Musée du Quai Branly; pic: Musée du Quai Branly/Gautier Deblonde

If you want weird discoveries, there are few better places than Musée du Quai Branly. Officially it’s a showcase for the arts and civilizations of Asia, Africa, Oceania and the Americas. Throughout history, however, the mythical allure of those worlds has attracted nuts – something Quai Branly is unafraid to admit.


Tiki Pop; pic: Musée du Quai Branly

Whenever they tackle an epoch or subject, it’s done with serious scholarship. But it’s their curatorial quirks – mounting shows like Tarzan! or Laughter, Horror and Death – that have helped Quai Branly break attendance records. Their current offering, Tiki Pop, was put together by “urban archaeologist” Sven Kirsten. It’s full of observations such as “That period before the Tiki became the figurehead of this recreational lifestyle can be referred to as the ‘pre-Tiki’ period…”


Pierre Loti at home; pic: Paul Cardon (Dornac), Bibliotheque Nationale

For me, the show’s highlight comes from that pre-Tiki period, in a cameo by Pierre Loti (1850-1923). Along with Captain Cook, Herman Melville and Paul Gauguin, Loti appears as an early South Seas romanticisier. A French naval officer who liked high-heels and fancy dress, he was also one of the 19th century’s best-known writers. (Loti’s works were loved by the likes of Proust and Henry James).

In 1891, he was even made an Immortel, i.e. elected to the Académie Française. For this honour, Loti beat out no less than Zola – and they are still the only writers to have received French state funerals.


Pierre Loti; pic: Musées d’Art et d’Histoire de Rochefort

Loti wasn’t Pierre’s real name, however; neither was Pierre. He was born Louis-Marie-Julien Viaud in the Southwestern port of Rochefort. The Navy, which Viaud was keen to join at 17, sent him off to French Polynesia for training. This was the start of his nomadic life, which boomeranged between the Middle East, Africa, India – and even China. Viaud was baptized “Loti” after a Tahitian flower. Calling him “Pierre” was the idea of actress Sarah Bernhardt.


Loti’s Osisris costume, Musée du Quai Branly; pic: Steve Sampson

In 2013, Quai Branly held an exposition on Loti himself: J’arrive, j’aime, je m’en vais (I arrive, I love, I leave). It was a small show – but a little Loti goes a long way. Among its exhibits were: examples of Loti’s mind-boggling costume closet; specimens from his collection of cute sailor photos; some of his letters to and from fancy royal friends and case after case filled with packaged (and dated) relics.


Loti’s animal funeral packages; pic; Steve Sampson


Lemon preserved by Loti; pic: Steve Sampson


Loti packages, detail; pic:Steve Sampson

Many of these were insects, birds or animals he mummified as a child. After conducting their funeral rites, Loti preserved them all for posterity. In the same way, he conserved his mother’s bouquets or, later, hawthorn blooms cut the night his stillborn son was delivered.

Of all the artefacts meant to impress, the medals and novels and famous friends, the real attention-grabber was these strange, funereal packets. Not only were they numerous in the exhibit – at Loti’s house in Rochefort, there are many more. (Maison Loti also houses five human coffins, each inhabited).


A Chinese party at maison Loti; pic: Musées d’Art et d’Histoire de Rochefort


Loti’s so-called mosque room; pic: Musées d’Art et d’Histoire de Rochefort

Loti’s home is actually something of an urban legend. Currently collapsing under the weight of his treasures – as well as the marble “mosque” he unwisely built on an upper floor – it is now undergoing emergency renovations.

Visitors to the Loti show got a Sensurround experience. In an alcove hidden behind velvet curtain, they could sniff a special fragrance. This turned out to be… how Loti used to smell! He had his own perfume mixed in 1913, but just a single dried-out bottle remains. Perfumer Laurent-David Garnier, however, deciphered its residue. He then recreated the scent for Quai Branly.


Loti show, Musée du Quai Branly; pic: Steve Sampson

In his day Pierre Loti was wildly popular as an author – hence his inclusion as a Tiki Pop “inspiration”. Yet, when hailing his talents, contemporaries measured their words. As Henry James tactfully put it in 1898, “He was familiar with both ends of the spectrum of taste.” Face to face with Loti’s fancies, one might empathise with James.

But Pierre Loti would have loved Quai Branly’s Mai Tai room. A short chap with big dreams, he’s just right for Tiki Pop. As with so many “vanished cults”, each left behind more questions than answers.


Mai Tai room, Quai Branly; Musée du Quai Branly/Gautier Deblonde


Mai Tai room (detail); Pic: Cynthia Rose

Was Fifties and Sixties America that crazy for Tiki? Who knows.

At least Kirsten’s narrative has a certain coherence. First he says, the well-off, postWar nation got hooked on a best-selling book (Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki). That led to Hollywood clubs and Hilton hotel bars with waterfalls – which soon spread to suburban luaus, muumuus and Polynesian cocktails. It’s documented with masses of ephemera: mugs, matches, architectural maquettes, movies and music.

In fact it’s rather like a cache of Loti’s curiosities.


Tiki Pop, pic: Musée du Quai Branly/Gautier Deblonde


Tiki Pop; pic: Cynthia Rose


Tiki Pop; pic: Cynthia Rose


Tiki Pop; pic: Cynthia Rose

Quai Branly has frankly billed this exhibition as kitsch. But, from its brick-like catalogue to a gift shop stuffed with goodies, it’s going to make them an awful lot of money.


Tiki Pop; pic: Cynthia Rose


Tiki Pop; pic: Cynthia Rose


Tiki Pop; pic: Cynthia Rose

Museum Director Stéphane Martin has a message for would-be critics: “One needs to regard the Tiki style with a little indulgence.”

“If we do, we find it has talented, inventive participants…many of whom have done research. Because, to realise such synthetic objects with success, one must confront the more authentic sources. That is why, to underline Tiki Pop’s origins, we have included pieces from our own collections. These came from New Zealand, Hawaii and the Marquesas. But they are not included to speak about Polynesian peoples; they are points of departure for something else entirely. Something I would qualify as modern art.”

All this persuasive presentation can be convincing. So maybe a Tiki craze did sweep the whole of America. Maybe…it was somehow just lost, leaving behind – like Loti – merely funky photos and outfits.


Tiki Pop; pic: Cynthia Rose

• Tiki Pop runs until 28 September at Musée du Quai Branly; there’s a huge but gorgeous catalogue: Tiki Pop: America imagines its own Polynesian Paradise.

• Read Pierre Loti’s “Impressions” in English (with the introduction by Henry James)

• You can see Loti’s house via a virtual tour


Tiki Pop; pic: Cynthia Rose


Loti show with Loti posed as Rameses II; pic: Steve Sampson