The High Art of the Low

Article excerpt

(Per SFO, take lead-in from TOC. TOC is not done yet.)

Currently at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao through September 2 is a show of 250 works, entitled Paris, Capital of the Arts 1900--1968. This exhibition is misnamed; Paris, in fact, ceased to rate the title "Capital of the Arts" when the Nazis defeated France at the beginning of the Second World War. After the war ended in 1945, with the Cold War gathering pace, the consequent bifurcation of European civilization virtually ended the Continental culture on which the status of Paris had rested. By the end of the 1950s, Europe's political and artistic center of gravity had already shifted to Washington and New York.

Nevertheless, the broad spectrum of works on display here furnishes an eloquent and useful overview of an important process that transformed the arts, and indeed the artists, over those seven decades. Many of these Parisian works are familiar. When I saw the show at the Royal Academy in London, where it opened last spring, my stroll through the galleries was like networking at a party full of old friends. Evoking what the French critic Pierre Nora called the lieux de memoire, the show is organized around four districts of Paris that became in turn the hot spots of the avant-garde: Montmartre (1900--1918), Montparnasse (1919--1939), St. Germain-des-Pres (1940--1957), and the Latin Quarter (1958--1968). The names leap out, some familiar--Picasso, Duchamp, Picabia, Leger, Brancusi, Kandinsky, Diego Rivera, Modigliani, Balthus, de Chirico, among many others--and some remembered as satellites around the great names: Romaine Brooks, the sub-Mondrian artists Vantongerloo and Jean Gorin. The list extends in a sort of galleric infinity, 168 names of painters and sculptors.

The transformation of images is gripping. In the early Montmartre period, the art, continuing a tendency begun by the Impressionists, is already becoming a matter of allusion rather than portrayal. The blurring of outline in Sickert's Theatre de Montmartre and Vuillard's Le Boulevard de Batignolles highlights a process of change, not merely in technique but--much more significant--in the relationship between artist and viewer. [See Herb Greer's article "Shock and Sensibility," March 2002, p. 239, for more on this topic.)

Looking beyond the familiar, not to say historically banal list of "isms" represented here--Fauvism, Futurism, Cubism, Internationalism, Simultaneism, Orphism, Constructivism, Surrealism, and so on down a very long rank of quasi-ideologies--it becomes evident that what each does in its own way is to isolate some facet or other of the visual experience (say, geometric content, or a certain relationship to contemporary events) and then elevate this part into a holistic ideal to which the particular "school" must conform in order to achieve an arbitrary "authenticity." Here the most famous example is probably Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase (1912).

What made this possible was a transmogrification of the artist's social condition--created by the artists and at first resisted and then accepted by their customers. By the end of the nineteenth century the artist was evolving out of the status of gifted craftsperson, becoming instead a sort of performer whose attitudes were as important as the work he produced.

The ideological skeleton of the exhibition, covering an intertangled and extremely complex montage of schools, fashions, "isms," personalities, and technical experiments, begins with the so-called Mission Civilizatrice before the First World War and climaxes with the violently manipulative confections of the sixties. It offers a compelling overview of the people of varying talent who came to regard themselves, not just as an elite, but as the elite, with a special understanding of the harsh events of the first half of the twentieth century.

Their shared attitude, which preceded and guided all ideas and criteria, was an assumption that the artist was a sort of Nietzschean Superman but benevolent; this monstre sacree conferred through his works the benefit of his superior understanding of human experience, personal and social. …