As you drive into Strasbourg signs on the road welcome you to Le Carrefour de l’Europe, the crossroads of Europe, home of, among other institutions, the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights. The offices and organisations may be new but Strasbourg’s unique position in the centre of Europe has always been significant. Situated more or less at equidistant between Paris and Munich, alongside the mighty Rhine, it has always been an important focal point for politics, commerce and, of course, the arts.

A major new exhibition in the city, Laboratoire d’Europe, curated by Roland Recht and Joëlle Pijaudier-Cabot , demonstrates the central and innovative role Strasbourg played in the cultural and academic life of the continent between 1880 and 1930.

It should be remembered that for most of that period Strasbourg was, in fact, Straßburg, part of the German Empire under Kaiser Wilhelm II and much of the Alsatian culture and many of the grandest buildings and areas in Strasbourg reflect this, notably the Place de la République – originally Kaiserplatz.

The exhibition is set over three sites, the majestic Palais Rohan in the shadow of the city’s magnificent cathedral, the rather dusty Musée Zoologique and its main venue, the imposing Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain (MAMCS) on the edge of the picturesque Petite France.

Strasbourg excelled in the applied arts in particular and this is demonstrated by dozens of posters, illustrations and items for interior décor – I particularly liked the two Art Nouveau rooms, recreated in splendid detail. Another touch I liked was that in each gallery there is a frieze of old photographs along the top of the wall, complimenting the items on display. There is, of course, a lot of fine art with space given to Hans Arp and to the text-book interior of the Aubette building in the city’s main square designed by him along with Theo van Doesburg and Sophie Taeuber-Arp.

The part of the exhibition that particularly interested me was at the Palais Rohan which covers music and theatre during the period in question. In 1880, the first year that the exhibition covers, the performing arts were going through a renaissance in Strasbourg. Its former main theatre had been destroyed during the city’s bombardment in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and after the annexation of Alsace and Lorraine the Germans made great efforts to restore and encourage the cultural life of the region. They built what is now the TNS – Théâtre National de Strasbourg – in the Place de la République and sponsored many prestigious concerts. Saint-Saëns had given subscription performances in 1878 and 1879. In 1881 Brahms played his 2nd Concerto for piano in the Aubette and Richard Strauss conducted the Municipal Orchestra at the Hall of the Union in 1899.

This section of the exhibition, though small, was my favourite and has many beautiful posters, manuscripts and other musical ephemera from the period, as well as musical instruments and costumes from the opera.

For anybody interested in the arts, the applied arts in particular, and recent European history this excellent exhibition is a must-see.

Laboratoire d’Europe continues at the Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain (MAMCS) and the two other venues in Strasbourg until 25th February 2018.        Michael Hasted  25th September 2017