Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Paris Journal: Notre visite de 2016 au Musée Nissim de Camondo

Our 2016 visit to the Museum Nissim de Camondo

By Moristotle

I wrote on Thursday (“Dimanche du musée libre/Free-museum Sunday”) that, if I could find Edmund White’s book, The Flâneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris, “I would quote from the passage that piqued our interest in the Gustave Moreau Museum,” for I assumed that “something about White’s enthusiasm for things Moreau must have decided us.”
    Well, my wife (Carolyn) found it, and I’ve rediscovered that Chapter 4 of White’s book is about museums. Its opening sentence:
Paris has countless small and bizarre museums, little corners where someone’s bid for immortality goes unnoticed – one might say a neglected shrine to a forgotten god. Or sometimes the museum caters to a perfectly real and valid taste, but one not shared by too many people. –p. 121
    White then briefly describes a few of the little frequented museums, easily proving that something else I said on Thursday was correct: “The total of only 24 museums in Paris doesn’t seem like a big enough number.” (Twenty-four had been the number of museums listed as to whether or not admission was free on the first Sunday of a month.) “Paris has countless...museums.” [emphasis mine]

White next identifies “two favourite museums – one that is closed to the public and one open, the Gustave Moreau Museum.” Aha! – confirmation that I was not mis-remembering the source of our interest in the second museum. White spends twelve pages describing the museum that is closed to the public (the Hôtel de Lauzun, which Wikipedia describes as “the rival of the Hôtel Lambert among the few hôtels particuliers that retain their rich carved, painted, mirrored, and gilded interiors from the time of Louis XIV. It was built towards the end of the 17th century”), and then bridges to the one that is open: “An equally strong aura surrounds the Gustave Moreau Museum.” [emphasis mine]
Moreau’s house attracted both real and fictional characters. Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray moons over Moreau’s house in “Notes on the Mysterious World of Gustave Moreau.” Des Esseintes, the hero of J. K. Huysman’s bible of decadence, Against Nature (À rebours), gazes at Moreau’s works lovingly, these androgynes and pale youths and bejewelled enchantresses who summarize the Decadent movement – work executed by a man [i.e., Moreau] who was a hermit, but a knowing, worldly one. –p. 121
    The rest of the section, through page 144, is devoted to Moreau. But if you read my Thursday entry in the Paris Journal, you already know that neither Carolyn nor I shared any of White’s enthusiasm for Moreau, his house, or his paintings. In fact, if we had paid more attention to a sentence here or there in his description, we might have saved ourselves the bother:
Today Moreau – despite the best efforts of his defenders – attracts little attention. When the Metropolitan Museum in New York, for instance, hosted a major Moreau exhibition in 1999..., museum-goers stayed in the next gallery looking at the Van Goghs in a show devoted to the mad Dutchman’s patron Dr. Gachet. Gustave Moreau is camp without the humour, pastiche without the sweep and drama of the truly good copies of the classics, Decadence without the bruised colour and haunting invention of an Odilon Redon or the sinuous lines and striking compositions (and scary lubricity) of an Aubrey Beardsley. –p. 137

Today it’s hard to understand how Moreau’s painting was ever taken seriously. Although the bare-breasted female Sphinx has leapt up on Oedipus and dug her lioness claws into his bare flesh, her face looks no more menacing than the young Queen Victoria’s as seen in profile on a coin of the realm, and the languid young man looks vaguely pettish as if she has just said something disobliging about his gold gauze halter top, which has slipped fetchingly to reveal a virginal pink nipple. –p. 141
    I could go on quoting White’s exquisite prose all day (Ina Caro’s prose, in Paris to the Past: Traveling through French History by Train, is relatively sleep-inducing), but quoting it might have lost me readers who don’t share my admiration.
    What I have quoted might, though, reveal what is possibly true: might White have been attracted to the Gustave Moreau Museum – to the Decadents? – because of the homoerotic overtones?

Anyway, I discovered something else by dipping into The Flâneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris: It devotes about fourteen pages (pp. 106-120) to the Camondo family and the Musée Nissim de Camondo. These are in the preceding chapter (Three), which announces its topic to be Jews in Paris: “The flâneur wanders through the Jewish ghetto in the Marais in the fourth arrondissement.” [p. 90]
    Now, the Musée Nissim de Camondo’s a museum that both Carolyn and I loved, when we visited it in April 2016. But it’s a sad, sad story. Visiting it, learning the family’s history, made going there a sacramental act of remembering, like those many signs in Paris that remind people not to forget what happened to so many innocent people because of their ethnicity (“‘Je vote France Insoumise’/‘I vote France Unbowed’,” July 17)
    For a quick take on the museum and its history, I’ll quote Wikipedia rather than White:

The mansion was built in 1911 by the Comte Moïse de Camondo, a banker, with architect René Sergent, to set off his collection of eighteenth-century French furniture and art objects. Its design was patterned upon the Petit Trianon at Versailles, though with modern conveniences. Both house and collections were bequeathed to Les Arts Décoratifs in honour of his son, Nissim de Camondo, killed in World War I, and opened as a museum in 1936. More tragedy followed a few years later when Moise’s daughter and her family were deported to Auschwitz, where they died.
    Today, the house is maintained as if it were still a private home preserved in its original condition. Three floors are open to visitors: the lower ground floor (kitchens), upper ground floor (formal rooms), first floor (private apartments), and gardens.
    And I recommend Mary Kay Bosshart’s poignant short account of “The Tragic History of the Camondo Family” on her website, Out and about with Mary Kay (February 2, 2012).

I’ll share our love for the museum through some of the photos I took last year (on April 29):

    And our friend Mark, whose apartment we stayed in, sent us some photos from his visit, saying: “If it’s not on your list already, add the Musée Nissim de Camondo, in the 8th near the Parc Monceau. I wouldn’t have made it there on my own, but a friend put the arm on me and it was easier to go along rather than invent an excuse. I’m glad I did, the museum was extraordinary...and on any number of levels”:

I asked Mark, were these the pots in his apartment’s kitchen;
he replied: “The copper lives in the Camondo kitchen; here in the apartment
we make do with a collection of dented and mismatched tin cups”

Copyright © 2017 by Moristotle


  1. Oh my gosh! What wonderful pictures of such simply, understated yet wondrous grandeur. Such history, design, detail. The flowing life of the stair cases, the balustrades, the gardens, the arch ways. Thanks Morris, for taking such loving care to share all these accounts of your trip.

  2. I know I commented on the obvious beauty of so much, but the most gorgeous picture was of that amazing stove, oven, cook top. I just love it.

    1. Yes, an amazing house! The Comando's lived well and tastefully. And their yard backs onto Parc Monceau.