A Feast for the Eyes: Celebrating Prehistory in the De Mortillet Dinners (an Iconographic Dossier)

Article excerpt

On the death of Gabriel de Mortillet in 1898, his family, friends and disciples initiated a tradition of festive gatherings in his honour. Such was indeed his intellectual and institutional influence -- from radical pioneer of Palaeolithic classification at the Musee des antiquites nationales to dogmatic pontiff at the Ecole d'anthropologie -- that de Mortillet effectively came to personify the discipline of prehistory (see FIGURE A, p. 180; and Kaeser, Richard, this volume). To commemorate him was therefore to consecrate the science itself, and to do so in the form of a periodic dinner was to follow a venerable 19th-century celebratory practice, prevalent among positivists and materialists who eschewed the rituals of obscurantist religion for those of enlightened science. Free-thinkers were also gregarious people, who implicitly recognized with Durkheim (1912) the value of `collective effervescences' in the creation of intellectual communion and social solidarity (see FIGURE B, here). Sponsored by the Societe d'excursions scientifiques which derived from the Ecole d'anthropologie (e.g. Anonymous 1908; 1936), the de Mortillet dinners had a remarkably enduring existence -- starting in 1898 with regular meetings during the winter months, becoming annual after the first world war, the last known 76th dinner took place as late as 1946. The longevity of these gatherings can be related to their predominantly amateur character, in the full sense of the term: not only were the revellers eager to reconvene in between stretches of subsistence activities, they were also united by their unilinear evolutionist heritage, increasingly at odds with the march of professional science.

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There remains of course more to learn on the nature and function of these convivial assemblies, their organization, recruitment and attendance (ladies were welcome for their charm and esprit), their venues (favourite hangouts were the restaurant Maxime in rue des Ternes and the Taverne du Negre in Paris), the speeches pronounced, the contacts made and reinforced. If the raison d'etre of these dinners appear constant enough, the illustrated souvenir/invitation menus produced for each occasion show a considerable diversity. Leaving aside the courses of dishes consumed, according to the tastes of the times and the seasons, it is the iconography of these menus that offers us most food for thought. (1) Conceived by members of the dinner's organizing committee, each menu had it own graphic identity, designed according to talent, interests and historical circumstances. Variations in iconographic styles are evident, also between two consecutive gatherings -- the 12th dinner menu was adorned with academically drawn classical motifs (statue, Athena's owl, and red-on-black nymph-chasing scene; FIGURE C, p. 134) while the 13th contained occurrences of ill-fated number illustrated with a deliberately popularhand (FIGURE D, p. 181). Naturalistic attempts predominate throughout, but the playful influences of primitivism, abstraction and other 20th-century art movements are quite perceptible over the long term. …