The Grandeur of Angkor Illustrated in ‘Le Petit Journal’

The collection of French newspaper illustrations dating back to 1875, and which are now exhibited at the Make Maek art gallery in Battambang City, started with Mathieu Damperon rummaging through his grandmother’s books and papers in her dusty storage room in France.

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Cambodia’s Royal Ballet dancers are shown performing at the Marseilles colonial exhibition in France on the cover of this June 24, 1906 edition of ‘Le Petit Journal.’ (Mathieu Damperon)

While rummaging, Mr. Damperon came across a 1906 issue of the French newspaper “Le Petit Journal” with a rare photograph of Cambodia’s Royal Ballet dancers performing at the French president’s Elysee residence during the visit of Cambodia’s King Sisowath to Paris that year.

The discovery prompted Mr. Damperon to search for more original copies of “Le Petit Journal” featuring Cambodia. He located two newspaper collectors in France, paid them a visit and, searching through their stock, found that as early as 1875, the newspaper had written lengthy, full-page stories and illustrations on Angkor.

Entitled “Cambodia News, I Remember,” the exhibition includes 15 original pages from “Le Petit Journal” published between 1875 and 1930 containing stories about Cambodia.

“The stories somehow managed to convey to the newspaper’s French readers how important this marvel was for humanity as a whole,” Mr. Damperon said Friday.

Founded in 1863 in Paris, “Le Petit Journal” was one of the leading dailies in France up to the 1900s, its circulation surpassing all other French papers around 1890 with a record sale of 1 million copies. It stopped publication in 1944.

The space that the newspaper dedicated to Angkor in the 1870s reflects the fascination that the monuments held for the French public since the 1863 publication of naturalist and explorer Henri Mouhot’s account of his visit to the Angkor temples, which had created a great deal of excitement in France.

Mr. Mouhot’s account was especially exciting at the time because Cambodia was in the news.  It had been placed under a Protectorate Treaty with France in 1863, and the French government was in the process of establishing a French colonial administration in the country that would last until independence from France in 1953.

The 1875 stories in “Le Petit Journal” came with illustrations of what the temples’ construction sites may have looked like during Angkor as workers moved the huge stones with the help of elephants. By the early 1900s, the newspaper would publish actual black-and-white photos of Angkor, as can be seen in the exhibition. The articles on exhibit are summarized in French and English.

Mr. Damperon became interested in Cambodia more than a decade ago when he and his French-Cambodian wife Chan Sothy visited her hometown of Battambang City in an attempt to find her family. Sothy had fled the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979 and immigrated to France in 1982. They have since opened an inn and restaurant in Battambang City where they usually display the “Le Petit Journal” issues.

The exhibition at the Make Maek Gallery on Street 2.5 runs through December 6.

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