Book Review: Bouvet, Vincent and Gérard Durozoi. Paris Between the Wars 1919-1939: Art, Life and Culture. Trans. Ruth Sharman. New York: Vendome Press. Print. 2010.
Art is neither created nor viewed in a vacuum. It is this notion perhaps that helped to inspire Vincent Bouvet and Gérard Durozoi in the organization of their recent book Paris Between the Wars 1919-1939: Art, Life and Culture. Bouvet and Durozoi’s effectively chosen subtitle prepares the reader to view the arts of the period in a set of wider contexts. With chapters discussing daily life in Paris, the history and experiences of this city, and the influential position held by the decorative arts, the authors subtly and effectively reframe their view of artistic life in this often-studied time and place. Tellingly, painting and sculpture are addressed together in the fifth chapter of the book, preceded by the chapters described above as well as “The World of Fashion.” With following chapters that discuss photography, film, advertising, literature, and music, readers are left with a strong understating of the cross-pollination endemic of artistic production in 1920s and 1930s Paris.
Nonetheless there are moments when the purpose of this inclusiveness is not entirely clear. Bouvet’s chapter “The City of Light” provides an overview of major infrastructure and civic development projects undertaken in Paris in the years after World War I. Each of these projects is treated briefly, as one might expect given the scope this book. Unfortunately what they meant for the development of the arts in Paris remains unclear. For example, Bouvet’s analysis of public transport in Paris discusses new motorways, the availability of air travel, and the development of Paris’ tram system. How did this mobility affect the production, display, or sale of art? Did it serve as a subject for art, or alter the consciousness of artists, or their sense of modernity? Certainly this new public mobility had effects on the lives of artists. Here, as in other areas, Bouvet and Durozoi have suggested areas of potential influence on the arts that may be further explored in more focused studies.
The second guiding principle of the book is to include an abundance of relevant, high quality images. Far from making the study into a picture-book, the images reproduced throughout the text serve to frame, inform, and illustrate the text quite effectively. For example, two color photographs of the 1925 Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriel Modernes are displayed on pages 106 and 107. The photograph on page 106 shows the Porte d’Orsay entrance to the Exposition on what appears to be a quiet day. A few blurry figures stand near the entrance, while the sharply angled lighting and scattered leaves suggest early autumn. The entrance gate is overshadowed by a large decorative panel that is about 60 feet tall and decorated in a Cubist style. The image in this panel is composed of six figures arranged vertically, each representing one of the modes of art on display in the Exposition. The impressive scale of this entrance helps to underscore the powerful role that the 1925 Exposition has played in the development of both decorative and fine arts. Printed on page 107 is a color photograph showing two of the department store pavilions from the Exposition. The distinctively Art Deco architecture and signage is familiarized by the green of the grass, blue tones in the sky, and sharp red fence demarcating space in the left background. That color photographs of high descriptive value survive at all from the 1925 Expo is remarkable. In the context of Bouvet’s chapter on the decorative arts, they help to bring the artistic experience described by the author closer to reality.
One of the great joys of studying history is the thrill of imagining living and operating in a different time and place. Though not often discussed by historians, this imaginary process is a great reward of deep archival and scholarly research. In the hands of Bouvet and Durozoi the reader’s imaginary experience is quite strong, supported by the numerous and descriptive images, and the ambiance of the everyday. Rich in quality images, thoughtfully organized, and lucidly written, Bouvet and Durozoi’s addition to the vast literature on Les Années folles is directed primarily at readers who are fairly new to its subject. Nonetheless I suspect that those who have studied the arts of the period will benefit from this text, and find its carefully selected images and broad overview of the experience of artistic Paris in the 1920s and 1930s rewarding.