Postcard from Bordeaux, France: Not shying away from the past

Shadow of shackles prominently displayed in Musee d’Aquitaine

The collection housed in Bordeaux’s Musee d’Aquitaine covers a broad swath of the history of the region’s past 500,000 years.

“Venus with Horn”

There are several rooms dedicated to the prehistoric period in a part of France that includes some of the world’s most precious art-filled caves. “Venus with Horn,” discovered in 1911 in the Great Shelter of Laussel in the Dordogne, is estimated to date from 25,000 B.C. The figure is distinguished by heavy breasts and protruding mid-section indicating pregnancy.

An earlier post captured some of Bordeaux’s Roman past, so, we’ll jump to a few images from the museum’s collection of Early Christian and Middle Ages art.

Generations of students entering the Bordeaux Faculty of Sciences and Letters were welcomed by the tomb of Michel de Montaigne (1533-1593), noted philosopher and essayist. Now his cenotaph is found in the museum: “One can imagine how the four death’s heads crowned with laurel wreaths that decorate the tomb reminded them each day of the vanity of human ambition: ‘Why glorify you, earth and ashes?’ …. The ritual during the examination period consisted of touching his foot to attract the support – and knowledge – of the illustrious man.”

Wine being the most obvious, but another “product” bolstered Bordeaux’s position as a prosperous port for sailing vessels transporting “goods” far and wide. The city became a major center for the slave trade. Kidnapped in Africa, slaves were bound over for ports in the Caribbean and America.

Exhibits do not shirk this dark period: “The tragedies of the decimation of native peoples and the disasters resulting from the colonial wars are not forgotten.” Displays visually document “the sale of slaves, physical abuse, infanticide, the organization of work, mortality, liberation, maroon societies and revolts.”

This blogger did not visually capture any images from these rooms aside from the shackles and shadow at right. I read the entire Texas Slave Narratives earlier this year, and am barely recovered from some of the horrors related within. It was a great disappointment recently to visit the Bullock State History Museum in Austin to see slavery’s role as a cause of the Texas Revolution largely ignored; in contrast, Bordeaux’s more honest portrayal is admired.

Advertising posters capture some of the atmosphere of Bordeaux lifestyle at the end of the 19th and early 20th century. The contrast between what was presumably a wild port area and the upscale neighborhoods created by the wealthy enriched by trade must have been dramatic.

Normally I’m not much of a cartoon-format fan, but Hugo Pratt (1927-1995), who himself lived on several continents, transported his readers on adventures around the world with the hero Corto Maltese as their guide. What amazed me in the museum’s salute to him, “Horizon Lines,” is the extensive research that went into Pratt’s imaginative journeys. Maps, manuscripts and actual artifacts were the illustrator’s constant companions as he wove entertaining tales in which readers actually would learn things about the faraway lands explored. The temporary exhibit runs through February 6, 2022.

He’s dreaming with his eyes open, and those that dream with their eyes open are dangerous, for they do not know when their dreams come to an end.

Hugo Pratt

It’s wild mushroom season in Aquitaine now, but definitely am leaving the harvesting of them to the experts. Am enjoying the results of their foraging in restaurants in Bordeaux though.

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