Thursday, July 05, 2007

Paris' Museum of Smoking

From Arnie Cooper's article in today's Wall Street Journal:
The current exhibition, "Caricatures de Fumeurs," which runs through the end of the year, features pen-and-ink drawings from the 17th century to the present. The often humorous artwork shows individuals from all walks of life--students, casino devotees, artists and even children--inhaling and exhaling as they go about their day.
Focusing on all these images of Europeans' puffed-out cheeks, it's easy to forget that smoking is an American invention. As Michka, a co-founder of the museum, likes to say, it was the Native Americans who actually first smoked tobacco--an endeavor that didn't really become a hit in Europe until more than a century after Columbus brought the stuff to these shores. The idea of ingesting smoke was originally a hard sell.

"Hell," says Michka, "was very much on people's minds. So when they saw someone taking something burning at the end to their mouth and blowing smoke, it really seemed to be for them a picture of hell." Eventually, the odd practice caught on, and within a couple of centuries a huge smoke ring enveloped the world along with a burgeoning smoking "culture."

Throughout the museum you'll find various tools of the trade: a scale, bronze and heather pipes, hookahs from the Middle East and the Orient, "le bong" from Southeast Asia, as well as a sculpture of a hollowed-out head for storing loose tobacco.

The "art" of smoking, though, is best demonstrated by a collection of Frédéric Dagain's tobacco-leaf paintings. But perhaps more compelling than the unique canvases are the words that accompany each of the artist's "Divinités Mayas" (Mayan Gods). Surrounding the multihued image of Mictlantecihtl, for example, are the words "Mictlantecihtl, you smoke and you smile. You are the god of death. Take good care of our bodies." More on this later.

Meanwhile, across the corridor you'll see the real deal--huge caramel-colored leaves drying in a makeshift sechoir, or "dryer." "I love the smell," Michka says with a chuckle as we walk by. But tabac is not the only smell Michka appreciates. A few feet away, you'll see a mint sheet of Canadian stamps with a portrait of a young Michka superimposed over a marijuana leaf. (Remember, this is the museum of smoking--not just tobacco.) Surprisingly, Michka, who prefers the single appellation (it's more "convenient," she says), is not a cigarette smoker. After smoking a few menthols as a teenager, she never lit one again.

"Many times I've had this feeling that the fact that I am not a cigarette smoker has given me a kind of virginity in relation to tobacco, and so it's easier for me to have a bit of objectivity."