Palace intrigue at the Louvre as a paint job leads to a lawsuit

The Salle des Bronzes gallery boasts a monumental blue ceiling mural designed in 2010 by Cy Twombly. PHOTO: NYTIMES

PARIS (NYTIMES) - In the midst of a pandemic, with empty galleries, shuttered doors and plunging revenues, the Louvre faces new turbulence: a legal fight over the colour of its walls.

Stucco cream? Or warm terra cotta?

Those are the hues of palace intrigue at the storied French museum, which is awaiting the imminent decision of President Emmanuel Macron about whether to appoint a new leader or to extend a third term to its current president, Mr Jean-Luc Martinez.

Some freshly repainted walls in the museum are now at the centre of a transatlantic legal clash between the Louvre and the Cy Twombly Foundation in New York over extensive renovations in its Salle des Bronzes. That gallery, now empty of its Greek antiquities, boasts a monumental blue ceiling mural designed in 2010 by Twombly, an abstract American painter, who died in 2011, a year after he completed the work.

A debate about the suitability of the new wall colour - precisely "marron Côte d'Azur", a reddish and black shade - has been circulating in the French press in recent weeks. On Friday (March 5), Twombly Foundation lawyers filed a lawsuit in a Paris court, demanding to reverse the Louvre's renovation - part of a makeover project in what were once royal chambers - and restore the Salle des Bronzes' neutral walls. The foundation is claiming a violation of the French concept of "droit moral", or moral right to protect the integrity of a work of art.

Twombly's mural, the color of the Greek Aegean Sea, once dominated the room with its pale stucco walls and limestone floors. The new look features parquet wooden floors and terra cotta walls that were chosen to resemble the Second Empire style of Napoleon III, who created the gallery to display Etruscan antiquities in the mid-19th century.

In early February, a clandestine photo of the revamped gallery, taken by someone inside the closed museum, ended up in a text message to Ms Nicola Del Roscio, the Cy Twombly Foundation president. Soon a story appeared in a French art trade journal, followed by more stories in the French press, including in the daily newspaper Le Monde.

"It's offensive," said Mr David Baum, a lawyer in New York for the foundation. "Why wouldn't you at least tell us? For this to come via text message with a picture where everything is done. We hit the roof."

The group's lawyers immediately sent a flurry of letters to French officials and the Louvre president demanding that the gallery be restored to its previous condition, denouncing the "deep red" paint as an "aberration", and criticising "coarse work" and "unsightly materials". To bolster their legal arguments, the US foundation allied with two high-profile former Louvre officials, presenting a statement from Mr Henri Loyrette, 68, the museum's ex-president, who blasted the "disfiguring" new colour and parquet floor.

Ms Marie-Laure Bernadac, 71, a former curator at the Louvre who wrote a book about the Twombly ceiling, also expressed scorn in a statement for the foundation's lawsuit: "This sudden and inappropriate modification would have profoundly affected" the artist, she said.

Both former employees played pivotal roles in enlisting Twombly - then in his 80s - to design and create the mural with the aid of assistants. They covered about 3,800 sq ft of the ceiling with deep blue, marked by circles and the names of ancient sculptors written in Greek letters.

The critical timing of the dispute, and leaks to the French press, raised suspicions at the Louvre that there is a story behind this story. Mr Martinez is ending his latest term in April after eight years as the museum's president. He is under consideration for a third, three-year term, with an announcement expected in coming weeks.

"The way this was handled was a form of intimidation. This is not a normal procedure," Mr Martinez said in an interview before the foundation filed the suit, noting that the Louvre did not have any contact with the foundation before or after Twombly's ceiling mural was completed more than 10 years ago.

"Imagine that someone comes to your house and tells you I have the moral rights, and you cannot modify the artwork behind you, and you cannot touch it, or move your mirror," he said. "For the Louvre, the artwork is the ceiling and not the room."

The research for the renovation was conducted over about a decade by Mr Michel Goutal, chief architect of historic monuments in France, a position independent from the Louvre. He sought approvals for the restoration plans from a French historical commission and matched colours to a 19th century painting of the gallery.

Critics in the French press such as Mr Didier Rykner, editor of La Tribune de l'Art, an art journal, questioned why anything had to be changed at all in the Salle des Bronzes, just a little more than 10 years since the ceiling was painted.

In an interview, he compared the new look to a "pizzeria". However, some readers of Le Monde were less impressed with Twombly's art. In letters about the dispute, one reader observed, "Twombly is not Michaelangelo" and then proposed trading the ceiling mural to a US museum for a Renoir.

Within the Louvre, there are other major contemporary works, including those by Anselm Kiefer and Georges Braque, who in 1953 painted amorphous birds on the ceiling of the Salle Henri II, which is nearby Twombly's mural.

Mr Martinez, the Louvre president, said that the foundation's lawsuit would discourage centuries-old museums from working with contemporary artists in the future, creating a fear of legal problems. "Certain colleagues in historic monuments will never work with contemporary art again," he said. "What signal," he added, "is the Cy Twombly Foundation sending?"

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