SKELETON IN THE CUPBOARD

Are you brave enough to visit the secret Fragonard Museum, hidden in a quiet Paris suburb? The very courageous Taras Grescoe drops in and discovers two-headed sheep and human bodies stripped of their flesh
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The Independent Culture
There are parts of Paris that never make it into the guidebooks, and the Fragonard Museum is in one of them. The little bedroom community of Maisons-Alfort, at the confluence of the Seine and the Marne just south of the Bois de Vincennes, is only 20 minutes upstream from the Louvre by even the slowest peniche, but a skein of TGV tracks, aerial metro lines and peripherique off-ramps has lately transformed this nondescript suburb into a commuter belt no-man's-land.

Since the 18th century, in fact, Maisons-Alfort has been noted for only two things. The first is its proximity to the grim enclave of Charenton, the insane asylum - France's answer to Bedlam - whose walls are visible just across the water. The second is the presence of one of the world's oldest veterinary schools. The sprawling Ecole Veterinaire d'Alfort, with its stone walls topped by spikes, its slit-windowed turrets and dissection laboratories, looks as intimidating and inescapable as the most Zolaesque asile d'alienes. On this overcast afternoon, however, the knowledge that it is also the permanent home to a museum filled with the grotesque life's work of an anatomist - declared mad by his contemporaries - makes it downright terrifying.

Back in 1766, when the school first opened, Parisians used to dump dead horses and cows at its doors, and attacked the carts the hated veterinarians sent out in search of cadavers to dissect. If they had seen what the school's first director was doing to human corpses, however, it wouldn't have been surprising if they had actually tried to burn the place down. Honore Fragonard spent his life in the terrain vague between science and art, using bodies rather than clay for raw material, and Paris' oldest, least known museum is filled with some of the most disturbing sculptures that have ever been created.

These days, Parisians bring their animals to the school voluntarily; one suspects, however, that if the young woman carrying her poodle across a courtyard towards a building labelled "Canine Sperm Bank'' knew what was hidden away in the collections of the Fragonard Museum, she'd turn around and run.

Fortunately, the few rusty signs that point to the museum's entrance aren't likely to excite much suspicion. The name Fragonard has long been associated with the refined pursuits of the upper echelons of French culture: the paintings of Jean-Honors Fragonard hang in the Louvre, and a Fragonard Museum of Perfume has just opened on Avenue de l'Opera. But Fragonard - the anatomist - had other interests. Although he was born into the same wealthy Provencal family of perfumers that produced the celebrated painter (they were first cousins) his tastes ran to formaldehyde rather than oil paint or ambergris.

The sickly sweet smell of the embalming fluid is the first thing to greet the visitor at the entrance to the three-room museum. The second is a hand-lettered sign on a desk in front of the skeleton of a rhinoceros: "Unfortunately, we have too few visitors. If you enjoy the museum, why not send us your friends - if not, your enemies.'' Although it's one of the oldest museums in France, the Musee Fragonard d'Alfort isn't mentioned in any current guides to the museums of Paris, even the otherwise exhaustive ones published by the Ministry of Culture. I managed to track down its address through a service on the French computer network, the Minitel, called L'Introuvable - literally, the "Unfindable''. Not surprisingly, neither friend nor foe could make it to the museum today. After buying my ticket from a man who immediately returns to the dissection rooms below, I'm left alone for the afternoon. Apart from the cracking of the herringbone parquet underfoot, and the occasional sounds of horse's hooves falling on gravel in the courtyard below, a total, sepulchral silence reigns over the rows of tall exhibition cases.

Roaming from cabinet to cabinet in the first of three linked rooms, it's hard to say whether the items in the collection, most of which date from the 19th and early 20th centuries, were chosen becaue they were instructive, bizarre, or simply beautiful. There's a jewel box of iridescent, perfect pearls formed in the kidneys of cows. A piglet displayed in cross-section has undergone "diaphanisation'' - its organs have been treated with a chemical which makes them transparent - so that it resembles some kind of ghostly deep-sea fish. The pale blue foetus of a horse, injected with mercury to highlight the vessels in the membranes, floats in a jar, surrounded by a tracery of quicksilver. Ostensibly, all the works are meant to illustrate some principle of anatomy; at some point, however, their anonymous creators must have yielded to a stronger impulse to crate something beautiful.

The cabinets devoted to teratology, the study of monstrosities, are a journey through Greek and Roman mythology. There is the head of a cyclops - colt with a malformed facial bone that caused it to develop one huge eye with a single optical nerve. A siren floats in a cracked jar of liquid - in reality a baby, born in Maisons-Alfort, whose joined legs make it look like a mermaid. There are hermaphrodites and Janus-faced calves, in skeleton form and stuffed. There are monsters whose birth would have augured the outbreak of a dozen Athenian plagues: Siamese twin lambs, locked chest-to-chest in a permanent waltz; chicken skulls the size of basketballs, monsters that are nothing more than spheres of fur, muscle fibres, and teeth; a 10-legged sheep, floating in a tank of formaldehyde. It makes a show by artist Damien Hirst look like a trip to a kiddie zoo.

As shocking as they are, these deformities and mutations are merely part of a tradition that includes both cabinets des curiosites and Ripley's Believe It or Not! museums. They do nothing to prepare the visitor for the contents of the museum's third room. After a central chamber that is like the contents of a phantom Noah's Ark, tightly packed with the skeletons of ostriches, camels, and lions caught in mid-roar, the work of Fragonard appears in the display cases of the final room. The silhouette of a horse in full gallop, mounted by a stiff-backed rider, attracts the visitor to the cabinets that house the oldest part of the museum's collection.

Drawing closer, however, it becomes clear that something is wrong. This horse has no skin. Although it's caught in mid-stride, it looks like it's been flayed alive. Every cord of its flexed muscles is visible; bulging blue veins stretch over its jaws, tendons and ligaments strain to raise the out-thrust neck. The upright rider, arms bent as if to grip reins and a whip, is not exactly a skeleton, but neither is he human: rather an accumulation of brown ligaments, red arteries and yellow tendons. The gigantic, shining orbs of his eyes stare fixedly into the distance, over rows of gritted teeth. It's Durer's Horsemen of the Apocalypse by way of Madame Tussaud (she was a contemporary of Fragonard's), except that this is no waxwork - these are real bodies that have been carefully stripped of their skin and elaborately posed.

In another cabinet, a stocky figure brandishes the jawbone of a horse. In the silent, deserted museum, his expression, his entire attitude makes it an effort of will to approach the glass of the display case. Baring his teeth beneath twisted lips and a broken nose, he looks like he's advancing towards the viewer in a fury. The veins in his heart swell blue and red, over exposed viscera and a turgid groin. It's as though an enraged guard has caught you trying to break into the devil's sleeping quarters, and he's grabbed the first thing at hand - in this case, a mandible -to ward you off. To cap the horror, a trio of human foetuses dance a macabre, ecstatic jig around his firmly planted feet. There are over a dozen other flayed figures - ecorches - on display in the room. The bust of a man, skin peeled away from the skull, is mounted on a pedestal. An antelope whose flesh seems to have exploded away from its bones looks at the spectator in dumb shock; a self-absorbed monkey appears to concentrate on playing an invisible violin; a llama, its tongue lolling, rears back in surprise.

Of the 3,000 preparations of cadavers and body parts Honore Fragonard created in his lifetime, about 50 were ecorches like the ones in this museum. Born in the Provencal town of Grasse, Fragonard trained to be a surgeon, and was named director of the world's first veterinary school in Lyon. At the age of 33, he came to the newly opened school outside of Paris. Dissecting cadavers at the rate of two a week, he started to develop the techniques that would allow him to preserve and pose his ecorches. Although he never revealed his special recipe, Fragonard probably followed a technique used by other anatomists: he preserved body parts by soaking in eau-de-vie, or another alcohol, mixed with pepper and herbs. While still supple, Fragonard injected the veins, bronchial tubes and arteries with colored wax or tallow mixed with turpentine. They were then stretched on a frame in the desired position and left to dry.

While Fragonard was still perfecting his technique, the head of the school, an ambitious and worldly aristocrat, was quietly spreading the word that he had a madman on his staff. In the salons of Paris, rumour had it that the figure on the horse was actually Fragonard's fiancee - who had succumbed to grief after her parents refused their marriage - disinterred by the mad doctor and preserved for eternity. (A tiptoe inspection of the saddle area of the Horseman reveals the rumour was unfounded.)

In 1771, at the age of 39, Fragonard was dismissed from the school as a madman. If he was insane - and all indications are that he remained perfectly lucid until his death at the age of 66 - his brand of folly was particularly in vogue with the European upper classes. Aristocrats kept him employed creating similar preparations for their private cabinets des curiosities right up to the beginning of the French Revolution. Fragonard died in 1799, shortly after recommending that the contents of the veterinary school museum - as well as his ecorches - be placed in one of the churches that the Revolution had closed.

As the initial horror of Fragonard's creations wear off, questions arise. If this is supposed to be an anatomy lesson, why the elaborate theatricality of the poses? If, on the other hand, this is meant to be art, what kind of sculptor, using what standard of beauty, would devote his life to creating prodigious monstrosities? And, whichever he was - artist or anatomist - how did he get away with it for so long? Unfortunately, the only possible response to these questions lies in the silence of this neglected museum, in the works themselves. Taciturn in his lifefime, Fragonard spent his days and nights curved over cadavers, and never published a single volume to explain his techniques and motivations. When asked what he was up to in his secluded cabinet, the anatomist's only response was an enigmatic smile and an entreaty, one that's just as valid today: Venez et voyez. Come and see.

The silence of the horses: in the18th century the anatomist Honore Fragonard discovered a technique for removing the skin from animals, and people, to reveal the inner workings of their bodies

! Fragonard Museum (00 33 1 43 96 71 72), 7 Avenue General de Gaulle, Maisons-Alfort, Paris. Metro, Alfort-Ecole Veterinaire. The museum re-opens after a summer break on September 3. Open Tuesdays and Wednesdays 2-5pm, Saturdays and Sundays 10am-5pm. Admission costs 15FF (approximately pounds 1.85) for adults and 10FF for children under 12 years old. Parties of 10 or more are charged 10FF per person. Call in advance for guided tour.

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