Roman Emperors versus Haute Couture at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris

1. Glass Roofed Courtyard of the
Ecole nationale supérieure des beaux-arts
with plaster casts, from an old postcard
Photo : D.R.

We cannot help but regret the criticism leveled by Aurélie Filippeti - and recently repeated in fact - at the Wendel firm, a patron of the Centre Pompidou Metz. We say this because, to our knowledge, their funding is carried out in a perfectly normal way but the French Cultural Minister, an elected representative from Lorraine, seems to be settling accounts with this company in a very inacceptable manner.
However, we do stand behind her one-hundred percent when she demands higher ethical standards by means of a deontological charter. We ourselves have at times denounced certain abuses in which patrons impose their will and make decisions in place of the corresponding institutions, insisting that such practices should not be admittted.

The matter we are now going to discuss does not technically fall under patronage issues but comes dangerously close in its most regrettable form. We are referring to the rental of the Palais des Etudes at the Ecole nationale supérieure des beaux-arts for different events, including haute couture fashion shows.
A few months ago we had met Nicolas Bourriaud who told us he "had no other solution" given the school’s budget problems which oblige him "to develop the school’s own resources". He stated that he wished to occupy the Palais des Etudes more rationally by "giving the exclusivity to one brand only" in order to limit the fashion shows to two weeks instead of having fifty spread out over the whole year. According to him, this would make it easier "to work more efficiently at preserving the integrity of the site".

Such an assertion is in fact inadmissible on principle. The fact that the Ecole des beaux-arts does not receive proper funding is probably true. He told us that "[what is given by] the State is taken up essentially by the salaries" and that "anything needed for development must be found through private financing". The French Ministry of Culture should thus assume its responsibilities. But this does not however justify changing the aspect of the Cour vitrée as is the case now, a result of the option chosen by the school’s management.
The rental of public spaces to private companies should not be systematically rejected, on two conditions : it should not deprive users of their work (or visiting) place and it should in no way alter or endanger the art works nor the building housing them. When the Louvre rents out the space under the pyramid and allows private visits in the evening, this is not shocking. On the other hand, when the Petit Palais entirely empties one of its galleries in order to rent it out, thus sending works down into storage, the practice is unacceptable.

2. Cast Gallery at the Victoria & Albert Museum
Photo : Didier Rykner

It comes down to a question of common sense and keeping things in perspective. If the Ecole des beaux-arts wishes to develop patronage funding (which it has already resorted to, in part, with the restoration of the Hôtel de Chimay notably), it should look for real patrons instead. The Cour vitrée at the Ecole des beaux-arts was created to house an extraordinary collection of plaster casts (ill. 1). There is still a significant number of them, many held at the Petites Ecuries in Versailles under the Louvre’s care. The sole vocation of this recently restored site, already showing signs of deterioration, is to recover its original function which consisted in being (along with the school chapel containing the other part of the "gypsothèque" or cast museum) an extraordinary cultural and educational tool, like the same section in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London (ill. 2). The primary duty of the French Ministry of Culture and the School management is to restore this site, listed as a historical monument, back to its historic state.
Obviously, they are doing the total opposite.

3. Old Photograph Showing
the Layout of the Statues in the
Cour Vitrée at the Ecole des beaux-arts
Photo : D.R.

4. Statues of Roman Emperors
Being Installed in the Cour vitrée
at the Ecole des beaux-arts
Photo : Didier Rykner

5. Plinth for One of the Roman Emperor Statues
The Original Location Corresponds to the Square on the Left
Photo : Didier Rykner

The return of two large casts of Roman emperors, dating from the late 18th century had nevertheless elicited concerted approval in the last several years from both the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and the Département des Antiquités Grecques et Romaines at the Louvre, which manages the collection.
The project was supposed to be carried out at the beginning of the month. First, stone plinths, identical copies of the old ones, were to be installed, before the return of the colossal statues from Versailles. Work had started on the plinths, installing them in the exact original locations as shown by old photographs [1] (ill. 3) but then everything came to a stop : the school noticed that this location might obstruct the fashion shows, particularly all the technical equipment.
When it was told that the plinths were not ready to welcome the statues, the Louvre quite logically decided to call off their transfer. The whole operation was suspended because no one knew if it would be permanently canceled or not. It was finally pushed back to 27 July, when we were able to personally photograph the sculptures while they were being set up (ill. 4 and 5). For the moment, only one of these casts has been set on its plinth.

Of course this interruption no doubt resulted in increased costs, and ended in a change of layout for the sculptures from the one originally chosen, an installation thought out for maximum effect. Benjamin Mouton, the architect for historical monuments, confirmed when speaking to us that the exact original spot should have been respected in order to preserve "the subtle balance between the statues and the decor".
There is no way of knowing if the company which is renting the courtyard in the future had any part in asking that the sculptures be moved. Nicolas Bourriaud even told us that "these colossus are returning to the courtyard without the other casts which were there at the time. Standing out from the wall, these sculptures appear grotesque and out of scale, I see no reason for it. We have therefore decided to adapt it to the current situation but this has nothing to do with the fashion commitments.". We formally contest this explanation which does not in any way reflect the reality of the situation. The location had been carefully determined from the start, in agreement with the chief architect for historical monuments, the Inspector for historical monuments and the Louvre. The change of spot was decided, although the plinths had been installed, when the school noticed that the statues might hinder the fashion shows and threaten the agreement it was about to sign with a fashion house.

The privatization of this public space runs therefore contrary to the public interest which requires that the history of this monument be duly respected. We should of course be happy that these statues are returning and we might admit that the change in layout is after all minimal. And yet this story proves that the haute couture fashion shows are more important than the historical state of the monument, not to mention the risks incurred by the statues during the installation of the technical equipment : sooner or later, we fear that a scaffolding or a crane will accidentally eliminate one of these "bothersome" statues...

Version française

Didier Rykner, mercredi 1er août 2012


[1] In this picture, the statue on the right is a cast of the Velletri Pallas which the Louvre does not wish to place on deposit. It replaced it with a Roman emperor which used to be at the ENSBA but in another spot, of identical size.

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