Plaster casts from the lowest levels of the temples of Angkor, dating from the 19th century, reappear from the caves of Saint-Riquier Abbey in the Somme. They will be restored and presented in the Guimet Museum in the autumn of 2013, at a new Exposition entitled "The Discovery of Angkor."
The temples of Angkor in Expo 1889
These casts, made in the 1870s by Louis Delporte, official draughtsman of the Mekong expeditions, have been presented at the Universal Expos in Paris in 1878, 1889 and 1900, then again in Marseille in 1906 and 1922, and finally at the 1931 colonial Expo in Vincennes.
Yet early on Delporte had much difficulty in persuading experts in Parisian art to accept these sculptures from Khmer. The Louvre refused the bequest, and it was at the Compiègne Castle that the first pieces were presented to the public.
It was only really at the 1878 Universal Expo, that the French discovered these stone Buddhas, these lion and elephant sculptures exhibited in a wing of the Trocadero Palace.
All eyes were on Asia at the turn of the century. Indeed, the colonies and protectorates must have been attractive if the French went and established themselves in these faraway parts of Indo-China. For the 1889 Universal Expo, a pagoda from Angkor was reconstructed. It was situated slightly away from the centre, not far from the Hôtel des Invalides, rue de Constantine, and was constructed in a way that was unreservedly inspired by Cambodian art.
In 1900, the imposing Indo-China Exposition, above the gardens of Trocadero, was centred on a reproduction of the Vat Phnom monastery of Phnom-Penh. Mr Marcel, the French architect responsible for the construction of the building, added vast underground rooms to it, in recreating the Khmer temple. This construction allowed visitors an idea of the grandeur of the rooms in temples. However, it was a few hundred metres from here, in the gardens, that something magnificent lay. It is a casting, several metres high, of the face of the Buddha from Bayon, the Temple of a Thousand Faces from Angkor Thom. This one seemed to have been transported to Paris, with its shattered rocks and its roots breaking through the blocks of sandstone. It was in fact the first representation of the real state of Cambodian temples.
The appeal of the colonies was such that soon Marseille, gateway to the Orient, organised the first colonial Exposition in 1906, where this time the castings were presented in almost an exact reproduction of a temple. The aforementioned temple was again the centre of the 1922 Exposition, which again took place in Marseille. The 1931 colonial Exposition in Vincennes was the last and the biggest Exposition dedicated to the French colonies.
A full-size reconstruction, 300 metres long and 50 metres in width, was erected at ground level in Reuilly. The original sculptures and the ancient plasters were presented inside, sheltered from the rain, while the temple, itself built of wood, hemp and plaster, suffered from the torments of the Parisian weather. It was said in October 1931, at the closing of the Expo, that under the effect of the rain, these ephemeral sculptures had melted like snow in the sun.
Yet some 500 moulds have been the victim of disinterest and neglect, having once been exhibited at the Indochina museum in the Trocadero palace. The Guimet Museum, which has been responsible for these since 1927, has just revealed this treasure which has been in the dark for 40 years, meticulously ordered, in the caves of the Saint-Riquier Abbey (Somme). After the necessary dusting and cleaning of any micro organisms, these most remarkable pieces will be restored and presented in the Guimet Museum in the autumn of 2013, at a new Exposition entitled "The Discovery of Angkor."