The bank for a changing world

The BNP Paribas foundation has published an album devoted to the Léon Dierx Museum in Reunion

  • 06.12.2001
A contemporary and colourful portrait of the first colonial Museum
created a century ago and devoted to the art of its day


"We may lose sight of the works. But coming back to them one day, their quiet beauty, so lucid and precise, allows us to pierce right through to the heart and brain of this exceptional man. He was unique in the honesty of his vision and expression, which, without concession or compromise, without him even realizing it, belonged only to him" wrote André Fontainas of the poet Léon Dierx. A poet who also mixed with the painters of his time and who himself practised this art form. The museum that is named after him reflects the character of the man. Mixing discretion and candour, a mixture of Creole and metropolitan culture, the museum is intensely original and resolutely attached to the art of its time. Now, thanks to the album published by the BNP Paribas Foundation, the Léon Dierx museum, created at the beginning of the 20th century in the heart of Saint-Denis in the Reunion, is able to reveal for the first time its history and original collections. For so long isolated in its island on the other side of the world, the museum will be able to reach a wider public.

The Museum was founded in 1911 by a holder of the Goncourt prize, a Reunionais and lover of modern art.
Like the poet whose name it carries, the Museum reflects both the world of art and literature. Untrammelled by traditional notions, it was created out of the imagination and determination of two intellectuals, Georges Athénas and Aimé Merlo, working together under the literary pseudonym Marius-Ary Leblond (their novel obtained the Goncourt prize in 1909). Proud of belonging "in the middle of the Indian Ocean to a Greater France", they frequented Parisian literary circles, and even more so artistic circles. Determined to pass on their artistic "vision" to their compatriots in Reunion, they were able, now they had become recognised and appreciated art critics, to achieve their dream of creating the first colonial museum constituted out of metropolitan France. From 1911, collections began to be built up, in the main from private donations, but also thanks to state loans and acquisitions. In 1912, the museum moved into the Bishop's Palace, "the most beautiful building in the town" (today's building is a reconstruction. The facade, a copy of the original, bears witness to 19th century colonial architecture). Although a historic section devoted to Creole and colonial culture history and art was created, from the outset the majority of the collections were devoted to the works of living artists. "This, we can read in the album published by the BNP Paribas Foundation, confers on the Reunion Museum one of its most significant singularities: that of possessing overseas, at the beginning of the 20th century, a 'contemporary art' collection". With the arrival in 1947 of 157 works from the Ambroise Vollard collection, the museum strengthened its attachment to its principal vocation, that of modern art. Under the aegis of the Reunion Department, the museum has never ceased building on its initial collection. Successive conservators have made their own contributions: initiating a scientific restoration and conservation programme, expansion policy and modernising the documentation centre etc...

The BNP Paribas album bears testimony to the renaissance of the museum.
With collections forming part of our cultural heritage, the Léon Dierx Museum remains, assuredly a great institution, at the heart of the capital of "the Little France in the Indian Ocean". After three months of closure for building works, this jewel of the former colony reopened on the 6 December 2001 after being entirely renovated and restructured. "We have redefined the space and added colour while respecting traditional Reunion architecture. Encouraging the free movement of air and light, the museum is based on the idea of communication between the world on the outside and the inside" explained Laurence Le Cieux, the new museum conservator (formerly with the Bossuet de Meaux museum). With his dynamic development programme continuing, the BNP Paribas Foundation, as part of its Museums and Monuments of France collection, has dedicated an album to the museum.

Combining carefully chosen illustrations (certain works have been reproduced for the first time) and texts written by five authors, conservators and art historians, this volume describes a fascinating journey among the original collections, a reflection of Creole culture, artistic movements of the beginning of the 20th century and, faithful to its bold early beginnings, contemporary art. "The merit of this album is that, for the first time, the entire history of the museum since its inception is carefully portrayed in the context in which events unfolded".

The album illustrates the historic events at the origin of the museum, the main originality of which at the time was its focus on contemporary art. "This early collection, comprising a number of 19th century artists working in Reunion such as Ferrand and Roussin, has for a long time been overshadowed by the prestigious Vollard collection", explained Laurence Le Cieux. The album is being published at a time when the rehabilitation and extension of the museum will enable it to embark on a new acquisition policy under the guidance of Laurence Le Cieux. "My aim is to work on both the cultural heritage aspect as well as contemporary art".

"As a major Indian Ocean Museum, we need to reflect contemporary creation, that of the islands and neighbouring countries but also that of Reunion, particularly interesting as far as images in all their forms are concerned: video, photography, cinema etc ..." With the first work devoted to the Léon Dierx museum now published, everything is being undertaken, as emphasised in the preface by Jean-Luc Poudroux, Chairman of the Conseil Général de la Réunion, to enable the museum to "strengthen its presence in the Reunion cultural landscape as a leading institution in the field of art history, while at the same time emphasising its passion for the world of contemporary art."

The centrepiece of the album and the pillar of the museum is the Vollard collection.
Alongside the historic Reunion collections and a chapter devoted to contemporary art, the album describes and relates the early 20th century paintings housed in the museum. Resulting from gifts made at the time, the museum was founded by collectors, intellectuals and the artists themselves, the majority of which were friends of Leblond. The collection leads us on a journey from the Romantic movement to Impressionism and neo-Impressionism. We can observe the discovery of modernity, explore the works of Georges Michel (1763-1843), one of the pioneers of romantic landscape painting, Paul Huet (1803-1869), considered as one of the precursors of Impressionism, Paul Signac, Kees van Dongen, Maurice de Vlaminck, James Wilson Morrice, Georges François (born in Reunion in 1869) and Henri Le Sidaner (born in Mauritius in 1862)...

The sculpture collection, including works by Antoine-Louis Barye, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, Aimé-Jules Dalou, Émile Antoine Bourdelle, chairman of the museum Support Committee, and Rembrandt Bugatti, also evokes the foundations of modern art. The majority of major works in the museum come from the Vollard collection, a group of 157 works (from 1870 to 1930) which enriched the original collection in 1947, just one year after the island became a French department.

A renowned Reunion collector and art dealer, publisher and writer, Ambroise Vollard was one of the pillars of the Impressionist movement. Sketched by his friends Cézanne, Roussel, Renoir, Bonnard, Picasso, and many others, this extraordinary art dealer participated fully in one of the most important turning points in the history of art in France. The Vollard collection comprises a number of works by Cézanne (it was he who organised the first exhibition of the painter in 1895), Picasso, Renoir, Gauguin (one of the first paintings bought by Vollard). The museum possesses several major works by Gauguin (including the famous original enamalled Head of a Savage), as well as works by Rouault, Caillebotte, Vuillard, Odilon Redon, Maurice Denis and Chagall..., and many sculptures and engravings (Vollard also contributed to the development of engraving and etching, his other centre of interest). His collection offers a comprehensive panorama of the evolution of Western avant-garde artistic creation at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.

Since 1999, the collection has been travelling throughout the world. After exhibitions in India, Singapore, Paris (Orsay museum), and Reims, it is now finally returning "home" where the Reunion public will be able to rediscover it. "It is now almost 50 years since the collection has been exhibited in its entirety" stated Laurence Le Cieux.

The other strengths of the museum: Reunion culture and contemporary art
- The artistic heritage of the island: from the outset, the Saint-Denis cathedral reproduced on the cover of the album takes us back to the atmosphere of the island in the 19th century as portrayed by Antoine Louis Roussin.
Various illustrations, pictures and etchings by Paul and Virginie, the famous novel by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre dating from the revolutionary period and works of local artists (Adèle Ferrand, Louis Antoine Roussin, Arthur Grimaud and Adolphe Leroy) not to mention a wide range of art objects representing Creole lifestyle (furniture, swords of honour dating from the siege of Madras and Mahé, 19th century fashion accessories and portraits of famous personalities in Reunion...), the museum's historic collection reconstitutes "not without a certain nostalgia, the 'curious and colourful past' of the colony in the 18th and 19th centuries."

- Contemporary art: from 1991 to 1996, a large-scale acquisition policy under the guidance of François Cheval has enabled the museum to acquire a number of new works (drawings, paintings, photographs, mechanisms, vegetable sculptures and video works...) by contemporary artists from every origin: Chinese, African, Afro-American, West Indian, and North African: David Mach, Bill Traylor, Peter Knapp, Mohamed Elbaz, Ange Leccia, Jean-Charles Blanc, Sarkis, Jean Le Gac, Suzanne Giroux, Yang Pei-Ming, Chen Zhen... not to forget the Reunion artists Alain Padeau, Jacques Beng Thi (creator of a vegetable sculpture), Gilbert Clain and Rivière. "When art gropes for meaning concluded François Cheval, former conservator of the museum and author of a chapter on contemporary art, the cultural questionings that arise contain the seeds of a new form of art which extends beyond globalisation and is quite simply universal: questionings which go well beyond the confines of the Léon Dierx Museum." This "last act" well reflects the original personality of the museum, which has been and will continue to be an integral part of modernity.
Press contact(s)
Léon Dierx Museum
28, rue de Paris, 97400 Saint-Denis de la Réunion
Tel: (262) (2) 62 20 24 82 - Fax: (262) (2) 62 21 82 87
Press relations
BNP Paribas Foundation - Museums and Monuments of France
: Jean-Jacques Goron - Tel: 01 42 98 07 68
Image & Entreprise/Jean-Pierre Tuil : Tel: 01 42 61 51 64 - Fax: 01 47 03 43 94 - e-mail : jean-pierre.tuil1 [at] libertysurf (dot) fr