Parisian glamour at the Portland Art Museum

All glitz and no grit at the summer show Paris 1900: City of Entertainment

Paris 1900: City of Entertainment, which runs at the Portland Art Museum through September 8, is a confection, a pastel-shaded macaron that looks great on display and encourages fantasies of sunny afternoons frequenting chic patisseries and warm evenings spent promenade strolling. The exhibition focuses on visual culture in the Belle Époque, the era in France that runs from the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 until the beginning of World War I in 1914.

Gaston Roux. Nighttime festivities at the International Exposition of 1889 under the Eiffel Tower, 1889. Oil on canvas, 25 5/8 x 37 3/8 in., Musée Carnavalet. © Musée Carnavalet / Roger-Viollet

The stories we choose to tell about the past reveal our present interests and fascinations. Paris, especially during the Belle Époque, is a subject that generates great enthusiasm: everyone loves Paris. A focus on the glamour, glitz, fashion of the French capital is bound to be well received by museum audiences in Portland. Portland Art Museum Curator of Prints and Drawings Mary Weaver Chapin delivered the opening lecture about Paris 1900 to a packed house, and the Museum held a Paris 1900 Gala at the end of June.

The objects in the show tell an alluring story introduced in several themes that together lend a richer understanding of the period in question. However, the picture presented is incomplete. In part, this is due to the exhibition’s origins as a packaged exhibition from the Paris Musées consortium. The Portland Art Museum has acknowledged some lapses, including mounting the companion exhibition Color Line: Black Excellence on the World Stage, but the overall presentation is inconsistent with the Museum’s stated mission to “reveal the beauty and complexities of the world.” Paris during the Belle Époque was more complex than Paris 1900 suggests.

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The 1900 in the title of the exhibition is a stand-in for this longer period but also provides the opening act of the six sections of the exhibition: the Exposition Universelle of 1900. This particular Exposition was one of many such events held in Paris during the period to celebrate French civilization, industrial prowess, and colonial holdings. The most famous product of these expositions was the Eiffel Tower, constructed for the Exposition Universelle of 1889 (and initially intended to be a temporary structure). The 1900 event was conceived of as a capstone to this tradition—the largest, most elaborate, and impressive of all of the spectacles that had preceded it.

The Petit Palais and the Grand Palais were built for the Exposition Universelle; the Paris Metro debuted on this occasion; the moving sidewalk was invented to facilitate travel around the festival grounds. Forty-two nations and 25 colonies contributed to the Exposition Universelle resulting in a total of 83,047 exhibits,including everything from jewelry to animal husbandry to the new heights in sewer pipe design. Fifty-one million people attended the Exposition Universelle in 1900; the population of France in 1900 was 39 million.

In the exhibition at PAM, the short film by the Lumiere Brothers and Marc Allegret gives the best sense of the extent and variety of the event: the fantastical pavilions specially constructed for the event, elaborate sculptures, all the glitz and glamour of the milling crowds. The souvenir ephemera are most charming: a tea set, a handkerchief, a puzzle all printed with a map of the fairgrounds—perfect gift shop fodder.

The section “Paris: Capital of the Arts” introduces viewers to a smattering of lesser-known artists. While many museum-goers are familiar with Impressionism and Postimpressionism, those styles were by no means the only ones practiced in Paris at the time. Paris drew artists from all over the world, and they worked in a myriad of styles and the pieces in the exhibition attest to this variety. With that said, while works such as Luc-Olivier Merson’s large A Tear for a Drop of Water, an illustration of a scene from Victor Hugo’s novel Notre-Dame de Paris, are nice to see, it isn’t particularly surprising that the artist isn’t a household name. The sentiment holds true for most of the works in the section, which is the weakest of the lot.

Eugène-Samuel Grasset (1845–1917), Paul Vever (1851–1915), and Henri Vever (1854–1942). “Assyrian” Comb, ca. 1900. Horn, repoussé gold, cloisonné enamel, and sapphires. 5 7/8 x 3 7/8 x 3/8 in. Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris, Petit Palais. © Patrick Pierrain / Petit Palais / Roger-Viollet

The exhibition continues downstairs with rooms devoted to “Art Nouveau,” “the Parisian Woman,” “the Streets of Paris,” and “Paris By Night.” The Art Nouveau materials are especially captivating: intricate jewelry, elaborate chalices and vases, delicate furniture sets, and even a stoneware rabbit-frog. It’s hard not to love a good rabbit-frog (though its ties to Art Nouveau are somewhat less convincing).

A 20-foot high Parisian woman topped the main gate of the Exposition Universelle. Nicknamed La Parisienne, the sculpture itself was mocked by critics at the time and the subject of some controversy, but the trope of the chic Parisian woman is well-known and has had remarkable staying power. The exhibition makes the case for Paris as the height of fashion and sophistication and includes not only paintings of beautiful women but examples of feather-adorned capes, narrow-waisted dresses, flower-bedecked hats, and atrociously narrow and pointy shoes. The ideal Parisian woman definitely wasn’t comfortable.

Allegory of the City of Paris

Louise Abbéma (1858-1927). Allegory of the City of Paris, 1902. Oil on canvas, 102 3/8 x 71 1/8 in., Musée Carnavalet. © Musée Carnavalet / Roger-Viollet

The final sections of the exhibition celebrate transportation in Paris and the famous Parisian nightlife, which offered outlets of all types and for all social classes. There were, of course, the more elite institutions where people went to see and be seen. The actress Sarah Bernhardt was renowned the world over for her performances on the Paris stage, and the exhibition includes stage gowns and a curious lost-wax sculpture made by the actress. Paris was equally (or perhaps better) known for its plethora of cabarets and café-concerts that offered less refined entertainment, places like the Moulin Rouge or Le Chat Noir. Lithographic posters hawk circuses, variety shows, and even a water slide.

Georges Henri Jean Isidore Meunier (1873-1922). The ‘Niagara Falls’ Aquatic Roller Coaster, 1895. Color lithograph, 48 7/8 x 34 3/8 in. Musée Carnavalet. © Musée Carnavalet / Roger-Viollet

Paris 1900: City of Entertainment is a celebration of the material culture of the Belle Époque. It is a wonderfully odd combination of things: souvenir handkerchiefs, fantastical stoneware animals, decorative combs, hats, dresses, posters, photographs, and even a scale model of a trolley. Many of the items are ephemera, things that wouldn’t have survived were it not for the custodianship of the museums and we are fortunate to have the opportunity to see them firsthand. The themes are appropriate and tie the objects together but the whole thing projects a certain air of superficiality.

Now, in part, that is the focus on entertainment, which is often superficial by nature, but one can’t help but notice that there is very little critical engagement or probing of the period at hand. The exhibition reads like a series of breathless exhortations about the wonders of Paris: We had a fair! We made paintings and sculptures! We made decorative items! We were chic! We rode bicycles! We went out! It was grand!

Maybe this is appropriate for summer, it will appeal to crowds and bring people into the museum for something other than the air conditioning. Hopefully, the fundraising at the Gala was wildly successful. But it’s hard to ignore that there is a missed opportunity. The Belle Époque was fascinating and worthy of consideration, but it was not grand for all and to portray it as such belies the tensions of the period.

The genesis and execution of this exhibition accounts for this impression; it is not unintended. There was an exhibition at the Petit Palais in France in 2014 entitled Paris 1900: le Ville Spectacle. Though at the Petit Palais, the show included not only objects from Paris museums but from international museums as well. The exhibition was at least twice the size of the version currently at PAM and seems to have told a more complicated story.

The suggestion of bringing a version of that exhibition to the United States was made by the Cultural Attaché and Consulate General of France in Atlanta, though it isn’t clear in the catalog to whom he made this suggestion. The American iteration would display objects only from the Paris Musées consortium selected by French curators in accordance with the same section themes from the 2014 show. Three U.S. museums signed on to host: the Frist Art Museum in Nashville, the Cincinnati Art Museum, and the Portland Art Museum. PAM organizers describe this as a four-year process after which the exhibition that arrived in Portland fully formed. The art museum’s Chapin helped to make the exhibition make sense for American audiences by editing the wall tags and catalog but didn’t have control over the objects or content.

This exhibition is a glossy look-book from France about France, an advertisement for the Belle Époque using objects from Paris museums (two of which are currently closed for renovations). It is one of many examples of an exhibition being used as an instrument of cooperation and diplomacy, an opportunity to woo a foreign audience with appealing stuff.

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There are objects in the exhibition that hint at a more complex story than what is overtly presented, but the viewer has to problematize for themselves. Georges Souillet’s Construction of the Métropolitain Place Saint-Michel depicts laborers excavating the Paris Metro. The Paris Metro was the final project in a 50-year process of gentrification that displaced hundreds of thousands of people and drove the poor out of the city center to tenement houses and shanty towns in outlying districts. Anatole Guillot’s model of a frieze for the entrance gate celebrates and idealizes the laborers that built the Exposition Universelle, a novelty. Fernand Pelez’s painting A Martyr: the Violet Seller shows a destitute child laborer asleep in a doorway. Displacement, poverty, and inequality were part of the Belle Époque too.

Georges Souillet (1861-1947/57). Construction of the Metro, Place Saint-Michel, 1905. Oil on canvas, 15 x 18 1/8 in., Musée Carnavalet. © Musée Carnavalet / Roger-Viollet

As with the events that preceded it, ideas of imperialism and racism shaped the 1900 Exposition Universelle. The colonial exhibitions included displays where well-heeled Europeans could gawk at exotic peoples and conclude how “fortunate” they were to now be under the colonial auspices of a “civilized” nation like France. This history is referenced only obliquely. One of a series of woodcuts by Felix Vallotton captures the Streets of Cairo, depicting a queue ushered into a tent by a figure wearing a fez, serenaded by a black figure on a horn. The Lumiere Brothers film has a short segment of “belly dancers” in which the narrator recounts a father’s displeasure at the fact that the display was so tame that even children were permitted to watch.

There are other opportunities to consider more complicated issues. New materials from European colonies inspired new forms in Art Nouveau furniture and jewelry such as hardwoods, ivory, and horn. The café-concerts featured not only circuses and dancing but entertainments such as Les Zoulous depicted here. Prostitution was part of the famed Parisian nightlife.

This lack of critical engagement is a misstep for the Portland Art Museum, which, at least recently, has committed itself to inclusivity, awareness, and acknowledgment of difficult subjects. The artist subject of the show that will succeed Paris 1900, Hank Willis Thomas, is described by curator Julia Dolan as confronting “the most critical issues facing us today—racism, violence, inequality, injustice.” It is incongruous that one show would engage these issues so directly and another would attempt to ignore them.

My impression from multiple sources at PAM is that there was indeed consternation about Paris 1900’s gauzy take, and the museum is trying to address it through its own programming. Planned lectures will consider the celebrity of Sarah Bernhardt, the afterlives of the Belle Époque, and perhaps most interestingly, the Portland World’s Fair of 1905, which was its own statement of mythic national identity.

A more direct response comes in the form of a small exhibition on the lower level of the main museum building entitled Color Line: Black Excellence on the World Stage. This exhibition presents the data visualizations and photographs of African-American life contributed by W.E.B. DuBois to the Exposition Universelle of 1900. DuBois sought to communicate the strength, resilience, and challenges faced by the first generation of black Americans born after slavery. His presentation aimed to counter the racist caricatures and spurious claims of “race scientists.” Du Bois’ exhibit won a gold medal at the Exposition Universelle.

“Negro business men in the United States” from W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Georgia Negro: A Study (1900). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

In the PAM exhibit, Du Bois’ strikingly modern data visualizations occupy one wall and provide information about the generation of African Americans who, in the last quarter of the 19th century, owned property, embraced higher education, and shaped a new society. The variety of eye-catching, graphic approaches to conveying data should not detract from the impressiveness of the data conveyed. Groups of photographs explore different themes such as education, portraits, and domestic life.

Howard University, Washington D.C., c. 1900 – class in bacteriology laboratory, part of W.E.B. Du Bois’s album of photographs exhibited at the Paris Exposition Universelle.  Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Color Line was conceived of and executed by a group of museum staff “across departments” in direct response to the arrival of the Paris 1900 exhibit. Preparations did not begin until this spring when the full cohort of museum staff were appraised as to the specifics of the show. Du Bois’ graphs, schematics, and photographs are available through the Library of Congress so it was possible to put the show together relatively quickly.

Press materials paired Paris 1900 and Color Line, and Color Line was introduced at the press preview for Paris 1900, though Color Line did not open for another week. At the preview, Color Line co-curator Alex Haynes directly referenced discomfort with unquestioningly celebrating the Exposition Universelle, an event that included human zoos and confirmed her interest in offering an alternative narrative.

*****

The way we tell stories about the past reveals the concerns of the present. Race, colonialism, gentrification, inequality—these are pressing issues in 2019 and an interest in confronting them is equally contemporary and maybe particularly pressing in Portland. Paris 1900 chose instead to mythologize the past, to focus on the glamour of the Belle Époque. PAM made some overtures to counter the simplicity of the narrative, but could have gone farther: Only a very small portion of visitors will attend a lecture; Color Line is not in one of the museum’s main exhibition spaces but on the lower level next to the bathrooms.

The mythologization of the past and construction of identity are old hat for museums. It is why museums exist, why they were founded. But the role of the museum is shifting—it is no longer the arbiter of a definitive version of history but instead the host of many narratives. Lonnie Bunch, the new secretary of the Smithsonian, says that the biggest goal of history “ought to be to help the American public embrace ambiguity…if we can help the public become comfortable with wrestling with the shades of gray then we’ve really made a contribution”

Acknowledging the less desirable or even uglier sides of history doesn’t mean that we can’t admire the sequined ball gowns, the elaborate jewelry, the colorful posters, and the fancy furniture. It doesn’t mean that we can’t love Paris and want to stroll its boulevards eating macarons. It means we acknowledge the possibility of a multiplicity of narratives and embrace nuance–the word is, after all, borrowed from the French.

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