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Let There Be Light: Electric Paris Shines at the Clark

degas masked dancersThere’s no question that April in Paris is on the top of the list in terms of romantic destinations. But Paris at any time of the year isn’t too shabby either. The legendary City of Light is featured in Electric Paris (on display now through April 21 at The Clark), which explores how artists just before the turn of the 20th century depicted the rapidly changing appearance of spaces as the city transitioned from oil lamps to gas and electric lights. While the works certainly create a sense of nostalgia, they also demonstrate the gusto with which most Parisians and visitors to Paris embraced modernism in all its inventive forms. In this light, and complimenting the exhibit, The Clark is presenting a lecture, Moving Pictures: Thomas Edison and American Art in Paris on Sunday, April 7, at 3 p.m. Nancy Mowll Mathews, Eugénie Prendergast Senior Curator Emerita at the Williams College Museum of Art, will explore early film technology and its impact on artists working in Paris. 

Electric Paris is drawn mostly from the museum’s own collection (with some loans from the Amherst College’s Mead Art Museum). The exhibit is curated by former Clark Fellow S. Hollis Clayson and Sarah Lees, the institute’s associate curator of European art; it represents a slice of Parisian life where industrialization meets folly and everything and everyone are on display under the pink (or yellow) glow of human invention.

“Artificial light made a lot of things possible,” Lees says, indicating to a Degas pastel on paper work Entrance of the Masked Dancers (pictured above; c. 1879. Pastel on paper, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 1955.559) which depicts two women waiting in the shadowy wings backstage while a fully lit performance is going on behind them. “In this case, light, or lack of light frames the scene. It adds an element of thinking about how light defines and divides spaces, even the in-between spaces.”

waltz at mabilleVisually, this division is starkly obvious with tones of sultry (the back walls of the exhibit have been painted a brighter midnight blue) mixed in. Fuzzy oil paintings dotted with illumination stand alongside black and white charcoals and color lithographs, yet despite the differences in medium, each displays the significance of incandescence to both artist and subject. In short, where there’s light there’s people. The Paris sky, for all sorts of cultural outings — performances, shopping, dancing — was the limit.

“The dance halls were among the first to install gas lighting,” says Lees of a vibrant Gustave Berry and Philippe Jacques Linder color lithograph, Waltz at Mabille (picture above right; c. 1860–70. Color lithograph, heightened with watercolor and gum arabic, on paper, sheet.. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 1955.2476). “Here there is sort of a free spirit feeling of people attending and outdoor dance. It’s bright and flashy. And it permitted the kind of behavior that women could hike up their skirts a little higher.”

ladies of the chariotsThe soft pink glow of gas lamps (which Thomas Edison in many cases was asked if he could replicate) also made the faces of Paris party-goers a bit prettier. Women were no longer subject to the (metaphorical) scrutiny of direct sunlight. The lines softened — even in the (a)moral arena of the 1870s and 80s. A monographic etching by James Tissot, The Ladies of the Chariots (pictured left; c. 1885.  Etching and drypoint on paper, sheet, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 1971.48), demonstrates the charitable quality of artificial lighting in a large stadium where average-looking — maybe even homely — women bedecked in Lady Liberty-inspired regalia and driving chariots are transformed into goddesses under the chandeliers that light the stadium.

“The electric lights, the applause, the big modern steel structure make them beautiful,” Lees notes.

The majority of works on display throughout the exhibit illuminate the impact of light on the culture of public space. Public parks, gardens, stadiums, even shopping centers were transformed by the addition of lamps and grand electric chandeliers. A color lithograph (below) by Alexandre Lunois (“Le Bon Marché”), 1902, captures an interior scene in which a vast crowd packs each tier of Le Bon Marche, the city’s first department store (whose name means loosely “the good deal”). And yet, despite the apparent claustrophobia, in the foreground — all women — is a child in a red coat, appearing content and relaxed as she holds her mother’s hand.

le bon marche“There is this link between the quality of light and commerce,” Lees says. “This store is crammed with people and yet it is brightly lit and clearly women felt safe to go to such places, even with their children.”

Of course, not everyone was thrilled with the arrival of man-made illumination. Pierre Bonnard’s rather grumpy rendering of the city’s nightlife is a nostalgic nod to the days when night was night and day was day.

“He wasn’t comfortable with the lights, it’s not very flattering as it is with some of the other pieces,” Lees says. “Night is no longer dark. And the experience of the city all lit up was so shocking.”

As shocking as it must have been, by the 1900 Exposition Universelle world’s fair, the city was ablaze and abuzz with the imminence of electricity and forever light. The reflection of lamps on the waters of the Seine and the Eiffel Tower glowing against the night sky seemed to indicate that the sun would never again set in Paris. —Nichole Dupont

Electric Paris runs through April 21, 2013.  For more information visit or call (413) 458-2303.

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Posted by Nichole on 04/02/13 at 07:32 AM • Permalink