PARIS — More than art, more than music, what the cultural eminences of this city really love is gossip. So full credit to Beyoncé and Jay-Z — known, in tandem, as the Carters — for extending their cone of silence all the way to the City of Light. Not only did the first couple of American pop music impose their standard omertà on the songwriters, musicians, producers and technicians who helped them complete their new album “Everything Is Love”; they also got the mandarins of Paris’s largest museum to keep mum about their first single, whose video was shot in the galleries and the exterior plaza of the Musée du Louvre.
The video for the single “Apes**t” sees Beyoncé, Jay-Z and their dancers vamp on Pierre Paulin’s circular gray banquettes, drop verses in front of I.M. Pei’s entrance pyramid and squirm in formation in front of Jacques-Louis David’s gigantic “Coronation of Napoleon.” It’s a firecracker of a song — and, from an art critic’s perspective, more sophisticated and more genuine than their earlier forays into museums and galleries, such as Jay-Z’s dreary Marina Abramovic parody “Picasso Baby.”
First things first: While some fans have exulted that only Queen Bey has the cash and the clout to privatize Europe’s grandest museum, there is nothing very rare about filming here. About 500 shoots take place at the Louvre every year. The Carters’ clip follows in the tradition of “Wonder Woman,” “Fifty Shades Freed” and such noble cultural achievements as “The Smurfs 2.” Film and television shoots serve as an essential marketing for the Louvre — attendance is up again, after terrorism-induced declines in 2016 — and as of 2015, the top fee was just 15,000 euros, or about $17,500, for a full day’s shoot in the galleries. There are hotel rooms here that cost more than that.
In the video, directed by Ricky Saiz, Bey and Jay follow the well-trod tourist route past the Louvre’s three most famous works — the Venus de Milo on the ground floor, the Winged Victory of Samothrace atop the broad Daru staircase and the Mona Lisa in the Denon wing. The couple and their dancers also perform in front of the large-scale paintings of revolutionary and early imperial France in the long Grande Galerie: David’s “Oath of the Horatii” and portrait of Madame Récamier; Théodore Géricault’s “Charging Chasseur” and “Raft of the Medusa.” (Longtime Louvre watchers will know that Jay-Z is not the first black artist to rap there: In 2006, Toni Morrison invited slam poets from Paris’s banlieues to freestyle in front of Géricault’s shipwreck.)
A hand-held camera pans across the ornate walls of the Apollo Gallery, built for Louis XIV, and zooms in on its gold-framed ceiling murals. And there are dance sequences inside and outside the building, staged by the avant-garde Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, in which performers kneel like protesting football players and do synchronized abdominal exercises on the Daru stairs.
Why did Beyoncé and Jay-Z decide to stage their reconciliation track at the world’s most visited museum? Swagger, for one thing: That first tracking shot of the couple in front of the Mona Lisa, wearing silk suits of complementary sea-foam green (him) and orchid pink (her), is a first-order power move that echoes their selfie from 2014 in the same gallery. It also relies on Paris’s romance and glamour, which Jay-Z drew on earlier for the 2011 duet with Kanye West (with an unprintable title referencing the city). This video would make no sense at Madrid’s imposing Museo del Prado or Vienna’s lush Kunsthistorisches Museum.
As so often, the couple here present themselves as both outsiders in an elite institution and as heirs to it; as people excluded from its narratives but now possessors of it by virtue of their talent, their taste and, well, their money. Scenes that proudly emphasize racial difference — a woman combing a man’s hair with an afro pick in front of the Gioconda — alternate with shots in which Beyoncé appears wholly at home, especially the one in which she is seated before the Winged Victory, with her long cream dress bundled around her legs. “Can’t believe we made it,” she sings, and her arrival in Paris’s most hallowed hall gets underscored with close-ups that isolate black figures in the Louvre’s French and Italian painting collection, notably Veronese’s “Wedding at Cana.” There’s also a flash to Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s “Portrait of a Negress,” painted between French revolutionaries’ abolition of slavery in 1794 and Napoleon’s restoration of it in 1802. (Her bare breast is censored.)
Black Frenchmen (and, far less, women) were a common subject for painters at the time of the Louvre’s founding, yet the Carters are no Jacobins. As in their previous videos, here too cultural empowerment goes hand in hand with personal acquisitiveness. Some shots of the Louvre, particularly those filmed in the gilded Apollo Gallery, feel more closely allied to the song’s shout-outs to Patek Philippe watches and Gulfstream airplanes than to the history of painting. But the couple’s political view of black wealth has far more resonance in the Louvre’s Egyptian galleries, where Beyoncé boasts that she “bought him a jet” in front of the Great Sphinx of Tanis. By the end, in one of the video’s best shots, she and the dancers are going wild in the Louvre basement, and topless men are jumping for joy in front of the sphinx. They have not won admission to the museum; they have taken it over.
I have previously been distrustful of this couple’s quotations of visual art, whose appeal has too often seemed to be its prestige and expense rather than its meaning or beauty. Beyoncé has restaged well-known works: “Hold Up” paid tribute (or just cribbed) the light-footed feminism of the Swiss video artist Pipilotti Rist, while “Countdown” channeled the precise dance moves of another Belgian choreographer, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. (There is some flagrant borrowing in this new video too. Scenes of domestic intimacy seem to rephrase photographs by Deana Lawson, while the white French officer of Géricault’s “Charging Chasseur” is counterposed with a casually dressed man on horseback — whose style, lighting and framing echo the photography of the French artist Mohamed Bourouissa.) As for Jay, he has been flashing artworks since “Blue Magic,” (2007), in which a Damien Hirst spin painting and a light work by Tim Noble and Sue Webster received the same screen time as Goyard luggage and a fistful of euros.
But here the pair admirably let the art speak for itself. What is sexiest in this video are the camera pans, done in low lighting and with lusty ease, over the visual splendor of the museum’s Denon wing: the tumbling white-haired man in Veronese’s “Jupiter Expelling the Vices,” or the shouting woman in the red dress that unlocks David’s “Intervention of the Sabine Women.” I know these paintings like I know my own face, but I never expected to see them in this context — shown not as pricey baubles but as masterpieces to be loved for their own sake. In the last shot, Bey and Jay turn away from the camera, look into each other’s eyes, and then do something that they did not do in that 2014 selfie: they look at the Leonardo.
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