Review: 'Phantoms of the Louvre' is a haunting look at art masterpieces

A comic review article by: John Yohe

Phantoms of the Louvre, written and illustrated by Enki Bilal, is dark and beautiful, one of a series of graphic novels put out by the Louvre. Yes, the museum in Paris. Can you imagine the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York putting out a series of graphic novels? I can't either, which shows just how much the graphic novel is appreciated as an art form in France.

But although Phantoms of the Louvre, and the Louvre ├ęditions series, are being published by the ComicsLit imprint of NBM here in America, this particular book is not "comics" per se, not in the sense of 'sequential art,' though it is a combination of visual art combined with text: Bilal's process was to photograph various works of art in the Louvre, print selected images onto canvas, then paint human figures, which Bilal calls ghosts, over and/or around the images. The results are haunting. In the introduction to the collection, Bilal claims that these ghosts "imposed" themselves, as if they were real beings. Which sounds potentially melodramatic, but after seeing results, I kind of believe it.

Each image is accompanied by the "story" of the ghost, and their relation to the piece of art, which, because they're ghosts, all involve some kind of violent, sometimes fairly brutal, demise. Some of these stories are true, or based in truth with some invention, and others pure inventions, though Bilal doesn't tell us which is which. Which is fine, though I couldn't help be curious about some, and if part of the effect of viewing/reading this piece of art is that it makes readers want do delve more into the history of the art of the Louvre, then that certainly isn't a bad thing, just another layer of enjoyment that can be had.

If there is a weak spot to Phantoms of the Louvre, it's the text. The translation at times feels clunky, and/or reads oddly, though the text as a whole has a purposeful strangeness. But, for example in the story of the Senegalese woman Djeynaba, based on a photo of the Louvre's "Red Rooms," the Daru and Mollien rooms, designed, according to the book, by Alazandre Dominique Denuelle in 1863 (because the some of the 'art' in the Louvre is not just hanging on the walls, but the walls themselves) we get this section of text:

It's the beginning of the year 1863, and it's cold when it's 3:12a.m. three men are perched on the scaffolding, under the immense room's glass roof. A long, black silhouette materialized amidst them, they know not how. The silhouette seizes a can of paint and plunges a hand with endless fingers in it.

Sic on the 3:12a.m. And the change between present and past tense. But what really distracts are the three "it's" in one sentence. The "amidst" also sounds dated and kind of corny, and the "they know not how" just sounds awful. And I'm not sure what to make of the "endless fingers." Are we talking length? Or number? Enough of these little quirks pulls me out of the stories, which is too bad because I mostly want to very much be in them. This might seem like nitpicking to some readers, who may just enjoy the oddness of the text as part of the mysterious oddness of the whole book.

Phantoms of the Louvre is not to be ingested all in one sitting. Each chapter-story is dense. Not the text—each story is mostly only one page long—but with visuals, combined with text. Each section begins first with two stark black pages, featuring the ghost-character's name, and the piece of art he or she is associated with on the right. The next two pages feature a brief bio of the real or imaginary ghost, with Bilal's haunting artwork facing it. Turn the page again and see the original photo of the piece of art in the Louvre, with the information about it taken from the plate found next to is in the real museum, juxtaposed over a close-up portrait sketch of the ghost (itself haunting) facing a page of text continuing the ghost's story.

I'm probably not getting across how rich of an experience these six pages are. And yet, the eye lingers on the visuals, reads the text, then is drawn back to the visuals yet again to reevaluate based on the story.

Again, you'll want to take your time. Also, I don't see how this art could be experienced in any other way than in book form. The individual canvass paintings by Bilal would be amazing to see, and would certainly stand on their own. But the collective effect of the book is amazing too. If and when I ever get back to the Louvre (or maybe any museum) I'm now going to feel Bilal's ghosts floating around me. Ghosts that were maybe always there. Phantoms of the Louvre has changed the way I experience and think about going to a museum, and art in general.

This isn't a book you just read—or, experience—once. You'll want to return.

Best enjoyed at night, with some dark mood music playing.

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