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The Quai Branly Museum in Paris exhibition focuses on the universal theme of hair
A visitor looks at paintings displayed during the exhibition entitled "The art of Hair frivolities and trophies" (Cheveux Chéris, frivolités et trophées) at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris. The event takes place until July 14, 2013. (R) A painting by Atala Varcollier featuring Chilpéric 1er, ing of Francs (1837); (L) a painting by Bezard Jean-Louis (1799-1881) featuring Clotaire 1er, king of Francs. AFP PHOTO / KENZO TRIBOUILLARD.

PARIS.- At the crossroads of Anthropology, History of classic and contemporary Art, fashion and customs, the Cheveux Cheris exhibition focuses on the universal theme of hair and brings together approximately 250 classic paintings, sculptures, photographs and ethnographic and multimedia items on that topic.

The exhibition thus evolves from a youthful frivolity to the inevitable occurrence of loss, through age and violence, towards mourning and memory, thereby questioning our categories based on a universal experience.

Prologue - Black/White
In many civilizations, the bust sculpture captured the presence and authority of gods and of the powerful in three-dimensional image.

In the 19th century, great artists such as Charles Cordier produced bronze busts, presenting a ‘noble’ vision of different cultures.

If we take a closer look at the back of the statues and at the hair, we discover a different perspective. Ancient and modern European busts form here a complex patchwork of white and black, bronze and marble combinations and perspectives.

In this ethnic gallery, black and white, bronze and marble, form a chessboard where multiple combinations and standpoints are played out. Busts of Louis XIV and Marie Josephine of Savoy - lent by the Musée National des Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon - are placed alongside busts of black or Chinese women, the works of Charles Cordier, lent by the National Museum of Natural History.

Mere trifles?
Beloved hair. Trophies and trifles aims to demonstrate the great significance accorded to hair in Europe and throughout the world, and how the great care and attention devoted to styling our hair are intimately linked with notions of self-esteem and human dignity. Embarking upon a journey that bears some resemblance to a life cycle, the exhibition begins with the frivolity and insouciance of youth, shaped by whims and desires.

But is this a question of mere frivolity? Or is there something more serious below the surface? The rituals, the care, the changes; do they not also betray a vital urge to create something out of the ordinary and cast off the ugliness of banality?

The exhibition moves from the multifarious array of Western images to focus on representations from other cultures. Paintings, sculptures, photographs, reproductions, objects and multimedia programmes all attempt to capture the fleeting nature of these images, holding up a mirror to our own relationship with our appearance and with our destiny.

Metamorphosis and permutation

Subject to regular metamorphoses at individual and group level, hair is a material. It takes on an infinite variety of physical and symbolic forms, varying between cultures and the social groups, trends and periods within each culture. This floating symbol can represent normality and individuality, conformism and rebellion, seduction and repulsion. It classifies and differentiates people. Faced with this enormous diversity of artworks and objects, we are struck by the obvious paradoxes: shaved head or flowing long hair can be the hallmark of a rebel, a lout, an artist or a king, but also of a hermit, a mourner, a tramp...

The confrontation between a wide variety of pieces and objects reveals apparent paradoxes: a portrait of Pablo Picasso by Herbert List, La danse du scalp (The scalp dance) by Annette Messager, the African Spirits series by photographer Samuel Fosso or the Rois Francs (Frankish Kings) painted by Jean Louis Bézard…

Colours and normality
Blond, brunette, redhead; in colour and black & white

Western civilisations historically recognise seven major groups of hair colour - black, brown, auburn, chestnut, red, blond, grey and white - and each colour comes with its own stereotypes.

Lighter colours, such as blond, are believed to have appealed to our prehistoric ancestors. Blond has reassuring qualities, evoking angels, saints and maternity.

A common hair colour among northern Europeans, blond hair became a totem of the abhorrent theories regarding an Aryan race. Over-represented in the media, blond hair for women has sometimes come to be seen as a sign of superficiality. These clichés remain firmly rooted in the collective imagination, where brunettes are supposed to represent the opposite of blondes, being pragmatic or adventurous, while redheads are depicted as dramatic or even diabolical.

The selection of works displayed here shows artists playing with these clichés, even when working in black and white.

Photos by Sam Levin of famous blonds Suzanne Cloutier, Brigitte Bardot, Sylvie Vartan, Brigitte Fossey or Michèle Morgan alongside brunettes such as Joséphine Baker, Ava Gardner and Gina Lollobrigida. Not to mention paintings by Ingres, Boilly, Charles Maurin or Jean Jacques Henner whose paintings often depict scarlet haired readers and blond maidens.

The colour, length and style of hair are often considered to be key assets in the art of seduction. We will never be able to reconstruct the full variety of hairstyles which existed in the prehistoric period, but it seems highly likely that appearance and the ability to impress were also major preoccupations for our early ancestors.

What we do know for sure is that from Antiquity down to the present day, hairstyles have been in a constant state of flux, evolving hand-in-hand with fashion, convention, discipline... and indiscipline.

Curls, fringes, long flowing locks... Depending on the tastes of artists and their eras, hair has been used in different ways to represent seduction. The mythology and symbolism of hair help blur the boundaries between conformity and licentiousness, morality and sensuality, masculine and feminine. This rich palette of clichés and conventions can also be used to question traditional ideas of gender distinction.

Hair and discipline
The strict, orderly appearance of buns, plaits and braids may represent a desire to conquer nature, suppressing instinct in order to conform to social norms. Seduction also plays with such codes, appropriating and subverting them.

Free-flowing curls
In the traditional iconography of feminine beauty, rolling waves of opulent curls are more readily associated with seduction than simple straight hair. For long periods of time the revelation of loose, unfettered hair was confined to the intimate, private sphere. Transferred to the public arena, it can suggest flaunted intimacy or transgression of these codes.

Blurring gender distinctions
Playing with conventions of hair also allows us to play with notions of gender - whether superficially or in true transgender fashion. As an indicator of identity, hairstyles allow us to appropriate one gender or the other in a manner which can be spectacular or discreet, playing subtly on a multitude of conventions.

French author Colette, with her long braids, photographed by Roger Viollet, the portrait of Denise, daughter of Emile Zola, photographed by her father with her hair down, photos by André Hachette or even the incredible series by J.D. Okhai Ojeikere on the hairstyles of Nigerian women all constitutes a unique heritage of both anthropological, ethnographic and documentary value.

Losing it
The biological lifecycle of hair concludes with its loss. In different individuals and societies hair loss is linked to a variety of situations, some voluntary and some not. Hair implies loss - whether it is accepted or endured - and evokes, through reliquary arrangements, the absence and remembrance of a person.

Accepted loss
Deliberately renouncing one’s hair can involve a complex combination of commitments and conventions: the hair lost by nuns entering certain religious orders, or in initiation rituals in Papua New Guinea, are at once images of abandonment and breaking with the past, and symbols of transition and rebirth.

Accepted loss through the photographs of Francoise Huguier, Man ray and Nobuyoshi Araki, the hair of Papuan initiates cut off on their return from a long initiatory retreat or the fragment of a young Carmelite's hair offered by André Breton to Jean- Jacques Lebel.

A form of dialogue between this life and the great beyond, works of art and crafts integrating hair were popular in the nineteenth century, taking various decorative forms: bracelets, necklaces, medals etc.

These delicate creations were often souvenirs of long-lost childhood, or tokens dedicated to the memory of members of the bourgeoisie and aristocracy lost in the Revolution.

Memories embodied in lockets and brooches from the Musée Carnavalet, the objects of the Jean-Jacques Lebel collection and a hairpin that once belonged to one of Henri Désiré Landru's victims.

Endured loss
Social codes and sexual politics exert their own influence on hair, and often women’s hair in particular: from the shorn locks of adulterous women to hair stolen by fetishists.

The phenomenon of shaving the heads of women accused of sleeping with the enemy was a notable feature of the conflicts which ravaged Europe in the period 1933-1945.

These ‘carnivals of ugliness’, as Alain Brossat described them, took palce in Spain, Germany and of course in France, with the events in Chartres recorded for posterity by Robert Capa. (1391).

Alongside these photos by Robert Capa, endured loss is also forcefully invoked here in the works of Donigan Cumming, Nicholas Nixon, Annie Leibovitz and in their depictions of ageing men and women.

The power of hair
The imagery and significance of hair styles in non-European cultures are wrapped up with the same questions of self-image and seduction, and may even incorporate extensions and elaborate adornments which involve natural materials and spectacular flourishes of colour.

Hair can also be included in items intended to preserve the memory of a special individual, loaded with significance and revered as embodying the essence of a person, particularly in societies which place great value on physical trophies of victory, with an extreme example being the practice of headhunting. Hair is sometimes believed to be imbued with the power of its original owner, and worn as a symbolically-charged personal adornment. Trophies, scalps and other totems are supposed to carry a certain energy, often associated with crop fertility, group prosperity and peaceful relations with deceased Ancestors.

Selected mostly from among the collections of the Musée du Quai Branly, a hundred or so objects made from hair, some modest and some truly spectacular, allow us to feel the presence of bodies long since disappeared. The scene is set for a dialogue between living presence and physical relic, survival and disappearance, frivolity and death.

Many non-European cultures have developed the practice of using additional hair to augment the volume and length of hairstyles. In addition to this highly flexible material - hair can be knotted, woven, braided etc. - the addition of other natural objects and materials ranges from simple coquetry to subtle yet complex symbolism.

Feathers of all colours and sizes, tufts of hair - their number, their length: signs and signals which can convey meaning within a cultural group.

Powerful ornaments and magic charms
In certain ritual contexts, hair which has been cut off and retained can take on magical powers. The practice of wearing belts made of hair is testament to this power.

Acquiring hair which belonged to an important figure, and preserving this hair in a weapon or magic charm, is supposed to convey power and good fortune.

As symbols of victories won, trophies play a complex role in societies with traditions of head-hunting or scalping.

These trophies speak volumes about different conceptions of the body, of gender and of otherness, in societies whose taboos and dividing lines are vastly different from our own.

The power of a head taken as a trophy may carry benefits for the group, feeding into a system of symbolic exchanges between conqueror and conquered, child and ancestor...

Ancestors in the Great Beyond
Hair is a key component in a system of rituals and traditions which connect the living to the Great Beyond, where their Ancestors live on.

The hair of grieving relatives is attached to the mask of Kanak chiefs, while the curls on a mummy’s head recall the hair of a new-born baby.

Immune to decay, from birth to death and beyond, hair has the ability to straddle this life and the next, a portal between two different worlds.

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