The Musée Fragonard, or to give it its full title Le Musée de l’Ecole Nationale Véterináire d’Alfort, situated in an obscure suburb of Paris, is one of the oldest museums in France. Originating from the King’s cabinet of curiosities and created in 1766, the collections were initially intended to be for the practical use of students. Morphing into a kind of organized reserve for professors to use in demonstrations in the nineteenth century, the collections were finally organised pedagogically and given the title of museum when they moved to the building in which they are now housed in 1902. An obscure mix of anatomical oddities and dissections would, at first glance, appear to hold little appeal to the general public, but the museums also holds a more macabre series of exhibits; the flayed human and animal figures known as écorchés, prepared by Honoré Fragonard, the school’s first professor of anatomy, before he was dismissed in 1771 as a madman.
Born in the provincial town of Grasse, Fragonard, cousin of the artist Jean Honoré Fragonard, trained to be a surgeon and became director of the world’s first veterinary school in Lyon. In 1776, at the age of 33, he came to what was then the newly opened Ecole Royale Véterináire. We can only speculate as to what inspired him to begin his bizarre experiments into the preparation and preservation of skinned cadavers. Taciturn in life he left not a single word to explain either his motivation, or technique. In total he made 700, 21 of which remain and are on display in the final room of the museum.
To reach these macabre exhibits one first passes though the anatomical collections. Few students make use of them these days and to the general public they can only appear bizarrely beautiful, or simply bizarre. A piglet displayed in cross section has undergone ‘diaphonisation,’ a process in which the organs are treated with a chemical that makes them transparent, and now resembles some kind of ethereal deep sea creature. The pale blue foetus of a horse, injected with mercury to highlight the veins in its outer membranes, floats in a jar surrounded by delicate traces of quicksilver.
The cabinet dedicated to teratology, or the study of monstrosities, houses a sad series of natures failures; a colt with a malformed facial bone which caused it to develop one huge Cyclops eye, Siamese twin lambs locked chest to chest in a perpetual waltz, chicken skulls the size of footballs. A ten legged sheep floating in a tank of formaldehyde would give Damien Hirst pause for thought.
Unsettling as these exhibits may be, nothing can quite prepare you for the sight which greets you once you pass through the doors into the dimly lit end room of the gallery.
A horse in full gallop is mounted by a stiff backed rider, both flayed. The pose, based on Durer’s Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, has the creature caught mid stride, each cord of its flexed muscles clearly visible. Bulging blue veins stretch over its jaws, tendons and ligaments strain to raise the thrusting neck. The figure, incongruously grasping reins of a delicate blue ribbon, stares glassily into the distance through shining orbs, his mouth stretched into a rictus grin over yellowing teeth.
The case to the right houses The Man with a Mandible, inspired by Samson attacking the Philistines with an ass’s jaw. He cuts a horrifying figure, his mouth gaping in a soundless roar of fury, arms raised to crush his enemies with his primitive weapon. But perhaps more disturbing are the three human foetuses dancing a jig. Their arteries injected with wax to enable them to hold their elaborate poses, these unborn infants perform a true dance macabre.
Although Fragonard never revealed his special recipe it is likely that he followed techniques used by other anatomists, preserving body parts in eau-de-vie or another form of alcohol mixed with pepper and herbs. While still supple the veins, bronchial tubes and arteries would be injected with coloured wax or tallow mixed with turpentine. The figures would then be stretched on a frame in the desired position and left to dry.
While still perfecting his technique the head of the school began spreading rumours that Fragonard was mad. In Parisian salons the word was that the figure on horseback was in fact his fiancé. Although these rumours led to close inspection, they were ultimately proved false. But not before Fragonard had been dismissed.
The gruesome gossip did not prevent Fragonard from gaining regular employment after his dismissal. He created exhibits for the Cabinets of Curiosities of wealthy aristocrats right up to the beginning of the French Revolution.
His combination of science and art certainly created some of the most disturbing sculptures known to man. For those with a strong stomach, or a taste for the macabre, the museum is open four afternoons a week from 2pm – 6pm.