Saint Clair Cemin at the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature
In contrast to the majority of French museums which are funded by the State or by local government, the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature (Museum of Hunting and Nature) is a private institution. This status gives it tremendous freedom, as much in its artistic program as in its museographic layout. At the origin of the museum’s creation in 1967, was François Sommer (1904-1973), industrialist and patron, who made his fortune in floor coverings. Before going full steam ahead with his business in the 1950s, Sommer shared his time between his two loves, flying airplanes and hunting. Having enlisted in General de Gaulle’s Free French Forces in London, during the Second World War, he was to be decorated several times for his bravery, namely during one particular air raid for which the objective was to protect the allies’ landing in Normandy. The political support Sommer received in post-war France was instrumental in the realization of the project that he felt so fondly of: to open a museum showing the animal artwork, hunting trophies and weapons that he had collected during his intensely lived life as a hunter-collector. When André Malraux came in to office as Minister of Culture, he moved his collections into the 1650’s mansion, built by the architect Mansart, in central Paris’ historic quarter. It was in keeping with his personnel taste that the collections were set out to resemble a hunter’s ideal abode. François Sommer died just shortly after the inauguration of his museum, donating his fortune to a foundation set up to support of his museum as well as the Belval estate. The latter is an ancient hunting estate where the patron, as a child, developed his love for nature and the great outdoors. Set on the idea of turning the place into a wild animal reserve, he would host, in a rudimentary cabin, well known personalities from all over the world who came to share in his passion for animals and hunting. Among the notable guests that came to stay was Ernest Hemingway. After 40 years of existence, the museum was in need of renovation. The acquisition of the adjacent building enabled the expansion of the exhibition area and a reshuffle of the museum’s layout. The collections, which have been enhanced and diversified, now illustrate the theme of man’s evolving relationship towards animals. The founder’s wish to give the museum the feel of a house is, as always, respected, the staged atmosphere tending to give visitors an unusual experience during which they feel like they have entered the home of a mysterious host or the den of a wolf, deer or wild boar, which is due back at any moment. Kept in a state of expectation, spectators remain on their guard, as attentive as they would be if they were in a forest, watching for any sign that may reveal the presence of a wild animal, which most certainly observes them from its hide-out.
Artists were called in to carry out the redecoration operation. An international competition was organized to choose the designer for the entrance gate. In this context Saint Clair Cemin proposed a monumental gateway made of bronze, evoking the concept of animal’s capacity to mimic their surroundings. In the end the gate project was not to be realized, but on the basis of Cemin’s sketch, the foundation trustees gave the artist carte blanche for all the new museum’s decorative features, such as the bas-relief adorning the staircase, light fixtures and museographic furniture. For symbolic inspiration, the artist visited Belval, the place at the root of the founder’s passion, the wish being to make the estate an ever-present aspect in the exhibiting of the collections. Cemin took pieces of tree bark, roots and antlers to incorporate in to the bas-relief created from the bottom to the top of the stairway. This work of art, like the other pieces designed by Cemin, constitutes a kind of guide line leading the visitor through the exhibition. The eye makes out half-animal, half plant forms in the creations, the strangeness of which captures the atmosphere than reigns in the museum’s halls.
One of the rooms is dedicated to the unicorn, the animal that holds a special place in Western hunters’ imagination. Just as in the 17th century cabinets of wonder, the room shows off believable artifacts that provide evidence in favor of this mythical animal’s existence. Guided by the memoirs of Benvenuto Cellini, the renowned renaissance goldsmith to whom the pope once requested a sculpture that would allow the unicorn’s horn to be climbed as a gift for the king of France, Saint Clair Cemin has designed a horse’s head made from leaves to which is inserted a rare narwhal’s tusk. This piece of work is resolutely contemporary yet it calls up the phantasmagoria of Western-world hunters and illustrates the ambiguous relationship between culture and nature. With its hybrid characteristics, somewhere between the realms of the animal and the plant world, between the observation of nature and poetic imagination, this work of art seems to be fully emblematic of the museum.
Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature