International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts, Paris 1925

Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts

April 28, 1925 - October 25, 1925


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French Village

French Village at the Exhibition Paris 1925

Architect(s) : Charles Genuys, Gouverneur

The artists who worked on the "French village" of the Exhibition seem to have confused the village with the garden city. They are two different things. One has been built over centuries; the other in a few months, barely a year or two. One is the result of a slow process, each generation carefully adding its stone to the building of the previous generations; the other is the rapid work that is born of a new economic circumstance, such as the creation of a factory or an industry. The one is developed carefully, through a series of individual efforts, and, if it presents a unity of appearance, it is not due to a system, but to a tacit agreement of beings and places, to an instinctive harmony, to the respect of acquired and verified ideas; the other springs up suddenly, by the will of a man or a group of men. One is a peasant, that is to say, it belongs to the inhabitants of a country, in the sense that human geography gives to this word; the other, a worker, therefore a place of passage, temporarily hospitable to a human migration, of indistinct origin.
The one has a regional aspect, a local physiognomy; the other has an appearance that is as if it were indifferent, interchangeable; and if there is any picturesqueness in it, it can only be a deliberate picturesqueness, analogous to that of a theatrical set and having nothing in common with the carefree fantasy of a work without bias.

But I realise that by making this distinction I have put the "French village" of the Exhibition on trial. But that was not my intention.
At most, I wanted to imply that the progress of garden cities and their development abroad, and then in France, have influenced architects who, for the most part, are urban planners who have collaborated precisely in recent years on garden cities. The defect which follows from this error of conception is a certain mawkishness of expression; through this agglomeration, one does not always feel the energy nor the roughness which are appropriate to the shelters and objects which weary bodies, whose tenacious efforts are cut off by sudden lassitudes, require. Let us at least consider this village as a repertory from which the mayors of the communes of France, too indifferent to these questions, should come and draw. If town planning has not been enough to suggest to excellent artists the exact character of the peasant style, at least it has specified the public planning programmes that every community must study, whether it is a village or a garden city. The shops together, the medical post, the weaver's house, the bourgeois dwelling, the inn, the bakery, the sanitary station, a fishmonger's, the express-bar (I don't like this word very much, it smells like a suburb and a stunner), the embroiderer's shop, the front door of a craftsman who has electricity at home, this enumeration alone inclines us to study things that are ugly and inconvenient, because we don't even bother to pronounce their names. In the bazaar, one will find popular pottery turned to receive the flowers of the fields, but also furniture of a luxury "like" that should not be encouraged. The marble maker's house has been skilfully designed to showcase the marble from our French quarries, a skilful sampling of which, under the porticoes of the esplanade, reveals to us the unsuspected wealth. The pharmacy makes us want to be sick. The carved and coloured wood that stands at the corner of the clogmaker's shop evokes the gargoyles of the Middle Ages.
The drinking trough, with its umbrella-shaped canopy turned upside down by the gust of wind, and the fountain show us what the theme of water, suitably developed, could do to add a joyful noise to the austere framework of the walls. Not even the street lamps and the electric power transformers invite us to pay more attention to the street furniture, which almost always disfigures the surroundings of the most noble monuments. The school, with its marquee (too high to provide shelter), its spacious rooms, its windows open onto the river, its frieze of schoolchildren's drawings, its clear furniture with rounded corners, so that the children do not hurt themselves, makes us regret even more that the Ministry of Public Education, so attentive to frequently changing its pedagogy, has so far lost interest in the setting where the schoolchild spends his or her childhood and which will leave the ineffaceable imprint of a good or bad memory.

The town hall still participates, in some of its lines, in this modern style of the year 1900, to which M. Guimard, despite a praiseworthy desire for simplicity in keeping with the taste of the day, remains faithful. But a town hall is still the vestige of an old-fashioned psychology, which is reflected in the village itself by the predominance of politics over questions relating to the life of the country. It was to meet new demands, and at the same time to flatter a certain social spirit which differs from the political spirit, that Mr. Agache, one of our best town planners, built the house for everyone. The expression makes an image, without pleasing me as much as the old term "common house", more moving, more accurate than "town hall", which is pretentious, and "mayor's office", which is too restricted, since the common house is not that of the mayor, but of everyone. In Annam, the common house is still referred to as the residence where the notables meet, and where a room is reserved for travellers and foreigners so that they can spend the night under the protection of the laws of hospitality. The town hall that we have all known and whose mediocre or pretentious architecture was the same everywhere, from the North Cape to the Bay of Biscay, from the Pointe du Raz to Ventimiglia, housed behind its false motto: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, the rooms of the secretariat, the municipal council, the justice of the peace. This banal monument, with no regional nuance, could not rally municipal life other than in its political aspect. As if, apart from politics, there was not everything else! Even before the war, an architect, M. Auburtin, had the ambition to spread throughout France the idea of a common house which would not only be an electoral crossroads, a place of hostile discussions, a temple of hatred, but a kind of peasant club, where the services of the administration and those of physical, moral and intellectual hygiene would be grouped together in a practical way. The aim is to make it easier for citizens to get around, to help them to be entertained, to encourage their need for sociability, to ensure that they have a place to meet, to amuse themselves, to learn, other than at other people's homes or in cabarets. There is always talk of stopping the exodus of country people to the cities. If they left their villages, it was because they didn't earn enough money there and were bored.
Money is being made now, despite the mercantilists.
But we need entertainment.
It's a fact that people are bored in the village. All the sermons of the preachers will only make this boredom worse. From this precise notion a precise programme was born. The war gave Mr. Auburtin the opportunity to mature his thoughts and to realize them. The garden city of the Foyer rémois, which he built at the gates of Reims, has its people's house. The French village of the Exhibition has its house for everyone.
Like the rest of the village, it is not specifically from this or that village.
It shows the rational tendency of architecture to take into account a human programme rather than the physical data of a region.
As if an architectural programme did not involve both this and that! The monument built by Mr. Agache, who personally shows no hostility to regionalism, has the appropriately cubic appearance of so-called rational architecture. At one of the corners, a pillar ingeniously accuses the construction and shows that it does not rest on the wall, but on a system of posts whose intervals are filled with some kind of material, playing the role of insulator. Is this not reminiscent of a fifteenth-century house in Beauvais? The recess in the façade behind this pillar leaves a free space which, on the first floor, forms a loggia for the concert hall and, on the ground floor, a shortcut sheltering the passer-by before the tasting room. The tasting room is illuminated by large windows that fold out like a folding screen, creating pleasant corners inside and increasing the number of views to the outside. The screen, like the tier, is a frequent theme at the Exhibition. They will help art historians to recognise and catalogue the style of the year 1925. The colour of the building, yellow and purple, is not displeasing, except for certain detailed motifs that are too meticulous for an exterior plasterwork, and therefore exposed to the weather. On the other hand, inside the concert hall, Miss Yvonne Sjoestedt has succeeded in creating a charming decoration on the theme of Sunday pleasures: I believe that this young artist is very capable of producing good tapestry cartoons in the future.

The church was built by M. Jacque Droz, the architect to whom we owe, in collaboration with M. Marrast, the church of Saint-Louis-de-Vincennes. It is true that M. Droz is inhabited by the spirit of the Romanesque tradition; but it is only a memory, which is expressed in his work by equivalences of proportions, obtained with modern procedures. The vault is, I believe, a perfect success, almost a masterpiece of elegance and strength; without doubt the building does not develop quite enough; one has the impression of a portion of a church rather than a whole church. But whose fault is this? The master builder is subject to the conditions imposed on him by the lack of space and by the need to safeguard beautiful trees that will hopefully outlast the Exhibition. But I have used the word 'master builder'. Is that the right word? It used to mean the craftsman who commanded all the others and imposed a discipline of beauty on them. Now, as soon as one enters this sanctuary, which was in fact consecrated by the archbishop of Paris, H. Em. Cardinal Dubois, who is so attentive to the manifestations of religious art, one notices an absence of unity, a piling up of objects which are certainly useful for worship and have a meaning in accordance with the symbolism of the liturgy, but which make one think of an exhibition of sacred art similar to those we have already seen in the museum of the Pavillon de Marsan, since the war, rather than a harmonious whole. Sincere artists, belonging to groups such as the Arche, the Catholiques des Beaux-Arts, the Atelier d'art sacré (presided over by M. Maurice Denis), the Artisans de l'autel, a sort of modern guild dedicated to the glorification of the Christian spirit by means worthy of Christianity, have collaborated on the stained-glass windows, the fonts, the pulpit, the statues, the paintings and frescoes, the bells, the altars, altars, altarpieces and credenzas, the communion table, seats, Benedictine vestments for priests, tablecloths, embroidery and carpets, candlesticks and crosses, flames and banners, Stations of the Cross, lamps and lights, coverings, paving and mosaics. The sum of the mystical effort is clear from this list alone. The wooden altar in the left-hand chapel, the carpet that precedes it, certain violet stained-glass windows, a statue of Joseph, the carpenter, by M. Roger de Villers, a Pieta by M. The wooden altar in the left-hand chapel, the carpet before it, some of the violet stained glass windows, a statue of Joseph the carpenter by M. Roger de Villers, a moving Pieta of ascetic rigidity, deserve more than esteem; but the furniture in general is too sparse; the cruets look like bottles for the great perfumers; all too often there is a certain pastiche of humorous imagery, but of a questionable sentiment. How could an artist of Maurice Denis's value and conviction succeed so poorly in imposing medieval unity on his "colleagues"? No doubt they can invoke the speed and dispersion of their work, probably also the need to accept intelligent competitions, but not without commercial stipulations. The famous union of art and industry, advocated by the Exhibition, needs, like all ideas, to be acclimatised; industrialists will have to show more deference to artists, and artists will have to have a less chimerical understanding of the demands of industry. In any case, we want to prove so much to the public that we prove little to it, except a certain amount of goodwill. Through a laudable but excessive desire for art, we fall into the excess that was criticised in the works of the nineteenth century; we lack that discernment which, in art, is a spirit of sacrifice and, in religion, a spirit of renunciation.

It is from this last point of view that one could criticize the cemetery which adjoins the church, as it did in the past in our French villages. Hygiene has gained something by taking the dead away from the church where they used to go to pray on Sundays, but sentiment has surely been lost, and so has remembrance. If, when going to church, one could not avoid greeting the dead, the dead seemed to invite us to enter the church where they used to go. How impressive was the humility of the graves, so small in comparison with the heavy wall and the powerful bell tower! The Calvary, which belongs to everyone and for whose edification everyone could contribute his or her share, shows, as do most of the tombs, a luxury that is not very Christian, let alone village-like. This is not the cemetery of the peasants, but of the lords or the new rich of the village. One would expect to find, in this field of rest, monuments more in keeping with the discreet nothingness and reminiscent of those seen in the Blue Bird, in the Land of Remembrance.

Once the house is built, what furniture should be installed in it? Those we have seen inside the buildings of the village of France promise us that duration which is the luxury of honesty.
Perhaps one could object, by analogy, that these are not, strictly speaking, the furniture of peasants, but the furniture of middle-class country people. To which one might reply that an exhibition does not claim to "reconstitute", but to suggest. In the so-called "bourgeois" house, Gallerey has composed furniture that is half fixed, half mobile, made of oak, the material of which implies the resistance required by robust and successive generations. The way in which he drew up the plan of intimacy, used the French windows, the lower part of the staircase, the corner of the fireplace, perfected the Italian-style table with its well-connected extensions, the clock whose copper pendulum reflects the objects of this large living-room in its to-and-fro movement, adjusted the hardware of Gigou, reveals a consciousness similar to that of the old craftsmen. Gallerey, who also furnished the school, is indeed the one we expected to meet here, in the company of his friend Léon Jallot, who took on the task of furnishing the bungalow with a serious, diligent and honest talent, the sight of which is comforting in an age of jesters. Gallerey's furniture is next to the workshop of the linen factory, whose looms make their ticking sound all day long, in tune with that of the clock and inspiring, like it, honest thoughts. The cloth that these looms weave is stretched on the walls and it seems to us by thought to see again the large pieces of cloth drying on the meadows of the Vosges, at the edge of the roads that go up to the passes of Alsace. Will this cordial simplicity please simple people who dream only of complication and false luxury?
Jallot readily recounts that twenty years ago, having composed cheap furniture for workers and peasants, he only succeeded in selling it to stockbrokers who had a sort of "madness" in the fields and played at nature.

One could also say of this furniture what we said of these houses, these monuments, these public or private buildings, of this bungalow which is also a fantasy of rich Parisians having fun living in a plank hut, namely that, to help us imagine an ideal village, they do not specify which village it is, nor in which region it is located. The objection falls away as soon as we enter the Provençal pavilion and the Alsatian oratory, which mark out the road to the French village, as well as the Alsatian house and the Breton house, which frame it so opportunely.

The Breton house is a counterpart to the Alsatian house and seems to have been built there to remind us that a village is all the more French because it is from such and such a province. At the initiative of this Breton event, we are not surprised to find the painter Lemordant, this Breton whose terrible war wound took away the possibility of creating the masterpieces we expected from him. Fortunately, he is still there, inspiring his compatriots with his conviction, inspiring them with a fine sense of regionalism, at the right distance from pastiche and systematic novelty.

He gave the drawing of this Breton furniture made by Cornwall and Leon; the construction of the plans, the combination of the lines seem due to this Celtic influence that Lemordant advocates. One senses the roughness of the appearance and, behind this ungainly appearance, the reserve and pride that are deep in the hearts of the Bretons. Whether it recalls the embroidery motifs of Breton waistcoats or suggests intimacy by giving us a glimpse of a human face, the decorative sculpture achieves style without ever suppressing the muted palpitation of life. In such a way that the logic of use, of resistance, becomes apparent at first sight, while little by little the particular accents of a nature progressively subjected to the discipline of the general design are revealed. With the furniture that Jallot, Hémard and the Seven Brothers have composed for the occasion and had made by local carpenters, they are effortlessly placed in this Breton house which does not seem to us to be unworthy of those that Lefort, the Guingamp architect, has so often built and designed. The cherry wood and oak stained with walnut stain are appropriate for this character, which varies from one part of Brittany to another. The square panels decorated with Celtic motifs, scrolls, large mouldings, the consoles that support Jallot's tables and which are carved in the shape of chimeras are linked to the Breton Renaissance style, without ever copying it. Thus Lemordant's wish is fulfilled, as he claims that, to be great and new, an art must be inspired by its own civilisation.

This isolated, scattered skill, without self-awareness, without a spokesman, left to the discretion of industrialists alone, would not have been enough to determine a decorative art movement in the province of Brittany. It was necessary that an artist, i.e. a man gifted with a sensitivity, with a doctrine, came to animate these craftsmen's hands and inspire them with those pleasures of expression which, in addition to the satisfaction of the work done, as they used to say in the days of the guilds, with the hands of the workman, are no less indispensable. This leads us to note - and this reflection is of interest not only to Brittany, but to all the provinces and Paris itself - that the renovation of the crafts is almost always inspired by painters, less often by sculptors, sometimes by architects, in any case by representatives of the so-called major arts, rarely by craftsmen or by furniture designers. The idea of building Breton furniture came to Lemordant the day he painted his admirable pictures for the Hôtel de l'Epée; they were to be completed, in his mind, by a series of transformations which were not to frighten him; for, before being the painter whom a war wound was to kill, Lemordant had studied architecture; and during the four years he devoted to the decoration of the dining room, he studied at the same time a new distribution of the other rooms as well as a different arrangement of the lighting and heating apparatus; he drew models of cushions, plates, jugs, cups, lacework, furniture. These plans, piled up in Penmarch in his boxes, form more than 260 plates from which he had only to draw to implement his projects.

When researching the origins of the movement that led to the 1925 Exhibition, there is a tendency to overemphasise the Ruskinians or the followers of William Morris. The truth is less easy and more complex. It should be sought from painters such as Lemordant, Maurice Denis, Puvis de Chavannes, and sculptors such as Pierre Roche, both living and dead, who, without precisely creating what is ineptly called "decorative art", nonetheless accustomed people to a calmer, more refined and better balanced vision and pointed out to the "modern" intelligence the disciplines of architecture and the furniture arts that are subject to it. That the machine, by its sobriety of line, by the exact adjustment of effects to their cause, has collaborated in this education, is not in doubt; but let no one speak to us of the aesthetics of the machine. In ten years, a machine is out of fashion. In ten centuries, a work of art has not aged a day. I almost feel like saying the same thing about the subject at hand: the garden city goes out of fashion, the village ages.

©L'Illustration - 1925