Edited by Elizabeth C. Childs

Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum (distributed by University of Chicago Press). 95 pages. $30.       ISBN 978-0-936316-43-7

Reviewed by Jim Burns

There seems to be a never-ending stream of books, exhibitions, and other material about the Paris of what is usually referred to as the Belle Époque, the years between the Franco-Prussian War and the repression of the Commune in 1871, and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. It’s seen as a time and place for the development of art and literature and music, with perhaps a special emphasis placed on the visual arts. This is not to decry the efforts of writers and composers, but the painters in many ways established what the period looked like in most people’s minds. Painters and photographers is perhaps a more accurate description, because by the late-19th century photography was well-established, and even film was becoming popular by the early-1900s.

I suppose, too, that it needs to be acknowledged that it was a time and place that largely reflected bourgeois and bohemian tastes and interests in the paintings, posters and other materials that were produced. I always wonder what the Parisian working-class made of the colourful posters advertising things, either goods or entertainment, they probably couldn’t afford. There were dissident voices in both art and literature, but they’re not often heard now. Visitors to current-day exhibitions of the art of the Belle Époque prefer to see paintings and posters of pretty girls and life on the grand boulevards. Any deviation from the status quo was usually personal and in the shape of bohemianism, which is a form of rebellion, but individual and not collective, and so not likely to upset bourgeois sensibilities any more than it did at the time.

Elizabeth C. Childs, in her informative introduction to Spectacle and Leisure in Paris does refer to the long working hours, low pay, and miserable conditions experienced by both male and female workers in Paris. It was obvious that most, if not all, of the spectacle and leisure in the Paris of the period concerned was designed for the middle and upper classes, or for the bohemians who more often than not came from those classes.

Having said that, I freely admit to a fascination with the art and artists of the Belle Époque, and I’m not trying to make a case for accusing them of ignoring social realities in their work. What they were doing was depicting the Parisian “industry of entertainment”.  It was an industry that perhaps found its most obvious mode of expression in the café. Child’s quotes the comments of a Danish visitor to the French capital, who said that the café “is the great meeting place where the whole city takes its rest, and it is also the fair where it shows best all the peculiarities and types it possesses. It is Paris in essence, Paris displaying the most variegated, most radiating, most singularly attractive side of her character”.

There are illustrations by Toulouse-Lautrec and Édouard Vuillard of café life, and Vuillard in particular makes it seem colourful and lively. Childs’ analysis of his “colour lithograph” refers to it as a “scene of complicated and overlapping forms”. which is true enough, and a “decorative fusion of legible form, dark shadow, and patterned planes”. But the point is that it successfully provides a picture of the “Parisian experience”. The fact that, unlike the Toulouse-Lautrec portrait of identifiable persons, the Vuillard almost invites the viewer to join the anonymous individuals seated at the café tables seems to sum up what many artists were trying to achieve when they painted  Parisian scenes. They were in their way, which may not have been all that much different from that of the poster artists who created for commercial reasons, advertising the joys of the city: “a diversity of visual arts was central to the vital representation and consumption of modern life in Paris”.

As well as the cafés, the theatres and clubs also attracted the attentions of artists, as well as offering employment for those who were adept at producing eye-catching posters. Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters advertising the Moulin Rouge and the Divan Japonais are classic examples of their kind, the colourful portraits of the performers establishing them in the public’s mind. And many people still recognise them now. According to Childs: “In a series of innovative prints in which colour and form almost efface a legible reading of a female body at the edge of the stage, Toulouse-Lautrec achieved what we may regard in light of the development of the first motion pictures during this period, as a proto-cinematic celebration of motion and colour”.

But he wasn’t the only illustrator active in this field to achieve “a celebration of motion and colour”.   Alfred Choubrac designed a lively advertisement for the Théatre des Variétiés, and Georges Meunier’s poster promoting the appearance of LoÏe Fuller at the Folies Bergére was particularly eye-catching. Fuller was a dancer who specialised in the “use of the magic lantern and limelight, unusual choreography, and oversized silk that enveloped her body”, all adding up to a fast-moving, swirling effect.

That she was an ideal subject for illustrators was made obvious by the fact that other artists, such as Jules Chéret and Pal (Jean de Paléologu), also produced striking posters for her performances in Paris: “Chéret’s 1893 poster disseminated Fuller’s image throughout the city, capturing the attention of passers-by on the street with an intense chromatic swirl of shape and movement which led the eye in curvilinear, diagonal paths from green, to orange, to yellow”.

It’s interesting to note that Lauren A. Johnson, in an essay on Fuller, points out that the Symbolist poet, Stéphane Mallarmé described her performances as the “extraction of meaning itself”, and Johnson quotes Tom Gunning as saying that “the Symbolist interpretation of Fuller” perceived her as establishing a “new art of motion, in which no form remains solid or static but rather dissolved into a continually changing spectacle of metamorphosis unfolding before the audience”.

A Fuller performance, with its emphasis on movement, was ideally suited to the emergence of popular cinema. Thomas Edison wanted to film her, but she turned him down so, instead, he filmed her imitators, of which there appears to have been several. And Alice Guy, “widely regarded as cinema’s first female director”, filmed Lina Esbrard. There is a photo of Esbrard in Spectacle and Leisure in Paris.

The interest in cinema generally (it was something the working classes could afford to attend, as opposed to theatres and cabarets) rested initially on its novelty appeal, and it focused on movement and spectacle. A train rushing towards the audience, an action scene from a well-known play such as Hamlet or Cyrano de Bergerac. But it was inevitable that, in time, film-makers would want to move beyond such concerns, and begin to use film to tell full-length stories.

Degas famously portrayed dancers, Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Louis Anquetin paid tribute to the attractions of the racetrack, where the speed and movement of the horses caught their attention:  “the races were a unique visual and experiential panoply of leisure”.  A Degas pastel of “Three Women at the Races” shows them chattering to each other, and doesn’t include any clearly identifiable reference to them being at the location named, whereas drawings by the other three couldn’t be anywhere else.

Degas’s fascination with the ballet is well-known. Lindsay Sheedy says that he had an “early conception of the ballet as a packaged spectacle”, but many of his illustrations went beyond portraying what the audience saw. Degas went backstage and found something else: “Once again, the careful outlining of the limbs confirms Degas’s drive to capture the poses, as if these postures of fatigue were as meticulously choreographed as the classical ballet positions that the dancers struck onstage”. What he was doing was emphasising the “physical toll involved in their expressions of creative energy”.

It doesn’t come as a surprise to find that the prevailing atmosphere in the Paris of the period concerned lent itself to the cult of personality and celebrity. One of the key figures in this area was the famed actress Sarah Bernhardt. She carefully cultivated her public image, but she did also have the advantage of being one of the most talented performers in her profession. She was not like so many contemporary celebrities who are simply famous for being famous, and have little or no talents for anything beyond drawing attention to themselves.

Bernhardt had demonstrated her acting skills in a variety of roles. She was, admittedly, well aware of the advantages of favourable publicity, and the way in which she was presented to the public in publicity material was one of her concerns. When she saw the poster that Alphonse Mucha had designed for her role in Gismonda in 1895, she was sufficiently impressed to sign the then-unknown artist to a five-year contract to not only create posters for her, but also become her costume, set and jewelry designer. The notable posters he created for her when she appeared in such plays as La dame au camélias and Médée were displayed across Paris, and like any good publicist he contrived to divert attention from Bernhardt’s age and her short stature.

It’s interesting to note that Mucha, according to Rachel Tuteur in an essay entitled “Visualising Jewish Stardom in the Age of Dreyfus”, managed to suggest a positive aspect of Jewishness in his poster for La Samaritaine, (a play about a Jewish woman meeting Jesus and embracing Christianity) at a time when anti-semitic feelings were running high in France because of the Dreyfus case. Bernhardt “was born to a Jewish mother but baptised and educated as a Catholic”,  and Mucha cleverly incorporated Semitic symbols in his design. In doing so, “he successfully evokes the belle juive and presents Bernhardt’s Jewishness as an asset, allowing her to proudly embrace her Jewish identity alongside her Christian one”.

Spectacle and Leisure in Paris offers a useful survey of some aspects of the Belle Époque which, in a  series of short essays, manages to be informative and often original about material that might seem familiar at first sight. It was produced as the catalogue for an exhibition at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at the Washington University, St Louis, Missouri, February 10th to May 21st, 2017.