The third entry in a series of graphic novels centered on the Louvre, Jean-Claude Carrier and Bernar Yslair’s The Sky over the Louvre (NBM) looks to the art museum in its earliest post-Revolution days — when the palace and art collection that had previously been the property of royalty were transformed into public property. As written by Carriere, a screenwriter known for such classics as Bunuel’s Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie, this major advance toward mass appreciation of the arts came in the midst of a highly charged period of politically motivated slaughter.
Sky tells its story through two historical figures: Neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David, known for such masterworks as “Marat Assassinated,” and revolutionary leader Robespierre, the “Incorruptible” instigator of the Reign of Terror that followed in the way of the French Revolution. For both men, art and politics intertwine, but when the Incorruptible commissions his friend to produce two works — one a portrait of a young revolutionary martyr, the other a painting of the Supreme Being — the artist learns that revolutionary purists can be just as arbitrary and unrealistic about the artistic process as any aristo patron.
Complicating the creative process considerably: Jules, the young boy who David is using as a model, has been making too public “treasonous” statements about the New France. Though smitten with the doomed boy, the painter also recognizes that his attraction to Jules puts his life in jeopardy.
Carrier effectively captures the debates of the day, the ways ideological purity can be used to rationalized atrocity, and imbues every seemingly intellectual debate with more than a hint of menace. Artist Yslaire washes his half-painted/half ink-sketched panels with sepia highlighted by splashes of blood red to heighten the setting’s darkness. There are some truly memorable full-page images in this book — a public guillotining, an open mass grave, a disturbing moment where David prepares to pose a beheaded model — that bring the question of art’s relationship to the world around it into clear focus. In an era where a simple cartoon can spur true believers into violence, where a rising pool of writers judge art and entertainment on the basis of politics over anything,
The Sky over the Louvre is more than a historical recreation. It’s a graphic novel for our polarized times.