The Golden Age of English Painting — Musee du Luxembourg, Paris

The Golden Age of English Painting — Musee du Luxembourg, Paris

Of the 20 million or so visitors who descend on Paris each year, relatively few make it to the Jardin du Luxembourg, the sumptuous 25 hectare (62 acre) flower-filled park in the heart of the Left Bank, bordered by Saint Germain des Prés and the Latin Quarter. And even fewer suspect that under the centuries-old trees at the northwestern edge of the park sits the oldest art museum in France.

The First Museum of Art

The Luxembourg Palace was built as the residence of Queen Marie de Medicis (1575-1642).

The current exhibit highlights the evolution of English portraiture in the latter part of 18th century.

Initially housed in the west wing of the Palais du Luxembourg (built in 1615 by Queen Marie de Medici, Louis XIII’s mother) the Musée du Luxembourg was the first French museum to open to the public in 1750, almost half a century before the Musée du Louvre. The works exhibited here, about one hundred Old Masters paintings from the royal collection would in time be transferred to form the nucleus of the Louvre.

The Luxembourg was then designated as a museum of contemporary arts, and in 1886 settled into its current building. Much of the works first shown here from 1818 to 1937 ultimately found their way to the Musée National d’Art Moderne and the Musée d’Orsay. Then, in recent decades the space has become one of Paris’ premier temporary exhibit galleries. Twice yearly, it features a thematic exhibition of major works on loans from French and foreign museums, showcasing the evolution of European art in its historical context .

 

The Golden Age of English Painting

Joshua Reynolds – Autoportrait (1775, oil on canvas).

Through a comprehensive series of masterpieces on loan from the Tate Britain museum, the current exhibit pays tribute to the Golden Age of English Painting, which flourished through the long reign of Charles III (from 1760 to 1820). This was a decisive period of societal transformation in Great Britain, which shaped its artistic and cultural life. While some artists could still rely on the few royal commissions, most were now able to cater not only to the elite aristocracy but also to an emerging consumer society of new players in commerce and industry. This demand set artists free to express themselves in a diversity of styles, as they adapted their production to this evolving market.

While still referring to the masters of the past and the great schools of painting that had made their mark throughout continental Europe, this new generation of painters, led by Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) and Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), fostered the emergence of a distinctive British identity.

A Reynolds – Gainsborough Face-off

Lady Bampfylde (1775. Joshua Reynolds, oil on canvas).

From the 1760s Reynolds and Gainsborough were acknowledged leaders in the field of portraiture. Both received royal commissions and were “painters to the king”. In 1768, both became founding members of the Royal Academy of Arts, with Reynolds becoming its first president. Critics of the time regularly set them in opposition, and they certainly played on this by producing works inviting comparison. Reynolds’ works became known for their flattering scholarly references, while Gainsborough breathed life into his elegant portraits. Both, however, shared the same inspiration from Anthony Van Dyck, the Flemish Baroque artist who had made his career at the British court in the 17th century. 

All these formative points are brilliantly illustrated in the first part of the exhibition with an extensive face-off between the two masters.

 

 

From the Old to the New Generation

Mrs. Robert Trotter of Bush (1788-1789. George Romney, oil on canvas).

While Reynolds and Gainsborough redefined British art, they also opened the door to a new generation of talents. Their influence is illustrated in a selection of major portraits by their competitors/followers, such as John Hopper, William Beechey, Thomas Lawrence, Francis Cotes and George Romney.

Unlike most of the other great portraitists who wooed the royal family and attended the Royal Academy, Romney built his reputation on his independence. He soon became en vogue in London, especially among the thriving new clientele of entrepreneurs and merchants created by the booming economic and urban development of the time. Overall, the 1760s and 70s were creative years for all these painters, represented in this exhibition by portraits that also distinguish themselves by their varieties.

Family in a Landscape (1775. Francis Wheatley, oil on canvas).

This new, more individualist consumer society favored a degree of personalization that couldn’t be achieved in the formal portraiture tradition of previous centuries. The popularity of conversation pieces ensued, group portraits close to the genre painting, generally small, that had been until now the trademark of Flemish art (think Johannes Vermeer , Gerard ter Borch et al.). Here, the subjects were most often portrayed as a family staged in an informal fashion, an evolution of the portrait that reflected the increased importance given to private space and the comfort of domestic life.

A Newfound Appreciation of Nature

Inside the Stable (1791. George Morland, oil on canvas).

A pair of foxhounds (1791. George Stubbs, oil on canvas).

Landscape also played a central role in the emergence of the English school of painting. It enabled artists to express themselves more freely than in portraits, where the requirements of the patron were more restrictive. With the exception of great classical landscapes depicting abstract ideals and historic events, landscape painting had been relegated to the bottom of the academic hierarchy of genres. While there was already an established niche market for it, long dominated by Flemish artists, the emerging consumer society reinforced the demand for these smaller paintings representing with naturalism simple subject, designed primarily to please the eye.

The period coincided with the wars, first against revolutionary France and then Napoleon, which curtailed opportunities for travel on the continent. With access to the treasures of classical art now limited, a whole generation of painters began crisscrossing the British countryside in search of subjects. Scenes of rural life, inspired by the national landscape, took on an unprecedented importance and proved to be an opportunity to profoundly reconsider national identity.

The Rise of Watercolor Painting

Lake and mountains (1801. J.M.W. Turner, watercolor on paper).

Bridge near Rajmahal, India (1827. Thomas Daniell, oil on canvas).

At the time, watercolor was still being used in a traditional way, merely to bring color to drawings. The last part of the exhibition showcases the likes of Francis Towne, John Martin and J.M.W. Turner as they discovered new ways to use the medium as a wash. By giving the color a figurative power of its own, independently of lines, they introduced a new freedom of expression in their work. Watercolor thus played an important role in the growing popularity of landscape painting in England. Small in size, relatively inexpensive and easy to acquire, watercolors now catered to the flourishing bourgeois art market.

In parallel to this last section, a limited selection of late works documents the presence of Great Britain in India and the Caribbean, a reminder that the country’s artistic and cultural progress was essentially founded by the commercial exploitation on overseas territories.

Overall, this retrospective beautifully showcases the evolution of a vital period in English art. It can be seen until February 16, 2020.

 

The Thames near Walton Bridge (1805. J.W.M. Turner, oil on wood).

Good to Know

  • Visiting — The Musée du Luxembourg, 19 rue de Vaugirard, 75006 Paris, France, is open daily from 10:30 am to 7:00 pm with night opening until 10:00 pm on Monday. Contact: tel. +33 (0) 1 40 13 62 00.
  • Getting there —There is easy public transportation from anywhere in Paris to the museum: metro station Saint Sulpice (Line 4) or bus stop Luxembourg (lines 58, 84 and 89).
  • Future Expositions — Later in 2020, the museum is scheduled to stage two very different exhibitions: “Man Ray and Fashion,” from April 9th to July 26th, and “Influential Women Painters (1780-1830),” from September 30, 2020 to January 24, 2021.

Location, location, location!

Musée du Luxembourg

The rebirth of a Belle Epoque Fast Food Tradition – Bouillon Chartier Montparnasse

The rebirth of a Belle Epoque Fast Food Tradition – Bouillon Chartier Montparnasse

In 19th century France, the industrial revolution was in full swing, drawing throngs of new mouths to feed to the cities. Lyon already had its Bouchons and Lille its Estaminets. Now, Paris was getting its Bouillons, working class eateries serving humble but hearty, and most importantly, cheap fare.

Fast Food In An Other Era

Bouillon Chartier Montmartre.

Tucked away in a courtyard of the Faubourg Montmartre, Bouillon Chartier has attracted diners since 1896.

The first Bouillon (broth, or stew in this context) appeared in 1855 in Les Halles, the bustling wholesale food market in the center of Paris, when an ingenious butcher, Pierre Louis Duval, devised a way to dispose of his least desirable cuts of meat. He started proposing a filling dish of meaty stew to the workers who labored through the night, unloading the wagons that delivered foodstuff from the far reaches of the country. The concept caught on and began expanding to full-menu poor man’s brasseries with multiple locations across the city. By 1900, there were over two hundred Bouillons throughout Paris. They had become the fast food chains of the Belle Epoque.

The Bouillon Bandwagon

Bouillon Chartier luggage racks.

Overhead luggage racks are a reminder of the dining room’s original function as a train station.

In 1896, the brothers Camille and Edouard Chartier got on the bandwagon, opening their Bouillon Chartier in a former train station concourse of the Rue du Faubourg Montmartre on the northern side of Paris. The long Art Nouveau dining hall with its high metal columns holding the opaque glass ceiling, wall-size mirrors set in the swirling woodwork and extensive menu of affordable dishes, quickly became a popular local hang out.

Montparnasse Art Nouveau facade.

The Montparnasse venue retains its Art Nouveau facade.

Boosted by the success of this first venture, the brothers opened a second venue on the Left Bank’s Boulevard Montparnasse in 1903. Here they pulled all the stops, fully embracing the Art Nouveau craze unleashed by the Paris World Fairs of 1878, 1889 and 1900. They commissioned Parisian ceramist, stained glass designer and decorator Louis Trézel to create a trendy environment for their crowd-pleasing menu.

Alas, as fast as the Bouillons had prospered in the optimistic decades of the Belle Epoque, they faded in the aftermath of the First War War. By the 1930’s they had all but disappeared from the Paris dining scene.

The Unsinkable Bouillon Chartier

Chartier Escargots

Escargots remain a popular item on the Chartier menu.

One notable survivor is the original Chartier. Having managed to endure through both World Wars, its popularity has kept on growing ever since, although with a different clientele. These days, it’s tourists from all over the world who flock to the faded Art Nouveau dining room of the Faubourg Montmartre to experience such retro-French dishes as poireaux (leek) vinaigrette, escargots, andouillette grillée (chitterling sausage), or for the less adventurous, confit de canard (duck confit) and blanquette de veau (veal stew) at prices of a bygone era.

Montparnasse painted glass ceiling.

The Montparnasse location still boasts its delicately painted glass ceiling,

Then this past January, the denizens of the Left Bank were pleased to see that almost a century after its demise, the Bouillion Chartier Montparnasse had been resurrected. Sold in 1924, the restaurant had gone through a couple of different identities since then. However, it had managed to maintain its stunning original décor: delicately painted glass ceiling, mirrors set into the elegant curves of the woodwork and dainty garlands of morning glories climbing up the ceramic- tiled walls. The décor alone would warrant a visit.

Retro Food is New Again

Frisée aux Lardons.

Salade frisée aux lardon.

Chartier Confit.

Confit de canard et pommes grenailles

But the menu is just as authentic as the venue. With a friend who lives nearby, I popped in for mid-afternoon late lunch/early dinner on my most recent stop in Paris. We deliberately timed our visit to avoid the long line that reliably forms in front of the place at conventional meal times (sorry, no reservations. But with seating for almost 200, the line does move fast).

A cheerful young waiter wrapped in the traditional white apron writes down our order in a corner of the paper tablecloth. I start with frisée aux lardons, a salad of crisp curly endive topped with lots of sautéed bacon cubes and croutons (€4 – that’s $4.5 at current exchange rate). My friend chooses the block de foie gras, three generous slices of the famed duck liver paté served with toast points (€7.5 = $8.80). Main course is confit de canard with roasted grenaille potatoes for her (€10.60 = $12) and pied de porc grillé (grilled pig’s trotter) with french fries for me (€10.50 =  $11.75) – no apology for my seriously retro choice. My grandfather loved it and I acquired the taste at an early age. Dessert is crème au caramel for her (that’s crème brulée in the U.S. €3.00 = $3.40). The caramelized top is crusted just right. As for my baba au rhum (€4.60 = $5.00), another one of my nostalgic guilty pleasures, the sweet light brioche is sufficiently soaked in rum syrup that it might require proof of age in a U.S. restaurant. A winner in my book.

The Net of It

Baba au Rhum

Baba au rhum

Don’t go to Chartier expecting a haute cuisine extravaganza. But if you yearn for, or are curious about the comfort food once concocted by thrifty French grandmothers at a price that will not ravage your travel budget, this is definitely the place. Add two espressos and a half-liter carafe of Merlot, and our dinner for two in a priceless Belle Epoque setting barely topped fifty-five dollars U.S., including tip, which is by law included in the tab in France. The service was prompt and good humored on the day of our visit, and a quick glance around the room showed the clientele to be evenly distributed between locals and tourists. For Parisians, retro-food is trendy again, and the newly open Bouillon Chartier Montparnasse is once again one of the neighborhood go-to places – and now mine whenever I happen to be in town.

 

Good to Know

  • Bouillon Chartier Montparnasse, 59 Boulevard du Montparnasse, 75006 Paris is open daily from 11:30 am to midnight. Contact: Tel. +33 (0) 1 45 49 19 00.  No reservations.
  • Both Bouillon Chartier locations are listed historical monuments.

Location, location, location!

Bouillon Chartier Montparnasse

Musée d’Orsay, Paris – Picasso Bleu et Rose

Musée d’Orsay, Paris – Picasso Bleu et Rose

One of the perks of a stopover in Paris in autumn is discovering the temporary exhibits that are popping up in museums throughout the city. Predictably, each year one will transcend all others and become the landmark artistic event of the season. For me, this year the honor goes to the Musée d’Orsay for its exciting “Picasso. Blue and Pink.”

From Pablo Ruiz to Picasso

It’s easy to overlook, but before he got around to inventing Cubism (with his friend Georges Braque) Picasso was already Picasso. Barely 19 when he arrived in Paris in October 1900, after being selected to represent his country in the Spanish painting section of the Universal Exhibition, young Pablo Ruiz already had all the makings of a prodigy ready to immerse himself into the vibrant local art scene.

Yo Picasso-self-portrait 1901

Self-portrait “Yo, Picasso”, 1901, Pablo Picasso (Private collection).

A great admirer of Van Gogh, he immediately embraced his style of painting in broad strokes of pure colors with a self-portrait in the traditional three-quarter pause facing the viewer. With his knotted cravat and unruly hair, he styled himself as a modern romantic figure fashionable at the time. And with great self-assurance, he signed the work “Yo Picasso” (I, Picasso – 1901).

This marked the start of a six-year period of intense creative activity punctuated by travels between Spain and Paris. A time that would later become known as the master’s Blue and Pink Periods. Now the Musée d’Orsay and the Musée National Picasso-Paris, in their first ever large-scale collaboration, are presenting an exceptional event dedicated to this vital early period of his career. The chronological presentation of a vast number of paintings and drawings allows the viewer to better reconsider the work of this towering 20th century artist within the context of his 19th  century roots.

Between Spain and Paris

Picasso-Woman in Blue.

“Woman in Blue,” Pablo Picasso ,1901 (Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid).

The eye-opening experience of the 1900 Paris art scene is not young Picasso’s sole source of inspiration. His early works also speak volume of his attachment to both the 17th century Spanish Golden Age and the Catalan Modernism that flourishes in Barcelona at the time. In February 1900, he holds his first exhibition, filling a famous bohemian cabaret (Els Quatre Gats) with hundreds of stunning drawings, a number of which are included in this exhibition. Then, in Madrid for a few months in the winter of 1901, he creates a striking reference to Velasquez with his Woman in Blue.

Back in Paris in the spring of 1901 with a few pastels and paintings produced in Barcelona and Madrid, he catches the eye of Ambrose Vollard, a renowned gallery owner of the Parisian avant-garde, who proposes to organize an exhibit of Picasso’s work in the early summer. A few months of frenzied activity ensue, during which he focuses on subjects typical of Paris life by day and night. He embraces and reinterprets the works of the great of modern artists, especially Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas, to create most of the 64 paintings displayed in the three-week exhibition. The event is a critical success.

Into the Blues

Picasso-Mother Child Sea.

“Mother and Child by the Sea,” Pablo Picasso, 1902 (POLA Museum of Art, Kanagawa, Japan).

This success, followed in short order by the suicide of his close friend Carles Casagemas, draws the young painter into a period of sorrowful introspection. His palette becomes dominated by blues, and his subjects an expression of his melancholy. In addition to a cycle of paintings directly associated with the death of his friend, he produces a group of poignant works revolving around the figure of Harlequin and the pathos of the world of saltimbanques (circus performers).

By the end of 1901, he visits the Saint Lazare women’s prison in Paris. Here the inmates are mainly prostitutes, some of whom are incarcerated with their young children. These visits inspire a series of painting on the theme of motherhood, and of solemn female figures as the embodiment of loneliness and misfortune. His tragic depictions are reminiscent of the Renaissance paintings of El Greco.

 

La Vie en Rose

Picasso-Acrobat Family Baboon.

“Acrobat’s Family with a Baboon,” Pablo Picasso, 1905 ) Göteborgs Konstmuseum, Goteburg, Sweden).

By the end of 1904, Picasso is living in an artists’ colony in Montmartre where he befriends poets Max Jacob and Guillaume Apollinaire, and becomes romantically involved with his model, Madeleine. The color range of his palette broadens, making a subtle transition to the Rose Period. In addition of a number of portraits inspired by Madeleine, he focuses with renewed interest on the Saltimbanques theme. Here he follows two main threads: the family and fatherhood of Harlequin, and the circus performers that combine the commedia dell’arte character with the lithe figures of acrobats and jesters.

The Saltimbanques cycle spans the period from late 1904 to the end of 1905. In early 1906, a retrospective of the works of early 19th century Neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres inspires Picasso’s “Boy Leading a Horse,” and begins the transition of the Pink Period toward ochre. The trend becomes more pronounced during Picasso’s stay in Gòsol, a remote village high in the spectacular Catalan Pyrénées, through the summer of 1906.

Picasso-Two Nude Women.

“Two Nude Women,” Pablo Picasso, 1906 (Museun of Modern Arts, New York).

When he returns to Paris in September, his attention is evolving toward a new expressive language: composing images by interlacing basic shapes, and a palette restricted to shades of ochre. The work gradually become more geometric, foretelling the ascent of Cubism.

This comprehensive chronicle of Picasso’s early creative development includes key works from the world’s outstanding museums and private collections to bring together some of the finest and most emotionally compelling examples of modern painting I have ever come across. It is unlikely that such a selection, on view at the Musée d’Orsay until January 6, 2019, will be seen again in a single place in the foreseeable future. But if you miss it here, do not despair. It will then travel to Basel, Switzerland, where it will be on display at the Beyeler Foundation from February 3 to May 26, 2019.

 

 

 

 

Good to Know

  • Visiting – The Musée d’Orsay, 1 rue de la Légion d’Honneur, 75007 Paris, France, is open Tuesday through Sundays from 9.30 am to 6:00 pm with night openings until 9:45 pm on Thursday. It is closed on Monday, May 1 and December 25. Contact: tel. +33 (0) 1 40 49 48 14.
  • Getting there – There is easy public transportation from anywhere in Paris to the museum: métro station Solférino (Line 12) or bus stops a few steps away (Lines 24, 63, 68, 69, 73, 83, 84, 94).
  • Admission – Picasso, Bleu et Rose is included in the general admission ticket. However, due to the success of this exhibition, the lines can be even longer than usual for this wildly popular museum. To cut down on the waiting time, tickets may be purchased in advance through the museum’s on-line ticket office.

Location, location, location!

Musée d'Orsay

Paris New Digital Museum of Fine Arts – L’Atelier des Lumieres

Paris New Digital Museum of Fine Arts – L’Atelier des Lumieres

The loudest buzz in Paris this spring is l’Atelier des Lumières, the Workshop of Lights that opened on April 13th in a 19th century iron foundry of the Chemin Vert, once an industrial neighborhood of the 11th arrondissement. The Plinchon Foundery was established in 1835 to supply the French navy and railroad companies with the high quality cast iron parts necessary to power the industrial revolution. Today, the cavernous space right in the heart of Paris’ Right Bank is reborn into a gigantic floor-to-ceiling canvas for digital art.

A Wonderland of Austrian Art

Paris-Klimt Golden Period.

The larger-than-life projection environment becomes a canvas for Gustav Klimt’s Golden Period masterpieces.

Paris-Klimt Neoclassical.

Gems of Vienna Neoclassical architecture are decorated with Klimt frescoes.

Preserving the concrete and steel industrial bones of the place as its screen, the Atelier uses cutting-edge laser multimedia technology to cast dynamic images on some 3,200 square meters (35,000 square feet) of projection surface, including 10-meter (32-foot) high walls as well as floors and chimneys, on a music background created especially for the exhibition. As visitors wander around the vast space, they enter the artwork and become part of it.

For its inaugural event, l’Atelier stages a dazzling immersive experience to honor a key figure of the Viennese art scene, Gustav Klimt, on the hundredth anniversary of his death. In late 19 thcentury imperial Vienna, Klimt was one of the foremost decorative painters of the magnificent public buildings that lined the new Ringstrasse. By the dawn of the new century, as a leader of the Vienna Secession, a movement that sought to escape the constraints of academic art, Klimt was paving the way to modern painting. The gold and decorative motifs that characterize his work had become a symbol of this artistic revolution.

Atelier-Egon Schiele

Works by Egon Schiele are included in the exhibition.

With his iconic “The Kiss” painting as the centerpiece, this homage to Klimt focuses on his Golden Period, bringing to life the sumptuous portraits, glimmering landscapes and opulent swirls that are characteristic of the artist. In addition to his best-known works on canvas, this immersive experience also features projections of his epic “Beethoven Frieze.” (n.b. the Frieze is a 7 foot high by 112 foot long fresco painted by Klimt in 1902 to decorate the Secession Building in Vienna, illustrating the human quest for happiness in a chaotic world). Also included in the projection are a number of works by Klimt’s disciple Egon Schiele (1890-1918).

In the Wake of the Vienna Secession

Atelier-Hundertwasser.

Friedensreich Hundertwasser ideal city emerges as a shape-shifting fresco.

A shorter, more contemporary program “Hundertwasser: in the Wake of the Vienna Secession” is dedicated to Austrian-born New Zealand artist, architect and environmentalist Friedensreich Hundertwasser (1928-2000), whose artistic development was much influenced by Klimt. His ideal city gradually emerges from the monumental surfaces of the Atelier, in a dynamic, shape-shifting fresco where vibrant colors become windows and lines morph into a utopian world to the rhythm of the music.

Culturespaces

Paris-Beethoven Frieze.

Children spontaneously interact with the shifting images.

L’Atelier des Lumières digital art center is the latest creation of Culturespaces, a leading private organization for the management of monuments, museums, temporary exhibitions and immersive digital exhibitions in France. It currently manages 13 historic sites and museums throughout the country, including the Hôtel de Caumont in Aix-en-Provence. Its philanthropic Culturespaces Foundation actively provides access to the arts for underprivileged and vulnerable children.

Good to Know

  • Visiting – L’atelier des Lumières, 38, Rue Saint Maur, 75011 Paris. Open everyday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Late night opening on Friday and Saturday until 10:00 pm. Due to the success of the exhibition, it is prudent to purchase advanced admission tickets through the Atelier’s website. Note – The current show is a temporary exhibit. It will be on view until November 11, 2018.
  • Getting there – Easy public transportation is available from anywhere in Paris to the Atelier: Metro stations Voltaire or Saint-Ambroise (line 9), Rue Saint-Maur (line 3) or Père Lachaise (line 2), or Bus stop Chemin Vert (lines 6, 38 and 44).

Location, location, location!

L'Atelier des Lumières

Musee du Quai Branly, Paris – Peru before the Incas

Musee du Quai Branly, Paris – Peru before the Incas

Of the dozens major national museums in Paris, one of my personal favorites is the Musée du Quai Branly. Located in a lush garden environment a mere five-minute walk from the Eiffel Tower, it is unique for its collection of over 350,000 works dedicated to the indigenous art and cultures from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas, ranging from the Neolithic period to the 20th century.

Paris-Branly facade.

In addition to its lush gardens, the museum also features a luxuriant vegetal façade designed by botanist Patrick Blanc.

Since only one percent of the collection can be displayed at any given time in its permanent and thematic temporary exhibits, each visit is a journey of discovery to remote corners of the planet and the long ago cultures that thrived there.

On a recent late fall afternoon, after enjoying a peaceful stroll around the lush wilderness created by noted French botanist and landscape artist Gilles Clement, I made my way toward the enigmatic building rising bridge-like above the gilded autumn foliage of the tree tops. I was on my way to pre-Columbian Peru.

Peru before the Incas

Paris-Branly Moche bottles.

The Moche civilization flourished from 100 to 700 AD. Their fine ceramic bottles speak of the importance of water as well as the flora and fauna of their food supply.

Doubtless because they had the misfortune of playing hosts to their uninvited Spanish visitors in the mid-15th century, the Incas and their Cuzco Empire have long been held as the crucible of pre-Hispanic Andean culture. While there were traces of previous pre-Columbian cultures going back as far as 1500 BC, these had long been eclipsed in the collective imagination by the powerful Inca narrative. But over the past three decades, extensive archeological excavations on the northern coast of Peru, especially at the Huaca site near Trujillo and at the royal tombs of Sipán, have provided a new insight into these ancient cultures, revealing how they, and  most notably the Mochicas, first laid the foundations for pre-Hispanic civilization over 1500 years ago.

Moche bottles (circa 300 to 400 AD) depicting marine life.

These revelations are the basis for the current exhibition, curated by archeologist Santiago Uceda Castillo, who has been directing the site excavations since 1991. “Peru before the Incas” takes visitors on an archaeological investigation into the origins and evolution of power and political systems within these ancient societies. Who held power? The celestial gods, the kings, the urban elite, the warriors, the priests and priestesses? And how did it manifest itself?

A Journey of Discovery

The exhibition spans time from the 8th century BC to the conquests of the Chimú by the Incas in 1470 AD. During that time, in the absence of a written language, successive civilizations left us a rich heritage of remarkable potteries and sculptures, gold, copper and silver ornaments, and funeral furnishings that illustrate their way of life and evolution.

Paris-Branly totems.

Moche bottles representing mountains and totemized animals.

The journey begins with a focus on the natural environment and everyday life of the area. Wedged at the foot of the Andes, the northern coast of Peru is one of the most arid deserts in the world. Owing to the combined presence of the cold Humboldt Current and the mountains, it virtually never rains. For the populations that settled in this inhospitable land, water took a central part in their rites and beliefs, as is represented in a stunning collection of ornate ceramic bottles that document the flora and fauna of their food supply, and their divinities. Theses works speak of a strong connection between the animal and human worlds. As man seeks to acquire the strength, reflexes or speed of specific animals, he deifies them or turns them into the totems of his community.

Divine Power

Paris-Branly God of Mountain.

The God of the Mountain is an anthropomorphic figure.

As the community develops and organizes into a state, totemism evolves into a more formal concept of the existence of superior beings, endowed with powers over the human condition. Temples are created, where the presence of these divinities can materialize. The main god, which will endure under various forms until the Inca period, is the God of the Mountain. An anthropomorphic figure with feline fangs, clawed hands and feet, and carrying a double specter, it represents the sun, fire and water that come from the mountain. It requires human sacrifices to ensure bountiful harvests and the prosperity of the community.

Ancestral divinities are worshiped at the clan level

Much power is also attributed to ancestral divinities. These more personal gods worshiped at the family or clan level are the link between men and the gods. Especially at the time of funerals, they are recipients of food, drink and metal objects offerings.

 

 

 

Earthly Power

Paris-Branly huacos.

Ceramic portraits represent priests and shamans.

Earthly power is bestowed by the gods to the king, who controls the armies and the state.Through a rich array of Huacos (portraits realized in ceramic), statues, emblems of function or power and personal ornaments, the exhibition document the various powers that support this theocracy: the priests and priestesses, the warriors, the shamans and healers.

 

 

Paris-Branly ornaments

Personal ornaments reveal the power achieved by women.

And surprisingly, the final part of the exhibition reveals the power held by an elite of women. At the time of the conquest, Spaniards had documented coming across some villages (called Capullanas) that were under the authority of women. But recent excavations at major Andes sites show that, in the pre-Columbian past, some women achieved much greater power, as proven by the presence in their funeral monuments of the emblems of their functions (including crowns and specters) and iconographic representations.

Even for the most casual “archeophile,” Peru before the Incas is a fascinating exhibit. The almost 300 artifacts on display cast a new light on the development of the early Andean cultures and demonstrate that in South America, the Incas are only the end point of an elaborate social evolution of native culture before the Spanish conquest.

Paris-Branly huacos/

Ceramic portraits (or Huacos) represent high functionaries.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Musée du Quai Branly