Magazine article The Spectator

Look Back in Wonder

Magazine article The Spectator

Look Back in Wonder

Article excerpt

When will they get the millennium and centennial out of their systems and leave us to get on with the rest of our lives? In the Grand Palais, Paris's biggest exhibition of the moment, 1900, attempts to cast a look at what was going on in the arts, the decorative arts mainly, 100 years ago. The result is an immensely pretty, occasionally entertaining potpourri comprising far too many, largely unrelated exhibits - 400 in all.

Attempting to inflict a semblance of intellectual mastery on such a greedy accumulation of material, organiser Philippe Thiebaut, curator in chief at the Musee d'Orsay, and his team indulge in meaningless juxtapositions and, in lieu of analysis, in lots of artspeak, amusingly spiced with borrowings from psychoanalytical jargon. `Regression towards the vegetable and the aquatic', for example, is the marvellously absurd title of one section showing varied examples of the floral and watery motifs of which Art Nouveau was so innovatively fond: a table of 1897 by Emile Galle, its three legs carved to resemble dragonflies, a waterlily lamp by Daum and Majorelle of 1902 comprising a pink glass bowl on a stem-like brass stand, hairpins and brooches by Rene Lalique depicting flowers in precious metals, cloisonne enamel and sculpted horn.

1900 opens with a plunge into `The search for a total art', meaning (one presumes) the application of artistry to everyday objects for those who could afford them. A room is devoted to the designs of Hector Guimard, the Frenchman best known for his curvaceous Metro entrances. Another houses painted panels by Odilon Redon, a third a series of four decorative wall panels painted by Nabi artist Edouard Vuillard. Gustav Klimt is represented, alas, by only three small sketches while by Carl Strathmann, a major figure, we learn, of the Munich Secession, we have `Salambo' of 1894, a truly ghastly painting of a creeping lushness fit to make Aubrey Beardsley look butch.

`A new art of dressing walls', meanwhile, is all about wallpaper, in which the British excelled while `The elaboration of new structures' is about, well, all sorts of things, including architecture and `the lessons of rationalism' (watercolours of projects by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Otto Wagner's Vienna Post Office), followed in quick succession and illogically by a charming set of photographs. …

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