by Dorty Nowak
Hot and frustrated, I stared at the pieces of the supposedly easy-to-assemble electric fan that came with nine parts instead of the required ten. My apartment, like most buildings in Paris, has no air conditioning and, after several days of unremitting heat, I was desperate. I picked up the instruction sheet, ignoring the number for the help center that was probably located in China, and folded it into a fan. My makeshift fan worked surprisingly well, reminding me of a museum that I had been meaning to visit ever since I read several years ago that it might have to close.
Le Musée de l’Éventail, the fan museum, if mentioned at all in guidebooks, usually merits only a brief reference. All I knew was that it was a museum about the history of fans. Not electric fans but, rather, the hand held kind that was an essential accessory throughout most of human history, including, for me, today.
Conveniently located near the center of Paris, the museum is housed in a typical Parisian building that looks like the others around it except for a large stone bas-relief of a fan on its façade. Pulling open the heavy wooden door, I knew that this was not a typical museum. Steep steps led to a dimly-lit door beside which a sign announced mysteriously, “Mme. Hoguet.“ Wondering if I was in the wrong place, I rang the doorbell and waited. After a long pause, an elderly woman opened the door, and I entered another world.
Fans were mounted on every inch of the walls of a long corridor – ancient fans from Egypt, China, Greece. I picked up a flyer titled simply “History” and read that fans can be traced to man’s earliest days. Originally the accoutrements of royalty, by the 5th century B.C. fans had become a widespread fashion accessory. These early fans were rigid but, in the 7th century A.D., a Japanese artisan created the folding fan after observing the wings of a bat.
Turning a corner, I entered a sunlit boutique where a riot of color greeted me. Beautiful fans of all sizes and shapes were offered for sale, from very expensive to modest in price. The woman who had admitted me now sat at the reception desk, watching me as I slowly circled the room.
“May I take some pictures?” I asked.
“No,” she replied curtly, “Mme. Hoguet does not approve.”
I put the cap back on my camera lens, wondering again about the mysterious Mme. Hoguet and wandered into the next room, my footsteps echoing in the silence.
This room was far different from the first. An array of antique wooden machines, which looked like medieval torture instruments, lined the walls. A placard above each described its role in the intricate process of fan making.
The final gallery was as sumptuous as the last was stark. The walls were peacock-blue brocade, and elaborately painted and feathered fans were displayed like exotic birds in glass cases throughout the room. I read that Henry III had introduced the folding fan to the French court in the mid-16th century. It was there that the fan came into its own as an art object and tool of coquetry. In the 19th century, famous artists like Gauguin, Monet and Renoir painted landscapes on fans, which were prized for their artistry.
As I was about to head back to the entrance, a slight movement from an adjoining room caught my eye. I peeked in and saw an elegant woman carefully gilding a fan. “Mme. Hoguet?” I ventured a guess. She looked up and smiled. Far from annoyed at being disturbed, she set aside her brush to answer my questions.
I learned that Anne Hoguet is the last fan maker in a family that has practiced the art for three generations. Her father began to teach her fan making when she was fourteen, and she has dedicated her life to the art. She opened the museum in 1993 to display her father’s collection of over 1,000 fans. Today she not only restores fans but also lectures about their history, and gives classes and tours to school groups.
Fan making will not become a lost art if Mme. Hoguet can help it, nor will beautiful fans be found only in museums. Indeed she seems to be succeeding in her crusade. Today, several skilled apprentices are practicing the art, and a group of friends and lovers of fans have created an organization to promote and perpetuate the museum.
And Mme. Hoguet, whom I had been told did not approve, said she would be delighted if I took pictures and wrote about her museum.
On this hot and humid afternoon in Paris, I learned about fans. I learned that museums aren’t just about the objects on display, but also about people like Mme. Hoguet, whose passion and efforts have preserved the past for us all. And yes, before I left the museum I bought a lovely fan to keep me cool.
Dorty Nowak is a writer and artist living in Paris and the U.S. who writes frequently about the challenges and delights of multi-cultural living. A former educator and insurance executive, she helped found the Oakland School for the Arts. She is co-curator of the “Where Do I Belong” project involving artists and poets from Europe, Australia and the U.S.