The Modernity of Paris at the Petit Palais: A Dazzling Exhibition on the Years 1905-1925

The airplane had to be brought in without its wings, through the largest windows of the south wing of the Petit Palais in Paris. It had to be maneuvered like a reassembled dragonfly to its central place in the exhibition “le Paris de la modernité 1905-1925.” Visitors can admire, from every angle, this 1911 aeroplane with its magnificent but somewhat unsettling wooden propeller, which is a major piece among nearly 4000 in total, showcasing the takeoff of Paris into modernity and speed in the early 20th century.

Here, everything overlaps, from art to science and fashion. It is a world in mutation, where everything and everyone influences each other. It was in an aeronautical salon that Marcel Duchamp, the dynamo of modern art, was amazed by the vision of an ellipse. He decided that painting, which had been his mode of expression until then, was outdated. The man behind the “ready-mades” – pre-manufactured objects – declared that a bicycle wheel, “displayed” as a sculpture, reached the status of a work of art.

The exhibition provides a precise and vivid demonstration of how the artistic avant-garde is not just an intellectual stance, whim, or joke, but a profound aesthetic shock born of a brutal change in the world. In the same room, the first folding bicycle, designed for carrying like a backpack, is displayed, dating back to 1912. There is also a 1913 “Baby Peugeot Torpedo” car on view.

At the time of fauvism, cubism, surrealism, and the liberation of women’s fashion from tightly corseted dresses, Paris is in a state of constant excitement: “Technological modernity fascinates artists. The ambition and creativity of those twenty years are staggering,” summarizes Annick Lemoine, director of the Petit Palais.

A quote by Chagall on a wall sums up the atmosphere: “The sun of art shone only on Paris at the time.” The city hums with scandals, like the birth of fauvism in 1905 with “the Cage aux Fauves.” The rise of fauvism, cubism, surrealism… Many genres flourished during that period.

For aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont, a Brazilian and adopted Parisian who piloted one of the first airships, Cartier created the first wristwatch, which is on display at the exhibition. Always impeccably dressed, Santos-Dumont could not consult a pocket watch in the air, as was typical of aristocrats and bourgeoisie of the time.

The exhibition provides a fascinating insight into a vibrant and amusing era despite a terrifying hiatus. Don’t miss “Le Paris de la modernité, 1905-1925” at the Petit Palais in Paris from Tuesday to Sunday from 10 am to 6 pm (8 pm on Fridays and Saturdays) until April 14, 2024. Tickets range from 10 to 12 euros.

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