Cigarettes, books and the Menil Archive: a personal tribute to Ladislas Bugner
Written by Léa Monteil
Ladislas Bugner was an art historian who devoted himself to building up the Menil Archive of The Image of the Black in Western Art.
In this blog post, MA student, Léa Monteil, traces her encounter with his work, from an apartment in the 13th arrondissement in Paris to the Warburg Institute’s Photographic Collection, where, alongside her MA in Art History Curatorship and Renaissance Culture, she volunteered as a cataloguer.
It is a rainy afternoon in January, a year ago, in 2022, in the 13th arrondissement of Paris. I am waiting for a friend outside an ordinary apartment building. But the reason I am here is not so usual. I have just seen an ad posted by another student at the Ecole Normale Supérieure where I study, Anne Bugner, who wants to give her grandparents’ library away. I happen to love books, as does my friend, and apparently the student’s grandfather was an art historian, which interests me even more.
A girl comes to open the door, and quite a few of us get into the lift. The apartment is not really what I had imagined. The walls are a bit yellow, there is carpet on the floor, the rooms are empty apart from the books, and it is more of a mess than a flat. The smell of cold cigarette permeates the whole atmosphere, but you get used to it. I find things that interest me: a catalogue raisonné of Simon Vouet, a few books by Antoine Schnapper, some texts by Friedrich Hölderlin in La Pléiade, and a copy of the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes , where I am thinking of applying the next year. People come in and out of the flat, taking one book or filling numerous bags, looking in every corner in search of a rare edition.
On the top of the shelves in the main room, a series of large books are lined up. One brave woman decides to take them down. On each of them is a huge photograph of a Black face. Anne Bugner simply says that one person has to take all the albums so that the series can be kept in its entirety . The publication of the books was directed by her grandfather, Ladislas Bugner, the art historian who owned the flat. They look interesting, but it is clear that my backpack and the small storage space in my student accommodation cannot cope with them. I finally decide to leave, with the sad memory of a lifetime of books disappearing into the hands of strangers, and with the lingering smell of smoke sticking to the pages of what I have taken with me.
Exactly a year later, when volunteering in the Photographic Collection of the Warburg Institute and helping to catalogue the Menil Collection of ‘The Image of the Black in Western Art’, Paul Taylor brings me a huge volume. I am looking for the references of a photograph and he tells me that I might find it there. When I see the cover, it all starts to make sense and I remember Ladislas Bugner’s apartment in Paris. I did not know that I would cross his path again, on the other side of the Channel.
Ladislas Bugner died on 9 November 2021 at the age of 86. He dedicated his life to researching European works of art depicting Black people and photographing them for the Menil Archives in Paris . He always felt that his greatest work was collecting the material that is now in the Photographic Collection of the Warburg Institute (around 40,000 images), which he saw as a scholarly resource for future researchers. Some of these photographs were published in the first five volumes of ‘The Image of the Black in Western Art’, which he edited under the auspices of the Menil Foundation. The series was divided into three parts, beginning with Antiquity (part I), going through medieval and early Renaissance imagery (part II) and up to the American Revolution and the First World War (part IV) .
I did not know him, but I would like to pay a small tribute to his work and words: “La part de création contenue dans l'image du Noir témoignera toujours d'une rencontre sur un terrain d'élection : celui de la liberté.” [the creative share included in the image of the Black will always bear witness of an encounter in an elective land: the land of liberty].
Léa Monteil is currently undertaking an MA in Art History, Curatorship and Renaissance Culture at the Warburg Institute, with a dissertation focusing on the loggetta painted by Alessandro Allori in 1588 in the Palazzo Pitti (Florence). Her wider research interests include issues of patronage, the development of genre painting in Italy, and the vision of lower class women in art and texts in the sixteenth century. Léa previously studied art history and archaeology at La Sorbonne and experimental sciences at the Université Paris Sciences et Lettres.
 Volume 58, year 1995. It contains an article written by Jean Michel Massing, who was in contact with Ladislas Bugner (as seen in the photograph above), about the iconography of “Washing the Ethiopian”.
 They would later be given to the Library of the Musée de l’histoire de l’immigration in Paris.
 Another office of the Menil Archives was set up around the same time in Houston, headed by Karen Dalton. The two offices were supposed to share material, but the Houston archives seems to have had only 25,000 photos when it was closed and sent to Harvard. It is now housed in the Hutchins Center.
 Harvard has then published the third part and a revised edition of the other volumes. The series ends up with a fifth part in two volumes about the whole XXth century, but Ladislas Bugner did not pay much contribution to them.