Museums are often celebrated for creating a sense of time and place but it’s rare that we use them to recreate a moment of time with more specificity. Last year, I wrote about the Discovery of Tut, an entire exhibit built around the moment that Howard Carter muttered the words “I see wonderful things.” This year, the Portland Art Museum has recreated a much longer moment, but one nonetheless singular. The place is Paris, at the dawn of the twentieth century and the moment is the Exposition Universelle, an eight month long celebration of the past century, the future and most importantly, the city herself.
As a museum patrons enters Paris 1900, they will be greeted in the same manner as a visitor to the Exposition, by a beautiful representation of a young woman in a fashionable dress. In the museum, it’s a life-sized painting by Louise Abbéma, but in Paris it would’ve been a painted statue of the same. Both statue and painting capture the same subject: Paris as Paris saw herself, beautiful, fashionable, and elegant, the envy of her peers. Paris at the turn of the century was already famous the world over as one of the cultural centers of mainland Europe, but in many ways, the Exposition Universelle was intended as what we today would call a rebranding. A central theme of the event, and the museum exhibit recreating it, was the blending of old and new. In the art world, this was the combining of Academic Art and the burgeoning style of Art Nouveau.
Academic Art is a broad term, a generalization of any painting (or other visual medium like lithography) that had been developed to meet the academic standards of institutions like the French Academy of Fine Arts. Over the centuries, such artwork has included neoclassicism and romanticism among others. By the late 1800’s, these styles were staid, set in their ways. That’s not to say that they were boring or unfashionable. A significant portion of the art in the exhibit is beautifully academic. Indeed, on one of the themes of the exhibit is the relationship between student and mentor in the art world. There’s an entire section of the exhibit dedicated to depictions of artists by other artists. Busts of Rodin and Renoir done by favored students and mistresses, paintings of American artists visiting Paris and other such works all help to establish that Paris was a city of artists. in the 1890’s and into the 20th century, Paris thrived as the city of art, where the trade was passed down from generation to generation. Each generation would innovate on the last. Techniques used to paint the gentry would be used to portray miners digging tunnels for the Metro. Styles began to blur and eventually a new genre was born. It’s name was literally “New Art,” but in French the term was Art Nouveau.
Despite originating in Britain, Art Nouveau is a very French style and was a response to the above-mentioned academic art. Art Nouveau was lively, expressive and usually quite fascinated with curves and bends. Art Nouveau was inspired by shapes in nature, like a vine wrapping around a tree or a rose growing on a trellis. At the Paris Expo and throughout the city, Art Nouveau was most commonly seen in some form of advertisement. Posters for the expositions wonders, like the Hall of Optics, which featured a telescope through which guests could see the moon up close, were sold using Art Nouveau paintings. Similarly, a Parisian might see the same aesthetic in an advertisement for that new style of transportation, the bicycle, or on the cover of a fashionable magazine. All of it was Art Nouveau, the aesthetic of the 20th century. And to a degree, the Parisians were correct in this estimation. Today a Portlander, for example, is more than well acquainted with the style of Art Nouveau through iconic locations like the Crystal Ballroom or…pretty much anything else run by the McMenamins company.
Of course, the entire exhibit isn’t dedicated to two contrasting art styles. The centerpiece really is Paris itself and the exhibit does no disappoint in the interesting artifacts on display. One such room is dedicated to the modern Parisian woman, including fashions and products that were considered in vogue. The exhibit is quick to emphasize that Parisian held the feminine ideal in high regard but treated woman as objects to be clothed and admired rather than humanized. Other exhibits include the streets of Paris, which focus on bicycling and velodromes, as well as Paris at Night, a section dedicated to the nightlife of the city including a beautiful stained glass advertisement for a cabaret. All of the artifacts, and pieces of artwork are beautifully displayed, ranging from fashionable furniture from the time to souvenirs like jigsaw puzzles and hand fans. It all helps to create a sense of what it would’ve been one of the 48 million visitors to the Exposition Universelle. The feeling is even completed in the museum’s main lobby where the exhibitors have established an authentic Parisian cafe where guests can drink coffee and tea. But to me, the most affecting part of the exhibit is the lingering sense of tragedy that underlines the whole thing.
This may be due to my being a history nerd, because none of this is referenced in the exhibit itself but it’s worth noting that France in 1900 is only 14 years away from World War 1. Think of it like this: imagine a young French couple decides to take their boy to the 1900 Expo. If the couple are as young as 34 or 35, they would have grown up with memories of the Prussian siege of Paris at the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. If they’re older they might recall the national shame the country felt in the aftermath. After all, the Germans had even annexed the French territories of Alsace and Lorraine as part of the humiliating post war settlement. Sadly, the outlooks is even more grim for their young son. It’s very likely that in later years, the lad will be swept up in anti-German sentiments and pro-war fervor in 1914. As such, it’s also very likely that he will die in the trenches. France would lose more men in the savagery of World War 1 than any of her allies, save Russia which held an entire front on its own. Even the French government at the time, the Second Republic was only about 25 years old, having been formed in the aftermath of the War of 1870 and the collapse of Napoleon the III’s monarchy. What’s more, it’s entirely possible that our young Parisian father has strong opinions about the Dreyfus Affair, a scandal involving espionage in the Army and rampant Antisemitism. The Dreyfus Affair would divide the government, the military and the people of France along ideological for twelve years.
That’s not to say it was all bad news for France at the turn of the century. The Second Republic established an overseas empire of colonies in Africa, and Indo-China. While the newly christened Germany was growing as an economic and industrial powerhouse in Europe, France was still considered the primary power on the continent. Germany might have the natural resources and the vigor of youth, but France had clout. France has Paris, the cultural capital of Europe, challenged perhaps only by Vienna in Austria-Hungry and London in England. Even so, the 1900 Exposition managed to change that. Paris, the City of Lights as we think of it today, was born in the Exposition Universelle. Though to be clear, that nickname is actually a remnant of the Enlightenment, when the city was known for being the home of revolutionary thinkers and luminaries. While the city had always been a center of culture, at the turn of the century it became something else entirely. In the aftermath of the Great War, it would become the home of Hemingway, Eliot, Fitzgerald and Stein. In the years to come, the Nazis would both envy Paris and seek to surpass it. In 1936, when Berlin hosted the Olympics, the populace were told first “we must be more cultured than the Parisians.”
But that’s all in days to come. Paris 1900 is about a single moment in time. For one year, seven months specifically, Paris would be the center of the world. Almost fifty million people visited the city in that time frame. At the time that’s 24 times as many people as inhabited the city. It featured what was at the time, the world’s largest Ferris Wheel, Grande Roue de Paris. Booker Washington and W.E.B DuBois contributed The Exhibit on The American Negro, which promoted the contributions of African Americans to their home nation. I actually wish that the Portland feature preserved some piece of that exhibit, it would be an interesting compliment to the “Women of Paris,” section. Every other nation in Europe contributed to the Exposition. The first Russian nesting dolls were displayed publicly in Paris. Germany constructed an enormous beer hall. The centerpiece was the Hall of Optics, where visitors could look through the Great Exhibition Telescope. The advertisement for that Hall of Optics might be my favorite in the entire collection. It depicts a woman reaching up and cradling the moon while standing vigil over the hall, as if to say “even the heavens are within our grasp.”
Perhaps the most lasting and influential piece of artwork associated with the exhibit, is not part of the main showcase in PAM. Instead, just to the left of the recreated coffee shop, is a small black box theater. Inside, a film will be shown on loop until September. That movie is the silent era classic, A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune) by the illusionist Georges Méliès. A Trip to the Moon is the most famous of Méliès’ almost 500 silent films. It’s also no hyperbole to suggest that A Trip to the Moon was also one of the first movies to feature special effects (Méliès’ background as a stage illusionist inspired him to play with the film stock and editing in revolutionary ways), and the first piece of colored film. The film was shown both in black and white and colored, with each frame hand painted. Today, the movie is both an artifact of unparalleled worth and a quaint spectacle. It’s an appropriate association, I think. While A Trip of the Moon is two years older than the Exposition Universelle, they share the same ideals. Both wanted to capture the imagination of their audience by using thoroughly modern artwork and technology. Film captures light and images in amber, preserving a single moment forever. Paris 1900 is doing much the same. Both film and exhibit are dedicated to telling the world, even years after the fact: This is us, this is who we were, look at what marvels created.