You are the vice-president of Momus. Can you tell us something about the association ?
Momus was founded in 1993 as a national forum to debate on general problems (doctrines, ethics, etc.) related to our cultural heritage. Our activities include monuments as well as museums or historical sites, hence the name “Momus”, which is also, and this reflects the other aspect of our association, the Greek god of Irony. Our approach is to apply a critical eye and a biting tone to these questions, which often leads us, as you may have guessed, to be more severe with the government than with an individual vandal acting alone.
The idea behind Momus was to denounce the lack of debate in France on matters of cultural heritage, and more particularly the permanent complacency of the Ministry of Culture and its services, which is not conducive to a dynamic preservation of our heritage nor to a positive image of it by French citizens. We don’t think that our decision makers are geniuses or that they are infallible but, to paraphrase Clemenceau, our cultural heritage is something too precious to entrust to the minister of Culture… In a more general way, Momus has always tried to provide information which is usually restricted to small Parisian circles and bring out in the open, if necessary, those scandals that might affect our cultural legacy.
In past battles, which were your greatest victories and your most serious defeats ?
Momus has always thought that its force resided in acting on two fronts : informing, via a semi-annual journal and press articles ; and by initiating lawsuits — because, as you know, many cultural controversies are settled before an administrative judge. Personally I’m convinced that lawsuits are more effective, forcing opponents to take associations seriously and in fact constitute the only legal means for stopping a disastrous project. So in these cases, Momus’ most memorable victory came right after it was created, in 1994, when we succeeded in prohibiting construction in Vézelay, right in the middle of the “sacred hill”, of a horrible retirement home in a pseudo period-style, which would have been a major blight on this prestigious site. In more recent affairs that have drawn more attention from the media such as condemning the works disfiguring the château de Falaise by a chief architect, or the cancelling of the building permit for a football stadium in Lille on top of the ramps of the Vauban fortress (cowardly authorized by the Ministry of Culture against the advice expressed by the Commission supérieure) we have worked alongside other associations. On the other hand, our most resounding defeat in my view is still our refusal to sue the Ministry of Culture in the case of the refurbishment of the Bons-Enfants building, rue Saint Honoré in Paris, which houses the Ministry’s services. We only filed a formal appeal against the permit and, although we had several very strong means at our disposal for having it cancelled, the former president of the association and the board at the time chose not to follow through with these. I’m still convinced that we could have avoided the placing of the well-known metallic grid, inappropriate, by the architect Francis Soler, which defaces the building and the site. However, we are delighted that the family of Georges Vaudoyer, the architect who erected the building in 1919, succeeded in suing and having the administration and its architect condemned for deforming the work of their ancestor. The Ministry of Culture condemned for degrading our XXth C heritage... how ironical .
You say you inform, but you still don’t have a website !
We’ve set up a website that will start working at the end of the year : momus.fr. Internet is a cultural revolution which means we will progressively have to give up the journal formula, which has a loyal following, and cut it down to one issue per year. We will thus be enhancing our reach, providing information in real time and with widespread access. We are aware of the amazing potential of this new medium, as well as the drawbacks in having to ensure that the website is updated regularly. But it’s a vital necessity, especially given the soaring problems, scandals, absurd destructions and random restorations... Check back with us in January to see how it goes !
There’s something in your journal that bothers me : why do you use pseudonyms ?
The decision was made after the publication of the first issue, in which a state employee had innocently signed an article he had written. It’s hard to believe that in France, a country known for its freedom of speech, this person was reprimanded by his superiors. Jean-Pierre Halévy once called the phenomenon, the “culture-secret”. We thus came to the conclusion that in order to keep news alive, precise and direct from both private and official sources, we needed to adopt the same system that made the Canard Enchainé so famous. And it’s one of our models for humor and irony. Besides, the use of pseudonyms which we try to make as funny as possible, recalls a literary tradition that dates back to the XIXth C.
Momus opposed the building permit for the extension to the Musée franco-américain in Blérancourt (Oise), which The Art Tribune covered in two articles. And yet, the directors of the Musées de France had promised to appoint a commission of experts. What is the status of this case and why did you take it to court ?
The Ministry did in fact, after thinking it over for two months, create a committee of experts that had been announced end of August. With Jean-Pierre Babelon of the Institut de France as the president, it has nine members, including myself ; all of them have a scientific background which shows that the Ministry is playing by the rules. The first meeting was held on November 7th at Blérancourt and we were able to draw up a report on the project and open up some avenues of thought. You can see why I really can’t say any more at this stage. The procedure initiated by Momus was decided by the board of directors before the committee was appointed, at a time when there was no information indicating that the state would choose to take the matter seriously. Since feelings were still running high after the scandal at the Orangeries in the Tuileries, where beautiful ruins from a Renaissance landmark were bulldozed ignoring experts and the promise of the minister, Jean-Jacques Aillagon, Momus preferred to take out some “life insurance” in this new affair where archeologists and museums need to reach an agreement at any price. The study of the building permit issued on 10 January 2006 by the DRAC for the structure planned by the architect Yves Lion leads us to think that this appeal has a chance of succeeding. I would add an important detail : all the supporters of our cultural heritage remember the scandal involving the renovation of the Hôtel Hénault de Cantobre, 82 rue François Miron in the Marais district in 1994, directed by the same Yves Lion. The work commissioned by the City of Paris was to transform this beautiful residential building from the early XVIIIth C. into a “European house of photography”. As a member at the time of the Commission du Vieux Paris , I followed the project closely : besides destroying the entire archaeological basement without exploring it at all, which was even denounced by the Service régional d’archéologie, the building was, in the words of my departed master Michel Fleury, “demolished and remolished”. We regret the destruction of the wing, a stone carriage house, on the rue de Fourcy, which they had promised to reconstruct but never did ; the destruction of all of the finishings (the joinery of the woodwork, the sculpted imposts on the mezzanine, the flooring, walls and all of the framework) and the widespread use of concrete throughout the interior (which an uncaring critic in Le Monde termed carefully done !). So it’s no understatement when I say that we no longer trust such promises. Nevertheless, in the case of Blérancourt, the attitude shown by the Ministry today allows us some hope that a satisfactory solution can be found for the château of Salomon de Brosse and its ruins as well as for the Musée de l’Amitié franco-américaine, to which I have strong ties.
The Art Tribune published an article about the peculiar manner, to say the least, in which the Henri IV section of the château de Fontainebleau is being restored. What do you think about it ?
The case of the restoration of the Henri IV section by M. Jacques Moulin, chief architect for the château (and old acquaintance of Momus since the scandal of the restoration-reconstruction project of Chamerolle, in the Loiret region), does indeed raise some serious issues which do not involve this building alone but refer back to the recurrent dysfunctioning of the Monuments historiques français. As someone with a scientific background, I am obviously interested in a matter that has been ignored for far too long in the study of old monuments : their “skin” and the different types of plaster and coating that existed on buildings in the XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries. Despite the Entretiens du Patrimoine (Talks on National Heritage) in 1989 in Amiens and a colloquium in Versailles on color in the classic age of architecture in 2003, our ideas on the subject are still rudimentary, a result of decades of façade scraping to bare the original material, which corresponds to the contemporary taste for the supposedly “true” nature of the material. However, the case of Fontainebleau, where sandstone has always been used in the polychromed façades, should be treated with caution and I was shocked by the manner in which the architect covered the façades. The documents at the time of Louis XIV clearly show that the clampings and the sandstone elements were visible. It’s one thing to find traces of plaster on the sandstone, but quite another to cover up the sandtone completely. How much is historical distortion, and how much a whim on the part of the architect ? I don’t know and we would like to have a precise answer from the Directeur des Monuments Historiques and from the members of the Commission supérieure des Monuments historiques, which was not consulted, according to your inquiries. Let’s not forget that in the case of the distortion of the château de Falaise, the “variations” between the original authorization and the final execution were denounced by the court in Caen. It is unacceptable today that a chief architect for the Monuments historiques can still think he has the right to take such liberties in the way he runs a work project, and manages to ignore the administrative authorizations that were legally issued. We all know what an ordinary citizen would face if he felt like doing the same thing with a building permit... Let’s really be crazy and ask that the state respect the laws that it has passed and that it’s supposed to enforce.
You also spoke out against the reconstruction of the gate at Versailles in issue n° 653 of October 2007 in Connaissance des Arts....
Yes, in fact the undertaking has become rather spectacular and gotten a lot of media coverage but, in my opinion, it is devastating for the château and its history. So, what is it all about ? It means no less than reconstructing ex nihilo, from a few inexact documents (engravings, drawings), a structural element that disappeared 214 years ago ! Having worked on restoration sites for twenty years, I think I can safely state that it is extremely rare, if not impossible, to rebuild in a satisfactory manner an entire or even part of a former structure. Although I respect the work of French “compagnons” and craftsmen, I don’t think that in the current system, they have the same talent as those who worked for “the greatest king in the world” at Versailles in the XVIIth century. The gate is the offspring of two unsound reasons : an aesthetic criticism of the equestrian statue of Louis XIV that used to stand in the courtyard, which has been removed and is being restored ; and the need to manage the crowds of tourists expected for the “grand Versailles”. The fact that the statue by Cartellier and Petitot is not a masterpiece of French sculpture is a relatively minor problem in the eyes of those who emphasize the Versailles of Louis-Philippe, a king that certainly historians have reservations about, but whose role in saving the château when it had fallen into disuse should not be forgotten (which still does not excuse the demolitions he ordered). This statue was a strong identifying image for the château, which already 150 years ago became a Mémorial de la Nation and a major historical museum with the purpose of reconciling the French nation together : the same museum that the President of the Republic made special mention of in his letter outlining Madame Albanel’s mission last August... But you cannot expect Monsieur Sarkozy (in fact, M. Guaino, one of his consellor who writes his speeches) to know everything As for managing the flow of tourists, an important issue when you’re trying to direct several million people into a royal castle, was the only solution to imitate Jules Hardouin-Mansart’s golden gate ? It’s a complicated question that cannot be solved by going around declaring that they are simply restoring a missing element of the château. By the same token, the chief architect would have a lot of things to reconstruct if, as they claim, correctly, Versailles was more beautiful in 1700 than in 2007. But saving and transmitting our heritage does not mean correcting it by manipulating it genetically. What does this restitution mean, when in fact the gate will find itself coexisting with buildings erected after it disappeared (pavillon Dufour) ? It is a pure and simple violation of the most elementary ethical principles of our profession. Viollet-le-Duc must still be alive. And, without trying to be overly ironic, when we are told that this gate will enable the three courtyards to be seen according to the original design which was to introduce the visitor progressively to the sacred grandeur of the person of the king, it is amazing that the king himself is totally absent from the restoration project when in fact it was the key for unlocking this coded system. This irony, alas, perhaps foreshadows something : I fear that ten years from now there will be tours of the château with figures dressed up in period costumes (to help the public understand Louis XIVth’s court better, bien sûr...)
You recently organized a colloquium on the reconstruction of the Tuileries with Jean-Marie Pérouse de Montclos . This colloquium brought together people who were mostly opposed to the project...
Above all, the colloquium was a scientific attempt at approaching the question of the Tuileries through a larger prism and also on a European level : the production of monuments that express a national identity. Those supporting the reconstruction of the Tuileries are exploiting a poor argument, by quoting the example of European reconstruction projects in progress, for instance the cathedral in Moscow, Frauenkirche in Dresden or the castle in Berlin. Since I know these projects well through exchanges with our Russian and German colleagues and from visiting the sites , we didn’t see how they compared to the reconstruction of the Tuileries which disappeared after the fire set off by the “communards” in 1871 and twelve years of debates in Parliament and in public opinion. So we wanted to consult our colleagues abroad who are specialized in specific cases to better understand the historical and scientific reasons behind the resurrection of structures that were often annihilated because of wars or ideological bombings. But you’re right, the afternoon session focusing just on the Tuileries gave us a chance to present our arguments clearly against a project which we consider both dangerous and absurd. Until now, we only spoke out when answering press articles in favor of it. In a positive sense, our contribution seemed to guarantee that this was a real journalistic investigation ; in a more negative sense, we appeared to be grumps opposing a major project that has set many people dreaming who are nostalgic for a Paris that no longer exists. The day was also successful, I think, because everyone in the room was allowed to express himself and debate—unlike many colloquia and public so-called debates where there’s never an exchange once the people in charge have finished monopolizing speaking time. In spite of the transportation strike that day, about a hundred people attended our day-long work session, among them many supporters of the project, including the president of the Comité national pour la reconstruction, Mr. Alain Boumier, and two chief architects who are in favor of the operation, Mr. Didier and Mr. Lablaude, in charge of the château and the park at Versailles.
Why are you against this project ?
Let’s briefly sum up the arguments that in my view make this reconstruction project impossible and dangerous. The first obstacle is a simple technical question : as acknowledged even by one of its proponents, Mr. Lamboro, a “compagnon” stonecutter from a company that restores historical monuments , there are not enough Saint-Leu stones in the Oise quarries to reconstruct the very long façades of the building (520 metres on the courtyard and gardens). So another type of stone would have to be used, the first distortion of an “identical” reconstruction. The second argument concerns the extraordinary quality of the sculptures that covered the façades of the Tuileries and gave it its value. Who would know, from looking at black and white photographs of the XIXth century and a few worn remains, how to recreate them ? Everyone remembers the total failure of the sculpture at the hôtel de Beauvais in the Marais district : you have to be wary, even skeptical ! The third argument is the question of which historical age would be reconstructed : the supporters of the project have explained very knowledgeably that it would be the period of 1871, the morning of the fire, and the one for which there are the best documents. It’s a joke, because that would mean eliminating the work of Hector Lefuel after the tragic event, that is the pavillon de Marsan and half of the wing which today houses the Musée des Arts Décoratifs (which juts out from the original façade), and which are listed as Monument historique, as if we needed to remind anyone. Do we really need to be any more ironical about the amateurism of the backers when they evoke the interior as well, explaining that the décors for the apartments destroyed in 1871 were not “major” [sic], whereas for the theatre, they hesitate between the Vigarani period under Louis XIV or Soufflot under Louis XV — when we know for a fact that neither of the two versions were satisfactory because of the acoustics and that this architectural failure had been violently criticized under the Ancien Régime by specialists. A theatre, indeed, which had long ceased to exist before 1871 ! They can’t really be serious... On the other hand, something which really is, according to the detailed plans drawn up by the project’s supporters, is the wish to make money as a payback for their efforts. Their leading argument is to say that the budget for the reconstruction will not come out of taxpayers’ pockets but will be entirely financed by patronage and donations. In fact, alongside those few who are sincerely nostalgic for the former Palace, you can glimpse the experienced professionals that have smelled a good deal. The idea is that the palace, once it’s rebuilt, will be leased out to a company for several years. Some enlightened people have already imagined the potential of such an exceptional location in the heart of Paris : quite creatively, they aren’t in the least bit embarrassed to suggest a parking lot for eight-hundred cars, for which they’ve shown the drawings ! This parking lot, with an entrance through the Lemonnier tunnel, would occupy .... the area under the Tuileries gardens. Anyone have a better suggestion ? It’s right for Christine Albanel, Minister of Culture, to say, as she did recently, that this project was not under consideration... But we could also deplore the cowardice of the authorities who don’t dare say no more firmly to an absurd idea that Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, with his customary levity, helped to legitimize by creating, in June 2006, a “national committee” which endorsed the suggestion wholeheartedly and on which there were, of course, no architectural historians and no university scholars. It’s such a waste of energy when there are so many buildings falling down all around us. I would like to suggest to Mr. Boumier, the president of the Académie du Second Empire, whose purpose is to promote this reign, to put his talent in the service of the château de Compiègne or the sorely needed restoration of the Salle Labrouste at the Bibliothèque Nationale.
Besides these major areas, what concerns do you have at the moment ?
A battle that seems to concern just a passing problem, but a very serious one in that it’s inevitably going to repeat itself frequently : the future of the historical hospitals in Paris. L’Assistance Publique owns major properties many of which are very well located in the capital. The reorganization of the hospitals and the modernization of their buildings will entail, and already have, worrisome destructions and reconstructions. For instance, the maternity ward at Baudelocque has just been razed from the map with its low pavilions of early XXth C. bricks ; they’re going to be replaced by a massive structure which is out of scale in comparison to the valuable remains of the convent at Port Royal. The unconvincing architectural experiment for the Maisons des Adolescents on Boulevard de Port-Royal next door chosen by the wife of the former President of the Republic, Bernadette Chirac, means we have to be careful. The government also fought quite hard in the case of the Hôpital Laënnec, rue de Sèvres, a magnificent Louis XIII ensemble that was sold to the Cogédim company after a lot of ups and downs, but it looks as if their determination to do the right thing has slacked off in the case of the Hôpital Necker, also located rue de Sèvres : they have calmly announced the complete destruction of the lower buildings on the street side and the beautiful Louis XV gate as well as a gorgeous little Napoleon III private manor that faces out on the Duroc intersection. These will all be replaced by a tall structure which will mar the surrounding monumental area and be blatantly in contrast with the Institut des Jeunes Aveugles (Institute for Blind Children), a superb building from the reign of Louis-Philippe, listed as a Monument historique. The announcement that the Napoleon III manor will be taken down stone by stone and reconstructed on the site, probably meant to placate heritage supporters, is in my mind a further reason to step up the protests. There have been so many promises to take down and rebuild monuments — earlier I mentioned the wing at the hôtel Hénault de Cantobre — that it’s like believing in Santa Claus : you really want to, but no one has ever seen him.
Speaking of which, I’ve brought up the subject two or three times of the Chancellerie d’Orléans, taken down in 1925 by the Banque de France who promised to reconstruct it, but of course never did. It seems that the World Monument Fund has taken up the case. Do you know anything about it ?
Without wishing to interfere in the ongoing negotiations, it is safe to say that the case seems to have a chance of succeeding. Over eighty years after the agreement was signed between the Préfecture de la Seine and the Banque de France... We must remember that the case is a complicated one. Indeed, as opposed to what many people think, the destruction was carried out by the City of Paris (at the time the Préfecture de la Seine) to open up the useless rue du Colonel Driant, this expropriation for a public cause thus making it city property. So it’s the city, and not the Banque de France, that owns the three magnificent salons that are stored in packing cases in Asnières (a suburb of Paris). At the time, the mistakenly good idea of the city, aware of the fact that it had acted illegally against the cultural heritage (the building was one of the first to be listed under the law of 1913, in 1914, after a request by its owner at the time) was to suggest to the Banque de France that it reconstruct the building inside the enclosure where its head offices were located, near the original site. Nothing remains of the initial structure today and the stones have disappeared (surprising, isn’t it ?) so you cannot rebuild this beautiful monument by Boffrand. On the other hand, the décors can obviously be remounted in an adapted setting, but keeping in mind that they are no longer protected, since the building had to be taken off the Monument historique listing in order to destroy it. The solution that the World Monument Fund came up with seems to me to be an excellent one : the ground floor of the Hôtel de Rohan owned by the National Archives, in the Marais district. Besides the fact that the rooms where the décors would be installed are today devoid of style and are the right size, the hôtel is of the same period as the Chancellerie, even if it was by a different architect and, last of all, the rooms are on the ground floor facing west on the garden, which is the same direction as at the Chancellerie. It’s practically a miracle.
You signed the petition against the Louvre Abu Dhabi. What is your reaction to this and, in general, to the situation of museums today as well as the recent debate on inalienability ?
I fear the worst ! Yes, I did sign the petition started by La Tribune de l’Art, because I deeply feel that the undertaking in Abu Dhabi will be more harmful than beneficial — and I’m not speaking only in financial terms — for our heritage. I’ve always been struck by the monolithic character, practically soviet-like, of French museum management and I watch dumbfounded as it transforms itself suddenly under guise of a pseudo-liberal doctrine in which yesterday’s sacred culture now has strategic market value, and this goes beyond just the situation in museums because this pathetic affair was imposed by the Elysée presidential palace at the beginning. As a teacher, I can obviously understand and encourage cultural exchanges between countries, both among scientists as well as students. But having organized several exhibitions, it’s hard for me not to imagine that the increased number of shows, media events, spectacular trips abroad of certain works, even with the best intentions and with scientific protection(as if accidents in transporting these artworks never happened) constitutes a real danger for the collections, which by their very nature are fragile. What continues to amaze me is how some people support the Abu Dhabi venture at the Louvre on the one hand and on the other are opposed to the current project of eliminating the inalienability of art works. To me, both cases are an example of business dealings, what the mayor of Prague very rightly called “cultural prostitution”. In the first it’s a lease, in the second it’s a sale, but in both it’s official trafficking with a clear conscience of works which are in fact, until proof of the contrary and according to French law, property of the nation. As for these much talked about secondary works crowding museum basements and that could be sold off, only elected officials, whose lack of culture is a serious concern, would really believe that...I am therefore absolutely against this further blow to the contract that links us to our heritage.
You are a university professor of art history. In France, there is talk once more of teaching the arts in secondary schools. Isn’t there a risk that, as usual, it would mean promoting the existing curriculum instead of introducing art history, or that the latter would be taught not by art historians but by teachers specialized in other subjects ?
It is true that the presidential election of spring 2007 reopened the old debate among art historians that keeps coming back. Just to remind us of the current state of art history in the French educational system and to better understand the present debate : France does not have a Capes (secondary level teaching degree) or an “agrégation” in art history, whereas there is an “agrégation” for plastic arts (obtained after 1976 against André Chastel’s advice). Logically, the department of National Education never wished to consider our field at the secondary teaching level and art history is thus only taught at the University level. This is of course not enough. The ideal solution would be to create a Capes in art history — which our art history colleagues do not really support, alas — requiring class hours and establishing teaching positions. Such a study major would offer a great number of leads in a field which today has very few professional openings. The purpose of this kind of revolution (“rupture” ?) in education would obviously have consequences going beyond a mere defense of our corporation as art historians, as you might guess. I would dare to use a word that will seem a bit grandiloquent : the issue concerns our civilization because at stake here is the development of an artistic sense. In the cold and brutal world around us, this virtue is an antidote to mediocrity and ugliness, as vital as breathing and eating. You cannot deplore the fact that the French only know Picasso, Renoir and Rodin, that the market for art books is not bigger, that the monuments and museums continue to see a worrisome decrease in the number of visitors except at major establishments, that the French are so superficially attached to their heritage and too indifferent to the many threats it faces every day, and not try to instill in students as early as sixth or seventh grade a familiarity with art and the ability to understand it and hence love it. The opposite situation is true in Italy and you don’t need any big speeches to point out the resulting impact in their society as compared to France. Pierre Rosenberg often says that if you don’t enter your first museum before the age of twenty, you never will. The expression holds a good deal of truth which underlines what is lacking in our educational system. I attended a public lycée, and while I was stuffed with mathematics and geography, I never once heard anything about history of religion or art. I think that an educational system that does not open up the questions of the sacred or of art, which are related, is seriously deficient on an intellectual level. Much as Bourdieu said, I would add that it is an unequal system since only some children will have access to art thanks to the cultural environment in their homes. The present battle should therefore take advantage of the favorable political climate to introduce, finally, in pre-lycée and lycée, art history education. Even if a Capes or “agrégation” are not established right away, it must surely be possible to create an elective in art history in both cases in the fields of history and literature, so as to ensure the level of the teachers who will be in charge of the new classes. Furthermore, it’s very important to supervise the content of the curriculum. The question is semantic : art history or history of the arts ? It would of course be tempting to teach basic notions of history of cinema, theatre, photography, etc. which seem easier (mistakenly so) and more promising. But without wishing to set them up against the traditional categories of the fine arts (painting, sculpture, drawing, architecture, art objects, furniture...), I believe these should be treated first since they are the hardest to approach for the simple reason that they are less present in our media and cultural environment, not to mention that surrounding children today....I am optimistic on one point : in a society like ours which is dominated by images, learning to look at them with a new eye is another way of developing our critical abilities and thus our intelligence. Seen in this light, I believe that art history education is very modern and perfectly in tune with what is needed today.
Interviewed by Didier Rykner