Monday, August 26, 2013

Musée du quai Branly

is an ethnographic museum devoted to displaying works of non-European cultural heritage which only opened in Paris in 2006. It was developed partly as a monument to Chirac’s presidency – French leaders are always on the look-out for a good monument to leave as a legacy of their time of in power – but also to pay homage to: ‘People marginalised, weakened, endangered by the inexorable advance of modernity. Peoples who want their dignity restored.’

It is debatable whether the Musée du quai Branly has successfully achieved Chirac’s rather over-the-top, paternalistic and slightly confused aims. Since its opening it’s been the subject of considerable controversy both for the way the art is displayed, which values the aesthetic, rather than the ethnographic, and for items in the collection itself. 
Feritility Dolls from Nigeria
I would agree that information regarding the exhibits is scarce – and when I went there was a temporary exhibition that I thought put this into historical context; ‘Charles Ratton, L’invention des arts ‘Primitifs’. Now, clearly Ratton, an enthusiastic collector and dealer, didn’t ‘invent’ ‘primitive’ art – but he did introduce it to a curious public, including many of the surrealist artists, including Man Ray. Nonetheless, it was considered quite subversive by some to examine the aesthetic qualities of these artifacts, rather than the ethnographic qualities. Does this mean thinking has come back around a half circle, at least?

The Charles Ratton exhibition contained Man Ray’s great photos and Picasso’s Verre d’ Absinthe which I loved seeing. Since I’ve been in Paris the Musée de Picasso has been closed due to renovations and that has been the only thing (apart from getting sick here) that has miffed me.

Another delight at the Musée du quai Branly was the ‘The River’, an installation by Charles Sandison. You are immersed in a flow of words that eddy and rush down the ramp, converging, parting and sometimes whirlpooling around for a little way. There was a poetic magic about walking on words! 

          'The River', Charles Sandison, 2010

I’m not a curating critic and I haven’t really sorted out my own responses to how I feel indigenous art should be or can be displayed, or even if indigenous is an okay term to use. I’ve always loved ‘useful’ art and craft – icons and objects that remind one to worship, family portraits, capturing not only character but the dress of the day, the Victorian mourning brooch or locket, the fertility doll, the Susie Cooper coffee set and the carved bone busks from the eighteenth century. Everyday artifacts, made with care, intrigue me.

Should there be more information and connections – yes. I do think so. I felt this particularly when I hit the Australian section. I found myself wanting to say, but there’s more than this! There’s so much more than this and it’s happening now!

I wonder whether the French have a real handle on curating their art works? I think they’ve trying to improve – witness the smaller exhibitions that appear in the Louvre – but I don’t think they’ve really got it yet. The tradition of the Salon is against them – and the tourist industry itself, which eats up what’s on the walls no matter how it is presented, doesn’t encourage innovative curating.  When you can hear the crowd pressing against the poor old Mona Lisa well before you enter her room, you realise any effort towards creative curating would be negated by our own culture vulture need to tick another monument off our checklist. Smaller displays, such as those in the Musée des Arts Decoratifs try harder than the big collections can or need to.

Personally, I like the thematic approach of London’s Tate Modern to their permanent collection – but obviously this only works with smaller permanent collections – and that’s been a controversial choice, as well. You can make some of the people happy some of the time….

One of the pleasures of the Musée du quai Branly, is stepping inside the garden and being somewhere hushed and completely away from everywhere for a couple of hours. It was a good place for a convalescent – not too grand, busy, or bright. 

Pity the poor birds!
Decorated bag, Amazon

Voodoo Figure, Haiti

Voodoo Figure, Haiti

1 comment:

Michelle Elvy said...

Really enjoyed this discussion here. Love how you depict France's own relationship to the fine art of curating - how their tourism industry is against them, how the history of the Salon impacts them. Also the discussion of Chirac's lofty and misguided vision (Paternalistic? Say it ain't so!)... Good to have a wee glimpse into this museum, and to walk on those watery words with you, ever so slightly (that part looked pretty cool -- oh yes, and the garden).

Thanks for sharing this.