What I like so much about the French is that they are unapologetic about the past.
Take hunting. Three hundred years ago every French aristocrat hunted, for sport. They glorified hunting. Famous artists painted portraits of them standing over their quarry, puffed with pride and lace cravats. They collected hunting horns and muskets and the heads of their prey, mounted on walls.
That was then. But rather than bow to modern social mores and pretend it was an embarrassing aspect of their history best forgotten, they have built a shrine to hunting and its glorious past in Paris.
It’s one of the best small museums in the world, and if you’re in Paris, make sure you go.
The story behind the creation of the museum is typically quirky. It was founded by carpet and rug millionaires François and Jacqueline Sommer in 1964, and housed in a mansion built in the 1650s. The Sommers acquired thousands of hunting-related artefacts and artworks which became the foundation of the museum. François was a passionate hunting advocate all his life, but Jacqueline presumably sensed a shift in the national conscience and established the French Association for Photographic Hunting. They were both passionate nature-lovers, which may seem incongruous.
The museum feels like a grand old house, its rooms filled with beautiful antiques, the walls lined with damask and heavy velvet drapes. Each room is dedicated uniquely to a single animal, for example The Falconry Room, The Salon of the Dogs, and The Cabinet of the Wolf.
Juxtaposed in the midst of all this antiquity is the work of modern artists. Lin Utzon (daughter of Sydney Opera House architect Jørn Utzon) has an installation of starkly monochromatic sculptural works on display at present. A tiny closet of a room, Le Cabinet de la Licorne (The Unicorn Room), had me transfixed for an hour with the history of unicorn hunting in the Middle Ages and the stunning video art installation Unicorn by French artist Maïder Fortune.
In the Stag Room we are invited to become hunters ourselves, looking through a pair of brass binoculars mounted in a wooden cabinet. Through the lenses I saw a real life forest scene, the sun slanting through the leafy canopy. I watched and waited and my heartbeat slowed, my senses suddenly alive for the moment I knew the stag would appear as it wandered from behind a stand of trees. For a second I thought the stag would surely hear me and I held my breath, before I remembered I’m watching a recording.
I felt slightly flushed and uncomfortable. I had just vicariously experienced the thrill of the hunter, and I’m quite opposed to hunting. At least, I thought I was.
Then in a room devoted to paintings of game birds I was confronted by a polar bear, stretched to more than two metres tall on his hind legs. I felt very insignificant, and not a little threatened. The hunter become the hunted in an instant.
|The Salon of the Dogs|
|The gold inlaid detail of a seventeenth century musket in The Gun Room|
|A perfect bronze stag, no bigger than my hand.|
|The Wild Boar in charge of The Wild Boar Room|
It’s a rare museum that stimulates the visitor both visually, emotionally and intellectually. Some will see the museum only as a reminder of a more barbaric time best forgotten, others will contemplate man’s insatiable desire to conquer nature and wonder why. Some, like me, will have a profoundly enriching and thoughtful experience. How will you react I wonder?