a decade of change

10.26.2019 ... 01.19.2020


The decade that spanned from 1925 to 1935 featured one milestone after another in intellectual, artistic, aesthetic, industrial and political circles, all of which were decisive for the 20th century as a whole.
The International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts took place in 1925, followed in 1931 by the Colonial Exhibition, then the Writer’s Congress and the launch of the SS Normandie ocean liner in 1935. When the Front Populaire took over in the Spring of 1936, France had undergone a sea change.
After the deprivation of the First World War and before that of the Second, people were euphoric to leave conflict behind and enjoy the way society was becoming more democratic, with changes that could potentially benefit everyone.

From the Treaty of Versailles to the Front populaire, this exhibition of photographs will tell the story of the upheaval that occurred in France. From literature to fashion, music to theatre and dance, everything changed. Everyone was welcome to express themselves, and the means of expression were no longer the same.
Picture magazines boomed during this period, bearing witness to and spreading change. New magazines kept coming, and the progress in printing techniques meant that layouts were more dynamic. This, added to the emergence of a generation of independent photographers meant these magazines were the guardians of the image of an era.

The 1937 Universal Exhibition bookended this “golden” age, and accompanied the visible rise in nationalism that sounded the death knell for a decade that was proud to be flighty.

The exhibition is based on the collections of Roger-Viollet BHVP (Albert Harlingue, Boris Lipnitzki, Maurice-Louis Branger, Laure Albin Guillot, …etc.) and of the Musée Nicéphore Niépce (Jean Moral, Marcel Arthaud and the magazines VU, Voilà, Marie-Claire, Art et Médecine, Match L’intran, Comoedia Illustré, L’Art Vivant …etc.).

Whatever fosters the growth of civilization works at the same time against war .”
Sigmund Freud, 1932

Any attempt to illustrate the aesthetic upheaval in France during the ten years from 1925 to 1935 presents a serious challenge so vast is the frame of reference. Photography was still black and white, not for much longer, but its instantaneous nature depicted movement, and what it seized tended to explode with colour in real life. In the decade that spanned from 1925 to 1935, the balance between the intoxication of the never-ending party and anxiety for the future was delicate and the period was a magical, life-changing interlude of fragility and inventiveness.

Between the end of the First World War and the start of the Second, the period before the election of the Popular Front was marked by the euphoria of a recently-ended conflict and an increasingly more democratic society where the changes were potentially beneficial for everyone. The stylistic revolutions of this transition period came from all of the arts working together. All means of expression and art forms were changing, from journalism, literature and fashion to music, theatre and dance, and photography was there to record those changes.

The printing world underwent a transformation, newspaper publishers became art publishers, industrialists brought out lavish magazines. Printers used the work of artists, illustrators and photographers to show their modern machines and new techniques at their best. Following on from the dispersed hordes of 18th  century publishing, the press reinvented itself led by people like Lucien Vogel, Alexey Brodovitch, Florent Fels, Michel de Brunhoff, Jean Prouvost, Gaston Gallimard, Roger Tolmer and Diana Vreeland, who was to meet Coco Chanel for the first time in Paris in 1926.
 Contributions were also sought from writers, who used and abused pseudonyms to write everything from serious reportage about the world to romances and even to comment on current affairs. Layouts were designed to grasp the reader’s attention. Photographs were reframed, often retouched and, for the most part, signed, promoting a real policy of photographer as auteur .

Between the launch of the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in 1925 and the arrival of the Popular Front in the Spring of 1936, France experienced a sea change. Jean Cocteau’s beloved “French style” underwent a period of aesthetic and intellectual upheaval. The 1937 Universal Exhibition marked the end of this so-called golden age. Unfortunately, it was accompanied by a rise in nationalism that marked the end of a decade that aspired to forgetting. A period of grace and chic modernity, whose elegant, low-key style lasted well into the fifties.

The press

From the early twenties to the late thirties in France, hundreds of periodicals were launched and hundreds more disappeared and photography featured in each one. The market for “paper products” was so diverse that it was divided into genres that covered politics, fashion, hunting, tourism, gastronomy, cinema and eroticism, or any combination of the above! Never before had such a variety of publications been available. The front pages were very eye-catching, special editions were legion and photomontages common, rarely giving the photographer credit.

The press was bursting with ideas and energy, and tens of thousands of pages were published every week showcasing the talents of creative directors, journalists and photographers. Investors made and lost fortunes in just a few years, working with writers and reporters for whom money was no object if it meant the right story for the front page. The rampant pace of publication forced barely-launched papers into bankruptcy on a regular basis as short-term success and month-to-month survival were the norm. Newspaper sellers struggled to display everything that was available, they were obliged to pile up publications, classifying them by genre or mixing them up to catch the attention of passers-by.

As photographers were freelance, not full-time employees, they grouped together to found photo agencies that were to remain in place up until the nineties. These agencies produced the greatest photojournalism ever seen and managed to have photographers recognised as auteurs . Agencies such as Rol, Harlingue and Nadar were replaced by others such as France Presse, Fulgur, Rapho, Alliance and Agip. The studio Manuel Frères occupied an entire building on rue du Faubourg Montmartre in Paris and formed a bridge between the two eras, making both its archive and current production available to magazines.

Despite photography’s omnipresence in the press (regardless of the titles’ political leanings) and its imminent omnipresence in publishing as a whole, photographers were still badly paid. In fact, they didn’t make their living working for newspapers, but from shooting adverts and corporate work.

For example, the magazine Art et Médecine published by Debat laboratories, gave equal billing to writers and photographers, representing for many the aesthetic ideal of the time and its posterity. Draeger, a printing company, played with photography, using various papers and printing techniques in its annual editions, which were technical and artistic must-haves for all involved in the “image” profession. Typographers, graphic artists, printers and binders provided unexpected aesthetic and decorative additions to photography, and art artisans and decorators organised photography exhibitions and used photos on their furniture, the most important of whom was Edgar Brandt.

As Carlo Rim wrote in Art vivant magazine in November 1930 (page 870): “Photography was invented twice. First by Niépce and Daguerre a century ago, then by us".

The world as it is

“Europe to me seems like an object that has suddenly been transferred into a more complex space […] any forecasts that could be made, all the traditional calculations are even more vain than ever.”  
Paul Valéry, 1931

In addition to the rhythm, speed and glitter of the jazz age, the ten years between 1925 and 1935 was a time of real change. War had devastated the Earth, exhausting the human race and destroying two, even three generations, but at the start of the twenties, the technical advances that resulted from the conflict led to a surge of progress. The world, thinking that such a war could never happen again, threw itself toward the future with gusto, all the while neglecting its own dark side.

The job of rebuilding and relaunching the world economy was immeasurable, and beautiful new machines appeared alongside abject poverty. Housing and jobs were the two big issues of the time, alongside concerns about health on a public and charity-based level. The decade between 1925 and 1935 saw the development of architectural programmes on a scale never before seen, aimed at giving people back their dignity and families a measure of comfort. Styles were pared-down, far from the historically-inspired traditions of the previous century. Artists, architects and artisans came together to improve daily life from a social perspective, according to values that had their basis in morality.

While in cities, buildings were being built and attempts being made to tackle poverty, photographers and magazines testified to the living conditions of those in need. This saw the advent of reportage at close quarters, a familiar and, at times, engaging technique, that was often raw yet imbued with a strange poetry. Its proponents sincerely believed that they were bearing witness to a time that was soon to be no more, as if the poor and no-go areas of the thirties were to be the last.

Higher, faster, further

“Let's love speed, the modern wonder, but let's always check our brakes.”
Paul Morand, 1929

Automobiles, trains, aeroplanes, motorboats, liners… industry trotted out one invention after another, delivering a new machine that went higher, faster and further almost weekly. Manufacturers promoted their new machines by organising rallies like Citroen’s trans-African (1924-1925) and Central-Asian (1931-1932) expeditions, races, beauty contests and shows. Ethnologists such as Georges-Henri Rivière, Paul Rivet and Marcel Griaule, promoted new automobiles alongside Albert Londres, the reigning beauty queen, and Erika and Klaus Mann travelled Europe in a Ford Roadster Deluxe.

Faraway lands came to those who could not or did not wish to travel, but the 1931 Paris Colonial Exhibition revealed itself to be an extraordinary demonstration of both power and naivete. Ethnologists came back from their journeys only to publish writing about the world and the colonies that didn’t correspond to what the politicians and industry magnates intended. The “fair” was peppered with eye-catching reconstructions to attract visitors for whom everything was laid out, from the decor to the use of “extras”. In an ironic twist, the scenography process of the colonial exhibitions led to ethnocentric stereotypes that, through colonial architecture, had an actual impact in the countries they were supposed to be from.

As well as travelling, western man also worshipped sporting pursuits and demonstrations of strength. Competitions and shows popped up everywhere. The breadth of sport’s ambitions covered health, the military, education and politics. Exposing and magnifying bodies through photography took on an almost “ancient” importance as was evident in the press and publishing.

Party time!

“Death, ever present, gives life style.”
André Suarès, 1934

Genres overlapped during this period. Theatres showed work by Pitoëff and Barbette, Berthold Brecht and Sacha Guitry, Arthur Honegger and André Messager. In short, the mix was like watching Jean Cocteau’s avant-garde film The Blood of a Poet (1930) to the air of Georges Milton singing Qui a peur du grand méchant loup ? (1933-1934).

Lev Koulechov invented film editing and his technique was used to earth-shattering effect by Sergueï Eisenstein in The Battleship Potemkin (1925). In the twenties, Russian filmmakers reinvented the genre and sparking a visual revolution. In 1928, Jean Giraudoux and Louis Jouvet took the theatre world by storm with Tessa (1934), La Guerre de Troie n’aura pas lieu (1935) and Supplément au voyage de Cook (1935). In another branch of the dramatic arts, Marcel Pagnol’s Fanny became a film, with Orane Demazis in the title role and Harry Baur as César.

Jean Cocteau was a major go-between between people and genres and can be seen as the ideal ambassador for the decade. The arts world was bursting at the seams, and its variety was intriguing. There was no line between Maurice Yvain’s operetta Pas sur la bouche (1925) and Kurt Joos’ ballets, Maurice Ravel and Maurice Chevalier were regulars at the Cotton Club when they went to New York. Close connections grew up between film directors, artists and fashion designers. In 1924, Paul Poiret collaborated with Marcel L’Herbier on L’Inhumaine and with Henri Diamant-Berger on Education de prince in 1927.

Music was evidently also on the move in cabarets and on the beaches, and the decade’s “soundtrack” tells a story, from Roses blanches (1925) to Tout va très bien Madame la marquise (1935). Many of the successes of the time have since become part of the canon: Tea for two (1925), Ol’man river (1927), I can’t give you anything but love (1928), Singin’ in the rain (1929), J’ai deux amours (1930), Plaisir d’amour (1931), 42nd street (1932), Santa Claus is coming to town (1933) and Prosper yop la boum (1935). The world was an overwrought place, music served both to sooth tension and set hearts on fire.

Feminine, femininity, feminism

“At a time when industry is experiencing a crisis that shows no sign of letting up, the progressive elimination of women from the workplace is quietly being put in place. Gallantry and good manners are reserved for those who do not need to earn a living.”
Cécile Brunschvicg, 1931

The First World War was not a new beginning nor was the turmoil it caused a form of emancipation, it was, in fact, an accelerator of the changes that were already underway. A job in a munitions factory paid twice what a woman would normally earn in a low-paid job, but was still less than what a man would earn (50% in 1913, 75% in 1917). In 1919, the baccalaureate was finally available to young girls who could then apply to universities or grandes écoles . Women accessed new jobs in transport and administration, but also in banks and the professions, and not just as “munitionettes” in arms factories.

In the big cities, fashion followed the spirit of the times. Skirts got shorter, corsets were loosened and necks were revealed under shiny, flapper haircuts. In 1925, Guerlain reinvented perfume with Shalimar. Women went out without chaperones, they danced and smoked in public, drove cars, wore wide trousers and played sport. Well-known emancipated women who made a splash like Nancy Cunard, Tamara de Lempicka and Youki Desnos came, for the most part, from privileged backgrounds, and these new “femmes fatales” were soon to be utilized by novelists such as Victor Margueritte in La Garçonne (The Bachelor Girl) and Maurice Dekobra in his hugely successful novel La Madone des Sleepings .

Though some women were seen to be scandalous and liberated, in fact they continued to be relegated to the same traditional roles as always. When the war ended, many were prevented from working and were sent back to the homestead, when they had one. In the effervescence of the post-war period and the cabarets and nude shows, the press and magazines made just as much hay with the nudity of the “sluts” as with that of the “ingenues”. Women’s bodies were exploited on every level to attract passers-by on posters for shows and newspaper kiosks.

A taste for the beautiful

“The electric lightbulb is a new orchid.”
Jean Cocteau, 1920

Style at the time was massively influenced by cars, yachts and motor-boats, tennis, hiking and skiing, the Charleston, the Foxtrot and the Tango. Jeanne Lanvin reinvented fashion followed by Madame Grès, Chanel’s jewellery exuded simplicity. Advertising meant consumers coveted things, using humour and outlandish promises to banish all thoughts of former deprivations. Helena Rubinstein opened a beauty institute frequented by the moneyed classes and aspired to by the midinettes who worked in the fashion houses before mass consumption came into existence.

Women wore Madeleine Vionnet’s dresses cut on the bias with kimono coats as men wore sports jackets or dashing tuxedos. The Parisian ideal was embodied by Natalia Pavlovna Paley dressed by Lucien Lelong, in an interior designed by Jean-Michel Franck, listening to Cole Porter or reading François Mauriac…

The styles and personalities of the era were to have a lasting impact, from Mondrian’s angles and primary colours to Peggy Guggenheim’s remarkable flair. Superheroes were even born during this period as Superman himself made his debut in 1933.

The aesthetic infinite or the conjugation of the arts

“I have always drawn. For me, writing is drawing, connecting lines together so that they form letters, or undoing them so that writing becomes drawing. I write, trying to exactly outline an idea, an act, in fact I trace ghosts, I find the edges of nothingness, I draw.”
Jean Cocteau, 1930

Try to imagine a bonfire that lasted for ten years. Everything connected and crossed over, literature, theatre, painting, sculpture, fashion, interiors, dance, poetry and music were thankfully no longer compartmentalised! Astounding dancers such as Serge Lifar electrified the ballet, opera thrived but so did the music of the bals populaires where people sang along to songs by Maurice Chevalier, Fréhel and Ray Ventura. The théâtre Pigalle put on shows but also hosted exhibitions of primitive art.

Magazines, newly modernised thanks to innovative layouts and the extensive use of photographs, featured pages and pages on leading artistic figures like Marinetti, Pompon, Cocteau and Honegger. Innovations in typography were led by artists such as Alexey Brodovitch who created a new title for Harper’s Bazaar each month, Maximilien Vox, whose extremely low-key cover of Blaise Cendrars’ L’Or published by Grasset in 1925 was a landmark design, not to mention the genius of Cassandre. In 1933, Salvador Dali wrote “De la beauté terrifiante et comestible de l’architecture Modern’style” (On the terrifying, edible beauty of Modern’style architecture), for the tremendous publication Le Minotaure . In his article he lauds the “libidinous shapes” of art nouveau over Le Corbusier ‘s “dreamy emptiness” with illustrations by Man Ray and Brassaï…

The sky was filled with the uninterrupted crackle of creativity for ten years, the fireworks before the storm.

The war will not take place…

« […] peace today feels like nothing but a balance of weaknesses that is necessarily more unstable.”  
 Paul Valéry, 1931

There has rarely been so much produced to read and see as there was during those ten years.
 It remains a time that is remembered for its brilliance and its flashiness, but in fact it was an era of uncommon intellectual and innovative progress. Ideas were given exposure through photography in the press and magazines. It was a time when politicians, union activists, writers, “revolutionary” groups, religious representatives, legions of decency and naturists got riled up and argued via articles and pieces. Duels were verbal, numerous and at times, verbose.

People shared the urge to “go back to the old ways” to help to forget the horrors of war. Nevertheless, this Retour à l’ordre  can in no way be seen as a wish to rein in the world. This notion, and the title of a collection of articles published by Jean Cocteau in 1926, has since been misinterpreted. It expresses a peaceful wish to get back to the quiet order of the world. A longing to once again be able to enjoy the day, to get back to a world of varied, androgynous and corresponding beauty. However, it is true that manifestos, some proud, others ridiculous, in favour of French clarity and patriotic traditionalism were common, and it was inevitable that the original idea would be deformed.

Photography showed the light-filled path that led to an even darker night. It learned to depict the truth of the world, to poeticise and even dramatize it. Alexander Liberman’s photomontages do all three. They constitute a veritable intellectual and aesthetic tour de force, proving the that the press and photography are essential witnesses to their times.