Museum Vaults

By Marc-Antoine Mathieu
64 pages, black and white
Published by NBM

When I first heard about the Louvre commissioning four graphic novels set within the art museum itself, I was a little intrigued and, at the same time, worried. The idea seemed sound enough, but I couldn’t help but fear that each book would either so gushingly about the Louvre that it would become off-putting, or alternately sanitized to the point of boredom. In the case of Marc-Antoine Mathieu’s The Museum Vaults, though, I was quite surprised to find something extremely different.

Monsieur Volumer and his assistant Leonard have arrived at a massive art museum, their goal to appraise the entire collection of this art storehouse, its name lost in the mists of time. As their journey grows longer and longer, it begins to come increasingly clear that this is a lifetime task—and that the people who work at this art museum are nothing short of being completely and utterly mad.

Mathieu really surprised me with The Museum Vaults, because while it is very much a celebration of the Louvre, it also serves as a humorous evisceration of art scholars in general. This dark satire features historians restoring then re-destroying broken statues, creating collections of frames (without the paintings that they used to hold, of course) to admire, and generally being so absorbed in a piece of art that they’re unable to notice the amazing art all around them in the form of the room’s architecture. Subtitling the book Excerpts from the Journal of an Expert, one can always imagine sarcastic quotation marks around the word expert. Mathieu strikes out against art historians here, accusing them of being so wrapped up in the minutiae of their profession that they’ve lost sight of the larger picture. It’s a daring attack on the people who approved this very book, and I applaud both Mathieu for taking that chance and for the Louvre’s personnel in having a sense of humor about the book. While The Museum Vaults starts off a little slow, by the time it hits the halfway point I felt like I was starting to really get all of the jabs and sly references that Mathieu was making, and was fully pulled into the narrative. The story itself is a little slight in places, but serves Mathieu’s points well, and comes to a satisfying conclusion (with one final dig at the nature of the profession).

With the first book in the co-productions with the Louvre (Glacial Period by Nicolas De Crecy) being in color, I was a little surprised to see Mathieu working in black and white here. The more I read, though, the more fitting it became. Mathieu is able to better tell a story about the joy and wonder of art being sucked away by a humorless profession in black and white, making the Louvre less of a beautiful place and more of a cold tomb for its collection. There’s one scene in particular that is drawn entirely with grey lines on a black background, as our characters examine art deep within the bowels of the museum. It’s a smart decision, one that really brings home the lack of actual viewing of the pieces in question, and something that wouldn’t have been as perfectly drawn in a full color book. At the same time, though, Mathieu’s natural abilities are very much on display here. I love how he captures the architecture of the Louvre, drawing a winding staircase so gorgeously you want to visit. Likewise, there’s a scene with our cast on a moving ladder that speeds off into eternity that is just drawn perfectly alongside a dizzying endless row of archive drawers, with a strong sense of motion for the characters in what could have otherwise been a dull scene. Mathieu’s illustrations of buildings and computer grids were part of my favorite part of his graphic novel Dead Memory, so it really shouldn’t be such a surprise to see his strengths on display here as well.

The Museum Vaults is a strange but intriguing book. I suspect it’s not really for everyone; those who are looking for a simple story set within the Louvre would probably be better served with the earlier entry of Glacial Period. Those who know something about art historians and scholars, though, will no doubt find this book a sharp, biting story with a good amount of wit. The Museum Vaults is a very different and smart book, but one that rewards its readers. With something like this being approved by the Louvre, I for one can’t wait to see what the remaining two volumes in this program contain.

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