STRANGE PHENOMENA ON THE LEFT BANK
A fascinating new exhibition in Paris, Phenomena: The Unexplained in The Face of Science, collects a wide range of rare material and reveals the differences between British and French views of the paranormal says IAN SIMMONS.
The Museum of the History of Medicine is not one of Paris’s higher profile museums, tucked away deep in the Paris Descartes University on the Left Bank and only open for a few hours in the afternoon, but it is one of the most beguiling. Housed in a long, galleried, wood-panelled room built in 1905, it is home to one of the oldest medical collections in Europe. This was founded in the 18th century and includes all kinds of historic medical implements, some of them rather fearsome, such as a giant Wimshurst machine that was used to generate static electricity for electric shock treatments in the days before mains electricity. Now, as part of the PhotoSaintGermain festival, the museum is hosting Phenomena: The Unexplained in The Face of Science, an exhibition of photographs relating to paranormal phenomena. This has been put together after extensive research by radio producer and fortean Philippe
Baudouin and is intended to be in dialogue with the museum’s permanent collection, with which it shares a space. It features images that Baudouin has sourced from institutional and private collections, largely in France, although there are also contributions from Romania, Hungary and the UK. These focus on investigations into strange phenomena carried out largely between the mid19th and late 20th century by members of the scientific and medical establishment, but whose work is mostly ignored or dismissed by that establishment today. As a result, the exhibition contains many photographs that would not be familiar to British audiences, and indeed, many that will be unfamiliar to French audiences as well.
The exhibition reveals differences between the British and French view of the paranormal over this period; for example, there is a section devoted to “animal magnetism”
and human electricity of the kind that Mesmer promoted in the late 18th century. In the UK, interest in this largely died out in the 19th century as mesmerism became synonymous with hypnosis in most people’s minds, but it is clear that in France this remained a prominent area of interest for researchers and as a result the exhibition includes some wonderful images relating to the phenomenon. Among these is a slightly startling photo of the rather dapper Henri Durville, a leading human magnetism researcher, dressed in a sharp suit and holding his hand over an object in a dish at which he is staring with obvious concentration. The object, it turns out, is a foetus, which Durville is attempting to mummify using his own “radiant influence”. Whether he was successful is unknown, but there is a splendidly macabre photo of a severed hand allegedly mummified by the same process next to it, as well as a spectacular photo of “human electricity” being thrown off by a subject.
Another area where French researchers seem to have done significant, but overlooked, work is “dermo-optic perception”, or skin vision, which Yvonne Duplessis explored experimentally in the 1970s; the exhibition features photographs of her experiments, in which a number of children believed capable of this feat are being tested with Zenner cards in various contraptions. Duplessis’s work recurrs throughout the exhibition as she seems to have been both prolific and thorough
Durville is attempting to mummify a foetus using his own “radiant influence”
in documenting her activities. Baudouin was given access to her photographs by her family, enabling him to show many never seen before in public. Little known outside France, too, is the work of psychic detective Leon Couette, who utilised dowsing as part of his approach to solving crime, and was apparently well regarded by Paris police. As well as photos of the man at work, the exhibition also contains his dowsing pendulum, hat and other ephemera associated with the detective.
Further material from the Duplessis collection relates to bioenergetics, auras and Kirlian photography, and this section includes a beautiful “electophotograph” of a hand taken by Romanian researcher Ioan Florin Dumitrescu, which Baudoiun says is his favourite piece in the whole exhibition. These are accompanied by artworks created specially for this show – a kind of steampunk crystal dowsing device made by artist and healer Marc Cohen, and aura photographs by Dorothée Elisa Baumann. These were taken of early visitors to the exhibiton using an Auracam, invented by American engineer Guy Coggins in the 1980s, and I regret missing the opportunity to have mine done.
The section on poltergeists is fascinating, as although it is the only topic to feature photos familiar to British audiences – from the Enfield case – it also has ones from several far less well-known French cases. These are more or less contemporary with Enfield and almost as spectacular, with an apport produced during one of these also on show. The Enfield pictures do act as a reminder, though, of Maurice Grosse’s marvellous moustache and 1970s flares; they don’t make paranormal investigators like that anymore! Baudouin has turned up pictures of a marvellous collection of apports gathered during séances with Lajos Pap in Hungary in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Pap regularly produced seeds, plants, insects and lizards during his sittings, even under the most stringent conditions. These were collected by the psychic researcher Elemér Chengery Pap (no relation, apparently) who created an apport museum in Budapest to house them all. Unfortunately, the museum was completely destroyed during WWII and none of the apports survive, so these photos are all that is left as evidence of Lajos Pap’s prodigious talents.
There is also some fascinating video, which as well as showing familiar film of Soviet psychic Nina Kulagina, has some lesserknown footage of Eleonore Zugun, who gained notoriety in the 1920s for being able to manifest bite marks, weals and other wounds on her skin, as well as generating more familiar poltergeist activity. Of course, no psychic phenomena exhibition would be complete without the inevitable Uri Geller, who is indeed present and correct, but for a change playing second fiddle to a selection of French “mini-Gellers”; children who, in the 1970s, manifested similar skills after seeing him on TV. Baudouin has tracked some of these down and has photos of them in action back in their heyday, along with a selection of mangled silverware they had distorted, some of which would have required significant effort to wreck if they were faking it and bending them by hand.
Having curated the fortean exhibition Of Monsters and Miracles at Croydon Clocktower back in 1995, I know how difficult it is to persuade museums to present this kind of material – so kudos to The Museum of the History of Medicine sticking its neck out and giving this show space. It is a deeply researched and well considered exploration of a complex topic that contributes to scholarship in the field by bringing to light many previously unknown photos and is a credit to all involved. It seems, too, that this is only the first part; there will be a follow-up show next year looking at other aspects of fortean phenomena, which will be accompanied by an extensive catalogue covering both exhibitions. It is definitely worth diverting to see this exhibition or its sequel if you find yourself near Paris (do check opening times first). All text is in French, but Google Lens now does a wonderful job of giving you some idea of what it all means.
Phenomena: The Unexplained in the Face of Science runs until 28 Jan at Musée d’Histoire de la Médecine – Université Paris Cité, 12 rue de l’École de Médecine, 75006 Paris. Visit https://u-paris. fr/bibliotheques/expositionphenomenes-photosaintgermain/ for more information.