The Last of Cubism: French Artists at the World’s Fair, 1937, Part One

French Artists at the World’s Fair

The Last of Cubism, Part One

In 1929, the French Chamber of Deputies, fresh off their success with the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts of 1925 decided to repeat the fair in a decade. However, by 1936, the world had changed, stalked by a lingering and seemingly surmountable Depression and haunted by Fascism, so that the theme of decorative art seemed inappropriate. After much debate and a year’s delay, the vague theme of “art and technology” was selected. The Bauhaus had been closed in 1933, and, with its demise, the union between the two seemed to end and now art and technology were separated. When the International Exposition of Arts and Technics in Modern Life opened in May of 1937, it was very close to the end of the world. The year 1937 was studded with portents for the dark future that diplomats were struggling to stave off. When Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated in January, he acknowledged the death grip of the stubborn Depression by stating that fully one-third of America was “ill-housed, ill-clad, and ill-nourished.” A few days later, in a similar vein, Heinrich Himmler reported that 8000 prisoners were in camps for political dissidents all over Germany. And at the end of January, Hitler announced that Germany was withdrawing from the Treaty of Versailles and all of its demands, and in April he said that if a nation was of one mind then all it needed was one political party.

Fascism was on the march. In Spain, the forces of General Francisco Franco were inflated by the air forces of Germany and Italy, which, as a practice run for engagements to come, put Operation Rügen in motion and bombed Guernica on April 26. They would be joined the next month by German Condor Legion Fighter Group, arriving for the coup de gras to the Republic. The day before on the 6th of May, the airship, the Hindenburg, blew up at Lakehurst, New Jersey. In the summer, Japan invaded China and in Germany, the Nazis put on one of the last large art exhibitions, one for “German art” and one for “Degenerate Art.” The rest of the year was dominated by the long and brutal war between the Japanese and the Chinese, culminating in the Rape of Nanking on December 13. By the time the fair closed, its purpose rang hollow and ironic: “The objective is to be a meeting place for harmony and peace by not only striving to promote economic exchange between peoples but also the exchange of ideas and friendship.”

Phare du Monde (1937) unbuilt

Meanwhile, in Paris, the city had to pretend that Spain was joined the pantheon of Fascism, uniting with Germany and Italy, Nazis and Blackshirts, and had to turn away from China being beaten to its knees by the ascendant Japanese Empire. The year 1937 was supposed to be a celebration of technological advances since the famously modern Exposition Universelle in 1889. Gustave Eiffel had explained that his famous tower, built for the occasion, symbolizednot only the art of the modern engineer, but also the century of Industry and Science in which we are living, and for which the way was prepared by the great scientific movement of the eighteenth century and by the Revolution of 1789, to which this monument will be built as an expression of France’s gratitude.” The long title that was given in 1937, “The Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne,” did not mean to be ironic, but everywhere new battleships were being commissioned and modern bi-planes were practicing bombing runs, suggesting the victory of technology given over to war. The French authorities put forward a serious plan to erect a new tower, called the Phare du Monde or, the optimistically titled, Lighthouse of the World, which was to be twice as tall as the Eiffel Tower. Despite its name, this lighthouse was dedicated to the automotive industry in France and apparently one could drive up a spiral road winding around this concrete structure to the restaurant on top. Not surprisingly, the building was not completed. However, other national pavilions were finished on schedule and bristled with political messages.

Pablo Picasso. Guernica (1937)

The Spanish Pavilion, one of the last acts of the Republican government and the first and only pavilion the Spanish Republic would have in a world’s fair, was designed by Josep Lluís Sert who asked his friends, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró and Alexander Calder to decorate the interior. The pavilion opened seven weeks late and was not on the official map and few paid any attention to the important work of art inside. Picasso’s response to the bombing of Guernica is the best-remembered work of art for the entire world’s fair that year. But at the time, few understood the significance of the mural, Guernica, and the government was disappointed at the offering. The Reaper, a mural executed in situ by Miró, is forgotten perhaps because it disappeared on the way home to Valencia. Along with his red mobile, symbolizing the Republic, Calder’s Mercury Fountain, which pumped mercury survived and can be seen–behind protective glass–in Barcelona. Writing in Cahiers d’Art, defended Picasso’s painting: “These visionary forms have an evocative power greater than shapes drawn with every realistic detail. They challenge people to truly comprehend the effects of their actions.”

And then there were the Soviet and German pavilions, staring at each other across the Jardins du Trocadéro: two truly horrible erections of totalitarian architectural madness, predicting horrors to come. The architect, Albert Speer predicted, Our architectural works should also speak to the conscience of a future Germany centuries from now.” Somehow Speer had come across the secret plans of the Soviet architect, Boris Iofan, and, when he realized the possible impact of Vera Mukhina’s Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, he countered with an eagle surmounting a swastika topping his edifice. In an article on these dueling buildings, Paul Garson remarked that the German intelligence service had interpreted the Soviet sculptures as “symbolizing a Soviet invasion of Germany.” In his March 2017 article.”Clash of Ideology at the Paris Expo,” Garson continued, “Both building designs were also windowless, with no light either entering or escaping, the visitors sealed within and subject to whatever sounds and sights awaited them. Both pavilions appeared sepulchral in form and atmosphere, although not so intended by their designers, at least consciously.” Today, it seems impossible that such blatantly officious buildings were ever imagined, much less built, but ample film footage of the event, including shots of these architectural monstrosities, exists today. I stress the aggression of the twin totalitarian towers for two reasons: first, it would be Mukhina’s ordinary men and women who would eventually defeat an empty ideology, symbolized by Speer. And the second reason for emphasis would be the work of French artists in the French pavilions, all of which speak in a different voice, one of hope and optimism, bright colors and jaunty designs. And these works of art can be seen, with hindsight, as a picture of a nation that has its head in the sand–of a nation that will be no match for the relentless ambitions of the Nazis, who, in three years time, would march down the Avenue des ChampsÉlysées. In 1937, the two buildings functioned as giant advertising billboards, selling two extremes of totalitarian solutions to the world’s problems—military might or a workers’ paradise. France, mired in anti-Semitism and class warfare combined with ideological rifts, was, like the Eiffel Tower, standing helplessly in the middle.

Post Card showing the German Pavilion on the left facing the Soviet Pavilion on the right, with the Eiffel Tower in between (1937)

The French government was far less efficient in building its own structures, mainly because French workers did what French workers always do when faced with the opportunity to embarrass the ruling class–they went on strike. After years of class warfare–between 1934 and 1936 there were over one thousand demonstrations of some kind–the children and grandchildren of the Communards were slow to complete the commissioned structures. France had been torn between fascism and communism and the Third Republic attempted to find a middle path but the exposition as a whole became a site of nationalistic propaganda. Faced with the sophisticated forces of Germany and the Soviet Union, the host nation felt compelled to present “la Firme France.” The French contributions to their own exposition seem, in hindsight, naïve and doomed in their determined optimism.

Raoul Dufy. La Fée Electricité or the Electricity Fairy at the Palace of Discovery (1937)

When electricity was introduced to the streets of Paris in those last delirious years before the Great War, the people were delighted and enchanted. Some twenty years, electricity was commonplace, lighting streets and powering vacuum cleaners. Raoul Dufy was given a formidable challenge when his sponsor, the Compagnie parisienne de Distribution d’Electricité, the company that organized all the electricity for the city, presented him with the concave back wall of the Palais de la Lumière et de l’Electricité, another building by the formidable architect, Robert Mallet-Stevens. A former Fauve artist whose specialty was charm, Dufy was the last artist to execute anything scientific and he retreated to the realms of enchantment and turned electricity into a delightful fairy tale. According to the Museum of Modern Art in Paris,

“..the story of The Electricity Fairy was based on De Rerum natura by Lucretius. In this composition measuring 10m x 60m, he works from right to left on two main themes, the history and applications of electricity, from the earliest observations right up to the most modern technical achievements. The upper part shows a changing landscape across which are dotted some of the painter’s favourite themes: yachts, flocks of birds, a threshing machine and a Bastille Day ball. Portraits of 110 great scientists and inventors who have contributed to the development of electricity are arranged across the lower half. Blending mythology and allegory with historical fact and technological description, Dufy plays on the contrast between opposites – the gods of Olympus in the centre of the work and the power plant generators linked by Zeus’s thunderbolts; primordial nature and architecture; works, days and modern machines. In formal terms also, hot colours contrast with cold, with the dominant colours being clearly differentiated by zone. This dual narrative thread is resolved in an apotheosis as Iris, the messenger of the gods and daughter of Electra flies through the light above an orchestra and the capital cities of the world disseminating all the colours of the spectrum.

Raoul Dufy. The Electricity Fairy in the Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris, the East Wing of the Palais de Tokyo

And for those unfamiliar with the poem by Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, it begins:

Mother of Rome, delight of Gods and men,
Dear Venus that beneath the gliding stars
Makest to teem the many-voyaged main
And fruitful lands- for all of living things
Through thee alone are evermore conceived,
Through thee are risen to visit the great sun-
Before thee, Goddess, and thy coming on,
Flee stormy wind and massy cloud away,
For thee the daedal Earth bears scented flowers,
For thee waters of the unvexed deep
Smile, and the hollows of the serene sky
Glow with diffused radiance for thee!

In his book, Dreams of Peace and Freedom: Utopian Moments in the Twentieth Century, Jay Winter wrote that

This work of art may be the largest painting in history, measuring in total over 200 feet long and 32 feet high..Dufy accepted the challenge of producing it within a year. And this is precisely what he did, with the assistance of his brother Jean Dufy and André Robert. Dufy listened to scientists; visited workshops, generators, and factories; and then proceeded to paint 250 panels on the subject of electricity. These panels were assembled in a hanger in the Paris suburb of Saint Ouen and were produced with such efficiency that–unlike many other elements of the world’s fair—the ensemble actually was ready for the opening exhibition..Entering the pavilion, the visitors came upon a 20 foot long electrical sparking current, joining two copper spirals; here was the longest continuous electrical current of its kind in the world. This gigantic display was only a prelude to what visitors saw at the heart of the building. Entering a huge hall painted black, they confronted Dufy’s mural on the “spirit of electricity,” a spectacularly colorful and illuminated mural. The majesty of science was there in all its splendor.

A sense of the vast scale of the mural can be seen in contemporary videos of the work, which is one of fantasy and escapism. Somehow, Dufy magically waved a wand and wished away the lurking militarism and the confrontational ideologies poised against each other elsewhere on the fair grounds. Naïve or willfully ignorant and disengaged or comforting in its evocations of fairies, the mural summed up the contradictions of Paris in the 1930s–looking backwards without looking inwards.

The discussion of the artists at the 1937 Fair continues in the next post.

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

Thank you.

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Fauvism in Paris

FAUVISM

One could argue about which movement was the “first” movement of the Twentieth Century—Art Nouveau (1895–1905), which led ultimately to the Bauhaus design revolution and even, arguably, to Constructivism of the Russian Avant-Garde or Fauvism (1905–07), a French form of expressionism, which led to Abstract Expressionism? For beginnings, there is no safe answer, only another question: when did the Twentieth Century begin? Virginia Woolf once wrote that the century began in 1910, about the time of Roger Fry’s famous 1911 exhibition on Post-Impressionism in London. If one accepts 1910 instead of 1900, the century began with Cubism; but in the years before the Great War, the art world was exploding with innovation. In addition to the avant-garde art movements of the fine arts, there were important developments in the realm of the decorative arts and, in addition, there were continuing exhibitions by the mainstream and avant-garde Salons in Paris. The result of fin-de-siècle artistic experimentation was a veritable logjam of aesthetic expression, ranging from conservative to radical. That said, art history traditionally has concentrated only upon the extreme edge of the avant-garde.

By the early Twentieth Century, there were four Salons: two that were conservative, Salon des Artistes Français and Salon de la Nationale, and two that were avant-garde, the Salon des Indépendants, which was without a jury and the new Salon d’automne. The art world was fractured, but so too was the art audience. Most of the art public was still suspicious of Impressionism which was accepted only by a select group of collectors, mostly American. With hindsight, it can be seen that Fauvism and Cubism, the “isms” that racked the pre-War art scene, were extensions of Post-Impressionism. But, at the time, for an audience who could still not “see” Impressionism, these movements were incomprehensible. Like Impressionism, Post-Impressionism was being sold to collectors who took the major works out of France, were they were less appreciated, and into remote places, such as Moscow and New York. The artists and critics, however, did not wait for audiences or for collectors to catch up. By the Twentieth Century, the split between the avant-garde artist and the mainstream art audience was complete.

With Fauvism, a new generation, accustomed to shocking the bourgeoisie came of age. Led by HenriMatisse (1869-1954), the Fauves were termed “wild beasts” for their intense and pure use of color and their untamed sinuous line. They had taken the controlled expressionism of Art nouveau and the passion of van Gogh and combined the powers of color and line with the color science of Seurat and the visionary symbolism of Gauguin. Like the Symbolists, they believed that art would speak for itself in its own language and that this visual and poetic language could invoke a response from the viewer. Subject matter and content, in contrast, was very conservative for Fauvism, which favored suburban and bucolic landscapes. Subject matter played a supporting role to formal elements—line, color, and forms.

The social and political content of Courbet and Manet, which had once aroused such passions, was tamed into familiar scenery, without social commentary, and the classical nude, stripped of any associations with prostitution. Public passions were now aroused by the supposedly wild colors used by the “wild beasts”—artists whose later careers were very conventional. Fauvism was a short-lived movement and would soon be displaced by its un-emotional monochromatic structured counter-point, Cubism, which would substitute tone for color and rationality for unbridled feeling.

 

 

The artistic foundation for Fauvism was the aesthetic activity in Paris at the fin-de-siècle. Impressionism, the dominant mode, was considered by some to be an on-going productive style. The importance of the lingering of Impressionism for Fauvism was that the art public was being prepared to accept a heightening of color and a lightening of the palette. Artists who had adapted Impressionism for conservative patrons, such as John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), were instrumental in widening the acceptance of loose brushwork and strong hues. The Nabis, Edouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, toned down and softened Impressionist colors and dealt with brushwork as pattern, and these Neo-Impressionist versions of Impressionism dominated the art world.

The domestic and intimate art of Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) and Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940) and post-Symbolist art of Maurice Denis (1870-1943) hovered somewhere in between Impressionism, which had no structure, and strongly linear graphic design. This balance and stasis with Post-Impressionism, however, was disturbed by a series of exhibitions. In 1899 an exhibition of pastels in high color by Odilon Redon at Durand-Ruel gallery reawakened interest in the expressive power of formal elements. The Cézanne exhibitions at the gallery of Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939) in 1895 and 1899 and at Salon des Indépendants in 1901 reintroduced an old master to the young generation. Vollard’s gallery also showed Post-Impressionist painters, Vuillard, Bonnard, Signac, Cross, the Nabis, and other Neo-Impressionists. An exhibition of Vincent van Gogh’s work at Bernheim-Jeune gallery in 1901, along with the other exhibitions signaled both acceptance of Impressionism and introduction of “Post-Impressionism,” a term coined by Roger Fry in 1911. Perhaps the final capitulation of the detractors of Impressionism came with 1907 the exhibition of the (Gustave) Caillebotte Bequest at Luxembourg Museum. Although the artist’s collection had been somewhat diminished by the directors of the Museum, the successful and dignified deal had been negotiated by Pierre Renoir, now a respected elder in the arts community.

Two years after the Vincent van Gogh exhibition, there was the retrospective for Paul Gauguin on the occasion of the founding of the Salon d’automne in 1903 and Henri Matisse entered two paintings. The year 1904 was a particularly important one for the establishment of Fauvism with a show for Henri Matisse at Vollard’s, accompanied by a catalog essay by a prominent art critic, Roger Marx. Matisse brought together the intense color of van Gogh and the curvilinear shapes of Gauguin and came out of his “dark period,” his apprenticeship to Post-Impressionism, with an explosion of color. In 1905, Matisse visited his friends, André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck at Chatou in the fall and that summer, Derain joined him in Collioure. It was here that Fauvism was born, notably with The Open Window. That fall, the group that had formed around Matisse debuted the new style in the Salon d’automne of 1905. Maurice de Vlaminck made his debt to the Post-impressionists and his rebellion against the establishment clear,

I wanted to burn down the Ecole des Beaux-Arts with my cobalts and vermilions. I wanted to express my feelings without troubling what painting was like before me…Life and me, me and life—that’s all that matters.” (on seeing the Van Gogh exhibition): “I was so moved I wanted to cry with joy and despair. That day I loved van Gogh more than I loved my father.

Louis Vauxcelles (Louis Mayer, 1870-1943), a conservative art critic, who was appalled by the brilliant colors, named Matisse and his followers the “Fauves,” or “wild beasts.” Seeing the bright paintings of Henri Matisse, André Derain (1880-1954) and Maurice de Vlaminck (1876-1958), grouped in one room at the Salon d’automne, the critic exclaimed, “Donatello au milieu des Fauves.” (“Among the orgy of pure colors; Donatello among the wild beasts.”) Vauxcelles was relieved to see a conservative sculpture, “a Donatello,” among the paintings of the wild beasts, and it is possible he would have been even more relieved to know that the Fauve movement lasted only two years, from 1905 – 1907. The Salon des Indépendants was host to the first Fauve exhibition in the spring of 1905 and last Fauve exhibition in 1907.

The Fauve group began to come together before 1900, and, in the beginning, consisted of Henri Matisse and his fellow students from the atelier of Gustave Moreau and the Academie Carrière or the atelier of Eugene Carrière. These students, Albert Marquet, Henri Manguin, Charles Camoin, Jean Puy, and Georges Rouault, the most famous of these artists. The “School of Chatou,” named after a summer painting site, consisted of André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck, who painted with Matisse. Rounding out the rather large group of artists devoted to color were those from Le Havre, Emile Otheon-Freize, Raoul Dufy, who would also become famous, and Georges Braque, the future Cubist artist, and, joining later, Kees van Dongen. But this short-lived movement came to an end due to the increasing impact of the paintings of the recently deceased Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) and his darker colors and limited palette and the influence of tribal art from the French African colonies.

By 1907 the Salon d’automne signaled the end with the reappearance of figure in Fauvism. In addition to Matisse’s Blue Nude, Fauve paintings and composition were turning away from suburban landscapes in Paris by Vlaminck and scenes of the city of London by Derain and Matisse’s joyful celebrations of light and color in Bonheur de vivre (1906) to something more calculated and conceptual and classically restrained. Matisse explained,

One does not depict matter, but human emotion, a certain evaluation of spirit which might come from no matter what spectacle.

The return to the calculated and classical owed a great deal to Cézanne and led the younger artists, Derain and Vlaminck, down a conservative path. But Matisse used his period as a Fauve to establish himself as a major avant-garde artist. He acquired important American collectors, Leo and Gertrude Stein and Etta Cone, and the Russian collector, Sergei Shchukin began to buy his works. In 1908 there was a Matisse Retrospective at the Salon d’automne, which was also year in which he wrote his Notes of a Painter. This was the year of Matisse’s final farewell to Fauvism, Harmony in Red, was considered the first major painting in which direct color saturated the canvas and submerged all objects to its substance, rendering any other elements submissive to the will of red.

According to Matisse,

…The artist must feel that he is copying nature—even when he consciously departs from nature…

…I cannot copy nature in a servile way. I must interpret nature and submit it to the spirit of the picture. From the relationship I have found in all the tones, there must result a living harmony of colors, a harmony analogous to that of a musical composition…

After this radical statement on the power of color, Matisse then revived the classical, the timeless monumental art that had always hovered just below the surface of paintings such as Luxe, calme et volupté (1904). After his brief flirtation with tribal art, Matisse returned to his roots, by visiting Italy in the summer of 1907. Here he perused classical and Renaissance art and the new influences were clearly visible in Le Luxe (I) and (II) of 1907-08. Matisse now faced a young and upcoming rival for artistic shock, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), who was experimenting with post-Cézanne, proto-Cubism, which by 1910 was now emerging. The two friends dueled through art: Matisse painted his Blue Nude, purchased by Leo Stein and Picasso answered with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. It could be said that together these two paintings ended Fauvism. Originally blue or blue green, Harmony in Red was purchased by Shchukin and carted off to Moscow. That same year, 1908, Georges Braque showed his first Cézanne-esque paintings, first offered to and rejected by the Salon d’automne. Braque’s dark landscapes were characterized by “little cubes,” but despite the critical derision, by 1909, Derain and Braque had already become Picassoistes,” or followers of Picasso. The age of Fauvism was over.

See also, Characteristics of Fauvism

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

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

[email protected]