June 1940, a family leaves Paris with makeshift means © Roger-Viollet (all images courtesy Musée de la Libération de Paris)

PARIS — While on sanctioned outings during lockdown this past spring, it was ironic to see posters advertising the exhibition 1940: Parisian Exodus, now on view at the Musée de la Libération de Paris. Dated photograph aside, one could reasonably wonder: was this a reference to the storied World War II event or the more recent, haphazard flight of an estimated 1.2 million Parisians amid the pandemic?

An exhibition poster for Parisian Exodus, featuring an from May-June 1940 © LAPI/Roger-Viollet

News outlets and self-proclaimed “exiles” soon compared the two moments, as it has perhaps become inevitable to see everything through Covid-tinged glasses. It is therefore auspicious that the exhibition marks the first time in recent history that local audiences are being asked to confront this tragic moment of their collective past. As curators Hanna Diamond and Sylvie Zaidman make clear, their intention is to provide a long overdue corrective to the rosier narrative of widespread resistance to Nazi rule, instead calling attention to the unprecedented rural exodus before most Parisians ventured home and “learn[ed] to live with the occupier.”

Tracing the arc from alarm, to flight, and eventual return, the exhibition employs a mix of physical ephemera and didactic multimedia installations. Through films, newspaper clippings, and photographs, Parisian Exodus displays scenes of panic as the collapse of the Maginot Line brought the “phoney war” to civilians’ doorsteps and pushed government officials to harriedly abandon the capital. Upon entry, visitors are greeted by a double-sided apron enabling users to carry belongings hands-free, honed from an earlier model developed by refugees in 1914. Nearby hangs a government poster admonishing citizens to wear (gas) masks properly and handbooks explain how to take cover from aerial bombardment. These official archives contrast with children’s renderings of events, particularly those encouraged by Adrienne Jouclard, an art teacher whose students recorded first hand impressions of crowded train stations and families escaping by foot.

The exodus of 17 June 1940, Montoire sur le Loir, work by student Christiane Crosnier 1940 © Réseau-Canopé – Le Musée national de l’Education

Above all, the exhibition privileges personal testimonies, highlighting individual itineraries (a strategy employed with great success elsewhere), such as that of a young boy who biked to the southern border with Spain before boarding a boat to the United Kingdom. Shifting between the individual and the collective, visitors learn in one particularly moving section that some 90,000 children went missing along the way. The unsolved files of infants separated from mothers and efforts to reunite families in Elle magazine underscore the far-reaching consequences of this ten-day event, which extended many years after the summer of 1940. Of course, there were also those who stayed behind, less by choice than necessity. One such person, Paul Léautaud, observed: “Paris is absolutely deserted. The word is apt, it’s empty. Shops are closed. A rare passerby […] All the buildings are shut up […] And the silence! Like a quiet avenue in the provinces, with no one in sight.”

Viewers will likely find that these scenes resonate powerfully with the current moment and might seem to serve as warnings or lessons. While it can be tempting to draw parallels, there is also a danger in too swiftly equating the two events, particularly without acknowledging how war and pandemics affect the haves and have-nots differently. True, both 1940 and 2020 provoked mass relocation to the countryside, yet a chasm of difference separates the plight of refugees from the good fortune of dual homeowners. Here, the exhibition curators are attentive to said uneven economics but have cultural critics been equally recognizant of such inequality in our contemporary moment?

Installation view of 1940: Parisian Exodus, Musée de la Libération de Paris

History is nothing if not repetitive. For those who lived both events, 80 years apart (as one woman at the museum told me she had), the exhibition generates a sort of temporal collapse. Both then and now, institutions appear fragile in the face of crisis and official accounts only tell one side of the story. This intriguing exhibition demonstrates that memories are fallible, and the need to document such moments of upheaval — by all and in all possible forms — is an undertaking of the highest importance.

1940: Parisian Exodus continues through December 13 online and in person at the Musée de la Libération (4 Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy 75014 Paris). The exhibition was curated by Hanna Diamond and Sylvie Zaidman.

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Johanna Sluiter

Johanna Sluiter is a PhD Candidate in Art History at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. She is currently based in Paris.