It is very difficult to specify what foreigners are borrowing from us, and what we are borrowing from them.
On January 27th, 1925, the art critic André Warnod wrote these words in the Comoedia, thus encapsulating for the first time the complexity of the stakes within what he coined “École de Paris”.
In the 1920s, xenophobia infiltrated the Parisian art scene. Indeed, many exhibition reviews considered that foreign artists were being granted excessive visibility. Although a verdict for the Salon des Indépendants of 1922 was to favour artists installations according to alphabetical order, in 1924, the management committee opted for a segregation by nationality, thus separating French and foreign artists. This chauvinist move scandalized the participants and led some to withdraw such as Foujita, Lipchitz, Zadkine, Léger, arousing controversy in the press. Provoked by this event, the École de Paris stemmed from a desire to house the entire cosmopolitan artistic community that came to settle in Paris at the turn of the 20th century, thus igniting recognition of their involvement, and the impact of foreign artists on the French creative scene.
In spite of Modernism's foundation in agitation and scandal, this “École” is not a movement. It does not embody a unified aesthetic. It does not seek a plastic norm; it is in no way legislated. This is with exception in its hope for emancipation, its battle against discrimination, its intrinsic feelings of rejection in systems proliferating freedoms of creation and of the individual. Jules Pascin, Amedeo Modigliani, Chaïm Soutine, Constantin Brancusi, Sonia Delaunay, Marc Chagall or Chana Orloff, despite their visual eclecticism, are linked to the stories and to the common ideals of a generation of international artists.
Despite ‘École de Paris’ quickly slipping into the realm of positive discrimination, this multicultural and multidisciplinary meeting of creators, painters, sculptors, writers and photographers provided fertile ground for some of the most influential works of art of the 20th century. Although seemingly judged as superficial, this association of artists encouraged a positive change of attitudes towards academicism – a fruitful osmosis. This creative energy brought about a clash of styles, languages and cultures. This was a real testimony to the power of integration from the artistic community at its peak.
Image by an anonymous photographer capturing the prominent members of the artistic community of Montparnasse, Paris, 1923
However, the “École de Paris” was born in turmoil and consequently challenged. No one could prevent the effects of war, a major economic crisis, and that the fear of the other would take over the features of the other. The rise of nationalism was both the motor as well as the adversary of the essence of “École de Paris” – provoking a return to the stability of ancient traditions. The uninterrupted innovation of art at the heart of turbulence appeared uncertain whilst beholding a permanent glimmer of hope.
Questions persist on the ability for Paris to establish itself as a leader in the renewal of French culture and its role on the international stage. This was due to the exposure of the fragility of its democracy, and the reigning doubt on its unifying ideologies. Indeed, how can we identify a creation representative of human value, when all aspirations to humanism are knocked down by global catastrophes instigated by humans? How to legitimize and guide the artistic productions created within our destructive societies? Do artists have any agency at all? History and its questions repeat themselves: art is continually undergoing the effects of societal instabilities. Therefore, recognizing history and creation as powers we learn from, are necessary. The past and the “École de Paris”, are not archives to be placed in quarantine. The present is an active history that art proves intelligible.
The avant-gardes of yesterday and the explorations of today must be recognized as tools for understanding our societies and actors of historical, political, cultural, and societal change. Beyond the experience of personal aesthetics, art carries a civic responsibility, a purpose of creative unity in the face of adversity and chaos. By considering art through its relationship to society and community, perhaps we are allowing poets, artists, and thinkers to exercise a civilizing function. That is, to participate in a revitalization of humanity which resonates with relevance. What has been called modernity is therefore not solely characterized by its aesthetics but more importantly its ability to distill the old into the new, to break down the dichotomies of the past and the modern, of the grounded and the distant, from the self and from the other.
The modernity and contemporaneity are not tabula rasa but states of availability, transversality, and uniqueness. Let us retain from the “École de Paris” the revolutionary potential of the artistic community as an organic synthesis of tradition and innovation. Let's grant art the freedom, plurality, and vitality it requires to forge new bonds that unite individual human experience and collective existences. Internationalization is a mutual process; with culture as its medium.
Written in French by Juliette Gaufreteau, Sorbonne University
Translation by Lily Pouydebasque, University College London
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Cover Image: Artists-in Residence, January 2020