Monday, July 06, 2015

Paris Looks Outward

-- Paris Tourist office photo
In 2006, a new Paris museum called the Musée du Quai Branly opened. It displays indigenous art and artifacts from Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. This ambitious museum absorbed many of the anthropological collections from earlier museums. I've visited some of the pre-cursors, but haven't been to this museum, which represents new perhaps post-modern views about how to display objects from exotic cultures. I'm not sure I'd be totally happy with its approach, but I'm fascinated to read on its website how the curators have rearranged and rethought the methods of the older museums, and developed a garden to complement the collections. I hope to eventually visit it.

On several long stays in Paris and on many shorter trips, I've become aware of how much Paris looks outward at a wider world. I think this museum participates in this trend. I believe that the Parisians, or at least a percentage of them, have always been exceptionally aware of far-away places. Many French people, perhaps starting at the Crusades, went on long voyages and brought back travelers' tales or objects from dramatically different cultures. French explorers returned from foreign places and introduced new ideas, new foods, and new products.

Famous Kosher falafel restaurant in Paris (from Wikipedia).
This is my favorite falafel anywhere!
Although the French have a reputation for being somewhat self-satisfied with their own culture, Paris has always demonstrated a consciousness of faraway cultural ideas. Even in food, the French have adapted quite a few cuisines into theirs. French chefs adopted culinary ideas from Italy in the Renaissance (though not necessarily because of Catherine de Medici!)

More recently, restaurants in Paris have featured foods from Vietnam and North Africa; Jewish food from Eastern Europe and Israel; German foods like sauerkraut, which they claim as Alsatian; and certain Spanish style food that they view as Basque -- lots of ethnic variety in spite of the stereotypes!

During much of the 20th century, Paris was the home of a number of international organizations, some affiliated with the UN such as UNESCO. Paris was chosen as the site of Institut du Monde Arabe, a museum and library founded in 1980 by 18 Arab countries. The organization Doctors without Borders originated in Paris in 1971. I'm not sure how much Paris dominates international affairs today as it did in the past, but this wider consciousness is part of the Paris character for sure.

Paris museums have reflected the repeated contact with the exotic and the foreign, sometimes as a result of French colonial adventures or conquests, sometimes the work of explorers and pioneering anthropologists. Represented in the new museum at Quai Branly are collections from a former colonial museum at Porte de Vincennes (Palais de la Porte Dorée), which had various names as attitudes towards colonialism evolved. The Musée de l'Homme at the Palais de Chaillot originally used items collected on various explorations and expeditions to illustrate French contact with tribal peoples on virtually every continent -- these collections too have gone to Quai Branly.

Assyrian art at the Louvre (from our 2013 trip).
In Paris today, the Louvre still offers rooms full of loot from Napoleon's invasion of Egypt and objects brought back from many other adventures, including a very recent and huge display of art from the Islamic world.

The Musée Guimet offers Cambodian and other architectural and sculptural objects from Southeast Asia, Chinese vases, Japanese masks, and much more. It's much smaller and less famous than the other Parisian museums, but it would be a standout anywhere else.

Cambodian art from the Guimet (2013).
As I dream of future visits to Paris, I think about visiting or revisiting all these wonderful collections, which in many cases were my own visual introduction to the wide wide world, another insight from the wonderful city of Paris.

This week begins a blogging challenge called Paris in July, with the special suggestion to feature the character of Paris. Many of the participants in this blogging event have been writing about museums and art in Paris. Both native and expatriate artists in Paris definitely contributed to the special character of the city, especially in the early 20th century. I think the numerous Parisian museums presenting art and culture from many nationalities and ethnic groups have had a great significance in forming this character.

Just one example: a gallery show of African masks evidently inspired Picasso to repaint the faces of two of the women in "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" (1907). This painting played a major role in revolutionizing modern art!
Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon now at MOMA, New York.


Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

Paris is always a leader in diversity, and that is just one of the millions of things I love about it. Thank you for sharing these thoughts!

Here's my Paris in July post!

Tamara said...

Mae, you describe the character of Paris when you talk about 'Paris looking outwards'. I agree so much with this impression. In many cities you visit, they tell the story of the city, the locals, the geography or politics of the city - but Paris does see it's place in a global sense. Thanks for this interesting background on the new Musee and the others.

Louise said...

Musee du Quai Branly is one of the major museums that I haven't visited as yet- there is so much to do in Paris. I did manage to take in a falafel at L'As du Falafel last year though- so very different to our felafel in Australia. I'd like to try one again. Thanks for this thoughtful post.

Jeanie said...

Mae, this is a fascinating post and extremely insightful. I remember one friend saying to me before we left "Don't get hung up on eating French food throughout your stay; try some of the other ethnic kinds, too." We did and it was well worth it. The photos are terrific. I can practically smell the falafel and all the other wonderful aromas that come with a walk through the city. Yum!