It’s increasingly common for art museums to play host to comics exhibitions. But what do comics—and manga, in particular—have to teach us about traditional forms of western fine art? Jiro Taniguchi’s latest work, Guardians of the Louvre, offers an exquisite example of the use of manga to present and showcase other artistic forms.
Taniguchi is known above all for his manga artistry: majestic, sweeping landscapes that thrill the eye with detail and scale. One of his most beautiful works is The Summit of the Gods, a manga adaptation of the novel by Baku Yumemakura. Available in English as a five-volume set (over 1,600 pages long), it chronicles the adventures of a journalist investigating a decades-old mystery set in the world of mountain climbing; the key action is centered around Mount Everest, and surrounding environs like Kathmandu. The backstory to the adventure features mountain climbing episodes set in other locales, from Japan to the European Alps. The mountain vistas around which that tale is set—and the equally remarkable urban vistas of Kathmandu—offer plenty of play for Taniguchi’s epic, sweeping artistry.
From the peaks of Everest to the streets of Paris: Taniguchi’s latest work is set in the world-famous art museum The Louvre. It’s a commissioned work in the attractive Louvre series of graphic novels. Since 2005, the Louvre has selected some of Europe and Japan’s top comics and manga creators and set them loose in the Louvre. The resulting short stories inspired by the Louvre’s collections and history have been published in a series of graphic novels, penned by the likes of Enki Bilal, Yslaire, Hirohiko Araki, and other notables.
Part educational, part marketing, the series makes savvy sense. But the selection of some of the world’s top comics and manga artists means the stories are more than mere marketing: they’re beautifully commissioned works on their own.
Taniguchi’s is the latest in the series. Guardians of the Louvre is a first-person narrative of a Japanese comics artist who finds himself drawn to Paris. Following a comics convention, he’s set to spend a few days in the city, but a sudden severe illness cuts short his time. He focuses what’s left on The Louvre, and during his visits finds himself accompanied by the animated spirit of The Winged Victory of Samothrace (a more than 2,000-year old statue of the Greek victory goddess Nike, which is housed in the Louvre). Reality and fantasy swirl, as does time itself; his recurrent illness makes it difficult for him to discern what’s real and what’s not.
Guardians of the Louvre is a mood piece, with minimal plot. A basic, sadly poignant storyline emerges toward the end, but it’s fairly rushed: emphasis here is on the thick Parisian atmospheres and densely elegant histories contained within the museum. As with much of Taniguchi’s work, emphasis is on the artwork and the expansive moods it evokes.
The Louvre offers plenty of material. While Taniguchi’s trademark mountain vistas (he seems drawn toward powerful natural landscapes, particularly icy, snow-covered vastnesses: this theme is echoed in other work of his such as The Ice Wanderer) are a far cry from Paris, the gorgeous French landscapes he encounters in the museum’s collections serve much the same function. He engages with the art (and actual characters) of some of the Louvre’s greatest talents, including Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot and Vincent Van Gogh himself. He also highlights the work of Japanese artists and writers such as Asai Chu and others who helped promote engagement between western and Japanese schools of art. Taniguchi’s palette is given free play in reimagining the sceneries and settings which inspired the work of these artists’ masterpieces (such as Daubigny’s Garden, which famously inspired Van Gogh).
Guardians of the Louvre also offers a brief glimpse into the darker underbelly of the Louvre itself. The narrator wanders through the remarkable network of ventilation systems—“The Louvre is a labyrinth” explains his guide, The Winged Victory of Samothrace—and explores the less visited corridors of the museum. One chapter chronicles the fascinating history of how the Louvre’s collections were spirited away during the Second World War to prevent their seizure by the Nazis.
Guardians of the Louvre is a lovely little book, attractive not for its story but for its beautiful artwork and the deep sense of mood that it evokes. It’s not so much a story as a vehicle for sharing some of the Louvre’s history, and in the hands of a lesser artist would probably have come across as a crudely simplistic piece of marketing: cute and quaint and ideal for schoolchildren. But the series curators have chosen their artists well, and in the hands of Taniguchi the book becomes much more than just a marketing ploy: it demonstrates that contemporary manga artists can hold their own against the greatest in the pantheon of western art. Taniguchi’s engagement with the Louvre’s classics offers a unique meeting of classical western art with contemporary Japanese manga, and the result is a beautiful, atmospheric work that engages the imagination and touches the soul.
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