When art was just one city

July 26, 2002

This magnificent tome is essentially the catalogue of an exhibition held earlier this year at the Royal Academy. It contains 250 gloriously reproduced works by more than 200 artists and nine illuminating essays by Sarah Wilson (the curator with Norman Rosenthal and Ann Duma) and other art historians, which conduct the reader on a guided tour of the cité lumière , where artists from all over the world lived, worked and thrived.

What makes a city the epicentre of artistic creativity at a given moment is a mystery. When Michelangelo left Florence at the pope's invitation, the centre of creative gravity shifted to Rome. By 1600, the papal city could boast artists as varied as Caravaggio, Poussin, Rubens and the Gentileschis working under the patronage of the pope and his cardinals. Paris was different: artists flocked to it for its beauty and pleasures, its freedom and openness. It was where they could find cheap accommodation and live la vie de Bohème , untrammelled by social conventions and political restrictions.

The story goes back to the 19th century, when Baron Haussmann cleared the centre of Paris and laid down the grands boulevards , but the book takes up the story with Picasso's arrival in the city for the Universal Exhibition of 1900, which attracted 51 million people, and ends with the students' revolt of May 1968. By then, Paris had already lost its crown to London and New York.

Like the exhibition, the book follows the city's "legendary topography" through four quartiers - Montmartre, Montparnasse, St Germain-des-Prés and the Latin Quarter - that correspond to major artistic developments. By 1900, Montmartre, spread on a hill around the Sacré Coeur with a superb view over the town, had already been made famous by Ingres and Degas, who lived there, and Toulouse-Lautrec, who frequented its cabarets and painted their denizens. Here, in 1907, Picasso produced Les Demoiselles d'Avignon , based on his sketches of prostitutes, and ushered in a new era. Paris became the crucible of modernity, where cubism, fauvism, surrealism and a host of lesser "isms" were created and flourished, a mecca for artists from all over the world. Chagall's touching Paris through the Window (1913) captures Paris as the dream city of freedom and romance.

By the 1910s, Montmartre had become too expensive and touristy, and the art scene moved to Montparnasse on the Left Bank, described by Apollinaire as "a haven of beauty and simplicity". Hemingway called the inter-war years in Montparnasse "a movable feast", a hedonistic paradise teeming with artists and writers of all nationalities. Some of the lieus de mémoire he celebrated - the Dôme, the Closerie des Lilas - remain, but the brothels that inspired Chaim Soutine's haunting pictures are long gone.

It was here in 1924 that Andre Breton launched the surrealist movement with his Manifeste du Surréalisme . This gave priority to "pure psychic automatism... the absence of all control by Reason", to shock the bourgeoisie out of their complacency. Within a year, the first surrealist group exhibition brought together artists such as Miróand Dali from Spain, Ernst from Germany, Magritte from Belgium, de Chirico from Italy and Man Ray from America, among others. The same year, the " Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels " launched the movement known as art deco, which, at its best, sought to combine modernity and tradition. Paris became the capital of the decorative arts. It reached the apogee of its glory with the " Exposition Internationale des Arts et des Techniques dans la Vie Moderne " in 1937, in which 42 nations participated.

Then came the catastrophe: war and occupation. The Nazis pillaged the art collection and organised autos-da-fé of works by "degenerate" artists. Many artists fled to America - Chagall, Léger, Ernst - but Picasso stayed. He moved to a studio in St Germain-des-Pres, where he worked through the war, protected by his stature. After the Liberation, many exiles returned to Paris - Chagall and Leger among them - but some of the pioneers, such as Mondrian and Delaunay, had died, and the war had changed the artists and their work: Picasso exhibited his Le Charnier ( Charnel House ), which symbolised the war as Guernica had done the Spanish civil war, while Giacometti's emaciated figures were described by Sartre as "fleshless martyrs of Buchenwald".

It is said that the decline of Paris as the arts capital of the western world was due to art's becoming "one of the most public domestic forums of the cold war", as Wilson points out in her perceptive essay. The dominance of the Communist Party, with such prestigious members as Picasso and Léger, alienated other artists whose abstract art was rejected as "bourgeois", "uncommitted". The atmosphere was no longer congenial to experimentation and novelty, and the art scene moved to freer pastures - London and New York.

It is hard to see what can be salvaged from the 1960s, except pop posters and collages, affiches lacérées , alluding to the Nazi posters that were torn and defaced by the Resistance. The politicisation of art meant that the past was rejected in its entirety, even Dada and surrealism, as the students took to the barricades, encouraged by their Marxist gurus, Louis Althusser, Herbert Marcuse and others.

On the whole, the Paris art scene was a man's world; women were mostly models, muses and lovers. Yet there were highly talented women artists who produced works of great originality. Marie Laurencin and Suzanne Valadon in Montmartre, Tamara de Lempicka and Sonia Delaunay in Montparnasse, to mention a few. Laurencin was both muse and artist - Apollinaire was her lover, and wrote " Le Pont Mirabeau ", one of his most beautiful poems, for her at their parting.

Inevitably, there are regrettable omissions in this book, such as the Chinese Zao Wu Ki and the Persian Nasser Assar, who represented France at the Biennales in the 1960s and was much admired by Francis Bacon. Still, this is a book to treasure and relish.

Shusha Guppy is London editor, The Paris Review .

Paris: Capital of the Arts 1900-1968

Author - Sarah Wilson et al
ISBN - 0 900946 98 9
Publisher - Royal Academy Publications
Price - £45.00
Pages - 448

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