The Best and Most Diverse Collection of Buddhist Art in the World
Paris has a lot of museums. There’s this converted palace called the Louvre that displays Winged Victory, the Mona Lisa, a collection of Etruscan antiquities that I particularly dote on, and has nearly 35,000 total objects. Also a ways upstream on the River Seine is a converted train station that is now the Musée d’Orsay with impressionists and postimpressionists (on my most recent visit, the most crowded room was the one lined with Van Goghs). The Centre Pompidou has more recent art. A less-known one that has no admission charge is the Carnavalet in a 16th-century and a 17th-century mansion the Marais district (the older one was a residence of Madame de Sévigné). The focus of the Carnavalet is the history of Paris, though the history shown is heavy on interior decoration.
My own favorite is the Guimet. The full name is Musée national des Arts asiatiques Guimet (National Museum of Asian Art-Guimet). It located at 6, place d’Iéna in the 16th arrondissement (across the river from the Eiffel Tower) and only a few steps from the Iéna Metro station.
My special interest is Khmer art from Cambodia, and the Guimet collection is second only to the national museum in Phnom Phen for holdings of the greatest Khmer art. Far and away the largest object in the museum is on side of the causeway of the great Preah Khan temple built by Jayavarman VII (1125-215)to celebrate his victory over the Chams (inhabitants of the central part of what is now Vietnam).
Behind the multi-headed serpent (naga), the repeated faces looking in four directions are those of Dharanindravarman II, the father of Jayavarman VII. The room with the giant causeway and one off to the right (going in the from main entrance) a multitude have many sandstone sculptures, including a portrait bust of Jayavarman VII and a kneeling figure thought to be his wife Jayarajadevi. The enigmatic Khmer smile is everywhere in these rooms.
Along with Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam were French colonies, but there is less from the two combined than from Cambodia in the collection. There are stunning Buddhist sculptures from Thailand, Burma… and Afghanistan, too. And stunning Hindu sculptures from pre-Angkor Cambodia and South Asia.
The collection of antiquities from Serindia (along the Silk Road in what is now the furthest northern part of India, northern Pakistan, northern Afghanistan, northwestern Tibet and far southwestern China) is very extensive, including far more (and more striking) pieces than the British Museum. (The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena has an impressive Serindian collection.) I only know the art of the Mundigak civilization (which peaked around 2500 BC) from works in the Guimet. Tocharian art and some very European-looking Buddhas and bodhisattvas are also on display.
Émile Étienne Guimet (1836-1918), a rich factory owner from Lyon in 1876 was commissioned by the minister of public instruction to study the religions of the Far East. He returned with a large amount of religious art from China, India, and Japan (so that the origin of the museum is not in what were French colonies). Some of it was displayed at the 1878 World Fair in Paris.
Guimet opened a museum in his native Lyon in 1879. He gave it to the state and the collection was transferred to Paris in 1885. The Museum of Religions opened on Place d’Iena in 1889. French archeological work in Afghanistan augmented the collection.
There had been an Indochina museum nearby (the Trocadero). Later the Guimet traded its classical Greek and Roman and ancient Egyptian holdings for Asian holdings of the Louvre. The Guimet has also absorbed several major collections of South Asian and Chinese art. Only about three thousand of the 45,000 objects the museum owns are on display at any given time. (It astonishes me that the Guimet owns significantly more objects than the Louvre, which is one of the world’s more overwhelming-to-visitors museums.)
There is a large collection of religious art from Tibet and Nepal, and major collections of Japanese, Korean, and Chinese art (not just Buddhist or not just religious art). (Re)visiting the museum in its new space took me three and a half hours. I am noted for consuming museums at a brisk clip, but many pieces in the museum held my attention or demanded close inspection (including a set of wooden/laquered Chinese judges).
The interior that I first visited was redone during the late 1990s. After being closed for four years, the museum reopened in 2001. There is a lot of natural light and some dramatic electrical lighting.
In a mansion at 19 Avenue d’Iena is more Buddhist art–250 Japanese and 50 Chinese works — plus a tea pavilion rising above the pond of a Japanese-style garden.
For anyone interested in and/or admiring of Buddhist art, the Guimet is the place to go in Paris, and probably in the world.
The Guimet is open every day (except Tuesdays) from 10:00 to 18:00 (closing an hour earlier on 24 and 31 December). Admission is six and a half euros, though there was no admission charge the day I was most recently there (a Monday). Use of an audioguide that runs about 90 minutes is included in the admission charge. Audioguides are available in French, English, German, Spanish, Italian, Chinese, and Japanese. There is also a visitor’s guide book costing eight and a half euros available in the same languages in the gift shop (along with much other stuff).
For more infos, checkthe Guimet Museum official website.
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