When skyscrapers, salons and department stores first transformed street life in New York and Paris near the turn of the 20th century, early modernist painters such as William Glackens saw within this urbanization a new artistic revolution.
Glackens’ fascination with this urban boom, from the then brand-new Eiffel Tower to New York department stores, forms the backbone of the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale’s ambitious new show “Midnight in Paris and New York: Scenes From the 1890s-1930s.” The exhibit, subtitled “William Glackens and His Contemporaries,” will open Sunday, Feb. 4, with more than 100 works by Pablo Picasso, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Alphonse Mucha, Eugène Atget and Maurice Prendergast, who marveled at both cities’ evolving characters: the influx of city-dwelling immigrants, the bohemian art nouveau posters tacked to the walls of seedy Paris cabarets and the working-class urban realism in Greenwich Village.
Describing turn-of-the-century Paris and New York as a “time of great invention,” NSU Art Museum director Bonnie Clearwater says urban growth drew Glackens and other early practitioners of modern art to the exoticism of city nightlife. Cancan dancers, illustrators and prostitutes popped up on Paris street corners. So did posters by Czech illustrator Alphonse Mucha of the golden-voiced theater star Sarah Bernhardt, his Art Nouveau drawing depicting the actress draped in a classic gown and framed in golden strands and swirling decorations.
These posters, a gift to NSU Art Museum by donors Walter and Mildred Padow, served as a strong jumping-off point when Clearwater assembled the show with senior curator Barbara Buhler Lynes, she says.
“After the Industrial Revolution, electricity made nightlife safer in Paris and New York, which were two cities Glackens lived in,” Clearwater says. (About 500 Glackens works are housed in the museum’s permanent Glackens Wing.) “I thought we should focus on how nightlife, entertainment and society impacted daily life.”
That urban influence can be seen in Berenice Abbott’s 1936 photo “Harlem Street II,” a photo of African-American women gathered on a brownstone stoop outside May’s and Johnson Beauty School. Glackens’ 1907 watercolor “Patriots in the Making” zeroes in on a Fourth of July scene of children exploding firecrackers in the street, watched by elders from their tenement fire escapes. Even Hector Guimard’s 1900 cast-iron sculpture “Theater Chairs for the Humbert de Romans Concert Hall,” on loan from the Wolfsonian-Florida International University museum in Miami Beach, is directly inspired by Paris nightlife.
“The thinking at that time was that the decorative arts — the posters, the street scenes, the fashion — were on par with fine art,” Clearwater says.
A rare standout from the modernists’ urban obsession, Pablo Picasso’s “Santimbanques” paintings show nomadic circus performers living on the fringes of society. But Clearwater’s favorite painting in the bunch may be “Untitled (Mrs. Roosevelt at Klein’s)” by Glackens’ wife, Edith Dimock, often seen in her husband’s dappled portraits. The subject: upper-class women trying on garments at a department store.
“It’s a charming, rather humorous and unexpected work to include, because it’s an early example of showing women in public urban spaces at a time when they pushing for voting rights,” Clearwater says.
The exhibit, Clearwater says, will be interspersed with video clips of early cinema by Thomas Edison and the Lumière brothers, along with avant-garde music by Claude Debussy and Les Six, the sextet of anti-mainstream French composers who included Darius Milhaud.
“Midnight in Paris and New York: Scenes From the 1890s-1930s” will open with a reception 6-8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 3, at the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale, 1 E. Las Olas Blvd. The exhibit will close Oct. 18. Admission costs $25 for the reception, $5-$12 thereafter. Call 954-525-5500 or go to NSUArtMuseum.org.
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