Saturday, June 28, 2014

The 1900 Exposition Universelle Exhibit at the Petit Palais — Complete with a Display Room Dedicated to Paris Brothels

I don’t know how many people I heard gasping when they saw photos of the fabulous buildings created for the 1900 Exposition Universelle
marvels Stephen Clarke as he discusses "the fascinating exhibition at the Petit Palais" – Paris 1900
– of which the Petit Palais and Grand Palais are just two – and wondering aloud why the others weren’t preserved too. The river bank down to the Eiffel Tower was a façade of palaces instead of a busy road and a line of rather dull apartments, and the whole neighbourhood around the Tower was a patchwork of pavilions designed by the world’s most famous architects.
The author of Dirty Bertie: an English King Made in France goes on to reveal that he
was on a personal mission at the Petit Palais – I wanted to see how the city acknowledged the presence of one of its most influential people, the Prince of Wales, alias Dirty Bertie, the future King Edward VII. He was, after all, friendly (or more than friendly) with almost every French actress in the posters decorating the exhibition’s walls. He was the man who introduced Sarah Bernhardt to London (and took her along to high-society dinners to shock the snobs). And more seriously, he was the Englishman who was lobbying for closer ties with his friends across the Channel, at a time when most British politicians were spitting with rage over France’s support for the Boers. He was also calming his nephew the Kaiser, who was prone to outbursts of anti-French aggression (while cruising the Med, he “invaded” Morocco, just himself on a horse basically, to make a speech supporting Moroccan independence from France). By [maintaining] his close contacts with all of Europe’s leaders, Bertie was in fact protecting Europe’s balance of power, and in a way making France’s carefree 1900 lifestyle possible. So how was he acknowledged in the exhibition?

In a room dedicated to brothels. There – rather magnificently, I have to admit – was his love seat, the extraordinary piece of furniture he had built by a Parisian chairmaker, a cross between a gynecologist’s examination table and an art nouveau toboggan, with footplates to keep everyone in place and gilded woodwork to give the fornicatory proceedings a royal feel.

The chair was kept in Bertie’s private room at a luxury brothel called Le Chabanais, along with a bathtub that the exhibition, like everyone else, claims to have been filled with Champagne, which is almost certainly a lazy fantasy. Apart from the fact that you would need dozens of bottles to fill a bath, would anyone want to sit in the stuff, either chilled or (yuk) warm? You’d emerge smelling like a bar after closing time. No, much more likely, it was filled with conventional hot soapy water and used for frolicking, or to wash off the perfume and other liquids that might have come into contact with the royal skin. Après l’amour, the Prince had to go on to other appointments. He couldn’t step out reeking of brothel. And incidentally, the women would probably have made use of the bathwater too, their backstage living quarters being considerably less luxurious than the settings that the customers saw.

Anyway, the love seat, and a strangely-named engraving by Félix Vallotton – l’Étranger, ie the stranger or foreigner – were the only signs of Bertie’s presence in Paris. Vallotton’s engraving underlined the impression that Paris seemed to be almost ashamed of Bertie. We see a plump, top-hatted figure from the back as he chats up two smirking ladies of obviously ill repute, while a man in front bows reverently. It’s generally assumed that Bertie is the subject – he is the foreigner, the outsider, when he was in fact an integral, and vitally important, part of Parisian society. At the time, his presence at a theatre show could almost guarantee its success. He featured in novels by Proust and Zola, and Offenbach more or less wrote him into an operetta. His style, and that of his long-suffering wife Alexandra, were huge influences on Parisian fashion. Yet all he is in the exhibition is a buyer of brothel furniture and chatter-up of street girls. Not even a hint (as far as I could see) that three years later, against all expectations, the Entente Cordiale would be signed, largely thanks to Bertie.
Like I said, it’s a sumptuous exhibition, but it seems to be suffering from another case of France re-writing its own history.