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Finding Asia in Paris

August 5, 2009
Fusion of East and West in Paris

Fusion of East and West in Paris: 8th arrondissement

Last summer I embarked on a month-long research trip to Paris to study chinoiserie: an 18th century artistic movement begun in France that centers on the accommodation of “Chinese” imagery into European ornamental designs.  Chinoiserie is a small subhead under the much larger umbrella of what Edward Said termed orientalism: the reductive “othering” or “orientalizing” of the “East” by the “West”.  Said argues that the exoticized images we see in works such as Ingres’ Odalisque represent a tangible manifestation of the larger discourse of western civilization’s creation of an “other” or an us/them binary. 

Orientalism is still alive today as seen in the Japanese screens, happy Buddha statuettes, and other “eastern” objects we use to decorate our homes.  You say, “Wait, maybe a knick knack is just that and nothing more!”  Unfortunately, in a world where orientalist tendencies have become so ingrained in our culture, a knick knack is rarely just that.  Most westerners exoticize Asia as mysterious, traditional, and romantic; eroticize it as tantalizing, sensuous, and lavish; and demoralize it as grotesque, backwards, and incomprehensible.  Whether heralding it as a mysterious and intriguing land steeped in ancient tradition or debasing it as a bestial land full of corruption and nepotism, many western views ignore the nuances of Asia and lump it together as one large stagnant and timeless half of the world that can be analyzed, admired, denounced, and most of all orientalized by the “West”.

As an art historian, I am familiar with the many art movements tied to the orientalist discourse: orientalism, Japonisme, chinoiserie, primitivism, and their more contemporary equivalents.  However, little did I realize how alive and deeply rooted in Parisien culture orientalism would be when I arrived in 21st century Paris.  Almost immediately upon arriving I noticed directly across the street from my apartment a shop that peddles goods from Asia and a Japanese sushi restaurant.  Later I would see countless shops dedicated to “authentic” Asian curiosities, hundreds of Asian restaurants, a three-story Chinese pagoda in the middle of a grande boulevard, and a museum exhibition dedicated to terracotta warriors from Xi’an, China. 

All in all, I concluded the relationship between France and China is evolving on almost a daily basis.  Exoticism and orientalism are still strong forces in France today, however so are the fields of sinology and ethnography.

Food

Thai curry at Mai Tai Restaurant, 3rd arrondissement

Thai curry at Mai Tai Restaurant, 3rd arrondissement

In Paris you will find Asian food galore!  There are two Chinatowns in Paris but also many restaurants serving excellent Asian cuisine sprinkled throughout most every neighborhood in the city.  I have seen restaurant signs for Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, Indian, and the list continues.  This photo is of a meal at a Thai food restaurant, Mai Thai, in Le Marais.  The green curry and mango with sticky rice were fabulous!  Though most every city in the world has Asian food restaurants, particularly international cities such as Paris, the prominence and exotic decor of these spots throughout the city speak to Parisiens’ continued love of “the East”.

Art and Architecture

C.T. Cie & Loo Chinese art emporium, 8th arrondissement

C.T. Cie & Loo Chinese art emporium, 8th arrondissement

The art and architecture of Paris may be the most constant reminder of the city as a key player in the 19th century orientalist discourse, and much of what is seen today reveals just how untarnished the idea of “the exotic Orient” is in the eyes of Paris.  Likely the most iconic image of “the East” in Paris is I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid at the Louvre Museum.  This modern representation of the ancient Egyptian pyramids juxtaposed against the Renaissance architecture of the Louvre is meant to convey the interconnectedness of past and present and speak to the Louvre’s collection of world art. 

Lesser known, but also extremely intriguing, is a three-story pagoda in the middle of the 8th arrondissement’s grandes boulevards.  This structure is C.T. Cie & Loo: a Chinese art emporium built in the late 19th century by a Chinese immigrant to France.  The building, modeled after a Chinese pagoda, is sharply contrasted by the 18th century French style apartments that surround it on all sides.  The survival of the emporium from the 19th century, at the height of China-mania, until today speaks to the continued demand for Chinese “curiosities” and also a growing appreciation for contemporary Chinese art. 

I.M. Pei's famous glass pyramid juxtaposed with Renaissance architecture at the Louvre Museum

I.M. Pei's famous glass pyramid juxtaposed with Renaissance architecture at the Louvre Museum

Outside of the art galleries and many shops dedicated to Chinese “curiosities” are the many Parisien museums dedicated to Asian art.  Interestingly, many of these museums were formerly private collections of wealthy Europeans that have now been donated to the city.  Prime examples are the Musee Cernuschi (once the extensive collection of Italian Henri Cernuschi), the collection of which is still housed in the renovated mansion of the original collector, the Musee Guimet (an extensive Asian art collection of an avid 19th century collector), and the Musee d’Ennery (nearly 7,000 decorative art objects from Asia also collected by a wealthy couple).  Today these are widely visited as “Asian art museums”, but few think about the original owners of these objects and their motivations for amassing such collections.

Painting by Philippe Auge hung in bar, 1st arrondissement

Painting by Philippe Auge hung in bar, 1st arrondissement

Finally, outside the museum and gallery world, works such as the one here by Philippe Auge are seen decorating restaurants, hotels, and shops. 

The “Oriental” feel of these pieces are intended to add an additional layer of ambiance to their surroundings.  Again, the exoticism seen in these images serves an ornamental purpose and packages “Eastern” culture as a consumable commodity.

 
  Shopping
Window front of plastics shop, 6th arrondissement
Window front of plastics shop, 6th arrondissement

 However, most surprising to see between the modern boutiques and cafes are the antique or curiosity shops claiming to sell “authentic Oriental goods.”  These shops are filled with what appear to be centuries old medallions, snuff bottles, and ceramics.  Any genuine objects of this age were likely traded on the black market.  However, many pieces are in actuality European-made and quite contemporary.  The continued patronage of these shops, along with the more commercialized stores such as the plastiques window front seen to the left, illustrate a continued desire for the an exotic and “orientalized” Asia that exists only in the mind and is perpetuated by the centuries old Orientalist discourse.

The relationship between “East” and “West” today is ever complicated, but contemporary Paris provides unique insight into the centuries old connection. 

Thoughts?  Please comment below!

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