François Boucher, “Odalisque” (1743) oil on canvas, Musée des Beaux-Arts Reims (MNR 61 © photo by C. Devleeschauwer)

LENS, France — When love organs in congress emit primeval sounds of desire, it is the ear that receives these rhythms. But at the Louvre-Lens Museum’s Amour (Love) exhibition, the eye also receives emotive vibrations of equal intensity, creating a space for hot, instinctive thought.

Love contains a far-reaching selection of some 250 artworks in diverse media from various civilizations. It traces from gallery to gallery, following a conceptual drumbeat, how ways of loving have been conceived and represented in the history of art: spanning ancient pagan forms, depictions of original sin, and modern quests for free and fair ways of loving. (Regarding the notion of original sin: Christians and Greeks both blamed the expulsion from the Garden of Eden and the exit of the Golden Age on the power of seduction wielded by the first woman — be she Eve, as seen in Eugene Delaplanche’s Neoclassical sculpture “Eve Before the Sin” (1891) or Pandora, that Henri-Joseph Rutxhiel carved as “Pandora” in 1822.) The acceptance of marriage for love by 19th- century European society was only a step towards the triumph of consent in love over the social obligations of arranged marriages.

Giuseppe della Porta Salviati, “Adam and Eve” (circa 1526–1550), oil on canvas Toulouse (Musée des Augustins © STC – Mairie de Toulouse)

The feeling of falling in love — which one can neither easily find nor effortlessly fall out of — is surveyed throughout seven major sections with agile deftness. Each of the sections wander through the historical construction of our evolving ways and means of erecting and saving affectionate attachment. Starting from the stigmatizing of the feminine, the visitor works her way through rooms of passion, adoration, gallantry, libertinage, and romanticism; but this historical overview does not seek to be exhaustive nor does it exhaust.

The excitement begins in the very first gallery with a masterpiece of ancient statuary that suggests an eternal proclamation of stasis: Egyptian married couple “Youyou and Tiy, Guardians of the Treasure” (ca. 1391–1353 BCE) carved in quartzite. Its dignified stoic firmness suggests to me that deep long-lasting love can take on the dimensions of sublime, cosmological immensity, as expressed by John Coltrane in his 1964 ecstatic masterful opus A Love Supreme, where the emotive concept slants towards the ancient Om.

“Youyou and Tiy, Guardians of the Treasure” (about 1391-1353 BC), quartzite, Musée du Louvre Paris © Musée du Louvre (dist. RMN-GP, photo by Christian Décamps)

Given prime placement nearby is the splendid, sleek carving “Orestes and Pylades” (first century BCE) by Pasiteles, a Greek from Magna Graecia who became a Roman citizen active in Rome in the first century. This marble piece depicts a moment of calm in the intense relationship between cousins Pylades and Orestes, who have been presented by some Greek writers as a romantic same-sex couple. Indeed, the dialogue of Syrian satirist Lucian of Samosata’s text Erotes discusses the merits of homoeroticism using Orestes and Pylades as the principal models.

The next sculpture that captures my attention reminds me that although love is a universal emotion, it has no set criteria for the use of bodily orifices or the shapes they may take. James Pradier’s throw-back marble carving “Satyr and Bacchante” (1834) deflates romantic clichés. Though at first glance it resembles an act of sexual assault on the part of the satyr, the bacchante’s face is enraptured in a blissful ecstasy. So the abduction sculpture becomes a field of contradictions, where transgressed gender behavior calls on the chthonic demands of the body. Its flamboyant, consensual lovers amplify each other’s song by disavowing self-control.

James Pradier, “Satyr and Bacchante” (1834) marble, Musée du Louvre Paris (Paris, RF 3475) © Musée du Louvre Paris (dist. RMN-GP, photo by Hervé Lewandowski)

Detail of James Pradier, “Satyr and Bacchante” (1834) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Ecstatic transport of the solo kind, nourished by theories and fictions, is also evident in the anonymous terracotta “Blessed Ludovica Albertoni” (17th century) that was created after the Gian Lorenzo Bernini depiction of Ludovica Albertoni in the throes of religious ecstasy. It frankly appears to be a woman grasping her breast while in the throes of orgasm. Here love is situated beyond phenomena and in execution without an audience: a solo act with the void.

Anonymous, After Bernini “Blessed Ludovica Albertoni” (17th century) terracotta, Musée du Louvre Paris © RMN-GP (Musée du Louvre Paris, photo by Stéphane Maréchalle)

Coupled mutual discovery and nascent love is the sentiment of Antonio Canova’s 18th-century mythological sculpture “Psyche and Cupid” (1797), showing Psyche, a princess whose beauty excited the jealousy of Venus, and who is in love with Venus’s son Cupid. They are shown half embraced while inspecting a fragile butterfly. Their fine myth was established for us by the Latin writer Apuleius in The Golden Ass novel and then again by Jean de La Fontaine in 1637 in The Loves of Psyche and Cupid. The lovers’ tale had seduced many artists of the neoclassical period, since it was not only a story of young love, but also a metaphysical allegory, because psyche in Greek means “soul.” Canova’s sculpture thus symbolizes the Neoplatonic ideas of the union of the human soul with divine love. The driving force of love here feels like complicity, a collusion of intents rather than obsessive sexual preoccupation.

Antonio Canova, “Psyche and Cupid” (1797) marble, Musée du Louvre Paris © RMN-GP (Musée du Louvre Paris) photo by Stéphane Maréchalle

There are many ceramics and paintings and sculptures here that sing of the happiness of shared love under the rule of gallantry, but the best example is the huge wool and silk tapestry “Offering of the Heart” (ca. 1400–1410). Closely inspecting its many colorful threads, I glimpse noble love through the lens of string theory, according to which, energy and matter are nothing more than the humming of cosmic strings.

We artists, now and again saturated with the wetness of love, squeeze ourselves to transfer that juice to the canvas or page as best we can. Most of my time in the gallery I devote to juicy boudoir libertinage. It is remarkable to have both François Boucher’s cheeky “Odalisque” (1743) and Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s “The Lock” (1777) playing off against each other in the same space. In the Boucher canvas a plump, fleshy, half-naked woman is lying on her belly on her bed. She turns her eyes in the viewer’s direction, while her soft, pink buttocks center the painting, theatricalizing a sex scene where erotic thoughts can dance.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s “The Lock” (1777) oil on canvas, Musée du Louvre Paris © Musée du Louvre (dist. RMN-GP / Angèle Dequier)

There is no farcical exercise in idealism in this gallery, as there are in the romantic section with Fragonard’s pretty “Vow of Love” (circa 1780) and Boucher’s 18th century cloying painting “Loving Couple.” My main focus turns toward Jean-Baptiste Paiter’s attributed “Loving Embrace” (circa 1730) painting and the glass vitrine that contains libertinage literature. The works here span Jean-Charles Gervaise de Latouche’s 1748 The History of Dom B[ougre], Porter for the Carthusians; Augustin Carrache’s 1798 L’Arétin, or the Collection of Erotic Postures; and André-Robert Andréa de Nerciat’s 1803 Devil in the Flesh (which has the most vivid straight and gay sexual imagery in the show). By lingering on the edge of a ridiculous longing for self-cognizant transgression, the essentially Sadian images in Devil in the Flesh rip the skin off an ideal gallantry that had wallowed in romantic idealism. Particularly, the 69 sexual positions illustrated in Devil in the Flesh reminds us that falling in love is like catching an entire river with all of its swimming life forms, including weeds and microorganisms.

Installation view of the Love exhibition at the Louvre-Lens Museum

The show edges towards our time of striving for free and fair love with Jean Broc’s homoerotic “Death of Hyacinth” (1801), Eugène Delacroix’s gender-bending painting “George Sand Dressed as a Man” (1834) and Camille Claudel’s black bronze “Waltz” (early-20th century). It ends in the mid-20th century with a Niki de Saint Phalle “Venus” (1964) sculpture and a wall of French pop record covers. Love here summons sex to the cognitive dissonance from which sentience cannot escape when it embraces desire.

Installation view of the Love exhibition at the Louvre-Lens Museum

Much here is superfluous to our time, obsolete and almost irrelevant. Yet their examples should and do endure, entertain, and encourage. But Love generally feels to me like a series of loosely related theory/fiction lectures that become most interesting when they stray and overreach to the point of self-contradiction, as in the libertinage area, where love and lust are confused. I’m sure for some love is only a roll in the hay of contingency where sexual bodies are embodied and hands handled.

The Love exhibtion continues through January 21, at the Louvre-Lens Museum (99 Rue Paul Bert, Lens, France) and was curated by Zeev Gourarier and Dominique de Font-Réaulx, with assistance from Alexandre Estaquet-Legrand.

Joseph Nechvatal is an artist whose computer-robotic assisted paintings and computer software animations are shown regularly in galleries and museums throughout the world. In 2011 his book Immersion Into...