“Well, you know the sun was sinking slowly but my hound just sat right down and cried”
The latest in NBM‘s series of graphic novels that revolve around the Louvre (still the weirdest cross-promotional thing in comics!) is The Cross-Eyed Mutt by Étienne Davodeau. It costs $24.99, in case you let price bother you!
The long-standing question of “What is great art?” and what art “deserves” to hang in a museum is at the forefront of The Cross-Eyed Mutt, and while that sounds like a dry, academic inquiry, Davodeau makes sure it isn’t, as the book is a delightful yet still deep examination of those questions. What makes something a masterpiece and something else merely good, and what makes either of those different from trash? Occasionally it’s easy to spot crap, but in a world where urinals are being hung on walls and called art, it might not be as easy as it seems (and for the record, I love a lot of modern art). All art is subjective, after all (despite what Joe Rice would have you believe)*, so who gets to determine if it’s great and worthy of hanging in the Louvre? As someone points out in this book, the Louvre has more art than it knows what to do with, a vast majority of it in storage, so why should some art be hanging in the Louvre rather than stored in its bowels? These are good discussions to have, and Davodeau does a nice job fitting them into a story.
* That’s still one of my favorite posts on the old blog, mainly because of the comments section. An excellent discussion, with lots of old-school CSBG commenters – Dan, Omar, Ben – who have disappeared over the years. Plus, Joe picks on me specifically, which is always fun!)
Fabien is a security guard at the Louvre who’s dating Mathilde – who, in one of the absolutely most refreshing things in this book, is a bit chubby, which of course doesn’t stop Fabien from loving her or the two of them getting it on quite a bit – and when he finally meets her family, they tell him an old relative, Gustave Benion, was an amateur painter. They show him one of them, a cross-eyed dog painted in 1843, and ask Fabien if he can get it hanging in the museum (they actually simply ask his opinion, but they’re the kind of people who keep spinning until it ends up that Fabien – who didn’t agree to it – will attempt to get it into the Louvre). So begins Fabien’s somewhat quixotic quest to please his new “family” (he and Mathilde aren’t married, but her brothers and father simply assume it will happen soon enough), made more difficult when they visit Paris and bug him about it. He meets a man who says he’s a member of the secret governing board of the Louvre, and eventually he meets with the entire board to discuss the painting. The entire plot isn’t terribly exciting, but I’m still not giving away the ending as to whether The Cross-Eyed Mutt gets to hang in the Louvre or not. I’m just a dick that way.
Despite the somewhat deep philosophical underpinnings to the book, it’s not boring and dry. Davodeau creates these bizarre characters and lets Fabien, who’s fairly normal, react to them. Mathilde’s family owns their own furniture store, and their high-end snobbery about their wares is hilarious, mainly because they don’t know that they don’t know anything about art, and their expertise in the furniture dimension makes them both less and more buffoonish. There’s a terrific sequence in the book where they discover that furniture is displayed in the Louvre, and their reverence is palpable. It’s a nice contrast to their total irreverence toward the rest of the art, as one of them takes off his shirt and climbs inside a large vat to get a photograph at one point. There’s also Monsieur Balouchi, who spends most of his time at the museum, mainly admiring the nude sculptures. He tells a story of his wife, who was vivacious and exploratory, who left him at the Louvre and told him when she got old, she’d come back for him. It’s a sad little tale, but Balouchi doesn’t seem to mind that he has spent his life with cold stone rather than a warm woman. The people in the shadow government are bizarre, too, all for their love of the museum. They’re strange, but they’re devoted to the Louvre.
The characters help make the book light, because Davodeau is dealing with some difficult questions. Is the dog painting “art”? Well, of course it is, but is it great, or even good? And does that matter? There’s a running joke in the book about people asking Fabien where the “Mona Lisa” is, because people go to the Louvre to see the “Mona Lisa.” But is the “Mona Lisa” a masterpiece? It’s famous, certainly, but it’s famous almost solely because it was stolen in 1911. It was only in the 1860s that people began considering the 300+-year-old painting a “masterpiece,” but its standing in the art world remained relatively anonymous until three Italians stole it (it took four days before anyone noticed it had been taken). So if it took that long to make it a masterpiece, why not the cross-eyed dog? (I’ve seen the “Mona Lisa” in person, and it’s totally not worth it. Too many people, and when I saw it, it was in a private chamber so you couldn’t approach it. Read an art book if you want to see it!) Near the end of the book, Balouchi makes the point that even the paintings hanging in the Louvre get short shrift from tourists, due to their proximity to other paintings. He notes that Marius Granet’s “Interior of the Lower Basilica of Saint-Francis of Assisi” is ignored because it hangs next to Gericault’s “Raft of the Medusa,” a far more famous painting. It has nothing to do with the quality (well, it does, but not everything) and a lot to do with how famous Gericault’s painting is. Davodeau doesn’t imply that there shouldn’t be a standard for what is great art, but he does muddy the waters a bit by showing us that it’s not always cut and dried.
There’s also the irreverence I noted above. Mathilde’s brothers think nothing of touching the artwork, and Monsieur Balouchi seems to have wandering hands as well (there aren’t any instances of him touching the naked sculptures, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he did). Her brothers are reverent, as I noted, toward the furniture, and they see a painting that looks exactly like their mother that gives them pause, but otherwise, they don’t care about the art at all. Davodeau implies some interesting points here, as art is something that should be alive and breathing, always connecting to us even if it’s hundreds of years old, and the brothers’ attitude toward it reflects that. They make “art” that’s meant to be used, so they think all art should be thus. While it might be a refreshing attitude, if we take it to its logical extreme, we get the destruction of the artwork because everyone touches it so much that it gets worn away. Should art be ephemeral? Is it better to enshrine it in a museum so that more people can enjoy it, even at a distance? Davodeau gives us some depressing scenes, like the mass of people crowding around “The Winged Victory of Samothrace” to get a photograph or video of it without actually looking at it. Fabien would like people to really appreciate the art, but then you get people like Mathilde’s brothers, who take it too far. It’s a difficult conundrum that Davodeau has no interest in solving in this comic, but the fact that he brings it up is a worthy theme to explore, even as briefly as he does.
Davodeau’s art helps, too, even though it’s not flashy. He uses a generally thin ink line and grayscales to keep the artwork down-to-earth, which is good because it allows him to copy a great deal of artwork that needs no help soaring on its own. There is a great deal of silence in the book, as Davodeau lets us appreciate the art scattered throughout the Louvre or to reach our own conclusions about the people photographing “Winged Victory.” His people are fantastic, as they look like real people even though his style is slightly cartoonish, and especially with regard to Mathilde, the only woman with any real “page time.” As I noted above, Mathilde is not a skinny model, and while she has somewhat wide hips, she’s not exactly zaftig either. Davodeau makes her naked body a work of art, though, mimicking some of the poses we see in sculpture at the museum and showing how Fabien approaches her body with reverence. It’s beautiful, as it ties back into his theme of “living” art – in this case, of course, Mathilde actually is alive – and whether it’s better to preserve it. Simply by being human, Mathilde will begin to atrophy, and Davodeau is subtly implying that Fabien’s appreciation for her is tied to the ephemeral – even if he loves her forever, one day she’ll be dead. It’s a nice contrast to Balouchi, who also worships beauty, but the beauty of cold stone, and drove his warmer love away. This comes out very well in Davodeau’s artwork, as the similarities between Mathilde and the sculptures are obvious, but of course Mathilde changes moods, changes poses, and responds to a lover. Balouchi is cheery while Fabien is often anxious, but Davodeau does a nice job showing that Fabien does love his life, even as the brothers and Mathilde’s father vex him about the painting. The cross-eyed dog is fun, too, and while Davodeau makes it clear it’s not “great” art, who’s to say it doesn’t speak to a viewer, with its oddball view of the world?
The Cross-Eyed Mutt is a deeper book than you might think from its relatively goofy premise and its comedic characters. Davodeau uses the comedy to keep the book light, which allows his philosophical arguments to sneak into the book and worm their way into your head before you notice it. It’s a fascinating book that both pokes fun at conventions and shows why those conventions are in place, and Davodeau does a very good job humanizing what be otherwise stereotypical characters so that no one comes off as a cartoon. It’s a nice achievement, just another good comic in this series (of which there are many comics), and it’s definitely worth checking out (which you can do at the link below, if you’re so inclined!).
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆