Jérôme Ghesquière is in charge of the musée National des arts asiatiques – Guimet (MNAAG) photographic archives. First opened in 1879 in Lyon by the French Orientalist Émile Guimet (1836-1918), this museum was transferred to Paris as soon as 1889. Since then, the MNAGG has kept on promoting the arts of the Far East. This museum’s all-encompassing collection has attracted my attention for a long time since it includes rare photographs taken in China, notably during the campaigns of archaeological explorations in the early twentieth century.
Always keen to showcase their photographic treasures, the MNAAG has recently set up an exhibition in its second floor entitled “Burmese images photographic treasures of the MNAAG”. Between 18 October 2017 and 22 January 2018, the museum is showing a rare corpus exhibited for the very first time composed of a hundred or so photographs of Burma in the second half of the 19th century.
Curated by Sophie Makariou and Jérôme Ghesquière, with the collaboration of Pierre Baptiste and Thierry Zéphir, this exhibition displays works that were chosen from the ensemble of the Burmese collection acquired by the museum in 1989 and completed with new acquisitions between 1992 and 2015 or enriched by recent donations. The purpose is to observe Burma – through an exclusively European eye – in the days of the British colonies, to invite on an exploratory journey that gives a story to the many faces and unexpected landscapes, sometimes wild or delicate.
Next to J. Jackson, one of the main authors of the photographs of the museum’s first collection, there is Felice Beato’s album, an outstanding item acquired in 2015 by the MNAAG, as well as the prints by the German photographer Philip Adolph Klier, who set up his studio in Rangoon in the 1870s. A catalogue co-edited with Cohen & Cohen will publish the museum’s entire Burmese collection on the occasion of the opening of the exhibition: it will be the reference book for collectors and art lovers as well as an outstanding art book.
Marine Cabos: Tell us about the genesis of this exhibition.
Jérôme Ghesquière: This project dated back to 2011, when [the art historian] Monique Le Pelley Fonteny asked us if we had nineteenth century Burmese photographs. At that time we didn’t have much in our collection, perhaps around fifty items. But she started to conduct research about them. Her goal was to connect photographs with Bertrand-François Mahé de La Bourdonnais’(1699-1753) text he wrote when he arrived in Burma in the mid-eighteen century [de La Bourdonnais was a French East India Company lieutenant].
Over the course of around five years, Le Pelley Fonteny did a whole inventory of Burmese photographs held in diverse collections in Paris, London and Burma. Eventually we thought we should call attention to this research. Hence we started to think about a publication and an exhibition.
This event was also made possible by Sophie Makariou [MNAAG President], who asked me to set up a photo exhibition each year in the rotunda located on the second floor, as well as a large exhibition every two years in all the temporary exhibition rooms in the basement. We started with the Japanese contemporary photographer Nobuyoshi Araki in 2016, and we will continue next year.
MC: What is at stake when exhibiting primary material, such as authentic vintage photos and albums?
JC: It corresponds to museum’s politics in Europe. We are supposed to showcase primary works and not reproductions as much as we can. By showcasing primary materials, we intend to make the audience realise that old photographs had varying colours and tones, not one is similar to one another. It’s important to show that each operator had different recipe, and thus differing coloration.
I personally like to show also albums through which these photographs were originally shown. It frequently happens that dealers tear out photographs from albums in order to sell them individually. And at times we lose this notion of album. Albums as objects are very beautiful, they can be covered with leather or decorated textiles, placed in refined boxes. This is how photography circulated in the past, the concept of exhibition as we conceive it now didn’t exist back then.
MC: Is there any photo that you particularly caught your attention in this exhibition?
JG: It’s not that easy to choose one among the hundred ones we exhibited. Perhaps there is the one we selected for the exhibition poster. This picture is interesting because it mixes several ancient techniques notably albumin print obtained by wet collodion process and gelatin silver print. In most albumin prints skies remain white or blank, whereas here the photographer managed to capture both the foreground and the sky with an accurate exposure. There are two hypotheses: he either used combination printing or used gelatin silver process [a later more advanced photographic technique].
There is no easy answer. Perhaps he didn’t wanted to suddenly disrupt his production, because he was a commercial photographer and his clients were used to a certain type of pictures. It should be noted also that all his photos are titled, signed with the copyright clearly indicated, which was very rare at that time. This photo is interesting for a trained eye.
I like also this group portrait, its shades of grey, its play around the glittering of skins, which counteract with the general matt aspect of the image.
MC: How the museum acquires new corpus of photographs?
JG: I frequently find out about items and/or projects, which I defend in front of the museum acquisition committee. For the Burmese project for instance I suggested to purchase Felice Beato’s (1832-1909) album as a whole. Beforehand in the 1990s, we acquired ten or so photographs from Burma too. It’s a matter of opportunity, we don’t plan in advance which topic or which album we will purchase.
In truth, we were already thinking about this Burmese project, and I thought a recent acquisition on the topic might be relevant. This is the reason why we purchased Beato’s album in 2015. Acquisitions are generally easier for photography, and we are always thinking about which authors might be relevant to enter our collection.
There are also donations, such as Dr Dubois who gave us his significant collection that includes 300 albums and 18.000 photographs from nineteenth century Japan. One of the albums from this collection actually started with photographs of Burma before concentrating on Japan.
We don’t accept all donations though; we do refuse some of them for different reasons. It might because we have already an equivalent in our collection, or because of costs or storage facility. We tend to be unbiased now, there isn’t any limit of topic or date. We are also collecting for instance contemporary photography. This enables us to make interesting parallel: during Araki’s exhibition one room juxtaposed vintage photos from our collection and Araki’s works. It was an interesting way to explain the theme of kinbaku [Japanese bondage] while fitting Araki within a visual tradition lineage.
MC: What is the current state of photographic archives in MNAAG?
JG: Highlights from our collection include photos from nineteenth century Afghanistan, during the Second Anglo–Afghan War [1878-80]. On India we have a corpus dating to the nineteenth century that is not developed yet, it’s very beautiful and very interesting. It notably comprises of Linnaeus Tripe [1822-1902] and Beato’s photographs from the early 1860s.
On South East Asia we have negatives of the Mekong expedition of 1866 captured by Emile Gsell [1838-1879]. There are also samples of French archaeological expeditions in Cambodia. We have two beautiful albums on Siam by Pierre Rossier [1829-1886], others from Sri Lanka, Indonesia, the Philippines, and so forth.
On China we have the archives of the first archaeological expeditions between 1906 and 1922. One of our ongoing projects is to publish Paul Pelliot’s expedition archive, it will be an electronic publication like we did previously. We have also other examples of professional photographers active in nineteenth century China.
Our major strength is the Japan collection, which as I said encompasses 300 albums and 18.000 photographs.
MC: What are the next appointments with photography?
JG: Next exhibition in spring 2018 will be a large retrospective dedicated to Marc Riboud [1923-2016], as he donated his works to the MNAAG.