Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Paris 2016 - Breguet Museum, Museum of Decorative Arts (Permanent Collection)

The day that Rich and I spent in the 1st Arrondissement became a "tit for tat" affair as we traded off on visiting museums or seeing exhibits that were mostly of interest to just one of us.  In exchange for my spending time at the Breguet Watch Museum as well as the Arts and Metiers Museum to look at airplanes on a previous day, Rich would join me in checking out exhibits featuring the "History of Barbie" and  "Haute Couture" at the Museum of Decorative Arts.  It seemed like a fair compromise.

The House of Breguet is a Swiss maker of luxury watches founded in 1775 by Abraham-Louis Breguet and is one of the oldest surviving watching-making establishments.  Wrist watches, first produced in 1810, remain their main product but Breguet also manufactures cuff links, women's jewelry and writing instruments.  The Breguet Museum opened in 2000 and is housed on the second floor of the Breguet boutique in 6 Place Vendôme, near swanky commercial street Rue de Rivoli.  In addition to over 100 pieces of Breguet works including pocket watches, wrist watches, travel clocks, marine chronometers and military watches, the museum also contains an archive of production registers, sales ledgers, repair books, letters from clients and technical notes written by A.L. and his son.

In addition to the trademark styles including the coin-edge cases, decoratively engraved dials and iconic blue "pomme" hands, two additional features uniquely identify a Breguet watch. To prevent forgery, a secret signature is etched into the dial which can only be seen under certain light conditions.  Also each watch is engraved with a unique production number that identifies its origin and sales provenance.  These numbers are sequential throughout all models of watches, although the sales person did say that the numbers have been reset several times throughout the centuries.  From the detailed sales ledgers, it is confirmed that famous historic figures were Breguet customers, including Napoleon Bonaparte (1798) who took 2 repeating watches and a repeating carriage clock with him on his campaign in Egypt, and Queen Marie-Antoinette (1782) who received watch #2.  One of the original machines used for fine, precision engraving is on display in the museum.  Similar machines are still used by expert technicians today.

My favourite watch in the Breguet Paris museum collection is #2290, an Art Deco watch with a brushed yellow-gold case, and a silver fluted rotating dial that spins a stylized arrow to positionally indicate the minutes on the numberless chapter ring.  There is no hour "hand" but rather, a tiny almost unreadable window at the top of the arrow displays the hour.  Sold in 1930, this is a watch that I would consider "all flash and no function" since it is beautiful but I would have trouble using it to tell the time.  I also liked #180, a small gold ring watch sold in 1836 to a Russian prince for 5500 francs.  It has the usual blue steel Breguet hands, roman numerals on the chapter ring, a seconds sub-dial and an alarm function.  Rich liked #21122, a Chronograph Type XX "fly-back" wristwatch with a polished stainless steel case, black dial and revolving bezel, luminescent numbers and hands. It is a French military pilot watch first designed in the 1950s. This particular watch was sold in 1975 to the Royal Moroccan Air Force.  Finally, it was quite exciting to see watch #1, the oldest surviving self-winding watch made in 1782.  It is a perpetual pocket watch with a gold case, enamel dial and has the words "invented, perfected and made by Breguet" engraved on it.

Of course, no visit to a watch store would be complete without Rich trying on some watches that are of interest to him.  He tried on a fly-back chronograph type 20, which is a direct descendant of the Chronograph XX that we saw earlier in the museum.  After sitting and waiting for another half hour as Rich tried on and discussed watches with the sales agent, I had earned my due and we were ready to go to the Museum of Decorative Arts.

The Musée des Arts Décoratifs is a museum of decorative arts and design with a collection spanning from the 12th century through the 21st century.  The permanent collection primarily consists of French furnishings, interior design items including paintings, sculptures, ceramics, glassware, tapestries and wallpaper, while rotating temporary exhibits showcase selected items from the museum's vast collection of toys, fashion and graphic arts/advertising.  The museum is huge, spanning two long blocks along Rue de Rivoli, with 3 main floors and 6 partial floors of exhibition space for the permanent collection and temporary shows, along with 2 lower floors for the restaurant, boutique, library, workshop space, cloak room and an auditorium for lectures and panel discussions.

Given that we spent the morning at the Breguet museum and did not arrive at the Decorative Arts Museum until nearly noon, there was no way that we were going to be able to see the whole thing, so we had to prioritize.  We would check out the major temporary exhibits on fashion, toys and graphic arts which we paid specifically for, and then see as much of the permanent collection as there was time for.  The temporary exhibits that we toured were some of the most interesting and best curated shows that we have ever encountered.  There is so much to talk about in regards to them that I have moved this discussion to the next blog.

After thoroughly touring the temporary exhibits, we were finally ready for the permanent collection, which is split into eras and centuries for the earlier years (middle ages-renaissance, 17-18th centuries, 19th century), followed by the Art Nouveau and Art Deco periods, and finally by decades for the rest of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries.  Since we had visited quite a few castles and palaces during our travels over the past few years, we were less interested in seeing more decor from these older periods. We decided that we would start in the 20th and 21st centuries and then see how much time we had left for the rest.  We thought that we would start in the 2000s and then work chronologically backwards.

On the 2000s floor, I was really taken by the highly impractical but very cool looking Rhinoceros secretary desk made of wood, leather, and steel, then wrapped with brass.  Created by Françis-Xavier Lalanne, side panels open to reveal a desk and plenty of storage areas.  But what surprised me was that this piece was made in 1966, not in the 2000s!?!  Did we not understand how the permanent collection was laid out?  Regardless it was a very interesting piece.  Apparently, Lalanne and his artist wife Claude are both inspired by the animal theme.  In addition to the rhino desk, François-Xavier also designed sheep seats, a hippopotamus bath and a gorilla fireplace, which are not part of the museum's collection, but I found images of them on the Internet.  I find these pieces so much fun.

Claude created a coffee table made of bronze and brass using crocodile motifs for the sides and legs.  This piece was fittingly created in 2003, so perhaps the rhino desk is also here as a comparison of the works between husband and wife.  Another fascinating work that is firmly rooted in the Internet age of the 2000s is the cherry veneer "Real Time" grandfather clock by Maarten Baas, made in 2009.  There are no physical hands on this clocks but instead, it appears as if the hour and minute hands are drawn on the clock face with a marker.  As we watched, we realized that the clock face is actually a video screen that plays a 12-hour-long video.  At every minute, the actor on the video uses a cloth to wipe out the old time, and then applies the marker to draw in the new time.   This was so entertaining that we stood and watched the video for a couple of minutes.

Several examples of furniture in the 1980s-1990s floor are much more concerned about design over function. I could not figure out how to sit on Philippe Starck's cast aluminum stool (1990), which definitely did not look comfortable.  Only about 1/3 of Rod Arad's woven stainless steel mesh chaise papardelle seems usable to sit in, as the long rippled coils along the floor appear to be more sculptural than functional.  Marc Newson's circular black Mystery Clock (1989) not only has no physical hands but it does not even have any numbers or markings indicating the hours or minutes.  Instead, two magnetically-propelled white spherical markers rotate around two concentric circles moulded on the front, acting as the "hands" of the clock.  The Mystery Clock is aptly named since it would be a mystery to even realize that this is a clock, let alone trying to tell what time it is.  The main exhibit on this floor features Italian architect and designer Gaetano Pesce's vibrant table and chairs (1980) and the giant vase (2006), made of molded polyester resin and rigid epoxy polyurethane foam.  Sitting on a large brightly painted resin platform, the pieces seem more like they are part of some large sculptural artwork rather than individual items of furniture.

The Museum of Decorative Art's collection is much larger than what can be shown on the exhibition floors, which means that there is a frequent rotation of what is currently on display.  Looking at the promotional pamphlets at the museum as well as the online listing of the collection on their website, I noticed other interesting pieces that I would have loved to see in person.  In the 1980s-1990s floor alone, I wish they had displayed the whimsical, brightly painted polyester chair (1981) and lamp (1993) by Niki de Saint Phalle, the Whippet dog chair (1998) by Radi Designers and the terracotta coffee table with skulls (1998) by Pierre Bayle.

The 1960s-1970s floor is all about the chairs.  Looking down from the floors above, you can see a myriad of chairs, stools and arm chairs of different colours, shapes, styles and materials.  A few of the chairs stood out for me. Verner Panton's V-shaped "Cornet K1" (1958) was made of chrome steel and latex foam covered with a striking deep blue fabric. Frank Gehry's Easy Edges chair (1972) was made of laminated corrugated cardboard glued together in alternate directions to give it strength.  Christian Daninos' Bulle chair (1968) consists of a spherical base made of plexiglass, with a stainless steel rim and a removable fabric cushion that comes in various colours. I wonder if you could buy extra cushions in different shades? A version of Olivier Mourque's red futuristic Djinn lounge chair (1964) made of bent steel tubing, foam and a jersey cover, was used in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Vietnamese engineer Quasar Khanh invented inflatable furniture made from durable Polyvinylchloride (PVC) and metal including this lounge chair (1968) that looks like it is ready for the beach.

The main attraction of the 1950s floor is Antoine Philippon's expansive multi-functional audio-visual console (1959) featuring a built-in TV with a swivel stand with the chassis and speakers located within the base cabinet, a record player turntable and bar.  Made of post-formed flexible laminate, chrome steel, brass and cherry wood, the three sections of the console put together spanned 12 feet in length and was quite impressive to see.  This piece seemed several decades ahead of its time in terms of design.

The 1940s floor was a bit perplexing since most of the pieces in the main exhibit were from either before or after this decade.  Artist Janine Janet created most of the artwork appearing in this display, including the two sculptures of a King and Queen whose bodies and heads were made of wood while the details of their hair, crowns, eyes and the decorations on their "clothing" were rendered using different lengths of nails.  Her four-paneled blue screen with the nautical theme was created in 1967 while her three other sculptures were all created in the 60s to 70s.  So why all of this showed up on the 1940s floor is beyond me. Only the table with the ornate wrought-iron legs on which the artwork sat was created in the 1943 by Gilbert Poillerat.

While the decades from 2000 through 1940 were represented by a relatively small amount of space and relatively few items on display, the Art Deco and Art Nouveau exhibits were significantly more substantial.  This was great for us since these are our two favourite decorative time periods.

The highlight of the Art Deco floor was the presentation of several rooms from the Parisian mansion of French haute couture fashion designer Jeanne Lanvin, who founded the Lanvin fashion house and perfume company.  In 1925, she collaborated with French designer Armand-Albert Rateau to redesign her home including all of the furnishings.  When the residence was demolished in 1965, the living room, boudoir, bedroom and bathroom were recreated intact in the Museum of Decorative Arts.  Although it was all behind glass, we were able to get quite a good view of some of the rooms.  The walls of the boudoir, which connects the bedroom to a terrace, are painted "Lanvin Blue", the signature colour of the Lanvin product line. The room also has a diamond-patterned marble floor, black marble fireplace and marble columns topped with gilded stucco carvings of pheasants.  I was most impressed with the gorgeous bathroom with the stucco alcove with the elaborate flora and fauna carving above the bathtub featuring a stag and a doe in a forest.  The sconces, lamps and mirrors are decorated with bronze fittings carved in the shape of pheasants, daisies and pine cones.  The toilet lids feature a leopard-skin (or giraffe?) pattern for a whimsical touch.  Although these rooms were on the Art Deco floor, much of Rateau's designs seemed inspired by Art Nouveau themes as well.

To get a better look at the bedroom as well as see more details of the other rooms, 360 degree webcam views allow you to move around each room and zoom in on areas to get a closer look.  The signature colour is featured again in this room with the walls, curtains and linens covered with Lanvin Blue silk decorated with white daisies, roses and palm patterns along the bottom.  Even the coverings of the chaise chairs match the colour of the rest of the room.

Two other pieces by Armand Rateau  were on display outside of the Jeanne Lanvin rooms.  There was a beautiful folding screen (1921) made of lacquer and gilded wood that sat in Jeanne Lanvin's dining room (which was not recreated).  There was also a bronze chaise lounge with a flower pattern on the seat and carved fawns for the legs, that used to sit on Lanvin's terrace.  In another area on the floor, I was quite taken with the Art Deco silver tea set (1930) by Jean Tétard with the ivory handles and the rosewood tray.

Another interesting piece in the Deco collection is the office-library, created by Pierre Chareau for the pavilion of the Société des Artistes Decorators at the International Exhibition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts in Paris in 1925.  Made of beechwood with a palm veneer, the library has shelving for books, and a circular dome supported by two poles with moveable slats that open and close in a fan shape to modulate the amount of light let into the space.

My favourite piece on the floor was the Jacques Gruber Stained Glass Screen (1930) with the black and silver industrial design.  A chair made of bent chrome steel by Le Corbusier (1928) currently sits in front of it.  I also liked the mahogany cabinet (1912) by Paul Iribe lined with with green leather and decorated with ebony buttons and garlands (that again seemed more Art Nouveau than Deco to me), the overlapping triangular slats on the Louis Sorel table (1910) that reminded me of Pierre Chareau's library office, Pierre Legrain's (1925) oak grandfather clock with brass dials, and Michel Roux Spitz's sleek administrator's desk (1930) with the complementary beige couch which was designed for the Salon des Artistes Decorateurs, but later became his personal desk in his office.  I find this furniture so beautiful and would love to have any of these items in my home.

As much as the Art Deco furnishings and decorative items are sleek and elegant, the items on the Art Nouveau floor are flowery and ornate.  Compare the gilded silver, ivory and agate Art Nouveau tea set embellished with flower carvings (1889) by Lucien Falize and Germaine Bapst or the curvy earthenware and polychrome teapot (1884) by Emile Galle to the smooth, shiny Tétard Art Deco tea set that I admired previously. Galle also created a gorgeous Japonism-styled vase (1893) with a flower-petal shaped neck and bluish-purple irises painted on its body.  We saw many other Art Nouveau vases featuring the common images of flowers, plants, foilage, insects and animals.  A beautiful stained glass window (1894) titled "Spring Flower" by Eugène Grasset was presented at the Salon of the National Society of Fine Arts in the architecture section.

There were multiple pieces of bedroom and dining room furniture by Hector Guimard, the architect/designer whose mansions we visited on an earlier tour of Art Nouveau homes in the 16th arrondissement.  Many of these pieces were installed in the Hotel Nozal which was also designed by Guimard.  It is interesting to note that some of the ornamentations used on the furniture were also used by Guimard on the façades of his buildings.

The most impressive piece is the piano (1900) with the elaborate sculpted wood figures carved by François-Rupert Carabin decorating the front and both sides of the instrument.  The piano has an interesting history and provenance as well.  Donated to the Museum of Decorative Arts in 1938, it went missing during the Nazi occupation of France in World War II and was not found again until 1981 when it showed up for auction.  After lengthy negotiations with the current "owner", the piano was returned to the museum.

It was late in the afternoon by the time we had finished our tour of 20th Century decor.  We were exhausted and starving as we had not even taken the time to pause for lunch.  So we decided that we could not manage seeing the earlier centuries on this visit and would have to defer that until our next trip.  However we did want to stop quickly into the Jewelry exhibit, which contained a rotating display of the museum's jewelry collection.  The small room contained case after case of vintage broaches, necklaces, bracelets, hair combs, earrings, pendants and stick pins made from gold, silver and precious gems.

All in all, this was an excellent museum that requires at least a full day if not more to thoroughly explore.  We never made it to any of the collection earlier than 1920, missed at least one other recreation of an apartment and did not get to the exhibits in the Church Nave at all. We definitely plan to return, and next time, perhaps we will get an audio guide to learn more about these beautiful items of decorative art. 

We could not be on Rue de Rivoli and not stop by at our favourite place in Paris to get hot chocolate.  We first discovered Angelina Tearoom on our first trip to Paris and fell in love with the deep rich flavours of the hot chocolate and the beautiful presentation of the whipped cream.  Since then, every repeat trip to Paris involved a repeat visit, if not to dine in the tearoom, then at least to buy a tin of the hot chocolate powder to take home.  This year we came in July and the weather was much too warm to be drinking hot chocolate so we settled for our souvenir tin.  This was the only concession to the goal of our "Off-the-Beaten-Path" Paris vacation, which was to see all new things on this trip and not returning to any spot that we had been to before on previous visits.

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