Marc-Antoine Mathieu is one of those constantly under-represented European artists that those few who are aware of talk constantly about but yet whose work comes across the Atlantic in piecemeal and haphazard fashion, if at all. To date, only one other book by Mathieu has been translated into English that I’m aware of: Dead Memory, which Dark Horse released in hardback edition in 2003.
I’m not going to provide an in-depth analysis of what makes Mathieu so awesome and why you should read him. That would require a separate and lengthy essay unto itself. For that I would instead recommend tracking down a copy of issue #196 of The Comics Journal which contains Bart Beaty’s essay “The Compelling Experimentation of Marc-Antoine Mathieu” (It’s the one with Dave McKean on the cover. You can also find out about the artist here and here).
Anyway, Dead Memory, though it deals with several of Mathieu’s recurring themes (Kafkaesque bureaucracy, labyrinthian structures), doesn’t provide a good introduction to Mathieu, perhaps to due to the an awkward translation. Much better is the new book The Museum Vaults, from NBM (previews here and here).
Vaults is the latest book in the Louvre series, a collection of four books by different European authors all about and done in conjunction with the museum itself, to celebrate its anniversary if memory serves right. The first volume, also published by NBM, was Nicolas de Crecy’s Glacial Period, which came out last year.
Like Glacial, Vaults imagines a Louvre of the future, though his tale is a bit darker and, perhaps, more cynical than de Crecy’s.
The story opens with scholar Eudeus Volumer and his assistant arriving at the doors of an immense art museum whose name has long been forgotten (though every nickname given to the place is an anagram of “Musee du Louvre”). The pair are there to catalog and evaluate the museum’s entire holdings, a task that becomes more clearly impossible as the years progress.
Yes, I said years. I’m not spoiling much by telling you that Volumer and sidekick spend a lifetime in the bowels of the museum, though the book jumps ahead several years between each short chapter, preferring to look at individual sections such as “The Repository for Molds” and “The Fragments Room” rather than bore you completely with their epic journey.
Mathieu gets a lot of mileage out of parodying the stuffy, rigid institution of art history and museums in general. There’s a clever bit involving a lesson for museum guards on how to chide a patron for getting too close to a painting, for example. Most of the experts that Volumer encounters exhibit a passion that borders on manic obsession. Even Volumer, in his quest to “get it all down” is seen just as much a figure of fun as he is a sympathetic lead.
I intially typed the word “ossified” in describing the art history world in the above paragraph. If there’s one theme that Mathieu hammers home in the book, however, it’s not only art, but scholarship itself — our approach and regard to it — is in constant flux. In the “Restoration Workshop” there is a sign above the door that reads “Let time do its work.” And next to the word “time” the word “Don’t” has been written. And crossed out. And written and crossed out again.
Indeed time itself is an enemy to those who work in the museum and want to study its holdings in several different ways. On the one, more obvious hand, time renders all art to dust or fossils and we stumble around in the dark trying to imagine what importance a particular object might have had, let alone been.
On another level though, the sheer scope and breadth of history renders such scholarly pursuits ultimately useless. You can never know it all, Mathieu reminds us again and again. To do so leads you will lead you so far down the rabbit hole that you may have no chance of returning.
Indeed, at one point Volumer dreams of being in a painting that’s a painting of a painting of a painting and on and on, each panel pulling back to reveal more layers until the last panel has to literally fold out of the book in order to be fully seen. And indeed, Volumer himself turns out to be one in a seemingly endless strand of scholars, each handing his work off to the next generation. Yet just as we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, so too are we ultimately doomed to completely forget about that which preceeded us.
This sort of stuff is pure Mathieu. The verbal and visual games, the maze-like structure of the museum, the bureaucratic nonsense of the museum workers, the art philosophy — the artist is in his element here. He even gets in a sly joke about comics (“You must understand that, up there, this kind of research is completely disreputable”).
Mathieu’s approach is a fatalistic one, or at least it seems to be at first glance. Volumer’s conversation with a ghost towards the end of the book seems to suggest that attempting to trace the footsteps of the past does have its Platonic rewards (“It seems to me that this limitless universe tells us that the essential exists”).
Still if Mathieu is ultimately cynical about the ultimate goals and rewards of … well, the Louvre itself, the Museum Vaults nevertheless remains a fascinating and engrossing ride. Certainly it will give you something to ponder as you make your way towards the darkening of the light.
The Museum Vaults: Excerpts from the Journal of an Expert
by Marc-Antoine Mathieu