By Mary Ann Caws

Reaktion Books. 352 pages. £25. ISBN 978-1-78914-055-2

Reviewed by Jim Burns

There is the idea of the lone genius, the writer or painter shut away somewhere creating masterpieces. And it’s true that the actual job of creation can be a lonely process. The creator is on his or her own as they write the poem or paint the picture. But before that something has fed into their need to put the words on paper and the paint on canvas, and it might well have come from having met with others who have stimulated their imaginations sufficiently for them to want to create a work of art. Poets and painters often like to exchange ideas, argue about them, and even fall out. They also like to gossip and compete. Or, perhaps, just live it up a little with like-minded people.

There probably are, and always have been, little gatherings of writers and artists in all kinds of places, sometimes on a temporary basis, sometimes more permanently. As anyone who has done the poetry-reading circuit will know, most towns and cities have their local groups who get together on a formal or informal basis to listen to each other’s poems and pass on information about possible outlets for their work. And sometimes these groups will start a magazine or compile an anthology. Such publications may not circulate much beyond the locality of their contributors, but they are, nonetheless, a contribution to the creative spirit. They often provide a beginning for someone who may well move on to bigger things. And if they don’t, people enjoy themselves, anyway, and do sometimes produce minor works of art that can entertain and educate in their own manner. “O, little lost bohemias of the suburbs”, says a line in a poem by Donald Justice.

It would be easy, but wrong, to dismiss many of these small groups as largely irrelevant in the larger scheme of things, and they can occasionally have an exaggerated idea of their own importance. They perhaps pale into insignificance in comparison with more-celebrated collections of creative types encountering each other in more-famous locales. The cafés of Paris, the pubs of Soho, bars and bookshops in numerous cities, private houses where patrons held soirées. They’re too numerous to list. And then there are artists’ colonies and the like where sometimes-clashing egos are thrown together.

Mary Ann Caws doesn’t claim to be presenting a survey of all the places where “creative gatherings” happened. Her selection of cafés and other favoured spots where icons of modernism were to be found at one time or another largely focuses on a few well-known areas, often those which Caws herself has visited. It’s worth mentioning at this point that she was lucky enough to have had a grandmother, Margaret Walthour Lippitt, who was an artist and had visited or stayed in artists’ colonies in the United States and Germany. As a little girl, Caws listened to her grandmother reminiscing about the places she’d been and the talented people she’d met. It’s easy to see that an interest in them rubbed off on Caws.

Paris, and France generally, inevitably play a large part in Creative Gatherings. Barbizon, south of Paris, was the first artists’ colony, attracting painters and others because of its surroundings, which could still seem quite wild and even dangerous, and the availability of cheap lodgings. The invention of paint tubes around 1840 had made it easier for painters to work en plein air as it did away with the need to carry paint in bottles and animal bladders. It was also around this time that artists were rebelling against academic restrictions on subject-matter. It’s worth noting, as Caws does, that four key painters linked to Barbizon – Rousseau, Millet, Daubigny, Corot – had either failed their Académie des Beaux Arts exams or not bothered to take them. And they had all been impressed with work by Constable, Bonington, and Turner that was exhibited at the Paris Salon.

If painters congregated in Barbizon early in the nineteenth century (Caws says its importance had lessened considerably by 1875), they came together, at least as young students, at the Académie Julian in Paris later in that era. The list of artists linked to it is extensive and includes Maurice Denis, Pierre Bonnard, Henri Matisse, and André Derain, to mention just a few of the better-known names. I think anyone familiar with histories of Parisian bohemia, or memoirs of time spent in the City of Light, will have come across references to the Académie Julian more than once. Recent encounters for me were when reading William Dean Howells’ The Coast of Bohemia, and Robert W. Chambers In the Quarter, in which some of the characters, American artists, have been to Paris. Caws mentions that her grandmother studied at the Académie Julian. It’s obvious that throwing students of varying backgrounds and temperaments together can result in exchanges of ideas which are sometimes useful and sometimes simply aggressive. Whatever, the point is that places like the Académie Julian brought artists into contact and probably led to the development of not just individual careers but also the founding of art movements like the Nabis and the Fauves.

Outside Paris, Pont-Aven and Le Pouldu attracted painters from several countries. Gauguin played a significant part in activities there before he decided to move to Tahiti.  Caws says that it was a group of American art students arriving in 1866 that got the idea of an artists’ colony going in Pont-Aven. They were soon joined by more Americans, a couple of Englishmen and two Frenchmen. By 1880 or so its fame had spread “far and wide” and many other painters poured in. There is a photo (undated but presumably from the late-1880s or thereabouts) which shows Gauguin and a group of fellow-artists in Pont Aven, all of them looking suitably bohemian. Ideas and opinions were undoubtedly thrown around, though it wasn’t all work and intense conversation, and people had fun, probably drank too much on occasions, and when they could, paid their bills with a painting or two.  What is noticeable in the photo is the lack of women, other than what are obviously some locals standing in the background. But where were the women painters?

Women perhaps felt more secure in the cities, at least in certain parts of them, though they were not necessarily always to the fore when the surrealists were being photographed. Caws’ engaging chapters on “Surrealist Cafés in Paris” and “The rue Blomet, Paris and Surrealism” do draw attention to Paul Éluard’s unnamed wife, Simone Collinet, Joyce Mansour, Méret Oppenheim, and a couple more. There is a photo of half-a-dozen male surrealists listening to a reading by the poet, Giséle Prassinos. And another of Pablo and Magali Gargallo in their room in rue Blomet. It and they made for a seductive picture of a contemporary bohemian couple.

Still, there are no women mentioned when Caws passes through the small coastal town of Collioure in the south of France. Matisse, Signac, Derain, Henri-Edmond Cross, Albert Marquet, they’re all there, but no women painters. The Fauves do seem to have been heavily male-oriented. And only a few women occur in the chapter on Mallarmé’s soirees in Paris and Valvins. Saint-Pol-Roux, Verlaine, Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, whose 1890 novel, Axel, set the style for literary symbolism, take precedence in the list of notables present. 

I don’t want to limit Caws to Paris, or France in general, and she pays a visit to Barcelona, where Picasso frequented Els Quatre Gats and associated with Spanish artists such as Ramon Casas and Santiago Rusinol. They, like Picasso, had lived in Montmartre, and Casas produced what is one of my favourite paintings, “Madeleine”, or as it’s sometimes called “Au de la Galette”, which shows a young woman seated at a table in the establishment concerned (a favoured spot for painters and their friends), a glass of wine on the table in front of her, and her gaze directed somewhere beyond the viewer. It seems to me to be a wonderful visual expression of bohemia, and I was thrilled when I saw the original in the large exhibition about bohemianism at the Grand Palais in Paris in 2012.

England gets a look in when Caws goes to Charleston Farmhouse in East Sussex, and St Ives in Cornwall. It may be because I live in England that I sometimes think there is far too much written about the Bloomsbury crowd and their various bed-hopping arrangements. But I know that many people find them fascinating, and I can see how they fit into Caws’ choice of “creative gatherings”. On the whole, though, I prefer to read about St Ives and the artists who resided there. She focuses on the period associated with modernism, which essentially got underway with Ben Nicolson and Barbara Hepworth moving there when the Second World War started. The town became renowned in the 1950s for its concentration of painters like Terry Frost, Bryan Wynter, Patrick Heron, Peter Lanyon, and others. But it had long been an artists’ colony, with roots stretching back to the late-nineteenth century. A now-forgotten 1904 novel, Portalone by Ranger Gull, offers a picture of St Ives in the early days, and a later novel, The Dark Monarch by Sven Berlin, looks at the 1950s, though it had to be withdrawn when it was originally published in the early-1960s because of threatened libel action by several residents of St Ives. It has been safely published in more-recent years. It perhaps illustrates that “creative gatherings” often have their frictions and fallings-out.

St Ives by the sea had its equivalents in the United States, especially at Provincetown and Old Lyme in Connecticut. Caws focuses mostly on Hans Hofmann in Provincetown, though the town was notable for attracting artists generally. But Hofmann’s classes were popular, and Caws lists Helen Frankenthaler, Allan Kaprow, Lee Krasner, Larry Rivers, Milton Resnick, and Louise Nevelson as among his students at one time or another. Seeing Resnick’s name reminded me that I have a curious little book, Up and Down: poems by Milton Resnick, published in New York in 1961 (though printed in Paris), and inside which someone had slipped a cutting showing a meeting of The Club, the gathering of abstract expressionists where they tossed around arguments and ideas. Resnick can be seen in the photo. They also met up with each other in the Cedar Tavern.

As for Old Lyme, Caws says: “At Florence Griswold House, in Old Lyme, Connecticut, and dating from 1900, the origins of America’s first art colony are clearly in evidence”. The Cos Cob art colony was nearby, and “in 1892 John Henry Twachtman and J.Alden Weir taught summer classes for their students from the Arts Student League in New York”. Other painters, like Theodore Robinson and Childe Hassam, soon followed, and Holley House in Cos Cob was a meeting place for them, along with the Florence Griswold House in Old Lyme. Impressionism was a major factor among the artists, and it’s significant that several of them had spent time in France, and especially Giverny, where Monet lived. Until a few years ago, the gallery in Giverny was run by the Terra Foundation and had regular exhibitions of American artists who had lived and painted in France. I was fortunate enough to have seen several of them, and so become familiar with painters who, when they returned to their home country, were often involved with artists’ colonies.

France, England, America, and there is Germany, where Worpswede, inland from Bremerhaven, “was both modern enough and conventional enough to be included in the movement of the Secession, from the Munich Secession in 1892, the Vienna Secession in 1897, and Berlin subsequently”. If a name is known in connection with Worpswede, it’s probably the painter Paula Modersohn-Becker, interest in whom “has blossomed into a full-fledged cottage industry”, according to Caws. The poet, Rainer Maria Rilke also had links to Worpswede, though his “not drinking and his sort of prudery” didn’t go down well with local artists. It might be of interest to have a look at Sue Hubbard’s novel, Girl in White, which is about an “intense relationship” between Modersohn-Becker and Rilke.

Florence (Henry James, Edith Wharton, Thomas Mann, John Singer Sargent) and Venice (John Ruskin, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Robert Browning, Edgar Degas) are visited by Caws. What I like about her writing is that she has asides offering useful information about novels and other material of relevance. In connection with Degas, she mentions B.A. Shapiro’s Art Forger: A Novel, which touches on Degas and the 1990 theft of works of art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. And William Dean Howells’ Indian Summer for its fictional portraits of Frank Duveneck and Elizabeth Boott, and the American artists, John Henry Twachtman and Julius Rolshoven. I find myself keen to read the books she recommends.

Prague (Kafka, but also some Czech Surrealist poets and painters) is a fascinating city in many ways, though it seemed somewhat grey and dull when I visited it. But the communists were still in control, goods of most kinds were clearly in short supply, and I doubt that the Party would have approved of revivals of surrealism, or most other deviations from social realism.  I haven’t been back since, but I know from the publications of Twisted Spoon Press that many “forgotten” Czech writers are being rediscovered and translated into English. Paul Leppin’s Blaugast and Severin’s Journey into the Dark, and Vitězslav Nezval’s Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, deserve to be better-known in Britain.

Zurich seemed livelier when I went there, and I was invited to give a couple of readings in the city, as well as associate with some German and Swiss poets and artists. I have to admit that my knowledge of it as a centre for modernism was largely limited to what the Dadaists had got up to at the Cabaret Voltaire around 1916 and thereafter. Tristan Tzara, Marcel Janko, Emmy Hennings, Hugo Ball, were present, bouncing ideas off each other. It’s of value to note that Tzara and Janko had arrived in Zurich from Bucharest, and that there was a tradition of provocative cabaret performances in that city (see Tom Sandqvist’s Dada East: The Romanians of Cabaret Voltaire, MIT Press, 2006). Dada didn’t just spring from nowhere. Zurich had also seen James Joyce in residence. My own experiences didn’t involve any Dadaistic acts. I saw an Andy Warhol exhibition, and another smaller one of the work of Carl Meffert/Clément Moreau, a German artist and book illustrator who had left when the Nazis came to power. I also sat in a bar with the artist, Berndt Hoppner, and talked and joked about little magazines and their peculiarities. He sketched out a cover for a publication we would edit and call The Procrastinator. It would, of course, always be promised but never appear.

A publication that did appear was the Black Mountain Review, seven issues in all, in which, according to Caws, “only some of the contributors had any connection with the college”. I’ve only got one issue, the seventh, and it was published in 1957, the year when the college closed. It reflected the arrival of the Beats on the American literary scene, with poems and prose from Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Gary Snyder, and Michael McClure, none of them ever students at Black Mountain. But, interestingly, there were contributions from Alfred Kreymborg, whose autobiography, Troubadour, is a mine of information about previous bohemias and their meeting places, and Sherry Mangan, a poet, journalist, and political activist with Trotskyist connections. His poems appeared in avant-garde magazines like larus and Pagany. In the 1950s he was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. He died in Rome in 1961 “in penurious conditions and almost unsung”. There was a kind of continuity with earlier aspects of modernism implied by the inclusion of work by Kreymborg and Mangan.

The college had been stumbling towards closure all through the 1950s, but it’s more than likely that it’s this period it is often remembered for, despite having been open since 1936 with quite a distinguished cast of staff and students. Josef Albers, Ben Shahn, Robert Motherwell, Elaine de Kooning, and Buckminster Fuller are just a few names pulled from a long list that Caws provides. In the 1950s, with Charles Olson in charge, the emphasis was often on poetry, and Paul Blackburn, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, and Louis Zukofsky put in appearances. The main point to remember is that Black Mountain was a place for modernists of every persuasion (art, dance, music) to come together and compare notes about their respective activities. They didn’t always get on and, among others, the novelist Edward Dahlberg and the critic Alfred Kazin tended towards negative views of the place and its people.

When Caws closes her brisk survey in Saint Germain-des-Pres and Montparnasse the names roll off the pages in profusion. There were, and are, so many meeting places – the Café de Flore, Les Deux Magots, the Café Cyrano, La Rotonde, Le Dome, La Coupole – each with its cluster of poets, painters, models, journalists, and others, and with famous names tied to them. Sartre, Beauvoir, Breton, Soupault, Cendrars, Reverdy – there are just too many to catalogue, and we haven’t even returned to the 1920s when Hemingway, Robert McAlmon  and a whole gang of American expatriates made Montparnasse their home, at least until the money began to dry up, and they drifted back to the United States and, in some cases, joIned the Communist Party. Which makes me wonder where the left-wing writers and painters met in New York?  Something like Jerre Mangione’s An Ethnics at Large paints a lively picture of struggling writers meeting up here and there during the Depression. The WPA (Works Progress Administration) became something of a focal point for dissident painters and poets to compare notes. They also met at the John Reed clubs, at least until the Communist Party dissolved them in 1936.

It would be possible to expand Caws’ selection of “Meeting Places of Modernism” to take in many more artists’ colonies, bars, specific areas of cities, and private houses. During the late nineteenth century artists’ colonies could be found almost everywhere. Staithes on the east coast of England, where Laura Knight and her husband, Harold, lived for a time. The Hague in Holland which gave its name to a whole school of Dutch painting. Concarneau in Brittany where the American artist, Edward Simmons, painted during his expatriate days, and Blanche Willis Howard used it as the location for her 1884 novel, Guenn; A Wave on the Breton Coast, about the supposed relationship between a painter and the local girl he hires as a model. And many others scattered around Scandinavia. As for the watering holes favoured by writers and artists, London’s Soho saw Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, John Minton, and the “Two Roberts,” Colquhoun and MacBryde, falling into pubs like “The French” and the famous (infamous?) Colony Club, and falling out with each other. The fine short-story writer and memoirist, Julian Maclaren-Ross, was often around to observe the goings-on among the poets and painters.

It’s an almost-endless subject. What about bookshops? Shakespeare and Company in Paris in the 1920s, and in its later version when George Whitman was there. City Lights in San Francisco, the Gotham Book Mart in New York, Indica and Compendium in London in the 1960s and 1970s when there was a boom in little magazine and small-press publishing. I can recall bumping into poets and editors in bookshops and adjourning to a nearby pub where the talk was lively and sometimes resulted in my being invited to contribute poems or a review or article to a new magazine, or give a reading at some future date. 

None of that in any way detracts from my appreciation of Caws’ informative and easy-to-read account. She has produced a well-written (and well-illustrated) book which neatly combines the histories of the meeting places with comments on many of the characters to be found there, and reflections on her own more-recent visits to them. She’s not just an acknowledged authority on various aspects of the modernist movement, she’s also someone who likes good food (see her The Modern Art Cookbook) and wine. With the Barbican in London about to mount an exhibition called Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art later this year, her book has arrived at an opportune moment.