The City of London has many idylls tucked amongst its glass buildings and clogged thoroughfares, empty on weekends and filled with businesspeople eating most lunchtimes. Postman’s Park is among the most interesting of the city’s small parks, dominated by a wall of tiles commemorating acts of heroic self-sacrifice. (more…)
Many of today’s visitors who go to the Bois de Vincennes as an escape from Paris’s crowds and buildings would have trouble imagining it as it was in 1931, when dozens of buildings crowded around the Lac Daumesnil and thirty-three million people visited in a six month period. This is where the 1931 Paris Colonial Exposition, the apex of interwar political spectacle, was held, and while poster reproductions and old postcards aren’t hard to find today, almost all the buildings constructed for the event were quickly demolished or moved elsewhere.
The Palais de la Porte Dorée is a notable exception to this. Designed by Albert Laprade with bas-relief by Alfred Janniot, this structure at the entrance of the Bois de Vincennes was designed to be the exposition’s lasting monument, a built celebration of the French Empire.
While most are unlikely to stumble upon a car to take them to the 1920s, like in Midnight in Paris, Paris’s many museums offer a surprising number of portals to other places and times. Most of these are concentrated in the Musée des Arts Decoratifs, the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine and the Musée Carnavalet, though there’s also a surprising glimpse into the wilderness at the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature… and Paris’s period rooms don’t just offer a tour of the past, but also an inquiry into the nature of display.
The Musée d’Ennery is one of Paris’s least known house museums, but one of the city’s most evocative gateways to the nineteenth century. The hôtel particulier and its contents, 6,300 objects from across Asia, remain much as they were when Clémence and Adolphe d’Ennery died in 1899.
Adolphe d’Ennery made his living as a playwright, with over two hundred works allowing him to live well. Both he and his wife collected art from the 1850s onward, though Clémence d’Ennery was principal in arranging for the collection to be left as a museum. When the couple built this house on the Avenue Foch, then the Avenue de Bois du Boulogne, in 1875, they were among those who established the West of Paris as a fashionable place to live.
It’s easy, walking through the Musée d’Ennery, to be distracted from this history by the beauty of the objects on display. The d’Ennerys did not collect in a systematic way, but rather bought what caught their eye, and accordingly different items constantly catch the visitor’s attention.
Tokugawa period netsuke—tiny miniatures used for attaching pockets to kimono—are particularly impressive; hundreds of incredibly detailed figures are displayed as Clémence d’Ennery arranged them, grouped in cases on small tables that visitors can walk amongst. Elsewhere, there are ceramics from Kyoto, porcelain brought to Europe by East India companies and Ming lacquerware, carved ivory and gemstones. In one of the Musée d’Ennery’s rooms, masks hang high on walls: some are processional, while others were produced specifically for sale as tourist souvenirs.
Stories behind items sometimes intersect intriguingly with 19th century history. There are large vases bought after the 1867 Exposition Universelle, where they represented Japan. Some places the couple shopped—like Le Bon Marché—remain central to Paris life, while others have closed. They bought, too, from other collectors, and it’s exciting to think of items changing hands before finding their permanent home in the sixteenth arrondissement in what would eventually become the Musée d’Ennery. Despite their collection, the d’Ennerys never visited Asia but rather—like most in nineteenth century France—were fascinated from afar.
While the collection and its stories are fascinating, the aura of the Musée d’Ennery is particularly bewitching. Open only on guided tours (in French) that must be booked in advance, visiting feels slightly like intruding on private property. Until last April, the fragility of the interior meant the museum had been closed to the public for sixteen years.
The personalities of Adolphe and Clémence d’Ennery weigh heavily on the space; after passing the ceramic monsters that guard the entrance, visitors wait for their guide in a dark foyer presided over by the bust of Adolphe d’Ennery. It’s hard to forget that these rooms are usually empty, that more often than not these displays have no audience.
This emptiness is made more striking by just how much there is to look at, given the Musée d’Ennery’s sumptuous interiors. These are Second Empire in style, the foreign context heightening the objects’ impact. In one room, clouds are painted on the ceiling. In another, marble Corinthian columns lead to angels and gold leaf. Display cabinets, often inlaid with mother of pearl and backed with velvet, were designed specifically for the collection. Ceramic animals and creatures from Japanese and Chinese mythology, sit arranged by colour or type, looking out from behind glass.
In the 1850s, decades before the creation of the museum, Jules de Goncourt described the d’Ennery collection as “a menagerie of fantasy” and these words still feel appropriate. Today, the Musée d’Ennery is a beautiful testament to the late nineteenth century fashion for Asian art, mythology and decorative techniques in France.
La Pagode Cinema is a small cinema housed in a pagoda. Doesn’t just this description make you want to go right now? Better yet, it completely lives up to expectations. Curiously, La Pagode has a connection to Le Bon Marché. The director of the department store had it constructed as a gift for his wife, in 1896, around the same time Mr. Ching Tsai Loo constructed his pagoda in the 8th arrondissement. It wasn’t enough to save the marriage of the Bon Marché director, apparently, as his wife left him for his business partner the same year. Nonetheless, she used the interior salon for entertaining up until 1927. (more…)
Robert Mallet Stevens was one of the great early 20th century architects, and yet some who walk past the street named after him to visit the Fondation Le Corbusier don’t know his name. This is a pity, as Mallet-Stevens is one of France’s best interwar architects, and the street bearing his name also contains five of his houses.