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Vive le Louvre!

The High makes a striking French connection with its latest exhibition

Only recently the French — and their toast and fries — were Public Enemy No. 1. The French pooh-poohed our war in Iraq (my, have we proven them wrong). And Americans retaliated in our most reliable form of political protest by placing Francophobic bumper stickers on our SUVs.

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It seemed after decades of cultural exchange — we give them our Jerry Lewis films, they give us their attitude — the wounds might never heal. But the French, it appears, have begun to angle their way back into our good graces.

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This fall gives us Sofia Coppola's biopic of the Paris Hilton of the swinging 18th century, Marie Antoinette. And Oct. 14 marks the debut of the first exhibitions in the High Museum's three-year-long partnership with the world's most famous art museum, Paris' Musée du Louvre. Opened in 1793 to allow public access to masterpieces acquired by the French monarchs, today the Louvre has an annual attendance of 7 million visitors.

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As a result of this unique cultural exchange, the High undoubtedly is hoping to capture a portion of the Louvre's storied attendance and grab a bit of its prestige, too. In return, Louvre Atlanta offers the French something equally valuable: a chance to spit-shine the Louvre "brand" and study the key to any American museum's longevity: fundraising.

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Like any Hollywood blockbuster, Louvre Atlanta is the kind of mega-production whose hype can overwhelm its reception. The very notion of the Louvre's 35,000-work collection digested into even a three-year long roster of exhibitions is hard to grasp, and the resulting show may surprise audiences for being relatively compact and terse.

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The exhibition resides on the three floors of the Anne Cox Chambers wing of Renzo Piano's High expansion. Kings as Collectors on the top skyway level is devoted to painting and sculpture collected by Louis XIV and Louis XVI. There is Rembrandt's "Saint Matthew and the Angel" in firelight hues in which an angel modeled on the artist's son whispers into the saint's ear. And demarcated as "important" in exhibition terms by the red damask fabric behind the painting, Raphael's "Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione" echoes Da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" in depicting the serene, mysterious expression of the poet and politician.

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Perhaps because of a smaller number of works on display, which allows for a deeper contemplation and more interesting juxtapositions, the paintings in Kings as Collectors are the more captivating component of this three-part installation. Bartolomé Esteban Murillo's "The Young Beggar," one of the earliest pieces acquired for the Louvre in 1784, features a despondent street urchin. The work is made all the more tragic for hanging close to its spiritual antithesis, Diego Velázquez's "The Infanta Margarita," daughter of King Philip IV of Spain whose serene expression and lavish gold-embellished gown are the very picture of entitlement.

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Some of the most engaging pieces for what they embody of the courtly ego appear close by in a room of bronze sculpture. French monarchs in bronze are juxtaposed with sculptures featuring mythological figures from Jupiter to Venus, as if to suggest the courtly desire for an equivalent mythology. Astride a bucking stallion in "Equestrian Statue of Louis XIV," the monarch sits firm in his saddle, pointing a regal finger (broken off at some point since its 17th-century debut) as if commanding destiny itself onward.

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On the second floor in rooms painted in cool blues — to contrast with the hothouse red upstairs — is The King's Drawings drawn from the collections of Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI. Along with 17th-century landscapes, this far-ranging exhibition features a poetic 1521 portrait of St. Barbara by German master Albrecht Dürer as well as studies for paintings, altarpieces and frescos. Such a wide range can feel overwhelming and more difficult to absorb than the more concise Kings as Collectors.

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Part of Louvre Atlanta's strange allure is in seeing work with such an impressive pedigree presented within the cool modernist shell of the Piano addition — like listening to Gregorian chants on your iPod.

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An illustration of that strange, but interesting clash occurs on the open, light-drenched first-floor lobby of the Chambers wing. In a beguiling installation of busts depicting figures from the Roman Emperor Tacitus to French artist Nicolas Poussin, four rows of sculptures are placed on tall pedestals, facing toward Piano's piazza. It's a quirky male chorus line with a vaguely Disneyesque quality. Thanks to Piano's tall pedestals that raise the busts to lofty heights, the installation has a decidedly contemporary, conceptual feel.

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Here and elsewhere, visitors to Louvre Atlanta repeatedly will be asked to look up the snouts of celebrated Frenchmen. In another, impressive display of French bravado, visitors are obliged to adopt the position of a babe gazing longingly up at its mothers' bosom. Dominating the Wieland Pavilion lobby is a stunning 10-foot-high, 8,500-pound lead statue of Napoleon dressed in Roman toga.

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The mondo-Napoleon alerts audiences that the French are, as they say, "in the house." Perhaps the time has come to put down our Freedom Fries and declare a truce. French culture and American chutzpah can, at least in Louvre Atlanta, find a beguiling coexistence.

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For more images of and from the Louvre Atlanta exhibition, click here.



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