La Belle Époque in ultimate analysis reveals no substance or a constancy of national character but an acute elevation of senses. This would be reflected in the works of JK Huysmans(Á Rebours) and of Proust (Á la recherche du temps perdu). This upbeat mood was steadily dissipated in the light of events that convulsed entire Europe. It was a mood that a man about town would feel after a satisfying night out, before confronting dismal circumstances awaiting him at home. A brief respite it gave Parisian, a hope that emerging industrial and technological advances would lead to richer, happier life. But by the 1910s much of that promise had vanished. As poet, philosopher Paul Valery put it, our civilization had found that it was mortal. While the delicate Marcel Proust stood on the balcony of the Ritz to watch the German planes strafe Paris a young priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was serving as a stretcher bearer of the trenches. He would write home that the front was ‘the extreme boundary between what we already know and what is still taking shape.’
The north and western suburbs of Paris were the motor city of the day. There were 600 car manufactories in France and 150 different makes – not just the emerging giants of Peugeot and Renault, but long-forgotten treasures like Berliet and Delaunay-Belleville. Delaunay-Belleville, which operated from what is now the high-immigration suburb of Saint-Denis, made limousines for Tsar Nicholas of Russia. France was the world’s biggest exporter of cars, and there was pride, but no great surprise, when the racing driver Jules Goux won the 1913 Indianapolis 500 – in a Peugeot.
France led the way in the skies. Bleriot crossed the channel in 1908, and in 1913 the sportsman Roland Garros – later (after his death in combat in the last month of the war) to give his name to the tennis stadium in Paris – completed the first ever crossing of the Mediterranean. And in cinema, invented, of course, by the Lumiere brothers two decades before, France vied with the US for first place in number of films produced – more than 1,000 every year, made by names still familiar today like Gaumont and Pathe.
Modernity was the moving spirit. It was the time of the machine. The city’s last horse-drawn omnibus made its way from Saint-Sulpice to La Villette in January 1913. From the top of the Eiffel Tower, built 35 years earlier like a symbol of the coming age, a mast had recently been erected, beaming radio waves into the ether.
Advances in Science and a new understanding of the nature of time and space would enable artists and writers to break the mould and experiment as Gertrude Stein did with language. As an art movement cubism entailed a new way of looking at things. In Paris Pablo Picasso and his friend Georges Braque would take the lead. Instead of painting things as they appeared to a single pair of eyes at a single moment in time, they painted things from a variety of possible viewpoints, creating a shifting world of abstract space. In the words of the late art historian Robert Hughes, the cubism of Picasso and Braque, created in the years running up to the war, was every bit as modern – and indeed part of the same destabilising intellectual movement – as the contemporary forays of Einstein into the secrets of relativity.
The speed of change, the rise of technology over craftsmanship, the frenetic search for new modes of artistic expression, as one avant-garde was overtaken by the next (and let’s not forget that 1913 was also the year in Paris that Marcel Duchamp presented his first “readymade” – a bicycle wheel on a stool – making the point that anything is art if you say it is), all this must have worked its way into the collective subconscious, creating a feeling that matters were accelerating out of control. It was indeed so. Just as the ideals of 1789 went out of control in the Commune of 1971 while the social changes merely created new class system and inequalities the spirit of optimism of the Parisians was backward looking than in the future.
Institutions would not escape the blight that had eaten into the vitals of the republic. The Church, the Army and Politics were at odds with one another, which would bedevil the Third Republic till the Nazi Germany marched into Paris on 14 June 1940. These six weeks it took the brown-shirts to claim control of Paris showed the lie of La Belle Époque: it had lost its will. The setting up of the Vichy government under Marshall Philippe Petain was the coup de grace given to the nation that could never come to grip with ideals for which they fought the Great Revolution.
(Ack: Hugh Scofield-BBC news Paris/magazine- 7 Jan, 2014 (2) Wikipedia
(3)Eugen Weber-Paris La Belle Epoque/ NGC-July 1989)