Art in France 1900-1940

By Corbett, David Peters | The Art Bulletin, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Art in France 1900-1940


Corbett, David Peters, The Art Bulletin


CHRISTOPER GREEN Art in France 1900-1940 New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. 321 pp.: 80 color ills., 320 b/w. $75.00

Surveys are a difficult genre. The author has somehow to contrive a text that will conduct readers, ranging from novices and amateurs to the most specialized of specialists, through a chronologically and geographically precise period of the arts (deciding on the boundaries presents additional problems, of course), and at the same time ensure that any one of these users, on dipping into the book, will find something helpful about individual artists, movements, and works of art. It is necessary, while moving at speed across a broad body of material, to be deep and thoughtful in detail. The genre gives acute expression to a familiar professional tension between context and interpretation. In short, it is a forbidding task. More credit, then, to Christopher Green's contribution to the Yale Pelican History of Art series, which offers a thoughtful model of how to go about it. Green has succeeded in writing a reflective book, aware of the complexity of its task and clear about the solutions it offers.

Green divides his book into six parts along the lines that these various purposes suggest. Part 1 sets out the history of the period from around 1900 (looking briefly back as well as forward) to 1940, introducing the major movements of the historiography: Fauvism, Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism. This section also provides an opportunity for reflection on the idea of the avant-garde, on perspectives on the art of France during these years, and on modernism, abstraction, and history. Part 2, entitled "Lives in Art," deals with individuals, primarily artists, who were instrumental in making the art of the period, including in the discussion dealers, collectors, and those who wrote on art. Green describes the institutional context in which all this happened, and how artists, foreign as well as French, women as well as men, made a success of an artistic career in France. Part 3 marks a step change, in which Green takes up the "works themselves" (p. x), concentrating not only on a formal analysis of technique but also on the commentary artists offered on their work and methods. Green argues in this section that modernist art privileged the spectator as in some sense the co-creator of the work. This idea introduces a key organizing principle of the remainder of the book, where Green looks "more at how works could invite responses than at what artists intended them to say" (p. x). Part 4 engages the question of modernity, examining it as both experience and social fact. This section covers the role of social, intellectual, and political change in France over the period. It ranges from the impact of science and the ideas that it gave rise to in the general culture to social change as expressed in new gender roles and the growth of consumerism and advertising. Part 5, building on work in which Green has been closely involved, considers the role of tradition, its relation to the modern, and its status in French culture. The politics of "foreignness" and the indigenous figure largely here. Finally, part 6 deals with "Primitivism" and the repudiation of civilization in much of the art of this time. This section concludes the book by pondering this "counter-cultural thrust" across the whole period from 1900 to 1940 (p. 235) and completing the narrative with an analysis of Pablo Picasso's Guernica as a defense of the civilization that was otherwise under attack.

There are two sets of related struggles being worked out in this book. One is the perennial problem to which I referred earlier: how to reconcile the competing demands a survey makes, on the one hand, for a narrative history, and on the other, for interpretation in depth of individual artists and works. The second involves the tension between a persisting modernist reading of the work of art as material artifact, in some way autonomous and disconnected from history, and the idea, equally or perhaps more persistent, that art is explicable, and indeed interesting and worthy of our attention, only insofar as it expresses social, cultural, and historical circumstance and change. …

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