USC Dornsife art historian Vanessa Schwartz selects photographs, paintings, posters and other media to show the origins of early cinema in an exhibition at the famous Musée d’Orsay in Paris and later at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. [5½ min read]
The big picture:
- Before Hollywood, Paris dominated filmmaking.
- The earliest films captured everyday scenes of life, such as workers leaving a factory.
- History and art history professor Vanessa Schwartz’ exhibition showcases the artistic and technological innovations of 19th-century Paris that fueled the modern film industry.
- Schwartz takes students to Paris on a Maymester course that focuses on the exhibition.
Impressionism and Realism. The moving 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 that shook up traditional forms of art and aesthetics. With audiences hungry for new visual spectacles, the city also quickly became the cinema capital of the world.
“Ninety percent of the films circulating around the world before 1914 were made in France or by French companies in America,” said Vanessa Schwartz, professor of history and art history at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and director of USCs. Visual Studies Research Institute. “France played a disproportionate role in film production in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.”
In an exhibition she helped curate 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 that highlight how cinema emerged from this sphere of scientific and aesthetic change.
The exhibition will remain in Paris until January 2022 and then travel, in a different form, to LACMA.
“The exhibition is about the relationship between the many fine arts and the origins of the films in the late 19th century, but there is a slight difference in emphasis between the French and the American exhibitions,” says Schwartz.
In France, she explains, the show looks at more formal developments between the arts, but LA will explore how Paris’ social and cultural history contributed to the changes that defined the modern city: an emphasis on the circulation of people and goods, greater visual orientation of the built environment and the democratization of access to culture, enabling new forms of culture for the masses.
France wanted to be seen as a global power, as this poster titled “Capital of the Civilized World – Expo Paris 1900” indicates.
Schwartz will also be teaching a Maymester based on her exhibit this spring. “Paris, Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life” (AHIS 499) begins in LA, where students spend two weeks studying the show at LACMA and how it’s put together. From there, they travel to Paris to take a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of the exhibition and the items in the collection at the Musée d’Orsay.
Modern arts and sciences
Cinema in Paris did not begin with the invention of moving images, or even photography. In the 1840s, realist painters such as Gustave Courbet painted commoners at work or talking outdoors, a sharp break from the massive canvases of the romantic Eugène Delacroix or the neoclassicist Jacques-Louis David, who often depicted dramatized historical moments and scenes from mythology. .
A few decades later, Impressionist painters tried to emphasize visual elements that reflected the nature of modern life by experimenting with color and light. Meanwhile, photography was rapidly industrialized and commercialized, with the necessary chemicals and paper being mass-produced in the last third of the 19th century.
The French government encouraged the development of these and other art forms as a way to create a shared culture among the population, Schwartz says.
“France learned early on that art could not only be used for propaganda, but could also embody the wider will of the people. Culture is one of the key dimensions in which a general audience is created, and as a cultural historian I am interested in how culture creates a national identity while promoting change across political boundaries,” she explains.
Technologically, France also positioned itself as a center for technology and innovation. Emperor Napoleon III invested heavily in the industrialization of the country in the mid-19th century, and he wanted to boost France’s reputation as a modern world power. In the 19th century alone, Paris hosted five world exhibitions, with the event in 1889 delivering the indisputable symbol of the city’s technical and constructive power, the Eiffel Tower.
“For these fairs, Paris worked to make the city more visible, easier to travel and visually memorable. That too was an aspect of modernization,” says Schwartz.
More than 50 million people from all over the world attended the 1900 World’s Fair – a number more than the entire population of France at the time. Paris left its mark on the world.
The early days of the movie
The first moving pictures, a program of 10 films of less than a minute each depicting everyday scenes such as workers leaving a factory, were shown commercially in December 1895 in Paris. The films were made by the Lumière brothers, who together with Léon Gaumont, Alice Guy, Charles Pathé and Georges Méliès (whose classic A trip to the moonis still considered one of the greatest films in history), dominated early film production.
The Morris column was first seen in Paris in 1868 and often featured advertisements for movies and other spectacles.
At just a minute or two, the early films were more technological marvels than anything else, Schwartz explains. However, Schwartz notes that in these early French films there was a desire to capture life and its dramas, especially in an environment of dynamic change.
The documentation wasn’t limited to France either, she adds. French filmmakers wanted to capture the whole world on film.
“The world was changing rapidly and film was also a way of capturing what would be lost. Filmmakers wanted to capture what life was like before people around the world became what the filmmakers envisioned: Western consumers,” she explains.
But these early life films were more of an afterthought than a main event, Schwartz adds. They were shown at carnivals and concert halls, during carnivals or vaudeville shows.
“There’s nothing inevitable about what would become a movie,” explains Schwartz. “It doesn’t kill all other art forms when it’s born – at the beginning it’s not clear that cinema could ever stand on its own.”
It wasn’t until theaters specifically designed to show films were built, and film editing and technological advancements made it possible to create longer, narrative stories with scene and set changes, that film was recognized as an art form and entertainment.
As filmmaking evolved into longer-form 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 the students on her Maymester course will understand how “before Hollywood, there was Paris.”
“The culture in Paris was that of new art forms, as well as the technology that builds the largest tower in the world in two years,” she says. “That tribute to engineering and technology — that’s the Paris I want them to understand.”
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