LILY AT THE EXPOSITION UNIVERSELLE 1900
Paris – La ville lumière, the city of light – the city of love! She glitters in the night like a grande-horizontale bedecked in her most extravagant jewels, like a diamond parure, hard and brilliant, resting on a bed of soft, yielding black velvet. What vices lay hidden in that inky darkness, what temptations lurk unseen in her shadowy folds? But do not concern yourself with what may lie beneath, she whispers seductively, take pleasure only in my beauty and my dress. Look – I have arrayed myself in my finest to greet the new century!
The evidence of the calendar is belied by the magnificence of her display, all the extravagances of the old century have reached a final flowering. The old ways are not ready to die yet, and the young and impressionable Lily, on the threshold of womanhood, is captivated by this glittering façade. She is letting down her defences – and, like a beautiful avaricious woman, Paris reaches out – and grasps her heart.
In 1900, at the time of the great Exposition Universelle, Lily Marchant visits Paris with her parents Charles and Adeline, and her older sister Rosemary. They are accompanied by her father’s business partner George Daniels, his wife Emily and son Freddy. It is in Paris that Lily forms the ambition of becoming a couturier like the great Mme. Paquin, but Fate is waiting in the wings to play her hand.
Lily: In these precious moments, before my sister awakes, I have Paris all to myself and I watch silently as the pink of dawn fades from the sky and the activity in the square below increases. Somewhere just out of view is the Eiffel Tower and the fantastic exhibition buildings that line the banks of the Seine. I have tried so many times to visualise what the great exhibition will be like and in a few hours time I will become part of the great crowd that surges through it daily. If I dare I will take Freddy’s arm when the throng is thick enough to conceal us. Somehow I must get him to kiss me again . . . But for now the awakening city is mine alone and I hug the moment to myself. Paris belongs to me! I have never felt so intensely alive.
As a young girl about to turn fourteen, Lily Marchant is captivated by Paris on her first visit to the city. The great Exposition Universelle was a fantasy-land of elaborately decorated structures, most intended to be temporary. The banks of the Seine were transformed: along the left bank from the Pont des Invalides to the Pont de l’Alma stretched the Pavilions of the Nations and from the Pont de de l’Alma to a footbridge near the site of the present-day Passerelle d’Herbilly, the right bank hosted a picturesque interpretation of Vieux Paris, peopled with actors in costume.
The red dotted line on the map above shows Lily’s route – entering the exhibition through the main gateway, the Porte Monumentale, a great three-sided archway designed by architect and painter René Binet.
Lily: The Place de la Concorde is alive with people, with bustle, with noise, with the infectious excitement of the exhibition. The day grows hotter and the brilliant light reflects off dozens of raised white parasols and a sea of straw boaters, as the crowd surges towards the main gate. Our two families join the throng and move slowly towards Binet’s extraordinary, over-decorated, three-arched dome. Atop this fantastic structure the Parisienne herself is embodied in a fifteen foot sculpture. Extravagantly gowned, she welcomes visitors, the spirit of the exhibition. I shade my eyes against the July sun to examine her: “They say Madame Paquin gave the design for her clothes to the sculptor, Papa.” “Well Lily, you have been been reading up on the exhibition!” He is impressed – “ and who is the sculptor?” “ Um, I forget … Monsieur Somebody-Something..” He laughs and tucks my hand in his arm: “ M. Moreau-Vauthier.” Around us I hear murmurs of disapproval and catch the words “honte,” “ salamandre,” then “fille” and “putaine.” I know all but the last. “What are they saying Papa?” “They say Binet’s arch looks like a Salamander – it’s a sort of French stove.” “And la Parisienne – don’t they like her?” “They think she’s vulgar Lily, but we are entering an exhibition, not a convent! Who but a beautifully dressed, and beautiful young woman, should they have chosen to embody the spirit of Paris?
In the niches of the Porte Monumentale are three enormous statues.
Charles: Nearby, a towering ceramic figure stands before a basin of cool water. The day grows hotter and Lily moves towards the statue. As she is undoing the glove-buttons at her wrist, leaning over the basin to dip her hands, Adeline turns, and catches sight of the action. She raises her eyebrows and mouths a silent “No.” She sighs and I can read her thoughts – Rosemary has been the easiest of girls to raise, obedient and placid, but Lily has a will of her own which cannot be broken. I suppose it does not help that I have indulged her since the moment she was born.
They pass through the ticket booths and walk through the gardens of the Cour la Reine, with their glasshouses and horticultural displays, arriving eventually at the Pont Alexandre III.
Like the visitors pictured above, Lily and her family stop on the bridge to admire the view.
Charles: Freddy edges as close as he dares to Lily and points out the different pavilions which border the river on the left bank. He stands behind her and puts his arm over her shoulder, bending down to speak to her. He is so close he must be able to smell the scent of her hair and the back of her neck, but her face is hidden from him by the brim of her straw hat. “Look, Lily – that’s the Italian pavilion with the golden domes, the Russian one looks like the Kremlin and the Norwegian one is all made of wood.” He is looking down on her now with an expression of undisguised longing, trying to keep his voice steady. I see Lily shift closer to him. She is twisting round, looking up into his face, her eyes dark, the pupils dilated : “Oh Freddy – it is far more fantastic than I ever dreamed!”
Where the Palais de Chaillot now stands, the Palais du Trocadéro, built for the exhibition of 1878, looked out over a cascade, its two wings embracing exhibitions from the Colonies Française to the west and the Colonies Étrangères to the east. The Eiffel Tower, built for the previous exhibition of 1889 and originally intended as a temporary structure only, was retained. It was the subject of much criticism at the time and was intensely disliked by many Parisians.
The Grand Palais and the Petit Palais, built for the 1900 exhibition, remain to this day. The Grand Palais has hosted spectacular fashion shows and the Petit Palais mounted an exhibition in 2014: Paris 1900, The City of Entertainment. http://www.petitpalais.paris.fr/en/expositions/paris-1900-city-entertainment
A moving pavement made a continuous circuit of the exhibition, moving at 4mph.
Lily: With the aid of regularly positioned poles, passengers are moving between decks and stopping to admire the view at will. I ignore the poles in favour of Freddy’s proffered hand, which I relinquish reluctantly, under the disapproving glare of his mother. Off we glide past the Pavilions of the Nations. Domes and roofs and turrets and towers of every imaginable style slide by. Above the roofs of the main exhibition halls a huge globe of the heavens appears, the constellations depicted upon its surface as the signs of the zodiac. Papa says there was a terrible accident while it was being built – the concrete supports gave way and several men were killed. Rosemary shudders and I ponder again the advantages and disadvantages of being a woman. Women are restricted in what they may do, yes, but they are also protected from many of the dangers of life. That is scarcely an advantage though, I would rather have the freedom to take risks! I marvel at the sheer amount of work required to build this exhibition – all built by men. How could all this possibly have been conjured from nothing? It seems incredible. Over the globe looms the great iron structure of Gustave Eiffel’s tower, dwarfing all, and Papa has shown me photographs of it being constructed. Men are lucky to have the chance to be involved in such fantastic projects. At least it was a woman who designed the clothes for La Parisienne! In their own field, women may succeed, it is possible to be a woman and not to lead an entirely passive life, I suppose.
They dismount opposite the Palais des Fils, Tissus et Vêtements, and enter the halls.
Lily: The couturiers’ display in the hot, unventilated, electrically lit exhibition halls is thronged with people, and the dense crowd gives off a cloying smell of perfume combined with the more acrid odour of un-washed bodies. I am surprised at this odour, the crush and the behaviour of the pushing masses, all eager to view the contents of the great glass cases. I had envisioned something more like the sedate atmosphere of the Kensington museums at home. But the displays are captivating, like frozen vignettes of an idealised real life, with their astonishingly life-like mannequins dressed in elaborate creations from Paris’s most exclusive couture houses.
Lily and her sister Rosemary view Paquin’s stand – the wax mannequin of Mme. Jeanne Paquin is visible on the right, above.
Lily: I become suddenly aware of a tall man behind me rubbing something hard against the small of my back. I can hear his breathing and smell the odour of tobacco on his breath as he leans over me. I shudder and step back deliberately on his foot. He springs back and mutters an oath under his breath before hissing some ugly words which I do not understand, but the menacing tone of his voice causes me to shiver in the midst of this stifling atmosphere.
Lily and her party have lunch at the Pavillon Bleu restaurant, an Art Nouveau fantasy at the foot of the Eiffel Tower.
Freddy: Lily is watching with interest as the young and handsome barman prepares our drinks with rapid movements, throwing ice into tall glasses, before squeezing the fruit in a special contraption, adding water and sugar and rapidly whisking all together with a long-handled spoon. His hair is shiny with pomade, his movements are quick and confident and he keeps up a flow of conversation all the while with a flirtatious young woman customer who pretends to wait for a friend. I feel a pang of jealousy – is it the process which fascinates Lily or the young man himself? I vow to screw up my courage – I must steal another kiss before our time in Paris is up! Seated at the next table is a provincial family and, a little apart, a dark young man with a very beautiful, melancholy face. He sits silently sketching in a black bound book, absorbed in his work. Lily transfers her attention to him, watching fascinated, for she also loves to draw. He is dressed in a style that Mother derisively terms ‘artistic pretension,’ with an un-starched collar folded down over a loose black bow. A soft wide brimmed hat lies on the table in front of him, next to an untouched glass of wine. I run my finger round under my own stiff collar, my neck damp from the heat, and wish that I could loosen my own tie, envying the stranger his freedom. He senses Lily watching him and looks up smiling, his serious face momentarily alight with pleasure, holding her eye briefly with a direct gaze. She loses her composure and turns away, tipping the brim of her straw hat down in an effort to conceal the unaccustomed blush which suddenly reddens her cheeks. She is not a girl who usually blushes. I watch in dismay – she is my Lily! I will kiss her again, I am quite determined!
Several aspects of the Exposition Universelle were condemned at the time for their vulgarity, in particular Binet’s monumental entrance in the Place de la Concorde.
It was compared to a Salamandre, a type of French stove, and the fifteen foot statue of La Parisienne which topped this great arch was heavily criticised. Dressed in fashionable clothing designed by the most successful couturier of the day, Jeanne Paquin, for many La Parisienne represented the triumph of commodity culture over art. For some she even represented ‘the triumph of prostitution’.
In his rejection of the classical ideal, the sculptor Morin-Vauthier presented a
modern image of woman the consumer, inviting the same sort of criticim that
Manet’s straightforward representation of a prostitute, Olympia, had over thirty years previously.
The Salamander stove, below, and above in a painting by Félix Vallotton.
Perhaps the most spectacular structure in the exhibition was the Palais de l’Électricité, fronted by the Chateau d’Eau. At night it was illuminated with thousands of electric bulbs whilst multicoloured lights played on the fountains.
After dark the entire exhibition was brilliantly illuminated by electricity. Paris truly merited the title La Ville Lumière.
The 1900 exhibition attracted approximately 50 million visitors and fifty-six ticket booths were installed at the Porte Binet alone, to cope with the crowds. Its elaborate architectural style was very much in the Art Nouveau taste, as were many of the exhibits. Notable was the exquisite jewellery display of René Lalique.
Sadly the exhibition was not a financial success. Despite the huge number of visitors, the ticket price was insufficient to cover the enormous expenditure incurred. It dulled the French appetite for large international exhibitions. The cost per visitor ended up being about six hundred francs more than the price of admission. Despite Paris having hosted an exhibition of this type approximately every eleven years since 1855, its successor, L’ Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, was not staged for another 25 years. As the 1900 exhibition had been synonomous with Art Nouveau, the 1925 exhibition was to give its name to the style subsequently termed Art Deco.