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Chapter 1 Learning the Trade
Fifty years of my life have been devoted to art history and museums, and it would be natural to expect a detailed accounting of those decades. But for me to provide one, I would have to adopt the approach of a professional historian, which I am not, on top of which I lack the necessary perspective. Were you to ask my contemporaries about events in our held over the past half-century, their accounts would certainly differ from mine. Rather, what I hope to do in this book is to recreate a sense of the times and to spotlight both the high points in the history of museums (their resurgence after World War II, for instance, or the "boom" in large-scale construction projects) and the low points--around 1970 and perhaps today. And also (though here again my own view is partial and even a bit biased), I hope to highlight the efforts made, after the gray and timid period that followed the war, to revive art history and scholarship in France, the battles won and lost, and finally the vitality of a discipline that not everyone looks upon favorably.
I was born in 1929 in Saint-Malo and, like any good native of that city, was naively proud of my hometown. The fact that so many Malouins have lent their names to streets, hospitals, islands, and even a commercial temple of information technology* "is not bad for a place whose area," as Chateaubriand put it in his Memoires d'outre-tombe, "does not even rival that of the Tuileries." I have always retained my attachment to the city, so much so that I recently bought an apartment there, within the walls, to enjoy the sea air from time to time.
My family left Saint-Malo after my father was killed in 1940, and thefollowing year we settled in Paris. Filtered as they are through our family's mourning, my memories of the Occupation are naturally rather dark: Germans everywhere, soldiers in the metro stinking of leather and heavy wool...My secondary school was the Lycee Pasteur in Neuilly. One teacher who stood out in particular was Henri Petiot, better known as the writer Daniel-Rops, who would soon become famous as the author of Jesus and His Times. When teaching history, he made frequent reference to the history of art, which was ignored or neglected in schools at the time (is it very different today?), and he took us to Notre Dame cathedral to help us understand the Middle Ages.
Like all children, I read avidly in those years, starting with bland scouting books and adventure stories, comics featuring the "disastrous housemaid" Becassine (another Breton contribution), as well as The Jungle Book, Jules Verne, Dumas, and many other titles in the white Collection Nelson editions--the paperbacks of that period--which I found in the family library. And, like anyone else, I studied the classics in school: Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, the Russians, and so on.
Paris during the Occupation was extraordinarily rich when it came to shows. I'd had little experience with theater before the war, though I do remember L'Heure espagnole at the Theatre de Rennes, where, of course, I was more taken with the heroine's burlesque misadventures than I was with Ravel's music. In Paris, while visiting my grandmother, I'd seen Around the World in Eighty Days at the Chatelet and--prophetically--a ballet by Lifar at the Opera, Entre deux rondes, in which statues in the Louvre came to life at night.
I spent a lot of time at the theater in Paris with my mother or some friends. It was there I saw Henry de Montherlant's La Reine morte and Le Soulier de satin by Paul Claudel at the Comedie Francaise; Renaud et Armide, beautifully staged by Berard but based on a rather weak play by Jean Cocteau; and many classics, including Raimu in Moliere's Le Bourgeois gentilhomme and Le Malade imaginaire. I still remember Antigone, the resistor, by Jean Anouilh and also Andromaque directed by Cocteau, starring Jean Marais and Annie Ducaux, which caused quite an uproar.
There were also movies. We didn't go to see German Films, although there were two in color--something extremely rare outside of American cinema--that were very enticing: Baron Munchausen and La Ville doree, about Prague--a German city, as everyone knew...We had no idea that Les Inconnus dans la maison or Le Corbeau were produced by Germans. Of the films of the period, I especially remember faces: Edwige Feuillere in La Duchesse de Langeais, Pierre Fresnay as Inspector Wens, Michel Simon as Vautrin, American-style comedies with Raymond Rouleau and Annie Ducaux, Falbalas by Jacques Becker, Le Baron fantome...I also remember two absolutely spectacular films, which at the time were considered "Resistance" movies: Marcel Carne's Les Visiteurs du soir--in which Jules Berry as
The Devil snickers about "the heart that keeps beating" -- and Pontcarral. We were frustrated by the unavailability of American Films, our interest having been whetted by a friend who had seen some in Switzerland, especially Fantasia and Gone with the Wind.
It was also diffucult to see much art, since most of the museums were closed. Still, I was able to view the monumental sculptures at the Louvre, which they hadn't been able to evacuate, notably the winged bulls from Khorsabad. I also have another "artistic" memory, from what must have been the summer of 1942, at the Bellou manor in Normandy. I was at a Boy Scout camp in the country, and we were visiting the castle that served as a storage repository for Maurice-Quentin de la Tour's pastels from the Saint-Quentin museum. Some of them were hung in the rooms. I clearly recall the roguishness of Mademoiselle Fels (which today I find a bit irritating) and the smile of Abbe Huber reading by candlelight. But I didn't come away with an irresistible attraction to the eighteenth century.