School of Paris: The Waning of the Avant-Garde

School of Paris

The Young Artists

The significance of the School of Paris lies chiefly, not in its innovations, but in the lack of innovation. The decades between the wars were conservative on several fronts. First, there was the well-known “Return to Order” which, like all nostalgia movements, looked back to a golden past that never existed. It would be more precise to use the term popularized by the poet Jean Cocteau, “Recall to Order,” implying that it was time to call the proceedings to order. The world of avant-garde art before the Great War was a disorderly scene with a jumble of movements, emerging one after another—Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Expressionism, Russian Avant-Garde art, and so on. The art audience simply had had enough and needed to take the necessary time to digest what had been a very rich meal.

During the 1920s and 1930s the School of Paris was dominated by the aging art lions, Pable Picasso and Henri Matisse. No longer rivals but now colleagues these two eminent artists extended their pre-war styles and presided over the younger artists who were clearly lesser lights. By extending their pre-war experiments into saleable and accessible styles, Picasso and Matisse set the tone for the School of Paris. Matisse continued to paint his odalisque fantasies in attractive, decorative canvases that were so pleasant one never tires of the endless variation on the theme of decorative interiors provided with a nude. Picasso proved he could keep up with the latest stylistic trends, but essentially he settled into a post-Cubist style that safely combined his Analytic and Synthetic phases and there is a clear connection between Three Musicians in 1921 and his late studies of Delacroix’s Women of Algiers in the 1950s.

The outbreak of the Great War marked the end of an era and with August of 1914, Cubism passed into history. With surprising swiftness, the reputation of the Cubists were rated by art dealers, according to whom was in their stables. Historians would later assert that the “major” or “true” Cubists as those who were in the group supported by Daniel Henry-Kahnweiler: Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Fernand Léger and Juan Gris. Everyone else was deemed a “minor Cubist.” Georges Braque and Fernand Léger were in a secondary position to Picasso but these artists were still contenders. Their art was founded upon the concepts of good taste, a good time, and a respect for belle peinture, in other words, a reasonably respectable avant-garde art based upon classical order. Barque parlayed his early Cubist fame into a series of acceptable post-Cubist still life painting that comprised the remainder of his career. Léger, on the other hand, was able to revamp his early Cubism into a more mainstream version of the prevailing “classicism” favored in these conservative years. His Three Women of 1921 was a rounding of and clarification of his earlier rather jumbled and busy approach to Cubism. Léger’s post-Cubist style would, like that of Braque’s, be the consistent signature look for the rest of his career.

The attitude in the art world was laissez-faire and, rather then the previous parade of “isms,” co-existing styles were tolerated. Certainly open-minded acceptance of all kinds of styles that could be labeled “avant-garde” boded well for the art market and its collectors. While the pre-war generation of artists enjoyed their well-deserved reputations, a new generation of artists emerged in the new artists’ neighborhood, Montparnasse. Les peintres maudits, many of whom were foreign artists, lived bohemian lives of sex, drugs and jazz. Nevertheless, despite their vivid expressionist colors and distortions of form for emotional purposes, their art tended to be agreeable and tasteful. These artists did not attempt to go forward and only looked backward to the immediate pre-war past which they tamed into submission. Clearly, the interruption of the Great War had taken its toll, for the art of the next generation revealed that the creative momentum had been lost.

The biography of Amedeo Modigliani, who had sad love affairs and died young, was perhaps more compelling than his paintings and sculptures. That said, his tasteful and erotic nudes and his African-esque sculptures combined the classical heritage of Ingres with something vaguely “primitive” in an visually appealing fashion. Like Modigliani, Chaim Soutine mined the historical avant-garde with his art, expressionistically painted in vivid colors. But his inoffensive paintings did not show the vivid imagination of the Fauves nor the angst of the German artists. Former artists’ model and an accomplished artist, Suzanne Valadon and her son, Maurice Utrillo, were among the most reckless of the hard-living younger generation. Because both did female nudes, Valadon makes an interesting comparison with Modigliani. Passive and supine, Modigliani’s nudes are typical of the male tradition of the “nude:” body upturned and revealed to the male gaze, eyes closed and unaware of the voyeur. But Valadon, who was quite used to revealing her body (she is one of the nude women in Renoir’s The Bathers of 1887) but this painter showed women in their private moments in their boudoirs and allowed them their modesty and privacy.

Picasso had produced a number of innovative three dimensional works—constructions and assemblages that changed the course of conventional sculpture. The way in which he reanimated a moribund medium was arguably one of his most significant accomplishments. The Romanian sculptor, Constantine Brancusi, was more conservative than Picasso but he assimilated the ideas from Cubism quite well. The many versions of the pre-war, The Kiss were an admirable conceptual realization of what a kiss is—a merger of heart and body into one solid unit. Likewise, Bird in Space, a post-war work of 1919 seamlessly continues the conceptual approach to sculpture.Julio Gonzales, a follower of Picasso, was also inspired by Cubism but took the idea of assemblage and used a collage approach to materialize lines in bronze. Among the most interesting sculptors was Alberto Giacometti. His most interesting and compelling works were made during his Surrealist years—Woman with her Throat Cut (1932) and The Palace at 4 .m. of the same year. He renounced this Surrealist phase and the rest of his career was devoted to the tall thin and heroic men in the tradition of Rodin’s male figures.

This essay began with the assertion that the significance of the School of Paris was that it had no significance. Indeed, this extended period of conservatism and complicacy marked the waning of Paris as the center of avant-garde experimentation and the rise of Paris as the center of an international art market. The need to innovate, the urge to create, the urgent desire to make statements about art or life, or both, had been drained out of the city. The Paris of the post-war period was far more noteworthy as a center for literature, film, photography, jazz, fashion, and design than it was for the fine arts. The passion for the traditional visual arts had shifted to a nation the least equipped to deal with an artistic renaissance—Germany. But it was to Berlin that the avant-garde traveled, leaving a vacuum in Paris and an opening for the artists in New York who would later “steal the idea of modern art.”

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

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