Different cultural disciplines may share audiences, yet art, theater, movies, music, dance and literature rarely commune directly with one another. More often, it seems, they are self-referential, defining their own vocabularies, speaking their own languages.
The Louvre has now set out to prove that this need not be so.
It has invited Toni Morrison, the most recent American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, to lead a "conversation" among the arts around a theme of her choice. A result is The Foreigner's Home, a multidisciplinary program focused on the pain — and rewards — of displacement, immigration and exile.
Morrison's starting point is Gericault's painting The Raft of the Medusa (1819), which shows distraught survivors struggling to stay afloat after a shipwreck. For her, it's the perfect metaphor for those millions set adrift in search of new homes, wandering, as she put it, "like nomads between despair and hope, breath and death."
The phenomenon is hardly new, but it is certainly topical. "Excluding the height of the slave trade, this mass movement of peoples is greater now than it ever has been," Morrison said in her opening lecture, listing workers, intellectuals, refugees, traders, immigrants, and armies among those affected.
Yet whether it is Chinese peasants moving into bloated cities, Mexicans crossing into the US, or Arabs and Africans heading for Europe, what most intrigues her is what happens when they reach their destination, how they adjust, how they are received. "The theme requires us to come to terms with being, fearing, or accepting the stranger," she explained.
To turn this into a "conversation," she is participating directly through lectures, debates, and readings, but her main role has been that of a catalyst for others, artists and curators, to explore her theme in their areas of expertise. And if many of the expressions are figurative, it is because the body — enslaved, estranged, displaced, liberated — is effectively the storyteller.
"It seemed to me inevitable that if we could get a choreographer as one of our disciplines, it would be a triumph," Morrison told a gathering of reporters, "because in that field you have the body in motion, and you have the obligation of seeing the body as the real and final home."
From this was born Foreign Bodies, an installation in the Louvre's Melpomene Gallery in which the American choreographer William Forsythe and the German sculptor and video artist Peter Welz have revisited Francis Bacon's last — unfinished — portrait.
Guided by this portrait, Forsythe, whose dance vocabulary often echoes Bacon's contorted forms, performed a solo dance on a large sheet of white paper with graphite attached to his hands and feet: thus a dance inspired by a drawing became itself a drawing. The display includes Bacon's portrait, Forsythe's danced "sketch," and three screens showing the dancer in action.
A related exhibit in the Mollien Galleries, developed with curators from the Louvre, pairs drawings by Gericault, Charles le Brun, Seurat, and Degas with film and videos, again with the body as the main focus.
For instance, Film, a 1965 short written by Samuel Beckett, in which Buster Keaton plays a fleeing man determined not to show his face, is contrasted with Seurat drawings in a section called Erasures. Bruce Nauman's video Bouncing in the Corner, depicting a repeatedly falling body, is linked to Le Brun's drawings of writhing naked bodies.