By the 1920s Europe was beginning to emerge from the nightmare of the First World War, and artistic life in Paris was recovering its vitality.
Some artists had been pacifists; others had gone to war; some three hundred and fifty French artists had not returned. But now Paris was again the unchallenged centre of the art world. Café society was flourishing, Hemingway was drinking at the Deux Magots, Josephine Baker was appearing at the Moulin Rouge, and the twenties in Paris were ready to roar.
When the treasures of Tutankhamun’s tomb were discovered in 1922, Paris like the whole western world caught the craze for opulence and extravagance.
It was the Jazz Age – and the age of the ballet too, as Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, having spent most of the war years in exile in Switzerland or touring abroad, returned with a flourish in 1920 for a new Paris season, with Picasso, Matisse, Derain and the Russians Larionov and Gontcharova all signed up as designers. Marcel Duchamp might have retired for the time being to play chess, but other French artists were there, mingling with throngs of artists from all over Europe – Mondrian, Chagall, Soutine, and Boccioni – who were now flocking into Paris.
In this vibrant atmosphere Paris was preparing to host the 1924 Olympics. They would be the Chariots of Fire Olympics, when Eric Liddell won gold. And they were not just about sport. There was also the ‘Pentathlon of the Muses’, the cultural Olympics inaugurated in the last Games before the war.
It embraced painting, sculpture, architecture and music, looking for the expression of harmony between muscle and spirit. Jack Yeats, younger brother of the poet, would win silver for Ireland for his painting of Swimmers in the Liffey. Gauguin’s son Jean won bronze for sculpture. But the most famous artists were mainly conspicuous by their absence from the Olympic lists, occupied in drinking, talking and sketching in the cafés of Montparnasse.
The Olympic art entries were showcased that year in an exhibition in Paris’s Grand Palais, just one of many influential Paris exhibitions of the 1920s. At the beginning of the decade, a year after Renoir’s death in 1919, Picasso and Braque were bowled over by the stupendous nudes of the painter’s last years in an exhibition of his works at the Salon d’Automne.
Both were inspired to re-visit the classicism of their pre-cubist paintings, and re-work it in a new, monumental approach to the human figure. One of Picasso’s resulting paintings was his Two Women Running on a Beach, which became the front cloth for the Ballets Russes’ Olympic year production of The Blue Train.
Another major show in twenties Paris was the big international exhibition of ‘Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts’, where the Art Deco style dominated. Though the name came later, Art Deco had been popular for some years, and the exhibition publicized it further. Its simple, symmetrical geometry, with clean lines, sharp angles and clear colours permeated not just art but all areas of design from tea cups to cinemas. Modernism was its keynote, and the angular figures of the Polish painter Tamara de Lempicka epitomized its approach.
The Olympic year also dramatically saw the birth of surrealism with the publication of the Surrealist Manifesto. It emerged from – or at least followed hard behind – the death of Dada, a movement that had reacted to the horror and folly of the war by aiming to destroy traditional values with ridicule. Dada committed suicide in the early twenties, staged its own funeral and expired in an unseemly brawl at its typically named soirée The Evening of the Bearded Heart. What resulted was surrealism, initially a literary movement, but rapidly renowned for its art, notably in its first big Paris exhibition in 1925.
Still aspiring, like Dada, to create a brand new art, and sickened by the failures of the pre-war generation, the surrealists were strongly influenced by Sigmund Freud’s theories of the unconscious mind. They sought inspiration in the ‘automatic’ painting of reverie, in dreams and accidental juxtapositions, and in the darker recesses of their imaginations. Max Ernst’s strange Pieta or Revolution by Night was personal, unsettling, and characteristic of this approach, its meaning still now a matter for speculation. In the next few years surrealist painters would be joined in Paris by Magritte from Belgium and by the self-absorbed, febrile talent from Spain, that supreme visual punster, Salvador Dali.
So the twenties were a decade in Paris like no other, and contemporaries were quick to refer to Les Années Folles – the insane years. But far from insane artistically, these years saw the creation of some of the most outstanding and influential works in the development of modern art.
Jessica Saraga will give a talk about Surrealism meets the avant-garde – Paris: 1924 at Dulwich Picture Gallery on Tuesday 20 March at 7.45pm.
Costs £10, £8 Friends. Booking and further details about the Tuesday Evening Lectures can be found here.
Why not join the Friends and receive a discount on your ticket?