A New Light on Asia

Paris' Musée Guimet, once an impenetrable labyrinth of extraordinary treasures, gets a remarkable makeover.

In 1889, Emile Guimet, a Lyon industrialist, brought his collection of religious and ethnographic art to a new museum that he had just built in Paris, across the Seine from a more provocative edifice debuting the same year—the Eiffel Tower. Inside Guimet's decorous tan limestone building, which features a two-story rotunda capped by a cupola, an unsurpassed trove of Asian art would accumulate over the next century. But who knew? As the Eiffel Tower became an icon, the Musée Guimet grew more recherché. Only a handful of specialists came to this increasingly dark and disorganized labyrinth of rooms, less a museum than a repository in which treasures were stashed and then forgotten.

Five years ago, however, the museum was closed, the collection warehoused, and the interior gutted; only the former library, a government-classified monument that occupies the rotunda, was spared. When it reopened in January, the Musée Guimet looked much the same on the outside—except for the long lines of visitors waiting to gain admission. But when I stepped inside, I was struck forcefully by something brand-new: a dazzling abundance of light. It pours down through a large skylight into the central courtyard, which contains the museum's extraordinary groupings of Khmer sculpture, unequaled outside of Cambodia. It streams through the many large windows of the galleries. As I took hold of the sinuous steel banister and ascended the marble steps of the monumental double staircase, I felt illuminated—bathed in light, first of all, but also blissfully free of the familiar museum vertigo. The galleries opened off this large central space in so transparent a fashion that it would be literally impossible to stumble about, aimless and lost, in the typical museum shuffle.

A few days later I talked to the architect Henri Gaudin, who, with his son Bruno, redesigned the museum. Gaudin is best known for the Charléty sports stadium in Paris, which expresses his belief in "organic" architecture; its bold, curvilinear shape ripples in the same way as the new Guimet's stair rail and free-form landings. Now in his late sixties, Gaudin lives in a high-ceilinged, art-cluttered atelier in the scruffy tenth arrondissement. When I asked him about the light, he responded with enthusiasm. " 'La clarté' in French means not only light but also the intelligibility of things," he said. "Before, the museum was completely unintelligible." For years, the decrepit central skylight had been covered by mesh, dimming the daylight, and the space had been partitioned repeatedly, fragmenting the collection. Gaudin's mission was to display the sculptures and ceramics (which constitute the bulk of the museum's works on view) in a wash of natural light and to open the galleries to each other. "It was necessary to have many openings on the floors, between Tibet and Japan, between central Asia and China, to permit one to look at things at the same time, and for the things to meet," he said. "A museum is essentially an opening."

The museums that capture the public's attention today are modern cathedrals, bravura architectural achievements evoking awe. People flock to Frank Gehry's Guggenheim in Bilbao, Herzog and de Meuron's Tate Modern in London, and Steven Holl's Kiasma in Helsinki primarily to see the buildings—not their contents. Gaudin, on the other hand, wants you to see the art and not the architecture. "I have often found that Asian art museums resemble Chinese restaurants," he said acerbically. He rejects jumble, dissonance, froufrou: "It is necessary to be very calm and hospitable, and the architecture disappears. It has to be mute." Except for the staircase, which is the spine that organizes the building, the architecture of the renovated Guimet is recessive. Because most of the installations are permanent, the rooms were able to be designed specifically for the art, permitting the architecture to be as fitted and discreet as a bespoke suit. For instance, in the Central Asian gallery, a fragment of a late-sixth-century Afghan dome painted with Buddhist figures rests comfortably in a space scalloped out for it in the white ceiling.

The confusing layout of the old Guimet grew out of the museum's incoherent origins. As more new art came in, new space had to be found to store it. The museum originally reflected Guimet's interest in comparative religion, which led him to buy Egyptian and Greco-Roman sculpture, followed by Buddhist and other Asian pieces. In his biggest haul, in 1876, he shipped back 600 sculptures and 300 paintings from a tour of Japan. (Much is stored nearby in an annex to the museum, at 19 Avenue d'Iéna.) Guimet said he wanted the museum to be a "laboratory of ideas," but he wasn't averse to a little showmanship. He staged Buddhist ceremonies attracting such dignitaries as Degas, Pasteur, and Clemenceau; and in a bit of pure razzmatazz, he brought in a Dutch dancer (the future Mata Hari, incredibly enough) to perform Brahman dances in the museum's library.

During Emile Guimet's lifetime, the museum was already attracting important gifts from French archeological digs in Asia; these donations accelerated after Guimet died in 1918 and bequeathed his museum to the nation. The finds from Korea, Afghanistan, the Gandhara region (in today's Pakistan), and Tibet are all extraordinary. Most important, the Musée Guimet took possession in 1931 of the contents of the closing Museum of Indochinese Art, the finest collection outside Asia; and in 1945—upon becoming the national museum for Asian art—it surrendered its Greco-Roman and Egyptian works to the Louvre, receiving in return that museum's Chinese and Japanese collections, which included very fine ceramics. The Louvre bonanza in particular was a lot to take in. "The curators had to find space for it," says Jean-François Jarrige, the director of the Guimet. "The requirements were different—sometimes, as with Chinese furniture, you had to get rooms with high ceilings." If you can imagine arranging a library not by subject or category but strictly according to the size of the books and the height of the shelves, you get a sense of the disarray of the old Guimet. "The collection was scattered," Jarrige says. "Indian art was on the first floor, Cambodian and Indianized art on the ground floor. The Buddhist art of China was thrown in three different places—some with Buddhist art, some in the galleries of ceramic art, some with furniture. The Guimet had very nice pieces, but it was split so much that it did not seem a very rich collection."

Following the renovation, the Musée Guimet once again has a coherent story to tell—not of comparative religious iconography, as in its founder's day, but the story of how two great cultures, India and China, spread their influence across the continent of Asia. "When you walk through the galleries, you are almost traveling through civilizations," Jarrige says. The magnificent collection of Khmer sculptures is still in the central courtyard, as it had been before, but now the Indian sculptures reside in two galleries alongside it. There are no dividing walls: Within just a few steps you can see clearly how ancient Indian statuary influenced artists in Cambodia and Vietnam. Particularly impressive is an Indian standing statue of the Bodhisattva Maitreya, which was carved in mottled pink-and-gray sandstone from Mathura in the late first or early second century. An enigmatic smile plays on his lips, and the contours of his body are softly suggested beneath the delicate folds of his robe. The effect is monumental and impassive, yet at the same time compassionate and understanding. Close to the Bodhisattva is one of the prized Khmer pieces, a sculpture of a kneeling woman from the late 12th century. This is an idealized portrait of the beloved first wife of Jayavarman VII, the creator of many of the temple complexes at Angkor. Her eyes are closed in meditation and her broad lips hint at a ghost of a smile. Her thin skirt is stretched taut across her legs. The stylized features of her face clearly mark this statue as a Khmer masterpiece, with a gentle serenity unique to that culture. At the same time the meditative pose, the downward tilt of the head, and the otherworldly humility are directly descended from the Indian Buddhist tradition on display just steps away.

The curators and designers have gone to great effort to obliterate the boundaries that usually separate works of art. Instead of keeping, say, Chinese porcelain wares in one room and Chinese bronzes in another, they have juxtaposed works in different materials to illustrate similarities in form. From tenth-century China, a silver box, a stone pitcher, and a white ceramic pitcher occupy the same vitrine, because the source of inspiration in each case was the multilobed form of the lotus. "People could think that we are guided by aesthetics, but the display is actually much more scientific than it was before," Jarrige says. "We have tried to show that a ceramic work can be inspired by a bronze vessel—sometimes five hundred years later."

Science acknowledged, I know of no large museum in which art objects are more sensitively arranged. Some of the Chinese pottery of the great collector Ernest Grandidier is contained in one room. As you enter, you encounter a magnificent Yuan-period vase emblazoned with a white dragon, its tail and the tendrils of its legs curving around the field of dark blue. The vase was produced in the 14th century, soon after the Yuan people, of Mongol origins, had conquered the Southern Sung empire based in Hangzhou and established trade that brought in the cobalt required to achieve the intense blue. The piece is a hybrid: The lean dragon is characteristic of the Yuan, while the Meiping shape—a small opening with almost no neck gives way to a bulbous top that tapers to a slender base—is pure Sung. This vase that combines colors and cultures, one realizes, is singing an overture to what comes next: one wall with a long vitrine of blue-and-white porcelain dishes of the Ming and Qing dynasties, and another showcase of five white porcelain bowls, from the 15th to the 18th century, joined by two deep-blue examples from the 16th century. Could a connoisseur like Grandidier have exhibited these treasures any more attractively?

The architects were lavish in their expenditure of space. Above a low shelf holding delicate white Chinese bowls there is nothing but a white wall extending up to the lofty ceiling. "The bowls are so remarkable that one looks up to the sky," Gaudin says. "I wanted to give them a lot of air, like the air in the mountains." He consciously clustered the exhibits within airy galleries. "It is not good to have things scattered like houses in the suburbs," he says. "You need open spaces." Waxing ever more lyrical, he remarks on the use of white space in Asian painting. "In the middle of the canvas there will be white," he says. "For example, there will be a mountain, and in the center there will be a white cloud." The new Guimet uses voids to comparable effect. "There are clearings, as in the forest," Gaudin says. "Some areas are high, some are low. There are places of calm. There will be a vitrine and there will be a big empty space around it."

Although the renovation did not create more display space for the permanent collection (only 3,200 of the museum's 45,000 works are currently on exhibit, slightly fewer than before), it did tunnel out two underground levels, which are devoted to research collections, the photographic archive, and to a new and larger library. (The old library in the rotunda—a charmingly quirky space that boasts Doric columns on the lower level and bare-breasted caryatids above—has now been converted into a showroom for paintings, a part of the Guimet's inventory that was practically ignored before.) A small domed room on the fourth floor, open for the first time to the public, contains large Chinese screens and offers a fine view of Paris.

One of my favorite objects in the Guimet is also the most visible: a huge section of Causeway of the Giants, a monumental late-12th-century balustrade from the Preah Khan temple at Angkor. Brought to Paris in 1873 in 31 stone blocks, this sculpture was last exhibited in its entirety at the Universal Exposition of 1887. It is a memorable piece: A giant cobra with seven ferocious heads and a long, scaled body is cradled by two guardian figures that stare stoically with that bemused Khmer smile. (One of the figures, having five heads, has five smiles.) A team of conservators worked for five months to determine how to put the unmarked blocks back together, and their success understandably won the piece pride of place in the entryway of the courtyard. The sculpture belongs there—and not only because of its grandeur and beauty. It also serves as an emblem of the careful work that has brought the museum's mission back into focus, providing compelling unity to a disarray of gorgeous fragments.

Le Musée National des Arts Asiatiques-Guimet, 6 Place d'Iéna, 75116 Paris; www.museeguimet.fr. 33-1-56-52-53-00; fax 33-1-56-52-53-54.