Paris:- Wednesday, 6. November 1996:- I am one métro stop south of the Marne, but still in Paris transports' 'zone two,' in Maisons-Alfort. It is wet, there is a background wind from the west with puffed overlays, and it is not bright at all.
At the métro exit it looks like someplace in nowhere, on the side with the long, old, grey and damp wall. After crossing the wind-blown street for a café and coming back I see the indication for the Musée Fragonard and I hope it is the short way because I was inclined to go the other way, around the walls of the Ecole Nationale Véterinaire d'Alfort.
I take the main entry to the school, on the avenue du Général de Gaulle and I am directed to follow a bumpy road, glistening in the rain, past the old buildings of the veterinary school, to the second floor of the anatomy building. On the left, there are horse-box trailers in front of the round part of a horseshoe-shaped building, and there are even some real horses.
I'd better explain. In early September, I received an e-mail from Metropole reader Reggie Lewis, who had read an article in the New York Times in the summer - entitled 'House Of Real-Life Horrors,' written by Taras Grescoe. Reggie thought a Metropole article about this unusual museum would be a 'good thing.'
It took me a while to track down this Fragonard Museum, because there is a painter, a cousin, Jean-Honoré, who has a museum in Grasse, and there is the Fragonard perfume empire, also with museums; both of which are better-known today than Honoré. Honoré, the anatomist and Jean-Honoré, the painter, were both born in Grasse in 1732. Anyway, a lady at the Paris Tourist Office opened their big guide to Paris museums and we found it - in Maisons-Alfort.
While I was dithering about coming all the way out here to report about 'monsters, evaluations and skinned' animals - I mean, can't people make do with horror movies? - and trying to find some other reason for going to east Paris, Reggie Lewis came to Paris and visited the museum in late October and sent me another email after he got back home, asking if I was going to 'do' the museum.
When I came in out of the rain, the museum was closed. Students in the adjacent library said it would open at 14:00 so I went off in search of a newspaper - and discovered that this part of Maisons-Alfort is itself sort of a museum.
A Paris suburb; individual houses mixed with light industry - all old now and rusty and cold smoke-stacks, but some activity and still inhabited - and not easy to find a newspaper; maybe because it is Wednesday. Grey, raining; the doctor ordered a hot rum and ordered me not to drink it, so I return to the Fragonard Museum damp and sober.
The door at the top of the stairs is open and its 'closed' sign is tacked on the inside. Also inside, it is the beginning of this century and I calm down because there will be no 'Hollywood special effects' here - just a well-kept parquet floor and big glass-enclosed cabinets standing on the floor and smaller ones hanging from every bit of wall-space. It is also warm and dry, but the electric light can only be barely brighter than the original installation - in the Cabinet du Roy, opened in 1766, at the same time as the school.
As you might expect, there are skeletons of entire large animals, of entire small animals, of the intestinal tracts of various animals - the stomach of one of Barnum's camels for example; teeth, painted plaster casts, skulls, bits and pieces. So far so good.
This museum has a specialty that makes it unique. The author is Honoré Fragonard and his specialty was the preparation and preservation of skinned cadavers. In all he made about 700 examples, and 18 of these are in this museum. I have already said the light was dim, so the photos are not good and I'll have to use a few more words.
The most famous and important 'piece' is called 'Le Cavalier.' This is merely a real running horse with a real man sitting on it - neither with skin. The two are two hundred years old. The effect is stunning.
The secret of preservation died with the author, Honoré Fragonard. His pieces, therefore, cannot be reproduced by any known technique today. The world's first veterinary school was established at Lyons, and it was moved to Alfort in 1765 and Honoré, its director, came with it.
He was director of anatomy, administrator and teacher, as well as the creator of the anatomic, zoologic and pathologic pieces. An inventory in 1795 counted 3,000 items.
However, in 1771, partly because of Fragonard's spectacular work and its notoriety, he fell out with his boss, Bourgelat, and was fired for being crazy. He was given a pension of 1000 livres and he disappeared for 20 years - although he got married in 1778 at 46 and he was said to be the creator of several collections of 'curiosities' around France.
Fragonard was re-discovered during the Revolution in 1792. He proposed to put together a collection of 1500 pieces - immediately, and 10,000 others within five years. The project got sidetracked by the Battle of Valmy. However, the Convention put together a 'rescue the arts' board and Fragonard made an national inventory of the items of his specialty.
On 12. March 1795 he was named head of anatomic work at the Ecole de Santé in Paris. He went back to preparing pieces, but without his earlier energy. He died in 1799 at age 66.
The museum has been the subject of a lot of various moves over the years; but it has been its present building since 1902. The collection, always increasing, was dispersed many times to many other locations - and this continues in Paris to this day: France has an immense inventory and it is subject to constant juggling, and I mention parts of this game occasionally.
In September I heard that the Fragonard Museum at the Ecole Nationale Véterinaire d'Alfort was in danger of falling into obscurity, if not actually falling down. I can see today, a delightful and very peaceful museum, a sort of a museum of itself. The cultural/educational establishment downtown seems to be leaving it alone - and as long as this continues, it will remain 'authentic.'
This aspect in itself, the museum being a museum of a museum, is not something that can be created by a cultural bureaucracy - it comes about with time. While you are pondering the real effect that time itself can have on a museum, I will close this little visit with the 'monstres.'
Besides the absolutely unique Fragonard pieces, this museum has a collection of 'monstres,' the source of my queasiness. I grew up in a city and stories of odd things 'out in the country' were just that - stories.
Now I have seen it all. Now I know the poverty of my imagination. The Fragonard museum is no more than 500 square metres, but it is divided into three sections. First there is the 'anatomie normale' part, but it includes the 'monstres.'
Of these there are three kinds: anomalies, simple monsters and double monsters.
Anomalies are things like over-size hands or brains too big for their skulls. Simple monsters can have no heads, or tails or single eyes, and can make ancient mythology seems less mythical.
Double monsters fall into the categories of two heads with one body, or two bodies with one head; or Siamese twins of various formations; in addition there are the forms in 'H,' 'Y' and 'A.' This is enough for any imagination to handle. Most of these examples are in the forms of skeletons and many are of small animals - so I do not think they would be all that disturbing to small children - unless they have the ability to clothe these 'frames' in their imaginations.
I could have done this, but instead I found the varieties to be positively curious - these odd variations, and there are a great number of them displayed.
While I was at the museum, there were two art students from England. They had paid the 50 francs for the rental of a Walkman and two headphone sets with an audio commentary in English, but when I caught up to them again, they were not listening. They were sketching Fragonard's 'Le Cavalier' and the equally imposing, 'L'Homme à la Mandibule.'
Imagine, using the jaw of a horse as a weapon. I seem to remember that there was an American term, jawboning, and I never knew exactly what it meant - I think it was a political term. As in, get someone's attention... by grabbing their lower jaw. I looked it up; there is no such meaning.
Musée Fragonard d'Alfort
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