In early July, while I was still in Meudon, Isabelle, Olivier, and I went to l’Hôtel de la Marine on the Place de la Concorde in Paris to see the exhibit “Gulbenkian par lui-même” (“Gulbenkian through himself”). Calouste Gulbenkian was an Armenian born in the Ottoman Empire who became a fabulously wealthy oil magnate and an art collector with a dazzling collection. When Isabelle and I were in Lisbon, she (but not I) went to the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum and saw some of his treasures, which was what made her want to go to the Paris exhibit. (The Lisbon museum now houses most of Gulbenkian’s collection, but when he was alive, he kept his collection at his home in Paris.)
L’Hôtel de la Marine is a very grand and imposing building, with a colonnade and pediments. It faces the Place de la Concorde, with its gold-tipped obelisk, and has views of the Eiffel Tower beyond. La Marine is the Navy, and the building housed the Ministry of the Navy from the French Revolution to 2015. (I didn’t know all of this when we actually visited; I looked it up for this blog post.) Before that, it housed the royal Garde-Meuble, the office in charge of the king’s furniture. It was first built in the third quarter of the 18th century. The fact that the building was for the Navy until 2015 probably explains why I hadn’t heard of it before this trip.
L’Hôtel de la Marine is now a multi-faceted museum. A relatively small part of it is long-term host to the Collection Al Thani, a different art collection assembling pieces from ancient civilizations. This was the collection of a Qatari sheik. The Gulbenkian exhibit was on display in one gallery inside the Collection Al Thani space, so on our visit, we first passed through two galleries with items from this collection.
The first room reminded me of photos I’ve seen of Yayoi Kusama’s infinity rooms. It was very dark, there was black all around, and it was hard to tell where the walls were. Hanging from the ceiling on black strings were hundreds, maybe thousands, of gold ornaments about the size of the palm of your hand. They looked like a cross between a snowflake and a chrysanthemum. They glittered in the lights shining from above, and the effect was kind of like moving through a very orderly swarm of mechanical butterflies. Evenly spaced throughout this small room were eight or so items from the Collection Al Thani. They were all fairly small and displayed inside tall narrow black and glass cases. There was a Mayan jadeite mask-pendant, the inscribed jade wine cup of the Mughal emperor Jahangir, a golden bronze bear from Han China, a 4,000-year-old gold rhyton in the shape of a deer…
The next gallery was long and narrow, leading from the first room to the temporary exhibition room, and it was dedicated to sculptures of human heads, from many different cultures and eras. It sounds weird when put that way, but it was actually very cool: all these individually rendered faces, produced long ago by people from around the world. One 4,000-year-old terracotta head was from Mesopotamia; the head of a princess carved from quartzite was from the 18th dynasty of Ancient Egypt. There was a 2,000-year-old Nok culture head from Nigeria, and the head of a statuette of Serapis, carved from lapis lazuli. There was a jade mask from Guatemala and a gold one from Gandhara. There was a 2nd century chalcedony head of the Roman emperor Hadrian and an 18th or 19th century Fang wooden reliquary head from Gabon. The diversity of features, expressions, and styles assembled in one gallery was quite compelling.
Beyond the row of faces was the Gulbenkian exhibit. It occupied a single rectangular room, but there was an incredible number and variety of pieces on display. The information panels on the walls emphasized that Gulbenkian sought only the finest works of art, items of truly exceptional artistry and craftsmanship. And his interests were very broad: this selection from his collection included everything from a fragment of an Ancient Egyptian statuette to Safavid rugs and illuminated manuscripts, from Chinese porcelain to Japanese lacquerware, from 18th century French books to René Lalique jewels, and much more. The sheer breadth of his collection and the number of treasures assembled in one room was almost dizzying.
We left the temporary exhibit through a gallery parallel to the one with the heads. In this last room displaying items from the Collection Al Thani, we saw quite a few more small artifacts from antiquity, including a Sumerian lapis situla (bucket), an Ancient Egyptian obsidian cosmetics vial carved in the shape of a duck, a Sassanid silver rhyton shaped like an antelope’s head, a Tibetan banquet service made of gold and encursted with mosaic turquoise birds, a gold lunula (crescent-shaped necklace/collar) from Bronze Age Britain or Ireland, an Olmec pendant plaque made of jadeite and bearing a Mayan inscription, and plenty more. This gallery led back to the infinity room, and then we exited the Collection Al Thani.
Our tickets to the exhibit included much of the rest of l’Hôtel de la Marine (though there was a separate part–the intendant’s apartments–that required a different ticket). We got to wander through the reception rooms and also go out onto the loggia, with its collonade and view across the Place de la Concorde. The reception rooms were very ornate: high ceilings, tall, narrow doors, parquet floors, gigantic chandeliers, wood paneling, mirrors, elaborate molding, curtains drawn back with tasseled cords, classical imagery, and tons of gold.
In a room just before the loggia, there was an interactive display about French maritime history. You could follow different historical figures, and the first one I was presented with was Marie-Louise Victoire Girardin, an 18th century Frenchwoman who disguised herself as a man and went to sea, joining an expedition to Australia and the South Pacific.
After leaving l’Hôtel de la Marine, we took the metro to Batignolles and walked through the Square des Batignolles to go to Pastelaria Belem, a little Portuguese bakery and restaurant. We wanted to eat pastéis de nata, like we had in Lisbon (though in fact there’s a little Portuguese-accented supermarket right near Isabelle and Olivier’s apartment where we also bought frozen pastéis de nata twice). The bakery looked a little bit like Pastéis de Belém, home of the original pastéis in Portugal, insofar as there were azulejos on the walls and paper napkin and cinnamon dispensers on the tables. Before we went in, we noticed a big multi-colored cat dozing on a chair inside, next to the window. We ordered three pastéis to eat at the bakery and three to take home, plus Compal fruit juices, like we’d drunk in Portugal. The proprietress told us the name of the cat, which was something like Abada, but not that. He wasn’t as easy to photograph as we’d hoped, though he briefly approached our table before disappearing behind the counter. Ah, well. The pastéis were delicious.