Summer 1914: an exhibition

While in Paris last month I had the chance to visit the splendid exhibition at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, on ‘Summer 1914’ (Été 14), which reflects on the First World War, as do so many other events and exhibitions at the moment.

One can feel the early signs of over-exposure to WWI, with a number of months still to go until the anniversary of the outbreak on 28 July. Nonetheless, I wanted to draw attention to this stunning exhibition. Its effect is sobering, melancholy perhaps, and the effect is achieved without any of the usual props and devices of Grand Guerre remembrance, and is all the more effective for it. Without a trench or or a mannequin in uniform to be seen, it weaves its spell.

It is confined in scope to the period immediately before 28 July, and the few days that followed, and succeeds triumphantly in evoking a civilisation sleep-walking into a catastrophe that only a few could imagine, and that only dimly. In the long summer of 1914, travellers still took the Chemin de Fer du Nord to resorts such as Boulogne-sur-Mer; paysans continued to make hay while the Parisian elite partied in the parks; and a Frenchman won the London Marathon. Not all is calm –  suffragette agitation is one sign of gears grinding – but Europe’s interlocked monarchies had, it seemed, little to fear from the assassination of Franz Ferdinand – a little local difficulty.

Even once war had begun, this exhibition shows all sides marching resolutely backwards into the conflict. There are manuals of troop movements here, cavalry techniques and siege warfare, reflections on colonial wars past. Old understandings of old enemies are pressed into service again: one cartoon shows Thor, the ‘most barbarous of all the gods of the old Germany ‘(‘la plus barbare d’entre les barbares divinités de la vielle Germanie.’) There was also a revival of older Christian means of sanctifying the fallen, a cult of martyrs ‘pour le patrie’ and their ‘glorious mourning’.

As one might expect, interweaved with the diplomatic correspondence and other official documentation are sources from writers and artists: Romain Rolland, André Gide, de Chateaubriand and others are represented here. But the exhibition neatly avoids any easy implication that artists were any more perceptive of the horrors to come. Thomas Mann could write in 1914 of a coming war as ‘une purification, une libération’, even an immense hope.

If you were to find yourself in Paris before 3 August with a couple of hours to spare, don’t miss this exhibition.

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