NOTES ON: Straub-Huillet A Visit to the Louvre (2004)

Here is what a critic said:

Shafto, S. (2009) On Straub-Huillet’s Une Visite au Louvre. Senses of Cinema 53.

The Louvre is the book from which we learn to read.


It is never systematic, and it is never an image in the sense that one could frame an image. That’s what I want to say, if I say that it is always an idea, a thought. An image exists on the screen only if it is a thought. An idea that is made concrete.

-Jean-Marie Straub, Filmkritik, January 1971

Une Visite au Louvre (2004) is a companion film to Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s Cézanne (1989). The opening title of the later work indicates that it was inspired by Dominique Païni, then film programmer at the Louvre, in 1990. Like the earlier film, Une Visite au Louvre is also based on Joachim Gasquet’s book, Cézanne, specifically on the chapter entitled “Le Louvre,” which recounts Cézanne’s visit to the Louvre, accompanied by the young Gasquet.

As filmmakers, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet enjoy deviating from what are considered traditional film lengths and this film has an unusual length of 47 minutes. They are adamant in their wish not to kowtow to the general conventions of the film industry. In this context, it is worth noting that the filmmakers produced four variations for each of their five films on Empedocles. (2) Inspired by J.S. Bach’s musical example, they shot at least four takes of the same subject but of varying lengths. Then, they edited the four different takes into four different versions of the film. One version of The Death of Empedocles is known as the “lizard copy”, because a reptile of this sort can be espied wandering in one shot. (3) Similarly, for Une Visite au Louvre they did two takes of each shot; originally they distributed the film in its two versions back-to-back. There are minor differences between the two versions. For instance, in the first version, in the opening long shot of the Louvre, the museum is centered in the frame, while in the second version, it is not. The music heard over the closing credits varies in the two versions. And the shot of the Seine that bisects the film is shorter in the second version: the passing tugboats seen in the first version are subsequently absent. The lighting of the individual works, particularly the lighting of the Nike of Samothrace, seemed noticeably different to this viewer. By acknowledging these temporal differences, Straub-Huillet pay homage to the early impulses of Cézanne and his fellow Impressionists.

As in Cézanne, the filmmakers follow the Gasquet text, eliminating anything that they deem un-Cézannian. Although the overall composition of Une Visite au Louvre is similar to the earlier film, here the image track does not include film clips or photographs. Instead, closely following the Gasquet text, they show us fifteen works of art, one of which is a sculpture (the Nike of Samothrace) and the rest paintings. At the end of his life, Cézanne remarked that “The Louvre is the book from which we learn to read,” and in his study of the human form he often made drawings of sculptures in the Louvre.

It is worth mentioning that the film also provides insight into changes in the Louvre’s collection, since several of the paintings are today in other collections. (The other main difference in the Louvre’s collection since the late 19th century is that it now includes works by Cézanne.) Cézanne’s comments on the art works, which were read by Danièle Huillet in Cézanne, are here spoken by Julie Koltaï with occasional interjections by Jean-Marie Straub repeating his role as Joachim Gasquet. The filmmakers demonstrate their own complicity with Cézanne’s observations by, for example, humorously inserting a black card to hide works by a painter he dislikes—the so-called Primitives or Jacques-Louis David, for instance. But in front of works he admires, such as Veronese’s Marriage at Cana or Tintoretto’s Paradise, they extend their admiration by moving the camera close to capture detailed views of the favoured artworks. The sound-track is also occasionally marked by distinct pauses to imitate the actual viewing experience in a museum.

Straub-Huillet’s Une Visite au Louvre is no casual museum visit but a catalogue of opinions of a great painter. In fact, it could have been called “A Guide to Cézanne’s Likes and Dislikes in Painting.” Cézanne’s likes and dislikes are not simply a reflection of his personal taste but a reflection of an age-old debate in the history of art between the followers of Poussin and the followers of Rubens, between the painters of Florence and those of Venice. Ultimately, the German art historian Heinrich Wölfflin would articulate this dichotomy in his highly influential study, Principles of Art History (Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe), first published in 1915.

But in the Straub-Huillet film, Cézanne does not speak of Poussin (a painter whom he greatly admired. He once said that he wanted “to re-do Poussin after Nature”) or Rubens. Instead, Cézanne recasts the traditional dichotomy in new terms: Neoclassical painters like Jacques-Louis David and his disciple Ingres who emphasise the line and were slavishly imitative versus the colourists Veronese, Tintoretto and Delacroix who were all more expressive in their work. (Cézanne would have concurred with Delacroix’s assessment of Ingres: “His art is the complete expression of an incomplete intelligence.”) Cézanne quickly tired of the Impressionist’s desire to catch the evanescent. Instead, his unique genius and historical significance derive from his ability to have synthesized both classicism, with its emphasis on structure, and romanticism, with its emphasis on feeling. In merging these two traditions, Cézanne both ended one epoch and opened up another, which is why he is rightly considered the father of modern painting.

In the Gasquet text and the Straub-Huillet film, Cézanne also delineates his own idiosyncratic interpretation of the birth of modern painting by all but eliminating Manet from this story. Cézanne did admire Manet, in particular his Olympia, even doing a copy of it but here he dismisses his slightly older contemporary. Like Jean-Luc Godard who ends his own use of art history with Nicolas de Staël who died in 1955, thus safely before Godard began making films, Cézanne—aside from a scant reference to Manet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir—passes over his contemporaries in silence. Instead, he goes from the Romantic Delacroix to the Realist Courbet and suggests that his art is the next natural step. Une Visite au Louvre ends with a 360 panaoramic shot of a Tuscan landscape well-known to Straub-Huillet. Like their filmed shots of the Mont Sainte-Victoire in Cézanne, it affirms their attentiveness to nature and suggests that they—with their concern for both structure and feeling—are Cézanne’s natural, albeit unacknowledged heirs.

    Special thanks to Laurie Glover of the Clark Art Institute and Miguel Abreu. Much of the information on Cézanne here is drawn from: Richard W. Murphy and the Editors of Time-Life Books, The World of Cézanne 1839-1906 (Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Books, 1968).
    Barton Byg, Landscapes of Resistance: The German Films of Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub (Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press, 1995).
    Dominique Païni, “Straub, Hölderlin, Cézanne,” translated by S. Shafto, Senses of Cinema, no. 39 (2006): According to Païni, the filmmakers shot five versions of The Death of Empedocles, three of which were “definitively edited and shown.”

Here are my notes:

The off-screen commentary offers a number of perceptions of paintings and one sculpture in the Louvre.  We start with basic value judgements about not liking the primitives and not liking particular techniques like the perspective used in Ucello.  There is admiration for the Greeks instead, developed while commenting on the statue of the headless Nike of Samothrace.  We seem to have a basic Kantian aesthetic here—the sculpture is admired for what it tells us about wholes, of women, or of Greece, and how it is transparent to the notion of soul [is possible to see as well a kind of veiled illusion to the Deleuzian notion of the totality, and more below]

There are differences between painters who draw and painters who actually paint, moving away from lines and boundaries and separations into a more interactive and flowing form.  Those mere drawists are accused of heading for idealised bodies, for perfection, and for a kind of honest realism, is said of focusing on character, motivation and passion [the assassination of Marat is one example—focusing on the skinny body and not the great man].  We get details not motivations

In the alternatives [some sort of depiction of the last supper], we get colours, harmonious warmth, the illustration of the state of grace, a real world instead of a focus on subjectivity.  This painting is not drawn.  The nuances it offers are based on a technique called underpainting.  We get modulations rather than models of this underpainting [which seems to take the form of making rough depictions on the canvas before adding blocks of colour].  What results is the absence of boundaries between objects, and interpenetration.  This is not to deny that they can be abrupt changes of colour, and contrast in nature, but this is a method of infinite composition, where we cannot isolate details from the whole [a good part of the film is devoted to commentary on this particular painting]. I captured this still...

unknown paiting

What we are offered is the truth of painting, an allusion to context [and multiplicity?].

Another painting by Veronese {Marriage at Cana?]  is examined.  Again this represents painting, with no attempt to make it into literature or to offer anecdotes, there is not an attempt or represent something, including any deep psychological meaning [compare with Deleuze's insistence that these books are seen as all surface with no hidden agendas].  Such paintings demand a personal response.  The painter has no hidden intentions, no concept of hidden truthful poetry, but merely tries to depict what it is he actually sees.

Another painting of individuals eating outside is compared to the famous Dejeuner sur L'Herbe.  Here though the people are fully alive, almost divine and supernatural.

We see with Tintoretto's painting of heaven [Paradise] , a still life, but one that contains both God and passion [and Tintoretto is also admired for his colourful pallet].  Tintoretto also used the technique of underpainting, and despite his marvelous colours, insisted at the end of his life in only painting in black and white.

We go outside to see a shot of some trees gently waving in the breeze.

We return to discuss the workman like aspects of painting, especially in representation, or structured use of colours, a formula.  Delacroix's Women of Algiers shows an intoxicating use of colour.  The three women and their clothing overlap—their flash and their silk garments can both be seen as part of 'the sun'.  Colour is intended to purify and lighten, but there is also a feverish quality [because it is vaguely erotic?  The door in the background is painted in a very realistic way, with its panels outlined in orange—shades of Almodovar]. 

We see a brief glimpse of Gericault's Shipwreck—again we are told that we see nothing separated in this painting.

The piece ends with an attempt to rehabilitate Courbet, who is a more realist painter, but still displays the craft of painting, and uses under painting again.  The commentator tells us that he has been much undervalued by 'those who fear beauty' and should be put in aprominent place in the Louvre.

The piece ends with a scene in the words, with the sunlight dappling the leaves, streams in the background, birdsong.  The camera slowly and flowingly pans, possibly through 360°.

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