That is the reason why I went to Paris to see the collection of the Musée Guimet, something that was on my wish list for the past thirty years or so. Guimet is specialized in Asian art, a vast territory, but evidently, I limited my interest to Central Asia, including Afghanistan, Pakistan and a small part of India and China as well. Being in France, all honors and merits go to the French, of course, with men like Joseph Hackin (1923-1937), Jules Barthoux (1926-1928), Dutreuil de Rhings (1890-1895) and Paul Pelliot (1906-1909). It must be said that in the early 20th century the ruling King of Afghanistan, an art-lover no doubt, approached the French to carry out serious excavations in his country since he didn’t want to lag behind the archaeological finds made in the neighbouring countries. It was only when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 that these rewarding projects were put to a halt (Ai-Khanoum was one of those projects, with the disastrous results we know).
One of the absolute highlights in this Museum are in my eyes the Buddha’s, Bodittsava’s and other statues and stupa decorations from Hadda in Afghanistan which we owe to Jules Barthoux. The faces, postures and clothing of these statues are unmistakably Hellenistic and the true jewel is in my eyes the “Génie aux Herbes”, a spirit holding flowers in his lap. Another precious place is taken by the glassware excavated by Joseph Hackin on the site of Begram in Afghanistan also with its blue, white and transparent fish-shaped vessels and the colourful painted glass beakers with scenes from Greek mythology and daily life. I had seen some of these items in the travelling exhibition Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum in Kabul a few years ago in Amsterdam, but that was only a selection of items – now here I find a lavish collection.
An entirely different chapter is occupied by the polychrome Chinese terracotta figures from the 7th and 8th century with dancing girls, musicians, girls playing polo on their horses and several terracotta Sogdian merchants with their horses or camels walking straight out of the desert dust. What I didn’t expect though is finding these exceptional Chinese terracotta statues from as early as the second century BC which look more Greek than Chinese - unbelievable!