Artwashing At The Louvre: When Saudis And Big Oil Sponsor Fine Art

The Louvre's Winged Victory of Samothrace
The Louvre's Winged Victory of Samothrace
Michel Guerrin

PARIS — Suspected of hacking a dissident into pieces in its consulate in Istanbul, the Saudi regime has become the target of public outrage — until the story dies down, at least. Which raises an important question: should French museums, opera houses and festivals accept funding from the kingdom? It's a sensitive issue, as Saudi Arabia often plays the role of artistic patron.

It's also an embarrassing one for everyone who believed that when crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) took the helm over a year ago, he would steer his country in the right direction. He hosted Saudi Arabia's first jazz festival in February, held its premier opera, and opened a movie theater following a 35-year ban. Riyadh even announced that 5,000 festivals and concerts would be held in 2018, twice as many as the year before.

At the time, commentators spoke enthusiastically of openness, of dialogue between civilizations. But the gory assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has served as a reminder of the repressive, conservative, sexist, and ultra-religious nature of the Saudi regime.

All the same, France won't be returning what the kingdom has given, gifts such as the 17 million euros for the Louvre museum's Islamic Art Department in 2005, or last year's 5 million euros to renovate the building of the Arab World Institute.

It remains to be seen what will happen to the ambitious cultural partnership established between France and Saudi Arabia during the MBS visit to Paris last April. It supports the Al-Ula archeological site, film, archives, and the creation of an opera house and orchestra. France's cultural community has been silent on the issue, as the ball is in the court of President Emmanuel Macron.

It's natural that few are speaking up against Saudi Arabia. The kingdom is a bipolar state, showing generosity abroad and cruelty at home. More surprising are the museums and opera houses that stay silent about the money they receive from corporations accused of harming the planet. Such as the oil and gas giants – for whom Saudi Arabia is a playing field – that pump millions into our cultural institutions.

For ecologists, it's dirty money that should be turned down. Climate activists, who wish to "free the Louvre" museum from the sponsorship of French oil and gas company Total, have held protests in front of emblematic pieces like The Raft of the Medusa and Winged Victory of Samothrace. But it's not exactly enough to leave anybody quaking in their boots.

A fiercer battle is taking place in the UK, where activists have long argued that oil companies "have no place" in museums. In 2016, their efforts led the Tate to put an end to 26 years of support from British Petroleum (BP), which was responsible for the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The issue likely influenced Shell's decision to end its 12-year partnership with the National Gallery in October.

Foundations have dynamized art, but they are creating tension.

Corporate sponsorship often raises ethical concerns. Are a company's activities in line with the values of the recipient museum? Is the money given in a transparent way? Does it come with strings attached? "France is behind when it comes to these crucial matters," says former banker François Debiesse, now president of Admical, an association that supports philanthropy.

British activists accuse oil companies of "artwashing," using art to polish their image at a cut rate. When it came to France, Debiesse remained diplomatic: "The money received should be clean," he said. "We can ask questions when it comes to Total, but be careful …"

If a museum turns down sponsorship from polluting companies, it stands to reason that it should also turn motorists away at the ticket booth. And it should be noted that when the state slashed funding for large cultural institutions, it asked them to turn to the private sector to make up the difference. Demand that corporate sponsorship be 100% kosher, and finding funding becomes difficult indeed. According to Louvre president Jean-Luc Martinez, "the financial support from Total was key."

British activists also accuse oil companies of sponsoring exhibitions featuring the countries where they have interests, such as the British Museum's 2016 Siberia exhibition, sponsored by BP. French museums are adamant that their sponsors are never involved in artistic choices. But that argument is hard to swallow when one remembers the Ahae scandal, uncovered in 2013 by Bernard Hasquenoph of the Louvre pour tous (Louvre for all) website. Ahae was the pseudonym of a South Korean fraudster and cult leader whose ferry sank with 300 teenagers on board. In exchange for large donations to the Louvre and the Palace of Versailles, he was rewarded with exhibitions of his unimpressive photography.

The final piece of the puzzle is one that's on many mouths in France these days: the role of art foundations, which have been flourishing recently. To Debiesse, they're a matter of concern. "They've dynamized art, but they are creating tension," he said.

Bernard Arnault's Fondation Louis Vuitton, which Debiesse recognizes is not totally disinterested, has attracted particular criticism due to the funding of its museum and cultural center on the outskirts of Paris. According to the magazine Marianne, 480 million of its 800 million euros cost was tax-free. It has led some to deduce that the 2003 Aillagon Act, which was intended to encourage philanthropy, has turned donating into a cash grab for certain actors.

The issue is heating up. France's Finance Ministry plans to fight tax loopholes. One hundred members of the National Assembly are pushing for a 10-million-euro cap on foundation tax breaks. The National Assembly's finance commission has ordered a report from the Court of Audit.

The fact that financier Edouard Carmignac, who opened an art foundation on Porquerolles Island off the Côte d'Azur in June, is under suspicion of financial fraud does little to quell the controversy. Franck Riester, the new Minister of Culture, told a group of philanthropists gathered at the Louvre on November 6 that both he and President Macron were committed to the Aillagon Act. Beggars can't be choosers.

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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