Getting Lost in Strange Museums

The Museum Vaults is the second in a series of four graphic novels published through an arrangement between the Louvre in Paris and New York-based publisher Nantier Beall Minoustchine. Written and illustrated by French artist, Marc-Antoine Mathieu, the graphic novel describes an art appraiser's descent into the depths of a strange, apparently limitless museum. Rendered in rich sepia tones, his journey takes on a Magritte-like quality, enhanced by several large panels, such as the one reproduced below the cut, that give a dizzying sense of space and perspective. According to the publisher, Mathieu has "managed to bite the hand that feeds him" with The Museum Vaults, by sending up "the pomposity of art history and of such museums as the Louvre...each chapter an additional exercise in the absurd aspects of organizing, showing, and critiquing art." This may or may not be true, but the overall effect shares more in common with the luminous sense of unease found in the work of Franz Kafka, combined with the spatial manipulation common to the stories of J.G. Ballard. As the reader descends into the museum along with the narrator, the sense of being plunged into a subtle and surreal adventure becomes ever more heightened until you find yourself almost literally lost in the book.

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The Museum Vaults is fully the equal of the first book in the series, the extremely talented Nicolas De Crecy's Glacial Period, which describes the efforts of archaeologists thousands of years from now to dig up the ruins of the Louvre. It's a brilliant mirroring concept, since they're digging up not only the ruins of the museum, but the ruins preserved within the museum.

Before I visited the Louvre late last year I would have thought a graphic novel collaboration to perhaps be out of keeping with the museum's image. But the Louvre, like any great museum, is really just an assortment of odd objects created by often eccentric craftspeople and geniuses organized by scientists in love with the past to look as if said objects are, in fact, quite normal. That is the charm and mystique of a museum, along with, especially in the most venerable institutions, their use of space and light--both of which are masterful in The Museum Vaults.

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