When I first heard about the Paris 1900 exhibition held at the Petit Palais, I must admit I was quite immediately excited about it. Not knowing anything about it, something inside me believed I would love it and I wasn’t disappointed. For those of you who may not know the Petit Palais, it can surely be considered as one of Paris’ loveliest museums with its beautiful Beaux Arts style architecture, decorated with impressive frescos and mosaics. Housing the city’s fine arts museum, it was specially erected for Paris’ Exposition Universelle in 1900 and thus stands as the perfect location for an exhibition dedicated to that particular time. On the pretext of the International Exhibition, the display introduces visitors to Paris’s splendid and luxurious context during the Belle Epoque. Organized like the Exposition itself, Paris 1900 is organized into 6 sections – 6 pavilions that all highlight the different aspects of the French capital’s cultural and artistic life. The exhibition demonstrates how spectacular this moment in Paris’ history has been, nourished by about 600 pieces (I think I have actually never seen so many artefacts in one space!) that mingle scientific rigor and pure aesthetic pleasure. From oral and social history to official art and innovative design, the display spans this unique cultural moment with a very rich (almost too rich: there is so much to look at) documentation: Mucha posters, letters, models, films by the Lumière brothers, a real metro entrance by Hector Guimard, paintings, sculptures and costumes. The whole within an impressive yet simple scenography.
The first section thus immediately brings our attention on the Exposition Universelle itself and all the architectural projects and decors, built or not, that accompanied it. This first part also celebrates the emergence of modernity with electricity, cinematography, the motor industry…that all supported the festivities’ atmosphere. A triumphant modernity that liberated imagination leading to such projects as the Eiffel Tower, the Petit and Grand Palais, the Alexandre III bridge, metro and railway lines….that enhanced Paris’ splendor as it was at the centre of the world’s attention. The visitor is introduced to the second section dedicated to Art Nouveau by a dancing Loie Fuller filmed by Pathé, in 1900: her innovative choreographies and her sinuous nature-inspired gestures perfectly echo the lines of the Art Nouveau furniture, decors and objects.
Not being an exhibition about Art Nouveau, there is no academic approach to the movement within this section, simply a stunning ensemble of artefacts that all highlight the work of the Art Nouveau’s pioneers and put the visitors in the skin of the Exposition’s wealthy art-lovers. Alongside Majorelle furniture, Gallé delicate objects and Lalique precious jewelry, are presented two ‘avant-garde’ costumes that evoke the concept of total art promoted by the movement. These simple white outfits bear very graphic adornments that evoke the stylistic researches of Art Nouveau artists. The third section establishes what an art centre the French capital was with a hanging evocative of classic 19th century museums – that is an accumulation on the wall, all the way up to the ceiling.
21st century visitors being used to the white cube concept do get quite disoriented as there are many artworks to observe and you have to raise the neck high (and get blind by the spotlights) to be able to look at the highest pieces: I did appreciate the historical reference but it definitely wasn’t very practical. Nevertheless, this room overflowed with incredible works from Auguste Rodin’s sculptures to the Nabi’s almost abstract experimentations, Symbolist disturbing legends and the Impressionist serene landscapes. Strangely, although the selection is clearly eclectic, there is a certain sense of harmony that can be felt, as though, more than reflecting about different artistic movements, the section simply provides an insight into the period’s global creativity.
The following section highlights the mythic figure of the admired Parisienne and how her persona was greatly built at the turn of the century with the help of the Exposition that brought much of foreigners’ attention on the feminine characters of the city. A contemporary journalist described her as ‘distinguished from other women by an understated elegance appropriate to every circumstance in life. Her characteristics are restraint, good taste, innate refinement and that indefinable something which is unique to her, a mixture of allure and modernism that we call chic.’ Thus the Parisienne rapidly was identified as not only a geographical cliché but more as a chic attitude that could be embodied by elegant duchesses as well as popular ‘midinettes’. The ‘pavilion’ we enter proposes art pieces that evoke the various representations of the Parisienne, will it be through photographies or paintings and mostly with her very own objects – costumes, jewelry and accessories – the whole drawing the picture of a mythified as well as a real woman. The little number of fashion artefacts (all lent by the Musée Galliera) are mostly spectacular pieces such as a lovely tea gown that belonged to the French comedian, Réjane, a majestic cape earned by the Duchesse de Greffuhle and a Redfern ensemble made for Anna Gould.
The two last sections highlight Paris’ night and entertainment life made of cafés, bals, cheeky cabarets, drama pieces conducted by the iconic persona of Sarah Bernhardt, operas and early experimental films. The dark side of 1900’s Parisian life is supposedly demonstrated with references to morphine and brothels. I must admit I did not find the rendering of Paris’ dark side that dark: the scenography privileged humour and a certain glamour with portraits of the city’s legendary courtesans that mostly leave us thinking that the period was free-spirited and fun rather than glaucous although we do know poverty, absinthe, drugs and prostitution were serious issues. Focusing on the Parisienne part as it enclosed the fashion objects, the exhibition definitely points out to the fact that she was entirely indissociable from the urban environment she evolved in, the reason why tailored masculine-like ensembles popularized by Redfern met with such success as they enabled Parisian women to stroll around in their city with dark and practical yet elegant outfits – the ancestor of the perfect little black dress! The Parisienne also helped establish the fame of the capital’s couture houses and craftsmanship: the Made in Paris concept becoming highly popular. The display confirms how limited the avant-garde’s influence was – fashion privileged the S shaped silhouettes (although we could say these sinuous forms did resemble that of the Art Nouveau creations) and historical motifs. What disturbed me is how the exhibition has restricted the feminine figure to the ‘frivolities’ of fashion, domestic affairs or to sexual pleasures: I know women did experience such confinements but the art section lacked art pieces made by women as well as I would have wished to see masculine fashion that would have also helped us draw the outlines of the male parisian.
In the whole, Paris 1900 illustrates how inventive, spectacular and unleashed the city was, establishing close interactions between art, social and design history. It does not concentrate on precise academic issues nor does it analyse modernity and experimental works but it definitely makes the visitors feel as if they were participating to the Exposition Universelle’s exciting fiesta. I greatly appreciated the fact that fashion was not left out as it does evoke how important this creative discipline was considered within international exhibitions within which they were given special lavish displays: fashion was undeniably part of a whole artistic and cultural context – a partner of high art.
Further Resources: The exhibition’s catalogue is very interesting (I did treat myself with it):
Bosc, Alexandra. Paris 1900: La Ville Spectacle. Paris: Paris Musées, 2014.
Rose, Clare. Art Nouveau Fashion. London: V& A Publishing, 2014.