Louis Delaporte (January 11, 1842 — May 3, 1925) was a French explorer and artist, whose collection and documentation of Khmer art formed the nucleus of exhibitions in Paris, originally at the 1878 Paris Exposition and later at the Palais du Trocadéro, where he became chief curator of the Musée Indochinois. In 1927, after his death, his collection was moved to the Guimet Museum.
French Mekong expedition (1866–1868)
The first systematic exploration of the Mekong River, considered "the wildest of the world's great rivers," was the French Mekong expedition led by Ernest Doudard de Lagrée and Francis Garnier, which ascended the river from its mouth to Yunnan between 1866 to 1868. Delaporte, a young naval officer, was chosen because of his talent in drawing to accompany them through what was then French Indochina.
The sight of these strange ruins struck me, too, with a keen astonishment, I admired the bold and grandiose design of these monuments no less than the perfect harmony of all their parts. Khmer art, issuing from the mixture of India and China, purified, ennobled by artists whom one might call the Athenians of the Far East, has remained the most beautiful expression of human genius in this vast part of Asia that extends from the Indus to the Pacific.
The detailed drawings Delaporte made on this voyage were used to illustrate Garnier's 1870 account of the voyage. Many years later, during the 1930s, drawings Delaporte had made at Pha That Luang became the basis for a major reconstruction of that important religious site near Vientiane. In particular, the first rebuild gave the stupa a shape that locals found unattractive; based on Delaporte's drawings it was restored to its original lotus-bud design.
The expedition was plagued by disasters and difficulties, including many miles of wading barefoot through knee-deep mud infested with leeches. Nevertheless, the team surveyed and mapped 6,000 km, charting the Mekong's course from its mouth in present-day Vietnam through present-day Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and Burma into China. At the end of the journey, Delaporte returned to France, where he was promoted to the rank of ship's lieutenant and awarded the Légion d'Honneur.
After an interruption caused by the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871) Louis Delaporte obtained the support of France's Geographical Society and of several French government ministries for a new expedition. This mission would have a dual purpose: to map Vietnam's Red River and to bring back Khmer art for exhibition in France.
In May 1873, his team left France taking with them many gifts, including engravings based on the works of Rembrandt and Rubens as well as copies of paintings by Nicolas Poussin and Théodore Gérard. By the end of the expedition, they brought back some 70 specimens of sculpture and architecture, all of which Delaporte affirmed had been acquired by purchase or trade, plus his own drawings, prints, and plans.
Khmer art in Paris
The Louvre, where Delaporte had hoped to see these acquisitions displayed, refused to accept them. Instead, he was invited to set up a museum at the Château de Compiègne. Then, in 1878, a grand Exposition Universelle opened in Paris, and many Khmer sculptures and Delaporte drawings were displayed at one of the new exhibition buildings, the Palais du Trocadéro. This display awakened much wider public interest in Khmer art, but it would not be until the foundation of the Musée Indochinois at the Palais du Trocadéro in 1882 that it would have its own gallery space in Paris for public display. On his return from his third and last expedition of 1881–82, Delaporte became its chief curator until his retirement in 1924.
Evangelist for the importance of Khmer art
It differs, indeed, from those great classics of the Mediterranean basin that have long captured our admiration: it is no longer these majestic colonnades, these great calm surfaces of Greece or Egypt; these are, in contrast, forms [that are] laborious, complex, tormented: overlays, multiple withdrawals, mazes, galleries shaded from daylight, jagged towers, pyramids with countless stories and arrows, a great profusion of ornaments and sculptures, constant effects of light and shadow that enrich the whole without altering its majesty, and blend beautifully with the intense light and lush tropical vegetations: it is, in short, another form of beauty.
- Voyage d'exploration en Indo-Chine by Francis Garnier with illustrations by Louis Delaporte (1873)
- Voyage au Cambodge; l'architecture khmer (1880)
- Les monuments du Cambodge (1924)
- Hamy, E.T. (1890). Les origines du Musée d'Ethnographie. Histoire et documents. E. Leroux. Retrieved 10 July 2011. "Vous avez pu voir, Monsieur le Ministre, dans l'exposition qui a eu lieu au Palais de l'Industrie en janvier et février 1878 une partie de ces séries. L'Asie y était représentée par des envois nombreux et variés de MM. Delaporte, Harmand, de Ujfalvy, Lansberg, La Savinière."
- "Asiatic Arts Guimet Museum". France.com. Retrieved 10 July 2011. "Already, Louis Delaporte’s journeys in Siam and Cambodia had provided a collection of Khmer art forming the nucleus of the Paris Musée Indochinois at the Trocadéro, founded in 1882."
- Garnier, Francis (1885). Voyage d'exploration en Indo-Chine affectué par une commission française. p. 254.
- Singh, Baijit. "Mekong magnificent obsession: John Keay recreates the tribulations and tragedy in French exploration of the Mekong river". Tribune India. Retrieved 10 July 2011.
- Delaporte, Louis (1880). Voyage au Cambodge, l'architecture khmer. p. 10.
- (In French, La vue de ces ruines étranges me frappa, moi aussi, d'un vif étonnement : je n'admirais pas moins la conception hardie et grandiose de ces monuments que l'harmonie parfaite de toutes leurs parties. L'art khmer, issu du mélange de l'Inde et de la Chine, épuré, ennobli par des artistes qu'on pourrait appeler les Athéniens de l'Extrême-Orient, est resté en effet comme la plus belle expression du génie humain dans cette vaste partie de l'Asie qui s'étend de l'lndus au Pacifique.)
- Stiebing, William (1994). Uncovering the past: a history of archaeology. Oxford University Press. p. 205.
- "Pha That Luang (built 1566, reconstructed 1930)". Oriental Architecture. Retrieved 10 July 2011. "The present structure is a French-directed reconstruction from the 1930s--made to replace an earlier botched French reconstruction of 1900-- and is based on the detailed drawings from the late 1860s by the talented French architect and explorer Louis Delaporte."
- Bush, Austin (2010). Lonely Planet Laos. Lonely Planet. p. 96. ISBN 978-1-74179-153-2.
- Grillo-Nicolini, Elisabeth. "Louis Delaporte: Un amoureux fou d’Orient". Carnet Escale. Retrieved 11 July 2011.
- Delaporte, Louis (1842-1925), Glossaire, Guimet Museum
- Auboyer, Jeannine. Rarities of the Musée Guimet, exhibition catalogue, New York: Asia Society, 1975, ISBN 978-0-87848-043-2, p. 46.
- Delaporte, Louis (1880). Voyage au Cambodge, l'architecture khmer. pp. 10–12.
- (In French, Il s'écarte, il est vrai, de ces grandes oeuvres classiques du bassin de la Méditerranée qui pen- dant longtemps ont seules captivé notre admiration : ce ne sont plus ces colonnades majestueuses, ces grandes surfaces calmes de la Grèce ou de l'Egypte; ce sont au contraire des formes laborieuses, complexes, tourmentées: superpositions, retraits multiples, labyrinthes, galeries basses à jour, tours dentelées, pyramides à étages et à flèches innombrables; une profusion extrême d'ornements et de sculptures, des effets constants de clair et de sombre qui enrichissent les ensembles sans en altérer la majesté, et s'harmonisent merveilleusement avec la lumière intense et la végétation luxuriante des régions tropicales : c'est, en un mot, une autre forme du beau.)
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