FOREIGN ARTISTS AND COMMUNITIES IN MODERN PARIS, 1870-1914: STRANGERS IN PARADISE
Edited by Karen L. Carter and Susan Waller
Ashgate Publishing Ltd. 265 pages. £65. ISBN 978-1-4724-4354-0 (hardback)
Reviewed by Jim Burns.
Everybody went to Paris, or so it seemed for a time in the late- nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. By "everybody" I'm talking about artists: "The primacy of Paris as the centre of modern art endures as a commonplace in accounts of the art of the period, even as significant studies have highlighted similar developments in other locales. The identification persists for a reason: although artistic communities flourished in other urban centres - Rome, London, Munich, Vienna, and eventually, New York - from the later nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century Paris was the magnet that drew artists from across the globe."
The arrival of so many foreign artists in Paris can, perhaps, be explained by the impact of the first great modern art movement - Impressionism. But it can also be partly put down to changes in the system of displaying and selling art that arose with nineteenth century capitalism. There was a shift from the Academy/Salon route that many artists had to follow to be accepted to one that depended more on dealers and critics. The change didn't only affect French artists. Foreigners coming to Paris found it relatively easier to gain a foothold with dealers and critics than with academicians and those who decided what would be displayed at the Salons. Obviously, foreign artists did submit their work to the Salons, which were still effective ways to gain attention and hopefully sell a painting. But the opening up of the market surely encouraged artists to see the city as somewhere which was not only the centre for new artistic ideas, but also had a potential for some degree of commercial success. It's also worth pointing to the proliferation of publications in the late-nineteenth century which gave prominence to reviews of art exhibitions. Being noticed was of key importance.
For the painters and sculptors and others who flocked to France one of the main concerns was often how to survive on limited resources. Not everyone was likely to succeed enough to get by on what their work brought in. Some did have private incomes that enabled them to not have to depend on selling a canvas or a sculpture. And, as many of them attended one or other of the various art schools, they needed to pay their fees. The Julian Academy was certainly a major location that had foreign students in its classes. Another problem that foreign artists faced was that of "alterity in their everyday existence. In some circumstances, this alterity could produce a heightened personal freedom and enhanced perspective; in other cases, the results were social isolation and economic need."
It's useful to look at the origins of many of the foreign artists. It will be obvious that it was easier for painters from Britain and countries such as Spain and Italy to travel to Paris. The United States was further away, but plenty of American artists still made the voyage to Europe, and especially France. I'm guessing that many of them were from families that could afford to finance their years studying and trying to gain an entrance into the art world. It was a different matter for Japanese artists. It took them much longer to get to France and once there they could hardly make just a short visit. It could also be difficult for them to survive, especially if they didn't speak the language. There might be some contradictory evidence about the situation for the Japanese. Sakamoto Hanjiro doesn't seem to have been too happy during his time in Paris ("frustration and loneliness" are words used to describe some of his experiences) but other Japanese artists did mix more easily, and several spent time in the art colony at Grez-sur-Loing, where they tended to create what is referred to as a form of "academic Impressionism." I suppose personal characteristics always had something to do with how individuals got along in a foreign milieu. Sakamoto is described as "timid and shy," and not speaking very good French, which probably wouldn't have helped when he was trying to fit in with other people.
To be fair, it wasn't only Japanese artists who may have had difficulties finding a friendly reception in Paris. The Italian artist, Federico Zandomeneghi, exhibited alongside French Impressionists, though he had initially been unimpressed by Monet, Renoir, and others. But on a personal level he failed to develop fulfilling relationships: "here, after a 15-year stay, I can say that I do not possess a single true friend and that I would have to return to Italy to find one. There is no other way to put it; despite the hospitality and cordiality the French pride themselves on, a foreigner who does not have a cent in his pocket is always a foreigner."
Of course, as mentioned earlier, personality might have played a part in determining whether or not an artist found Paris conducive to feeling reasonably content with how they fitted in. The British painter, Gwen John, seems to have led a somewhat restricted life, despite her many years in France. She didn't speak French well, and her relationship with the sculptor, Rodin, may have had something to do with her tendency to stay in the background when artists got together. But she worked as a model for Rodin and others, so must have met and mixed with artists and sculptors, though she's described as a "peripheral figure within the vibrant and international artistic community." Again, personality may have been a key factor in shaping John's experiences. Susan Waller, writing about her, refers to John's "reticence" limiting her networking around the Parisian art scene.
I've spent time looking at the way in which artists adjusted, or not, to living in Paris. And I've focused on some of the difficulties they encountered. But others did have strategies for survival. The large number of Americans tended to often socialise with fellow-countrymen, even to the extent of having their own club (complete with restaurant, gym, and other facilities) and churches. They "wanted to work in Paris for all its educational benefits, but concurrently separated themselves from it to protect their perceived unique cultural identity and moral soundness." Emily C. Burns, writing about Americans in Paris, quotes a contemporary of the artists as saying that if there were traces of bohemianism in their behaviour, it was "a Bohemianism at all times refined and delicate."
There is a novel called In The Quarter, by the American, Robert W. Chambers, which is presumably based, in some ways, on his own time as an art student in Paris (he was there between 1886 and 1893, and there are references in the novel to demonstrations in support of General Boulanger, which would seem to suggest a date of it being set around the mid-1880s), and it certainly doesn't indicate that the kind of escapades that Henry Murger's bohemians got up to were copied by American artists and students. In a way it reminds me of George du Maurier's Trilby, where the Anglo-Saxons are seen as good chaps when compared to most of the foreigners. There is a scene at "Julien's” (the spelling is as it is in the novel) in which a newcomer is being "hazed" (an initiation ceremony) and a bystander explains: "When Americans or Englishmen are hazed by the French students, they make common cause in keeping watch that the matter does not go too far." Chambers' book is said to have been written in 1887, but was only published in 1894, the year that Trilby was serialised in Harper's, and it features a young French singer and, a sign of the open social prejudices of the time, a devious Jew.
Other nationalities, such as the Czechs and Spanish, do appear to have been more at home among the French: "In contrast to other groups of expatriate artists in Paris who mainly associated with their own countrymen when they migrated to the French capital, the Prague artists upon arriving in Paris quickly fanned out beyond the confines of their own group." They were involved with a network of both French and foreign artists, including Picasso, Derain, Braque, Matisse, Jules Pascin, and Apollinaire. More than half the faculty at the Prague Academy of Fine Arts had studied in Paris, so the latest developments in French art were known to young Czechs: "By the early 1910s, an affinity for all things French and Parisian so thoroughly permeated artistic and cultural life in Prague that the historically Czech city seemed like a French outpost."
As for the Spanish, artists like Ramon Casas and Santiago Rusinol had already laid down a trail to follow when younger ones began to head for Paris "in search of the city's unrivalled artistic stimulation and an art market they couldn't find in Spain." Casas and Rusinol had settled in Montmartre when they first arrived and they "examined European experience beyond Spain and were characterised by bohemian and aesthetic realism." It should be noted that these painters were Catalans and as such were concerned to develop an art form that stood outside the normally accepted styles of Spanish art, Catalonia having long agitated for independence. I remember being impressed by the paintings by Casas and Rusinol that were in the large exhibition about bohemia that was at the Grand Palais in Paris in 2013. Casas' portrait of Erik Satie in Montmartre and his vivid "Madeleine ou Aux Moulin de la Galette, along with Rusinol's Cafe de Montmartre, caught the spirit of bohemianism as well as its details.
It would seem that most Catalan artists in Paris did not attend any of the private academies. But they did exhibit widely and submitted paintings to the annual salons. Their work was popular in France, and sold, both in its painted form and as prints. But other artists were not as lucky, and there is a fascinating essay by Karen L. Carter in which she discusses how it was possible to earn a living in the field of commercial art while working on establishing a reputation in the fine arts. The Julian Academy made a point of running classes in graphic design and related matters so that students could produce posters, book illustrations, and other items that would have appeal outside the usual channels of the art market.
It's of interest to note that the Julian started evening classes (cours du soir) which primarily dealt with providing material for the commercial art market. Because of the demands of that market it was necessary for students to have a good grounding in traditional methods of life studies: "The training in the cours du soir emphasised not only the mastery of the human figure but also the "new" technique of rendering a "spontaneous" depiction of figures with psychological depth, a skill that no doubt proved essential for illustrating posters and narratives." Carter points out that many of the students who attended the evening classes did later make "a living in the field of illustration," and that "this was particularly true of the female students" who "excelled at illustration and even outcompeted their male colleagues." If male artists tended to look on illustration work as something of a "secondary" occupation while they "preferred to focus on publicly exhibited paintings," for women, "whose horizons were often limited in the realm of ambitious painting, illustration work provided an opportunity to excel and be recognised as artists in their own right." It ought to be recognised, too, that most artists, male and female, were not innovators or revolutionaries in their artistic inclinations. They didn't necessarily think that turning out posters and illustrations for magazines was a distraction from their "real" work.
Some artists planned for survival in Paris, among them the Italian Gino Severini. He was linked to Italian Futurism, but was also anxious to find a place for himself in the Parisian art world. To do so, he "cultivated a specific (and largely fictional) identity for himself. This creation took place primarily in the dance halls and bohemian underworld of Montmartre where the artist gained a reputation as a dandified and talented dancer and as a perceptive observer of cultural and artistic trends."
There were reasons for Severini locating himself in Montmartre: "foreigners and immigrants often gravitated to the realm of bohemia (and Montmartre) because it was accommodating to their differences. In reality, however, the concept of "individualism" so important to the artistic avant-garde and bohemia was made up of a series of manufactured and self-designed personas that were crafted to fit into bohemia's constant desire to be free from the sometimes imagined shackles of the bourgeoisie. Gino Severini did just this - carefully created and exhibited a version of himself that was in keeping with bohemian norms."
It's only fair to ask if Severini's paintings were of value, or was he simply a bohemian poseur? My own opinion, for what it's worth, is largely based on examples of his work I've seen at the Estorick Gallery in London and in various exhibitions here and there. They often seem to me (I'm thinking of the work from the Paris period) to mix Futurist and Cubist ideas in a colourful way. Or, to quote Flamimio Gualdoni, "A strong colourist, he tried to bridge the two positions in a painting in which the images were structured kaleidoscopically in a juxtaposed chromatic tesserae." Severini's work was highly individual and, in my experience, still has the capacity to surprise and delight.
I mentioned earlier that Robert W. Chambers novel, In the Quarter, displays some elements of the anti-Semitism that was prevalent in France, and elsewhere, in the late-nineteenth century, and early-twentieth century. The Dreyfus trial had hardened opinions. With this in mind it's legitimate to wonder about the kind of reception experienced by the numerous Jewish artists who arrived in Paris, especially after the assassination of the Czar in Russia in 1881 had led to pogroms against Jews, and again after the events of 1905. According to Richard D. Sonn, "In the early twentieth century the artists' colony of Montparnasse on the Parisian Left-Bank was home to the greatest efflorescence of Jewish painters and sculptors in Jewish history." And he adds that, "The bohemian and cosmopolitan atmosphere of Montparnasse made it possible for them to define themselves artistically, hence to evade expectations imposed on the refugee or immigrant."
There were approximately 500 Jewish artists in Paris in at one point, and they were to form what became known as the School of Paris, though that label was largely applied in the interwar years. Obviously, many Jewish artists did not become well-known outside their immediate circles, but among those who did make names for themselves were Chagall, Jules Pascin, Soutine, Jacques Lipchitz, Modigliani, Ossip Zadkine, and Ghana Orloff. Did they all produce what might be called significant and identifiable Jewish art? Some, like Chagall, clearly did, but Sonn says of Pascin that, "It is difficult to identify anything particularly Jewish about Pascin's style or subject matter, other than his preference for portraiture, which might reflect a Jewish penchant for expressing subjectivity." But together they perhaps pointed to the "the range of alternatives available to immigrant Jewish artists."
It's said that "The history of artistic bohemias from the Latin Quarter on, shows that eras of genuine creativity - edginess - may be of short duration." And that's probably true, though new bohemias often sprang up to replace the ones that were fading. Montparnasse replaced Montmartre. Foreign Artists and Communities in Modern Paris, 1870-1914 deals with this topic through the activities of a variety of painters and sculptors who came to the city from many different countries. I've jumped around a little when discussing their experiences, and I'm conscious of not having referred to Polish, Hungarian, and Scandinavian artists who are, to a degree, covered in the book. What is said about them is, as with the other essays, well worth reading. And the whole collection left me feeling that I wanted to know more about the individuals and groups referred to. It doesn't come within the scope of the book, and it might not be easy to obtain the information, but I do wonder how many of the thousands of artists, apart from the better-known ones, went on to carve out careers as painters or sculptors or art teachers? Or did they go home and settle into something else?