School of Paris: The Historical Context

The School of Paris

Recall to Order

After the Great War, the fabric of European society was in tatters. An entire generation of young men had been killed in a senseless slaughter on the Western Front. A generation of young women would never find mates and a generation of children would grow up without a father. The men who survived were often physically and mentally wounded, and, in those days, had no support from the very nations that had sent them off to war. Although there could be no return to the way things were, the cultural impulse in France was a desire to Return to Order—“retour à l’ordre,” to resume life in a sane and safe fashion.

The term itself supposedly originated with Jean Cocteau, who in 1926, wrote Le rappel à l’ordre,” but the unruly French poet was an unlikely source for such a phrase. Although he was elegantly attired in a uniform custom made by Paul Poiret, Cocteau’s wartime experience was a checkered one, veering wildly from offering to “assist” his fellow soldiers in the shower to being an ambulance driver who walked away from the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Cocteau returned to Paris in time to produce one of the most significant ballets of the century, Parade. The list of the artists who participated on this ballet, Erick Satie, Sergei Diaghilev, Pablo Picasso, et. al, reads like a who’s who of the avant-garde. It was after attending the May 1917 premiere of Parade that Guillaume Apollinaire was inspired to use a new term he had recently coined, “Surreality.” But the innovation and experimentation of Parade was perhaps the last gasp of the golden age of pioneering modern forms of art.

Once the war was over and the troops came home, it was clear that the art world could not resume its previous course. One of the reasons why Parade was received with such a combination of bewilderment and hostility is that the ballet was modern and, strangely enough, in Paris all things “modern” were “German.” This small insight gleaned from the reception of Parade clarifies why part of the “Call to Order” campaign was about purification. But before discussing the emergence of a newly conservative set of styles in Paris, it is important to examine the cultural context of the City of Light between the wars.

The move of the avant-garde artists from Montmartre to Montparnasse is indicative of an emerging art market that would allow artists to make decent incomes and be able to live less-impoverished but still colorful lives. Instead of hanging out at the Lapin agile, the intelligentsia took over more elegant cafés and bistros in the territory below the steep hills of the maquis. Montparnasse was where Gertrude Stein invited the artists and writers to her home on rue de Fleurus. Famously, the American writer, Ernest Hemingway made his way to her home to hear her advice to write in a crisp and clean fashion. Fashion photographer, May Ray, returned from New York and began his love affair with his muse, Kiki of Montparnasse. African-American servicemen who found that they could actually get served in Le Dôme began to put together one of the best jazz scenes in the world in Paris.

The move towards respectability was already underway during the Great War, when Picasso began living in Montparnasse with his new wife Olga and a staff of servants. The artists who had gone to war or who had sought refuge in other nations returned to find the pre-war art world turned upside down. The Cubist “heroes,” Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger returned to find Picasso, a reclusive artist in the Salon years, now holding court and riding high. Georges Barque, Picasso’s erstwhile partner in art, was suddenly relegated to a secondary position. It seems clear that the artists who stayed in Paris, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, and guarded their position and further developed their art benefited after the war. The Cubist “heroes” found themselves consigned to a “minor” status and most slipped into historical oblivion. The Fauves faded even further and the post-war art of André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck became retrograde, glum, and entirely forgettable.

The pre-war avant-garde witnessed their movements being re-written into history, not according to actual lived history but according to the marketing strategies of art dealers. On the eve of the war the famous Le peau de l’ours sale of cutting edge work by young artists made vanguard art financially profitable. The investors quadrupled their money in ten years. Art dealers certainly took note, as did the collectors. Avant-garde artists had long reached out to specialized and adventurous collectors, such as the Stein family, and now that pool of buyers was expanding. In order to make “their artists” more commercially viable, dealers wrote books, like Daniel-Henry Khanweiler, or art exhibition catalogues, like Léonce Rosenberg. These books and catalogues, combined with the post-war books on Cubism by critics, such as Maurice Raynal, and artists, such as Juan Gris, formed the bedrock of the history of the pre-war art movements. From the perspective of valuing art, those publications certainly transformed certain avant-garde artists into historically significant figures whose art was of “blue chip” quality.

The presence of an art market with a taste for advance art was a major factor in the tamping down of avant-garde “excesses.” Collectors wanted to buy advanced art, but not too advanced. Keep in mind that our understanding of art history is anachronistic and that the late phase of synthetic Cubism was radical decades after it debuted. As late as the 1920s, there was little public knowledge of mixed media art and even less understanding of collage and assemblage. What the buyers wanted was paintings, not pieces of paper stuck onto another piece of paper. Picasso and Barque translated the lessons of collage into paintings by incorporating the large blocks of color and the juxtaposition of abstract forms into attractive paintings with readable images.

The notion that Cubism could function like a semiotic system was abandoned in favor of a post-war post-Cubist style that “looked like” a form of acceptable watered down “Cubism.” Barque retained this conservative approach for the rest of his career, painting numerous still lives, many positioned on pedestal tables. Picasso produced his own version of a tamed and humbled Cubism with Three Musicians in 1921, but he also developed a parallel style, a form of “classicism” so favored by those who wanted to “return to order.” Picasso proved himself to be an artist of great alacrity and was able to shift with the trends: he moved from his war-time version of Cubism, “Rococo Cubism,” to classicism to his watered down Cubism. Having established himself as a versatile artist who could move among styles, Picasso was free to join the latest style, Surrealist biomorphism, and combine it with Cubism into a colorful curvilinear suite of paintings dedicated to his new lover, Marie Thérèse. The transformation of Cubism into a saleable commodity enabled the Cubist pioneers to live in comfort for the rest of their lives, presiding over the School of Paris.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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