If you’re not a fan of art nouveau, Paris is perhaps not the place for you. Everywhere you look, elegant tendrils and vines have a wrought iron grip on the city of lights, from the ornate flourishes that line Pont Neuf, to the lavishly gilded interiors à l’époque of restaurants I can’t afford to eat at, to half the métro entrances of Paris, garlanded in green.
With all that art nouveau just lying around, no one in Paris seems to have thought it necessary to hold a retrospective devoted to l’art nouveau français since 1960, until the Pinacothèque — Paris’ first private museum — mounted its current exhibition, now in its last week. With the 12-euro entry, steep for a small gallery, visitors are immediately immersed in an instantly beguiling aesthetic of naturalistic yet elaborate forms winding their way around more than 200 examples of prints, sculptures, posters (every ad for JOB rolling paper was a work of art; the cigarettes électroniques in Paris these days are admittedly rather less chic), furniture, jewellery and objets d’arts.
Plenty of examples from the maître des métros, Hector Guimard, whose serpentine green creations we take for granted all over the city every day. And there’s practically a whole room devoted to the greatest muse of the era, legendary French actress Sarah Bernhardt.
Most shocking to me was a small selection depicting morphine addiction, corruption and death – it’s easy to forget that such beautifully soft, stylised forms could stray from flowers, nymphs and shepherds back into the real world. Georges de Feure’s La Mort is a particularly harrowing apocalyptic image, despite its gentle pastels.
But it was the nine musicians who met my gaze throughout the exhibition that moved me the most. Paul Berthon’s sepia and gold-tinged lithographs depict classical beauties playing lyres, mandolins, small viola da gambas and pipes in tranquil forest settings. But unlike the ladies poised at the keyboard or guitar in the paintings of Vermeer three centuries earlier, eyes demurely downcast in the company of their male teachers and chamber music partners, Berthon gave his turn-of-the-century women unsettlingly intense stares – of concentration, of awareness of the viewer looking back at them and the seductive power of the syrinx. None is more brazen, though, than his (slightly double-chinned) Salomé, a courtesan strumming at her lyre, sweetly serenading the head of John the Baptist.
The exhibition also featured a single, charming moment musicale at the cello from Berthon’s mentor, Eugène Grasset. I went straight back home and practised accordion, hoping it would help me get that enviable wavy-art-nouveau-hair look too.