Welcome to the 1930s

Boulogne-Billancourt is the largest suburb of Paris, which makes it the second largest city in the Île-de-France, after Paris itself.

Although I am not a big fan of 1930s architecture, I must admit that Boulogne-Billancourt (pronunciation here) has an unusually high concentration of public and private buildings from that decade. Apparently they had the money and the land (and the will-power) to go on building during the depression years, when most other cities put their construction projects on hold to wait for better times. Paris, for example, has very little in the way of 1930s architecture, and what they do have is ugly or at least undistinguished — yes, I’m thinking of the Palais de Chaillot, which was built in 1937 and is unfortunately still standing and taking up space on a hill across from the Eiffel Tower.

First generation Vélib’ bikes in Auteuil, 2015

From most places in Paris, Boulogne-Billancourt is somewhat out-of-the-way, but it happened that in August 2015 I was staying nearby in the Paris quarter of Auteuil, so I simply checked out a Vélib’ bike at station 16034 on Rue d’Auteuil and took a short ride (less than a quarter-hour) over to Boulogne-Billancourt, where there were more than twenty Vélib’ stations to choose from.

For those who aren’t into cycling, Boulogne-Billancourt also has five Métro stations, three on line 9 and two on line 10. And it is served by two bus lines from Paris, lines 52 and 72.

Museum of the 1930s

The Musée des Années 30 (Museum of the 1930s) began as a local history museum, and it still provides insights into the history of Boulogne-Billancourt, but the emphasis has long since been widened to include all aspects of the 1930s, and especially the art works of that decade.

The current mayor of Boulogne-Billancourt, Pierre-Christophe Baguet, even maintains that this museum has positioned itself, in the history of art, “between the collections of the Orsay Museum and those of the Centre Georges-Pompidou.”

While it may seem presumptuous to compare the modest Musée des Années 30 with these two major Paris museums, there is an element of truth to his statement, because the Musée d’Orsay features artworks from the remarkable sixty-six years between 1848 and 1914, while the Museum of Modern Art at the Centre Pompidou concentrates on more recent art, from the 1950s up to the present.

La Nageuse

This sculpture from the year 1936 is La Negeuse (“The Swimmer”, feminine form) by Hubert Yencesse (1900-1987). The detail that sets this 1930s lady off from earlier nude statues is her bathing cap, which suggests that she is about to dive into an Olympic-size pool and start swimming laps, rather than just standing around and being an allegory for something, as earlier generations of nudes were expected to do.

The painting in the background is called L’officier et la dame (“The officer and the lady”) and dates from 1932. It was painted by Yves Brayer (1907-1990)

Nonchalance ou Réverie

This painting from the year 1931 is Nonchalance ou Réverie by Maurice Ehlinger, and to me it really does look quite 1930ish. My American aunts were all still single in 1931, and they all had hammocks, but none of them had anything resembling the castle in the background.

Les Trente Glorieuses

To put the 1930s in perspective, the museum also looks at the periods before and after. The text panel in this photo is entitled “The Glorious Thirty” — referring not to the 1930s, which were not so glorious because of the worldwide depression, but rather to the three decades after the Second World War, when the economies of many Western countries had a lot of “catching up” to do (as Thomas Piketty expressed it in his book Le capital au XXIe siècle). To those of us who grew up during “The Glorious Thirty”, rapid economic expansion seemed like a perfectly normal state of affairs, and we were perplexed (some of us more than others) when it ground to a halt sometime in the 1970s.

The text panel from the museum gives the dates as 1945-1973, which is only twenty-eight years instead of thirty, but the original author Jean Fourastié described this period as ending around 1975. He coined the term Les Trente Glorieuses by analogy to the commonly used term Les Trois Glorieuses, meaning the three glorious days of revolution in France from July 27 to 29, 1830. (Les Vingt-huit Glorieuses just wouldn’t have had the same ring to it.) Be that as it may, the text panel in the museum reads as follows:

“The end of the war left Europe and large portions of the world in ruins. Everything had to be reconstructed, everything had to be manufactured, everything had to be equipped. We experienced a boom of industrial development and economic expansion known by the term ‘The Glorious Thirty’. Under the influence of the Marshall Plan and General de Gaulle, France reconstructed itself, developed its industry and its economy through a strong expansion. Parallel to these grand projects, industry developed in all sectors to equip French households with household appliances, white goods, brown goods, television sets, cameras, vehicles, machine tools . . . “

(White goods are appliances such as washing machines and dishwashers, which are usually white, whereas brown goods are things like audio and video devices.)

In Germany this period of postwar economic expansion was known as the “Economic Miracle” (Wirtschaftswunder). I remember reading a novel by Hugo Hartung called Wir Wunderkinder (literally “We Wonder-Children”, but the title is a play on words because it also means “We child prodigies”) that was later made into a very successful film narrated by Wolfgang Neuss.

Colonial Exposition of 1931

No presentation of France in the 1930s would be complete without the ugly reality of French colonialism. I was glad to see that the Museum of the 1930s did not attempt to gloss over or romanticize this problematical topic.

About the Colonial Exposition of 1931

This text panel on the Colonial Exposition reads, in part: “In 1931 the French colonial empire was at its peak, and the colonial exhibition was an ideal medium to promote it. The chosen location was the Forest of Vincennes. The chief commissioner of the exposition, Marshall Lyautey, wanted to place the accent on two venues: the information center, which he saw as the beginning of a House of Overseas France, and a permanent museum of the colonies” — which in fact is what he installed in the Palais de la Porte Dorée, though it didn’t turn out to be quite as permanent as he had intended. In 1960 it was changed into a Museum of African and Oceanic Art, and this has since been replaced by the new Museum of the History of Immigration.

Colonialism in art

Colonial artworks sometimes took on grotesque forms, reminiscent of the bas-reliefs which can still be seen on the façade of the Palais de la Porte Dorée in Paris.

My father’s photos of the Colonial Exhibition

While looking through some old photo albums recently, I was surprised to learn that my father visited Paris in 1931 and even went out to the Colonial Exposition and took some photos.

At this time he was no longer living in Paris, having emigrated to the United States in 1928, but he returned in 1931 on the SS Bremen for an extensive journey that took him to Paris, Prague, Gablonz (where he was born), Vienna and Budapest (where one of his sisters had settled).

More of his photos from the Colonial Exposition

For some reason I had always thought he made this journey in 1933, but it was actually in 1931. It was partly a business trip, since he was supposed to be visiting suppliers and ordering merchandise for the wholesale costume jewelry company he was working for in Chicago. Usually the owners and directors of the company took these European tours themselves (which is how my father had met one of them in 1927), but in 1931 they decided to send a 26-year-old employee over instead. I don’t really know why they did this, but I imagine they wanted him to make use of his European contacts, as long as people in the business still remembered him.

More of my father’s photos from the Colonial Exposition, 1931

His photos of the Colonial Exhibition show replicas of buildings from various French colonies. These replicas were built in the Bois de Vincennes for the exhibition, and were mostly demolished afterwards. He never told me about this exhibition, or if he did I was too young to understand what he was talking about.

My photos in this post are from 2015, and my father’s are from 1931.
I revised the text in 2019.

See also: Palais de la Porte Dorée in Paris.

6 thoughts on “Welcome to the 1930s”

    1. The museum even had a 1930s toaster, the kind you had to open and shut quickly to flip the pieces of toast and toast them on the other side, but I apparently failed to take a picture of it. We used ours at home until well into the 50s, before finally replacing it with a newfangled pop-up toaster.

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