There is talk of a recent trend concerning Paris and its Chinese tourists, whose relation may become rocky. Travelling to the capital city with an ideal image of the City of Love in their minds (with Hollywood films and perfume adverts as the first culprits), they are often disillusioned and upset by the gritty reality that they faces upon arrival. Filthy subways, unkempt streets, rude waiters and grumpy Parisians abound in this fairytale gone wrong, according to this captivating article by The Business of Fashion.
I am probably a grumpy Parisian at heart: I was initially disgruntled by the fact that a living, active city was expected to keep itself as pristine and glossy as a Vogue photoshoot for tourists who, sometimes, do not bother with basic French phrases…or manners. Additionally, we would also like clean subways and pristine customer service to justify the price of a 4 euro espresso!
However this trend may not be that new. The tension between the naïve visitor and the seasoned Parisian, the Paris of dreams and the messy Paris of everyday life made me think of a recent exhibition. Indeed, Paris 1900 at the Petit Palais has both fed upon this dreamlike vision of Paris and challenged it in its own subtle ways.
The city is quite sleepy in terms of new art exhibitions for now. Many galleries are still shut and most museums are waiting for everyone to return from holidays before launching their new exhibitions in September. Despite the fact that Paris 1900 is now over, I wanted to reflect upon it, and return to Paris more than one century ago, at a turning point in terms of history, social change and entertainment.
Paris 1900 promised a “Ville de Spectacle” and this is exactly what I experienced, in a format somewhere between an art exhibition and a documentary. 1900 was both a pivotal year of the Belle Époque, the symbol of a last decade of prosperity before WWI and the year of the “Exposition Universelle” of Paris, or Universal Exposition. This was the event of the year, following into the footsteps of its Universal Exposition of 1889 and countless other Expos in the past decades in London, New York and Chicago. The aim of these expositions was to showcase the international achievements of the past decades in terms of science, industrial innovation, art and culture. In other terms, it was a huge opportunity for friendly rivalry between countries and unbridled showing off for the host city. Paris therefore transformed itself along the riverbanks of the Seine to welcome approximately 50 million visitors. Although most of the pavilions and adornments were temporary, a few of them still influence the Parisian landscape including the Eiffel Tower and the Petit Palais itself.
A general introduction to the Universal Exposition showed a flurry of preparatory sketches, blueprints, posters and paintings, where the diversity of objects and exhibits created a particular atmosphere. The unpredictable and the eccentric accompanied this international crisscrossing of cultures, making the city a large parade both for its tourists and its inhabitants. A beautiful fresco by Alfons Mucha was displayed overhead, right next to an authentic Metro gateway, in the typical Art Nouveau style that pervaded the entire Expo.
Without selection or elitism, I was given an overview of the entire bustle and pomp around the exhibition in its most splendid and kitsch undertones. Most of the exhibition pavilions for each country and the different “palaces” built to welcome scientific or artistic displays were meant to impress and entertain for a while which allowed all kind of extravagances. As a shaky black and white footage from the Frères Lumière showed, the view along the Seine was ridiculously spectacular. So were the filmed reactions of Parisians sampling some moving sidewalks for the very first time. There was something moving about their excitement that created a sharp contrast with the utterly nonplussed use of moving platforms in the Parisian subway today…
The attention to detail, scenography and the steps every visitor undertakes through the exhibition was striking from the very beginning. The first room was constructed as a large airy space with archways that indeed gave the impression of an old fashioned exhibition space. Through the corridors leading to each new section, a film of Parisians going about their everyday lives was projected and on the other side, a mirror allowed visitors to literally “mirror” their experiences and those of their French, 20th century counterparts. It was truly this aspect and this sense of an intimate, ordinary vision of the Parisian in 1900 that created the exhibition’s strength.
The Art Nouveau section, teeming with sculpture, textiles and furniture was full of surprises and hidden gems – such as Sarah Bernhardt’s apparent love of sculptures depicting the seaweed, shells and driftwood she would pick up on the beach! I couldn’t help but think of the slight scorn that celebrities experience when they try to reconvert themselves into art and attract mixed reviews. With a mix of art, design and decoration, with tapestries shown next to wallpaper, and busts cohabitating with combs, a true sense of the full aesthetic emerges here, the first sense of modern design that does not limit itself to a single category. Is it difficult to limit Art Nouveau to one single room? Yes, but this exhibition achieved it without leaving anyone too frustrated.
This perhaps had something to do with the next room, which managed to reconstruct the content and atmosphere of one of the famed Artists’ Salons, where all of Paris – or those who could afford to in terms of time or money – would come and admire or violently criticize exhibiting artists. The idea of using the same format as a Salon, with a hanging system covering all of the walls from top to bottom was bad at the time, making some paintings hard to observe, let alone appreciate. The adaptation 114 years later was not any more successful in terms of visibility! Yet, with a small room dedicated to Rodin sculptures, and a late Monet facing Cézanne’s portrait of his friend and art dealer Vollard, a rich and comprehensive immersion back into the artistic scene of 1900 was achieved. This section definitely chose to show a realistic portrayal of the range of artists at the time, showcasing not only those whose names and images are still memorable for us, but also more significantly those who were forgotten by most people, lurking in small museums or thesis footnotes. This was mostly relevant in showing the amount of overwhelming choice that the audience had in terms of painters…and the fact that while some could be passing trends, uncovered gems could remain undiscovered for a century or so.
As stereotypical as it sounds, the Parisian experience could not be narrated without the mention of fashion…and this ‘mention’ manifested itself in a lavish collection of clothes from the period, many of which come from the prestigious Musée Galliera. I was skeptical about the vision that this section would give about fashion overall, imagining that it would remain with the luxurious silhouettes and froufrous of the Belle Epoque’s high-class Parisienne, coquettishly flashing her ankles at her beau on a boulevard. Yet I was proven wrong. While ball dresses and tea gowns dominated the darkened room with their lace and satin, reflecting the fashion plates and caricatures of their time, the outfits of working class women were shown with just as much importance, showing their lasting influence on practical womenswear from the early 20th century onwards. The “midinette” – the young working class woman whose lunch break was at midday – captured a collective imagination that resides somewhere between a picturesque Parisian fantasy and its gritter reality outside of the limelight. As unimportant as the hardworking and coquettish midinette would appear to her contemporaries, she spoke to me far more than the idle rich lady in a lace tea gown could. While Belle Époque fanciness was remembered far more in terms of history and depiction of an era, her legacy continued as many women’s main fashion concern now resides in what they will wear at work rather than the next gala (are these the contemporary midinettes?)
Outside the limelight and afterhours is where a more nocturnal, risqué Paris reveals itself, in a dark blue room and intimate fragmented corridors. This was the part I was not expecting, definitely the most fun and teasingly scandalous: the nightlife of Paris, where gentlemen and women alike basked in fame and favours as soft erotica in sepia photographs started to circulate. The demi-mondaines, renown as comediennes and ballet dancers as well as ballroom celebrities, captured in photographs and written about weekly, are perhaps the first testimonies of celebrity tabloid and paparazzi culture. This was also the perfect time to witness footage of the first ever filmed strip-tease. ‘The Evening of the Bride’, starring a cheerful stripper and bumbling husband on their first night is so quaint and humorous it was almost heart-warming…and extremely instructive concerning Belle Époque undergarments. I wonder what the mockingly candid performer would think of the Crazy Horse. Would she faint in her many-layered undergarments? I am not so sure. We always seem to portray our turn of the century figures as far more rigid than they are!
The theatre section seems predictable in its portrayal of the shows and entertainment at the time, between high-brow tragedies and cabarets, but subtle and powerful in is way of showing 1900 as a crossroads between a certain type of leisure and the arrival of cinema and photography, surprisingly shunned by the Exposition’s art exhibits. A lot was lost, much more was gained, and most of the trends, tastes and leisure of the “Ville-Spectacle” created a new swerve towards the type of entertainment we know today, through cinema and stars but also through opening up of media and entertainment to a larger portions of the population.
The Exposition Universelle is the main theme of this entire exhibition, strongest in the first room then diluting itself in the rest of the visit to let other issues speak out, creating a cohabitation between the desire to create a spectacular city for its visitors and the natural ebb and flow of taste and aesthetics among Parisians. In very much the same way, Paris today is constantly torn between the regulation of its touristic, glittering side and its other freefalling, improvised culture, often unappealing to those that were expecting something shinier and different. We enter thinking that the exhibition is going to be about Paris in 1900 but it turns out being far more about the Parisians of 1900, their experiences, aspirations and shortcomings in terms of culture and life. I am not certain I can leave any parting advice about discovering this Parisian’s Paris in more contemporary times. However, perhaps dropping the guidebook and finding a Parisian is a good start. If you ask politely for recommendations in clumsy French and sympathize with us about the terrible metro service, I promise most of us won’t bite.