Machines à Dessiner

Dream Machines and Obscure Cities

February 15, 2017By Heidi EllisonArchive, Exhibitions
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“Les Naufrageurs.” Poster for the 2005 Festival Etonnants Voyageurs de Saint-Malo. © Schuiten/Casterman.

The unusual exhibition “Drawing Machines” at the Musée des Arts et Métiers interprets its title in a variety of ways in an effort “to portray the timeless magic of drawing.” There are machines designed to help artists draw. There

Joseph Bramah’s 18th-century fire engine. © Musée des Arts et Métiers-Cnam/Photo Studio Cnam.

are beautiful technical drawings of many of the machines owned by this museum of marvels. And then there is the work of François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, the curators of the show, who might be described as drawing machines themselves.

These prolific artists are known for their graphic novels, notably the 15 volumes of The Obscure Cities series, which portray a kind of “previous future” in imaginary metropolises. Schuiten and Peeters have spent innumerable

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Ship of the Desert from the Schuiten-Peeters’ “Encyclopédie des Transports Présents et à Venir, par Axel Wappendorf” (Casterman, 1988). © Schuiten-Peeters.

hours in the museum over the years and used its collection as both inspiration and models for the fantastic machines in their books.

Schuiten, whose parents were both architects, also designed what is probably Paris’s most fabulous Métro station, Arts et Métiers, which gives passengers the impression that Captain Nemo might show up at any second in this version of Jules Verne’s Nautilus submarine.

The show starts with an exhibit that also evokes Verne’s world: a diving suit borrowed from another little-visited museum of marvels, the Musée de la Marine. Made and patented in the 1880s by the Carmagnolle brothers, this amazing suit of undersea armor was probably never used because of leakage problems.

Among the magnificent machines from the

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A Dion-Bouton steam tricycle (1888), an early motor vehicle. © Musée des Arts et Métiers-Cnam/photo Pascal Faligot.

museum’s own collection are a fire engine from the late 18th century; an early 19th-century instrument for measuring the height of trees; models of steam locomotives; a model of one of aviation pioneer Louis Blériot’s planes (the original is in the museum’s chapel); and a forerunner of the motocycle, a tricycle with a steam engine, built in 1888. All of these machines and instruments are beautiful objects in their own right, made of iron, steel, brass, and wood.

Interspersed throughout the exhibition are drawing boards covered with artwork from Schuiten and Peeters’s books. The show ends with the original artwork for many pages from their latest work, Revoir Paris, about a young woman from a distant human space colony visiting Paris, the city of her dreams, now preserved under a glass bubble. With her guide, she is taken to a number of monuments, including, of course, the Musée des Arts et Métiers.

Then it is time for visitors to sit down at the drawing boards provided, take a piece of paper and the pencil they were given when they bought their tickets and sit down to draw pictures of their own obscure cities of the mind.


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