With its 1,800 artefacts, the Vietnamese collection represents a little more than one-tenth of the Cernuschi Museum’s entire collection. Smaller than the Chinese and Japanese collections, it differs from them in the precise archaeological provenance of each piece; the objects were personally selected by especially commissioned archaeologists and connoisseurs on site in Vietnam, often without the intermediary of art dealers, at a time when France had direct access to the art of South East Asia in Indochina.
With its 1,800 artefacts, the Vietnamese collection represents a little more than one-tenth of the Cernuschi Museum’s entire collection. Smaller than the Chinese and Japanese collections, it differs from them in the precise...
Fifty years after Henri Cernuschi's travels in Asia, the museum was turning progressively to the art of ancient China, the vogue for Japonisme having passed. The collections opened up to new cultural regions, in particular North Vietnam, whose ancient art was of interest to specialists because of its connections to Chinese art, the focus of scholarly research at the time.
This was the context in which the museum’s first curator, Henri d’Ardenne de Tizac, made the acquisition, in 1927, of over 100 objects in stone, bronze and ceramic from Victor Demange, the owner of a large trading company in Hanoi and an amateur archaeologist. Added to this, in 1933, after the arrival of the museum's second director, René Grousset, was the anonymous gift of some 50 items hailing from Đông Sơn and the purchase in 1950 of some 20 ceramic artefacts from the 10th to the 15th centuries from the collection of the Belgian businessman Clément Huet. In 1955, René Grousset acquired a fine tripod vessel from the collection of Albert Pouyanne, Inspector General of Public Works for Indochina in the 1920s.
But the Cernuschi Museum’s relationship with Vietnamese art stems primarily from the excavation campaigns of Olov Janse (1892-1985), a Swedish-born archaeologist who founded the discipline of Vietnamese archaeology.
In 1934, he began to work with the École Française d’Extrême-Orient (French School of Asian Studies), for which he conducted three excavation campaigns between 1934 and 1939. Janse focused on sites in the north of present-day Vietnam, in what were at the time the French protectorates of Tonkin and Annam. The École Française d’Extrême-Orient, established in Hanoi 1902, supervised the logistics of the excavations and the handling of the archaeological finds.
The first two campaigns, from October 1934 to May 1935 and from October 1936 to January 1938, were co-funded by the French institutions the Musées de la Ville de Paris, the Musées Nationaux and the Ministère de l’Éducation Nationale. The excavated material was mainly divided between the Cernuschi and Guimet museums in metropolitan France and the Louis Finot museum in Hanoi, now the National Museum of Vietnam History.
The Janse collection in the Cernuschi Museum contains over 1,500 objects, each of whose context is documented thanks to Janse’s excavation reports. Its direct archaeological provenance is one of this collection’s particularities; the objects were not selected according to criteria dictated by art dealers. Certain objects were discovered intact, others underwent major restoration, and the rest remained in the fragmented state in which they were unearthed.
In the second half of the 20th century, Vietnam’s newfound independence and the continual wars that followed prevented further enrichment of the collections. Fortunately, recent years have seen the addition of several fine works to the Vietnamese collection, either from families with former ties to Indochina or because they were still in circulation on the art market. The Vietnamese collection of the Cernuschi Museum thus reflects the historic ties between Vietnam and France, which, despite the painful chapters of the past, are today embodied in these objects destined to forge a different story.