French Artists During the Great War: Braque, Part Two

Georges Braque Post-War

Return to Cubism

The question both during and after the Great War was the fate of Cubism. The forward thrust of the pre-war avant-garde in Paris was abruptly halted by what Barbara Tuchman called “The Guns of August.” Conflict and disruption are never helpful to artists who need peace and prosperity to contemplate their art, find collectors and make a living. The War, however, divided the leading pre-war movement, Cubism, in half: the Cubism before the War and the Cubism after the War. After the War Cubism acquired a totally different character, evolving from an armed rebellion assaulting the sensibilities of the public to a historical movement supported by a new generation of art dealers with respectable clientele. Before the War, Cubism, as a movement, had been divided into two different intellectual concepts, two separate aesthetic visions, one public, the colorful and, according to some, conservative, Salon Cubism, and the other private and studio based, the experimental projects of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Although both strands of Cubism could be traced back to Paul Cézanne, it was the Salon Cubists who emerged as the main “Cubists” after the War. Art history tends to neglect the Salon Cubists, such as Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes, and also has the habit of skipping over the way in which Cubism was established as a major force in the art market by these Salon Cubists after the War. In contrast to the Salon Cubists, after expanding its possibilities for his ballet designs with Parade, Picasso abandoned Cubism in a bid for wider acceptance. While Picasso developed a strategy to build his reputation as an ever-flowing artist, moving with each tide, each style and mastering it before moving on, his former partner, Georges Braque took a different road.

Braque, who had been wounded during the War, had almost died but struggled to recover and return to painting. Although Picasso had been solicitous and had visited him in the hospital during his rehabilitation, Braque became aware that their paths had diverged during the War, and, as he contemplated his comeback as an artist, he apparently made the decision to continue develop Cubism. Part of Braque’s transition out of the army and back into painting were two celebratory events, one to honor the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who seemed to have narrowly escaped death, and then a party honoring the painter, also recovering from a head wound and wondering if he would ever paint again. These parties in 1917, marking survival, marked the return of two prominent figures to the art world in the same year as Picasso’s Parade debuted. Picasso’s use of Cubist painting as costumes and sets in this “surreal” ballet were his swan song, his farewell to the style that made his reputation. For him, Cubism provided a way out, an exit to new artistic frontiers. For Braque pre-war Cubism beckoned to him as a way forward. As with Picasso’s work on Parade, Braque’s post-war paintings bear the memory of papier collé, with areas of strong color that were painted instead of large blocks of pasted paper. And, as with Picasso, these paintings use the old subject matter of Analytic Cubism and its characteristic sharp diagonal likes which now emphasize the shapes of the objects rather than fragmenting them. Rather than floating above the support, the segments of color build upon each other, locking each other down.


Georges Braque. Glass, Pipe, Newspaper (1917)

Interestingly Braque relied upon the audience’s ability to “read” the “clues” of Cubism, a skill that had been developed before the War and not necessarily in Paris. What the potential Parisian collectors could see, however, is a style called “Cubism” as interpreted by its inventor, Georges Braque. As several of his transitions works made during 1917 and 1918 demonstrate, the artist relied heavily upon the papier collé works he was doing at the end of the summer of 1914, especially those which introduced a textured surface.


Georges Braque. Rum and Guitar (1918)

Perhaps, however, when it comes to the choice of color, a more informative comparison of Braque’s paintings he made during his recuperation would be with Henri Matisse, for, like the former Fauve with whom he once exhibited, Braque went dark. In comparison to the monochrome paintings of the so called “Analytic” stage, these paintings are dark and brooding. In comparison with the open structure of the floating segments of “Synthetic” Cubism, the canvases are filled and closed in. Braque also announced, if you will, the new work with a new motif that would appear for decades in his work, the Guéridon, a small side table dating back to the era of Louis XIV. The top is round, a site where Braque would crowded bits a pieces familiar to those who knew his early studies–musical instruments, sheet music, newspapers, things to eat and drink, all the comforts of home. The Guéridon had made an early appearance in 1910 and then in 1911, with its characteristic curved top was clearly visible as an edge barely supporting a plethora of disintegrating objects.


Georges Braque. Le Guéridon (1911)

The side table still life paintings would be the center of Braque’s comeback in 1919 at Léonce Rosenberg’s gallery L’Effort moderne, but they were also his version of continuing to develop Cubism. Picasso abandoned Cubism during the post-war years and wandered off, exploring new styles, slipping from one look to another, as if traveling. Once settled in his darkened and sober color scheme, blacks and greens and browns, once he had returned to the comfort of still life motifs, Braque settled back into his own trajectory and stuck with his darkened Cubist perspective. It is possible to read the deep tones as elegiac for all that was wiped away by the War–human lives ended, an entire world of international avant-garde art halted, the nineteenth century itself–for a new century was well and truly underway.


Georges Braque. Guitar and Glass (1917)

However, unlike Fernand Léger, Braque did not let his experience as a machine gunner penetrate into his art. Instead, his art was about being back home, at home, safe in a charmingly cluttered interior, surrounded by timeless and familiar objects. The three legged table symbolized peace and safety. Although Braque returned to the familiar stacking technique of Cubism, in which space was flattened by the tilting forward of the objects which offered themselves to the viewer, the confrontation with building blocks of color and pattern might take on a different significance post-war, becoming signifiers of an urge to recommit to all things familiar and insignificant and close to hand. In a very interesting article, ‘Trench Warfare on the Western Front, 1914-18,” Dorothee Brantz wrote of the odd vantage points and the unusual experiences with space and landscape for those, who, like Braque, lived in trenches:

Trench warfare forced soldiers to develop a new relationship with space, including intensified sense perceptions. To some soldiers, going to war, might initially have looked like an adventure, but they quickly realized the life at the front was nothing like tourism. For one thing, there was little to see. Trench warfare no longer privileged sight,particularly when it came to locating the enemy. Not only was the landscaper increasingly unrecognizable due to military destruction, most soldiers spent large amounts of time close to or even below ground, where their field of vision was limited to the boundaries of the trenches, creating a particular perspective. As a result, battlefields looked empty even thought they were actually saturated with bodies, both living and dead. Even inside the trenches, soldiers often could not see very far because of the trenches’ zig-zag construction. The view across no-man’s land was obstructed by barbed wire and upturned earth, and during a barrage this field of vision was even future reduced with smoke or poison gas filled the air.

This landscape had been were Georges Braque had spent almost two years of his life. It is no wonder that he surrounded himself, wrapped himself in traditional still lives, places at a distance where he could see them, study them, and revel in their simple existence. In contrast to the semiotic fragments of early Cubism that provided a narration of a visit to a café, for example, the post-war still lives are rendered in full, redolent with decorative, celebratory details. The verticality now takes on a different connotation when contrasted to the dangerous flatness of a non-landscape stripped of all identifying markers but dead bodies and barbed wire. The new distance, allowing for a full view of a still life on a graceful table or even including the table itself, allows for a verticality, indeed, even the possibility of the act of standing upright-a posture that would mean instant death for the inexperienced soldier.


Georges Braque. Still Life on a Table (1918)

Having survived when so many did not, Braque, according to Alex Danchev, regarded his former confrères who did not serve, such as Marcel Duchamp, or who managed to cut their service short, such as Albert Gleizes, with a certain contempt. Picasso, in his opinion, simply sold out and of his post war life, Braque said, “Je dos connaître ce monsieur.” The paintings of Braque demonstrated how cleanly the artistic break with Picasso had been: Picasso became a celebrity, Braque remained the historical champion of Cubism and its future; Picasso frolicked on the Cote d’Azur with movie stars and prominent members of the rich and famous class, Braque stayed at home and painted objects arranged and rearranged over the decades. Early on, as with Musician, his 1917 return to painting, and La Joueuse de mandolin of the same year, Braque insisted on continuity and these paintings, like the Guéridon, had previous versions in his former life.


Georges Braque. Musician (1917)


Georges Braque. La Joueuse de mandoline (1917)

Braque’s return to public exhibition at L’Effort moderne in 1919 and the review of his new work was penned by Blaise Cendres whose right arm had been amputated. Centers, a Swiss national, had served in the French Foreign and Cendres (FrédéricLouis Sauser), like Braque, was recovering from his wartime experiences, as were Luigi Russolo, who also had a head wound that was trepanned, and Fernand Léger, who had been gassed. Raymond Duchamp-Villon died in the service of his country. It is in the face of the sacrifices of the avant-garde artists during the Great War that Cubism, once spelled “Kubism” with a “K” to damn it in its supposed German-ness, that Cubism finally became French, part of the French tradition. Braque chose to remain within this continuity, established by Léonce Rosenberg who was both taking advantage of the Cubist artists and promoting their art for mutual benefit.


In A Companion to World War I, John House quoted Fernand Léger, who said, “To all those idiots who wonder if I am a or will still be a Cubist when I return, you can tell them that, yes, for more than ever. There is nothing more ‘Cubist’ than a war like this one which splits a chap up more or less cleanly into several bits and flings him out to the the four points of the compass.” But how should we read these key transitional works from Georges Braque, a recovering veteran of a war he would seldom mention and seemed to repress? One hundred years after Braque was called into service, Karen K. Butler wrote of “Georges Braque. Artilleryman” in Nothing but the Clouds Unchanged. As she pointed out the working process of Braque was largely “internal” and that his philosophy of art was to divorce his work from the real world. In writing of his experience with trench warfare, Butler commented, upon a statement by Braque:

“Visual space separates objects form one another. Tactile space separates us from the objects. VS (visual space): the tourist looks at the site. TS (tactile space): the artilleryman hits the target..It is my position the some of the irreconcilable aspects of Braque’s war experience that are found in this statement–a kind of perceptual gap between distance and presence, as well as an emphasis on tactility and physical experience before the mechanization war–find a way into his post-war paintings.


Georges Braque. Still Life on Table (1918)

Butler concluded, is difficult to connect these still lifes and interiors in any overt way wot the war. And yet it is worth considering whether the serial nature of these canvases ,which return again and again to the same motif with only slight variations in subject or perspective, is in some way suggestive of a psychological response to trauma–a response that is both a repression of the experience of war and an unconscious reiteration of its tactile space. For Braque, who, strives to hit his target like the artilleryman, I propose that his emphasis on the material qualities of the artwork is deeply tied to the devastating encounter with industrialized mass destruction that emerged in the trench warfare of World War I.

In 1996 the historian and art historian Philippe Dragen wrote Le silence des peintres: les artistes face à la Grande Guerre, taking an interesting stance, particularly when it comes to the French avant-garde artists. While the English artists rose to the occasion, looked the war directly into the eye of this first modern war and created, out of the avant-garde vocabulary, a language to express the death and devastation, the destruction of an entire swarth of landscape and the desolation that followed the loss of a generation upon which the future had once depended, the French artists looked away. As will be discussed in the next post, the vast bulk of French art was prints and posters, with almost none of the major pre-war artists approaching the war in any fashion expect indirectly at best. It is difficult to account for such a vast difference–eloquence on one hand and repression on the other, but it should be remembered during the first month of the War, France was delivered a death blow which was still bleeding in 1940, when on a fine day in June, the Germans once again marched down the Champs Elysees.

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French Artists During the Great War: Braque, Part One

George Braque at War

Recovering from War

On August 3rd, 1914, Germany declared war on France and, oddly enough, France never declared war on Germany. The last days of July and the first days of August were like tumbling dice, with the Russians starting the roll of Germany through Belgium and into France on July 20 when the Tsar issued orders to mobilize. In so doing, without being aware of the consequences of what seemed to be a prudent move, the Tsar unwittingly activated Germany’s carefully developed Schlieffen Plan. This famous plan called for Germany, led by Kaiser Wilhelm II, to attack, not Russia, but France. Count Alfred von Schlieffen devised the German strategy for conquering France, basing it on assumptions, all of which proved to be false: Russia would take weeks to mobilize and during those weeks the German army would simply walk through a compliant Belgium and cut through France, driving towards Paris. The Schlieffen Plan was a six week operation in which Britain hung back and allowed the Germans to take over two entire nations before turning and attack a third, Russia. As is well know today, this fantasy based battle plan went awry immediately, the Belgians fought back and held the Germans at bay, Russia mobilized and very quickly turned the new war into a two front conflict, and France swiftly called out its troops on August 1st, On the 3rd, Germany declared war on France and invaded Belgium. The next day, Great Britain declared war on Germany. And so the dominos fell, one by one.

The young men of France, carrying the collective memory of the defeat in the Franco-Prussian war and the scar of Germans occupying their native country, responded to the imminent threat from Germany with alacrity. Occupations were put aside, as were political differences, as men of all walks of life marched off to a War that would change them forever–if they came home, if they returned. The radical avant-garde artists of France immediately sprang into action, placing their carefully honed careers on the shelf, and signing up. Georges Braque (1882-1963) joined the French army on August 2nd, a day after general mobilization was declared. His artistic partner and his aesthetic collaborator, Pablo Picasso, a Spaniard from a neutral country, famously said, “On 2 August 1914, I took Braque and Derain to the station at Avignon. I never saw them again.” Picasso’s statement was not literal, of course, both Braque and André Derain (1880-1954) survived the Great War, but both men would be profoundly altered as human beings and as artists. The cost to the French artists in terms of the growth and development of their art can be seen in their post-war work, which would be conservative and safe and familiar. Once suspended, their forward mobility was never to be resumed as a new generation took the place of the “Cubist heroes,” such as Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes, and became the School of Paris. The artists who stayed behind, Picasso and Henri Matisse, were able to continue to evolve their art, taking it into new directions. For Georges Braque, Picasso’s new direction away from Cubism and his military experiences in the trenches, culminating in a life-threatening wound, meant that their work together and their personal connection could never be resumed.

As has been pointed out in previous posts, the Great War was a mobile one for only a month. By the end of September, both sides were paralyzed into lines that would quickly become trenches, stretching from the North Sea to Switzerland. The credit for slowing the German invasion belonged to the heroic Belgium army which held off the Germans, slowing down its advance through the neutral country for almost a month. The French army moved quickly towards–not Belgium–but towards their long lost territories of Alsace and Lorraine, attacking on August 7, only to be repulsed and driven out by the Germans. The French determination to take back these border lands was the basis for their answer to the Schlieffen Plan, Plan XVII, and the quest quickly devolved into two major battles, the Battle of Mulhouse, Battle of Mons and the Battle of the Frontiers. Although the British joined the French in these early clashes, it was the French who suffered losses so great that it can be argued that the nation never recovered from the shocking blow. As Brian Best wrote in his book Reporting from the Front: War Reporters During the Great War, The Mons battle, which compared with the subsequent battles was more like a skirmish, was one of what became known as the Battle of the Frontiers. It was the French plan to recapture Alsace-Lorrians attack the Germans at the Belgium border. The battles took place at Mulhouse, Colmar, the Ardennes and 13 September, the French suffered about 30o,000 casualties, of which 75,000 were fatal. On 22 August, 27,000 were killed, making it a day to rival the first battle of the Somme for bloodshed. As Romain Leick of Spiegle Online International elaborated,

On Aug. 22, 1914, the French army experienced a disaster of historic proportions. In a series of battles near the town of Rossignol in the Belgian Ardennes Mountains, near the border with France, 27,000 French soldiers were killed in a single day, four times as many as at the Battle of Waterloo a century earlier. It was a slaughter without compare, in both the past and the future of the country’s long military history.

Like all able-bodied young French men, Georges Braque had been subject to conscription or the draft. According to the 1913 Three Years Law, a man had to be ready to go to war if called. In 1911, Braque was photographed in his uniform at Picasso’s studio at boulevard de Clichy, and the twin photograph showed Picasso trying on Braque’s uniform.


Georges Braque in his uniform

Retroactively, Braque was part of this law or a Troisanniste, being part of a military that was just beginning to recover from the ugly scandal of the Dreyfus Affair. When the War began, the French army was divided, as it were, between competent NCOs who would be swiftly promoted to the officer class and those who were not promoted, the ordinary soldier, considered a form of low life, known individually as Le Poilu, or the “Hairy Beast.” According to Leonard V. Smith, Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau, and Annette Becker in their book, France and the Great War, “Each man had a “class” indicated by the year in which is cohort turned twenty. Elaborate rituals involving parades, bands, costumes, and much else evolved into localities throughout France to celebrate the induction each class to military service. These comprised rites of manhood as much as citizenship.” However, to return to the famous photographs of the artists in uniform, the French military uniform was famous for its dangerous regressiveness. As the authors reported,

Even the French uniforms of August 1914 dark blue jackets and red trousers, dated from the last century. By that time, all of the other Great Powers had abandoned uniforms that presented such obvious targets. Historians have often, but mistakenly, attributed the persistence of the colorful French uniform to stubborn myopia on the part of the French high command. But support for the anachronistic attire really spoke to a more broad-based and ancient notion that soldiers who go off to war should do so as beautifully as appointed as possible. Heroes had to dress the part, most of all in a democracy, in which the army represented the sovereign people at war.


Uniforms designed by Édouard Detaille and Georges Scott, military artists, in 1912. Detaille’s design for the metal helmet was rejected by the infantry but was accepted by the 3rd Battery of the Horse Artillery. After nearly a decade of debate over military uniforms, the infantry below wears the final choice: dark blue jacket with red trousers.


There is a direct connection between the impressive French uniform and the enormous losses suffered by the French on August 22nd, for these early battles showed the complete incomprehension of the consequences of modern warfare in which leaders, using Napoleonic tactics, as old as the uniforms styles, marched soldiers, fueled by élan, towards machine guns and long range artillery guns. Being held back at his home base, Le Havre, for training on the machine gun, or the “coffee mill,” Braque was lucky that he missed the first slaughter. As was customary for intelligent enlisted men, he was promoted and became a sub-lieutenant, moving to the front lines on the Somme by mid-November.


According to Braque’s biographer Alex Danchev,

“I’m now in the firing line,” he wrote to Picasso on 29 November. “I had my baptism about a week ago…There’s a lot of fighting here and we’ve taken up guard among dead Boches and unfortunately some (French) marines. Now the area is fairly calm. You can’t imagine a battlefield is like with the uprooted trees and the earth dug up by the shells.” Danchev continued quoting Braque when he also wrote to Apollinaire, “I’ve been at the front two months,” he informed Apollinaire, with a touch of pride. “We’ve had some pretty serious engagements with the Germans.” According to Danchev, “The order to attack came on 17 December. Braque led his platoon over the top. In the teeth of the guns he gave a good account of himself, but the attack, like so many attacks, failed. The regiment history speaks of heavy loses. A vigorous officer, commanding hs platoon well, dedicated. Shows wiling. His military dossier is a pean of praise to his drive and his fortitude. Braque had the right temperament for trench warfare..”


Braque as Soldier in the trenches

However, Braque would not last a year in this war. After his regiment was transferred to the area around Vimy Ridge, and on May 11, 1915 Braque was caught up in an explosion of a shell and went down in no man’s land, where he lay unconscious until stretcher bearers found him. In the interval, he had been “left for dead,” and his family was informed of his death. His lover, Marcelle Lapré refused to accept what turned out to be a false report. Braque survived but was temporarily blind, a terrifying fate for a painter, and his skull had to be trepanned to relieve the pressure on his brain. According to Danchev, “Braque, wounded in the head was awarded the Croix de Guerre, first with bronze star, then with palm, and appointed Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.” The a ward noted that Braque was“An officer full of drive, seriously wounded, leading his platoon with the greatest bravery in the assault n the German trenches.”


Braque recovering from his wound

Over a two year period, Georges Braque had undergone a sea change. No one could serve in such a war, deep in the front lines, with responsibility for the lives of other human beings, sustain a wound that was almost a dead wound and emerge untouched. It was’t just that he could not paint while he was on active duty, it was a question of what to paint during and after the transition back to civilian life, back to normal. Perhaps because although the friendship with Picasso continued their partnership had broken off, Braque returned to painting, abandoning papier collé. Along with the other Cubist artists, especially the Salon artists, Braque created a recognizable signature Cubist “look.” With Kahnweiler marooned in Switzerland, Braque signed up with the dealer who had stepped forward to rescue the avant-garde artists, who were now marketable in the post-war era, Léonce Rosenberg. By selecting this dealer in 1916, the summer of his demobilization, he gave himself a cushion during his period of reconstruction. Later Braque would join Picasso in the stable of Paul Rosenberg in a more permeant situation, but he began to make tentative steps towards recovering himself as an artist.

Convalescing in Sourges, in Provence in the villa Bel-Air where he, in the summer of 1912, he and Picasso began experimenting with collage. Most accounts give Braque the credit for pasting papers and for passing along the idea to Picasso. In writing of this summer of experimentation, Jean-Pierre Jouffroy in La révolution de Braque et Picasso durant l’été 1912 à Sorgues stated,

Le papier collé – et surtout le papier peint ou imprimé – nous introduit, de force, dans un monde hétérogène. Avec aussi bien des plaisanteries comme ce bout de journal collé par Picasso dans sa Guitare, partition et verre, de novembre 1912, dans le bas de la composition, qui proclame “La bataille s’est engagée .” Picasso et Braque auraient pu se disputer l’antériorité s’ils avaient eu ce mauvais esprit. La nature morte à la chaise cannée, peinte sur un fac-similé de cannage imprimé, date de mai et de Paris. Les lettres au pochoir et l’usage du papier peint, c’est Braque. Cette préfiguration du cubisme synthétique, c’est œuvre commune.

But when Georges Braque returned to the villa in Sourges, he was alone, lacking his long time partner, and recovering from a war that had nearly ended his life. For months, he had not being able to make art, a lack in his life that was ultimately more terrifying than his temporary blindness. Demobilized and finally freed from military obligations, the question Braque faced was nothing less than the future of Cubism and his own future as a Cubist artist. The next post will discuss his return to painting.

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French Artists During the Great War: Matisse, Part One

Matisse at War

The Dark Period, Part One

In the narrow confines of the world of the Parisian avant-garde, Henri Matisse (1869-1954) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) were well known rivals for the affections of art dealers and art collectors alike. Both were associated with art movements, a phenomenon new for the twentieth century in that these outbursts of assertive styles were small in the number of artists and captured the suddenly short attention spans of the art world only briefly. Matisse, the elder, was called the leader of the Fauves or the “wild beasts,” which had briefly prowled the galleries of the Salon des Indépendants and the Salon d’Automne. Picasso was younger and more hungry for fame but had put his faith in an art dealer, rather than seeking notoriety in the Salons. Despite his low profile as an artist, Picasso was considered the leading Cubist, the new movement that had overtaken the Fauve phenomenon. Matisse, whose paintings before the Great War were brightly colored, scored with lyrical choreographic dancing lines, was not attracted to Cubism, which, with Picasso, was monochromatic and sharp edged, giving little pleasure to the viewer while demanding a great deal of tolerance. Matisse’s biographer, Hillary Spurling reported Matisse’s reaction to the work of Picasso: “Of course Cubism interested me, but it did not speak directly to my deeply sensuous nature, to such a great lover as I am of line and of the arabesque, those two life-givers.”

However, as Spurling recounted, the two artists began what would be a long term friendship in the summer of 1913. After nearly a decade of intensely productive work, Matisse laying the groundwork for his Fauve phase and Picasso moving quickly through a series of personal styles before Cubism, the artists were ready to move on and were wondering what their next moves would be. Picasso was on more secure ground that summer, being deep into collage and constructions, experimenting happily with mixed media. Matisse had settled into a comfortable relationship with the Russian art collector he shared with Picasso, Sergei Schuchkin (1854-1936), who was transporting their paintings to his villa (mansion) in Moscow. Both artists, however, wanted to move forward as individuals and detach themselves from their associated movements and the members. Both artists had become internationally well-known, having a strong presence in the increasingly important German (Berlin) art market, where Picasso was the new favorite, and they had been selected to appear in a very advanced exhibition site in a rather provincial setting, Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 gallery. The Great War would interrupt the international exchange among artists when Germany went to war against France, Great Britain and Russia, cutting off Matisse and Picasso from their financial life lines and their most appreciative audiences. The unnatural interruption coincided with undercurrents in their work that would assert themselves during the War. Picasso had returned to color with his collages and his work during the War would abandon, once and for all, the old monochromatic pallet and revel in vibrant hues and vivid patterns. In a counter move, Matisse, the master of color, would spend the years of the War exploring dark and muted tones, especially grays and blacks.

The Great War changed the Parisian art scene, scattering many artists who would return four years later to realize that they had fallen behind the two men who did not have to serve in the military–Matisse and Picasso. Before the War, Picasso had been successful, thanks to his dealers, but his friends mostly lived in poverty until the War suddenly made turned the avant-garde into the heroic pre-war period of the avant-garde. A line had been drawn, hard and fast, in the historical sands. As if registering the end of an era, according to Dan Franck in his book, Bohemian Paris: Picasso, Modigliani, Matisse, and the Birth of Modern Art, the avant-garde artists began to leave Montmartre, suddenly a tourist attraction, and moved their headquarters to Montparnasse. As Franck described wartime Paris, the city was a depressing place:

Paris in wartime, Paris in poverty. The city was clothed in the dull colors of deprivation and restriction. The lamp-posts and the headlights of cars were dimmed. Shop windows were fitted out with anti-bomb tape. People had to get used to new rules. Hunger weighed like a leaden sky over the population..The war cut off the revenues of all the foreign artists living in Paris: the art dealers had left the city, the galleries were closed. The money that some of them regularly received no longer crossed the border.

Within a month, the War would become permanently stalemated and trench bound inside the border of northern France. For years, a war of mutual annihilation and attrition would drag on, draining France of its best and brightest, depriving it of an entire generation of young men, with losses to culture that can never be measured. However, Matisse’s venture into the dark paintings presaged the beginning of the Great War with his 1913 Portrait of Madame Matisse who had once dazzled with a green strip down her face, was now a sad hard gray mask and his Morocco series was notable for the unexpectedly astringent and dour colors. Writing for the Tate Museum, historian Juliette Rizzi, pointed out that these paintings were sharp and straight-lined, indebted to Cubism as if Matisse were paying a visit to the other side in order to see what he might harvest. Indeed the years of 1913 to 1917, ushered in an interim period of dark paintings that seem to have been a bridge to the style he would settle upon for the rest of his life, an approach he seemed to have found in the last year of the Great War. For Matisse, the War was a difficult period. As his avant-garde colleagues went off to war, one after the other, Matisse felt left out and patriotically attempted to enlist. At age forty-four, the artist was too old, his heart was bad, and so he missed one of the salient events of his lifetime, spending the War as an anxious spectator.

Although Matisse had left his home town, Bohain-en-Vermandois, a small city in Picardie involved in textile manufacture, and spent his adult life in Paris, his family remained in the border area, just inside the French border with Belgium. For French people, living in these border regions, the shadow of Germany always loomed. During the Franco-Prussian War, the battle of Sedan ended the reign of Napoléon III near the Prussian border and this region of Picardie was directly in the path of the German armies which deliberately invaded through Belgium and pressed into northern France. During the Franco-Prussian War, Bohain-en-Vermandois was captured, as it would be in 1914 and again in 1940. During the Great War, Picardie and the town of Bohain-en-Vermandois was caught up in this pocket of German advance into France, swelling towards Paris. It was here that one of the early battles of the Great War was fought, the Battle of Picardie during the days of September 22 to September 26. This battle was part of a larger maneuver by the French army–the Race to the Sea–and the French Second Army confronted the German First Army and pressed it north of Compiègne, the site where the Germans would eventually sign the surrender four years later. This territory was also the site of the future Battle of the Somme and the huge German guns gave the area tremendous pounding. A reporter for The Saturday Evening Post, of all publications, was on hand at Laon and wrote of the devastation wrought by the howitzer:

Then everything—sky and woods and field and all—fused and ran together in a great spatter of red flame and white smoke, and the earth beneath our feet shivered and shook as the twenty-one-centimeter spat out its twenty-one-centimeter mouthful. A vast obscenity of sound beat upon us, making us reel backward, and for just the one-thousandth part of a second I saw a round white spot, like a new baseball, against a cloud background. The poplars, which had bent forward as if before a quick wind-squall, stood up, trembling in their tops, and we dared to breathe again.

This then was the battleground within which Matisse’s family was trapped and would remain in place for four years. The Matisses could not get out and their famous son could not get in. To his distress, his younger brother was sent to a German prison camp, leaving their widowed mother alone and trapped in the family home. Later, Matisse’s sons, Jean and Pierre, would be drafted, adding to his helpless worry. All the artist could do was to produce a series of some fifty etchings, portraits, which he sold in order to raise funds for French prisoners of War. While pleasant and marketable, this etchings are not particularly significant works, but they are indicative of Matisse’s desire to contribute and participate in a war he could not fight in. One of the seminal works from his wartime period, French Window at Collioure of 1914 is a stunning contrast to his earlier painting of The Open Window a decade before in 1905.

Matisse-Open-Window e778b64adfe75dfc0cff2b184ab5e8e2

One painting is brightly colored, fresh, full of air and sky. The window is open as if in invitation, beckoning the viewer to stand next to the row of potted flowers and gaze out to the vividly painted boats jostling on the pink waves. The second painting is deeply abstract, the French windows barely registering at the edges where muted blue and green rectangles tilt inward toward a total black expanse, which could be night, or it could be darkness incarnate. The same contrast can be seen in two paintings of goldfish, one of Matisse’s favorite subjects. One, Goldfish Bowl, completed in 1910 was a riot of joyous colors with orange goldfish darting about in a contained golden pond surrounded by green leaves. The only darkness is the black table, seen only in a corner, contrasting with a pink background, studded with dancing green activated dots of color, contrasting with the lazy fish. The second version the goldfish, dated six years later, Goldfish and Palette (1915) showed only two deep red goldfish, floating in a bowl of white water. But this painting is Matisse’s post-war flirtation with abstraction and is punctuated with a black band striping down, touching top to bottom, flanked by blue. The arabesques in this painting are wrought iron flourishes, carefully controlled.


A similar journey into more subdued colors also appeared in The Piano Lesson of 1916, showing the artist’s son Pierre working at the piano. Nicholas Fox Weber in his article, “What’s Wrong with This Picture?” young Pierre who was sixteen at the time noted that he was practicing the “sofa,” which was “the music scale and the four syllables of the tetrachord.” The teenager had to learn the piano, doing stultifying and boring lessons, and attempted to learn the violin too late in life to be proficient, attempting to emulate his famous father who had recently returned to the violin to sooth his war jangled nerves. Writing for The Guardian, Jonathan Jones noted that The Piano Lesson was painted the same year that the anti-art movement Dada was founded:

Greyness dominates and oppresses the picture, and it perversely demolishes pictorial logic, as a depressive mood might distort one’s sense of reality. Thus the same grey colours the view outside the window, the walls and floor of the living room, and even the torso of the woman on the stool – to the extent that it takes time to feel your way to seeing the room as a room, the window as a window. Only Pierre himself is a fleshy, human survivor of this miasma, along with tokens of life: the bronze nude in the corner, the candle on the pink piano top and, like a torch beam, the ray of green garden that cuts desperately across the grey world.


In the article “Lessons of War,” Jones continued, “And yet it was Matisse who created the most insidiously pessimistic painting of the 20th century: The Piano Lesson. In this completely unexpected painting, Matisse paints the death of his own art. Soon afterwards he left Paris, settling in the south and not really making a comeback until the end of the 1920s. It’s an elegy for a way of life, one that Matisse felt no longer made sense – even though in The Piano Lesson he offers a last, desperate justification for the French bourgeoisie.” Much has been read into the paintings of Matisse during the first three years of the War, but when discussing Gourds (1916), the artist did not recall despair or elegy. Instead he explained that the use of black was intended “as a color of light and not as a color of darkness.” In its own way, The Piano Lesson, eight feet tall, has its bright moments, the geometric areas of green and red, contrasted by a streak of pale orange. Pierre’s bobble head is pale pink shaded with a shard of the same orange. See in situ, at the Museum of Modern Art, this painting is far more painterly than its graphic qualities would suggest, reminding the viewer that Matisse was a very tactile painter who enjoyed moving paint about.

The deeper toned paintings continue to dominate Matisse’s work, but far and away the best know of the works of this period, were exhibited at the recent exhibition, Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917 at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2010. Bathers by the River reached its finish in 1916 after years of working and overworking, an series of active intervention on the part of Matisse, who, uncharacteristically, scratched and gouged and punched the surface. He began this painting in 1909, then returned to it in 1913, and finally found the final form between 1916 and 1917. The scrapings revealed the previous and more colorful version of the five bathers in their original brightly colored setting. For some reason, Bathers challenged Matisse, and recent X-ray analysis revealed no less than seventeen transmutations of color. In its final and restrained state, the large painting, dominating in its imposing size, moves from left to right: the bather begins in a forest of green, broken with the now characteristic band of black, leaving the other two bathers stranded on a band of white and a band of blue, signifying the river itself. The bathers are strongly and plainly drawn with great assertion and assurance, as Matisse moved away from curved lines and bright colors and the sheer “bonheur de vivre” so evident in his earlier works.


It can be debated if the dark muted paintings of those four years are related to the Great War, whether sensing its nearness in 1913 or expression the fear and apprehension that descended upon France. When the Bathers was being completed, the Battle of the Somme was underway, putting Matisse’s family in even more danger and continuous danger as the Battle dragged on month after month. Ironically, the safety of his elderly mother depended upon the kindness of the German army which occupied Bohain-en-Vermandois. Art historian John Elderfield explained the these wartime works were done in a period that was “like a black hole in his career.” And the oeuvre created by the artist during the debacle on the Western Front was a substantial one and yet as Elderfield pointed out, it has been overlooked in favor of the received version of Matisse “as an artist of hedonism and luxury, because nobody had seen these pictures.” In fact few of them were exhibited before 1966, suggesting that Matisse might have understood the phase of his career as transitional or experimental. Whatever his state of mind, it is clear that this phase is often neglected, as many historians jump directly to the year 1917, when, as if he can take the darkness no more, Matisse decamped to Nice, where his art changed once again, because, as he explained, “A will to rhythmic abstraction was battling with my natural, innate desire for rich, warm, generous colors and forms,” an apparent to form that will be discussed in the next post on Matisse during the War.

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

Thank you.

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Picasso and Parade, Making Art during Wartime, Part One

Making Parade (1917)

Pablo Picasso during the Great War

Part One

Pablo Picasso was bored. Paris was empty of the stimulating company he had grown accustomed to. His partner in Cubism, its invention, its evolution and its four year development, Georges Braque, had patriotically enlisted and was fighting in the trenches, using guns instead of paint brushes. His German art dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, had been declared an enemy alien, his merchandise, including many works by Picasso himself and Braque, had been sequestered by the French government. Albert Gleizes, not necessarily a good friend, but who was at least a fellow artist, had done his time for his country and had mustered out in 1915, spending the rest of the War in New York, joining Marcel Duchamp in exile. The elder Duchamp, Raymond Duchamp-Villion was also serving as a medic, taking care of the war wounded. Most keenly felt was the absence of his supporter in print, the art writer and poet, Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918), who was actually Polish and Russian and rather old for the military at age thirty five, but had patriotically gone to war to fight for France.

Apollinaire had been the center of the pre-war avant-garde, organizing the artists and creating a discourse on their art out of his studio visits and café conversations with them. Now he was in the 38th artillery regiment, handling the big guns, the famed Canon de 75 modèle, invented in 1897. Now he was part of a team of twelve, six men, each with a specific task, and six horses with one job–tow the wheeled gun. Apollinaire reveled in the physicality of the labor and found enough private time to produce a body of war time poetry. “I so love art, he said, “I joined the artillery.” Picasso was not so inspired. While others had sacrificed their art careers for an uncertain future on the battlefields, Picasso remained behind, continuing his own artistic endeavors–alone. His remaining confident, Gertrude Stein, American poet and art collector, received word of his unhappiness about the absence of his companions. “Will it not be awful, when Braque and Derain and all the rest of them put their wooden legs up on a chair and tell about the fighting?” he asked her, not understanding the realities of war at all.

From the perspective of Picasso, a supremely self-centered individual, the list of those absent was too long. It was as if Paris had been emptied out of its fabled art world, leaving Picasso, a citizen of a neutral nation, Spain, in the city, bereft of suitable companionship.To add to his sadness, his most recent lover Eva Gouel (1885-1915) , died in 1915. When she arrived in Paris, Gruel had taken a new name, Marcelle Humbert, but returned to her birth name at Picasso’s instigation. Part of a complex plot of secret affairs, Eva had been a friend of Picasso’ current lover, Fernande Olivier, who was having a clandestine affair on the side with a Futurist painter, Umbaldo Oppi. It is difficult to sort out the complications but according to one account, Fernande asked Eva, the mistress of Marcoussis, to keep her secret. Eva, instead, embarked on her own secret liaison–with Picasso. One of Picasso’s most salient works of pre-war Cubism was Ma Jolie of 1911, in which he sent a coded announcement of his new mistress. Fernande and Picasso predictably went their separate ways, and he wrote to Braque, “Fernande left today with a Futurist painter, what shall I do with the dog?” Once he and Eva moved in together, Picasso began taking Russian lessons from a Baroness Helene d’Oettingen, who demanded a great deal of his time, leaving Eva at home and coughing. When she was admitted to the hospital, where she would die of tuberculous, Picasso visited her by day and entertained himself with a new mistress at night. When she died in mid December of 1915, he wrote to Stein, “My poor Eva is dead.. she was so good to me.”


Pablo Picasso. Ma Jolie (1911)

Other deaths would follow, but after Eva’s passing, Picasso needed distractions. Without the avant-garde artists within the Cubist circles to compete with, without Braque to collaborate with, he embarked on a new brand of Cubism. This new Cubism, Picasso’s alone, was pure painting, but this phase bore traces of the now discarded experiments with collage and are material acknowledgments of his changed circumstances. First, Kahnweiler was no longer his dealer and, because of the War, the traffic in Cubism flowing east to German clients ended; and, second, once Kahnweiler went into exile in Switzerland, Picasso needed a new dealer to look out for his interests. The problem for Picasso was that many of Kahnweiler’s clients were not French, or to put it another way, there were almost no collectors in France for Cubism in 1915. The Steins had moved on, disliking Picasso’s new works years before the War, leaving Léonce Rosenberg (1879-1947) and André Level (1863-1947) as almost the lone supporters available for Picasso. In their own ways, both men were very significant to the next phase of the artist’s career. It was Level who had masterminded the famous Peau d”Ours auction in the spring of 1914. In this auction, a pre-Cubist work by Picasso fetched the highest price, but the true implication of the event was not that Picasso could be a bankable artist but that avant-garde art itself could be a profitable enterprise. Keeping in mind that Parisian buyers were inherently conservative and historically hostile to Cubism, it appears that Picasso made a decision to tame Cubism for financial reasons. One can deduce the process simply by noting the evolution of his art after Braque went off to war in August of 1914 in terms of what he did not do–mixed media–and what he actually executed–paintings that began to resemble painted collages, large blocks of color offset with stippled textures. In other words, Picasso began doing “Cubism” for prospective collectors and “Picassos” for wary buyers. His experimental period was over, and Picasso would remain cautious about being too avant-garde until he was was well established as a successful artist. One can see his desire to reap the rewards of his years of innovation with an eye as to what prospective buyers would want.

Pablo Picasso in his studio in the Rue Schoelcher 0

Pablo Picasso with Self-Portrait with Portrait of a Man and Roofs of Barcelona at the Rue Schoelcher Studio, Paris (1915-1916)

Indeed, Kahnweiler’s Cubist artists, now “abandoned,” as Rosenberg would have it, were in dire straits, needing to be rescued by a new dealer with deep pockets. Level did not have the funds but Kahnweiler’s only Parisian collector, Léonce Rosenberg, founder of L’Effort moderne, an enterprise dedicated to promoting Cubism, was able to step into the breech and assist Picasso. Although history would consider Léonce a less serious collector compared to his brother, Paul, a prominent art dealer, during the War, his support was pivotal for Picasso and the Cubists. However, it should be stressed that, before the War, the Cubism of Picasso and Braque was available only in Kahnweiler’s now closed gallery, mostly sold east, and thus was more of a rumor than reality to the the Parisians. For this art audience, compared to that of Berlin, the “Cubists” were the Salon Cubists, led by Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger, who excelled in a colorful and conservative version of “Cubism” that the traditionalists absolutely hated. Apparently understanding the already formed tastes of the potential clients, whether he wanted to acknowledge them or not, Picasso veered in the direction of the Salon Cubists and it is out of this wartime enterprise that his work for Parade (1917) is to be understood.


One of the best known works of the wartime oeuvre was Harlequin (1915) clearly indebted to collage, with its large areas of color blocks, the assertive diamond pattern. At first glance, this work is a nod to Picasso’s conservative and acceptable past, the Harlequin paintings of his Rose Period. The now strong and intense colors put him more in line with the Salon Cubists, while Matisse, during this same time, went dark, giving up his former bright colors as if fasting for the War. However, it is also clear that the clown is also the artist, saddened by the end of a productive phase in Picasso’s artistic life and lonely without his “band” of supporters. However ambiguous, the return of the character, Harlequin, would attract another admirer, the poet Jean Cocteau (1889-1963). According the Michael FitzGerald’s Making Modernism. Picasso and the creation the Market for Twentieth-Century Art (1996), Picasso was uncomfortable with being associated with Rosenberg’s Salon Cubists, and Cocteau pulled him towards a more eclectic destiny. Cocteau, like many young French men, served in the military as a medic, a posting that seemed to allow him to continue his work as a theatrical producer during the War. Working with Cubists artists, Albert Gleizes and André Lhote on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a venture that did not take place, Cocteau revealed a willingness to work with avant-garde artists and turned his attentions to Picasso himself. Once he was out of the army in 1916, he joined forces with composer Eric Satie and they imagined a new and thoroughly modern spectacle, Parade, a ballet with American references. In order to make the proposition of a contemporary ballet attractive to the Ballet Russes, Cocteau courted Picasso, who was ripe for new experiences, and pulled him into the ballet project. By the fall of 1916, all the pieces were falling into place, with Serge Diaghilev, approving the group of artists–Léonide Massine, the choreographer, Cocteau, the playwright, Picasso, the costume and set designer, Satie the composer– and their ideas for what would become a Cubist ballet. In a letter, Cocteau noted that Apollinaire was “helping” Picasso, who was moving to a new abode in a suburb of Paris. Picasso was becoming mainstream.

In A Day with Picasso (1986), Billy Klüver described how Parade forced Paris to accept Cubism: “There was a growing acceptance on the Right Bank of the music of Satie..and of the new poetry of Apollinaire and Reverdy, but Right Bank resistance to cubist painting was still strong..” Klüver quoted Cocteau as saying, “A dictatorship hung heavy over Montmartre and Montparnasse. Cubism was going though its austere phase..To paint a stage set for a Russian ballet was a crime..” Klüver continued,

Cocteau in his collaboration with Picasso introduced cubism to the Right Bank in such as way that it could not be ignored. In May 1917, the aristocratic patrons of the Ballet Russes were still not ready to accept the cubist sets and costumes with open arms and Parade created a scandal when it premiered. But the ice was broken, and Parade set the stage for wholesale acceptance of these modern masters after the war..It was through his involvement with Cocteau and Parade that he moved into circles around Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes and into personal contact with the dynamic and influential group around art patrons like Comete Etienne de Beaumont and Mme. Eugénia Errazuziz. They began to acquire his work, and about a year later the quintessential Right Bank dealer Paul Rosenberg began to buy paintings.

This famous ballet, Parade, was described as a “ballet réaliste” by Cocteau and Satie. Short, in comparison to its subsequent fame, twenty minutes of modernity, sandwiched between Les Sylphides, Petrouchka, and Le Soleil de nuit. The company dancers had to switch corporeal and psychological gears from one style of choreography to another. Despite its modern theme, the mood for Parade, a rather antic ballet, was a nostalgic one of lost innocence. The ballet juxtaposed modern corporations and the world created by dull business, especially in modern cities–mainly New York and its emerging skyscrapers–to the unbridled joy and absurdity of the old fashioned circus. As Juliet Bellow pointed out in Modernism on Stage: The Ballets Russes and the Parisian Avant-garde (2013), the characters of the Managers in Parade was analogous to the lecturer for old fashioned slide lecture, speaking in relation to a visual image, explaining its meaning. She wrote,

If reads as film exhibitors or lecturers, Picasso’s Managers further destabilized the relation of reality to representation in Parade. At first glance, these manifestly artificial constructions contest with the “real” (that is non-Cubist) bodies whose performances they announce. But as film exhibitors, the Managers would constitute the live portion of the program, transforming the parade numbers into moving pictures. Without their spoken dialogue, however–which to reiterate, Picasso insisted on removing–the Managers could not securely occupy this role. Moreover, Picasso’s flattening costumes, Satie’s caricatural accompaniment and Massine’s stilted choreography refused any body onstage full presence. Even if the dancers were taken to be live performers (which of course, they were), the artifice foregrounded in this production estranged hem from coherent embodiment. The entire production became a hall of mirrors, a proliferation of corporeal copies that challenged he integrity of the original.

Sitting in the audience opening night, the poet Apollinaire, watched the ballet in amazement and scribbled the new word, “Surrealism,” on his program. The next post will continue the examination of Parade and its layers of realities, so dense that a new term was coined.

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

Thank you.

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The Insurgency of Independent Publishing


presented by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

to the

College Art Association, New York, New York

Saturday, February 12, 2011

A hundred and forty years ago, the art world in Paris faced a self-imposed crisis—or to be more precise—refused to face the crisis. Like most crises, this one had been brewing for years—symptoms had been noted—but had been misdiagnosed as problems to be solved. [1] At issue was the centuries-old system [2] of training artists—-judging and evaluating their efforts—exhibiting their art. [3] It was impossible to imagine that such a venerated process could possibly go wrong. After all, the quality of the French education was superb; the quality of the art from the Academy was unsurpassed. The French Academy was envied and emulated throughout the Western world. The academic system had produced eminent artists and the art was justly celebrated. [4]

Given all this quality work, it was hard to imagine how anyone could be dissatisfied with continuing excellence. [5] Even the most vocal critics demanded to be included. Even the most unlikely candidates were given a fair hearing. [6] The jury system gave all comers and opportunity to be accepted and to shine, achieve fame, acquire wealth. [7] What could possibly be wrong? [8]

To those outside the system of quality, [9] the Academy, its elaborate apparatus of rules built level by level over hundreds of years, for the sole purpose of preserving the classical ideal and the methodologies of the Renaissance, in order to maintain the power of those in charge—-to the outsiders—to those not in the in crowd, [10] the Academy was training students to uphold an outdated status quo, all in the service of a repressive government, intent on controlling the visual culture of France. These outsiders—-mostly a motley crew of indifferently trained painters—-confronted—not a jury of their peers—but a group of old men, who were hostile to interlopers. From the standpoint of the outsiders, [11] the judgment of the aging academicians, long past their prime, seemed implausible, inexplicable, implacable, improbable, unrelentingly ruthless and capricious.

The Academy and the exhibitions it controlled, the Salons, was, in fact, a bastion of unassailable power that ran a rigged game, [12] designed to generate losers, [13] not winners, created to guarantee, not quality, [14] as was claimed, but a great prize, [15] available only to a very small number of aspirants, who obediently [16] responded appropriately to all the prerequisites—-genuflection to authority, [17] acceptance of submission to tradition, [18] willingness to forego rebellion against the paternal figures.

By making the prizes so difficult to achieve, the number of winners so small, the Academy made the ultimate rewards—such as they were—-seem intensely desirable worthy of being won. [19] Many were called but only a few succeeded. Perversely, the young artists, instead of recognizing that the roulette wheel was tilted, that the system was structured for failure, [20] only increased their desire and intensified their efforts to succeed against the odds—not understanding that the ruthless winnowing indicated, not that their art was less worthy, but that the system [21] simply could not handle the growing number of supplicants.

For hundreds of years, the Salon system had built a mindset of acceptance of the rules of this game—a victim mentality that was as unassailable as the castle of the Academy itself. Some artists, it seems, did recognize that the Academy was in crisis—was ossified and inflexible—that the Salon was eating its young—and that the selection system was unfair. [22] These artists refused to play the game, refused to resign themselves to rejection by the Salon juries.

Instead they formed their own alternative [23] to the massive salon exhibitions and the willful and antiquated whims of the jurors. [24] These painters—acting as independent entrepreneurs—as enterprising business people—started their own self-generated alternative art exhibitions. Rather than challenging the paradigm of the Salon, they simply created another paradigm—exhibit your own art, in your own way, on your own terms.

We are speaking, of course, of the Impressionists. [25]

True, there had been earlier attempts by previous artists to free themselves of the constraints of the Salon—David, Courbet, Manet, [26] Whistler [27]—but the psychological grip of the Academic system was so powerful that, rather than being impressed by the efforts of those artists, the art audience was mostly bemused and puzzled. These independent exhibitions were significant cracks in the fortress wall, but the most famous alarm bell had to be what became the historically significant Salon des Refusés (1863), [28] ten years before the Impressionists’ first exhibition in 1874. [29]

The anger of rejected artists [30] against an unusually punitive jury signaled a genuine crisis: there were too many artists for too few places [31] to satisfy the demand for inclusion. [32] Indeed, one mollifying exhibition would not suffice to ease the growing tension between the guardians of the watchtower and the armies of talented young people [33] assembling at the portcullis—battering at the gates. [34]

It is important to pause and consider the courage of the Impressionists. They would be laughed at—they knew that—the establishment would feel threatened, if it noticed the artists at all, the critics who accepted the system would be unkind, and call them names, established artists invested in academia would reject them—the Impressionists knew all that—-and all of these indignities came to pass. [35] True, the Impressionists yearned [36] for validation and acceptance in the Salon but the painters headed for open territory, [37] the unguarded terrain of the independent exhibition, building upon the nascent artist-dealer system. [38] The Impressionists initiated today’s art world.

Although the myth of the Impressionists posits them as the shock troops of the avant-garde of the Third Republic, the painters were reacting to real financial needs. [39] The Salon system acted as a barrier to economic success. [40] The gatekeepers prevented an entire class of creative thinkers from earning an honest living at the trade [41] of their choice and the casualties were not just the renegade rebels. Academic artists suffered as well. [42] The system of enforced failure [43] guaranteed that they too must be sacrificed. They too must fail. Undoubtedly, the defenders of the Salon system had their explanations, their reasons for ensuring failure—-those who were rejected by the juries were simply bad artists who deserved to fail. Really? Paul Cézanne—a bad artist?

The upholders of the status quo [44] would argue that their system was responsible for artistic leaders, such as, Jean-Léon Gérôme. [45] But, in reality, the system had no room for new ideas, could not accommodate artistic innovation, and could not tolerate artistic freedom or new innovations. [46] If the Impressionists had not found their way around the artificial barriers and created new opportunities [47] for themselves, then it would not have been possible for artists in the twentieth century to exist—-even thrive—and find success—entirely outside [48] the Salon system. [49] Pablo Picasso could have been the failed son of an obscure Spanish artist.

Impossible you say? Everyone knows that talent will always be discovered; true art will shine through. Really? The eventual success of long dead avant-garde artists rested upon fragile foundations of arbitrary chance. Vincent van Gogh had a brother, Théo, was an art dealer who financed his difficult younger brother, and Théo’s widow was inclined to preserve the paintings of her unstable brother-in-law who had sold one painting in his lifetime. [50] Other people simply threw his art in the dustbin. [51]

To say that the Impressionists challenge [52] to the bulwark that was the Salon system made it possible for the art of some of the most valued artists of the modern avant-garde to be recognized [53] is to state the obvious but sometimes emphasizing the already known is necessary. Even in the year of our Lord 2011, or especially in our own time, it is necessary to recall the revolution of the Impressionists, for we are facing a similar crisis in art history. Like the crisis of the nineteenth century avant-garde, [54] our crisis is demographic also, an expansion of an aspiring educated middle class exemplified by an increasing number of freshly minted PhDs who are pumped out of graduate programs—but for what future? Reeling from yet another economic downturn, our own academia is downsizing, and to add to this perfect storm of too few jobs and too many job hunters, the entire publishing industry is shrinking. [55]

Are those who are outside the magic circle of the privileged and the published any less intelligent, any less gifted, any less capable, do they have less to offer the profession of art history? Surely the academic system of producing art historians works, doesn’t it? The academic stars are not lucky stars, well situated in the northeast corridor, enjoying unrecognized advantages in publication. [56] These (privileged) people are truly deserving of their success, no argument. Just as it would be wrong to insist that Bouguereau was technically deficient, or that Gérome lacked imagination, [57] there can be no argument that the academic stars have not earned their rewards, their books, their articles, and their reputation for excellence. Therefore, I am not concerned with them. I am concerned about everyone else—those art historians who are intelligent and capable, who have a lot to offer, but have no outlets for publication, that all-important stepping stone to a job, to tenure. [58]

The chances of getting published today are less that of wining on a slot machine in Vegas. [59] There are those who would argue that the current system of publication works perfectly well. [60] But we cannot argue today in good faith that our process of publishing is allowing talent to be developed for the same reason as those who in the nineteenth century could not—in good faith—maintain that the Salon system of exhibiting art was efficient. [61] Likewise, we cannot state that our system allows the cream to come to the top, that only the worthy are rewarded and that those who never rise deserved to fail. [62]

Just as it was illegitimate to make those claims in the nineteenth century, we cannot make them today, because we simply don’t know if we are correct. There is no way of knowing. There is no way of measuring the loss, the lack, the silence of new voices never heard, new words never written, new insights never illuminated, years of training never coming to fruition, scholarship wasted, careers never realized…all because there are not enough outlets for publication. Surely the loss of art historical talent must outweigh any gains. [63] Such a limited field for publication is not efficient. Any system that wastes its best and brightest, allows them to disappear, and fail to thrive, consigned to invisibility, is a system that values status quo over change, supports vested interests over innovation. [64]

Let us imagine—if the Impressionists had never tried—and remember that many of these artists died long before Impressionism was accepted. Imagine—if their courage had faltered—there would be no Claude Monet, no Pierre Renoir, no Mary Cassatt, no Vincent van Gogh, no Paul Gauguin, no Georges Seurat. These artists would have lived, painted futilely, and died in obscurity. [65] Instead the impressionists changed the avant-garde, from the presence of a few outliers to a genuine movement, inspiring large venues for Independent art shows, the Salon des Indépendants–jury-less, the Salon d’Automne–radical–jumpstarting a new way for artists to sell their art outside the Salon system. [66]

Challenge and change are equally difficult but out of crisis comes—-not opportunity—but the willed creation of opportunity. [67] Today the will exists, the technology is available, allowing art professionals, art historians, art critics, theorists to take their careers in their own hands—like the Impressionists—to make themselves heard and read and seen. [68] It is possible to open a new field [69] of cultural production, [70] to run a new game, played by new rules, to establish a new paradigm, to build an alternative system that allows the players to win. [71] And all that is necessary is to forego voluntary psychological handicaps, to give up a constricting mindset [72] and take advantage of the first real game change [73] in the art world since the establishment of the artist-dealer-gallery system for artists.

Revised and updated ending:

Today it is possible to open a closed field [74], the contained field of art historical publication, with independent petit revues or hybrid e-journals, that are open and inclusive, democratic, professional, and dedicated [75] to the intellectual growth and development of art historical colleagues [76] who have a great deal to say and no place to publish it. My website, Art History Unstuffed, and my recent book New Artwriting (2014), are examples of a professional taking charge of a career, publishing on her own terms and on her own timetable and in her own style. While others follow the rules of the Academy and frequent the Salons, it is possible to establish outposts on the frontiers beyond the borders and become part of the small group of forward observers.

You deserve to be heard.




[1] Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production, p. 179

[2] Ross King, The Judgment of Paris. The Revolutionary Decade that Gave the World Impressionism, p.31.

[3] King, ibid, p. 32.

[4] Bourdieu, RA, p. 119.

[5] Bourdieu, ibid. p. 260-1.

[6] King, op. cit, p.82.

[7] Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production, p. 241.

[8] Bourdieu, ibid. p. 251.

[9] Bourdieu, ibid, p. 83.

[10] Bourdieu, ibid. p. 83.

[11] Bourdieu, The Rules of Art, p. 225.

[12] Ibid., p.167.

[13] Ibid., p. 243.

[14] Ibid. p. 169.

[15] Ibid. p. 230.

[16] Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production, p. 133.

[17] King, p. 67.

[18] Bourdieu, RA, p. 148

[19] Bourdieu, FCP, p. 164.

[20] Ibid. p. 164.

[21] Ibid, p. 251-2.

[22] King, p. 34

[23] King, p. 57.

[24] Ibid. p. 57.

[25] Ibid., p. 354

[26] Moscovici, Romanticism and Post-Romanticism, p. 65

[27] King, p. 72

[28] Philip G. Nord, Impressionists and Politics: Art and Democracy in the Nineteenth Century, p. 6 and 7.

[29] King, p. 357.

[30] Ibid., p. 171.

[31] King, p. 52 and 59

[32] Ibid., p. 337.

[33] Bourdieu, FCP, p. 60.

[34] Ibid., p. 231.

[35] Wynford Dewhurst, Impressionist Painting: Its Genesis and Development, p. 35-36.

[36] King, p. 197.

[37] Robert Herbert, “Impressionism, Originality, and Laissez-faire,” p. 25.

[38] King, p. 48

[39] Ibid. p. 26.

[40] Ibid, p. 27.

[41] Dewhurst, p. 33.

[42] Jon Whitely, in Transformations in Personhood After Theory. The Languages of History, Aesthetics, and Ethics, p. 37.

[43] Bourdieu, FCP, p. 79 and 83.

[44] Ibid., p. 252

[45] Bourdieu, RA, p. 157

[46] Ibid., p. 105.

[47] Nancy Austin, “Naming the Landscape,” in Transformations in Personhood After Theory. The Languages of History, Aesthetics, and Ethics, p. 51-55.

[48] Bourdieu, RA, p. 236

[49] ibid., p. 125

[50] See Kendell, Van Gogh’s Van Goghs: Masterpieces from the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

[51] Paul Barlow in Denis, Rafael Carsoso, Art and the Academy in the Nineteenth Century, 20-26

[52] Swinth, Painting Professionals: Women Artists and the Development of Modern America, p. 39.

[53] King, p. 371

[54] Bourdieu, RA, p. 122

[55] Bourdieu, FCP, p. 84

[56] Cown, In Praise of Commercial Culture, p. 112

[57] ibid., p. 127

[58] Bourdieu, FCP, p. 84

[59] King, p. 75

[60] Bourdieu, FCP, p. 41

[61] Bourdieu, RA, p. 132-133

[62] King, p. 201

[63] Schneider, Creating the Musée d’Orsay: The Politics of Culture in France, p. 45, 53, 63

[64] ibid., p. 75

[65] Ibid., p. 197

[66] Cowen, p. 112

[67] Bourdieu, RA, p. 215

[68] Bourdieu, FCP, p. 183

[69] Ibid., p. 95

[70] Cowen, p. 163

[71] Bourdieu, FCP, p. 58

[72] King, p. 372

[73] Bourdieu, RA, p. 249

[74] Ibid., p. 253

[75] Ibid., p. 267

[76] Bourdieu, FCP, p. 106



Bourdieu, Pierre, The Field of Cultural Production (New York: Columbia University Press) 1993

The Rules of Art. Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field (Stanford: University of California Press) 1995

Chadwick, Whitney, Women, Art and Society (London: Thames and Hudson) 1990

Cown, Tyler, In Praise of Commercial Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press) 2000

Denis, Rafael Carsoso, Art and the Academy in the Nineteenth Century (Manchester University Press) 2000

Dewhurst, Wynford, Impressionist Painting: Its Genesis and Development (G. Newnes, Limited) 1904

Herbert, Robert, “Impressionism, Originality, and Laissez-faire,” from Critical Readings in Impressionism and Post-Impressionism: An Anthology by Mark Tompkins Lewis (University of California Press) 2007

Kendell, Richard, et al. Van Gogh’s Van Goghs: Masterpieces from the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) 1998

King, Ross, The Judgment of Paris. The Revolutionary Decade that Gave the World Impressionism (New York: Walker and Company) 2006

McDonald, Christie and Gary Wihl, editors, Transformations in Personhood After Theory. The Languages of History, Aesthetics, and Ethics (Pennsylvania State University Press) 1994

Moscovici, Claudia, Romanticism and Post-Romanticism (Lexington Books) 2007

Nord, Philip G., Impressionists and Politics: Art and Democracy in the Nineteenth Century (Routledge) 2000

Schneider, Andrea Kupfer, Creating the Musée d’Orsay: The Politics of Culture in France (Pennsylvania State University Press) 1998

Swinth, Kristen, Painting Professionals: Women Artists and the Development of Modern America (University of North Carolina Press) 2007


African American Artists, Part One


Part One

The story of contemporary African American art must begin with the post-war culture and the emerging Civil Rights movement of the late fifties. By that time, Blacks were divided into two cultures—the culture of the South where segregation had not eased its iron grip and the more open culture beyond the South, and the pockets of African American life in large cities where they lived as a segregated society but had all their rights as citizens. That said, everywhere African Americans were denied economic and educational opportunities, either by law or by custom. Economic downturns always impact marginal communities the most and the Great Depression halted the gains of the early twentieth century for African Americans. However, the Second World War opened unexpected doors for new jobs, new opportunities and stimulated a new desire to obtain equality.

African American men and women contributed to the war effort but were still treated like second class citizens. After the Second World War, maintaining racist structures and denying a substantial portion of the population equal rights became untenable. By the mid-fifties, African-Americans began a non-violent push-back against segregation, lynching, and violations of voting rights. For ten years, from 1955 to 1968, blacks and whites united to end the shame of inequality in America, and by the end of the Sixties, African-Americans had the legal rights that had so long been denied to them. The next decades would be ones of assimilation into white society, on one hand, and a desire to maintain the unique identity of Black culture and an African heritage on the other hand.

It is important to note that when certain groups of people are deemed “minorities” or the Other, denied economic and social opportunities and shut out from mainstream establishments, any attempt to penetrate the dominant culture is a political act, regardless of content or intent. As was noted in the previous post on African American art, the artists of the Harlem Renaissance were aware that to make art was to assert their humanity. If people of color were accepted as fully human, then they would have to be given their full rights of American citizenship. Even though the content of the art and literature tended to be a neutral presentation of Black culture, the impact of such achievements a mere generation from slavery and sharecropping was the revelation of an extraordinary gifts from an oppressed society.

During the Civil Rights era, the New York and Los Angeles art communities were largely white and, especially in New York, were not political. Art by African Americans was given scant notice but their work was frankly and often scathingly critical of mainstream white indifference to the condition of people of color. By the 1960s, Black culture and African heritage was conveyed through art styles identified as “white” and pointedly appropriated to make an ironic point about inequality. Pop Art, for example, served as a means by which Faith Ringgold played off of the flags of Jasper Johns with her own flags, bleeding flags, wounded flags, signifying an American that was not living up to its ideals. The early works of the New York artist were strong and militant statements about the continuing injustices endured by African-Americans. She painted a number of altered American flags, one consisting of stripes that one could read, with some difficulty, saying, “Die, Nigger, Die.”

Black art power couple, Charles White and Elizabeth Catlett, were shaped by their experiences as a persecuted minority and by the Civil Rights movement. Catlett was better known for her African-inflected sculptor who favored the wood as her medium. White used the exquisite style of Renaissance rendering to convey the lives, history and the souls of African Americans through decades of portraits. Quoted in a 1996 article by Vanessa Cross, White stated,

I use Negro subject matter because Negroes are closest to me. But I am trying to express a universal feeling through them, a meaning for all men… All my life, I’ve been painting a simple painting. This does not mean that I am a man without anger — I’ve had my work in museum’s where I wasn’t allowed to see it. But what I pour into my work is the challenge of how beautiful life can be.

In 1980, Charles White died in Los Angeles, a city that, until World War II, had a very small African Americans, who though the city was paradise. The Los Angeles artists would not have had the same kind of experiences with discrimination as White, for example, but they felt the sting of prejudice. However, the small population of African Americans exploded as workers streamed into the city, taking jobs in the war industries. It was after the Second World War that the Black community began to experience segregation and prejudice in Los Angeles and found themselves isolated in ghettos, such as Watts.

In the 1970s a strong feminist movement in Los Angeles supported the work of women in the African American community. Among the veterans artists was Los Angeles artist, Betye Saar, and her daughters, Allison Saar and Lezley Saar followed in her pioneering footsteps and are important artists today. The elder Saar is typical of many artists in Los Angeles, a city that has a history of object making, rather than painting. Saar is a scavenger, a collector, a bricoleur, gathering elements from Black culture from which she makes installations and assemblages. Her works are Afro-centric, that is, about African American life and history. One of her best known works is The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972). At the dead center of this assemblage is a china cookie jar, shaped like the iconic racist stereotype, the “Mammy” who became famous as the face of pancakes.

As the recent film, The Help (2010), pointed out, African American women were always able to find jobs as maids and servants, employed by whites to clean their houses, cook their food, and to care for their children. These Black women were an important element in the intimacy of the white household, and yet, their employers would not sit next to them on a bus or allow them in the white schools. Saar’s Aunt Jemima, however, has had enough; she has been liberated by the Civil Rights Movement. The “Mammy” cookie jar has a few additions: Aunt Jemima is now toting a shotgun and a pistol. In front of the cookie jar are two pictures, a small painting of a “mammy” with a white child under her arm and a black fist, raised in the Black Power Salute. Suddenly the friendly, grinning servant is revealing her true colors—she is black, proud, and angry.

Betye Saar’s East Coast counterpart, Faith Ringgold, shifted her confrontational tone in the 1980s. Ringgold’s career spanned the gamut of Post-War Black history and her work began focus on her own childhood, which became the inspiration for several books for children, such as the Tar Beach series of the late 1980s. Tar Beach refers to the asphalt rooftops of buildings in Harlem. These rooftops were vacation destinations for the residents of the building, a place that substituted for a back yard. On these hot and sticky surfaces, children could imagine themselves at the beach, the kind with sand and waves. However, as in Los Angeles, Blacks were not welcomed at white beaches.

In a more gentle way, compared to her flags, Ringgold makes the point that exclusion of Blacks from mainstream American life has an impact upon one’s psyche. The plight of Black children is often discussed in African-American literature. At some point, the child realizes that he or she is “black,” not just a child but a “black child,” who will live a life of discrimination. The moment of realization of “difference” or “different” from whites, is a moment of great pain, borne by a very young and innocent person. It is a moment every Black parent dreads. Ringgold, like Betye Saar, was impacted by the Feminist Movement, which gave Black women an extra boost into the art world after the Civil Rights Movement.

Many women began to defiantly make art with materials connected to women, such as fabric. Ringgold began to make quilts, which were autobiographical (she did one on her struggle with her weight) and historical, focusing on Black history. One of her most famous series of quilts was The French Connection. An obvious play on the movie of the same name (about drug trafficking), Ringgold’s “French Connection” is about the traffic in African art. In one of her (folk art) (women’s art) quilts, illustrated in a “folk” style, Ringgold shows Gertrude Stein and her partner, Alice B. Toklas in their Parisian living room, sitting beneath the African-inspired portrait of Stein by her friend, Pablo Picasso. Using the quilting format allows Ringgold to comment upon race and gender, the oppression of women and the oppression of Blacks who are forced to express themselves through rejected art forms: “craft” and “folk art.”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

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

[email protected]

Podcast 62: Pablo Picasso and Guernica: The Impact

Pablo Picasso, Part Four

For decades one of the most famous and iconic works of modern art was mis-placed, waiting in New York City for the Spanish Republic to return. Predicting the horrors of the Second World War, Guernica had a potency and power that lingered long after the mural was finally sent home to Spain. This podcast discusses the long-term impact of this work of art and recounts how the anti-war statement played an unexpected role in the 2003 war on Iraq.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

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

[email protected]

Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad or iPhone.

Remember that you must download iBooks on your iPad or iPhone.

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

Podcast 61: Pablo Picasso and Guernica: The Creation

Pablo Picasso, Part Three

Much has been written about Picasso’s masterwork, Guernica, and most of the art historical accounts focus on the iconography and the style of the mural. This podcast examines the meaning of the mural within the cultural context of the Spanish Civil War. The small town of Guernica was the testing ground for aerial bombardment of a civilian population. Faced with an unprecedented assault on humanity, Pablo Picasso was forced to give up the safety of his easel painting and was driven by the tragedy to confront the toll of “total war.”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

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

[email protected]

Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad or iPhone.

Remember that you must download iBooks on your iPad or iPhone.

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

Podcast 60: Pablo Picasso and the Women

Pablo Picasso, Part Two

Few artists were as renowned for their appetites for women as Pablo Picasso. The paintings of his middle years were veritable diaries of conquest. This podcast presents the women in Picasso’s life—Olga, Marie-Thérèse and Dora Maar—and their impact on his art. Each woman had different personalities and Picasso developed different styles for his wife and for each of his mistresses. It could be argued that his relationships with these women revived his waning art and stimulated his middle age endeavors.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

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

[email protected]

Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad or iPhone.

Remember that you must download iBooks on your iPad or iPhone.

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

Podcast 59: Pablo Picasso and the Making of the Art Market

Pablo Picasso, Part One

Although we accept Picasso as one of the great artists of the twentieth century, he was not born a famous artist, he was “made.” This podcast discusses the role of the Great War and the creation of the post-war market in buying and selling avant-garde art. In order to be successful, Picasso had to be polished as an artist and Cubism had to be tamed as an art market suitable for collectors.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

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

[email protected]

Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad or iPhone.

Remember that you must download iBooks on your iPad or iPhone.

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline