Folies Bergère: Populist Cosmopolitan Hub

On the 30th of November 1886, The Folies Bergère staged its first revue in Paris. Located at 32 rue Richer in the 9th Arrondissement, and called Folies Trévise back then, it was finished as an opera house by the architect Plumeret in 1869. The venue was at the height of its popularity from the 1890’s Belle Époque to the 1920’s Années Folles. To start with, its shows included operettes, comic opera, popular songs and gymnastics, then a few years later it became the Folies Bergère (the Extravagant Shepherdess) borrowing the name of the nearby rue Bergère. The Belle Époque was a period of peace and optimism spurred on by industrial progress, and culturally exuberant. From the onset, there was “A generally well-intentioned effort on the part of the new leaders of the Republic to promote a bourgeois paradise for rich and poor alike with the result that only the well-off had the time, energy and money to enjoy the Music Halls, circuses, theatres, and fairs intended for a more “democratic” participation.” (Charles Rearick, review of Adam Parfrey’s ‘Pleasures of the Belle Epoque: Entertainment and Festivity in Turn-of-the-Century France’, in Performing Arts Journal, Vol. 10, No. 1, 1986).

There was, though, quite a populist quality to places such as the Folies. Much like the cabaret venue Moulin Rouge, it actually allowed people from all walks of life to mix. In 1886, the Folies Bergère’s manager Édouard Marchand introduced a new genre of show, the music-hall review, which was then developed from 1918 by Paul Derval by bringing in his so-called ‘small nude girls’ in extravagant costumes, sets and effects and they became the new ‘brand’ of the place. The Folies Bergère served an unusual mix of customers.  It was a fashionable socialising place for the Paris literati, captured in Manet’s well-known  A Bar at the Folies Bergère (1882), whilst being a seedy hideaway for satisfying vices: “In the vast lobby that leads into the circular promenade, where the gaudily dressed pack of whores prowls about, mingling with the dark-suited crowd of men, a group of women waited for the new arrivals in front of one of the three counters, over which three raddled and rouged vendors of drink and of love were presiding. Behind them, tall mirrors reflected their backs and the faces of the passers-by.” (Guy de Maupassant, Bel Ami (1885), trans Margaret Mauldon, Oxford Univerity Press, 2001) . “They are extraordinary and magnificent when they walk in pairs along the hall’s semi-circular promenade, powdered and rouged, their eyes drowned in a blur of pale blue, their lips shaped in a loud red, the bosom projected forward over a tightly laced waist, blowing a wisp of opopanax – while they fan themselves – which blends with the powerful aroma of their underarms and the very delicate perfume of a dying flower in their corsage.” (J.K. Huysmans, Parisian Sketches, trans. Richard Griffiths, Fortune Press, 1960).

In spite of these depictions, the Folies Bergère was actually a place for gender equality too. By 1882, the venue was clearly targeting female customers, as its evening entertainment program appeared in La Gazette des femmes, a feminist publication promoting women’s cultural achievements in literature and the arts. In The Praise of Paris (1893), the travel writer Theodore Child pointed out the fact that men and women of different classes attended establishments such as the Folies Bergère: “the cafe concert has become the chief distraction of the Parisians both of the lower and the middle classes… the music halls are always crowded. The shopkeepers of the neighbourhood, their wives, and their daughters, their cook-maids and their clerks, the working-men, the washerwomen, the girls who toil all day in manufactories, all patronize the cafe-concerts steadily night after night.”

Another dimension to the cosmopolitanism and racial diversity of the Folies Bergère became visible a decade later. In 1926, Josephine Baker, an African-American expatriate performer became an overnight sensation with her erotic show ‘danse sauvage’, wearing a flimsy costume made of solely an artificial banana skirt and beads around her neck. In the multi-ethnically orientated Paris of the 1920s, the growing artistic trend “Surrealism, with its distaste for colonial rule, enjoyed a mutually beneficial cross-fertilization with black cultural resistance, as suggested by the friendship between André Breton and the Martinique poet and intellectual Aime Césaire.

Indeed, it is only in the  liberal atmosphere of bohemian Paris that the creative genius of the black chanteuse Josephine Baker could flourish, the Jazz Age and ‘negrophilia’ helping to release Europe from its sterile exclusivity.” (Partha Mitter, ‘Decentering Modernism: Art History and Avant-Garde Art from the Periphery’, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 90, No. 4, Dec., 2008). Baker’s popularity in the mid 1920s also coincided with the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs that inspired the term ‘Art Deco’, in many parts also influenced by non-western, pre-modern art from around the world. In an age of travel and international connections, the shows at the Folies Bergère celebrated the à la mode exotic influences, the cultural diversity and open-mindedness brought about by a favourable economic climate. It was this adaptability to the changing times which turned the Folies into lasting and successful commercial enterprise.