The '20's and '30's Are In Boulogne

photo: interior, musee des annees 30

The interior of the Musée des Années 30 is well-proportioned, with ample space and light.

The Past Is Only a Little Métro Ride Away

Paris:- Friday, 14. April 2000:- Most people living in Boulogne-Billancourt think Paris is no more than three métro stops away, but nearly everybody in Paris thinks Boulogne-Billancourt is somewhere - 'down there' - nearly out in the provinces.

Before Renault stopped making cars in it and on the Ile Seguin, Boulogne-Billancourt was probably closer in perception. These days the closest most Parisians get to it, is to go to the Parc des Princes near the Porte de Saint-Cloud to see the PSG football team, win or lose.

To me, living across the Seine in Meudon for many years, going through Boulogne-Billancourt to get to Paris was routine - if I didn't take the train to Montparnasse instead. But it wasn't until I moved further away from Paris that I got interested in Boulogne, which had become equally far away.

Geographically, Boulogne-Billancourt is like a southern extension of Paris' 16th arrondissement and the Bois de Boulogne, with the Seine looping around three sides of it; holdingphoto: calme hellaniqye, robert wierick, 1928 it tight against Paris.

In distance, if you get on the métro line nine outside Printemps on the Boulevard Haussmann, its last three stops are in Boulogne. What could be closer?

'Calme Hellénique' by Robert Wlérick, done in 1928, has her back to a new mall under construction outside.

Boulogne-Billancourt used to be famous for its car factory, its airplane factory and for its movie studios. It also used to be far enough 'out of town' to be a weekend place, and close enough to get to - with a simple métro ticket.

The art dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, had a 'country' place in Boulogne in the 1920's and he invited cubists and surrealists for Sunday 'adventures' - for a bit of fresh air after a week of the studios and bistros of Montparnasse.

In 1939, a year that turned out unwonderful for many, Boulogne's little museum was begun by an enthusiast, in a small space on the fourth floor of the, then, five-year old city hall.

In the beginning it contained little more than some engravings and local postcards. After the smoke of war cleared away, the decision to create a proper museum was made in 1983.

By chance I wandered by in January of 1997; to find the 'museum' temporarily housed in a broom closet in the city hall annex. With a littlephoto: detail, homme au chapeau, oscar miestchaninoff, 1928 tour of the city's streets, this was described as 'In a Worker's and Architect's Paradise.'

Oscar Mietchaninoff's 'Homme au Chapeau' - in 'good form' - was done in 1922.

The brand-new 'Musée des Années 30' opened in December of 1998 in its own building, right next to Tony Garnier's 1934 city hall. The new building is a multi-activity cultural centre, but the museum does have four floors of it to itself.

Up to this point, nothing to get excited about. But, the museum's name is slightly misleading. There isn't a handy word for the 1918-1939 period, so 1930's has been chosen.

In fact, a lot went on in Paris in this 'inter-war' period and I don't know of any other museum in the Paris area which brings a lot of it all together in one place.

Boulogne-Billancourt's new museum is like the 1920's in Montparnasse, a museum of modern architecture, a colonial-art gallery - an off-shoot of the 1931 'Colonial' exhibition - a museum featuring a renewal of art with religious themes, and the city's own industrial museum - featuring the car factory, the aircraft factory, the cinema studios - plus examples of locally made world-class 'modern' furniture - and! - ceramics.

In total, four, five or six museums in one. Is this too much? Not really, because almost all the works fall within a time-frame; or were executed by artists living in Boulogne-Billancourt - or both.

For my tour, I am lent a considerable amount of Emmanuel Denis' time. This young fellow is the museum's 'attaché' ofphoto: detail, thadesz lempicki, 1928 conservation and the inventory, and therefore knows each piece's history, plus has a store of fascinating anecdotes.

He did his military service in Paris' Musée de l'Armée, where he looked after such things as Général Daumesnil's wooden leg.

The top third of the portrait of Thadesz Lempicki, done by Tamara Lempicka in 1928.

This is especially handy, because when we start out I have no idea we are going to climb through four floors, look at 500 paintings and 1000 sculptures, 50 pieces of first-class furniture and go past display cases with 100 ceramic pieces.

In one room, there is a built-in cabinet of drawers - you can open them - to see 1500 engravings and 2000 designs - well-presented, under optimal lighting. A designer's treasure trove.

We look at sculpture first. Much of it was executed in the '20's and most of it is figurative rather than abstract. It precedes the sculpture of the '30's; a lot of which was mural - to go with the modern walls architects were putting up.

In the first half of the century there were some 30 sculptors' ateliers in Boulogne-Billancourt, and sculptors such as Canto de Maya, Joseph Bernard - of the 1913 Armory Show - Landowski and Lipchitz worked here. They used new materials too.

These artists saw their works incorporated into the 1931 'Colonial' Exposition, onto the walls of the Théâtre de Chaillot and for the murals at Paris' Musée de l'Art Moderne. Others had their works included in the passenger liners Ile-de-France and Normandie.

There are escapees. Evariste Jonchère's 'Muse, détail du groupe Apollon musagéte' done in 1937 for the Théâtre de Chaillot, was rescued from a cellar when the Cinémathèque was installed in 1986.

It is as if it is 'after avant-garde,' a return to 'order.' Much of the paintings are this way too. If you have seen too much impressionism and all the other following 'isms,' then here you have 20th century painting, classically painted - neither academic nor excessively avant-garde.

Painters, sculptors, didn't forget how - they've been hidden in Boulogne - ignored, for their classical but modern little touches. But not too much - see André Maire's 'Ronda, Vue d'Espagne,' painted in 1927. A Ronda, slightly cubist.

Then Montparnasse. It has so many names but no museum of its own for all. In 1928 Tamara de Lempicka painted 'Portrait de Thadesz Lempicki,' and painted out his left hand because they'd just been divorced.

Arbit Blatas arrived in Montparnasse in 1925. I don't know what else he did, but to this museum he has offeredphoto: sculpture, colonial art his portraits that practically amount to an artistic 'who's who' of the '20's, centred on the Dôme. Utrillo is here and so is Zadkine, both as paintings and as sculptures.

Kahnweiler moved into Boulogne in 1921 and got an apartment for Juan Gris on the same street. Starting in 1922 and continuing until 1927, Kahnweiler held his 'Dimanches de Boulogne' to which everybody was invited - the painters, sculptors, writers, architects - Le Corbusier - musicians, dancers; even art critics.

Many of the 'Colonial Art' items are stunning in shape or rich in color.

Some of this was recorded by Kahnweiler's brother-in-law, Elie Lascaux, in a naive-cubist style, always with a touch of humor.

This is enough right here. But in this museum there always seems to be another floor - which are, incidently, wooden as are the stairs.

I think my guide, Emmanuel Denis, lets me walk into 'L'Art Colonial' exhibition space without advance comment so that I can have a big surprise.

The phrase, 'L'Art Colonial,' is definitely not politically correct. The problem is, what else can it be called? Napoléon marched into Egypt with an army that included artists, scientists and explorers - abandoned the army more or less, but managed to bring back the loot - plus the result of the work of the artists and scientists.

Afterwards, French artists set out to work in the 'colonies,' and you can see scraps of this around Paris; such as in the 1799 Passage du Caire - or the entire Musée de l'Art Afrique et de l'Océanie, built for the 1931 'Colonial' exhibition - as the peak of colonialism.

While politically incorrect today, the resulting art is still with us - because it is 'art' and immune to political trends. The Musée des Années 30 in Boulogne-Billancourt has a selection this art, by French artists - and it is stunning. If Van Gogh looked for light down south, he would have found more of it in Africa.

Some of the works here are on loan from Musée de l'Art Afrique et de l'Océanie, which mainly features works by inhabitants of Indochina, Africa and the Pacific islands. The works shown at the Boulogne museum, were all done in the '20's and '30's.

We get through the modern 'sacred art' pretty quickly, with only a few sculptures standing out. Maurice Denis is a big figure in this section. While a Nabis theorist, he led the artistic effort to restore churches after the war.

I'm losing count here. Maybe we go up another floor. To Boulogne-Billancourt's 20th century history - which is essentially Renault cars, the Voisin aircraft factory, Etienne-Jules Marey's chronography - the movies - Abel Gance's original script for 'Napoléon et Austerlitz' and movie posters for films shot in Boulogne.

Then there are a whole list of architects, who built modern houses and apartment buildings - models here; you have to walk around outside the museum to see the finished works - andphoto: paravent, louis barillet, jacques le chevallier, 1930 almost finally, the furniture.

More than 100 pieces of it are on view - by designers such as Leleu, Ruhlmann, and many more. Beautiful stuff; 'museum pieces' is no joke. There was a renaissance for ceramics - Sèvres is just across the way - but there is, just too much by now.

In the architecture-furniture section, you will find elegant objects such as this 'paravent,' done in 1930 by Louis Barillet and Jacques Le Chevallier.

Aluminum was concocted in Boulogne-Billancourt and its inventor, Henri-Sainte-Claire Deville went on to invent the pressure-cooker - first made in Boulogne - which was a hit at the household wares salon in 1926. For the pot's advertising, Josphine Baker was the 'face' on the poster.

Boulogne was married to Billancourt in 1925. This effectively united the arty Boulogne in the north to the industrial Billancourt in the south.

But the important thing here is the simple volume and concentration of creative people who lived and worked in Boulogne-Billancourt, from the end of WWI to the eve of WWII.

If you don't feel like riding the métro the extra five minutes beyond Paris' Porte de Saint-Cloud to get to the stop for the museum, you can tour most of the outstanding architecture concentrated in the northern end by getting out at Paris' city limits.

But, I tell you, the extra five-minute ride will be worth it.

Musée des Années 30 - Espace Landowski
28. Avenue André-Morizet, 92100 Boulogne-Billancourt. Métro: Marcel-Sembat. Walking: follow signs to the Hôtel de Ville. Hours: Tuesday, 12:00 to 18:00; Wednesday and Saturday, 10:00 to 18:00; Thursday, 14:00 to 20:00; Friday, 14:00 to 18:00 and Sunday, 13:00 to 18:00. Closed from 15. to 30. August. Handicapped access, cafeteria, library. Info. Tel.: 01 55 18 46 42.

All museum objects©Musée des Années 30, Boulogne-Billancourt
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