I admit it. I am a culture nerd, with a special attraction to artisans. In a museum, I have to get up close enough to see the artist’s touch and try to figure out how he attained a particular color. I’m the one you see at a cathedral who, while everyone else is admiring a stained glass window from afar, has her nose up against the window, critiquing some long-departed artisan’s soldering technique. Of course I love the art and, perhaps even more, the history behind it, but I am completely taken with the technique behind the production. Knowing what went into a piece, my appreciation grows.
So, of course, when I am in Paris in November, one of my obligatory stops is the Salon International du Patrimoine Culturel. The salon began in 1995 as a showcase for the artisans and cultural heritage of France, before going international in 2008. This year’s salon opens on Thursday, the 8th of November, at the Carrousel du Louvre. There will be 305 participants, with an anticipated attendance of more than 20,000.
If you’ve visited Paris since 1993, you know the shopping mall beneath the Louvre – a marriage of modern consumerism and French culture. Besides being one of the best ways to avoid the lines when going into the Louvre, it allows you the convenience of doing all your souvenir shopping in one place. But, this time, bypass the Virgin Megastore, Sephora and Le Tanneur, and head straight to the exhibition space. What better place to stage an event dedicated to the cultural heritage than beneath the inverted pyramid?
Since the time of the universal exhibitions, the French have celebrated new technologies while honoring (and preserving) the traditional ones. While every salon emphasizes preservation of the national heritage, this year’s edition focuses on ecological responsibility in the process. What could be more “green” than a piano maker who utilizes previously-used wood in constructing his instruments, assembling the pieces with animal glue and finishing it off with a few coats of vegetable-based varnish?
An exhibition, “Trésors du Musée des Lettres et Manuscrits” (Treasures of the Museum of Letters and Manuscripts), will include a letter from van Gogh, in which he compares Dickens to “a painter in black and white”; a rare letter, written in English, from Napoléon to the Comte de Las Cases, his companion in exile and author of a laudatory biography of the emperor; and musical scores from Beethoven and Ravel.
A series of conferences and round-table discussions will take place each day on such topics as restoration of ancient buildings in an ecologically responsible manner, construction in the 19th century and development of cultural itineraries for tourism. If your French is up to it, try to take in at least one of them.
If not, enjoy the demonstrations, — to my mind, the highlight of the salon. Artisans from all over France (and, apparently, from further afield, since the salon has gone international) will be demonstrating their crafts. There will be glass artisans fabricating leaded glass windows and painting on glass as it was done in the 13th century. A jeweler will demonstrate hand engraving, both on jewelry and on silverware. Watching a porcelain painter at her craft, you may come away with a new appreciation of your grandmother’s china.
And of course, there will be furniture; that of 18th-century France remains the gold standard. Have you ever wondered how they make those dovetails in your desk drawer? Cabinetmakers will demonstrate their techniques, building furniture and applying veneer to an 18th-century lady’s table. Gilded wood makes an appearance in furniture and in frames.
Throughout the salon, Jean de Dreuille, a master cabinetmaker, will be there demonstrating furniture finishing techniques and dispensing advice on restoration and maintenance. A recognized authority in his field, he has been a major proponent of the reprise of ancient methods of restoration, going so far as to reproduce the tools in use at the time. If you have an 18th-century armoire, why risk losing the beauty that attracted you in the first place, not to mention its value, by using 21st-century techniques to restore it? (Full disclosure: M. de Dreuille was one of my professors at Christie’s, so I am familiar with his work.)
I have experienced firsthand the difficulty of earning a living as an artisan in the States. If you have ever found yourself in the same boat, you can’t help but appreciate the value France puts on its artisans and the support they receive. If you are simply interested in in “how things work,” this is a wonderful opportunity to witness the techniques behind the beauty. This is a salon you shouldn’t miss.
The Salon International du Patrimoine Culturel runs from 8 – 11 November 2012 at the Carrousel du Louvre (Métro Palais Royal). Hours are from 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and from 10 a.m. to 6:00 p.m on Sunday.
Jane del Monte has studied and worked for a number of years in Paris. She directs ARTS in PARIS tours, with a focus on French culture and l’art de vivre, and is currently developing a tour of Art Nouveau in Paris. When she isn’t in Paris, she writes about it.