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Paris: Capital of the Arts 1900 - 1968 (London)

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  • Needs to lighten up!
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      19.02.2002 19:32
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      • "Needs to lighten up!"

      This exhibition came to my attention from a cleverly designed advertisement on the back of one the Sunday Times supplements. As I studying Picasso?s early work up to the first world war, it seem a good idea to go to this exhibition to see some of the works I have actually read. I have been to the Royal Academy before. Situated in Piccadilly, two minutes from Green Park tube, it is a good venue: not to big, not too small. However, it is not an intimate place, as it is always crowded and busy. This exhibition was not to be a quiet few hours spent. Paris: Capital of the Arts traces the major developments in painting and sculpture that took place in Paris through the first seven decades of the 20th century. Now this confused me a bit. Does this mean after 1980 Paris lost its position as Arts capital? Certainly other cities have caught up, New York to name one. Why not the whole century? Could it be that the Royal Academy was too ambitious with this exhibition? The mount this kind of event they had to borrow a huge range of works from around the world. I particularly noted the fact that a substantial amount of the work displayed was from private collections (yes, that can sometimes means a Japanese Bank). However, most of the featured artists were not French. We know of Picasso?s Andalusian birth and Catalan adoption. However I was surprised to learn that Chagall and Kandinsky were from Russia, Mondrian from the Netherlands, and other artists from Poland, Belgium, Italy and Switzerland. They made Paris the uncontested capital of the Arts in the early part of the Century. So where were the French? Did the French make Paris the Capital, or a collection of ex-pat artists? So two points: Paris is only the Capital up until, say 1970, and most of the Artists came to Paris from somewhere else in Europe. So why Paris? The story of Oscar Wilde illustrates all too clearly: whilst imprisoned for committing no crime, except for being naïve, he was able to live a life in Paris without the fear of living in a Police State. It was this liberal politics combined with the romantic atmosphere, cultural history, and, importantly for the time, the low cost of living. This was the magnet that attracted all these artists to the French capital. The first room concentrates on turn of the century and Montmatre. Yes it mentions and highlights Picasso and contemporaries around him: Utrillo, Van Dongen (Picasso?s partner Fernande modeled for him), and Khanweiler the art dealer gets a mention in portrait. Importantly the guide mentions the Bande a Picasso and their hangout, the bar Lapin Agile. The studios at the Bateau-Lavoir received a cursory mention. However, the most important ground breaking picture of the time is Picasso?s Les Demoiselles d?Avignon. All the marketing for this exhibition led me to believe I would actually get to see this masterpiece. I was to be sorely disappointed. Only two study pieces for the eventual painting were present. This got me thinking. This display is not what it is saying it is. How come this most important picture, which leads to so many other things in art, afterwards, is missing? Could it be that the present owners of the picture refused to lend? However, it is the American influence that receives little or no mention at all. Many artists would not have survived to develop their careers had it not been for the patronage of wealthy individuals and sometimes dealers. The dealers rarely get a mention, and philanthropists certainly don?t. For example, there was no mention Gertrude and Leo Stein, great benefactors of Picasso and friends to Cézanne too. Their influence probably, more than anything Paris offered at the time, ensured Picasso?s successful career in its early stages. It is true to say however, the Steins settled in Paris for its liberal, artistic atmosphere, which complemented the Steins? Te mperaments. It is also valid to say that Gertrude may have settled in Paris, where her lesbianism could flourish without the fear of unwanted police attention and social ostracism. However, it is, for me, a glaring omission that the researchers for this exhibition failed to mention in the room or the catalogue. Wealthy individuals had a very big part to play in ensuring the city?s continued unrivalled position. As the exhibitions moves on through time it does become better. Cubism is covered fairly well. Picasso and Braque dominate (as they should). Important picture for the time are present: Man in a Café. Also a delight to see was the Italian painter Severini who painted Nord-Sud, to celebrate the opening of a new metro line that directly linked Montmatre with Montparnasse, which was to herald a move by the artistic community to the left bank. A more significant picture, recording the then contemporary event, then is generally known or appreciated. However a picture that captures the age at the times was Robert Delaney?s Eiffel Tower (1911): Superb! And what colour. You really do see yourself looking at the Eiffel Tower from your hotel balcony! Not knowing much of the Montparnasse period and the jazz age, I feel that this period was covered rather well and it did remind Gershwin's An American in Paris. And you soon get a feel for the atmosphere that attracted hordes of young Americans. Maybe a radical departure here by the Royal Academy would have helped. They should have played Gershwin. Probably the best picture of the Jazz age for me is the Amazonian portrait of La Duchesse de la Salle, 1925 by Tamara de Lempicka. It is important for the fact that women were at last entering the male world of art and also not only was this the Jazz Age, but the age of trouser wearing, financial independent, working women. This is probably the most important development in the Jazz Age - a painting of an Amazonian woman by a woman artist . A fantastic use of colour, with cubist influences in the background, with our hero Amazon standing on a bright red carpet. If the decline of Paris is for debate, it is the effect of the Second World War and its effects that are not in question. This was a boost for New York and the rise of the American influence in the world of art. Belgian Margitte, Russia Chagall, Dutch Mondrian all fled to the United States, amongst many others. After the war the rise of the COBRA group of artists (Copenhagen, Brussels, Amsterdam) was founded in Paris. But it was still a grouping that was beginning to be noticed and shifted attention away from Paris. Meanwhile Dali, Miro and Tapies began to attract attention, Picasso was on the Cote d'Azur, New York's rise continued and generally cinema was taking over as the new medium that captured the public imagination. It is the 1950's and 1960?s which is covered so well. The city?s political turmoil of the time gives rise to new methods of composition. One pictorially impressive is Jacques de la Villegle. Boulevard de la Bastille, where fly posted street posters have been acquired off the walls and used in the composition. This is my favourite with pictures of Georges Pompidou, the French President. This is preceded however back in 1957 by the very impressive work is by Raymond Hains: Cet Homme est Dangereux. A torn poster on canvass, it looks as if a tiger was scratched the poster on an Azul Wall. I thought this was pretty much ground breaking. However, again, the days of 1968 and the build up to student and workers revolt spawned a huge amount of work. I didn?t feel this was represented well, and really those heady days of the 1968 revolt justified a whole room. There was a really surprise. An Interactive art in the form of a pink shower. What? Entrance to last room requires you to walk through curtains of vertical pink plastic 'shards'. This work called Penetrables (1 967) by Venezuelan sculptor Soto is fun. Something I though that was lacking from the somewhat somber atmosphere that is the Royal Academy. Which nicely brings into the 1970?s and probably the opening of the Georges Pompidou Centre was a catalyst to drive Paris back up from decline. Indeed the rise of the influence of New York was celebrated and recognised by Paris with the opening of the still spectacular arts centre in the old historic district of Les Halles: Paris-New York 1900-1965. Maybe the exhibition should have been a development of this original from the Pompidou Centre. Certainly many of the pieces were on loan from there. Indeed many items were on loan from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) New York. Overall the exhibition brings together a mass of well-known and loved artworks. Certainly I enjoyed my time. However, this is not the definitive exhibition it could have been and not as suggested in the marketing either. It does disappoint, and this is a pity. The crowds are not too big. Admission is a steep £9, but you are given a fully comprehensive catalogue, glossy and full colour. (The Tate Modern should hold this is mind for the current Warhol show). Childrens tickets are £1,50 9-11 years old and £2,50 for 12-18 and concessions. This is not an exhibition for children. I didn?t see the delight in young people that I saw at Warhol. There is a good book to accompany the event. It is a about £30, but wait for the exhibition to come close to its end in April. I saw books for another about-to-close event being sold off for £5. Exhibition runs to April 19th. Royal Academy of Arts Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BD Info: +44 (0) 20 7300 5760/1 www.royalacademy.org.uk Open daily 10h00-18h00 daily, until 22h00 on Friday.

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