Some of the works on display in the Envol du Dragon (The Flight of the Dragon) exhibition have never been seen outside Vietnam before, some of them have lain hidden in the reserves of the 19th century Musée Guimet’s own collection of Vietnamese art.
These mythical creatures, laid out in an easy-to-follow, chronological sequence, evolve from crocodile shapes etched in bronze to the more familiar wide nostrils, sinuous body and peaked tail in the clouds playing with a large pearl. They are painted or crafted into roof decorations, moulded out of gold or woven into fabric designs.
The exhibition covers Vietnam's history from the Bronze Age through Chinese rule (for 100 years up to the 10th Century CE) up till the Communist take-over last century.
Pierre Baptiste, in charge of South-East Asian art at the Musée Guimet, curated the exhibition with Nguyễn Quốc Bình, National Museum of Vietnamese History.
“Some of these objects have never been shown outside before. We worked with the National Museum and were able to select some of their masterpieces. It’s also an opportunity to show some of our own collection as only about ten percent of it is displayed at any one time.”
No surprise then, that this revered powerful creature, guardian of the waters, bringer of necessary rain or feared storms and drought, should become the exclusive symbol of the Vietnamese emperors, till the last Nguyen dynasty which lasted less then 150 years, ending on 25 August 1945 with the abdication of Emperor Bao Da.
Baptiste says if he had time to see only one piece in L’Envol du Dragon, it would be difficult but, “I think I would select an object from the Ngyuen treasury. No-one has had access to these objects for such a long time, and after the exhibition closes I’m quite sure that many of them will go back to the Musuem in Hanoi’s reserves. The seal of the Emperor Gia Long. When you look at it on its square base representing the earth, the power and symbol of the dragon seem very obvious.”
To gen up on Vietnamese history, iconography of dragons or just for the pleasure of contemplating some fine works of art, L'Envol du Dragon is on at the Musée Guimet in Paris, until 15 September 2014.