Duels are trendy at Musée de l’Armée

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Pierre Paul Rubens, “Achilles victor of Hector”, 1630, Pau, Musée des Beaux Arts

The historical Hotel des Invalides, founded by Louis XIV in 1674, will be at the center of the Olympic Games and the Esplanade is already blocked to pedestrians by all sorts of constructions. I was happily surprised to run into hundreds of foreign tourists who were visiting the monument and the church on a recent sunny Friday. Happily, very few visitors decided to go a see “Duels, l’art du Combat” (until August 18), a fascinating exhibition where contemporary movies rival with 18 th century paintings and video games, and African customs of fight by stick are similar to those of German students in the XIX th century. The greatest surprise was to discover that Gaston Deferre, a minister under Mitterrand, was filmed in a political duel and that ladies like the Marquise de Nesle and Comtesse de Polignac fought for their lover the Duc de Richelieu in the XVIII th century. Since the end of WWI, duels were stropped at first blood to prevent more deaths after the deadly war.

Poster fro Maria Dumont and her students at l’Olympia, after 1888

Usually associated to an aristocratic ritual, the duel is in fact present in all classes and many countries from Africa to Persia and Asia. It is a practice where violence is programmed and it obeys to precise rules,  where honor and reparation are at stake. It is choreographed and ritualized, and therefore legitimate. The social phenomenon is very well studied in this show where samurais are present as well as sportsmen, military and fencing. A posthumous portrait by George Healy of President Andrew Jackson, reminds us that the seventh President of the USA died, still holding the bullet he had received in a duel which he won forty years before.  Pictures by Simon Ruiz show a series of traditional religious fights which take place every year, on December 25, in Santo Tomas, Peru, a city with few policemen and no courts, where conflicts are solved in duels.

Costumes for teh porcudtion of “er Rosenkavalier” designed by Ezio Frigerio at Opéra Garnier in 1976

At the end of the XVII th century a calvary captain, Joseph d’Albert de Luynes meets Julie d’Aubigny , “La Maupin”, an opera singer and a fencer, who dresses as a man and defeats him. She wounds him and eventually they fall in love and start a torrential affair which will last for years. An ink portrait by Théophile Gautier, who wrote about Magdeleine de Maupin, illustrates this event.

Simon Ruiz, Takanakuy series, 2022

In Homer’s Iliad, the duelist was a champion who fought for his city. The duel as a sport or fencing, is a way to prove one’s superiority. The honor duel is proof of one’s moral right when justice is helpless. Duels have always been condemned and forbidden by the states but tolerated. They became very popular again after the French revolution and in the XIX th century.

Anonymous Flemish painting, “Judiciary duel of May 20, 1455 on the Grand Market of Valenciennes” XVII th century, Valenciennes, Musée des Beaux Arts

There is also a boxing match set in 1737 in London painted by Andreas Møller , a painting of air planes fighting in 1918, by Maurice Busset, and numerous short films from the 1930’s showing “social” duels  between Henri Bernstein, a playwright and Edouard Bourdet administrator of la Comédie Française, and Léon Blum and Piere Weber. A painting by Edouard Pingret of a priest interfering in a duel in 1837, a poster of the famous Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas, etc… Ary Scheffer’s portrait of journalist Armand Carrel on his death bed was very moving: he was shot by another journalist Emile de Girardin and it is strongly resented by the elites of Louis Philippe’s reign.

Alexandre-Auguste Robineau, “The Fencing match between the Chevalier de Saint George and the Chevalier d’Eon”, circa 1787-1789, London, Royal Collection Trust, lent by His Majesty the King Charles III

I could not resist asking three young men to teach me how to play a video game Street fighter. I lost of course against these well trained players but felt I had learned something… and eventually won against their young sister in an easier game where one had to use a toy sword to attack a screen…

Hotel des Invalides and its church and dome under which Napoléon is buried is one of the most beautiful buildings of Louis XIV th’s times

Musée de l’Armée‘s permanent collection  is also worth visiting an it is open every day. Enter via Esplanade des invalides. “Duel” is until August 18.

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