Although love is a universal emotion, the ways of loving are many and have continually evolved throughout history. From one period to the next, changes in romantic relationships have provided an inexhaustible source of inspiration for artists.
The exhibition at the Musée du Louvre-Lens will trace the history of ways of loving, from original sin to the quest for freedom. It is a love story that has inspired by turns adoration, passion, gallantry, libertinage and romanticism. It will reveal how, starting out from the stigmatising of the feminine, each successive period rehabilitated women, love, relations, pleasure and emotion, before eventually arriving at the invention of free love.
This historical overview, illustrated by a selection of some 250 artworks of art in diverse media and from various civilizations, does not seek to be exhaustive, preferring a more selective approach. Each of the seven sections highlights a major turning point in love. As this story unfolds – punctuated by literary quotations and film clips – the exhibition reveals masterpieces of ancient statuary, precious objects from the Middle Ages, paintings by Memling, Fragonard and Delacroix, and sculptures by Rodin, Claudel and Niki de Saint Phalle.
After a prologue that suggests the possibility of everlasting love through ancient funerary sculptures that show couples united even in death, the exhibition opens with a section devoted to the supposed dangers of feminine SEDUCTION.
In the West, the history of love between man and woman got off to a bad start. Christians and Greeks both blamed the exit from the Garden of Eden and the Golden Age on the power of seduction of the first woman – be she Eve or Pandora. The descendants of the daughters of Eve were found guilty of the ruin of men, from Samson and Saint Anthony to Holofernes. When it came to adultery, women were seen as the main culprits, and to combat the dangers posed by her power of seduction some kept her in the home under her father’s control, even to the extent of placing her under lock and key in order to conceal her charms. This stigmatising sometimes led to the desire for the Other being satisfied without the partner’s consent. Hence the many captures and abductions with which ancient history and mythology abound. However, it was not just a question of gender, since the young Ganymede suffered the same fate as Lucretia, Cassandra and Europe.
How did a relationship in which desire could subjugate another person’s will turn into a romantic relationship that was intended to be shared?
With the advent of Christianity, the stigmatising of woman eventually clashed with the image of the mother, the subject of worship. Whereas Eve had closed the doors of Paradise to humanity, Mary, both virgin and mother of Christ, reopened them. Woman, honoured as a mother, regained her place alongside her husband. But this rehabilitation came at a cost: the renunciation of the pleasures of the flesh – tolerated only for the purposes of procreation. The body had its just revenge: when chastity became a virtue, adoration led to the ecstasy that made the faces of swooning mystics quiver.
How were women released from the roles of dangerous seductress and virtuous mother? Through the Bedouin tribes, who passed on the story of Layla and Majnun, and later Arab-Andalusian poetry, love discovered a third way – that of passion – sung by the troubadours as they celebrated courtly love. The lady became her lover’s suzeraine, dubbing her true love with her kiss. In the 15th century chess became a pre-eminent expression of this courtly culture: by observing very specific rules, the knight had to display intelligence and strategy to succeed in “taking the queen”, the most powerful piece in the game.
At the same time, after centuries of religious condemnation of sarabandes and carnivals, dancing with a partner, probably for the first time in history, became an essential step in the process of conquest, favouring the conjunction of bodies and hearts.
The doors opened by courtly love to a reciprocal relationship would remain open: the roman courtois (courtly romance) led to the genre of the novel, with L’Astrée by Honoré d’Urfé (1607–1627) and La Princesse de Clèves by Madame de Lafayette (1678). This was also when the précieuse Madame de Scudéry published her map of Tenderness, which traces the paths of the loving relationship. Henceforth, painting, sculpture and the decorative arts sang in unison the happiness of shared love under the rule of gallantry – whose codes were even reflected in fans and corset stays.
The science of the relationship invented with gallantry also led to the refined quest for the pleasures of the flesh in libertinage. From Don Juan to Casanova, the image of the libertine spanned the collector of conquests in the 17th century to the devotees of sensual pleasures of the 18th century. Libertinage, however, was not a male privilege. Men and women sought to combine all the pleasures by exploring new realms of intimacy: those of the boudoir, the souper fin (gourmet dinner) and underwear, while playing with light, mirrors and openings between outdoors and indoors.
Could the quest for pleasure be combined with passionate love? The evolution in ways of loving hints at the difficulties. The pursuit of pleasure during the Enlightenment was replaced, with ROMANTICISM, by love as an emotion. Marrying for love began to replace marriages arranged for material reasons. This was reflected in new rituals, like those of the white dress and the honeymoon. Over and above the married couple’s daily life, the glorification of passion by poets and playwrights went as far as death and beyond – as evidenced by the many representations of Apollo and Hyacinth, Pyramus and Thisbe, Ophelia, Romeo and Juliet, Paul and Virginia, and Atala.
The acceptance of marriage for love by 19thcentury society was a step towards the triumph of consent in love over social contingencies. In the 20th century, both partners in a couple regarded themselves as fully active agents in their relationship. The quest for freedom and the importance attached to each person as the subject of his own story even went as far as the utopia of free love – which tends to sweep aside all conventional frameworks, starting with marriage.
So, as in fairy tales, does this love story today have a happy ending? The exhibition invites everyone to write a new chapter in the light of their own romantic relationships.
Zeev Gourarier, scientific and collections director of the Mucem,
Dominique de Font-Réaulx, director of the Musée National Eugène Delacroix, assisted by Alexandre Estaquet-Legrand, head of documentation at the Musée du Louvre-Lens.
Agence NC / Nathalie Crinière.
The exhibition is organised with the collaboration of the Mucem.
It benefits from the exceptional support of Fondation Crédit Mutuel Nord Europe.