[1] Gustave Courbet, 'Letter to Young Artists' (Paris, 25 Dec 1861); cited in C. Harrison, P. Wood & J. Gaiger (eds.) Art in Theory 1815-1900 (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1998), pp.402-4.

[2] Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life (1859); cited in P.E. Charvet (ed. and trans.) Baudelaire: Selected Writings on Art and Artists (Cambridge:?Cambridge University Press, 1981).

[3] Letter from Debussy to Georges Jean-Aubry, 25 March 1910; cited in François Lesure and Roger Nichols (ed. and trans.) Debussy Letters (London: Faber, 1987), p.218.

[4] The roots of this go back to the art of the Renaissance. In Florence, disegno (drawing or design), was deemed to be the essential beginning of art, the primary means for making image approximate nature. Contrarily in Venice colorito (colouring – not only colour but also its appropriate application) – was seen as fundamental in creating paintings imbued with life. A long-lived debate between these two positions involved theorists and artists, as well as regional rivalries.

[5] Vauxcelles was also responsible for the coinage of the term ‘Fauves’, when he referred to their paintings in the context of a classical sculpture as ‘Donatello parmi les fauves’ (‘Donatello amongst the wild beasts’).

[6] Piet Mondrian, quoted after H. Kramer, The Triumph of Modernism (Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield,  2013), p.22.

[7] John Cage, X: Writings ’79-’82. (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1983), p.53.

PARIS: CITY OF ART, 1900-1950

Simon Shaw-Miller

While the origin of the expression for Paris as a ‘city of light’ is, ironically, somewhat obscure – the French capital has also carried the title ‘city of romance’, of ‘food’ and of ‘fashion’ – it is perhaps most profoundly to be characterised as a ‘city of art’. This was particularly true as the 20th century dawned on France, with the artistic lights shining brightest in the 86.7 square kilometres of the city of Paris.

The French avant-garde in the period after 1900 pursued the development of artistic modernism. But this modernity was rooted in the 19th century, in Gustave Courbet and the Barbizon school of painters’ pursuit of Realism. This approach represented a radical rethinking of the traditional hierarchies of artistic subject matter, replacing the glories of history painting and its depiction of royalty, saints and national heroes with the life of the French peasant, the dispossessed and the heroics of labour. The emphasis switched from commemorating the glories of the past to focussing on the present, encapsulated in Courbet’s Credo of 1861: ‘Painting is an essentially concrete art and can only consist of the representation of real and existing things. It is a completely physical language, the words of which consist of all visible objects. An object which is abstract, not visible, non-existent, is not within the realm of painting.’ [1] 

This attachment to the present and the facts of everyday life acquired even greater emphasis in the following generation of painters, the Impressionists, who sharpened their focus from the present to the very moment, aiming to capture the fleeting and contingent. These last two adjectives famously form half of one of the most important characterisations of modernism ever written, that of the poet and critic Charles Baudelaire, who wrote ‘Modernity is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is one half of art, the other being the eternal and the immovable.’ [2] With the growth of industrialisation and urbanism in France, artists looked in two directions, recording both the disappearing life of the peasant and the colourful spectacle of the changing landscape of Paris itself. 

Following the ‘Haussmann Plan’, a wide-scale urban regeneration project (1853–70) under the direction of Seine prefect Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, both the centre of Paris and the surrounding districts underwent radical changes. Streets and boulevards were widened to avoid the barricades that had been such a feature of the city’s history of street revolutions. Sewer improvements and water works were undertaken, parks were constructed (the Bois de Boulogne for example) and public monuments raised (including the Palais Garnier opera house). All this provided Paris with both general improvements in the quality of everyday life (if at the cost of short-term social disruption) and the construction of magnificent vistas along grand boulevards, avenues and great squares; what we might now call its ‘look’ – a look also taught to us by artists. Impressionist artists provide us with cityscapes of the new boulevards and shops, Parisians at work and leisure in the new parks and on and around the Seine, but, like their realist cousins, they also represent the darker side of modern life: prostitutes, drunks, down-and-outs, the rural and urban poor. 

The formal innovations of their work are also controversial; the practice of plein air painting, the depiction of sunlight and shadow through contrasts of colours, and their fast and laconic brushwork, suggestive and evocative of shifting light. An impression forms in the mind of the spectator and cannot be tied to naturalistic depiction. This was an ambition almost as present in music as it was in painting. As Mallarmé said in relation to Debussy’s evocation of his poem Prélude à L'après-midi d'un faune, ‘The music prolongs the emotion of my poem and paints its scenery more passionately than could colours’. [3] This concern with impression, with mental image, is what led to reactions against Realism, most profoundly in post-Impressionism.

Post-Impressionism is one of those art-nouns that describes by negative definition, and most commonly refers to a quartet of artists who have little in common except a departure from the tenets of Impressionism: Georges Seurat, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and Paul Cézanne. Seurat follows the Renaissance artists Masaccio and Leonardo in his interest in science as an aid to painting. Using the technique of pointillism, he mixed colour not on the pallette, but directly in the eye of the spectator. Van Gogh’s and Gauguin’s radical aesthetics gave a language to the Expressionists and Symbolists (and later abstract painters) through a tendency to surface pattern, flatness and decoration, but Cézanne’s art, which also displays these interests, feeds directly into the most radical pictorial art to come out of Paris: Cubism.

If the briefly-lived Fauvist movement of artists, led by Henri Matisse, liberated colour in a way even more radically than Van Gogh or Gauguin, it was one of their number, who, in that age-old artistic tension between disegno and colorito (design and colouring), [4] turned from expressive colour to reconsider the fundamentals of painted form. Georges Braque developed Cézanne’s view that art was more a record of the act of looking than a mere representation of the things looked at. At the same time, Pablo Picasso had turned to African art as a radical alternative to classical precedents, and had produced the complex and controversial Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907. In 1908 the critic Louis Vauxcelles employed the phrase bizarre cubiques in relation to a painting by Braque, and the geometric reference stuck. [5] The term is not a particularly helpful way of describing the most important painterly movement of the 20th century, but it does signify a considerable distance from the Paris of Courbet. Concentrating their focus on portraiture and still life, Braque, Picasso and a small coterie of artists based in Le Bateau-Lavoir, a rundown building in the Montmartre district, developed a style of art that shifted from the perceptual preoccupations of the Realists to a conceptual concern with art, not as a copy of nature, but as its parallel; a world of signs that do not depend on simple verisimilitude, but stand alone; works that depend instead on the mental response of the spectator and the record of looking as multi-dimensional and multi-sensory.

Of the many still lifes produced by the Cubists c.1908–14, very many, perhaps the majority, are of musical instruments. Why? It is not just that music was everywhere in Paris, from the opera halls to the streets and cabarets, it is also that music was a model for how art might be. Musical instruments exist in time, their playing resonates in space; they invoke touch and, of course, sound, they are multi-dimensional and multi-sensory. Music is an ideal paradigm for how signs can represent reality without having to resemble it, and as such, Cubist signs provided Picasso and Braque with a means of play (jouer or jouir); they made poetry out of the public discourse of current events played out in the pages of Le Journal (a newspaper so often collaged into cubist images as ‘le jou’ to signify such play).

While the outbreak of World War One didn’t entirely arrest creativity, it did distort and despoil such playfulness. Many artists were mobilised and fought on the battlefields, some lost their lives and others radically changed artistic direction. While the conflict served to strengthen Fernand Léger’s conviction that the modern era belonged to the machine, after the war the rappel à l’ordre and L’Esprit nouveau classicised the language of the Cubists, simplifying and objectifying forms away from the ephemeral, papier collé of collage to painted object types, that rhyme and echo across painted compositions. This tendency is most marked in the purist paintings of Amédée Ozenfant and Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, best known under his pseudonym (adopted in 1920) ‘Le Corbusier’ and as an architect (he worked with the composer Iannis Xenakis, who was then his architectural assistant, on the Philips Pavilion at Expo ’58 in Brussels, for which Edgard Varèse provided an audio soundscape in his musique concrète work Poème électronique). This classicism also slipped into the post-war imagery of Picasso, and during his work on the neoclassical ballet Pulcinella with Stravinsky in 1920, he took the opportunity to do several remarkable portraits of the composer, which are in marked contrast to his 1917 work with Jean Cocteau and Erik Satie on the ballet Parade. Other post-Cubists like Robert and Sonia Delaunay moved further towards abstraction and sought mural projects, such as Robert’s aviation-derived images for the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne in Paris in 1937, or textile design in Sonia’s statements against contemporary fashion, both ways of marrying decoration and social effect. This tendency towards the abstract also affected the paintings of Matisse. After the war Paris became home to artistic refugees from all over the world: Marc Chagall, Amedeo Modigliani, Chaïm Soutine, Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian, furthering its claim to be the centre of the art world. Mondrian’s words show us how far we have travelled since Courbet wrote of Realism: ‘To approach the spiritual in art, one will make as little use as possible of reality, because reality is opposed to the spiritual.’6

The ‘return to order’ was invoked in other ways too. Most radical were the anti-rational aspirations of the Dadaists and Surrealists: Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp’s celibate machine is in marked contrast to Léger’s, in the Dadaist’s display of cynicism and irreverence (characteristics of Satie too). But in 1924 André Breton broke with Dada and published the Manifeste du surréalisme in which he advocated ‘automatism’ as a break from the constraints of the rational, conscious mind. In his Second Manifeste du surréalisme (1929), Breton set the tone for the aesthetic debates through the 1930s and into the 1940s by yoking Surrealism to the Communist Party and provoking a more explicit debate about art’s social and political role.

This concern with art’s social role and the place of the unconscious emerged with renewed force in relation to abstraction in the Art Informel group in the late 1940s and early 50s, a gestural, spontaneous art by such painters as Nicolas de Staël, Jean Dubuffet and Pierre Soulages. Dubuffet developed an interest in non-professional artists, children and the mentally ill, characterising such work as Art Brut, what in English is known as ‘outsider art’. Such work was viewed as more ‘authentic’ against the growing commercialisation of an increasingly American-dominated post-war Europe.

The role America played in the end of the war and its consequently greater involvement in post-war European politics made Europe a very different place in 1950 than it had been 50 years earlier. This, together with the fact that France, under German Occupation, had witnessed an exodus of artists to the United States, meant that the international significance of Paris as a centre for art production became somewhat eclipsed by New York.

An emblematic figure here is Marcel Duchamp, whose post-Cubist Nude Descending a Staircase [see p.28] had such a profound impact on a generation of American artists when it was exhibited at the Armory Show in New York in 1913. Duchamp spent many years travelling between France and America, a representative of intercontinental cultural fertilisation. He finally settled in Greenwich Village in 1942, gaining US citizenship in 1955. His legacy to art of the 20th and 21st centuries is arguably greater than any other figure, French or not: he was an ironist, a subtle thinker and, in his move from painter to artist, a catalyst who profoundly changed the histories of both art and music. John Cage wrote of him, ‘The effect for me of Duchamp’s work was to so change my way of seeing that I became in my way a Duchamp unto myself’.7

Duchamp was buried in France not America, in Rouen Cemetery. His epitaph is D'ailleurs, c'est toujours les autres qui meurent (Besides, it’s always the others who die). In view of Cage’s metamorphosis, perhaps he was right.

Further Reading