Swellboy on… France’s gift for glamour

Scraps of eternal greatness in a magnificent art nouveau setting

Image: Brijesh Patel

I was fortunate enough to catch the closing day of the Biennale des Antiquaires in Paris, a fair not unlike the Masterpiece event in London before the summer. It was remarkable. The exhibits were spectacular: scraps of eternal greatness such as a tiny sketch, not much bigger than a postage stamp, of two birds by Picasso, and monumental pieces of furniture.

I was also particularly taken by the jewellery firms that had chosen to exhibit there: Cartier showed some of its treasures from the art deco period, while Van Cleef & Arpels had created an entire parallel world based on the novels of Jules Verne, complete with submarine, moving octopus, and giant drill of the sort used to burrow to the centre of the earth, to show its collection of jewels based on the French author’s oeuvre.


Then there was the exhibition space itself, the Grand Palais, which of course being French and dating from the Belle Epoque is fanciful in the extreme. The French have a way of imbuing even the most quotidian things with a sense of glamour and theatre. What in English is mere steak and chips becomes in France steak frites and acquires a culture, almost an artistic status, of its own.

And so it is with exhibition centres. Executed with all the life and vigour of a Lautrec drawing, the Grand Palais is a glorious explosion of art nouveau. Imagine a giant Meccano set designed by Alphonse Mucha with engineering by the enterprising Monsieur Eiffel and you get the picture.


Meanwhile what do we have in England? Well we did have the Crystal Palace, but that burnt down. Happily our green, pleasant and sceptr’d isle still boasts that architectural jewel just off junction six of the M42: the Birmingham NEC.

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