PARIS, April 22, 2010 -- On a busy Sunday afternoon at the Louvre museum in Paris, a middle-aged Frenchman entered Room 59 of the Sully wing on the second floor of the world's most visited museum.
Furtively looking around to confirm the absence of security guards in a space dedicated to 19th century French painters, the man suddenly plunged his right hand in his leather jacket and retrieved a small, framed painting that he immediately fixed to the wall.
He hung it between paintings from renowned French artists Pierre-Paul Prud'Hon and Théodore Géricault. The painting, called "Les Oubliés" (plural of "The Forgotten"), remained on the wall until the next day, when angry museum staff removed it.
A somewhat surprised visitor had already known that something was amiss. "This is a vanitas," he told French television. "It differs from the other paintings in this room."
He was, indeed, looking at the most recent work of guerrilla artist Pascal Guerineau, who places paintings in museums to protest the rigidity of the French museum system.
"My action is for the young artists who are starving in their studio because they don't have the means to be noticed," Guerineau said.
The "forgotten" painting he hung in the Louvre was a tribute to the struggling young artists, and it was a vanitas, as the visitor noted.
Vanitas is a kind of art in which the artist uses morbid symbolic objects such as skulls, rotting food and fading flowers to remind the viewer of the transience of life, the futility of pleasure and the certainty of death. It became prominent in the 16th and 17th centuries, primarily in the Netherlands, Flanders and France.
"I hooked two paintings showing skulls which represent death to people. It's a bit the death of the artist," he said, lamenting the treatment of unknown artists in France.
"In France, an artist has to participate in an art show to be seen by a gallery and thus to sell his work. It costs between $4,000 and $5,500 to be in an art show."
Not Easy to Breach Louvre Security
Guerineau doesn't suffer this problem but is crusading on behalf of others, "I don't have any problems," he said. "I show my work in galleries around the world. I've been around for the last 30 years. It's all going well."
Guerineau has become the bête noire of Paris' most prestigious museums in recent weeks. He performed his stunt last month at the Musée Maillol in Paris. He pinned up a canvas, again in the vanitas style called "L'Oublié" (singular of "The Forgotten"), between a Christian Boltanski sculpture and a drawing by Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Security guards noticed the painting at closing time and removed it, later returning it to Guerineau.
"It was sassy and cunning," Patrick Marant, organizer of the exhibition "C'est la vie" at Musée Maillol, said. "Bravo Monsieur Guerineau, because it's even more difficult to do what he just did at the Louvre, because of security.
"Like Mr. Guerineau, we had people come to us expressing their interest in being part of our exhibition. Unfortunately, we could not accommodate everybody," he said.
Guerineau praised London and New York for their efforts in favor of young, unknown contemporary artists. "In London, at the Tate Modern, they show living contemporary artists, they give young artists a chance. In New York, it is the same. They are a lot more open," he said.
"In France, museums, which could be a great place for young artists to show their works, are not taking any risks. They only put on display known artists, or dead artists," he continued. "Museums are cemeteries for artists."
His detractors have said Guerineau's protests amount to nothing more than publicity stunts, which he denied. "A publicity stunt? I don't need that. It's rather a rant," he said. "I'm really doing this for the representation of contemporary artists like myself. I'm defending a cause. What I'm doing is risky because it could play in my disfavor.
"What we are asking for is a round table to take place with the Ministry of Culture, with museum curators, with artists, with everyone involved in order to discuss," Guerineau explained. "I think there could be some areas in some French museums where contemporary artists could show their work and the message they want to deliver through them."
Gerineau Wants His Painting Back
The French Ministry of Culture said no official request for such a round table had been received.
After Gerineau's protest, the Musée Maillol decided to give the opportunity for artists to expose their work. "We've opened a blog on the museum website which will allow artists to present their work with a website link that will take the visitor to the artist's website," Marant said. "Mr. Guerineau will be part of it."
The Louvre museum declined to comment.
The museum has yet to return the"forgotten" painting to Guerineau. "I tried to get it back, but I've been asked to write a letter to the head of the museum," he said. "This shows the French administrative red tape.
"Since they haven't returned the painting, it is the proof that they think it is not bad, after all."