Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Exhibition Review: Les Orientales

This coming Saturday, 15 May is the Nuit des Musees across Europe, when dozens of museums will stay open late (many until midnight) and offer free admission. There is a list of the Paris museums participating, and special events on, on this website.

I love museums and they are the main reason I like living in cities; I don't know why I never blog about them. I went to tonnes of museums and studied a bit of art history as a teenager, but it wasn't until I was in grad school that the penny dropped and I realised that an exhibit is no different from an academic article or college student essay: an exhibition has a central argument and it structures its evidence to prove that thesis. Some are more successful than others. With that in mind, I'm going to give out grades for exhibitions I review here.

I was very keen to see the 'Les Orientales' exhibit at the Victor Hugo Museum, celebrating the 1829 publication of Hugo's collected poetry on an 'oriental' theme. Housed on the first floor of Hugo's former home, the small exhibition is spread over several rooms and contains a number of works from artists like Delacroix and Gericault, as well as manuscripts and illustrated books from Hugo himself and contemporary writers like Chateaubriand. If you love Delacroix, like I do, then you'll enjoy seeing some of these lesser-known pieces brought together.

But otherwise, I found the exhibition a bit disappointing. It was very strange that the word 'romanticism' never appeared in the exhibit (although it was used once in the programme). Orientalism itself was never probed as a concept, which would have been intriguing as it meant different things over the nineteenth century, and some again different today. One of the final rooms had a series of odalisque portraits that played on the idea of Eastern women in harems. These were great pieces, but they spanned over 50 years, with no contextualisation or reflection on the difference between a portrait of an Algerian woman in 1830 and one in 1885. I also found, ironically, many of the commentaries to be jargon-filled and inaccessible to most general visitors. Plus, the rooms were small and dimly lit and there seemed to be far too many people working there, so that even though there were probably only twenty other people there at the same time as us, we felt that we were constantly bumping into people.

Tickets to Les Orientales cost, if I remember correctly, 7 euro (I can't find the information anywhere on the website!). The rest of the house, being one of the municipal museums, is free. If you happen to be in Place des Vosges it's worth checking out to see the inside of one of the hotel particuliers on the square. But be warned that the museum presumes that you know Hugo's life, family history and artistic oeuvre very well, and contains very little information for the unacquainted. For example, a room full of family items (clothing, letters, etc) is labelled with their names, but never tells you who they are in relation to Hugo. I suppose I can't complain because it's a free museum, but I know how competitive it is to break into museum work and I've got to believe that someone could do a better presentation with the material here.

Maison de Victor Hugo
6, place des Vosges
75004 Paris
Metro: Saint Paul
Open 10am-6pm, Tuesday to Saturday
Free for the permanent exhibition (house)
Les Orientales exhibition runs until 4 July and costs 7 euro (I think)
Grade: B-. Shows potential and has strong evidence, but lacks structure and context. Needs to show critical engagement with theoretical terms. Presentation could be improved.

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