The latest in a series of graphic works celebrating the Louvre, Enki Bilal’s Phantoms of the Louvre (NBM/Comics Lit) doesn’t present a comics format narrative like its predecessors (Rohan at the Louvre, An Enchantment, et al). Instead, the hardbound comic art book mixes painting and text in a fevered consideration of 22 works found at the museum.
It is Bilal’s conceit that each of these masterworks is haunted by the specters of the men, woman and children who helped to inspire or were affected by them. Each piece subsequently receives a full page painting of each work with its phantom mingling in and out of the piece, followed by a photo of the actual work and a narrative describing the imagined fates of each spirit.
One early entry, for instance, focuses on an Antonio Di Aquila, a tragic young man who aided Da Vinci in his painting of the Mona Lisa. Another looks at a young Corinthian woman named Hecuba who pretended to be a man in order to fight as a warrior – her spirit hovers over a Corinthian helmet dated 691 BC. A more recent phantom proves to be a German colonel named Markus Dudre, a failed artist who felt an affinity with Adolph Hitler (yet another unsuccessful painter) and who haunts the museum’s Grand Gallery.
A majority of Bilal’s imagined spirits – none too surprisingly – came to tragic ends. One of the themes of Phantoms, as a result, is the way that works of sublime beauty can rise out of violent and oppressive times. Bilal’s art proves suitably unsettling: this is not a “touristy” consideration of fine art masterworks, but the work of a politically engaged artist. Each painting catches the feel of the original work while adding its own ironic spin, resulting in the most unique and thought-provoking “Louvre Edition” to date.