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Life in Paris and Berlin in the Early 1900s

Artists living in Paris and Berlin at the beginning of the twentieth century were able to convey their experience of modernity through the visual language of painting. The artists conveyed their fears and hopes in paintings of residents of the city and cityscapes. On canvas, they explored personal experiences, but they also hoped to instigate change through their art.

Disillusionment with city life, a motif explored by many artists in the early twentieth century, reflected their common experiences of urban alienation and political upheaval. During the nineteenth century, the rapid growth of cities in Europe as a result of new technologies and industry greatly changed the way humans lived and interacted. These new conditions of modern life created cultures within Berlin and Paris that rejected traditional notions of simplicity and natural existence. The stark difference between Berlin and Paris between 1900 and 1930 contextualizes the contrast between artists painting the two cities. During that period, Berlin underwent drastic changes in government. More importantly World War I created mass chaos and uncertainty for its citizens. Paris on the other hand grew before and after World War I, and was hailed as the symbol of France’s triumph in both the political and cultural spheres of Europe.[i] By comparing works painted in Berlin and Paris in the early twentieth century that depict modern urban life, we can conclude that artists were able to inject their own perceptions and feelings concerning the experience of modernity.

The three main pieces of this exhibition, Ludwig Meidner’s Burning City, 1913, Ernst Kirchner’s Circus Rider, 1914, and Robert Delaunay’s Eiffel Tower, 1924 depict the cityscape, the urban scene, and the monument, respectively - three key aspects of a city that together demonstrate its whole character. Meidner and Kirchner, living in Berlin, reacted to modernity with criticism of its apparent shallowness that for them suppressed the ideals of humanity and brought out the negative, superficial tendencies of humans. Their depiction of the spaces and the people in urban areas reflected their discontent, as they use skewed perspective and composition as well as careful manipulation of color and brushstroke to transfer their emotions onto the canvas. Meidner creates a chaotic, crumbling group of buildings and roads that foretells of his view on the incoming madness of the First World War about to shake Germany. The classic circus scene, like Kirchner’s Circus Rider, elevates an exciting public gathering by fragmenting the space through line and color. It conveys a message on the isolation of humans from one another even as cities became epicenters of glamour and progress. Abstraction of soft naturalistic representation in favor of jarring, bold visuals characterize the Expressionists’ style of painting. On the other hand, Robert Delaunay’s painting of the monument of Paris, Eiffel Tower, uses color to illustrate the vibrancy and energy pulsating through Paris after the war. In contrast to Expressionists who highlighted the undertones of ruin found in Berlin, Delaunay rendered a familiar structure of Paris to demonstrate the legacy of modernity and show the energetic atmosphere a city like Paris created.







[i] Jill Lloyd, Urban Exoticism in the Cabaret and Circus (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), 85.
Picture: Lewis Hine, "Eiffel Tower Through Doorway - Soldier," 1918. negative, gelatin on diacetate film, 5 x 4 inch. George Eastman House, New York.


Shivani Mitra