Going Through the Motions in Neuchâtel’s Art & History Museum

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Museum of Art and History, Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Neuchâtel, Switzerland

The history of Neuchâtel isn’t the most action-packed you’ll find, even by Swiss standards – a fact that repeatedly hits you over the head as you walk around the city’s museum.  However, if, like me, your main reason for coming to Neuchâtel in the first place was to see the remarkable 18th century automata of Jacquet-Droz, then you don’t really mind that.

The museum is in quite an attractive building, designed by Léo Châtelain.  It opened in 1884 to house the city’s painting collection, but the following year the Historical Museum of the city was also brought in, which had displays of archaeology and ethnology.  The latter two have since moved out (to the Latinum and Ethnology Museum respectively) and the current mix of art and history has been in place since the 1950s.

The Automata

Many years ago, when I went to the opera a great deal, I was particularly fond of The Tales of Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach.  I think it’s a beautiful opera for various reasons, but one of my favourite scenes is when Hoffmann, an idealistic, impetuous and frankly foolish young man, takes his friend to see Olympia, the latest woman he’s fallen in love with.  She makes a grand entrance, sings a song… she’s exquisite, utterly charming.  After the concert, Hoffmann gets her away for a tête à tête.  Unfortunately, her conversation is limited.  And sort of stuttery.  Finally, a long time after everyone else has worked it out, Hoffmann realises that she’s an automaton.  Everyone laughs at him, and down comes the curtain on a heartbroken man.

With this image of Olympia in my mind, how could I have not wanted to see the automaton of the Musician in Neuchâtel?  Surely it was a creation like this that inspired ETA Hoffmann to write his short story, ‘Automaton’ – and inspired Offenbach’s Olympia when he composed his opera about the author.

And how can you not be astonished by these creations?  The idea that in the 1770s, before the invention of the steam locomotive, before manned hot air balloons, before batteries, before stethoscopes and photography and the mechanical calculator – before all of all of this, you had a wind-up doll that could play music – and actually play, with her fingers striking the keys each time.  It’s just incredible.  And to think of the Musician sitting in candlelight, the flickering light catching her heaving chest, her head inclined slightly as she plays… it would have looked impossible and unreal.

But they are real.  Their history begins with the story of Pierre Jaquet-Droz.  He learned the basics of the watchmaking trade before going to the University of Basel to study theology.  He was then drawn towards mathematics and turned this into a deep interest in applied mechanics which in turn positively impacted his watchmaking.  While he made his reputation and money from highly-regarded watches, he experimented with mechanical models and it was while trying to resolve certain technical problems that he created an automaton.

Not that Jaquet-Droz worked in a vacuum – automata, or rather, ‘androids’, were very popular in the early 18th century, with, for example, the Flute and Tambourine Players created in 1728 by Jacques de Vaucanson (along with a ‘digesting’ duck), and the Writer made by Friedrich von Knauss in 1760.  When Jaquet-Droz presented his three automata to the public in 1774, they were sure to be a hit with the public.  In a theatrically designed grotto, the three figures sat in a pastoral scene and charmed the socks off everyone who came to see them.  Their draw was so great that Jaquet-Droz sent the trio on a tour of European cities, where they were exhibited at the court of Louis XVI, as well as in Brussels, London, Madrid, the Netherlands, and even far off Kazan in Russia.

For some reason, Jacquet-Droz sold his babies to Spanish impresarios in 1787, and after that the trio have changed hands quite a few times, before finally finding a home in Neuchâtel in 1909.  Understandably, the costumes that they wear are not original, but they are based on the types of clothes they probably wore when they were first made, and naturally they are repaired and maintained, but what we see today in terms of the movements and the mechanism, is straight from the 18th century.

So what do you get to see?  I mean, it seems incredible that they would actually let these incredible pieces out in public to perform.  For little old us?

Well, first of all, you get to sit in a little amphitheatre and watch a documentary about the figures.  There were subtitles in English.  Then the fellow in charge got each figure to play in turn.  Sadly, the little Writer had broken down – he needed to have an important wire reattached – but the Musician and the Draughtsman were both in excellent form.

Just a quick note on the Writer – this is the most complex of the three automata, as he can be programmed to write any text of up to 40 characters.  His hand then forms the letters with a quill pen, which he dips into ink.

The Draughtsman was designed by Jaquet-Droz’s son, Henri, who worked with Jean-Frédéric Leschot, the assistant who worked on all three of the automata.  The Draughtsman can make four drawings: a dog, ‘Mon Toutou’; a portrait of Louis XV; a double portrait of the British George III and Queen Charlotte; and Cupid driving a chariot pulled by a butterfly.  When we visited, the little fellow made drawings of Toutou and, rather appropriately, George III and his wife.

The Musician was also designed by Henri Jaquet-Droz and she plays a genuine organ with 48 pipes and delights her audience with five tunes composed by the musical Henri himself.  Her fingers hit the keys, so she is really playing the instrument – the mechanism is in her, not in the organ.

There is no way to describe just how magical it was watching the Musician, with her fingers moving and hitting the keyboard, her chest ‘breathing’ in and out, and her genteel acknowledgement of the audience.  Then the Draughtsman, with his sharpened pencil ready, began drawing and, occasionally, when he seemed to be tiring, let out an exhalation of breath.  This is actually to get rid of any dust from the lead of his pencil, but it gives him the charming appearance of a tired child at school.

To have an authentic 18th century entertainment experience is a rare and wonderful privilege.  The automata are great fun to watch, but if you also happen to be a history fan you’re in for a truly exceptional treat.

The Rest of the Museum

After the automata, I suppose it’s only naturally that the rest was a bit dull.  There were some interesting paintings, including two which showed Bourbaki’s Army – a subject I’d recently learned about at the Bourbaki Panorama in Lucerne.  The Swiss helped the French soldiers who were defeated and in a bad state during the Franco-Prussian War of 1871 and Swiss artists were justifiably proud of the way their people rallied to help the soldiers in an entirely humanitarian, and non-political, way.

As you go up the staircase, you pass through an Art Nouveau world created by Léo-Paul Robert and Clement Heaton.  It took from 1886 to 1893 to get the paintings done, and from 1895 to 1921 the rest of the framing was completed.  The design, when it was shown to the public in the post-war period, must have looked terribly dated.  I am usually a fan of Art Nouveau, but I found this whole scheme dark and oppressive and actually kinda creepy.  Still, it’s a matter of taste.  As is the modern art on show.  If, like me, you aren’t keen, try and make it to the end gallery, where you can rest your eyes on a lovely Calame for while.

So In Summary

First of all, the automata are wonderful.  They are worth seeing by themselves – as entertainment, as mechanical wonders, as beautifully evocative objects from the 18th century…  I considered uploading some film that I recorded, but decided that I don’t want to spoil the surprise for anyone who visits.

The museum is nicely done and thoughtfully arranged, making the most of what it has.  You do get a sense of the city’s history – as something rather dull and as regular as local-clockwork.  Naturally this is in the city’s favour if you’re a citizen, but for a visitor it’s a tad disappointing.  The collection isn’t the richest I’ve seen, but as I say, the museum does a good job and makes for a pleasant place to wander for while.

Further Information

The museum tries to keep the punters busy and there appear to be frequent events and things for the family to do.  You can find out more via their website, which is sadly only in French: www.mahn.ch

To see the automata you have to time your visit to the first weekend of the month – showings are at 2, 3 and 4 pm.  At certain times, like over holidays, they have more showings at other times.

How To Get There

The museum is located in a pleasant zone by Lake Neuchâtel, and it therefore within strolling distance of anything else you may wish to do in town.  The train stain is at the top of a hill, and the walk down to the lake may be quite arduous if you have any issues with walking.  Buses are available, and you can find out about them from the city’s (French only) website: www.transn.ch


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