It’s a sultry late summer day in Paris. The kind of weather that has tourists wilting under every bit of shade to be found in the Tuilleries Garden. What better time to retreat to the cool comfort of one of my favorite well-kept-secret museums?
Located on the secluded Avenue Velasquez, in a remote enclave of the posh eighth arrondissement just a few steps away from the Parc Monceau, the Musée Cernuschi is a unique gift from its namesake, nineteenth century Renaissance man Henri Cernuschi, to the city of Paris.
Who is Henri Cernuschi?
The history of the museum is indissociable of that of the man. Born in1828 into a wealthy Milanese family, Enrico Cernuschi is an Italian patriot who flees to France in the wake the 1850 collapse of the Rome revolutionary government, and in time acquires French citizenship. In Paris, he becomes a prominent economist, banker and passionate Asian art collector who makes his fortune during the Second Empire (1852-1870).
An ardent republican, he actively supports efforts to create the French Third Republic, which once again puts him in a precarious political situation during the violent socialist uprising known as the Paris Commune (1871). He wisely decides remove himself to the Far East, where during a seventeen month journey through Japan and then China, he amasses well over 4,000 works of art, mainly ancient bronzes and ceramics.
Upon his return in 1873, Cernuschi commissions the neo-classical Parisian architect William Bouwens der Boijen to design his private mansion on the Avenue Velasquez, where he lives surrounded by his continuously expending art collection. Upon his death (1896) he bequeaths the mansion and its contents to the city of Paris, with arrangements for it to be turned into a museum. Inaugurated in 1898, the Cernuschi Museum is now the second largest museum of Asian art in France after the Musée Guimet.
An Evolving Treasure Trove
The museum has retained the atmosphere of the grand private residence it once was, noted especially for its Chinese collection that range from the Neolithic age to the thirteenth century, including rare mingqi (tomb figures) from the Han dynasty, 206 BC–220 AD. However, its most striking piece is the 4.4-meter (14.5-foot) high eighteenth century bronze Amida Buddha displayed in the soaring central hall. Purchased from a small temple in the Meguro neighborhood of Tokyo, it is also known as the Meguro Buddha.
Over the past century, the collection has grown steadily through donations and purchases to its current holdings of over 12,000 pieces, 900 of which are permanently on display. Today, in addition to showcasing one of the leading collection of Chinese art in Europe, the museum also features fine Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese works. And for the past century it frequently holds temporary thematic exhibitions of international stature. One more reason to periodically revisit this exquisite treasure trove of Asian art.
Getting to Know Zao Wou-Ki
The purpose of my recent visit to the Cernuschi Museum, other than escaping the scorching heat, is the opportunity to view a recent donation of works by another exceptional exile, the recently deceased Chinese-born French artist Zao Wou-ki.
Born in Beijing in 1920 and raised in Shanghai where his father is a banker, Zao Wou-ki’s precocious talent earns him admission at the age of 15 to the prestigious Hangzhou National College of Art (now the China Academy or Art). There, in addition to traditional Chinese drawing, painting and calligraphy, he is introduced to western perspective and oil painting, and develops an enthusiastic interest in Post-Impressionism. Drawn by the work of leading European artists, especially Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso he travel to Paris in 1948, a move intended to be temporary but soon becomes permanent due to the communist takeover of China. Within a few years he begins to develop the luminous style of abstract art that becomes evident in his bold large-scale paintings
The works in the donation illustrate this key early period as he transitions from figuration to abstraction. It includes a number of his experiments on paper with charcoals, watercolors and inks. Then there are abstract ink compositions from the 1970’s to 2000’s as well as a striking series of late works on porcelain (2006-2009) that illustrate clearly the evolution of his artistic journey.
My visit concludes with the screening of Zao Wou-ki : Lumières et couleurs sans limites (Zao Wou-ki: lights and colors without boundaries), an enlightening hour-long documentary that puts into context the life and work of this fascinating artist widely recognized today as one of the foremost Chinese painters of the twentieth century.
Good to Know
- Visiting – Musée Cernuschi, 7 Avenue Vélasquez, Paris. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Closed on Monday and national holidays. Contact: Tel. +33 (0) 53 96 21 50. The entrance of Avenue Velasquez is located between n°111 and 113 Boulevard Malesherbes.
- Getting there – There is easy public transportation from anywhere in Paris to the museum: Métro stations Villiers or Monceau (line 2) or Villers (line 3) or Bus stop Malesherbes/Courcelles (bus numbers 30 and 94).
- It’s Free! As is the case with all the City of Paris-owned museums, entrance to the permanent collection of the Musée Cernuschi is always free of charge. Temporary exhibits have a nominal entrance fee.