Umberto Eco: master of the list

The author discusses his turn as guest curator at the Louvre

After Robert Badinter, Toni Morrison, Anselm Kiefer and Pierre Boulez, Umberto Eco is the next special guest curator of the Louvre. A noted historian and semiotician before he brought these sensibilities to bear on major novels such as The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, Eco has spent almost two years in residence at the Louvre. His chosen subject is "The Infinity of Lists", a tour through art, literature and music based on the theme of lists and motivated by his fascination with numbers (until 13 December). “The subject of lists has been a theme of many writers from Homer onwards. My great challenge was to transfer it to painting and music and to see whether I could find equivalents in the Louvre, because frankly when I suggested the subject I had no idea how I would write about visual lists,” says Eco.

“The starting point for my ‘list of lists’ was Homer’s Iliad: firstly the creation of Achilles’ shield by Hephaestus, which not only symbolises perfect form but is in itself a work of art on which is engraved what is considered an allegory of the creation of the universe, an overall vision of Homer’s world. And secondly, the part where he lists all the ships leaving for the Trojan war.” Eco plays with these two opposing dimensions—perfect form and the list—in an attempt to rationalise the world. “The shield of Achilles is the epiphany of form, and every picture in an artist’s search for that form is a shield of Achilles,” concludes Eco. “Behind each list is the sense of ineffability.”

Jean-Marc Terrasse, auditorium manager of the Louvre, who is in charge of Eco’s project, was the writer’s guide to the museum for over 18 months during his research, and is also responsible for drawing up the parallel programme, explains: “The Louvre Special Guest is a project in which a major figure gives his or her vision of the Louvre on the basis of a chosen theme. Around this theme a multi-disciplinary programme of exhibitions, lectures, concerts and installations is organised at the museum.

Umberto Eco is an ideal guest for many reasons. He is a man who has worked in all the artistic disciplines and who thinks at great speed and has thousands of very lucid ideas. He is a particularly interesting personality because he has a very clear, erudite vision of the art world, combined with a particular ability to marry high culture and pop culture, the sublime and the profane, the arcane and the new.”

Moreover, adds Terrasse, “Umberto Eco is a modern-day Diderot, and in his book The Vertigo of the List he examines the Western mind’s predilection for list-making and the encyclopaedic format. In fact his central thesis is that in Western culture a passion for accumulation is recurring: lists of saints, catalogues of plants, collections of art, all show how in the right hands there can be a ‘poetics of catalogues’. From medieval reliquaries to Andy Warhol’s compulsive collecting, Umberto Eco reflects in his inimitably inspiring way on how such catalogues mirror the spirit of their times.”

Eco’s personal relationship with the Louvre and with Paris is a very strong one: since his days as a university student in the 1960s—the decade he spent in the French capital, where he has a house—he has been a frequent visitor there. “Eco loves the museum and what it evokes,” says Terrasse. “In the French traditional and literary subconscious since the 19th century, museums have been a place for adventure and a popular setting for crime novels. His knowledge of the diversity of the paintings in the Louvre is that of a great scholar, an expert. Indeed, for Eco, a museum is a place of selection that guarantees that what is exhibited is worthy of artistic consideration. A kind of objet trouvé, like Duchamp’s urinal.”

In his selection of works, the ever-surprising Eco has been guided not only by the subject of lists and enumeration but also by criteria such as voluptuousness and the effects of abundance, or “vertigo”. “Going round the Louvre he remembered an Italian painter who is very well represented—Pannini, from the 17th century, who specialised in depicting art galleries in his paintings,” explains Terrasse. “After him came others such as The Coronation of Napoleon by David, and the Dutch still-lifes composed of well defined 'lists' of fruit, meat and fish. He also included the collections of relics of saints, on account of their variety. Many contemporary art specialists draw a parallel between these and the works of Arman filled with spectacles and watches, or those of Damien Hirst and his profane relics. Other works selected by Eco include small Mesopotamian panels depicting battles, The Marriage of Thetis and Peleus and The Judgement of Paris and the Trojan War by Matthias Gerung, so full of figures that they really create a feeling of vertigo.”

This selection by Umberto Eco, which has been compared with interventions on other collections and with contemporary works of art, forms a book published under the title The Vertigo of Lists. “This book,” explains Terrasse, “is a philosophical and artistic sequel to Eco’s recent acclaimed History of Beauty and On Ugliness, in which he delved into the psychology, philosophy, history and art of human forms.”

Eco, for his part, says that “The search for The List in the corridors of the Louvre was as exciting as hunting the unicorn. Painting has a beauty that is born of accumulation; art embodies the plurality and variety of reality in the limits of the form. From Antiquity down to the 19th century we have been prisoners of the picture frame; in painting, the frame tells us that ‘everything’ we should be interested in is inside it. I want to invite people to go beyond the form of the physical limits of the picture, to imagine the etcetera, a very important concept that suggests that it may continue. I want to invite people when they look, for example, at the Mona Lisa to go beyond what is most obvious and to observe the background landscape and wonder whether it extends into infinity—something that Da Vinci perhaps intended. To look at a picture as if we had a movie camera that would do a travelling shot to show us the rest.”

Starting with a talk by Eco on the Louvre, which took place on 2 November 2009, there are more than 20 events on the special guest programme.

Notable among these are the exhibition on Christian Boltanski, a friend of Eco’s who was selected, according to Jean-Marc Terrasse, because “he uses lists for identifying society, people who have disappeared, objects, etc.” Other exhibitions on the subject are “Mille e Tre” (the title refers to the list of maidens Don Juan boasted he had seduced in Spain), on view until 8 February 2010, containing a selection of the museum’s prints on the theme of lists, from Antiquity to the present day: shopping lists, lists of colours, places, names, letters, numbers, titles, objects, plants, and many more.

A series of talks has been organised on the subject of lists centred around Pieter Brueghel the Elder and the idea of a collection of knowledge, and on the treasures of the Middle Ages. In addition, there is a replica of a 17th-century Wunderkammer on which 300 short films are screened. The programme also includes music cycles and concerts, one in memory of Luciano Berio.

One of the most interesting talks is being given by Umberto Eco on 14 November, on the present-day meaning of the concept of the “open work”, which he invented in the 1960s in avant-garde Italian circles to refer to the work of art that is always unfinished. It is a concept that Eco has actually abandoned but is strongly defended today by artists of a certain aesthetic persuasion.

A particularly attractive event is the “Listing Ceremony” on 1 December under the Pyramid in the Louvre, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary. It promises to be an elaborate spectacle at which Eco will read some of his own work as well as texts by Homer, Victor Hugo, James Joyce, Georges Perec, Gertrude Stein, Christophe Tarkos and Olivier Cadiot, among others.

The next special guest to be invited by the Louvre in 2011 will be the film-maker Patrice Chéreau.

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15 Nov 09
8:14 CET


The Grand Louvre is definitively opening its big doors to the others. What a good idea, so relevant to our societies in search for roots and heritage - sometimes and too often looking for the destruction of people's life in the name of religions and traditions rather than having a go for an understanding, for a learning experience. A museum is a public place where you can by your milk and your bread everyday. Patrice, Canberra, Australia

13 Nov 09
17:12 CET


The Umberto Eco article was fascinating - need to add it to my list of articles to keep!

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