February 19, 2024

Louvre Museum, Paris

Louvre Museum, Paris

Source: Bigstock

About twenty years ago I made a visit to my favorite local museum to see what had been made of it following a very substantial renovation. I was hoping to discover some exciting new additions to the old exhibits on display, drawn from the previously closed cabinets of its dusty old basement storerooms. Instead, the whole place had been gutted, infantilized, and ruined.

One of the main “exhibition” rooms had been denuded entirely of its previous contents and a series of large, brightly colored plastic slides, seesaws, and trampolines installed there instead, in order to widen the building’s audience by attracting more children inside, this being thought cheaper than replacing all the bricks with gingerbread.

Personally, when I was a child I was attracted to the museum anyway, on account of all the amazing dinosaur bones, Egyptian mummy sarcophagi, ancient weapons, space rocks, and fossils out on display everywhere, but never mind—this was what a truly enlightened museum now had to be: fun, fun, fun! For everyone apart from the kind of person who actually enjoyed visiting museums already anyway, that is. I haven’t set foot back inside the place since.

“Are the Louvre’s managers simply attempting to solve a problem that does not actually exist?”

Art for Clicks’ Sake
Purportedly, there is a “problem” out there today in 21st-century Museum-Land, in that young people and children allegedly don’t visit museums and art galleries anymore. To address this supposedly serious issue, the Louvre in Paris garnered much adulatory media attention for itself last month by allowing a 27-year-old online celebrity named Rayenne Guendil to host the latest installment of his popular web-based The Night at the Museum show, in which he creeps around various well-known European exhibition spaces after dark in the company of a clueless fellow internet influencer, who asks him gormless questions about the objects on display, along the lines of “Who was the Mona Lisa?” (shades of Tony Hancock’s old “Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?” line).

Rayenne, whose online name is Etoile (“Star”), is best-known for vlogging about videogames and broadcasting footage of himself kicking rival Nintendo characters to a pixelated pulp on various installments of the Super Smash Bros cartoon beat-’em-up series, from which activity it is now somehow possible to earn a living. Yet Rayenne is also an art and history enthusiast, who creditably wishes to pass on his knowledge to other young persons in his age group. Unfortunately, the only real way he feels he can realistically do so is to dumb down outrageously, via the chosen method of inviting an ignorant young empty-head from the web world along with him to act as the eager Young Apprentice to his wise Old Master.

In his Louvre broadcast’s case, the costar chosen was Léna Mahfouf, aka Léna Situations, a 26-year-old French YouTube, blogging, TikTok, and Instagram personality with several million followers, whose posts are generally about inane topics like fashion, beauty, holidays, hairdressing, and bling: Tell her a gallery contains a statue of Hermes, and she’ll probably expect to see a big bronze handbag.

Léna is more used to appearing on shows like the French version of RuPaul’s Drag Race (not as a contestant, Léna really is an actual physical woman) and would not usually be considered a qualified expert on art history, her chief criterion of appreciation of any given piece of human portraiture or statuary seemingly being whether or not she would like to have sex with its subject, like a real-life Pygmalion. “I would have walked straight past him. He’s not my type,” she said of the first exhibit her host Rayenne showed her, the ancient Hellenistic sculpture Borghese Gladiator, from 100 BC. Don’t let her see the Egon Schieles or Lucian Freuds, she’ll never look at another man naked ever again.

This online broadcast was considered a great success by those in charge of running the Louvre, with curator Philippe Maillet calling the show “a new way of talking about art.” Yes, a completely asinine one. Although 40,000 people tuned in to watch, let us be honest: Many probably only did so to laugh in the hope Léna would say something incredibly stupid (e.g., “I don’t really fancy that statue much”).

And in any case, 40,000 viewers is not all that many, when you consider the Louvre is the world’s most popular museum and received 8.9 million visitors last year…43 percent of whom were under 26, even younger than Léna and Rayenne themselves. By attempting to “widen their access” in this way, are the Louvre’s managers, like the idiots who once filled my local museum up with trampolines and slides, simply attempting to solve a problem that does not actually exist? What next? Taylor Swift Does Auschwitz? A Belieber in the Vatican? The Pokémon Do Van Gogh? Oh, wait. That last one’s actually real.

Painting a False Picture
Everyone knows the best way to get any normal teenager interested in Vincent van Gogh is to tell them he once got drunk, sliced off his ear, and gave it to a prostitute. But how to engage the more innocent preteen and toddler market in the life story of the great Dutch professional loony and part-time amateur dauber? How about telling them his paintings were secretly full of hidden Pokémon?

I grew up hunting Nintendo’s ultra-cute Pocket Monsters myself; but on my original vintage Game Boy, not inside Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, which from September 2023 to January 2024 celebrated its 50th anniversary by running a special new “Pokemon x Van Gogh” exhibition, which proved to be very popular indeed—far too popular, in fact, as recent revelations have just proved.

According the Museum’s General Director, Emilie Gordenker, the “official collaboration” between the institution and Nintendo would “allow the next generation to get to know Vincent van Gogh’s art and life story in a refreshing way,” i.e., by pretending it was innately related to Pokémon, even though Van Gogh died in 1890, and the very first Pokémon games did not appear in Japan until 1996. How is it possible to claim Pokémon have anything to do with Van Gogh? By lying.

According to Gordenker, “Both Vincent van Gogh’s work and Pokémon have a special connection with Japanese art and culture,” because Vincent was once very inspired by traditional Japanese art, in particular old-style Ukiyo-e prints, like those of Hokusai and Hiroshige. True enough, but what has this got to do with Pokémon? Well, Nintendo is a Japanese company, isn’t it? And some of the Pokémon “Pocket Monsters” themselves are based upon various yokai, species of native Japanese ghosts, goblins, and demons from old myths and legends who are also sometimes depicted on old Ukiyo-e prints. This rather tenuous connection allowed Mathieu Galante, Director of Licensing at The Pokémon Company International (a subsidiary offshoot of Nintendo themselves) to claim that: “There is a strong link between the inspiration behind Pokémon and the inspiration behind some of Vincent van Gogh’s most famous work.”

No, there isn’t. One of Nintendo’s most famous games might well be called A Link to the Past, but there is no such genuine link in existence here whatsoever. Edvard Munch was Scandinavian. Will we one day see a corporate-sponsored exhibition devoted to explaining his anachronistic yet innate love for the self-assembly furniture of IKEA? Maybe so, considering the Van Gogh Museum’s idea would seem quietly to have been based upon a previous 2018 exhibition of Munch’s artworks in the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, during which various Pokémon were digitally inserted into copies of his best-known work The Scream and then distributed as collectible trading cards—inexplicably, the show was not called Edvard Munchlax.

Play Your Cards Wrong
To get kids through the doors, modern-day artists were enlisted to create doctored versions of six of Van Gogh’s best-known works, replacing a self-portrait of the Dutchman with a pic of the most famous Pokémon, Pikachu (the little yellow electric mouse ’mon), wearing Vincent’s iconic gray felt hat, having the sleepy blue Pokémon Snorlax snoozing around on Van Gogh’s bed, or camouflaging Sunflora amongst the painter’s sunflowers. It has to be said, the images themselves, displayed in a special bright yellow-painted wing of the building, were rather adorable.

As expected, kids did indeed love them. But so did many adults (and not just me). Nintendo, being a commercial enterprise, provided the museum gift shop with tons of limited-edition Van Gogh-related Pokémon merchandise, which caused borderline riots at the cash register, as 18-plus so-called “scalpers” rushed to scoop it all up to resell later for absurd prices on eBay. The rare collectibles all sold out on the first day of the exhibition’s opening.

Most popular of all was a limited-edition trading card showing the newly commissioned painting of Pikachu dressed as Van Gogh, which was supposed to be handed out to kids who had just completed an “educational” Pokémon hunt in the gallery, but which adults tried to get hold of too, by hook or by crook: It has just emerged that one gallery employee was fired for stealing a whole box worth to get rich quick from. One online scalper soon sought $100,000 for theirs, which is rather more than the real Van Gogh ever got for any of his real pictures in real life.

So much “pure chaos” did the Pikachu card cause that in mid-November its distribution was discontinued because, in the words of one anonymous employee, the whole gallery had become more like a “theme park” than a museum…which was rather unsurprising, as that was precisely what the management had tried to transform it into in the name of profit and “accessibility.”

Rogues’ Gallery
“What did people expect?” asked another unnamed employee in a retrospective report of the disaster in British newspaper The Guardian after the exhibition had finally closed for good in January. “I get the idea [of seeking to entice children into museums,] it just doesn’t work with Pokémon.”

It doesn’t really work by filling them up with playground rides or social media influencers, either: You can already get those very same things elsewhere, such as in playgrounds and on social media, I believe. But where else can you take kids to see dinosaur skulls, extremely dead Egyptians, or bloodstained bayonets from WWI?

Plus, the hordes of toddlers and profit-seeking adults running around the place ruined the gallery experience completely for all those actual adult art-lovers who had entered its hallowed halls to view Van Gogh’s work in a quiet, calm, and studious environment: According to one employee, the whole thing was “quite awful” and “just way too busy.” In other words, the art gallery was no longer an art gallery. It was a children’s playpen, crossed with a 50-percent-off closing-down sale in the Nintendo Megastore.

But, as per usual these days, those who run our public institutions know far better about what it is their clientele really want from them than those ignorant members of the public who actually use them do. Their new chosen methods of getting more people inside their doors must work; the fact I haven’t visited my own local museum for over twenty years now, ever since they modernized and improved it in order to vastly widen its public appeal to me, proves this fact conclusively.


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