Paris Without End: On French Art Since World War I

Paris Without End: On French Art Since World War I

by Jed Perl


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This brilliant blend of history, biography, and criticism explores the seminal figures of twentieth-century French art—Matisse, Picasso, Derain, Léger, Dufy, Braque, Giacometti, Balthus, and Hélion—and the vital art world in which they thrived.

The ten interlocking essays in this important book include radical new evaluations of Derain, Léger, and Dufy, and penetrating studies of the final works of Picasso and Braque. Paris Without End, Jed Perl’s first book, is now celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary and is essential reading for anyone passionate about modern art.

Roberta Smith called it “a quiet, cogent tour de force. . . . As one critic’s demonstration of what he considers the best in art and the best way to write about it, this book sets a high standard.”

Hilton Kramer also noted, “Everyone who cares about the art of the twentieth century will find something to disagree with in this book—its many unorthodox judgments are bound to be controversial—but that, in my view, is a mark of the book’s importance.”

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781611459005
Publisher: Arcade
Publication date: 06/24/2014
Series: Artists & Art Series
Edition description: Anniversary
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Jed Perl is the author of the acclaimed New Art City, Magicians and Charlatans, Eyewitness, Antoine’s Alphabet, and Gallery Going. He writes a regular column for the New Republic, and his essays have appeared in such magazines as Vogue, Art in America, Harper’s, and elsewhere. He is currently writing the first full-length authorized biography of Alexander Calder and resides in New York City.

Read an Excerpt



The Cathedral and the Odalisque

For many years Matisse had a studio on the Quai St. Michel, with windows overlooking the Seine and the facade and towers of Notre Dame on the Cité. The paintings that Matisse did of Notre Dame between the beginning of the century and his departure for Nice toward the end of World War I have become famous for the way they dissolve a classic view into ever more radical designs. In 1900 the towers turn green against a pinkish sky; in 1914 the whole facade is reduced to a few black lines inscribed on a surface of deep, glowing blue. It's easy to forget, as we look at these daring modern compositions, that Matisse's eyes were focused on one of the masterpieces of French Gothic architecture. During the French Revolution the anticlerical mobs had virtually obliterated the thirteenth-century sculpture on the facade; but the beauty of Notre Dame endured, and for Matisse Notre Dame's fine Gothic proportions — the whole west front like a great abstract bas-relief — had a wonderful resonance. As he wreaked his changes on the old cathedral, he was also finding his way into the heart of the heart of the French tradition. From the Quai St. Michel, Matisse looked out at the original Paris of the Cité, with its history going back to early Christian times.

We tend to think of modern art as being born in the Paris of the late nineteenth century, with its circuses and gas lights and dance halls, but the roots of modern art also reach deeper — into the merger of north and south, the Gallic and the Roman, that had fertilized France for a thousand years. This confluence of north and south can be seen in the very center of the Grand Gallery of the Louvre, where Louis Le Nain, the painter of the comfortable, matter-of-fact farmer class of France, confronts Nicolas Poussin, who brought into French art for all time the south, with its gods and classical geometries. Le Nain and Poussin balance one another. In Le Nain's northern verisimilitude there's a hint of the sensuous three-dimensionality of classical sculpture, while Poussin's Greco-Romanism is shaped by a Frenchman's cool intelligence. To come to Paris at the beginning of the twentieth century was to come not just to Cézanne, but to the longest living artistic history that Europe had to offer. Picasso lived for some years in a seventeenth-century building on the rue des Grands-Augustins, a building that figures in Balzac's Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu; and during World War II Picasso wandered along the Seine, and painted Notre Dame and the bridges, and the Cité with its little park, Le Vert-Galent, and its monument to Henri IV.

In 1945 an interviewer asked Matisse to speak about the Frenchness of French art, and the old man replied, "Moderation is the characteristic of French art. It is found everywhere in France." He went on to tell how, when he had been abroad recently, a foreigner had said, "How lucky you are to return to Paris where everything is so beautiful and so fine." At first Matisse was skeptical about the claims this foreigner was making for Paris. "In returning to my home I am going to pass by the avenue de l'Opéra," he said. "I don't see what it can have that is particularly French; it seems to me that this character of the street is everywhere." But, Matisse concluded, "This foreigner was right. In this avenue which appeared to have grown up a little haphazardly, all was well-placed. ... I could breathe an air of tranquility." Tranquility, moderation: these are at the center of the French artistic experience. They're what pull the barrier-breaking Fauve to focus on an old gray Gothic facade; and they're what cool the heat of Picasso's expressionism, and push it toward larger and larger miracles of form.

There's something infinitely reliable at the center of French art; something that attracts artists, that they want to make contact with. In painting as in literature it has to do with the example of the Academy: the long line of history, officially sanctioned, which may not always sponsor the greatest masterpieces, yet gives form to the succession of styles, images, ideas. The Academy is a conservative institution — in the best sense, and, increasingly after 1825, in the worst sense of the word. Modern art defined tradition outside of the Academy; but where would modern art have been without the Academy to take its stand against? For the modern artist tradition consists of many separate trajectories, all ultimately intertwined. Matisse's great comment about Ingres and Delacroix: "They forged the same links in the chain." And of course Delacroix, the romantic, had written in his journal after seeing Courbet's Artist's Studio, which had been turned down by the jury of the International Exposition of 1855: "I ... discovered a masterpiece in the picture which they rejected; I could scarcely bear to tear myself away." In history — the mental history of tradition, which is given material form in the galleries of the Louvre — the bad always falls away; great opposites eventually converge; and the cause of beauty is carried along.

The artists of early twentieth-century Paris — the major ones among them — had the confidence that arises from coming into this great patrimony without much of a struggle. As Gertrude Stein wrote, "Paris, France is exciting and peaceful." Paris, because of its centrality, gave artists the strength to be intuitive, skeptical, ferociously individualistic. Paris was a place, but also an idea, liberating in its largeness. And so it was in Paris that most of the essential revolutions of twentieth-century art had their beginnings.

Matisse, Braque, and Picasso led the world into abstraction. But the character of the Parisian mind made it inevitable that these artists would recoil from abstract art as soon as the denial of nature suggested aspirations that veered too much toward the mystical or sublime. A discomfort with the process of abstraction begins to show itself in the French avant-garde in the years around World War I. Increasingly, the paintings of the pioneering generation turn naturalistic, as well as pale-complexioned, silver-toned. Cubism had already had a gray-and-tan period; but the new subdued style — which is disrupted by flashes of overly bright color, like party makeup put on in a pinch — is more self-conscious, more a carefully prepared pose. The elegant grays that unite much of the new work of Braque, Derain, Léger, Matisse, and Picasso call to mind something polished, beautifully designed: a figure composition by the eighteenth-century painter David, or a late landscape by Corot. And the retrospective glance of the modern artist, who has already reformed tradition by his own hand, is interesting precisely because it suggests misgivings, second thoughts, unease. In the work of artist after artist, the elements of the natural world, broken up in the Cubist years, come back together into more easily recognizable forms. The new style can accommodate Léger's machine-age men and women; Picasso's crisply outlined Grecian types; and Derain's and Matisse's studio interiors and landscapes, with their thinned-out pigments and their reminiscences of a sun-bleached southern afternoon. All of this is in some way neoclassical, and like much neoclassicism, it's fueled by a melancholy sense that the present can never quite measure up to the past.

For the artists who made their mark before the war, the twenties didn't necessarily bring a falling-off in quality; tastes, though, were turning eclectic, nostalgic. A new generation — the generation of Mondrian and Kandinsky — was pressing forward with abstraction, and pressing the cause of modern art beyond Paris, in Holland, Germany, Russia. In Paris the social setting of advanced art was becoming more complex. Matisse and Picasso were aware that for the first time they were reaching a wide audience, and it's unclear whether their increasingly frequent reversions to nature were cause or effect. In the prewar period there had been a small group of dealers, collectors, and connoisseurs — Apollinaire, Jacob, Kahnweiler, the Steins, Vollard — with an idiosyncratic outlook and a willingness to stand up to popular taste. The fashionable figures who took up the banner of the avant-garde during and after the war are more difficult to appraise. Cocteau, Diaghilev, Poiret, Misia Sert are somewhat masked by their high-society ties, by their obsession with chic. Still, critics who see the radicalism of the prewar Parisian avant-garde as moving toward conservatism in the postwar years probably miss the extent to which the artists, many on the brink of middle age, were undergoing a valuable process of reevaluation and self-renewal.

The artistic bohemia of the early years of the century had had its own rigid conventions, and by the time of the war many of the principal artists were restless, weary of the round of life in Montmartre and Montparnasse. World War I ushered in a period that looked back to a lost simplicity, had a taste for the voluptuous, and delighted in the surfaces of things. It was time to live a life of fashion and luxury, with overtones of the world of Fragonard, of Watteau. Some were curious about Italy and about Rome, "a city made of fountains, shadows and moonlight," which Picasso visited in 1917 with Jean Cocteau and the Ballets Russes. By 1918 Picasso had taken up the life of a gentleman on the rue La Boétie, near the newly fashionable galleries of Paul Guillaume and the brothers Léonce and Paul Rosenberg. And Matisse, at the end of the war, had loosened his ties with the city's avant-garde, and was spending a good deal of the year in the resort world of the Côte d'Azur.

In Matisse's paintings of the early twenties the young women who sit in the Nice hotel rooms and apartments where the artist is making his home actually look a bit depressed, as if they've endured too many of these long, dull mornings and afternoons. The model's quiet mood may mirror some feeling on the part of the artist; but then again Matisse doesn't particularly emphasize her blank-eyed stare. We're intrigued by a mismatch between the subject of the bored young woman, the old-fashioned interior with its shutters overlooking the promenade des Anglais, and what might be called the content, which is Matisse's excitement at being able to paint all of this. We know he's excited because he's painting so many variations on each Niçoise theme. He's trying things every way possible, studying the model, the shutters, the view, from many angles, at many times of the day.

Matisse, the great revolutionary who only fifteen years earlier had ripped the mask of naturalism from art, may be playing a bit of the devil's advocate as he puts the mask ever so gently back on. He paints landscapes in the silvery greens and grays of Corot, as if to suggest that the Impressionists were wrong about the colored shadows. He doubles back into the methods of the first half of the nineteenth century, and this return must be reckoned with, even if we've arrived at the paintings with the idea firmly planted in our minds that the past is open, that there's no reason not to work in the old way. But then, of course, it's not "the old way." Who had ever painted landscapes from the inside of a car, as Matisse did toward the end of the war years, or oscillated between modelled and unmodelled form as speedily, from painting to painting, month to month? The head of the artist's daughter in Portrait of Marguerite Asleep, obviously based on the somnolent women of Courbet (one version of which Matisse owned), is a tour de force of gray-tan-white sculpted flesh. The difficult transitions from the neck to the chin and then up and around the cheekbones are masterfully done; and yet the flatness of the elements around the head (the bedclothes, the pillows, the patterns on the pale yellow wallpaper) and the immediacy of the brushwork keep reminding us that this isn't Courbet, isn't the nineteenth century. You can feel jangled in front of this painting, caught between thoroughly modern passages, and others that push the image into the distant past. This jumbling together of periods, styles, manners is frequently nowadays called "postmodern," but of course the date on the painting is 1920.

Portrait of Marguerite Asleep, which was in the National Gallery of Art's magnificent 1986–87 show, "Henri Matisse: The Early Years in Nice," had been exhibited only once in the past thirty years, and hadn't been illustrated in a book in a quarter of a century. This is by no means atypical of the Matisse paintings of the early twenties — really all of the twenties — and thus the simple fact of the National Gallery's enormous exhibition (171 paintings) was a kind of miracle, a crown atop the group of shows that in the previous half-decade had been devoted to the School of Paris since World War I. The National Gallery show was specked and dabbed and then, in its latter part, packed with masterpieces. The final three rooms, containing the deeply colored interiors and odalisques of the second half of the decade, were as dazzling as the treasury of a medieval cathedral.

"Matisse: The Early Years in Nice" was organized in the name of scholarship — to complete the record. The curators, who probably wouldn't have considered the project fifteen years ago, may in some half-conscious way have believed themselves to have awakened in the morning after modernism; but they hadn't, at least from the evidence of the catalogue they produced, really stopped to analyze this feeling. They'd just put the dates in order and let the museum officials get the publicity mills rolling. That the forgotten "anti-modern" Matisse of the twenties should after all these years have received the blockbuster treatment was surely as strange as its having happened to poor, mad van Gogh. Here was Matisse trying things, questioning everything about his art except the necessity of going on, switching manners with ferocious speed. And one wanted to get in tune with all of this. But the atmosphere of the show, with its tape-recorded tour by the museum director and its people hawking things at the end, thrust the work too far into the limelight, and was out of tune with the artist's introspective mood. It wasn't only that there were too many people at the National Gallery, many of whom had come expecting another Matisse — the Matisse who simplifies everything and flattens everything out. There may also have been too many paintings hanging in one place at one time. For those of us who'd been thinking about these paintings for years, the show had the impact of something that had been simmering, suddenly turned onto high and boiled, boiled, boiled.

Matisse had painted a series of pictures of the model in the studio on the Quai St. Michel overlooking the Seine in 1916–17, and he continued with this motif in the hotel room on the promenade des Anglais, where outside the window there was the narrow Mediterranean beach with its occasional palm trees. ("Palm trees," Nabokov says, "are all right only in mirages.") There she is: the model in the room, or, when Matisse's daughter Marguerite visits, two women in the room. The scenery is unexceptional, a trifle fusty. The furniture gets moved around a bit; the shutters are opened or closed; the women look out the window, sit on the balcony; the light varies, from blue to gold. The model's face, though occasionally smiling, more often has the abstracted look of the professional doing a job. She's sitting, standing, reclining by the hour, pinned to a place (by the window overlooking the Mediterranean or, later in the decade, amid the Moroccan draperies) that is clearly not her own. Though many of the poses the model takes during the early years in Nice are fairly simple, any pose is difficult to hold for a prolonged period of time, and a certain sense of strain is reflected in the woman's resigned mood. There's often an uneasy relationship between the model and her environment. Matisse has no interest in ordinary life. He's a middle-aged man studying the alien beauty of youth.

Matisse's matter-of-fact approach gives the paintings — and even more so some of the drawings — an amazing erotic potency. Nipples, breasts, thighs are caressed, petted with the brush or pencil or pen. He parallels effects we know from pornography, but unlike the pornographic artist, who deals in predetermined types, Matisse is constructing each form from the bone and muscle up. In the fabulously detailed lithographs of odalisques from the mid-twenties, Matisse is in love with every part, and must attempt the complete nude. Matisse takes the woman over (he's the master) but he's also the model's slave (the harem girl's slave), giving full value to her every turn.

Certainly you'd have to go back to Watteau to match the small-scale intensity of The Painter and His Model, done in Nice in 1919. This is the most elusively colored of all Matisses: a vision of palest pinks and mauves, trapped in a honeyed, yellow-golden light. Horizontal, just over two feet wide, just under two feet high, it has the intimacy of some Watteaus. There's the same air of a delicate, complicated project carried off with a pretense of idiotic ease. At center is the model, naked and relaxed in a chair. Everything flows from her: to the left is the bespectacled painter, sitting on a black bentwood chair, hard at work; to the right, toward the foreground, a crowded tabletop. There are flowers, chairs, wallpaper, pictures, curtains, each given a unique importance.


Excerpted from "Paris Without End"
by .
Copyright © 2014 Jed Perl.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

New Introduction to 25th Anniversary Edition—The School of Paris Revisited,
MATISSE: The Cathedral and the Odalisque,
DERAIN: Angles are the Fate of a Form,
DUFY: La Belle France,
LÉGER: Popular Dance Halls,
MATISSE & PICASSO: At the Shores of the Mediterranean,
BRAQUE: The Anticlassicist,
PICASSO: A Grand Finale,
GIACOMETTI: Paris Without End,
HÉLION: The Last Judgment of Things,
BALTHUS: Artist and Model,

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