Dreamtime in Paris
Art Deco at Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris

American artist Gerald Murphy was ahead of his time. Recognising France's love of the latest American gadgets and technology, his works - shown in France with other Cubo-Futurists in the 1920s - used the language of advertising on large-scale canvases.

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Murphy's Razor (1924), now in Dallas Museum of Art, depicts the accessories of the modern 1920s man - a safety razor, a fountain pen and a box of safety matches - in a manner that, to the casual observer, looks just like Pop Art.

Murphy moved to Paris with his wife Sara in 1921. They lived in a chic apartment on Rue Greuze, not far from Avenue Kleber and Place du Trocadero. They were generous patrons of the arts and Cole Porter, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway and Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald were their friends.

I mention this because although Woody Allen, in his latest movie Midnight in Paris, leads us through this dazzling city, past and present, the supercool Gerald and Sara are nowhere to be seen. The whole gang has gravitated to Gertrude Stein's place on Rue de Fleurus. But what if the Murphys had been represented? How different the storyline might be.

Midnight in Paris is all about nostalgia: how each generation feels the need to escape to a different era, a Golden Age they thoroughly regret missing out on. For Owen Wilson's character, it's the Roaring Twenties. Wilson's Gil Pender, a wide-eyed aspiring author from Pasadena, wants to rub shoulders with the Lost Generation in Paris.

When the clock strikes midnight, Gil is transported to that decade in an old yellow Peugeot. There he meets Marion Cotillard's character, the beautiful Adriana. She then leads Gil back to her ideal era, the Paris of the Belle Epoque.

Had the Murphys held sway, however, Gil might have been transported to a different era entirely; perhaps the 1930s, or even further forward to the period of New Realism. So, let's take a tour of our own, beginning in Adriana's Belle Epoque.

The Exposition Universelle of 1900 sets the tone. Art Nouveau is the prominent style on the stations of the newly opened Paris Metro, and also at the Gare d'Orsay, a railway station so beautiful it's destined to become an art museum.

Petit Palais (now a Fine Arts Museum) and the Grand Palais (a major event venue) also belong to the Belle Epoque, as does Pont Alexandre III, an ornate bridge topped with gilded statues and 32 garlanded lampposts.

The Belle Epoque is the era of the artists of Montmartre, the impoverished painters so famous today. It's the age of the cancan and absinthe, and we follow Gil and Adriana to the Moulin Rouge where Toulouse-Lautrec is sketching at a table. Adriana says she's staying. "The Belle Epoque is just beginning," she says.

We, however, move on; into the 20s with its jazz and cocktails at La Coupole, a haunt of the Lost Generation. We go to L'Auberge de Venise, where Fitzgerald and Hemmingway met up. We hang out in the bar at the Hotel Lutetia, just like Picasso, Modigliani and African-American dancer Josephine Baker. Maybe James Joyce came here, too. He was living just down the road, working on Ulysses.

We soak up the Jazz Age with its Art Deco sleekness and stylised geometric forms that streamline the excess decoration of the earlier Art Nouveau. Deco style is everywhere we look and it leads us into the 1930s and beyond.

There are whole galleries of deco art at Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, a short stroll away from the Murphys' old street near the Trocadero. There's prestigious furniture designed by Ruhlmann, Arbus, Printz and many others, plus works by the leading ceramicists, metalworkers and glassworkers of the day, all of them pushing the boundaries of new materials and form.

Le Corbusier is yet another leading artist, architect and designer of furniture well ahead of his time. He designed the two modernist villas in the cul-de-sac of 8-10 Square du Docteur Blanche, one for a friend and patron Raoul La Roche which is open to the public. Le Corbusier's own apartment and studio at 24 rue Nungesser et Coli - his home and workplace from 1934 to 1965 - is also open. What's so striking about these artists and designers is that we encounter elements of their work every day

To return to Murphy and his work Razor (1924), which depicts the gadgets of the 1920s man in a manner similar to Pop Art. Raymond Hains' Saffa (1964), which hangs in the New Realism Gallery at Musee d'Art Moderne, does the same sort of thing when depicting a modern-day book of matches.

But this work in painted wood on plywood is said to set Hains apart from the coldness of Pop Art. He's criticising the personification of New Realism. He is subverting reality, apparently. Which is all too much for my simple mind and, on reflection, I prefer the art of the Jazz Age.

And one more thing. Many believe the Murphys were the models for a different story about the Jazz Age - Scott Fitzgerald's last completed novel, Tender is the Night. Others believe that the characters Dick and Nicole Diver are the thinly veiled Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald themselves.

But unlike Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris - a dreamy love story about nostalgia - Fitzgerald's novel is about the illusion of everlasting love.


• Six international railway stations connect Paris with London (by Eurostar) and all European cities (by fast intercity networks). Book through Australian-owned International Rail. See internationalrail.com.au or phone 1300 387 245. · Hotel Baltimore at 88 Avenue Kleber is a Belle Epoque building converted into a hotel in the 1920s. It is walking distance from the Trocadero, Musee d'Art Moderne and Square du Docteur Blanche. See hotel-baltimore-paris.com. For more, go to franceguide.com.

The West Australian

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