USC Dornsife art historian Vanessa Schwartz selects photographs, paintings, posters and other media to showcase the origins of primitive cinema in an exhibition at the famous Musée d’Orsay in Paris and more late at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. [5½ min read]
The big picture:
- Before Hollywood, Paris dominated the cinema.
- Early films captured scenes from everyday life, such as workers leaving a factory.
- The exhibition by history and art history professor Vanessa Schwartz showcases the artistic and technological innovations of 19th-century Paris that fueled the modern film industry.
- Schwartz will take the students to Paris in a Maymester course focused on the exhibition.
Impressionism and realism. Animated images of the Lumière brothers. Even the Eiffel Tower. At the end of the 19th century, Paris became the center of artistic and technological movements which challenged traditional forms of art and aesthetics. With an audience eager for new visual shows, the city is also quickly becoming the cinema capital of the world.
“Ninety percent of the films that circulated in the world before 1914 were made in France or by French companies in America,” explains Vanessa Schwartz, professor of history and art history at the ‘USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and Director of Visual Studies at USC. Research Institute. “France played a disproportionate role in film production in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “
In an exhibition she helped organize for the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), Schwartz tells the story of this pre-Hollywood cinematic history through posters, photographs, visual instruments, paintings and sculptures highlighting how cinema was born out of this atmosphere of scientific and aesthetic change.
The exhibition remains in Paris until January 2022 then travels, in another form, to LACMA.
“The exhibition deals with the relationship between the many visual arts and the origins of cinema in the late 19th century, but there is a slight difference in emphasis between French and American exhibitions,” says Schwartz.
In France, she explains, the show examines more formal developments between the arts, but in Los Angeles, it will examine how Paris’s social and cultural history has contributed to the changes that have defined the modern city: a focus on the movement of people and goods, a greater visual orientation of the built environment and the democratization of access to culture, making new forms of culture possible for the masses.
France wants to be a world power, as indicated by this poster entitled “Capital of the civilized world – Expo Paris 1900”.
Schwartz will also be teaching a Maymester based on his exhibit this spring. “Paris, Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life” (AHIS 499) will begin in LA, where students will spend two weeks studying the spectacle at LACMA and its development. From there, they travel to Paris to take a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of the exhibition and pieces from the Musée d’Orsay collection.
Modern arts and sciences
Cinema in Paris did not start with the invention of the moving image, or even of photography. In the 1840s, realist painters like Gustave Courbet depicted ordinary people at work or talking in the open air, a sharp break with the massive canvases of the romantic Eugène Delacroix or the neoclassical Jacques-Louis David, which often depicted dramatized historical moments and scenes from mythology.
A few decades later, Impressionist painters sought to emphasize visual elements that indicated the nature of modern life, experimenting with color and light. During this time, photography was industrializing and commercializing rapidly, with mass production of the necessary chemicals and paper starting in the last third of the 19th century.
The French government encouraged the development of these and other art forms as a means of creating a shared culture among its people, says Schwartz.
“France learned early on that art could not be used only for propaganda purposes, but could also embody the broader will of the people. Culture is one of the key dimensions in which a large audience is created, and as a cultural historian, I am interested in how culture creates national identity while fostering change beyond political borders, ”she explains.
Technologically, France is also positioning itself as a center of engineering and innovation. Emperor Napoleon III invested heavily in the industrialization of the country in the mid-19th century and he wanted to strengthen France’s reputation as a modern world power. Paris hosted five World’s Fairs in the 19th century alone, with the 1889 event delivering the undisputed symbol of the city’s engineering and construction power, the Eiffel Tower.
“For these exhibitions, Paris has worked to make its city more visible, easier to navigate, visually memorable. This too was an aspect of modernization, ”says Schwartz.
More than 50 million people from all over the world visited the Universal Exhibition of 1900, a number higher than the entire French population at that time. Paris imposed itself in the world.
The beginnings of cinema
The first films in motion, a program of 10 films of less than a minute each including mundane scenes such as workers leaving a factory, were released commercially in Paris in December 1895. The films were made by the Lumière brothers who , with Léon Gaumont, Alice Guy, Charles Pathé and Georges Méliès (including the classic A trip to the moonis still considered one of the greatest films in history), dominated the first film productions.
The Morris Column was first seen in Paris in 1868 and often featured advertisements for films and other shows.
Lasting just a minute or two, the early films were more technological achievements than anything else, says Schwartz. However, Schwartz notes that there was a desire in these early French films to capture life and its dramas, especially in an environment of dynamic change.
The documentation was not limited to France either, she adds. French filmmakers set out to capture the entire world on film.
“The world was changing rapidly, and the film was also a way to capture what was to be lost. The filmmakers wanted to capture what life was like before people around the world became what they imagined: Western consumers, ”she explains.
But those early Slice of Life films were more of a side novelty than a main event, adds Schwartz. They have been presented at funfairs and in music halls, during carnivals or vaudeville shows.
“There is nothing inevitable about what the film would become,” says Schwartz. “He didn’t kill all other art forms when he was born – at first it’s not clear that cinema could ever be alone.”
It was only when cinemas designed specifically to show films were built, and film editing and technological developments allowed for the creation of longer narrative stories with changes of scene and setting, that the film was. become a recognized art and entertainment form.
As cinema evolved into a longer storytelling, Los Angeles, with its abundant natural light and abundant, cheap land, took over from Paris as the center of the industry. But Schwartz says she hopes students in her Maymester class will understand how “before Hollywood, there was Paris.”
“The culture in Paris was that of new art forms, as well as the technology that built the tallest world tower in two years,” she says. “This tribute to engineering and technology – this is the Paris I want them to understand.”