Monday, September 21, 2009

Cahiers Parisiens: ce qui vous tenez, ça c'est ce que je prends

I've finally escaped my Catcave the last several days, making my way out to a few museums I hadn't visited before. First was the Musée Carnavalet on Friday, down in the Marais. Carnavalet focuses on the history of Paris itself, and has dioramas, objects d'art, paintings, etc. from various time periods. They also had a special exhibition on the French Revolution, which engaged the military historiophile and the Francophile in me: the Revolution is one of my favorite time periods, and they had a wealth of stuff. Including some of the commemorative models of the Bastille that were actually carved from the stones of the Bastille itself.

Plus I discovered that I could read the Declaration of the Rights of Man in French. Score one for me.

I've been eating lunch rather than dinner the last several days, since lunch is cheaper, so I had my traditional, once a trip croque monsieur at a nearby cafe, washed down with some Haut-Médoc and a cup of strong French espresso. I've taken to drinking coffee in the French style after meals--espresso, with some sugar to cut the bitterness. It makes me feel all expatriate and such. Though I suppose I'd really need to drink some Pernods in a bar with a zinc counter top, and scribble furiously away in my notebooks about running the bulls at Pamplona and other homoerotic displays of masculinity.

Wait. That's not me. That was Hemmingway. Maybe I've been drinking too much wine.

Saturday I had a real treat...well, not an unproblematic treat. But you've probably come to expect that of me. I went to the Musée Guimet, over by the Trocadero. This is the main Asian art museum in Paris. I didn't go straight there, acutally: I had a large lunch nearby first, which included a desert of profiteroles--cream puffs stuffed with vanilla ice cream and drenched in chocolate sause--my favorite desert in the world, and something that it is almost impossible to get (at least, impossible to get done right) back in the states:

Anyway, the museum really has an excellent collection, from all parts of Asia. The India collection was quite good; and as someone that has been interested in Shiva since my days researching Indian mythology, I was happy to see this marvelous bronze of Shiva Nataraja, the Lord of the Dance:

They have an excellent Cambodian section. As I've been to Cambodia this year, it was quite pleasant at first to reacquaint myself with the amazing and monumental Khmer art--to see one of the gently smiling, inexplicable faces of the Bayon silently contemplating me again, to look at a marvelously preserved naga, to see a beautiful bas-relief apsara.

But something began to bother me. When I would read the labels to see where these things came from, I began to feel...uncomfortable. That's because I've actually been to those places; I've seen the elephant terrace, the royal palace, the Bayon of Angkor Thom. And given that Cambodia was a French colony for ninety years, I thought it was a pretty good bet that they didn't ask if they could take any of those things.

This isn't a new issue, of course: the Louvre has the best egyptology collection outside of Egypt, because of Napoleon's conquests there; the British plundered the Greek world to build their amazing collections; even within Europe itself museum collections are often the plunder of war.

Still, the enormous gap of wealth, privilege and power between the colonial nations of the nineteenth century and the countries they subjugated seems to lend an air of disquietude that doesn't linger over the internecine push and shove of Europe's long shabby history of warfare. Because they essentially stole these things from people who found it difficult or impossible to resist. Stole, and left no recompense, and often no regrets. Even the great humanist Andre Malraux got into the act, trying to steal artifacts and whole bas-reliefs from the newly-rediscovered and beautifully-preserved Banteay Srei in Cambodia.

Of course, it's nice that people in other places in the world can see these things, and it's good to have some of them safe in a museum--the Angkor artifacts suffered during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. But that still doesn't make up for the crime of taking them in the first place. I mean...they could have just asked.

In any case, maybe it's appropriate that this guy, donated by the women of the United States in the memory of Lafayette, should be right outside the museum:

(Yeah, that's good ol' George himself.)

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed the Musée Carnavalet. I think that's where I saw a Revolutionary watch: 20 hours of 100 minutes each, or something like that.