A tale of two cities

Two exhibitions, one in London, the other in Paris, offer clashing views of "Paris 1900" -- and 2000.


David Downie
March 29, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

To the contemporary imagination, riotous Belle Epoque music halls, sinuous art nouveau styles and debauched fin-de-sihcle fantasies seem as natural to Paris in 1900 as they were alien to Victorian London or turn-of-the-century New York. Yet all three cities are holding exhibitions this millennial year on 1900 themes -- art and architecture, sexuality, decadence, nostalgia and optimism on the brink of modern times.

Paris' show, at the 100-year-old Grand Palais, itself the centerpiece of the 1900 Exposition Universelle, is titled "1900." Its curators clearly state that "this is neither an evocation of the splendor and misery of the Belle Epoque nor a commemoration of the exposition of a century ago with which Paris wished to astound the world, nor an homage to Art Nouveau and its master practitioners."

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By contrast, London's offering, "1900: Art at the Crossroads" (co-produced by the Royal Academy and New York's Guggenheim Museum) seeks to assess "fin-de-sihcle artistic crosscurrents" by evoking Paris' 1900 Exposition Universelle through artworks shown at the fair or excluded from it.

Why these museums didn't team up to produce a bigger and better traveling show is an enigma wrapped in fin-de-sihcle tendrils. This is more than a tale of feisty Frogs versus Rosbifs and Yanks, however, and begs several questions. For instance, why have Paris, London and New York decided to feature 1900 instead of focusing on Y2K? And what do the "splendor and misery" and the "artistic crosscurrents" of a century ago tell us about our world today?

These and other queries jostled me as I rode the high-speed Eurostar train from Paris' 19th century glass-and-iron Gare du Nord to the ultramodern Waterloo International. You barely have time to read Le Monde and The Guardian before Paris' sprawl of 11 million gives way to the even more sprawling 14 million of London. It's indicative of these cities' perennial rivalry, though, that the British named their Eurostar station for the battle marking Napoleon's defeat and the end of France's European Empire.

From Waterloo to the Royal Academy it's a pleasant half-hour walk through a resurgent cityscape. The postwar jumble of concrete south of the Thames reminds you that London was half-destroyed by Nazi rocket-bombs, then hastily rebuilt. There's none of Paris' symmetrical, tree-lined beauty here. Emerging from Waterloo you cross the Thames in view of the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben and the Millennium Wheel -- the world's tallest Ferris wheel. As chaotic and polluted as the streets knotted on either side of it, the wide tidal river is alive with tugboats, barges and tour boats.

Depending on your route, you either pass Downing Street and the Horse Guards in their silly helmets, or St. James' Park and The Mall. Nearer the Royal Academy you're likely to encounter several unmistakably English sights -- the Royal Automobile Club, Christies, Fortnum & Mason -- in the hodgepodge of sublime and ridiculous urbanism that characterizes the city as a whole.

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Half the culture-seekers lining to get into "1900: Art at the Crossroads" were French fresh off the Eurostar -- apparently they'd taken the tube from Waterloo to Piccadilly and beat me. Greeting us as we swept up the stone staircase loomed a series of giant photographic blow-ups from the 1900 Exposition Universelle.

Here was the Eiffel Tower hedged by countless gimcrack domes, pagodas, globes, colonnades and minarets, with two phallic brick chimneys belching out black smoke. Through the pall a Ferris wheel turned and lights winked. The atmosphere crackled with electricity -- literally.

As the exhibition and catalog make clear, electricity was still a novelty in 1900, an authentic technological wonder and metaphor for modernity's positive elements. It became the theme of the exposition, which drew 50.8 million visitors to Paris in a mere six months. The fair's lighting and machinery were powered entirely by dynamos housed in the gaudy Palais de l'Electriciti -- the origin of most of the black smoke in the photos. This hulking colonnaded Wurlitzer glowed with 5,000 multicolored "Fairy Lights." Its crown, the Fie de l'Electriciti (the Spirit of Electricty), rode in a chariot showering colored sparks and flames.

Black-and-white photos of the day don't do the fie justice. But Italian painter Giacomo Balla, who attended the fair (his work wasn't shown in it), captured the scene in his magical "The World's Fair at Night," on display here. Balla's dark human silhouettes and spinning carousels foreshadow his later work as founding member and leader of the Futurist Movement.

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It's said the expression "Ville Lumihre" -- City of Light -- was coined at the Paris fair in the shadow of the Palais de l'Electriciti. Ville Lumihre became both the city's nickname and a self-congratulatory catch phrase still used today by Parisians to mean we are the spiritual and material beacon to the world.

In two oils by Camille Pissarro ("Boulevard Montmartre: Foggy Morning") and the now-forgotten Maximilien Luce ("The Sainte Chapelle"), you gaze upon a strangely familiar Parisian cityscape; familiar in its layout of cannon-shot, sycamore-lined boulevards with Haussmann-style apartment buildings, yet wonderfully, disconcertingly different, and not only because it wasn't choked with cars. In these and other paintings you sense the wild, outlandish energy of what was the world's first cosmopolis.

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That energy brought mixed blessings, as hinted at by Pierre Bonnard's "Nude with Black Stockings," Edgar Degas' "Spanish Dance" and Pablo Picasso's "Moulin de la Galette" and "The Absinthe Drinker." Among these works' subtexts was prostitution: Servants, dancers, models and seamstresses routinely rounded out their meager wages by selling themselves to the paunchy men in tuxedos Degas loved to draw.

In 1900 relations between men and women stood at a critical juncture, as the first assault on patriarchal society was mounted. A favorite theme of male artists of the time was Salomi -- the devilish temptress -- and there are half a dozen renditions of her here, dancing or lustily clutching John the Baptist's severed head.

It was during the Belle Epoque in Paris -- a period stretching from the end of the Second Empire in 1871 to the beginning of World War I in 1913 -- that the upper classes in particular, frustrated by stifling customs, began experimenting with their sexuality. Orgies, Sapphism, pederasty and cross-dressing became fashionable not only with the so-called hors natures but also among straight women and men.

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Absinthe, ether and alcohol -- as captured by Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso and others -- were the drugs of choice in private and at the city's boisterous cafes, bars and music halls. Meanwhile other tuxedoed gentlemen fought duels in the Bois de Boulogne, and an average 100,000 starving peasants flooded into town each year to work in factories or in what we'd now call service sector jobs.

This explosive mixture infused the art of 1900 and somehow transformed Paris into a cosmopolitan crucible of creativity, a magnet for the world's greatest talents.

So, was 1900 a "crossroads," as the show's curators suggest? Well, perhaps more like a spider's web tossed over a thousand traffic turnarounds, with Ferris wheels and hot-air balloons galore.

By including hundreds of sculptures and paintings from the 1900 Paris fair, plus work by artists who were left out of it -- Henri Matisse, Paul Cizanne, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Maurice de Vlaminck and other greats -- the exhibition convincingly proves that the turn of the last century indeed embraced everything and its opposite.

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"It's as if," said a Londoner friend I met at a pub after the show, "you had David Hockney's L.A. swimming pools next to Damien Hirst's split cows under formaldehyde. It makes perfect sense."

That pub -- a trendy place called All Bar One near the refurbished Covent Garden, now a shopping mall -- offered pseudo-French salads, faux Italian panini, cold German beer on tap and Chilean chardonnay. It was tasty enough and perfectly fin-de-sihcle 2000.

Later, as I perched at the faux-French brasserie atop Oxo Tower overlooking the Thames, I stared out at the crazy megalopolis and couldn't help thinking there might be parallels to draw. Could London in 2000, bombed and rebuilt, freewheeling in spirit, have anything in common with Paris in 1900? The city is indeed celebrating Y2K, but not with a world's fair. It has, however, spent a billion dollars on the Millennium Dome, put up the giant Millennium Wheel and has almost finished the spectacular Millennium Bridge, complete with Fie de l'Electriciti-style lighting. Along the river's south bank runs the new Thames Path, a hiking trail looping clear across town. The Tate Gallery has split, moving its 1900-onward art collections to the reconverted Southbank powerhouse. Somerset House and its magnificent art galleries, also on the Thames, will be reborn later this year.

There's certainly a buzz in the air, and it's not just the sound of a million dirty diesels.

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Back in the Ville Lumihre after a lightning Eurostar ride I hopped on the metro -- built, incidentally, for the 1900 Exposition Universelle -- and at Champs Elysies-Clemenceau strolled through the turn-of-the-century gardens there, looking with new eyes upon the Petit Palais-Grand Palais-Pont Alexandre III complex.

A time tunnel? You bet. As centerpieces, these two palace-museums and the heavily gilded bridge beyond them were the only 1900 Exposition Universelle buildings intended to be permanent. And permanent they are, like that other symbol of Paris, the Eiffel Tower, a "temporary" display for the 1889 Exposition never torn down. All three appear almost exactly as they did in those 1900 photographs on display in London, testimonials both to cutting-edge technology and academic 19th century taste.

The Grand Palais' kitsch neo-classical exterior, for instance, hides a stunning main hall with swooshing iron staircases, flying iron arches and curved glass. Unfortunately it has been closed for several years while engineers try to keep it from subsiding into the Seine. So exhibitions are now held in smaller side galleries that have been so utterly modernized you'd never guess they were part of a 1900 Expo building.

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Awaiting visitors at the entrance to "1900" is a 6-foot panel carrying the curators' triple-negative welcome: This is neither an evocation of the Belle Epoque's splendor and misery, nor a commemoration of the Exposition Universelle, nor an homage to Art Nouveau. The words keep you guessing as to what the show is really about, other than not being like its rival in London and New York. But it's a gorgeous conundrum all the same, stuffed with paintings, drawings, renderings, photographs, sculptures and -- unlike the London-New York show -- a wealth of furniture, objects and jewelry. Despite the curators' desires to avoid an homage to art nouveau, the most numerous and compelling pieces here (including the renowned butterfly woman by Lalique adorning the exhibition catalog's cover) are art nouveau.

There are art nouveau architectural drawings by Hector Guimard, from private villas and the Paris metro. A boomerang art nouveau writing desk with mushroom lamps by Henry van de Velde. Inlaid Art Nouveau wooden stands by Louis Majorelle, et al. And encrusted art nouveau glass by Emile Galli.

It's apparent that Galli and his followers sometimes stepped through the looking glass into Wonderland while trying to infuse the decorative arts with new vigor. Twisted tables sprout from the floor. Wings envelop seductive women. Tendrils and algae ensnare limbs. Among the weirdest pieces displayed are a series of 1899-1905 photographs by German artist Karl Blossfeldt. They show tortuous wrought-iron "flowers" -- insect-like impatiens glandulifera, spiky dipsacus laciniatus, curlicue curcurbita, delirious delphinium and cobra-headed fiddle tops seemingly fed on absinthe and decomposition.

Decadence, anguish and nostalgia -- for paradise lost, or a mythical pre-industrial world -- are intertwined with a thrusting urge toward the new, the unknown.

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Nowhere are there evocations of Paris, however, of daily life in 1900, of the intellectual ferment in salons and cafes, of the world's fair, of the Palais de l'Electriciti or the artists' colonies of Montmartre and Montparnasse. More surprisingly, there is no mention of the countless fin-de-sihcle structures in the City of Light today, a city at least superficially preserved in 1900 aspic. Such trifles would perhaps have been too obvious for the show's curators.

Feeling perplexed, I resolved to revisit a handful of my favorite 1900 Paris locales the next day. Near a cafe appropriately called Le Paris-Londres, on the Place de la Madeleine, I took the spiraling staircase down to the subterranean art nouveau toilettes publiques, a cavern of carved wood, brass and mirrors, with floral frescoes and stained-glass windows in each cabinet. I awoke the sleeping Madame Pipi (as bathroom attendants are still called) and once I'd tidied up as a fin-de-sihcle gentleman would have, set off for one of my regular Paris haunts, the Gustave Moreau Museum.

This house-atelier of the mad symbolist painter (much admired by everyone from Gustav Klimt to Picasso) has remained unaltered since Gustave Moreau's death in 1898. Prominently displayed was the jewel-like, gold-embossed rendition of the temptress Salomi facing the hovering head of John the Baptist -- Moreau's most famous painting. The place oozes fin-de-sihcle unease, and it's thronged.

A half-mile away in the Rue du Faubourg Montmartre I peeked into Chartier, among Paris' authentic fin-de-sihcle restaurants. Beneath an immense skylight hang brass chandeliers with white glass globes. There are brass coat racks and carved panels, bentwood chairs, vast mirrors and kitsch paintings. A century after it opened, the same kind of work-a-day food -- celery-root salad with mayo, roast chicken, steak and fries -- still graces the handwritten menu.

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Another quarter mile east I stuck my head into Julien, built for the 1889 Exposition Universelle. With its lapis lazuli peacock panels, stained-glass skylights and rampant floral-theme plasterwork, it's a prototypical Belle Epoque interior. Here, too, the specialitis de la maison haven't varied much for a hundred years and neither have the bustling, smoky atmosphere or the waiters in aspic.

It was too early for dinner, but an espresso at Angelina, on the Rue de Rivoli, seemed like a good idea. Unaltered since 1903 (except for a few art deco lamps from the 1930s), this temple dedicated to straight-laced chocoholics used to be Coco Chanel's and Marcel Proust's hangout. The tall, plaster-encrusted mirrors now reflect distinctly New World clients lapping at the famed chocolat chaud and nibbling finger-cakes worth their weight in platinum cards.

While sipping my coffee, I thought about all the other places in Paris I could visit on a 1900 whirlwind tour. There was La Pagode, the cinema made from a Japanese pagoda, unveiled in 1896. There was the Grivin museum and its theater. If you skipped the waxwork displays and concentrated on the so-called "Palais des Mirages" -- a hall of mirrors hung with sculpted elephant heads and snakes, with Fie de l'Electriciti lighting -- you'd actually be experiencing something salvaged from the 1900 Exposition Universelle.

What else? Another dozen restaurants, certainly ... The daunting list seemed to stretch forever, from the Samaritaine and BHV department stores to the parterres of the Bois de Vincennes and Bois de Boulogne, via the tombs of Phre-Lachaise or Montparnasse cemeteries, to half the buildings lining the streets of Paris. The list was as long, in fact, as the city's seemingly endless turn-of-the-century boulevards. Baron Haussmann's creative destruction -- 25,000 old buildings flattened -- may have begun under Napoleon III in the Second Empire (1850-1870), but it was still under way in 1900.

Hungry by now, I decided to ride the metro to Le Train Bleue at the Gare de Lyon. Both the station and its luxurious upstairs restaurant were built, like the subway, for the 1900 Exposition Universelle. Unlike the subway and station, however, Le Train Blueu, a landmark, hasn't changed an iota. A dizzy pantheon of plaster putty, overflowing amphorae and fruit and floral garlands cling to the heavily gilded neo-Rococo ceiling. The place gleams with brass, cut-crystal and carved, wood-frame, painted panels depicting destinations served by the trains hooting below. The dining room is about 100-yards long. I felt like a pearl on the comfy upholstered banquette, in what must be one of the city's only non-smoking sections with a view. After ordering a Belle Epoque duck breast and a bottle of inky Saint-Joseph, I studied the catalog of the Paris exhibition. I soon found a clue to explain at least in part what "1900" was about.

The curators -- most of them from the Musie d'Orsay, itself housed in a 1900 former train station also built for the world's fair -- seemed to see in the art of 1900 the opposite of what London's and New York's curators had seen. To the Paris contingent, what stood out was the "profound and original unity" and "common aspirations" of Europeans at the time. The curators, it seems, heard echoes in various nationalist artworks of a "profound need for identity, at times an authentically threatened one," like that of Finland, subjugated in 1899 by a repressive Russian czar. Parallels?

I finished my duck thinking of French TV and film quotas, of the language police, of the many laudable and lamentable efforts being made in Y2K Paris to preserve French culture from the onslaught of the free-market, Anglo-Saxon, English-speaking world. I thought of Jean-Paul Sartre's description of the emblematic 19th century poet Charles Baudelaire, a man who "chose to advance backwards with his face turned toward the past." I thought of the ancient Roman god Janus, protector of thresholds both spatial and temporal, who teaches us that to look forward we must look back. And the "1900" exhibition became clearer: Some of us are still living in 1900.

But only some of us. I walked home across the Place de la Bastille, past yet another Guimard Metro station, an Indiana Tex-Mex, a Juventus pizzeria, a McDonald's and several theaters showing primarily American movies. I dodged an international gang of in-line skaters under giant posters screaming "Internet et la nouvelle economie." And I realized that, as in 1900, everything and its opposite -- nostalgia and a lusting for the future, the retrograde and the avant-garde, wealth and misery, high art and kitsch, open-mindedness and paranoia -- are alive and kicking in Paris 2000.

"1900: Art at the Crossroads" is at the Royal Academy in London until April 2, and at New York's Guggenheim Museum from May 18 to Sept. 13. "1900" runs at the Grand Palais in Paris until June 26.


David Downie

David Downie is Salon Travel's correspondent in Paris.

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