Zeitgenössische Karikatur zum Thema »Musée Grévin«

Of masks and figures


When the person closed their eyes for good, their descendants were often keen to create a final memento. Photographs were not available, so an artist was brought in to make a mask. The face was »straightened« a little, cleaned and prepared before the plaster was applied so that it could be removed later. This created the negative for the mask.

No matter what material was used to make a mask - bronze, plaster or wax - a certain status in society was necessary to practise this cult. Hinz and Kuntz did not do this. Until the 17th century, it was customary to make such masks of people of royal rank.

Although the technique is much older. A sentence such as »Pliny the Elder already wrote in his writings about a sculptor named Lysistrat of Sicyone, who was said to have used the technique« indicates that this technique had already been used before. Especially when you also know that the aforementioned Pliny died in the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.

For the Romans, the technique known as keroplasty was already part of the culture of the dead and would remain so for the next few centuries - the focus was on portraits of high rulers or saints. Wax has been used since the end of the 10th century.

The wax busts of French kings were kept in the Basilica of Saint-Denis until the Revolution. There was a depiction of the face and folded hands.

Antoine Benoist was an outstanding artist in this profession who worked in France in the 17th and early 18th centuries. He was granted the right by King Louis XIV to exhibit his sculptures in public. The figures from the royal household were exhibited throughout the country before Benoist was granted the privilege of displaying them in a museum. The artist is said to have left behind over ninety exhibits. Of his wax figures, however, only that of Louis XIV has survived.

After the death of the Sun King in 1715, and presumably also after the death of the master of the craft two years later, these ceroplastics were somewhat forgotten in France.

In 1765, the German Philipp Wilhelm Matthias Kurtz (also known as Curtius for short) came to Paris to set up a cabinet of wax figures. He had learned his technique during his years in Bern. He had moved there in 1760. In his practice, he employed a young widow who had just had a baby called Marie. We will come back to this child later ...

In Paris, he painted a portrait of Madame de Barry, a mistress of King Louis XV. He had quickly established himself in society and could afford to have his employee come to Paris with her child. Curtius had his first major exhibition in 1770 and a few years later it was moved to the Palais-Royal.

The young Marie learned the art from Curtius and is said to have created busts of Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Benjamin Franklin. When the figure maker died in 1794, he bequeathed his collection to Marie Grosholtz. This was a good start to independence for the young woman. The following year, the artist married a civil engineer named François Tussaud and became Madame Tussaud.

However, she was not granted a comfortable life: In 1802, she was persuaded by Paul Philidor to move to London. The famous magician (in the sense of entertainer) had offered her a contract that was not so exciting. She had to hand over half of the profits she made to Philidor. Her husband and youngest son stayed behind in France while she toured Great Britain and Ireland and put on her show. She was unable to return due to the blockade imposed. And in Paris, she had a husband who lived a lavish lifestyle and sold parts of Curtius' collection to maintain his lifestyle.

We don't know Madame Tussaud as a traveling exhibition today. She set up the first museum in a permanent location in 1835 - when she was already 74 years old. She died peacefully at the age of 88.

It is easy to see that the production of wax figures is not a French achievement. But when you think of these human copies today, the name Madame Tussaud quickly comes to mind. Especially as the company continued to develop after her death and now has branches in major cities all over the world.

Only not in Paris.

A sanctuary

It can hardly be assumed that the company developed a fad that it would never appear again in towns where it was based and ended its activities. After all, Madame Tussaud had been active in Paris until 1802.

One reason could be that there was a strong local supplier. After Tussaud's move to London, several attempts were made to establish wax museums in Paris. This was never a lasting success.

The first issue of »Le Gaulois« was published on July 5, 1868. Newspapers at that time had a fixed editorial direction and this was to be a monarchist one in the early days of the paper. There was not much to be gained from the republican idea. Eleven years after it was founded, the newspaper was sold by its founders to Arthur Meyer, who gave it a conservative slant and aimed it at wealthy and cultivated circles. Politics was an important topic in the newspaper, as was life in the castles and salons. In its heyday, »Le Gaulois« sold 30,000 copies a day.

Shortly after taking over the publication, Meyer wanted to give his readers the opportunity to get a picture of the people he was talking about. Photography was not yet the measure of all things in newspapers, hence the idea of a wax museum.

Even in the months leading up to the opening, there was a lot of advertising for the new opening. For example, there was an insight into the production of the wax figures in the magazine »Le Monde«:

Insight into the production of wax figures ("Le Monde", March 1882)

The opening of this cabinet was celebrated in the newspaper and the article by journalist Maxime Serpeille, which appeared on June 2, 1882 - a few days before the opening - seems unintentionally comical in parts today. It begins with the introductory words:

To enter this sanctuary, which must remain steadfastly closed to all until the last moment, is no small honor, and such a good deed deserves a few words of thanks.

The article, which runs over one and a half columns - moderately large font size, small line spacing, no pictures - describes a short tour of the museum.

Nothing has been spared to make the interior of the museum as rich and ornate as possible; the ceiling is a true masterpiece, paintings, moldings and gold abound, and wealth, which is often the enemy of good taste, has here entered into an intimate union with the purest and most delicate art.

The personalities we are talking about no longer mean anything to us today. Some names seem familiar - their achievements during their lifetime ensured that streets were later named after them. To find out what their achievements and merits were, you would have to consult an encyclopaedia. 

They will not have been there for long, because if there is one thing inherent in waxworks, it is the constant change, the coming and going.

 There is talk of Kaiser Wilhelm and Prince von Bismarck - more familiar characters from the world of politics at the time, known to us Germany-centric people from our history lessons. Things look even worse when it comes to the actors. Hardly any of the acting stars of the time are known today. 

Serpeille was particularly fond of one line:

We now come to the last room, which is the highlight of the Musée Grévin. This is a series of scenes depicting the story of a crime. The entire biography of a criminal is laid out before us in terrifying reality. We see the murder, the presentation to the examining magistrate, the confrontation in the morgue, the washing of the condemned man and finally his execution. These scenes are so haunting that you can't help but become emotional.

The descriptions were followed by the information that there would be a big party for the opening - the success of which was guaranteed - and that tickets were still available for this event. The opening was to take place on June 5.

Advertisement for the Musée Grévin in »Le Gaulois«

The attraction was named after Alfred Grévin, who had a good reputation as a sculptor, caricaturist and costume designer. He created the figures that were exhibited and his skills ensured that the Musée Grévin was a success.

Visitors could not only view wax figures, there were also magic programs. Later, plays and shows were presented in the theater in a suitable hall. This has since been abandoned. It is now just a »normal wax museum« - more on that later.

And while the wax museum still exists today, the newspaper was abandoned as early as 1929 following a merger with »Le Figaro«.

Recurring images

It's not hard to imagine that I didn't suddenly develop a soft spot for wax figures. It took a catalyst and, surprise surprise, it was a mention in a Maigret novel (»Maigret contra Picpus«). There it says:

They sat motionless like the wax figures in the Musée Grévin

Simenon used this image of wax figures and the Parisian institution more than once. It can also be found in the novels »Maigret loses an admirer«, where it says:

Four or five people sat there rigidly like the wax figures in the Musée Grévin, ...

... and in »Maigret and the Informer«, in which this formulation can be found:

Maigret sat in his armchair, facing his lined-up pipes, looking as expressionless as a wax figure in the Grevée Museum.

In the German translation, a different name is mentioned - but on the one hand, it is unlikely that such a museum with such a similar name exists in Paris, and on the other, it is correct in the original version.

So it can be loosely summarized: If Simenon had wax figures or rigid faces in mind, he was thinking of the Musée Grévin.

I've already mentioned elsewhere that Maigret and museums don't necessarily go together. During a brief survey of the Maigret stories, I only noticed two mentions of »real« museums. In the short story »The Notary of Châteauneuf«, there is mention of communication with the British Museum. And in »Maigret and the Old People«, there is mention of a painter who had painted a picture that was exhibited at the Musée du Luxembourg.

There are a number of other cases in which museums are mentioned, but usually only in passing (for example: »Do you remember the little picture in the museum in The Hague that we blushed over?« in »Maigret and the Beanstalk«) or to describe moods.

Simenon failed to give us an active visit by Maigret to a museum.

Musée Grévin

You can still visit this wax museum on Boulevard Montmartre today. The attraction is located at the level of Passage Jouffroy. The exit of the museum also leads into it, so you can take a look at it at your leisure.

The entrance fee is steep, but as a proven non-visitor to wax museums, I can say that this visit is really worth it. It's not that you suddenly discover your love for this craft as a despiser of this business, it's the surroundings and the presentation in the museum and the architecture. When Serpeille's article talks about magnificent architecture, you can wholeheartedly agree. The eye is really offered something, even if the figures are only extras for you.