What made me take the metro and suddenly head for Boulogne (Pont de Saint Cloud station) on a sunny winter afternoon? I don’t know but the impulse was irrepressible and the beauty that awaited me in the deserted museum Albert Kahn was unbelievable.
Albet Kahn was born in Marmoutier, a small village in Alsace (east of France) with a large Jewish community and a synagogue. His father was a cattle merchant in Saverne, the largest market at the time, where the young Albert would walk to school every day for an hour and a half. He decided to head for Paris at age 16 and started working for friends of the family, the Goudchaux, who owned a bank. After twenty years of working up in the bank and studying at night with Henri Bergson, his mentor, he founded his own Kahn bank in 1898.
This is when he started entertaining bankers and philanthropists from all over the world, in his property of Cap Martin, near Monaco. Through the fabulous collections of 72 000 autochromes, (color photographic plates) we discover a world of celebrities, jewish and protestant bankers, scientists, doctors, philosophers and sociologists. Emile Deutsch de la Meurthe, the founder of Compagnie des pétroles Jupiter (uture Shell France), whose parents were also cattle merchants in the neighboring Lorraine, was a close friend; they built together some of the buildings of Cité Universitaire internationale in Paris. Andrew Carnegie, who started his foundation in 1910 is a model for Kahn, as is Shibusawa Eiichi, creator of the Daiichi Bank, the first modern bank in Japan, who introduced him to Japanese gardens and Brazilian Guilherme Guinle, a philanthropist who imposed free medicine for the poor, is a correspondent.
The Bengali writer and poet Rabindranah Tagore spent many holidays at his place and inspired him.
His wealth comes from investing in gold and diamond very early on. And he immediately used it on offering traveling scholarships to students interested in the East. He created a laboratory in Boulogne on his 9 acres estate and a photo studio. A Japanese garden, an English garden, a French garden and a forêt Vosgienne, with the pine trees of his childhood were all designed in the middle of Boulogne, a suburb of Paris. For lunch, friends would arrive on little row boats on the Seine, as the film shown in the exhibit testifies.
There, he entertains in his winter garden, a small cristal palace, and organizes for Loise Fuller to dance. He is also very keen on health (hygiénisme) and good eating, and sends his staff on holiday in a villa he bought for them on the sea shore.
All along he hires photographers to take pictures of every single guest and employee : he calls it « the Inventory of the world through images ». Therefore, the museum now owns one of the largest collection of autochromes in Europe. The 1929 crash ruined him and he gave up his properties and archives to the University of Paris who let him live there until his death in 1940.
This amazing man loved Japan and this is what his garden is mostly known for. At the moment the little wooden houses are under repair, but camellias are in bloom and soon the garden will look like it was a hundred years ago. A monography, “The wonderful world of Albert Kahn by David Okuefuna and a 9 hour BBC documentary can be found on Amazon.
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