Portraying historical landmarks and areas of artistic invention over a period of 31 years, and placing them within the context of political and cultural life as it evolved in Paris is no small feat. Cataloging the transformations that occurred during the period by way of their visionary creators is also a monumental task. Jean-Louis Cohen and Guillemette Morel Journel carried this labyrinthine cartography to an exemplary end in their book Paris Moderne, 1914-1945, recently published by Flammarion. Shown above is an aerial perspective of the 1931 Exposition Coloniale Internationale, which was staged in Paris for six months to display the creative output of the cultures that coalesced into the French Colonial Empire.
About their book, the authors say, “It would be overly ambitions for a single volume to address the infinite complexity of so many transformations in Parisian society. This mosaic attempts to sketch the outlines of a vast human adventure. We hope it will inspired readers to embark on their own exploration of the panoramic creative landscape that Paris formed between the years of 1914 and 1945.” The book was originally planned as a resource guide to accompany the exhibition of the same name held in the summer of 2023 at the Power Station of Art in Shanghai. The mix of names presented alphabetically were giants in nearly every discipline—Guillaume Apollinaire, Jean Arp, Josephine Baker, Brassaï, André Breton, Chanel, Marcel Duchamp, Eileen Gray, Le Corbusier, Fernand Léger, Charlotte Perriand, Pablo Picasso, Jean Prouvé, Man Ray, and Gertrude Stein are but a few of the nearly 100 cultural behemoths featured. Before the ideals these figures espoused are presented, historical black-and-white images are intermingled with graphically rich posters of the 1930s.
Early on in the 352-page book, Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, and other architects usher in modern buildings, the section dubbed the “Contemporary Promenade.” Then the alphabetical profiles take the readers on a romp through time. Describing Josephine Baker, the authors say, “With close ties to writers of the Harlem Renaissance, who were met with a cordial welcome in Paris, she was the darling of artists such as Fernand Léger and a favorite of the audiences of musical reviews at the Folies-Bergère and Casino de Paris.” Two modern architects designed homes for Baker—Adolf Loos and Le Corbusier. The latter met her in 1929 aboard the ocean liner Giulio Cesare as it carried them from Buenos Aires to Rio de Janeiro.
Still only in the B’s, readers will find Gyula Halász, who adopted the pseudonym Brassaï after he arrived on the Paris scene. He made a name for himself in journalism until he turned to silver-print photography. The twin talents coalesced for me when I plumbed the life of Henry Miller for an essay and found Brassaï’s biography and portrait of the novelist, the cover of which—with Brassaï’s portrait on it, is shown above. When Brassaï first turned to photography, he concentrated on Paris at night when the moon and gas lamps gleamed on the surfaces of wet pavement. Later on, he turned to fashion photography, shooting portraits of some of the cult figures of the era, such as Miller, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Jean Genet, and Henri Michaux.
The above image of a model on the staircase of Chanel’s haute couture salon on rue Cambon in 1927 is as iconic as the address. Before Chanel set up shop on the avenue, Henry James lived there during a year he spent in Paris when it was known as rue de Luxembourg. The street welcomed Coco, as Chanel was known, in 1910. “Chanel was her own muse, flaunting her liberated creativity,” the authors of the Paris Moderne say. “A tireless designer, she always preferred to eliminate rather than to add; this principle of austerity contrasted with her love of a profusion of flamboyant costume jewelry.” Citing her “little black dress” that appeared in American Vogue in 1926, they write, “Chanel expressed her brilliance as a couturier through extreme sophistication and simplified lines.”
Also in 1927, the French socialite Yola Letellier was photographed by the Séeberger Brothers at the Auteuil racecourse in a Chanel suit (shown above). Haute couture had been thriving in Paris for seventy years by this point and department stores were revving up to take it to the masses. “While fashion radically altered women’s style, it also changed status in the 1920s,” the book’s authors note. “Couturiers were no longer mere suppliers, as Chanel aptly demonstrated, they were now counted among the sophisticated elite that dictated style to fashionable Paris.”
A survey of the development of graphic design includes this summation by the authors: “The Moulin-Rouge and other Montmartre cabarets were not alone in benefiting from the expansion of advertising signs. In 1928, the fourth issue of the magazine Arts et Métiers graphiques printed an article arguing that advertising’s use of light was the only real change to the face of Paris, despite all the destruction, construction, and other profound urban upheavals it had undergone over the course of the preceding years.” The above image of the Moulin-Rouge exemplifies how dramatically lit façades changed the cityscape of Paris.
As they look at the career of Jacques Doucet, a scion of a long line of lingerie makers first established in Paris in 1816, the authors of Paris Moderne point out, “International high-society socialites and actresses alike admired his airy tea gowns, negligees, and diaphanous mousseline dresses.” Doucet made a fortune in fashion and then turned to collecting. “Doucet was one of the instigators of the art deco style,” the authors note. “His apartment was decorated by Paul Iribe, Pierre Legrain, Rose Adler, and Eileen Gray.”
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If you’re a culture vulture, we highly recommend this colorful survey of all things Parisian. If you buy the book on bookshop.org, you will be helping independent bookstores around the country. The editors of Design Diary received a free copy of this book, though this in no way influenced our opinions expressed here.