Though claims are made for earlier contributions to the evolution of Art Deco taking place in Vienna, Austria, and even in Northampton in England, there is a general consensus that it was born in France. The pioneering work by French designers such as Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann, Edgar Brandt, Jean Puiforcat and Jean Dupas, especially when showcased at the 1925 ‘Exposition Internationale des arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes,’ saw France once more setting the pace and direction for design and fashion.
It is, however, a fact that the Art Deco architecture in French cities does not generally manifest itself with bright, showy colours on the façades of its buildings. French culture had plenty of bright colours in the paintings of this period, but building exteriors were usually decorated by sculptors, not painters. Unlike the ancient Greeks the French sculptors of the day did not paint their works, hence the colour of the stone was all the colour they provided. Some colour, however, is occasionally provided by mosaics.
Paris was a mecca for a all kinds of artists from the late nineteenth century to the mid twentieth. We start with two great Art Deco buildings still present in the city: the Palais de Tokyo and the Palais de Chaillot. For a great number of artists, the 1937 Exposition mentioned below was a grand opportunity to see their most monumental concepts given a permanent place. 464 painters, 271 sculptors and 269 decorative artists took part in creating the ambiance for the event.
Paris Art Deco Building 1, Palais de Tokyo
The architects Jean-Claude Dondel, André Aubert, Paul Viard et Marcel Dastugue were selected for their designs for what was later known as ‘Le Palais de Tokyo.’ It is worth considering that they were chosen over stellar architects of the day such as Le Corbusier and Mallet-Stevens. Originally the buildings were for the 1937 Paris International Exhibition called: ‘Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne’.
It had been twelve years since the seminal 1925 ‘Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes,’ however the public appetite for modern decoration had not diminished. France’s finest artists were once again given an opportunity to excel and they did so with all of their energy. Two fantastic ‘double’ buildings received their labours and one of them was the Palais de Tokyo.
The two mirror buildings of the Palais de Tokyo are located on what is now the ‘Avenue de New-York’, but up until 1945 it had been called the ‘Quai de Tokio’ and this is where the name came from. One building, the east wing, now houses the ‘Musée d’Art Moderne,’ while the west wing has held a variety of concepts and functions and is currently an institution for contemporary art.
The entry into both buildings of the Palais de Tokyo is through pairs of massive bronze doors all of which were created by the master metalworker Jacques Adalbert Szabo. They were decorated with bronze figure sculptures by André Bizette-Lindet.
There are numerous other Art Deco sculptures on the Palais de Tokyo including a postwar memorial, a freestanding bronze by Antoine Bourdelle, representing ‘France’, and the metopes by Marcel Gaumont on the west side, and Leon Baudry on the east side. By far the most monumental works of sculpture are the two reliefs of the muses and gods by Alfred Janniot entitled: ‘Allégorie à la gloire des Arts’ at the reflecting pool.
Paris Art Deco Building 2: Palais de Chaillot
The Palais de Chaillot, which is also known as The Trocadero, sits opposite the Eiffel Tower across the River Seine. Like the Palais de Tokyo it was a double building constructed for the 1937: ‘Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne’.
These in fact make up the second Palais de Chaillot, the original known as the ‘Palais du Trocadero’ having been built for the World’s Fair in 1878. The name of the hill that the ‘Palais du Trocadero’ was situated on is known as ‘Chaillot’.
When Paris was selected to host the ‘Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne’ the city decided to knock down the old Palais du Trocadero and put up a new building in its place. The architects, Louis Boileau, Jacques Carlu and Leon Azema designed two new, mirrored buildings to sit on the foundations of the original 1878 ‘Palais du Trocadero’. They arranged the space between the two buildings so that it would create spectacular views of the Eiffel Tower, which itself had been created for the 1889 ‘Exposition Universelle’, celebrating the French Revolution’s 100th anniversary.
Like the Palais de Tokyo, the Palais de Chaillot has a lot of modern sculpture on it and around it. On the unfenestrated parts of the exterior walls one can see many large, stone bas reliefs from different artists on a variety of subjects including ‘Painting’, ‘Sculpture’, ‘The Architect’ and ‘The Art of the Forge’. All of these, and many others, came from the architects’ grand plan in relating the decorative elements to the purpose of the 1937 exposition.
Two massive, freestanding, bronze statues of Hercules and Apollo sit just off to the side of the central esplanade. On the esplanade by the west wing of the Palais de Chaillot is the large ‘Hercule et le Taureau’ sculpture. ‘Hercules and the Cretan Bull’ is a legend which comes from ancient Greek mythology. The Seventh Labour of Heracles (the original Greek spelling of Hercules) was to catch the Cretan Bull, and of course he succeeded. Hercules is generally shown as a powerful young man, fit to be the son of a god, in this case Zeus, or in Roman mythology Jupiter. The sculptor, Albert Pommier, was born in Paris in 1880 and studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts.
Meanwhile, over on the esplanade by the west wing is another big sculpture called in French: ‘Apollon Musagete’ or ‘Apollo with his Lyre’. This work is over six metres high and was sculpted by the French sculptor Henri Bouchard, who was born in Dijon in 1875. Bouchard studied art and also sculpture in Dijon before moving to Paris to complete his studies at the Ecole des Beau Arts.
Just around from these two large bronze sculptures is the place where the two separate Palais de Chaillot buildings mirror each other with tall, vertical windows. Here, at the edges of the two buildings, sit opposing rows of golden, upright figures who form an honour guard for the view of the Eiffel Tower. There are eight golden statues by different artists. One piece is called ‘La Jeunesse’, and it was made by the sculptor Alexandre Descatoire who was born in Douai, Northern France, in 1874.
The Trocadero Gardens are centred behind the two Palais de Chaillot buildings, and were re-designed for the 1937 Exposition. The Trocadero Gardens have magnificent fountains along the long pool known as the Fountain of Warsaw. Also to be found in the gardens are some large, sculpted figure groups on pedestals including ‘La Joie de vivre’, or ‘The Joy of Life,’ by Léon-Ernest Drivier, who was born in Grenoble in 1878.
Paris Art Deco Building 3: Grand Rex Cinema
Billed as the biggest atmospheric cinema and concert venue anywhere in Europe, Le Grand Rex opened in December 1932 and has survived as such since then. It was largely designed by the architect Auguste Bluysen, with a little help from the American John Eberson, an architect who specialized in atmospheric cinemas. Its 300 square metre screen is the largest in Paris, and it can seat 2800 people, more than anywhere else in Europe. The Grand Rex is in the second arrondissement at: 1 Boulevard Poissonnière. In October 1981 the Cinéma Rex was listed as a National Monument.
Paris Art Deco Building 4: Magasin La Samaritaine
Situated in the first arrondissement, in the centre of the city, La Samaritaine began as a small apparel shop in 1870 and grew into one of the most famous department stores in Paris. It expanded into several buildings but the Art Deco one was the largest and most iconic. Purchased in 2001 by luxury goods company LVMH, La Samaritaine was closed in 2005. What the company wanted to do with the store, listed in 1990 as a historic monument by the French Ministry of Culture, and what the authorities would permit, took some time to come into alignment. A newly renovated La Samaritaine is set to open its doors once more in February 2021, with an accent on luxury.
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