At Quai Branly

Jeremy Harding

Jacques Chirac’s museum on the quai Branly, opened last summer, continues to pull large crowds at weekends. Chirac, a long-time admirer of what used to be called ‘primitive’ art, made a great deal of noise at the start of his first presidential term about the need to show the various public collections to better advantage. He suggested, not entirely in passing, that some of the artefacts in the Musée de l’homme should be housed at the Louvre. The idea, which he’d borrowed from the eccentric collector Jacques Kerchache, left the Louvre in turmoil. It also put the social scientists at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes and the keepers of the Musée de l’homme into a state of battle-readiness: the museum’s wonderful collection of artefacts was a storehouse of meanings that could not be divulged by aesthetics alone.

What Chirac really wanted was a monument, a Chirac museum in the manner of Mitterrand’s Bibliothèque nationale, but he could hardly insist while he was busy urging cuts in public spending. The comic stand-off he created was very much to his advantage. The rugged ethnographic faction would not let their cherished objects fall into the hands of the exquisite fops at the Louvre if they could help it. The anaemic Louvre contingent, for its part, turned a shade paler at the prospect of having to take on all that mud-stained primitive clutter: for an inkling of how matters stood at the Louvre, imagine Norman Bates having to watch Marion Crane’s car being winched from the swamp beside the motel.

A solution was found. It appeared to favour the rugged party over the dandies and took the form of a new commission. The building would go up on a plot of public land across the river from the Palais de Chaillot, the home of the Musée de l’Homme. Chirac had got what he wanted without having to go begging.

The arguments surrounding a new museum dedicated to ‘the arts and civilisations of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas’ continue to bubble away. They include a strong minority view that the museum patronises the cultures it wishes to invest with lustre. Objections from scholars – the rugged faction no less than the fops – turn on whether a Tuareg tent cushion, for instance, is an extremely pretty household object, a ceremonial device or a work of art. Not everyone is happy, finally, with Jean Nouvel’s architecture, especially the main building which houses the permanent collection: a long nave – more than two hundred metres – set on stilts and gently curved, endorsing the nearby bend in the Seine.

The real difficulty for the Musée du quai Branly lies beneath these controversies. France has fumbled for two centuries with identity and difference, and the problem of what to do about the ‘other’. Old philosophical anxieties, reanimated in the 1930s by Kojève and again in the 1970s, have now sunk to the level of political spoof. When the Republic extends the courtesy of ‘identity’ to other cultures, it is rebuffed as a condescending, assimilationist ogre acting in bad faith; when it grits its teeth and prepares to celebrate ‘difference’, it is accused of exoticism or thought to be in the grip of a cultural hallucination brought on by the return of jungle fever.

Even without the racism of everyday life in France, there was no way that quai Branly could have avoided this trap. All the same, there might have been a bit more caution. The permanent collection in the main gallery, which includes 3500 artefacts, some of them superb, is steeped in a significant dimness. The penumbra of Nouvel’s nave, which the ‘plant motif’ printed on the vast windows compounds by filtering out natural light, is dangerously close to a fantasy of pre-contact worlds adrift in benign and fertile obscurity. Contact, one thinks a little ahistorically as the room seems to get dimmer, will occur any minute as a careless visitor blunders into a bronze funeral drum from Hoa Binh province or a showcase of anthropomorphic spoons. In fact the larger artefacts and the splendid vitrines are beautifully illuminated, like sacred objects in a series of clearings. Yet the skill and reverence of the lighting only emphasise the jungle whimsy in the space itself.

The pseudo-mountainous moulded partitions are part of the problem. This series of elongated walls which propose pathways round the gallery, allowing the visitor to navigate a looping passage from Oceania to the Americas, has prompted a comparison – not mine – with a journey through the great intestine. The great outdoors may be more what Nouvel and his team had in mind. In the event it’s all very Aardman Animations; the leather upholstery on the partitions simply elevates a clunky failure of taste into an error of judgment: leather means cattle, cattle means pasture and pasture implies deforestation. Many of the pieces on show in the main gallery were produced by forest peoples.

A common criticism of the permanent collections is that they are displayed without any breaks to distinguish the four geographical areas. The result, intended or not, seems to assert the universality of forms. A deified ancestral figure carved from basalt in the Marquesas has a plausible resemblance to an Aztec dog worked six hundred years earlier from a very different kind of stone. A patient, maze-like mother-of-pearl decoration on a shield from the Solomon Islands anticipates the laborious pigment design on a Congolese loincloth about a century later. In this sense quai Branly can be approached as a highly unscientific pageant of affinities. At the same time, great efforts have been made to explain and contextualise the artefacts on display without overbearing quantities of text. It is not fair to see the huge gallery, the centrepiece of the museum, as the burial ground of ethnography. Nonetheless it has left the Musée de l’homme across the river in a miserable state, moaning faintly amid the ghosts of exhibitions past that drift through this part of Paris.

The Musée de l’homme was the successor to the old Museum of Ethnography in the Trocadéro. With the Palais de Chaillot spreadeagled on the site of the Trocadéro, the ethnographic collection was moved into one of the wings to become part of what was now a major exposition of ‘mankind’ in all its glory from the year dot. Jawbones, flints and assorted prehistoric matter were shifted to the new museum from the Jardin des plantes to thicken up this notion of a voyage around the species.

The Palais de Chaillot was commissioned to host a kind of Expo 37, which would mark a high point in the run of French colonial and international exhibitions that began in the 1880s. If ever the signs and artefacts of the tribe needed accurate reading, this was the moment. The exhibition might well have illustrated the complex laws of exchange, but transformation, purification and sacrifice were the big anthropological themes of the late 1930s. In the exhibition grounds, Albert Speer’s Fascist pavilion kept company with its florid Soviet counterpart. Guernica was on display in the Spanish pavilion nearby.

With the exhibition of 1937, French ethnography renounced its origins as a colonial discourse and passed through the gates of social science – obligingly held open for forty years or more by Durkheim and his successors at the Année sociologique – to occupy a new symbolic home in the Palais de Chaillot. Conceived in imperial splendour and nourished by the inspection of conquered races, this fashionable discipline would eventually emerge as the sorcerer’s apprentice of political economy. But only after the war was over.

The Palais de Chaillot and the 1937 exhibition meant to assert that man, and not only the white man, was the sum of his creations. If the calculation was correct, and it was looking decidedly wobbly, there would be peace between peoples. By 1940 Hitler, something of an expert on peoples, was being photographed on the esplanade of the Palais. (That’s the Eiffel Tower in the background.) The Musée de l’homme had its own resistance cell and the following year it was under assault. Two heads of department were shot. Paul Rivet, the founder of the museum, who’d helped set up the Institut d’ethnologie with Marcel Mauss and Lucien Lévy-Bruhl in the 1920s, was also active in the resistance. In 1942, he left for Colombia.

Did anthropology become linked, in some mythical way – and more than other disciplines – with anti-Fascism? It’s doubtful, yet in the postwar period, largely thanks to the prominence of Lévi-Strauss, it continued to enjoy the prestige of a radical subject magically enhanced by the remote cultures with which it came into contact, the ordeals and epiphanies of fieldwork and the shamanistic perspectives that gave it secret access to the inhibitions and prohibitions of its own societies. Marcel Griaule, who had been working with the Dogon since the 1930s, became a celebrity after the war, when he published Conversations with Ogotemmeli. The Dogon, with their elaborate, highly poetic cosmology, eventually became celebrities too. But ‘structural’ anthropology was also there to calm any growing doubts about exoticism and insist that anthropology was strictly a science. It was a successful double act.

In fact, the Musée de l’homme kept exoticism alive, in an understated way; hedged around, of course, with tremendous seriousness and sometimes fustiness. Quai Branly has none of the fustiness. Its pretensions to seriousness are justified by the academic links it has put in place, its public lectures and the trouble it has taken, upstairs in the multimedia gallery, to explain the basics of anthropology.

As for exoticism, it’s hard to say how the new museum scores until some of the grotto effects are taken away. The silly leather partitions should go and the Tarzan decor should be washed off the windows. The collections ought probably to be signed and punctuated so that visitors don’t saunter away from a Christian Ethiopian mural (out of Africa) to find themselves in front of a Brazilian fish mask (into the Americas) used for warding off sickness during the dry season. The objects on show might then begin to look as good as the displays in the Pavillon des Sessions at the Louvre, a quai Branly ‘satellite’ – and a consequence of Chirac’s initial gambit – which houses a ‘best of’ selection, made from the quai Branly acquisitions, in magnificent surroundings.

Chirac’s baby has been a greedy tyke, pillaging and shuffling the contents of its source collections to amass a total of 300,000 objects, which makes the 3500 now on display seem a little paltry. The rest have been lovingly restored and secluded in a vast floodproof basement. The exception is the reserve of musical instruments housed in a large transparent tower rising from the basement through the foyer of the building. Despite this viewer-friendly high-rise of drums, flutes, xylophones and zithers, visitors saw more for their money at the Musée de l’homme, which had five times the number of objects on display and whose windswept future is, as it were, now largely prehistoric. Being a museum of mankind, it can’t cash in on what’s left of the dinosaur craze.

Gloomy perplexities in France about ‘the other’ combine with a no less overworked local obsession, ‘le regard’, to provide the title of an exhibition (until 21 January) in the elegant Garden gallery annexed to the main building at quai Branly. ‘D’un regard l’autre’: the wording suggests a worthy, moralising trawl through clichés about the evils of Eurocentrism and damaging stereotypes of far-off civilisations. It is, in fact, a marvellous exhibition that sets the right tone for the whole quai Branly enterprise, if only the props for the permanent collections can be improved. There is, in the end, a big question to be asked about the way non-European cultures have been represented and another to be asked about the representers themselves. This exhibition asks both, without labouring the point or falling away from self-awareness into self-regard.

In the early part of the show, we move from images of forest savages, hybrids and wild women, up through prints of humans bubbling away in cooking pots (Grands Voyages de Théodore de Bry, c.1590), to arrive at Albert Eckhout’s statuesque depictions of (noble) native Brazilians in the 1640s. With the Eckhout portraits we feel the force of a real encounter, yet there is no mistaking the eternal discretion of his figures, who tell us almost nothing about themselves.

The one-way conversation becomes a little more like a dialogue in the selection of red chalk drawings by William Hodges and John Webber from Captain Cook’s voyages, in which the vigour of the artists’ gaze is checked, and rewarded, by a powerful intimation of life and consciousness in the sitters. Meanwhile a clever association is made between the European interest in exterior and interior – mapping the world and mapping the body – by juxtaposing a 17th-century ‘Anatomical Eve’ (seen on the left), whose front can be removed to reveal her innards, including a foetus gestating in the womb, with a series of contemporary globes.

The show goes on to look at the interested amateurs, including Roland Bonaparte, great nephew of Napoleon I, and an assortment of consuls and soldiers, who prepared the ground for serious ethnographic collections. From there to an examination of European taste and the vogue for primitivism: Le Douanier Rousseau (The Snake Charmer), a panel of work by Emil Nolde, a montage of photos of Kirchner’s ‘primitivist’ studio in Dresden, and a handful of masks owned by artists who fell for a particular notion of Africa, Picasso among them. The send-off is a large and handsome Matisse, Sky in Polynesia, done in 1946.

The exhibition contains two star turns. The first is a display of maps drawn by the cartographers and engineers on Nicolas Baudin’s expedition to Australasia in 1800, leading into Lesueur’s watercolours from this and later journeys. Confidence, intelligence, grace, insatiable curiosity, a discerning eye and a steady hand: these were some of the virtues of the expeditionaries gazing on unfamiliar landscapes and life forms. Such a profusion of talents is hard to imagine now.

There is also, most memorably, a darkened rondavel-shaped room filled with war trophies: spears at the top, then shields, clubs, cudgels and knives, disposed in a wide circle, like a large articulated fan. These were the weapons of the subjugated peoples, brought home as marks of conquest but also in order to compare the different levels of technological backwardness among the lesser races. Around the outside of the room are anthropometric heads, supposed to enable similar judgments on the basis of brain size and brain shape. Inside and out, this is a perfectly achieved exhibit, done on a grand scale with minimal fuss; a tribute to the cultures that withered under Western eyes and a work of art in itself.