With a couple of hours to spare in Paris on a research trip last month, I went to Comédie Française s’expose at the Petit Palais. The exhibition recounts the history of the Comédie Française through its visual and material remains, tracing the life of the company from its beginnings under Molière in the 17th-century to its revered state today. All is presented through a chronological arrangement of objects including props and costumes; set designs (a whole room of them); theatre buildings; a manuscript ledger – Extraict des Receptes et des affaires de la Comédie depuis de l’année 1659 – recording the daily business of the company; and a jeton probably used as a voting token in company meetings. There were also many portraits of Comédie Française actors and playwrights forming a who’s who of French theatre through the ages.
Perhaps the most direct (and certainly the most poignant) connection to the company’s past was to be found in the personal objects that once belonged to the company’s founder. One of the first rooms in the exhibition was devoted to Molière – with low lighting and spotlit displays, the experience here was of a sacred space dedicated to this patron (and the mostly French exhibition goers were indeed observing appropriately hushed tones). Along with his effigy in a series of portraits and the company ledger open to the page recording his death, there was a trio of reliquaries (seen in my blurry photo): his armchair (first used in the production of the Malade Imaginaire in 1673 and later as a seat in Company meetings), his watch, and his bonnet.
Being in Paris on the hunt for artists’ things for the Artists’ Things project (see earlier post) and having spent days scouring museums and archives for the merest material trace of 18th-century artists, I was particularly struck by the survival of so many of the 17th-century playwright’s possessions. Molière as an individual reached an iconic status that no single 18th-century French artist did, but nevertheless, I found myself wondering why there is comparatively much more interest in collecting, preserving and revering the things that once belonged to writers than those that belonged to artists. Indeed, a large-scale replica of Molière’s armchair once became a piece of public sculpture outside the Théâtre de la Comédie Française, and Voltaire’s personally customised armchair is on permanent display at the Musée Carnavalet. In the context of museum display, maybe writers’ personal objects are more visually engaging than a page of manuscript, or maybe it’s just a French thing about armchairs.
As we’re discovering, 18th-century artists’ things do survive (armchairs among them), but they’re usually lying forgotten in museum store rooms or in the corner of a room. Obviously art works make for much more visually exciting encounters in museums than tatty old domestic objects, but wouldn’t people want to see, for instance, the brush that created the canvas? Is Shakespeare’s quill really more exciting than Michelangelo’s chisel? It left me thinking about how personal possessions survive in the first place, and what role the cult of personality plays in preservation and display.