The Musée de Cambrai Exhibits its History

1. A View of the Exhibition : "Heurs et Malheurs
du Musée de Cambrai".
Photo : Didier Rykner

23/11/12 - Exhibition - Cambrai, Musée - The museums in Northern France often have complicated histories due notably to the effects of the two world wars. The one in Cambrai is no exception having been particularly affected by WWI.
The exhibition currently showing until 20 January 2013 in a very pleasant setting (ill. 1), particularly the first room where the works are hung in the manner of a 19th century Salon, traces the existence of the museum and its collections since its creation.

Although the core of the museum holdings comes, as is often the case, from revolutionary looting, it took a long time to find them a permanent home. Its first site, in 1846, was the annex to city hall, the "Salle des Halles", no longer standing. Between 1866 and 1892, it moved to the chapel of the former Hôpital Saint Julien adding many deposits and donations thus making it necessary to transfer the location once again to the Hôtel de Francqueville, where it is still today.
A large part of the works was evacuated during the war by German authorities, first to the Musée de Valenciennes, considered to be safer, then in October 1918 to Brussels due to continuously approaching combat. Some of the collection was looted there and the exhibition presents the authors and titles of the stolen paintings on two banners. As the inventories themselves have disappeared, their identification is difficult to ascertain. No doubt some attributions were a bit optimistic but in any case, we find names such as Gercino, Guido Reni, Frans Francken the Young and Abraham Bloemart...This question deserves a thorough study as these works might possibly be found again since some of them are documented in old post cards.

2. Street Façade of the Musée de Cambrai
(Site of the 18th c. Houses Destroyed for its Construction)
Photo : Didier Rykner

3. Courtyard of the Musée de Cambrai
Photo : Didier Rykner

The museum did not reopen until 1924 and with of course a reduced collection. Several curators succeeded each other over the years and focused on acquiring new works, with varying degrees of success. During the 1950’s the city took no interest in museum affairs and it was only in the 1980’s that we see the beginning of what the catalogue calls a "renaissance", undoubtedly true for the collections but, alas, not for the building. The Hôtel de Francqueville was indeed transformed and we must say that the results, though satisfactory on a museology level, constitute a terrible act of architectural vandalism. Several 18th century houses were destroyed and two modern wings of appalling architecture (designed by Jean-François Bodin and Thierry Germe) now spoil the façade (ill. 2) and the courtyard (ill. 3). If The Art Tribune had existed at the time, we would have expressed our opposition in no uncertain way...

4. Collège des Jésuites, Cambrai
Photo : Didier Rykner

5. Nave of the Church of Saint Géry
Photo : Didier Rykner

The goal of this exhibition is also to provide a look at the future as suggested by the recently appointed curator, Mael Bellec. There are in fact plans (but with no specific deadline unfortunately) to extend the museum to the Jesuit College (ill. 4) located nearby. This would allow the old collections to be presented in a more complete manner as well as showing the contemporary art holdings which consist essentially of geometric abstraction and receive important donations regularly. We would also hope that the Jesuit church (Saint Géry), today deconsecrated but with its very beautiful architecture (ill. 5) will be included in this project and that the collections of the diocesan museum, now closed, will be added.

6. Ary Scheffer (1795-1858)
Ecce Homo or Christ with a Reed
Oil on Canvas
Cambrai, Musée
Photo : Didier Rykner

7. 19th c. Gallery of the Musée de Cambrai
Photo : Didier Rykner

We should remember that the museum recently acquired a very beautiful Saint Jerome attributed to Jean Ducamps which is the highlight of the show here. This was also the occasion to restore several of the works including a painting by Alfred Guillou, After the Storm (ill. 1- the canvas with the white frame), which strangely enough had been placed on deposit, in poor condition, in a church despite the fact its subject is not religious.
The exhibition also provides visitors with the chance to to admire a very beautiful Ecce Homo by Ary Scheffer (ill. 6) which is normally in storage and should be on permanent display given its quality. Indeed, it would fit in very well in the 19th century gallery (ill. 7), next to the Head of the Great Odalisque by Ingres placed on deposit by the State.

Exhibition, Heures et Malheurs du Musée de Cambrai, from 6 October 2012 to 20 January 2013 Internet website for the Musée de Cambrai.

Version française

Didier Rykner, mardi 27 novembre 2012

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