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

Drinking vessels from Asia at the British Museum

This might loosely be described as a show about “drinking culture”.  It explores the significance of water, tea and alcohol across Asia, looking at specific types of vessel that evolved in different regions: in South Asia, the lota and the kamandalu; in Southeast Asia, the kendi; in Korea, the kundika; everywhere, the ewer.  It matches vessels with related images – from Japan, a sake cup of lacquered wood by Heisensai Jokyu, shown with a woodblock print by Ichirakutei Eisui of a courtesan holding a sake cup.  This very structured approach had its merits but there was more to enjoy in certain “wildcard” items chosen, I think, to say something about the broader context – from Rajasthan, a glorious painting of the goddess Lakshmi, associated with fertility and good fortune, seated on a lotus flower, with a handsome pair of winged elephants pouring water over her from pitchers held high in their trunks.

Ritual and revelry: the art of drinking in Asia
British Museum, London
27 September 2012 to 6 January 2013

Above: Gaja-Lakshmi. India, Bundi, Rajasthan. Ca. 1780. Gouache on paper. Height 22.9cm; width 27.7cm. British Museum. Image: Trustees of the British Museum, at http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database.aspx.