(Originally published in the Summer 2017 issue of ALL THE ART: The Visual Art Quarterly of Saint Louis)
The city of Saint Louis is home to two exhibitions showcasing art from Fin-de-Siècle Paris this spring. Degas, Impressionism, and the Millinery Trade was curated by Simon Kelly, curator of Modern and Contemporary art at the Saint Louis Art Museum in collaboration with the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco. Spectacle and Leisure in Paris: Degas to Mucha was curated by Elizabeth C. Childs, Etta and Mark Steinberg Professor of Art History at Wash U and can be viewed on campus at the Kemper Art Museum. The two exhibitions harmonize through their similar interests in a specific temporal range and geographic location, and find more common ground in a concentration on modern industry, consumer culture, gender, and class. Through an array of media, both shows provide a broad overview of the consumption of modern life in Paris, yet each through a distinctly different lens.
Degas, Impressionism, and the Millinery Trade explores the city of Paris as a global fashion capital through paintings, pastels, drawings, and prints of hat-making by the Parisian avant-garde. The ornate hats on display at SLAM invite us to feast our eyes on the smooth, supple velvet, intricate lace, complicated beadwork, and exotic birds of nineteenth century hat fashion. Spectacle and Leisure in Paris examines the representation and consumption of modern life both through fine art and commercial graphic design. The complexity of the art scene in Paris unfolds before us in the exhibition. Mass reproduced commercial posters hang in the same room as Degas pastels while short films from the era play nearby. The eclectic collection of these works capture perfectly the vibrancy and dynamism of the modern city of Paris.
Yet these exhibitions offer more than an opportunity to take in the enamoring glamour of the city of Paris. Each are individually serious academic achievements. For the first time ever, the exhibition, Degas, Impressionism, and the Millinery Trade, reunites all of the milliner paintings and gives much needed attention to the frequently neglected series of milliner pictures created by Degas. Likewise, Spectacle and Leisure in Paris is an ambitious project that carefully maps the complex and diverse sites of entertainment and relaxation in the modern city along with the new industries and technologies that emerge in tandem.
What is certainly a “Paris moment” in Saint Louis has been birthed from a thrilling and rewarding time of conversation and collaboration between various institutions within the city. This collaboration has created an exciting synergy that can be enjoyed city-wide and will undoubtedly lead to fruitful future endeavors as well.