The Petit Palais’ current exhibition “Modern Paris: 1905–1925” is the third of a trilogy, preceded by the celebratory “Romantic Paris: 1815–1848” and “Paris 1900: City of Spectacle.” Both of the prior exhibitions put on view writing, music, and art that still thrill, and both fostered nostalgia for the gay Paris that once was, assuming you were one of the right people in the right place at the right time. “Modern Paris” brings us to more current times: the years of its focus—especially during the 1920s—contain elements that are still relevant to our times (even if people back then groomed themselves, in general, better.)

Modernity as a unifying banner was first raised by Charles Baudelaire and Théophile Gautier in the nineteenth century. Proclaiming oneself or one’s work “modern” is a double-edged sword, since today’s “now” can be tomorrow’s old hat. Even so, early twentieth-century moderns, such as T. S. Eliot and Picasso, remain relevant. Picasso’s work thus figures prominently in the exhibition, alongside that of other artists. But many wonderful non-artistic artifacts are on display as well, including a 1913 Peugeot two-seater, a “Baby Peugeot,” relatively affordable at a time when the motorcar was still a recent invention and luxury. Timekeeping devices—which we take for granted—were being modernized around this time too, with Maison Cartier designing for the dashing aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont the first wristwatch for men. Aviation, of course, was another new invention. In 1910 the Italian Futurist Gino Severini, at the time a struggling artist in Paris, took flying lessons. And women’s dress changed radically during the period too. Paul Poiret’s imagination freed women from their corsets, and some of his costuming—complete with a turban and headdress—for the play Le Minaret (1913) is on display, which shows the influence of the Ballets Russes and its hit 1910 production of Scheherazade.

Pablo Picasso, Bust of a Woman or a Sailor, 1907, Oil on cardboard, Musée national Picasso, Paris. © Succession Picasso 2023. Photo: © RMN-Grand Palais / Adrien Didierjean.

“Modern Paris” opens with a look at Montmartre, Paris’s main neighborhood for artists just after the turn of the century, when young Picasso first arrived. In the first room, we see a sign for the Lapin Agile cabaret, where artists, poets, writers, and villainous scoundrels met. Picasso was, at this time, a genuine starving artist, and his Blue and Rose periods thus portray figures on society’s margins. Still, he was a natural-born star, and he quickly began to dominate Montmartre from his studio in the Bateau-Lavoir. The show includes Picasso’s Bust of a Woman or a Sailor (1907), a depiction of a haunting, long, Spanish-looking face reminiscent of the work of El Greco. The painting was likely a study for what is often considered the signature modern paining, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), which Picasso didn’t exhibit for nearly another ten years.

Playfulness thrived in Montmartre. The Italian painter Joachim-Raphaël Boronali, for example, pioneered the “Excessivist” movement, offering The Sun Fell Asleep over the Adriatic to the Salon des Indépendants in 1910. But it turns out that there was no painter named Joachim-Raphaël Boranali: the name was invented by the critic Roland Dorgelès, and Dorgelès created the painting by dipping into a bucket of paint the tail of a donkey named Lolo, who then flicked his tail against the canvas. Boronali, was, in other words, really Lolo the ass.

Joachim-Raphaël Boronali, The Sun Fell Asleep over the Adriatic, 1910, Oil on canvas, Paul Bédu Community Cultural Space, Milly-la-Forêt, France.

Once artists have made a neighborhood famous, they too often see their quarters attracting new occupants with higher, steadier incomes. Rising prices thus drove many artists out of Montmartre and toward the Left Bank’s Montparnasse, the other side of town, around the end of the century’s first decade. Picasso, meanwhile, moved to place de Clichy after Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo bought everything he had in his studio in 1909. After designing the stage and costuming for Diaghilev’s ballet Parade in 1917, he moved to the very expensive rue de la Boétie. The exhibition stresses the importance of this new address’s location to the art of the period. Picasso’s move to this storied location was exceptional and put him just down the street from the Art Deco–Théatre des Champs-Élysées, designed by Auguste and Charles Perret in 1913, and the Grand Palais, which held yearly the Salon d’Automne and the Salon des Indépendants. And, of course, the area is home to the Petit Palais.

Paris’s reputation as the capital of the art world attracted painters and sculptors from everywhere. The exhibition relates the Russian-born Marc Chagall’s remark that the “sun of art shone in Paris” as nowhere else. He arrived in 1910, leaving behind in Russia his beloved Bella Rosenfeld, seen depicted in My Fiancée with Black Gloves, which he’d painted the year prior. Other celebrated arrivals from abroad included Amedeo Modigliani, Chaïm Soutine, Jacques Lipschitz, Tsuguharu Foujita, Kees van Dongen, Marevna (Marie Vorobieff), and Marie Vassilieff.

Marevna, Death and the Woman, 1917, Oil on wood, Association of friends of the Petit Palaise, Geneva. Photo: © Studio Monique Bernaz, Geneva.

Like the Musée du Luxembourg’s spring 2022 show “Pionnières” (reviewed here), “Modern Paris” gives prominence to the last of these artists, Vassilieff, sometimes described as a jack-of-all-trades, master—or mistress—of none. Her Scipio Africanus (1916) is a pseudocubist odalisque, described by the museum as a “daring violation of the masculine/feminine gender binary.” Ahem! That too is reminiscent of “Pionnières,” as is much of the rest of the show in its militant feminist approach to the sexes and art. Vassilieff created the Marie Vassilieff Academy in 1911 as a refuge for foreign artists; Modigliani studied there. When war arrived in 1914, she studied to become a nurse, but she is more remembered for the canteen she started for artists in Montparnasse; there Modigliani recited Dante and Picasso played at being a bullfighter.

The war is, as it was in life, prominent in “Modern Paris.” Marevna’s Death and the Woman (1917) (another echo of “Pionnières”) shows Death smiling in his usual way, despite his prosthetic leg and hook for a hand. The painting is more successful than most protest art, and its bright colors give it an eerily cheery feeling. Kees van Dongen, later known for his illustrations of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, created The Flower Vase (1917), which depicts his mistress Luisa Casati, a celebrated Italian socialite who was as comfortable in high society as among bohemian artists. Here, she is shown from the back, naked except for a pearl necklace, high heels, and a towel draped around her lower legs. The exhibition’s catalogue tells us that the painter was leading a “worldly life” far from the front, but a skull on the table speaks silently of the war.

Robert Delaunay, Paris: The Woman and the Tower, 1925, Oil on canvas, Stattsgalerie Stuttgart, Germany. Photo: © BPK, Berline. 

The Twenties brought Art Deco to Paris, and in 1925 the city hosted the Exposition international des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes. Robert Delaunay (who gave the world Homage to Louis Blériot [1914], honoring the aviator with colors whirling like a plane’s propellors) produced the painting Paris: The Woman and the Tower (1925) for the massive exposition. The Eiffel Tower here glows in a golden orange, while the Luxor Obelisks and the Seine shine in cool colors below. Swirling pastel-colored clouds seem to be pulling the city itself into the sky. The painting makes for an exhilarating and fitting end to the Petit Palais’ exploration of this spirited time in Paris’s history.

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