Sunday, July 8, 2012

'Promenades Indochinois' at the Musée Guimet

Many photos of South East Asia have been taken in the last 150 years, and there always seems to be an exhibition of some of them on somewhere. Nonetheless, the Musée Guimet's 'Promenades Indochinois,' which mounts a small selection of Pierre Bonnet's photographs of the area in the 1920s, is very interesting.

Pierre Bonnet, La façade ouest du temple, vue prise du milieu de la chausée reliant l'enceinte IV à la pyramide, 1930

Some shots are predictable. The photographs Bonnet took at Angkor in 1930 are so much like those taken before and after his time that I initially wondered if I'd seen them before. But no, I've seen John Thomson's photographs (the first of Angkor, taken in 1867) and Emile Gsell's and the exhibition at the Musée Cernuschi in 2010... 

This isn't to say, though, that Bonnet's images aren't worth looking at or that they shouldn't be included.  His photographs show his points of interest, and it's seeing when people make different choices, and when they don't, that's fascinating.


These familiar angles -Angkor Wat seen down the causeway, that tree at Ta Prohm, broken statuary against a backdrop of wild plants- show that what European audiences valued in the region generally didn't change from 1867 to 1930. The presence of these same compositions, now in colour, in every backpacker's facebook album reveals that tastes remain the same today. Ta Prohm was left with trees overtaking temples "as a concession to the general taste for the picturesque" (Maurice Glaize, in the EFEO's record of the decision). This taste dominated in 1867 and 1930 and continues to rule impressions of Angkor today.

Bonnet was a good photographer but an amateur, choosing his subjects for personal (not professional) reasons and recording his family's time in Indochina. It's this insight into the expatriate experience between the wars that is most fascinating. His wife and daughter are shown on the beach at Cape Saint-Jacques, the first coastline after weeks on a ocean liner, at the Saigon Zoo, gathered with Catholic nuns on a shaded verandah. Madame Bonnet and friends pose on rocks at Ha Long Bay. They're wearing the clothes of the period, and it's easy to imagine oneself in the same position, eagerly exploring the continent which is temporarily home.

Shots showing a modern, industrialised side of Indochina, a side that's often ignored in favour of the picturesque, are also interesting. Instead of endless stretches of rice fields there are shots of factories where rice was kept and distilled into alcohol, one of the three monopolies (with salt and opium) that France held until 1933. The accompanying information links Bonnet's images to 'straight photography,' a school of thought explicitly rejecting the picturesque.

Another image that goes somewhat against established colonial narratives for Indochina is Bonnet's 1926 'Hai Du'o'ng, inondations de la ville (Hai Duong, flooding of the city)'. This shot initially appears quite romantic, with residents in boats as their traditional village is swallowed by water, but soon the viewer notices that it doesn't show a place trapped in the past, dealing with the weather in a prehistoric fashion, but rather heavy electrical wires and pylons dominate the left side of the frame.

There's a lot of interesting information in 'Promenades Indochinois,' too, on subjects ranging from the route ships took to reach Indochina to the history and impact of electricity's introduction to Indochina in the late 19th century. This is a small exhibition, but an interesting window into a rather personal vision of Indochina, with modes of viewing that can sometimes be traced from before Bonnet's time until today and which sometimes engage with unexpected aspects of "the jewel of the French empire".

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