Postcard from Bordeaux, France: Museum-Hopping

Above, a mirror in a stairwell of the Museum of Design reflects contrasts between traditional and contemporary decorative arts found in the museum.

Hotel de Lalande, an elegant townhome built in the late 1770s, is home to the Museum of Design and Decorative Arts, or MADD. The son of the original owner inherited it but held the unfortunate honor of serving as an attorney in the Parliament of Bordeaux during the Revolution and was sentenced to the guillotine in 1794. The property passed through the hands of several owners before the city of Bordeaux acquired it in 1880 and converted it into the headquarters of police and vice control. In the middle of its sprawling garden, an inartistic jail for “sailors found in violation of discipline and girls who infringe the laws of morality and decency” was constructed.

The Decorative Arts Museum opened in the former home in 1955, with a collection illustrating applied arts in crafts from the Middle Ages to the 18th century. Extensive remodeling in 1984 returned the museum’s rooms to their former aristocratic appearance. Contemporary decorative arts collections were added in 2013, providing the opportunity to observe the development and relationship of old and new forms of French art side by side.

The former prison now serves as a striking venue for temporary exhibitions, with some of the images below from “Farmer Designers: Agriculture on the Move.” According to the website:

Farmer Designers: An Art of Living” aims to present a new generation of farmers who are looking to feed us while regenerating the soil and the explores the origins of a new culture that places people at the heart of unprecedented ties with nature and repositions them on an equal footing, as one of the links in the chain of life alongside living beings, plants and animals. A fresh perspective on the world to which we belong. It is not about shouting a warning cry but presenting inspiring adventures, projects and scenarios. The challenge is to imagine and reveal avenues towards a desirable – and possible – world.

Facing the Cathedral, the construction of Palace Rohan was started in 1771 by the Archbishop. The main portion of the palace was occupied by City Hall beginning in 1835, with the city’s growing art collection spread throughout it. Following a fire in 1870, the city decided to build two new buildings dedicated to housing its art flanking the garden side of the palace. The interior of these repositories for the Museum of Fine Arts is described by Guillaume Ambroise on the museum’s website:

The interior, with typical Third Republic pomp, received decoration worthy of a bourgeois palace with thick, decorated mouldings, its elegantly designed glass roof, Hungarian parquet and its heavy crimson velvet curtains that obscured the light from the large windows.

Several of the images below were selected because the curator placing sculpture and paintings seemed to enjoy observing their interactions. But one, Henri Gervex’s “Rolla,” is here because of its backstory, which the museum’s labelling hinted was quite sensational at the time. The following is from WikiArt:

In the Spring of 1878, a month before the inauguration of the Salon, “Rolla” was brutally excluded from the event by the Beaux-Arts administration. Yet, Henri Gervex was a renowned painter. Aged only 26, he had already been awarded a medal at the Salon…. This time, the authorities decided otherwise as they judged the scene to be “immoral.”

Gervex found his inspiration in a long poem by Alfred de Musset (1810-1857), published in 1833. The text recounts the destiny of a young bourgeois, Jacques Rolla, falling into a life of idleness and debauchery. He meets with Marie, a teenager who found in prostitution an escape from misery. Rolla is seen here ruined, standing by the window, his eyes turned to the girl sleeping. He is about to commit suicide by poison.

If the scene was judged indecent, it was not because of Marie’s nudity, which in no way differs from the canonic nudes of the time. The attention of contemporaries rather turned to the still life constituted by a gown, a garter, and a hastily undone corset covered with a top hat…. Indeed, this disposition and the nature of the clothes clearly indicate Marie’s consent and her status as a prostitute….

After its exclusion from the Salon, “Rolla” was exhibited for three months in the gallery of a Parisian art dealer. The scandal, largely echoed by newspapers, attracted large crowds. Many years later, in interviews published in 1924, Gervex recalled the pleasure he had in seeing the “uninterrupted procession of visitors….”

From here, this post is leap-frogging over to the Museum of Wine and Trade, housed in the 1721 cellars of the royal wine broker of Louis XV, an Irish merchant named Francis Burke. The museum is found in the now fashionable Chartrons district of Bordeaux. Here, wealthy merchants often resided in handsome homes above their warehouses and cellars. But as the neighborhood edged toward the wharves of the port, it became rough and tumble, filled with sailors disembarking following long confinement at sea. According to labels in the museum, a chronicler at the end of the 19th century described the Chartrons district as “a universe apart from the city of Bordeaux, the equivalent of the Forbidden city in Beijing.”

In the quiet vaulted cellars, we also learned that during the Middle Ages, thanks to the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to the man who became King Henry II of England, England became the primary market for Bordeaux wines, consuming more than 50,000 casks, or 45 million liters, annually. In the 19th century, cases upon cases of wine were loaded upon ships destined for India, only to return unopened. Chateaux owners discovered they could send their wines by ship to age more quickly in the heat en route. They’d return from their aging journey with corks ready to be removed for consumption.

And most importantly, if you are only allowed to have one bottle of wine, make it an 18-liter one, known as a melchior. At the end, we had a nice, informal, two-person, private little wine-tasting and even bought a bottle, only a petite 750 ml, to enjoy back at our apartment.

But wait, that experience above probably bears little resemblance to all the buzz you might have heard about Bordeaux’s cutting-edge wine museum, La Cite du Vin. And you are right. That new wine museum on the banks of the Garonne is the product of the internationally known, Paris-based firm, XTU Architects. With the 2016 design, the architects created an instant-landmark. According to ArchDaily:

“This building does not resemble any recognizable shape because it is an evocation of the soul of wine between the river and the city.” A strong architectural statement, La Cité du Vin stands out with its bold curves and shape. An iconic building, this golden frame hosts a Cité within the city, a living space with experiences to discover. 

The initial aim of the building’s architecture was genuinely to create a link between La Cité du Vin and the spaces surrounding it through perpetual movement. Anouk Legendre and Nicolas Desmazières, the architects from XTU, designed a space shaped by symbols of identity: gnarled vine stock, wine swirling in a glass, eddies on the Garonne. Every detail of the architecture evokes wine’s soul and liquid nature: “seamless roundness, intangible and sensual.”

The interior of the museum’s exhibition space is indeed amazing, as it leads you through the wine-related exhibitions. Since its opening, La Cite du Vin has leapt to be almost universally accepted as Bordeaux’s top attraction; some bill it as a Disneyland for wine connoisseurs. So why did my camera lens pretty much ignore it?

First off, I’m not a fan of Disneyland and even a red wine themed section would not alter that. My main kneejerk reaction to Cite du Vin might just be a COVID one. We went early in our trip and really were not used to crowds. Yes, everyone was required to be vaccinated and masked, but so many of the techno-exhibits about the history of wine were found on low, little screens illustrated by silly-to-me cartoon animated films. You had to get up close, right next to others to view them.

There was an abundance of larger screens with high-quality films of vineyard owners explaining the advantages off their particular terroirs for producing wine. The interviews were so in-depth you would be more comfortable home watching them in your living without people milling all around you and the tug of perhaps more to see if you keep moving with the flow.

The scariest exhibits, for those emerging from quarantine hibernation, were the interactive ones focused on smell. You were supposed to approach huge funnels and inhale the various scents to learn about wine-tasting and distinctions amongst terroirs. No way for me. Yet people just lined up to sniff away where others had just stood. I’m not convinced the wide range of ill-fitting masks makes that at all advisable.

Anyway, the movement of the crowds, guided onward by the architecture kept me from enjoying the architecture. Definitely recommend you go back and look at the photographs documenting the impressive galleries on the ArchDigest website.

But, none of that explains why I didn’t include snapshots taken from inside the glass-surrounded Belvedere. We lunched on the outside balcony of Restaurant Le 7 with tables full of other tourists, and later stood obediently in lines for our “complimentary” one glass of wine included in the price of museum admission, 20 Euros. These areas, were for me, where the architecture failed. The heavy metal outer beams and supports forming the framework chopped up the surroundings awkwardly. To me, the views of the cityscape and river from the interior of the Belvedere were far inferior to those experienced strolling across the Garonne on the adjacent Pont Jacques Chaban-Delmas.

Oh, dear. I rarely blog negatively about places we visit. It’s just that I loved all of Bordeaux so much, except for La Cite du Vin. And La Cite du Vin is what almost every website and travel article seem to advise you to do, even if you are in Bordeaux for only one or two days. The city has so much more to offer, all for a lower ticket price. And boulevardier-ing is free.

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