Tea at the Guimet, the heart of Asian Art in Europe
Starting from October 3rd, Paris will host an exhibition about that most British of subjects –tea. It is being held at the Musée Guimet. This exhibition alone, “Tea at Guimet,” is a good opportunity to enjoy a short break in Paris but do not just go to the Musée Guimet for this. The permanent collection of the museum, which is the main Asian art museum in Europe, is worth the visit alone – in fact you would be hard pressed to see the collections in a single visit.
With Eurostar offering some £59 return tickets to Paris during October, this new exhibition is timed to attract us those of us on this side of the channel to travel there.
The Asian Guimet Museum
In the last sixteen years, the Guimet has been completely renovated. Now there are 5,500 square metres of galleries that display 4,000 artefacts yet this is just about a tenth of the whole collection. As soon as you enter the main hall it is the light that notice. The renovation has allowed a soft, largely natural light to give the visitor a peaceful sensation.
Here are displayed some fabulous Cambodian sandstone statues and, because they have enigmatic smiles, they seem to be welcoming each visitor personally to not only the museum but the Asian world. The statues seem to have perfect bodies and your eyes follow the skin tones and curves. They seem so tactile. You forget you are in Paris and it’s easy to believe you are at the famed Angkor temples. If you haven’t been to Angkor, these will tempt you to visit. It certainly prepares you for a stroll through the ground floor galleries where other Cambodian treats can be seen along with works of art from India, Vietnam, Burma, Thailand and Indonesia.
The first floor is dedicated to Nepal and Tibet, to Pakistan and Afghanistan, (which contains relics from the ancient kingdom of Gandhara) Buddhist China and Japan. The second floor is shared by Korea and classical China.
On your way on the first floor you will pass a door which leads to the rotunda of the old library. This circular wooden room is unchanged since the Guimet was first built. With its columns and a gallery that has access from the second floor, this working room still has the feel and memories – as Emile Guimet hoped and planned for – of all the scientists who have studied here.
Apart from the main building there is an elegant town house about two hundred yards away which shelters in its walls the Buddhist Pantheon. This is an extraordinary copy of the Mandala of the Japanese Toji Temple, a group of twenty-one Buddhist statues of Gods which were brought back from Japan by Emile Guimet. In fact there are twenty-three statues, because when they ordered the best sculptor of Kyoto, Yamamoto Mosuke, to make copies of the ninth century statues, the monks of the Toji Temple decided to replace two statues by a group of four.
You don’t even have to pay to visit of this building, it’s free. You don’t even need to buy the entrance ticket to the Guimet. This may be due to the high religious significance of this Mandala which attracts hundreds of Japanese visitors every year. Moreover under the trees in the courtyard, a traditional Tea House – surrounded by a Japanese garden- has been built under the supervision of a Japanese master. Every year, Tea Ceremonies are conducted by the most famous tea masters from Japan.
History of the ‘Musée Guimet’
Born in 1836 Emile Guimet grew up in a time when scientific progress was creating new industries and Europe was in the grips of revolutionary ideas. Culture and science were the new guidelines of human spirit. And Emile Guimet was at the forefront.
From his father, Emile Guimet inherited a small chemical company. By careful management, this entrepreneur succeeded in making a quite huge fortune. Today it is better known as the Pechiney group. But in an age of what we know as Victorian philanthropy, Guimet always tried to help his workers and their families to access education and culture. But his vision was larger than just his workforce and his projects were larger than just his factory
As an art lover, musician and painter, Emile Guimet had an unlimited curiosity for ancient civilisations and for their religions and philosophies. His first travels were to Greece and Egypt where he began to collect antiques. Then in 1876 he journeyed on a world tour going west until he reached Japan where he stayed for about ten weeks.
There he collected hundreds and hundreds of pieces of art. His interests were wide for he bought statues, furniture and paintings. And as he travelled he met the main Japanese religious officials from temples and monasteries. With their help he bought what are now viewed as important and interesting works of art. But unlike the collector who locks up his treasure in his own home, Emile Guimet believed that his collection should be seen and shared by all.
So, three years later, in 1879, he presented to the public his huge collection by opening his own private museum in Lyon. That was not enough for Guimet. A few years later he decided to build in Paris a museum as the final place to show his collections – for since the opening in Lyon he had acquired many more pieces. In 1889 the Guimet Museum was born. And until his death in 1918, Emile Guimet still worked on his museum and still added to his Asian collections.
Later on, the Guimet Museum became part of French national museums, and in a significant deal with the Louvre, it exchanged all his Egyptian collections against the Asian ones belonging to the Louvre. The Guimet Museum, already famous, was now the pre-eminent European Asian Art Museum.
“Tea at Guimet”
This exhibition shows the history of tea through the ages. Since the Ming dynasty in 1368, people drank infused tea. But not in Japan where the inhabitants maintain the ancient tradition of drinking a whipped tea. This preparation belongs to the Song dynasty (960-1279). But at the real beginning , long before the Song dynasty, tea was boiled just as it still is today Tibet and Mongolia. The true story of tea though is that, in less than three centuries, it had conquered the whole world. Tea could be the common link between all countries and peoples.
Planning your visit to Musée Guimet
The Guimet Museum is open everyday except Tuesday, from 10 am to 6pm.
The entrance ticket is a day ticket that allows visitor to go in and out as many times as they wish on the day. Visitors have the free use of individual audio-guides in eight languages including English, Japanese, Chinese and Korean.
On the lower floor of the museum, a small restaurant reflects the theme of the Guimet by offering Asian food for lunch, menu or “à-la-carte”. A three courses menu is about €20 (say £16). Pastries and tea are served all along the day.
Musée Guimet: 6 place d’Iéna 75116 Paris (metro station: ‘Iéna’)
Bouddhist Pantheon: 19 avenue d’Iéna 75116 Paris (metro station: ‘Iéna’)
Texts and photos © Frederic de Poligny.