5 April 2018 – Musée Balaguier, La Seyne-sur-Mer, France
Read Part 1. “Ceinture de Fer” here
Read Part 2. The Doctor and the “plan” here
Part 3. The Chapel
The Musée Balaguier is an unusual site for a prison museum in that, despite operating as a fort, it has never been used for detention. Its link to the bagne lies instead to the proximity of the Fort to Toulon, one of the original dockyard prisons. As mentioned in an earlier post, the museum’s collection of objects from both French Guiana and New Caledonia is largely a result of doctors working in France’s colonies retiring to the South of France producing a neat circularity.
The Fort’s main tower houses temporary exhibitions often linked to the region itself. The small chapel located in the grounds of the fort is where the permanent exhibition on the bagnes is located although the museum frequently loans its objects to other museums and galleries. The chapel is cool and dark and immediately creates an aura. Although the dark and musty interior is perhaps reminiscent of the interior of a stone prison cell, this effect is complicated by the evocation of the sacred space of organized religion still present in the tiny stained glass porthole and stone altar. The objects carefully crafted by convicts appear almost as sacred relics with the reproduction of leg irons used to restrain convicts at night suggesting a quasi-religious level of suffering and thus the potential for redemption.
The chapel as prison museum seems to constitute the apotheosis of the ongoing relationship between Church and State in matters of punishment. And this at a time when other state institutions were forcibly decoupled from the Catholic Church in France. Elsewhere the church has provided a different form of repository for convict art. Having once stolen artwork from the cathedral in Rouen, replacing it with forgeries, Francis Lagrange (also known as Flag) was later put to work painting frescoes in the chapel on Île Royale. Similarly, the church (Église Saint-Joseph) in the small town of Iracoubo (which now functions as a border control despite being an hour and half drive from French Guiana’s river border with Suriname – more on this later) features elaborate frescoes by another lesser-known convict, Pierre Huguet.
Can we read this in terms of an acknowledgment of redemption via artistic creativity fostered by the priests and chaplains assigned to French Guiana? This marks a notable shift from the disciplinary mechanisms found in the religious and penal institutions of 19th century England and France (as delineated in Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish).
Or, and this is perhaps a more cynical reading, is this redirection of ‘creativity’ towards authorized sites and activities not only a means of circumventing the convict’s use of his skill or talent within the Système D but at the same time an indication of the investment of the penal administration and its chaplaincy in this system? A complicated (and slightly confused) question and one that seems to pose itself in the contemporary context of offender art as creative labour and the appropriation of this by different organisations. SF
Épailly, Eugène, Francis Lagrange: Bagnard, faussaire génial (1994).
Foucault, Michel, Surveiller et punir (Paris: Gallimard, 1975).
Musée Balaguier – Exhibition Catalogues
Les Artistes du bagne. Chefs d’œuvre de la debrouille (1748-1953). March 2010.
Nouvelle Calédonie. Le Bagne oublié. November 2012
Photographs by Marinette Delanné. Text by Julien Gomez-Estienne and Franck Sénateur.
Museum website: http://www.la-seyne.fr/Musee-Balaguier/index.html