AwardsQuality Prize and Quality Award, French National Film Center
CreditsDirectors: Maurice Rheims: Monique Lepeuve Narration: Maurice Rheims Original music: Diego Masson
Catalog number # 460
14 minutes Color
Age Range: 14 to Adult
Closed Captions and Interactive Transcript
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During the second Empire, Paris in the gay 90's was still in its infancy. Lion's heads yawning with boredom on the facades, watched over the 4% interest of Messrs. Neusangen and the virtue of the young lady. The first reaction to this poverty stricken convention was applied art: to functional facades were added flowers, curliqueues and even women. The jumble replaced by the grotesque. But between 1896 and 1900 a handful of inspired builders were to lay the foundations of contemporary architecture. Rectilinear walls and bay windows. New ideas still hidden under mannerist decoration, bourgeois convention was finished, architectural honorisms such as it emerged two centuries ago appeared once again. Throughout Europe a symbolist modernist flame appeared. The Sommeroga building in Milan, this building in Paris on Avenue Rapp, a strange incredible building designed by Lavirotte.
Munich 1897: the building destroyed in 1936 on Hitler's orders, it apparently offended his view.
Here Elorentine Japan. The studio designed by the painter Paul Gauchi in Brussels. 1898: an underground station built in Vienna for the personal use of Emperor Franz Joseph. "The architects have gone mad" the Parisians cried when they saw these buildings more suited to shelter the dancer Lois Fuller than the electors of President Loubey. People came from everywhere to see, mockingly, or admiringly. If the declaration still seemed mannerist, it was neither less nor more so than a certain conception of informal art. A hallway covered with glazed sandstone, an innovation, the staircase freed of its Japanese style windows so popular for 50 years was flooded with light. Transluced and dissymmetric glass bricks produced the opalescent light of the seabed. Guimard the Rodin of architecture and a sculptor of unreal forms enchanted metal like a snake charmer. In the courtyard the accent is on the functional, great vertical planes, but, so as to prevent the eye from being stayed by this military aspect, there are here and there curious almost dramatic details like the sea-horses which distract the spectator's gaze and camouflage the different floor levels. For Guimard nothing was foreign. He pursued a new idea; art is in everything, in the hand-rail of a staircase, a door knob, a chair, or an arm-chair. Reacting against the fashion which sought to describe all furniture as Gothic or Regency, Guimard invented the Guimard style. Just like Gaudi in Barcelona or Basile in Palermo. Others, futurists already were soon to find their own place in a sky-scraper: Goodwin in London and Frank Lloyd Wright in New York. Thanks to world fairs, the visitor became familiar with the use of iron materials capable of giving back the original note to these industrial Saint Semonial manifestations. The architect of the Grand Palais in Paris, (like the populist writers dealing with the proletarian world) sought to idealize these huge spans and vaults and staircases, their lines in accordance with the teachings of the theorists, took their strength from the men who drew them. The architect revealed the secrets of building; rivets and bolts were exposed, exalted even, an obvious proof of the Socratic idea that an object is beautiful when it is adapted to the functions for which it is made. "Strange buildings", said Van der Velde, "like the warships of the stars curious above the hidden life of the depths of the sea, drew to the surface". But too much Baroque grace finally betrayed great ambitions, the architects of this Art Nouveau, the victims of their own enthusiasm, no longer distinguished its pitfalls. The modern style, the arch enemy of historicism grew old and surrendered again to the old style. From the functional they fell into gongorism, the modern world demanded a style of its own. In Paris August Perret, with a mixture of prudence and audacity, built the first modern French building on Rue Franklin. Large vertical spans which would have had to be extended to create a skyscraper. As if to excuse his audacity, Perret adorned the facade with stylized ceramic flowers, but a closer look reveals his intentions. The flowers were just sketched in with rough primitive petals heralding Le Corbusier's naked concrete.
Darmstadt 1902. The Stockle Palace, Brussels, 1904. This building was already cubist 20 years ahead of the pavilions built in Paris in 1925 for the exhibition of decorative arts. In 1907, Perret built the Champs Elysees Theatre, thus giving the finishing stroke to French architectural mannerism. These houses were inhabited by an ambiguous world of bourgeois society which took only a hundred years to decay, a society built around appearances and taboos. The critic Feneon, dazzled by progress and bathrooms, wrote of women filling the hull of their baths with their rounded squatting. Also the objects used to decorate these houses may be better understood in the context of a certain symbolist litany which employed the most incredibly precious jargon, an appropriate decadentism to describe the paradoxes of the rococo.
Listen to Huisman's "Lorrain" or "Le Poidevin". This world of the aquarium and the limbo is suddenly lit with spectacles of society. A whole night of strange stork beaked reptiles, toads, winged-like bats crawling with helminthes and worms. May your eyes be blest for they are homicidal. They are full of phantoms. The irony of chrysalides sleeps in them like the stale water at the bottom of green grottos. Wild narcissi caress themselves in their vagabond water-stream smells. May your eyes be blest, for they are homicidal. A desperate head in the crawling entanglement of its viperine hair. Another man has settled in me, and what a man! What frightful atavism, what sinister ancestors does he arouse. A frail young man of thirty, anaemic and neurotic with hollow cheeks and upcurving but straight nose and dry, slender hands. This obsession with sex, however exaggerated it may have been in Mr. Dormoie would not have sufficient to outlaw him in the eyes of the bourgeois of Saint Louis en L'Isle, that Mecca of gracious living, if this collector of ancient arms and young girls had not had the singular habit of using both in erotic combinations. The flower opened wherever his finger laid.
Maxim's. It was a gay period, not only because of the exceptional meteorological conditions producing the kind of weather previous generations had never dreamed of, but also because there was plenty of money about, and it was easy to lay one's hands on it. Maxim's! Maxim's! Gustav Moreau, the man of symbols and perversity. And in the silence of the night, the wonderful dialogue of Chimaera and the Sphinx begins. Here Chimaera stay No, never! Rocked by the admirable prose of Flaubert, he listened panting while Chimaera utters the solemn and magic phrase "I seek new perfumes, wilder flowers, unknown sensations". And in the burning shade of the prison of silkendown he felt in and among his limbs a subtle pulsating embrace. A Greek woman from Lesbos? No, she says she comes from a noble Greek family. I think she must be an Eastern Jewess from the Levantine perhaps, but with an admirable body, and what flexibility, a huge living flower which can dance. It is Andromache if you prefer, but what about her eyes? Her eyes are beautiful, eyes which have gazed at the sea. In my life I have had ten year old ballerinas, emaciated duchesses, painful and always tired, music lovers and drug-takers. They were like life-sized puppets, long well-dressed dolls, left there in the rush. May your feet be blessed, for they are dishonest. They have worn the mules of brothels and flower-bedecked temples. She personified the psychic beauty of the 20th century. Where is she going, this girl from Rome, the sister of Freud's Graniva? It was all mad, but it was true. Around 1900 Art Nouveau, after mingling with the worst in bourgeois art, dissolves like snow in the sun with the first breath of modern art.
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