Metamorphosis in a vibrant republic

Art in France 1900-1940 - Literature, Art and the Pursuit of Decay in Twentieth-Century France
November 23, 2001

Christopher Green's magisterial study takes as its subject the last four decades of the Third Republic, with the three great Paris exhibitions of 1900, 1925 and 1937 as markers, and shows them to have been a period of quite exceptional artistic fertility in France.

His remit extends from the most conventional, as in Jules Dalou's turn-of-the-century allegorical statue of the Triumph of the Republic , to the most nihilistic, as exemplified in 1920 by the Dadaist Francis Picabia exhibiting a blackboard covered only with a few chalk marks intended for Andre Breton to erase. In his introductory chapters, Green looks at the relationships between painting, history and biography, showing how art was both above politics and yet intimately bound up with developments within the state, most signally in the revolutionary communism of the surrealist manifestoes, as well as considering both the links with and tensions arising from those official bodies that oversaw the national artistic heritage. He also points to the sheer success in commercial terms of certain of the figures whose lives he sketches, and the luxury that accompanied the financial security of Matisse or Picasso is contrasted with the wilful non-career of a Duchamp. The relationship of painting to other art forms was crucial too, particularly with poetry, as was the role of journalism, and of collectors and dealers. While demonstrating the primacy of individuals over movements, Green nonetheless addresses the problematic definition of French art (as opposed to art in France), and the nature and degree of integration of non-French nationals is carefully disentangled.

In the five parallel essays that constitute the central part of his study, Green looks first at how works of art are made, stressing the activity of creation and composition and showing how the governing relationship moved from that between painter and nature to that between artist and viewer, eliciting what he calls creative spectatorship (which for Timothy Mathews will become "the democracy of response"). He then explores such questions as likeness and deformation, perception and conception, breakdown and reassembly, simplification and mystification, before moving to pure painting and the tableau-objet . Thereafter he focuses on the languages and objects of art, considering metamorphosis and the semiotics of cubism, foregrounding an awareness of the arbitrariness of the sign when detached from its referent, and assessing the whole in terms of degrees of legibility, with the viewer invited to complete the work. From there to psychoanalysis, with reference to automatism, but also to sexuality, paranoia, hysteria and fetishism, with words (especially titles) and objects becoming more important as the conceptual takes over from the material.

Green then turns to the rhetoric of modernity, embracing science, photography and urbanism, but also to issues of gender and class, before considering tradition and the French nation, and examining the conflict between an aggressive Latinity and the evolution of an "ethos of assimilation", notably in respect of artists of Jewish origin. Finally he addresses resistance to modernity and civilisation in the form of the naif, the primitive and the infantile, but also the counter-cultural, the erotic and the iconoclastic, leading to a deliberate refusal of coherence and to the liberating forces of a "playful science". The whole is revelatory art history, accessible to the non-specialist and guaranteed to make every visit to a show of these astonishing pieces redouble in enjoyment and reward.

If Green charts the trajectory from magic to bassesse , Mathews's intense and ambitious series of essays in many respects serves as an unwitting commentary on certain features of the aesthetic as it has emerged, and several works of art, together with their psychoanalytical underpinnings, are common to the two studies: Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon and Guernica , Miró's Catalan Landscape ( The Hunter ) or Duchamp's Large Glass , which, as the ultimate self-referential irony, was smashed in transit from America to France. The paintings with which Mathews engages are those by Picasso, Magritte and, most disturbing of all, Jean Fautrier's gruelling sequence known as Les Otages , of which certain images are reproduced, and which pose the central question underlying the violent history following 1940 as to how art responds to extremes of inhumanity. These are complemented by a comparison of the mobile and protean figure of Harlequin in Apollinaire with the narcissism of Picasso's early Young Acrobat on a Ball , and a charting of the progressive fragmentation of Roland Barthes's writing as it projects " l'imaginaire ", culminating in a reading of the Fragments d'un Discours Amoureux as a "text which surveys its own decomposition". In the remaining three chapters, Robert Desnos's automatism parallels that of such artists as Miró as he seeks to " se saisir d'un regard qui n'est pas le sien " ("capture himself with a glance that is not his own"), and as the play of sound and image conspires to wipe out meaning; Marguerite Duras achieves mobility of response by constriction; and Genet exploits an erotic fascination with collapse. Mathews's writing is dominated by the concepts of creative decay and of the ludic, but also by such contextual antonyms as system and dream, abjectness and delicacy, asphyxia and transcendence, alienation and attraction, creativity and despair and, above all, narcissism and generosity.

Both writers display exceptional dexterity in the analysis of individual works of art, and each places such close reading in the context (history or theory) of his discipline. Green writes patiently, in some respects as a teacher, whereas Mathews's prose is by turns allusive, dense and exuberant, and his study is a book for initiates; but both demonstrate magnificently the paradoxical fertility of picturesque decay, and it is no coincidence that Mathews's epilogue looks back to Baudelaire - the first modern, because the first to articulate the possibility of Les Fleurs du Mal .

Richard Parish is professor of French, University of Oxford.

Art in France 1900-1940

Author - Christopher Green
ISBN - Richard Parish
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £50.00
Pages - 321

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments