June 10, 2014

"Paris 1900: La Ville spectacle"

Turn of the Century Paris was a magical city.  Buoyed by a stable government and strong economy, it was a center for artists, intellectuals, designers and entertainers who in turn attracted the wealthy and powerful from around the world.  Paris offered the very finest in art, food, fashion, decoration, and theater, and was the undisputed capital of luxury and sophistication - a position maintained until the outbreak of World War I in 1914.
To celebrate this remarkable legacy, the Petit Palais - Musée des Beaux Arts de la Ville de Paris, is presenting a splendid exhibition entitled "Paris 1900:  The City of Entertainment".  Centered around the premier international event of the new century, the Exposition Universelle, the exhibition showcases Paris in its prime and the period for which it is forever remembered.

The 1900 World's Fair ushered in the 20th century by featuring the very latest in technology, entertainment and design.  Such novelties as a Ferris wheel, escalators, diesel engines, talking films and the Art Nouveau style were unveiled to a fascinated public.  Although many of the pavilions were temporary, edifices such as the Grand Palais, the Petit Palais, the Pont Alexandre III, the first Métropolitain Subway Line and three train stations continue to function in the Paris of today.  Over 50 million visitors passed through the Exposition Universelle making it a crowning moment in the city's history.
The curators of "Paris 1900" have taken the theme of the Exhibition Universelle and expanded upon it to take modern day visitors back in time to La Belle Epoque.  While the first gallery "Paris: Window on the World" sets the stage, it is the following six galleries, loosely based on Expo Pavilions, that present the cultural highlights of the era.  Over 600 objects from posters to couture gowns to paintings to an actual Métro station entrance, come together to evoke the energy, gaiety, luxury and artistic creativity that is emblematic of the epoch.

Each of the galleries, or pavilions, examines a different aspect of life in 1900.  One is dedicated to the explosion of the Art Nouveau aesthetic on the decorative arts scene and features examples of jewelry, furniture, glass, porcelain and textiles by some of the period's greatest stars.

Another is devoted to the fine arts and the lure of the Parisian Salon on artists throughout France and Europe.  Still another looks at the French fashion industry which was already far and away the preeminent choice in couture and accessory design.

The exhibition wraps up with two galleries dedicated to the night life of Paris, the upper crust world of opera and restaurants and the other, more risqué, side of absinthe, can can, loose women and  naughty pleasures.

It is a fabulous show.  The French Belle Epoque is one of my favorite periods in art history and this exhibition covered not just art but the entire cultural scene.  It pulled together events, such as the Exposition Universelle; inventions, such as cinema and electric lights; personalities, such as Sarah Bernhardt and Yvette Guilbert; and designers of both clothing and decoration to create a total environment. 

It would be difficult to choose one outstanding section of "Paris 1900" as the overall presentation is so well done.  However I would commend the curators on their subtle but brilliant homage to the new-fangled medium of motion pictures that was invented by the Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis, in 1895 and presented to the world at the Exposition Universelle.  Visitors to this exhibition at the Petit Palais move from gallery to gallery via corridors where original film footage is screened.  It's a clever effect that permits today's museum patrons to virtually walk alongside the promenading fair goers of 1900!

"Paris 1900:  La Ville spectacle" was on the top of my list of must-see museum exhibitions and it was even better than I had hoped.  It brought the era to life and demonstrated beyond a doubt why La Belle Epoque really was The Beautiful Age.

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