as it was closed because of Covid, the Louvre said it had put nearly half a million items from its collection online for the public to visit free of charge. The move was part of a major revamp of its online presence, and came after a huge increase in visits to its main website, louvre.fr.

Also in March, the museum announced that it would step up efforts to restore items looted from Jewish families by the Nazi regime. It is working to complete the verification of all 13,943 items acquired between 1933 and 1945, a process it hopes to complete within five years.

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CULTURE

Asterix: Five things to know about France’s favourite character

Asterix is hitting the box offices again, so to celebrate here's a look at France's most treasured hero.

Asterix: Five things to know about France's favourite character

If you have walked past a bus stop anywhere in France in recent weeks, then you have likely run into film posters advertising Asterix and Obelix: The Middle Kingdom.

Starring high-profile French actors Marion Cotillard and Vincent Cassel, France’s film industry is hoping that this film, capitalising on France’s nostalgic relationship with the comic series “Asterix” will bring box office success.

The Asterix comic book series was first published in 1959, and tells the story of a small Gallic village on the coast of France that is attempting to defend itself from invaders, namely the Romans. Asterix, the hero of the series, manages to always save the day, helping his fellow Gauls keep the conquerors at bay.

As the beloved Gaulish hero makes his way back onto the big screen, here are five things you should know about France’s cherished series:

Asterix is seen as the ‘every day’ Frenchman

“Asterix brings together all of the identity-based clichés that form the basis of French culture”, Nicolas Rouvière, researcher at the University of Grenoble-Alps and expert in French comics, told AFP in an interview in 2015.

READ MORE: Bande dessinée: Why do the French love comic books so much?

The expert wrote in his 2014 book “Obelix Complex” that “the French like to look at themselves in this mirror [of the Asterix series], which reflects their qualities and shortcomings in a caricatured and complacent way”.

Oftentimes, the French will invoke Asterix – the man who protected France from the Roman invaders – when expressing their resistance toward something, whether that is imported, American fast food or an unpopular government reform.

The front page of French leftwing newspaper Libération shows President Emmanuel Macron as a Roman while Asterix and his team are the French people protesting against pension reform.

The figure of ‘a Gaul’ is a popular mascot for French sports teams, and you’ll even see people dressed up as Asterix on demos. 

A man dressed as Asterix the Gaul with a placard reading “Gaul, Borne breaks our balls” during a protest over the government’s proposed pension reform, in Paris on January 31, 2023. (Photo by JULIEN DE ROSA / AFP)

Asterix is the second best-selling comic series

The series has had great success in France since it was first launched in 1959, originally as Astérix le Gaulois. It has also been popular across much of Europe, as the series often traffics in tongue-in-cheek stereotypes of other European nations – for example, caricaturing the English as fans of lukewarm beer and tasteless foods.

Over the years, Asterix has been translated into more than 100 languages, with at least 375 million copies sold worldwide.

It remains the second best-selling comic series in the world, after the popular manga “One Piece”.

There is an Asterix theme park 

The French love Asterix so much that they created a theme park, located just 22 miles north of Paris, in the comic series’ honour in 1989.

The park receives up to two million visitors a year, making it the second most visited theme park in France, after Disneyland Paris. With over 40 attractions and six themed sections, inspired by the comic books, the park brings both young and old visitors each year. 

READ MORE: Six French ‘bandes dessinées’ to start with

The first French satellite was named after Asterix

As Asterix comes from the Greek word for ‘little star’, the French though it would be apt to name their first satellite, launched in 1965 after the Gaulish warrior.

As of 2023, the satellite was still orbiting the earth and will likely continue to do so for centuries to come.

Asterix’ co-authors were from immigrant backgrounds

Here’s become the ‘ultimate Frenchman’, but both creators of the Asterix series were second-generation French nationals, born in France in the 1920s to immigrant parents.

René Goscinny created the Asterix comic series alongside illustrator Albert Uderzo. Goscinny’s parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland. Born in Paris, René’s family moved to Argentina when he was young and he was raised there for the majority of his childhood. As for Albert Uderzo, his parents were Italian immigrants who settled in the Paris region.

Goscinny unexpectedly died at the age of 51, while writing Asterix in Belgium. From then on, Uderzo took over both writing and illustrating the series on his own, marking Goscinny’s death in the comic by illustrating dark skies for the remainder of the book.

In 1985, Uderzo received one of the highest distinctions in France – the Legion of Honour. Uderzo retired in 2011, but briefly came out of retirement in 2015 to commemorate the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists who were murdered in a terror attack by drawing two Asterix pictures honouring their memories.

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