As China asserts itself as the world's second power, the Louvre Museum proposes to look back over eight hundred years of history, but with an original approach. Indeed, the visitor is invited to discover the collection of the Museum of the Forbidden City on a route that combines history of China and history of France, looking back on the ancient relations between the two countries, from the Middle Ages to the present day.
An exhibition in three parts
The choice may surprise, and let's say it is a bit disconcerting, even if it is explained by the organizers. The proposed route divides the exhibition into three parts: if the first two face each other in the Sully wing, the third is in the Richelieu wing. The problem is only practical, but seems to bother many visitors, who often find themselves, starting at the end, a little confused.
However, at least for the first two rooms, the reason given is consistent: the curators of the exhibition wanted to mix the history of China with the history of France, taking for that the rooms of the history of the Louvre. Here we are in a very interesting comparative timeline. The third room is entirely devoted to the imperial collections of Qianlong (1736-1795).
China and France in the Middle Ages (Louvre History Hall)
The first part of the exhibition is perhaps the most interesting, at least from a historical point of view. It is devoted to diplomatic relations between China and France in the Middle Ages, relations little known to the general public who imagine a closed world at that time, with the exception of Marco Polo's journey. Diplomatic ties between the two states began in the 13th century, after the Mongol shock. We thus discover letters from King Philip IV the Fair (1285-1314) to the Khan, and we note the influence of Marco Polo in these relations, since he would have offered Charles de Valois (brother of the king) the first copy of his Book of Wonders (1307). King Charles V (1364-1380) also got to know China thanks to a Catalan atlas, which he keeps in his library in the Louvre, and which describes Khanbalik (Beijing) in 1375. The interest of the princes of France in Chinese art is verified even more by ceramics, present in the inventory of the Duke of Berry in the 15th century and which can be found in the royal collections of Louis XIV.
The exhibition continues chronologically with works from the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). It was the time of Kubilai Khan, emperor in 1277, of major works like the Canal, and of intense economic and cultural exchanges over huge geographic areas. The Yuan is then contested and overthrown by the Ming, whose two emperors of what corresponds to our Middle Ages are Hongwu (1368-1398) and Yongle (1403-1424). It was during the latter's reign that the Forbidden City was built.
China and France, 16th-20th centuries (Louvre History Hall)
We are still in the same part of the exhibition, the hall of the Louvre History Museum, and we continue to survey the history of France and the history of China in concert. For the latter, it was the decisive Ming period during which the porcelain and lacquer arts experienced great development. For the Ming, we speak of an artistic, technical and scientific "renaissance"; it is the development of printing, classical painting and large buildings (besides the Forbidden City, the Ming Tombs or the Temple of Heaven).
In 1644, they were succeeded by the Qing, originally from Manchuria, and who would be the last imperial dynasty before the fall of the last emperor in 1911. The Qing began relations with the France of Louis XIV, who sent Jesuits to China. The imperial court welcomes many European artists, including the Milanese painter Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), which results in original and sometimes surprising works. It is also the period of Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795), to whom the room in the Richelieu wing is dedicated, and who is a contemporary of Louis XV and Louis XVI.
Indeed, the exhibition remains throughout this room in the same logic: to compare the reigns of the Chinese emperors and the kings of France, in the context of the construction, then of the developments of the Louvre. In the 19th century, it was no longer a palace but became a museum. At the same time, China experienced great difficulties in the face of European imperialism, despite the very long reign of Empress Tzu Hi (1861-1908). Chronologically (in passing we salute the comparative friezes presented), the exhibition ends with the Republic of China.
Forbidden City and Louvre (Model Room)
The second part, in the Maquette room of the Sully wing, focuses mainly on the Forbidden City and the Louvre. The construction of the first began during the reign of Yongle, in 1406, and the exhibition offers different models to understand its evolution (it was completed before 1420). It is also here that one can admire a magnificent and gigantic painted scroll which shows the emperor inspecting his troops ("the Eight Banners in Formation"). The Louvre, for its part, is presented by a video montage and various architectural elements, as well as paintings.
The reign of Qianlong (Richelieu wing)
The final part of the exhibition is dedicated solely to Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795), whose long reign marked the height of the Qing Dynasty. Like the European princes since the Renaissance and until Louis XIV, Qianlong is at the same time a patron, a collector and an artist who puts himself in representation. Thus develops a court art, with protected artists like Castiglione. The works of the emperor himself are represented: poems, calligraphy or paintings.
In this same room, we also learn about the course of courtly life, very regulated, before admiring a reconstituted throne room, with among other things impressive bronze bells and sonorous jade stones.
The exhibition The Forbidden City at the Louvre. Emperors of China and Kings of France In the end, it turns out to be quite rich, with more than a hundred works, many of them unpublished and above all magnificent. We can regret all the same that some are not very well highlighted, the lighting not always making it possible to discern all the details of certain pieces and manuscripts. The concept of interweaving the history of China through the Forbidden City and that of France through the Louvre is a very good idea, even if it leads to a construction of the exhibition which may confuse the uninformed visitor.
- Exposure The Forbidden City at the Louvre. Emperors of China and Kings of France, Musée du Louvre, until January 9, 2012.