Asian art in the Musee du quai Branly

image musee du quai branly blossom

It is a decade since the 2006 opening of the Musee du quai Branly in Paris, under the auspices of President Jacques Chirac. The collections span Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas, and the focus is on ethnology and art combined.

The opening generated plenty of excitement at the time, but when I visited in March the Parisians I spoke to seemed less enthused. One friend criticized it for being too dark inside; another for poor quality labeling, with not enough effort to explain or contextualize the objects.

This was my first visit and – given the negative comments – I was pleasantly surprised. The building is unusual and somewhat womb-like inside, with its organic contours and earthy colours. The galleries are not always easy to navigate and there is, deliberately, no demarcation between the four main sections, allowing a free flow from Oceania to Australia to Asia and so on. But the collections are huge and cover every area of human activity, from masks and bowls to spears and boats. The displays are spacious and easy on the eye (although it is pretty dark, especially for taking photos).

The Asia section is interesting because it focuses on the folk art and indigenous cultures that regular museum displays tend to overlook. These include the Miao and other groups from China, represented here by their textiles – jackets, headdresses, baby-slings and so on. These displays work well but in other parts the Asia section can feel a bit thin, as though a single object is being introduced as proxy for a whole culture – perhaps the Buddhist statue from 11th century Nepal, exquisite but isolated on its plinth. It makes for a visit that has great moments but doesn’t quite satisfy. Overall, though, the museum is a must-see.

Musee du quai Branly
Paris, France
Permanent collection

Above: trees in bloom at the Musee du quai Branly. Photo: JF.

Below: Buddhist temple door, Myanmar. 19th c. Teak, traces of red lacquer. Musee du quai Branly. Photo: SF.

image temple door Myanmar

Below: Buddha, Myanmar. Late 19th to early 20th c. Wood with gilt and lacquer, glass inlay. Musee du quai Branly. Photo: SF.

image buddha Myanmar

Below: Shakyamuni Buddha, Nepal. 11th century. Copper, mercury gilt. Height 52.5cm. Musee du quai Branly. Photo: SF.

image Buddha Nepal

Bronze at the Royal Academy

“Bronze” defies the short review, being huge in every sense: geographically – covering countless regions, some less familiar (Luristan? Ottonian?); chronologically – going back to 3500 BCE (not a misprint, it dawned on me); physically – huge statues abound, and there is too much to see in one visit.  In short, it is unmissable.  Arriving at opening time, I headed straight to Room 9 “Gods” to commune in solitude with a stunning array of large bronzes from India, Tibet, Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia.  I enjoyed the juxtaposition of a seated figure of Uma from Nepal (11th century) and a French Venus extracting a thorn from her foot (16th century), a teasing multicultural celebration of the nude goddess figure.  Sometimes, though, the emphasis on thematic over geographical or chronological structures became frustrating.  I nearly missed a 6th century Chinese Maitreya altarpiece from the Met because it was filed under “Groups”, not “Gods”.  Some things felt over-represented (Shang dynasty bronzes with intaglio design), others under-represented (Japan scored one “Head” and one “Object”, a 19th century incense burner).  Overall, the curators seemed to be anthologizing rather than telling a compelling story.  But carping aside, this is a show in which to luxuriate.

Bronze
Royal Academy, London
15 September 2012 to 9 December 2012

Above (upper image): Statue of Uma. Nepal. Early 11th century. Copper alloy with traces of gilt and semi-precious stones. Height 35.56cm; width 27.94cm; depth 25.40cm. Cleveland Museum of Art. Image: Cleveland Museum of Art, at http://www.clevelandart.org/art/departments.aspx.

Above (lower image): State of Venus extracting a thorn from her foot, Ponce Jacquiot. ca. 1560-1570. Bronze. Height 25.3cm; width 23.5cm; depth 12.5cm. Victoria and Albert Museum. Image: Victoria and Albert Museum, at http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O70342/venus-removing-a-thorn-from-statuette-ponce-jacquiot/.

Below: Altarpiece dedicated to Maitreya. China, late Northern Wei or Eastern Wei dynasty. ca. 525-535. Gilt leaded bronze. Height 59.1cm; width 38.1cm; depth 19.1 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art, at http://www.metmuseum.org/collections/search-the-collections.