The Sky Over the Louvre
by Bernar Yslaire, Jean-Claude Carriere (Musee du Louvre, 2011)

With a superstar team of French comic artist Bernar Yslaire and Jean-Claude Carriere (screenwriter for films such as Danton and The Unbearable Lightness of Being), The Sky Over the Louvre easily catches attentions and retains it.

Covering 10 months of the French Revolution, from August 1793 to June 1794, the story follows the major players and events leading up to Robespierre's lauded "Festival of the Supreme Being." The focal characters are the painter Jacques-Louis David, Robespierre the Incorruptible (or bloodthirsty dictator, depending upon who you ask) and Jules Stern, a Slavic boy that is David's model for Bara, a 13-year-old martyr for the new republic.

This story excels at portraying the conflicting juxtapositions the French Revolution encompassed. It's such a fascinating era that is rife with dichotomy: high-minded intense academic idealism married to base bloodthirsty brutality, freedom enforced by tyranny and love for your fellow man and woman coexisting with mistrust, suspicion and betrayal. Yslaire renders the clothing and hair with as much of a beautiful hand and attention to detail as he does the pocked skin of Robespierre, the asymmetry of David's face or the visceral gore of the guillotine's victims.

To have leaders engaged in dialogue concerning religious reform and political practice while heads are being chopped off in the public square, that's an era rife with interesting (and intense) stories. And without revealing a significant plot point -- Yslaire and Carriere pull one hell of a hat trick by making the French Revolution even more gruesome. Seriously, kudos to the pair for providing a truly shocking and macabre moment in the context of The Reign of Terror.

Also, don't judge this book by its cover, as misleading as it may be. The windswept hair, the ruby lips, the eyes semi-closed and head reared back in seeming ecstasy -- the cover gives different expectations. It is certainly a striking rendition, but the presumed emotional context of passion or lust does not come into play at all inside (unless it's passionate ideological discourse or a lust for blood and beheading). There is not one hint of love or romance, unless you count David's obsession with the visual completion representing Bara (and possibly the Supreme Being).

The Sky Over the Louvre is as stirring as it is stunning. These magnificent historical figures are treated with respect while given a very human portrayal. Robespierre isn't a distant "Incorruptible" being but a complicated and flawed (visually, logically, emotionally) individual. David is driven to the point of obsession, with his passion for art superseding most other concerns. Jules Stern retains a sense of mystique even when David has captured his essence. Anyone with even a passing interest in the French Revolution will thoroughly enjoy and be captivated by The Sky Over the Louvre.

review by
C. Nathan Coyle

9 July 2011

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