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This educational section examines the period between 1900 and 1945, when Paris was the beating heart of the international avant-garde and a locus of innovation. This revolutionary time in Paris is chronicled here through four major international expositions, which glorified France’s cultural vitality, its innovative design and technology, and its colonial power. Beginning with a chronology (see pdf attached), this section considers the agendas that motivated the expositions, tracing connections between culture and politics.


René Binet, Monumental Gate of the Exposition Universelle, Paris, 1900. © Léon et Lévy / Roger-Viollet

Exposition Universelle, 1900  
Paris Capital of the Arts 

Launched in 1900, the Exposition Universelle was the grandest international showcase of design, art, and technology to date. Punctuating the highpoint of the French Belle Époque (1871–1914), it projected an image of Paris as the cultural capital of the world. Its epicenter was the Palais de L’Electricité, an opulent Art Nouveau–style power station that supplied the energy for the entire exposition compound. Besides earning Paris the epithet La Ville Lumière (City of Light), electrical illumination had transformed the city’s nightlife. The bohemian bars of the Montmartre and Montparnasse neighborhoods were open later, and artists could work in their studios through the night.

Le Corbusier, Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau, built in 1924. The building was destroyed in 1926, but an exact replica was erected in 1977 in Bologna, Italy. © F.L.C. / VEGAP, Bilbao, 2016. Photo: ADAGP Image Bank

Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs, 1925
Designs for a New Society

This exposition encapsulated the desire of many people in France to promote Art Deco art, design, and architecture as the flagship style of Europe’s elite. Many modernist architects, including Le Corbusier, opposed the exclusive and sometimes frivolous values promoted through Art Deco, and instead envisioned a democratic architecture that would contribute to the dissolution of class divisions and the promotion of egalitarianism. Such debates particularly resonated with women who were fighting for equal rights and suffrage, which was not achieved in France until 1944. Often struggling to gain prominence in artistic circles, many women thrived in fashion design, literature, and philosophy, thanks in part to the increasingly free and liberal society of the Roaring Twenties, documented in the archival footage and audio recordings within this section.

12th-century Khmer temple of Angkor Wat, 1931. A reconstruction by architects Charles and Gabriel Blanche. © Albert Harlingue / Roger-Viollet

Exposition Coloniale Internationale, 1931
Colonial Myths

This international exposition promoted France’s colonial missions. The strategic support provided to France by its colonies was vital to its economy during the depression that struck the United States and Western Europe in 1929. Ostensibly aligned with right-wing political agendas, the exposition was formally boycotted by Surrealist artists. They instead participated in the exhibition The Truth about the Colonies (documented in the images nearby), which was also supported by the French Communist Party. The disjunction between the generally left-wing avant-garde, and official institutions (including the École des Beaux-Arts, and its yearly salon), became paradigmatic of the polarization of the French political and cultural panorama.

Here you can listen to an extract of “Minor Swing” (1934) by Django Reinhardt et le Quintette du Hot Club de France. The father of Gypsy Swing, Django Reinhardt (1910–1953) was an inspiring musical figure who bridged the Atlantic by mixing American jazz with French Gypsy and Balkan music

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The Hall Tronconique of the Aeronautical Pavillion at the Exposition. Internationale des arts et techniques dans la vie moderne, 1937. Designed by Felix Aublet, Robert Delaunay, Sonia Delaunay, and Leopold Survage. © Centre Pompidou, Bibliothèque Kandinsky

Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne, 1937
Avant-Garde in Motion   

Throughout the first half of the century, avant-garde artists were drawn to the technological innovations that were transforming everyday life. One of the most striking pavilions at this exhibition, decorated by artists Robert and Sonia Delaunay, was dedicated to aviation. While this field opened fascinating possibilities for travel, the most sophisticated airplanes had been increasingly used in warfare. Germany's devastating air raids during the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) inspired Picasso to paint Guernica, shown for the first time at the Spanish Pavilion in this exhibition.

Here you can listen to an extract of Erratum musical (ca. 1913), one of the few musical works ever created by Marcel Duchamp. Paralleling experiments by the Dada artists, he composed the melody by pulling series of notes from a hat and performing the resulting score with his two sisters.

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