Ashley in Paris

Ashley, a member of the University Honors Program and a senior majoring in art history, was awarded a Richter International Fellowship to conduct independent, graduate-level research this summer in Paris, where she plans to examine primary documents and pieces of chinoiserie at the major libraries and museums. Chinoiserie was an 18th-century movement in Europe characterized by the production of goods that portrayed China as an idyllic utopia, with plump pagodes, mystic sages and enlightened philosophers.

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The French Aesthetic

What is a “looking day”?
The past three days I have been to various locations in Paris seeking out all the city has to offer in relation to chinoiserie. I also found many little treasures along the way – some expected, some not (more on that in a minute).

Basically what my looking days entailed was visiting each museum, finding the objects that could be pertinent to my research (i.e., European-made chinoiseries, Chinese-made objects from the same period, paintings that provide commentary on the trend (le gout chinois), period furniture that contains imagery relating to China, etc.), taking extensive notes on the style and imagery seen in the pieces, and then compiling all of that information to look for themes, discrepancies, trends, connections, and so forth.

Le Musee des arts decoratifs
I awoke my first looking day to a cold and drab Paris, but I braved the elements and set off early in the morning for the Musee des arts decoratifs. I was a little nervous because I am not very familiar with the area. It is very close to the Louvre, which I spent 18 hours in last summer with SMU-in-Paris. However, we would usually enter the Louvre via the underground entrance from the metro (M: Palais Royal Musee du Louvre). So, I kind of knew where I was, but not really. Luckily, I found it no problem. It is GIGANTIC, that may be why.

I went in and got my ticket and map. The museum has 10 levels, eight of which house collections, the other two are home to the museum restaurant, gift shop, grand entrance, and offices. I found the floors devoted to the 17th and 18th century and searched for anything resembling chinoiserie. Fortunately, they had an entire gallery labeled “chinoiserie”.

Some of the works I had already seen online, but they definitely didn’t disappoint. I would say that the uniqueness of these pieces in the realm of chinoiserie are going to be extremely instrumental to my research. So I spent 2.5 hours taking notes on and pictures of these objects. By this time I was getting tired, and honestly, I really didn’t care to see the other seven floors, which are unrelated to my topic.

Richter1.jpgMusee Cernuschi and le Parc Monseau
I decided to go to the Asian art museum that Dr. Roynier had mentioned to me: Musee Cernuschi. I am soooo glad that I did. I was a little worried once again because I am COMPLETELY unfamiliar with the district that this museum is in. I mean completely. Never been there before. I knew the metro stop for the museum and that it was near a park so I decided to wing it. When I got out of the metro, the park was right in front of me, and I decided to have a look around before seeking out the museum.

The park (Parc Monceau) was so quaint and had neat architectural elements (see photo). Close to one side of the park, I noticed a sign for the museum, and it turns out that you can actually enter the museum via the park.

Richter2.jpgThe museum is housed in a renovated mansion. The collection was donated to the city of Paris by the museum’s namesake, Herni Cernuschi, at the end of the 19th century. Cernuschi was an Italian exile who immigrated to France; however, he left France for Asia in the early 1870s due to continued repression. During his travels around Japan and China, he collected over 5,000 pieces of art. The site of the museum is actually his mansion, where he housed many of the items during his lifetime. Over the years others have donated objects, and currently the collection is very grand indeed. The collection is predominately Chinese (Neolithic to the Song Dynasty), which was a rare treat for me as someone who wants to continue studies in the field of women’s roles in late imperial China. To say the least, I was completely overjoyed to find this treasure of a museum hidden in the streets of Paris!

In one of the rooms was a large Buddhist statue atop a geometric archway that spanned two floors (maybe 40 feet, see photo).

I took a ton of pictures of the objects.

Several pieces reminded me of the Chinese ceramics exhibition at the Crow Collection of Asian Art in Dallas where I interned last Fall.

Richter3.jpgMusee Guimet
The next day, I made my trip to the Musee Guimet. This is the premier Asian art musuem in Paris. It spans five floors (much smaller than the Musee des arts decoratifs), and houses collections from all over Asia (India, SE Asia, China, Pakistan, Nepal, Tibet, Japan, Korea, etc.). The main things that I needed to see were located on the uppermost floors: decorative arts of China (over 10,000 pieces in this collection) and the pottery from the Imperial manufactory of Jindezhen. However, I decided to tour the rest of the museum as well. I came to the Guimet last summer for a class with Dr. Freidel, but I never felt like I had gotten enough time to fully explore. So, this was my chance.

I saw so many marvelous things in such a short span of time, it is difficult to remember them all. One of my favorite galleries was filled with Buddhist statues from Indonesia (see photo). They were all unique in character, but with an overarching style. This museum visit was definitely worthwhile for my research and for my personal enjoyment.

The Buddhist Pantheon
While looking on the Guimet website earlier in the week, I had seen something about a Buddhist pantheon in Paris. It is extremely close to the Guimet and currently contains the original collection of Emile Guimet. I was curious and decided “why not?” considering I was already so close by. Entering the space was an odd experience. No one was around, and I felt like I was entering a sacred and forbidden place. I soon found a museum worker who waved me on. You don’t have to buy tickets, and there are no brocheres. So, you really just go in and start looking around.

The collection is relatively small. Something that I found really neat was a room that had over 50 guilded and painted Buddhist statues elevated on a stage-like structure and situated extremely close together to form a mandala. It was a surreal experience to see so many at once. The pantheon also touts beautiful Japanese gardens. Unfortunately, during my visit, they were under construction. However, I believe that they are scheduled to reopen at the end of June. Maybe I will be able to catch them right before my departure.

That is one thing about Paris that has been extremely frustrating – construction and renovation have been my plight recently (to be explained by looking day three).

That night, I discovered another little treasure of Paris: a new favorite gelato place. Amorino has a chain of storefronts in Paris, and there is one close to my apartment. The mango gelato is simply the best. Well, it is also all that I have sampled. But, why mess with a good thing? So, I got my gelato and went for a walk around the Luxembourg gardens (a perk of my location in Paris). It was a very peaceful evening, which was good because I knew the next day was going to be packed.

Richter4.jpgA Day of Renovation and much need Rejuvenation
Yesterday, my third looking day, I visited the Louvre. Considering that the Louvre is probably the most well-known and visited museum in the world, I had my apprehensions. I can’t say that I was looking forward to being in a space with the throngs of humanity. Well, when I got there, it actually wasn’t too crowded. The part of the museum that I needed to see was fairly empty. However, the part of the museum I needed to see was also closed for renovation. Once again plagued by renovation.

I asked the guard when the collection would reopen. I thought “maybe it will be available by the end of my trip.” I was wrong. He said “four years”. At first, I thought that I misunderstood or that he was joking. No. I found a sign, and sure enough, it said 2011. Well, there were a few pieces I did see from the reign of Louis XVI that were instructive. But probably the worst thing is not knowing what I missed. They could be sitting on something that would completely alter the course of my research, or they could have the same things as everywhere else. The trouble is that I don’t know which situation is the reality.

I am going to try to find a catalouge of the collection. We will see how that turns out. Also, I took a brief stroll through the Egyptian galleries. Such a wonderful collection of objects (see photo).

Next, I went to see if I could get any information on the Musee d’Ennery. The Musee d’Ennery is a collection of 17th, 18th and 19th century objects from the Far East that were compiled by a prominent Parisien couple in the second half of the 19th century. The website has said for months that the museum is closed for renovation. So, I have kept thinking “maybe it will reopen while I am in Paris”. No such luck. It seems that the museum has been closed since at least 2005, and no one seems to have any information on when it will reopen. Luckily, I know that some of the Paris libraries have catalogues of the complete collection. Hopefully I will be allowed to examine them during my library visits.

Richter5.jpgAfter three days of looking and a lot of walking, I was in dire need of a break. Luckily, one of my good friends and fellow art history majors arrived in Paris just in time. Christy is also in France on a Richter Fellowship conducting research regarding the early Greek colonies in the South of France. She has been to Paris once before during the SMU Honors Program pilgrimage. However, since she only got to spend an extremely limited amount of time here, I am serving as her guide to “The City of Lights”.

First we had dinner at a cafe near the Eiffel Tower. I had my first Croque Madame (ham and cheese sandwich with a fried egg on top) of the trip. Oh, yummy. Next, we went to the Les Halles district to experience the amazing architecture of St. Eustache. Then a night of all-French conversation and more Amorino gelato. Magnifique!

On to research
The next goal for me is to complile all of the photos and notes that I have taken over the last few days and develop a clear visual vocabulary of chinoiserie. Once I have identified themes, discrepancies, connections, etc., I will organize a list of key words and phrases that will aid me in finding the necessary documents for my research. Once armed with a list of sources and search tools, I will be off to the national libraries for research. So, I have a couple long, hard days of research ahead of me. Luckily, Paris is full of entertainment when I need a break. Until next time…

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