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Jean-Baptiste Clais, curator of the Department of Decorative Art at the Musée du Louvre

Jean-Baptiste Clais is an ethnologist and curator at the Louvre Museum, in charge of the Asian and porcelain collections in the Department of Decorative Art.

 

During this 6th edition of Printemps Asiatique, we will have the pleasure of meeting with him for a round-table discussion organized in partnership with the Asia Society on the theme of relations between the French and Chinese Courts, from the perspective of the history of ideas and geopolitics.

See you Wednesday June 7th at the Bibliothèque nationale de France !

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Focus on the career of Jean-Baptiste Clais, his projects and his artistic favourites in order to learn more about the Asian collections of the world's largest museum.

Cylindrical vase (Pi-tong),

Chine,

© 2021 RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Stéphane Maréchalle,

See

First, could you describe your background? What brought you to Asia?

My career path began with an undergraduate degree at the École du Louvre, followed by a degree in museology. At the same time, I followed a master's degree in ethnology at the University of Paris V, after which I obtained a doctorate in social and political anthropology.

I came to work on Asian cultures through a series of circumstances, a taste that developed progressively, first via Japan then China.

My research first turned to contemporary pop culture (video games, manga, cartoons, science fiction). Japan occupies a very particular place in this field, quite central in fact, so I had some familiarities with the Far East. This is what led me to work when I was at the Guimet Museum, both on China and on Japanese pop-culture-related projects. So my main activity was focused on China, mainly on Qing porcelain, but I was able to do a small exhibition dedicated to manga at the Guimet museum and a big exhibition on the history of video games at the Grand Palais in 2010.

My first job at the Louvre was in the Islamic arts department where I was in charge of the weapons collection. They were mainly from the Mughal period, which I was somme becoming passionate about (am still working on it today).

You are now a curator in the Decorative Art Department. Could you tell us about your missions at the Louvre ?

At the Louvre, I am just among sixty curators. I am part of the decorative arts department where I am in charge of the Asian and porcelain collections.

These two subjects have a very strong link with each other insofar as the development of porcelain in Europe is a direct and very immediate response to the massive importation of Asian porcelain. This import cost a lot of money (the trade balance with China was terribly in deficit for several centuries). As a result, porcelain factories developed all over Europe, as this luxury product generated considerable income. More or less, all the countries of Europe created their own factories. Not without difficulty: the technique developed by the Chinese and Japanese was very, very difficult to break through. What the general public is generally unaware of is that porcelain requires very high technology: very high firing temperatures, very complex glazing chemistry...

As Europe developed this industry, they used Chinese porcelain aspiration, as was done more globally in the chinoiserie movement. There is therefore continuity between the department's Asian collections, which are essentially from the 18th century, and the French decorative art collections, which are very strongly influenced by chinoiserie. You clearly cannot walk more than 5 meters in the French 18th century rooms of the department without coming across chinoiserie or an object with an Asian component.

Generally speaking, Asia is a fundamental key to understanding the material part of French art de vivre in the 18th century.

Grey jade ewer, Anonymous, Place of creation: China, © 2018 RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Stéphane Maréchalle, See

In your opinion, what place does the Louvre Museum occupy in the world of Asian art?

For the moment, a limited place. Yet, the vision of our president, Laurence des Cars, is to place great emphasis on the notion of the Louvre as a universal museum. The museum's management therefore strongly supports the various projects make the Asian collections more visible and, more generally, the museum's non-European collections.

One recent example is the very fine exhibition "From afar. Traveling materials and objects" (Venus d’ailleurs Matériaux et objets voyageurs). It was organized by Philippe Malgouyres, my colleague in the Decorative Art Department. Here I want to insist on the fact that our department is probably one of those (along with the Arts of Islam) which has the most marked extra-European component for the modern period. Of course, in the Paintings Department, there are forms of Asian presence through representations of Chinese porcelain (notably in the Dutch still lifes), but nevertheless it is clearly our department that has the most extra-European objects or objects inspired by Asia.

Do you have an estimate of the number of Asian objects in the Department of Decorative Art?

About 600. The count is subjective: do you count the pages of a Chinese album one by one or not?

It's about the same number with the same small uncertainty for the Indian objects in the Department of Islamic Art...and I don't count the chinoiserie objects. They are much more numerous.

For chinoiserie, if you count the earthenware with Asian decoration, I imagine there are over a hundred. But if you start to look for Asian forms in these same earthenware pieces - or if you consider that all the objects with bleu-et-blanc decoration are by definition inspired by the Asian bleu-et-blanc, at least in their tonality: there you are in several hundreds.

The definition of Asian influence is relative, though: at what point does a decoration become so much “digested” that it is no longer a direct Asian influence ? Over the time certain Asian forms and decorations will become fully part of the Western decorative repertoire. It is very difficult to define the exact limits to the collection of chinoiserie or to what the Asian influence can be. But it is extremely present: you can really find it everywhere in the different rooms.

Why should an Asian art lover visit the Louvre's collections?

I think there is something quite playful about our collections. A lover of Asian art, especially porcelain or lacquerware, will find them everywhere: there is a kind of treasure hunt. However, even if we have indicated on our labels these Asian components, it is true that their size does not allow us to systematically fully analyse the Asian decorations which are present on our works. So there is something very playful about coming to visit our rooms for an Asian art lover, to see in such or such pieces the influence of a particular style. Someone who likes bleu-et-blanc, for example, will see a Delft earthenware plate that perfectly imitates a kraak*.

*Kraak is the name of the bleu-et-blanc Chinese export porcelains that were found in the 17th century.

He may also recognise, a design inspired by a Chinese novel scene illustration on a vase repeated on a Western object, mixed with other decorations. Someone who knows Asia well could also identify a bottle shape with a double gourd that is quite characteristic...

There is something really amusing about coming with the eye of an “Asianist”,to look in these Western objects for references from Asia that are more or less well understood - sometimes very well, sometimes very badly.

Cup with decoration, leaves and Chinese characters; two small handles formed by vegetal scrolls, 1800 / 1900 (19th century), China, © 2016 RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Stéphane Maréchalle, See

Is there a work in the Louvre that you find particularly interesting, but which you feel visitors do not pay enough attention to ?

There is the white Ming bowl inlaid with gold. It has a Ming seal on the bottom. This bowl seems to be just a white bowl. What is very interesting is that this bowl obviously came to Europe very early on and was passed on likely in aristocratic collections. In the 18th century, it was bought by a merchant who had it embellished with solid gold inlays. It is therefore an object that shows both a taste for chinoiserie and for hybridity. The inlay also figures Asian scenes: the Asian origin of the bowl was indisputable for the people who used it (especially since a Ming imperial mark can be spotted well even if one does not know how to read it at the time).

This object is present in a showcase dedicated to this inlay technique where we also find the Regent’s tea set which also includes repurposed Chinese porcelains. It is an extremely important object. This showcase manifests therefore the presence of Asia at the highest level of French aristocratic society.

It’s a strange circle in which of the material, the porcelain bowl is like digested since its Chinese imperial mark is hidden below the foot and it could be any white bowl without it and at the same time the Far East is echoed in the Asian subjects depicted by the inlay. This recycling is truly characteristic of 18th century France and the work of Marchands-merciers.

(5) CLAIS coupe à décor appliqué.JPG

Cup with applied decoration 1600 / 1800 (17th century; 1st half of 18th century), China, Jingdezhen workshop, © 2022 RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Stéphane Maréchalle, See

Your favourite museum?

The Victoria and Albert Museum: I have a particular affection for this museum. I think it does quite extraordinary work with collections that are themselves quite considerable.

My two models are probably the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Rijksmuseum for all the work they do on the question of globalisation, on the question of hybridisation in the decorative arts and on what can enable us to move away from the history of styles towards a history of material culture in the world of decorative arts.

In other words, to ask the question of what an interior is. An interior is not necessarily a succession of room created at a given moment in a homogeneous style. That exists, of course, but it is also, quite often, the accumulation over time in rooms of many objects from far away, whether from Asia or elsewhere, which aggregate to form the decor of a place. I think it is very important to show this aspect.

I think the Victoria and Albert Museum does it very well. It is important to get away from certain types of fixed typologies and a purely national vision of art history and move towards a history in context that will focus precisely on understanding a moment. However, it is not a question of leaving a national history to make generalisations about globalisation.

Globalisation is a wonderful subject but it can only be treated from the point of view of a given situation at a given moment: what is a French interior in Paris in 1730-1740, for example? What is an English castle décor in the 17th century? In both cases we find Indian textiles, Chinese porcelain, and perhaps Indian, Chinese, Japanese export furniture. What is the meaning of the possession of such objects in each of these periods? To whom do they belong? Who could afford to own them? What are the circuits of arrival for these objects?

All of these things vary over time: there is a great deal of work to be done to understand the meaning of these objects in the material culture of a given moment.

The fact that our Asian collections left (for the most part) in 1945 for the Guimet Museum deprived us of a certain number of transitional objects between these different worlds that would have allowed us to better speak of these subjects.

Your latest artistic crush?

It is for the contemporary Pakistani art scene and the school of miniaturists in Lahore, around the artists trained at the National College of Art (NCA).

I found their work quite extraordinary. Some of them are very well known, of course, but what struck me is that the others, less well known, are no less talented. To mention only two that particularly moved me: a young student Maha Omer and Tahira Noreen, another extremely talented Pakistani artist. In fact, one would have to name dozens of names to do justice to the Pakistani art scene.

What really struck me is that these young artists who have just graduated from the NCA's miniature workshop start from an ancient technique, the Indo-Persian miniature, to create extremely diverse works, both figurative and abstract. We find references (images, themes) to ancient painting, but also works that speak of contemporary life. The technique of painting on paper is the starting point, but students who are initially trained in copy work emancipate themselves and create their own style. Some go towards floral themes, others towards portraiture, others towards playing with old images, others still towards parody or on the contrary genre painting or forms of abstraction nourished by the decorative patterns of Mughal art. It is particularly diverse, but above all it is an art open to people.

I have been working on Mughal art for more than fifteen years, and to see these students in their studios polishing paper with an agate or a shell before drawing and painting on it is fascinating and moving... There is enthusiasm in this artistic scene, a richness of technique and imagination that I find quite extraordinary.

What strikes me also is the transmission between the best artists and the students. The NCA workshop is directed by Imran Qureshi who is one of the two most important Pakistani artists with Rashid Rana. To see great artists taking the time to train new generations is really the image of what I think the art world should be in general, generous.

I think this mindset is observed in many contemporary Pakistani artists. That's probably why their creations speak to me a lot. I think for example of the work of Waqas Khan, or Waseem Ahmed.

A book to recommend?

The catalogue of the exhibition "Encounters: The Meeting of Asia and Europe 1500 - 1800". This is a great exhibition that took place at the Victoria and Albert Museum almost 20 years ago. I think that catalogue is still the ultimate reference for anyone who wants to understand what is going on between Europe and Asia in the modern era. It is an admirable work that I invite everyone to rediscover.

Could we know more about your projects?

There are many projects at the Louvre.

The priority project is to restore the collection, which is what I have been doing since I arrived. At this stage, we have reached a level of restoration that should be around 90% of the collection in good condition. There are still about forty ceramics to be restored, a little cleaning to be done on the Asian bronzes of the Thiers collection and our small collection of Chinese graphic art.

Particular attention should be paid to the albums, especially the tetrapanax export albums. Tetrapanax is a tree from which pulp is extracted to make paper, but this paper become inelastic over time. In the export albums, they are mounted on a paper which is much more flexible so they tend to break when you manipulate the pages. There is therefore a lot of work, disassembling and reassembling the sheets individually to preserve them.

We can expect the entire Asian collection of the museum to have been cleaned, restored and documented by 2025.

What would you like to add?

We are looking for patrons. We would like to expand the collection of the decorative arts department in the field of Asian export artworks made for Europe or objects from the work of Marchand-Merciers. This is what distinguishes us from the Musée Guimet, which deals with Asia in Asia.

The Louvre is very keen to continue this acquisition policy. Some time ago we were able to acquire from the Nicolas Fournery Gallery our first Chinese export work since 1945: a plate from the Chinese porcelain service for the Duc de Penthièvre. We hope to continue in this direction.

The support of patrons donating works or helping to acquire them would be extremely useful. We want to meet persons who are passionate about Asia or about Europe's relationship with Asia.

Our department is one of passion. The taste for the object, which can be understood as much from the Asian point of view as from the European point of view, is the taste for looking at a surface, looking at a material. The passion for Japanese lacquer or Chinese porcelain is a passion for the material as much as for the decoration. We are fortunate to have enthusiasts of decorative arts who collect for this very particular pleasure of the materiality of the object.

We therefore hope to be able to attract regular patronage for acquisition projects or donations.

Plate from the Chinese porcelain service of the Duke of Penthievre, 1734 / 1737 (2nd quarter of the 18th century), China, Jingdezhen workshop, © 2022 Musée du Louvre / Hervé Lewandowski, See

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