In December 1870, Paris was under siege by the Prussian army and the people were hungry. Three months earlier, the city had brought in all the livestock it could from the surrounding regions: 30,000 oxen and 180,000 sheep, which were herded between the Bois de Boulogne and the Jardin des Plantes. The Parisians made short work of them and soon had to fall back on horses. Then came the dogs and rats. Narcisse Chaillou’s 1871 oil painting The Rat Seller during the Siege of Paris (“The Rat Seller During the Siege of Paris”) bears witness to this period.
A reproduction can be seen in the exhibition “Paris Animal. History and Tales of a Living City” at the Pavillon de l’Arsenal. With a butcher’s cap on his head and a knife in his hand, the boy is depicted with his sleeves rolled up, finishing off the small beast lying on his makeshift stall, made from a chair with a French flag hanging from its back.
The painting is contrasted with the juxtaposition of a prestigious restaurant’s menu, showing that at the same time, wealthier Parisians could enjoy exotic flavors like antelope legs, elephant filets and seals – although they were also offered “hackney carriage horse consommé,” “dada pudding ,” “alley rabbit stew” and “spatchcocked rat.”
Postponed several times when cultural venues closed down because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the exhibition “Paris Animal” thankfully finally opened. Its re-examination of Paris’ history through the lens of the animal presence in the city is as instructive as it is fascinating.
Such is the nature of its subject. The exhibition opens with a series of animal statues and bas-reliefs from the Gallo-Roman era (unfortunately represented, as so often at the Pavillon de l’Arsenal, in the form of insipid facsimiles) and ends with an installation of giant moles from the baroque imagination of director Philippe Quesne. The message is clear: From horses to bears, from dogs to lions, from bulls to deer and chimeras of all kinds, animals have always fueled mankind’s fantasies, mythologies and religions. They inspired the curators Léa Mosconi and Henri Bony’s attention-grabbing hyper-narrative scenography.
The challenge of urban biodiversity
The 20 centuries covered by the exhibition are condensed into 44 micro-narratives, all complemented with documentary sources of the time that, thanks to the presence of animals, have the feeling of charming little tales – at times, cruel, fantastic or poetic.
The succinct labels and staging are meant to pique visitors’ curiosity and awaken their repressed animalistic desires rather than overwhelm them. They are invited to bring their pets and prolong the experience through a series of more or less festive events scheduled around the exhibition (walks in the Greater Paris area, a screening of The Aristocats and a concert by Philippe Quesne’s giant moles of Maulwürfe on the evening of the Nuit Blanche, Saturday, June 3, in addition to the traditional guided tours and lectures-debates).
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