former Director of the Baur Foundation and President of SFECO
Monique Crick is a historian of Asian arts, specialized in ancient China. From 2003 to 2017, she directed the Baur Foundation, the museum of Far Eastern arts in Geneva. Founding president of the Société Française d'Etudes de la Céramique Orientale (SFECO), we will have the pleasure of welcoming her to this new edition of Printemps Asiatique for a round-table discussion on ceramics organized at Tajan.
To begin with, could you describe your background? Why did you specialize in Asian art?
My career path is a bit atypical, it is made up of coincidences from which I have been able to seize opportunities, certainly because they suited me. I was not destined to enter the world of museums, although I was a regular visitor and had always been attracted to art.
I remember that the reward for my BEPC was a trip to Paris to visit the Louvre. In those days, the Mona Lisa was much closer to the visitors. I was actually heading for a doctorate and the agrégation de Lettres Modernes, after a master's degree in comparative linguistics at the University of Aix-en-Provence.
But I got married and followed my husband on his travels abroad. And it was during a four-year residency (1976-1980) in Balikpapan, then a small town surrounded by jungle on the east coast of Borneo (Kalimantan, Indonesia), that I discovered Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai ceramics in the small wooden shops of local antique dealers. These were obviously not imperial ceramics but simply export ceramics. A subject which, by the way, has become fashionable with the discovery of shipwrecks and "globalization"...
They literally fascinated me with their stories of travel, exchange, local customs, their free style. I started to explore this world that was unknown to me and a few years later I enrolled at the Ecole du Louvre with, of course, a specialization in Chinese art.
A few years later, in 1993, after returning from abroad, I joined the Guimet Museum in the China Department as a project manager. It was an excellent training that served me well. I stayed there until 1997, then I turned to underwater archaeology thanks to the archaeologist Franck Goddio, who was conducting excavations in the Philippines in partnership with the National Museum in Manila.
I was lucky enough to be able to work on the ceramic cargoes of several shipwrecks and prepare exhibitions and catalogues. It was fascinating and I have fond memories of it. In 1998, thanks to Gilles Béguin, then director of the Cernuschi Museum, I was able to realize an old dream: that of creating a Society for the Study of Oriental Ceramics (SFECO), like those that existed in many countries.
At the same time, I prepared a DEA (diplôme d'études approfondies) at the University of Paris-Sorbonne. Then in 2003, I left France to take up the post of director at the Baur Foundation, Museum of Far Eastern Art in Geneva, until my retirement at the end of 2017.
Can you talk about your role at the Baur Foundation?
My mission, as director, was to bring this magnificent private museum into the 21st century and to make it better known. Until then, it had remained a somewhat confidential museum, visited by enthusiasts and specialists. So, with the unwavering support of the Council, we launched a policy of opening up the museum with numerous large-scale exhibitions and exhibitions of contemporary ceramists, very varied scenographies, publications, various activities for different audiences, the transformation of a terrace into a Japanese garden, the creation of a very beautiful website... As well as renovation work of course!
In particular, the Japan rooms were completely rethought and redone with the creation of a room for the tea ceremony overlooking the hall; and new exhibition spaces were specially designed for the numerous donations.
This policy was carried out while respecting the intimate atmosphere so particular to this museum, as desired by its founder Alfred Baur.
How do we make ceramics approachable to the public?
This is a question that can be answered differently in different countries. Some countries are "ceramic", like Great Britain for example. The Oriental Ceramic Society has just celebrated its centenary! For others, I think that ancient Chinese ceramics must be integrated into a historical and cultural context, it must be told and presented. Its history is amazing and so varied. But personally I really appreciate exhibitions that are exclusively focused on ceramic and that allow us to deepen our knowledge.
Was there a particular work of art that stood out for you during your career?
The blue and white porcelains of the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) for its innovation, the richness of their decoration and the freedom in the painter's brush. A dazzling cultural revolution! Especially the large dish in the Musée de Sèvres with its abundant decoration of peonies, chrysanthemums and lotuses, the masterpiece of their Chinese collection (Here).
Your latest artistic crush?
The Kan vase, recently donated to the Guimet Museum by a friend, Richard Kan, a patron of the arts in Hong Kong, through the Société des amis du musée Guimet (SAMG). It is a large blue-and-white meiping vase from the Yuan Dynasty, which is now on display in the exhibition halls.
Otherwise, I really enjoy contemporary ceramics in many forms (but not all...). I recently fell in love with a piece by Pierre Bayle at an auction and a blue-and-white and celadon-glazed porcelain by a contemporary Chinese ceramist.
Meiping vase, China, Jingdezhen kilns, Yuan Dynasty, ca. 1330-1350, Paris, Musée national des arts asiatiques Guimet, MA 13162, Purchased with the patronage of Mr. Richard Kan, 2021
Your favorite museum?
For lovers of Chinese ceramics from the origins to the 14th century, I would recommend going to the Rietberg Museum in Zurich to admire the Meyintang Collection. It is a fabulous collection created by a passionate collector that I had the privilege to know. It is also very well presented.
Apart from the Baur Foundation, my favorite museum is the Ariana, the Swiss museum of ceramics and glass in Geneva. Set in a majestic place, the showcases and their display allow one to apprehend and understand the various expressions of the ceramics. An intelligent museum!
A work that particularly inspires you?
If you want to talk about books on Chinese ceramics, I remain an avid reader of Margaret Medley and Daisy Lion-Goldschmidt who did an extraordinary job of learning about this art, with the documentation they had at the time. They knew how to look at ceramics and this is reflected in their writings.
Otherwise, I am rather eclectic in my readings but I often return to the books of Albert Camus.
Could we know more about your projects?
In the immediate future, to continue developing the knowledge and appreciation of oriental ceramics thanks to the SFECO and its partners, as well as my research on Chinese export ceramics, with a doctoral project delayed by my appointment to the Baur Foundation and then the pandemic... If "the value does not wait for the number of years", the number of years does not mar the value!