After a four-year renovation to provide more exhibition space and bring it up to safety and accessibility norms, the Musée Cernuschi, a stately mansion housing France’s second-largest collection of Asian art (after that of Paris’s Musée Guimet), has reopened its doors, all spiffed up and showing off its new acquisitions.
The collection was amassed by Henri Cernuschi (1821-96), an Italian with Republican ideals who fled to France in 1849 after the fall of the short-lived Roman Republic and made his fortune in Paris.
The focal point of the collection is a majestic 18th-century bronze Buddha from Japan, which sits proudly in a two-story room (purpose-built for it by Cernuschi), surrounded by smaller but no less interesting objects, including a charming 2,000-year-old terracotta model of a Vietnamese village from the Thanh-hoa culture.
The many Tang Dynasty (618-907) pieces in the collection include such treasures as an orchestra of eight female musicians on horseback in polychrome terracotta. From the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220) comes an intricate multileveled fountain in glazed terracotta, with turtles crawling around in its basin and primitive human figures populating its terraces; a perky-eared terracotta canine stature that could have been the model for the RCA dog; and a wonderful group of merrily laughing human figures representing different professions: cook, peasant, dancer, musician and suivante.
The Western Han is represented by a graceful wooden phoenix in flight and an unusual group of nude, armless male figures in terracotta, about 2 feet tall, among other items. A notable recent acquisition is a handsome pair of male and female funerary masks in gilded bronze dating from the Liao Dynasty (907-1125). One of the museum’s most important pieces is “The Tigress,” an intricate late Shang Dynasty (c. 1550 B.C.-c. 1050 B.C.) bronze vessel in the shape of a feline creature clutching a small human figure to its stomach.
The Cernuschi’s sleek modern museography tends to hide the fact that this was once a private home. Only a few reminders are left, including the grand staircase, the magnificent arched windows looking out on the Parc Monceau and a re-created downstairs smoking room, now encased in glass. Unlike the Musée Jacquemart-André, where visitors are well aware that thy are in the collector’s home, the Cernuschi focuses on the collection, which fully deserves the attention.