Louvre treasures on unprecedented display in Hong Kong
An interview with the curator of the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, Cheng Woon-tong
“Once in a lifetime” is, for once, not a mere cliché when used to describe the Inventing Le Louvre exhibition currently on show at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum.
That’s because, as museum curator Cheng Woon-tong explained, many of the pieces have never been displayed outside the Louvre Museum, and will probably never be displayed in Hong Kong again.
Take, for example, the marble Horse Head from ancient Greek.
“The curator of the Louvre Museum said they found a fine crack on the fragment of statue so they say they may not display it outside the Louvre again,” Cheng said. “For those who like to look at cultural artefacts, make sure you don’t miss this one.”
Cheng’s personal favourite in this exhibition – Christ Healing the Sick by Rembrandt, also known as The Hundred-Guilder Print – will also probably have to hide from public view for a long while after returning to Paris for the sake of protecting the fragile print.
“I’m very worried that visitors would miss this relatively small piece of work,” Cheng said.
“It’s a rare piece even for an artist as prolific as Rembrandt. The etching depicts different Biblical passages within the same frame. And, his technique was very mature. It is one of his signature pieces.”
Deemed the “critical work in the middle of his career”, the work was so popular that even Rembrandt wanted to buy it back after he sold it to someone else. The story goes back a century – it is known as the Hundred-Guilder Print because that was supposedly the price paid for this impression of the etching.
Another highlight for Cheng is also a relatively small painting – the Sketch for the Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault.
This oil on canvas “sketch” was one of the many pieces the French Romantic painter did in preparation of the over-life-size painting that became an icon of French Romanticism.
Cheng said he felt overwhelmed when he saw the giant masterpiece, depicting a moment in the aftermath of a shipwreck, in the Louvre Museum some 15 years ago.
He said it is impossible to ship the original painting, measuring 5m x 7m, due to logistical limitations. But when he saw the small sketch in Hong Kong, it was as if he had relived the emotional impact years ago.
The small sketch on display in the Heritage Museum served to show how dedicated an artist was in preparing for his work. He not only tried drawing different settings, but also studied the skin colour of the dead, as well as interviewed surviving crew.
“Perhaps the Louvre hopes that people who like the sketch in Hong Kong will go to Paris to look at the real giant work,” said Cheng with a smile.
The two works are among more than 130 selected items in this exhibition subtitled “From Palace to Museum”. They come from every department in the museum – from painting and sculptures to ceramics and tapestries to portray the transformation of the complex over the past 800 years from a royal palace to the world’s most visited museum.
The exhibition is the first of its kind, too. Cheng said although the Heritage Museum had collaborated with France before, the nature of two previous shows was rather different since they focused on specific artists instead of the development of a museum.
Outside the exhibition hall is an education zone where visitors can, among other activities, browse an interactive platform to learn more about other collections in the Louvre Museum.
And it’s proving popular – very popular. Since it opened on 26 April, the exhibition has attracted around 100,000 visitors. The show runs until 24 July.
The exhibition is part of celebrations for the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) under the theme “Together. Progress. Opportunity”.
It is jointly presented by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department and Le French May, and co-organised by the Hong Kong Heritage Museum and the Louvre Museum, with major support from the Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust and major sponsorship from BNP Paribas. It is also supported by the Consulate General of France in Hong Kong and Macau.
Cheng said that in this special year, he hopes different museums would take the opportunity to bring in large-scale shows from overseas, so that members of the public can learn about different places’ culture and treasures.
Indeed, the celebration has more to offer for avid museum-goers. The Hong Kong Science Museum will soon host an exhibition titled Eternal Life – Exploring Ancient Egypt between June and October; and the Hong Kong Museum of History will, during the same period, organise an exhibition on the birthday celebrations of Qing Emperors and Empress Dowagers in collaboration with the Palace Museum in Beijing.