Metz isn’t what you would call a tourist attraction. Yet the megashow at the Centre Pompidou branch in the eastern French city is well worth a visit.
The focal point of the exhibition “1917” is the curtain for Erik Satie’s ballet “Parade,” Picasso’s biggest canvas and one of the gems of the Paris-based arts center. Because of its size (10.5 meters by 16.4 meters/34.5 feet by 53.8 feet), it hasn’t been seen in the French capital for more than 20 years.
The ballet created a scandal at its May 18, 1917, Paris premiere. Many people thought that, in the third year of World War I, a cheerful send-up of bourgeois philistinism with clowns, sirens, typewriters and pistol shots was out of place.
Around the curtain the exhibition curators have grouped no less than 1,500 paintings, sculptures, prints, posters, photographs and documents on loan from more than 100 museums and archives. Most, though by no means all, refer to the war.
The year 1917 was when the U.S. entered the conflict, when the Czar was deposed and the Bolsheviks made peace with Germany. It was also the year of misguided attempts by the French and U.K. army commands to break the deadlock on the Western Front that cost them half a million casualties within a few weeks.
A Renault FT 17 tank in the entrance hall reminds us that the era of the cavalry, the traditional master of offensive warfare, was coming to an end.
Tanks weren’t the only novelty.
On Jan. 12, 1917, the first Dada exhibition opened in Zurich. On Feb. 26, the Original Dixieland Jass Band recorded the first-ever jazz single, and in October the inaugural issue of “De Stijl,” the most influential avant-garde publication in Europe, appeared in Leiden, Holland.
The organizers do their best to illustrate the various and often contradictory aspects of that momentous year.
Not everything works: To sell Monet’s “Waterlilies” as a contribution to the war effort or to establish a link between gas masks and masks in contemporary art is farfetched.
More to the point are the testimonies from artists who fought on both sides: Otto Dix, Max Ernst, Fernand Leger, Max Beckmann, John and Paul Nash and many others recorded what they saw with brush and pencil.
One of the most fascinating sections presents those artists who offered their services to help make camouflage uniforms and military equipment.
Victor Guirand de Scevola, known for his society portraits, designed observation posts disguised as trees. The marine artist Norman Wilkinson invented what he called “dazzle painting,” a naval camouflage intended to confuse German U-boats.
Professional artists weren’t the only ones inspired by the war. An entire wall is covered with shell bases reworked by ordinary soldiers into sculptures. Another room is filled with crucifixes, amulets and similar religious objects made during the endless periods of inactivity in the trenches.
The most gruesome items are the “gueules cassees,” mutilated faces of soldiers made of plaster or wax to be used as teaching material in medical schools. Nothing illustrates the horrors of war better than these casts.
“1917,” which is supported by Wendel SA, runs through Sept. 24. The train ride from Paris’s Gare de l’Est to Metz takes 90 minutes.
(Jorg von Uthmann writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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