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Page history last edited by Thomas Kutzli 11 years, 10 months ago

Paris, Paris, Paris, Paris!




Why Paris? Modernist art often seems to emerge out of situations of displacement and marginality, and Paris has always attracted not only ambitious characters but displaced and marginal ones as well. Especially students and artists–the student tradition goes back to Abelard and Villon in the Middle Ages. Whereas in England (until recently) the universities have been far from the capital, in France they are at its center. Student poverty mingling with the ferment of the town yields the will to epater le bourgeois, and there is a direct link between Villon's humor and that of modern bohemians like Baudelaire and Apollinaire. The term bohemian, however, is an invention of the mid-nineteenth century, and it's contemporaneous with the phenomenon of the "dandy" imported from Regency England. The dandy adopts an image of aristocratic fastidiousness above the urban crowd; the bohemian on the other hand looks downward rather than upward along the social scale for models of deportment. (Baudelaire, by the way, somehow contrived to be both a dandy and a bohemian.) The bohemian life is an artist's or intellectual's version of the gypsy image (gypsies were supposed to have originated in Bohemia)–a community of self-selected outcasts, claiming the spontaneous gift of creativity and the martyr's will to undergo privation in order to preserve it. The key to bohemianism, Jerrold Seigel has argued, is the appropriation of marginal or eccentric life-styles by young renegade bourgeois to dramatize their ambivalence toward bourgeois identity. Bohemianism is the theatrical expression of a willed marginality.

Late nineteenth-century Paris had undergone modernization and was more a magnet than ever, drawing ambitious young people from all over the Continent. This new Paris, with its grand boulevards and monuments, was a commercial rather than an industrial city. In dominating the life of the provinces and becoming the main center for every sort of interest from politics and journalism to business and entertainment, Paris was bound to attract not only the upwardly mobile, but also many people whose existence was essentially improvised and unconventional.

And there were new spaces to accommodate these people. From the 1830s Parisians had used the street to blur distinctions between outside and inside, public and private: sidewalk cafes and entertainments, pavement stall, and arcades (ancestors of the shopping mall). The cafe and the boulevard became stages that turned everday life into spectacle and tied pleasure to consumption. First the Impressionists and then the Cubists painted these new spaces and spectacles, fascinated by the social ambiguity of the new kinds of commercialized entertainment.


The bohemian style was aggressively plebeian. In the late nineteenth century the headquarters of Bohemia shifted to Montmartre, the hilly region that had escaped the redevelopment of the western part of Paris. Montmartre was an area of small workshops, tenements, little houses and pleasure gardens, circuses, laundries, dance-halls, and cabarets, frequented by artists, workers, gangsters, prostitutes, and people of all classes who came there to be amused and shocked. When Montmartre became too commercialized, artists and writers migrated back to the Left Bank, to Montparnasse,

in particular to the intersection of the boulevard Montparnasse and the boulevard Raspail, where there were four great cafes–the Dome and the Select, the Rotonde and the Coupole–and cheap artists' studios nearby. Here writers and artists could mix with painters. Another constant was that the rich and the poor, the bourgeois and the working classes, shared a common night life here. The city was tolerant of the pursuit of pleasure in all of its forms: music, theater, gambling, dancing, drinking, dining, and of course sex.


Meanwhile bohemians developed ever more ingenious techniques of social provocation, an etiquette of nonconformism, eccentricity, and exhibitionism. The painter Pelletier went on walks accompanied by a pet jackal. De Nerval took a lobster on a leash through the Tuileries gardens: "It does not bark," he said, "and knows the secrets of the deep." At the Lapin Agile, a group of Montmartre artists concocted the celebrated hoax of a canvas, brushed entirely by the twitching, swishing tail of Lolo, the proprietors unhousebroken donkey. The resulting work, "impressionist" in style, was hung at the Salon with the title "And the Sun Went Down Over the Adriatic," signed Joachim-Raphael Boronali, and praised by a number of critics. Bohemians tended to be fascinated by the grotesque, the absurd, and by deadpan humor.


Avant-garde is another important term in the lexicon of modern art: its origins go back to 1925, when the Saint-Simonians appropriated it from the military vocabulary to distinguish artists as captains of the new consciousness of a modern century. Avant-gardists aggressively reject conventions and consign previous art traditions to the dustbin of history. Shock and surprise are typical strategies of the avant-garde, the goals being to expode the complacent consensus of realism or tradition, to clear the senses of compositional sludge, to make possible freshness of vision and response. Like bohemians, they often develop techniques of provocation to alienate the wider society while enjoying an intense form of sociability with each other. Apollinaire was the impresario of the avant-garde (Roger Shattuck's designation), the link between the poets and the painters, the central figure, with Picasso, in the bar-hopping sociability of early twentieth-century artists.


The term intellectual was also born in Paris in this period. The Dreyfus Affair was the great political event of the fin-de-siecle period in Paris, and the intellectuals who rallied around the unjustly imprisoned Dreyfus became known as the parti intellectuel. The word soon became a noun, and took on its modern meaning: the public intellectual as someone who not only does creative work but also serves as the conscience of his or her society, insisting on the importance of a comprehensive critique of its deficiencies. The French sociologist Emile Durkheim and his followers were active in the Dreyfus case: Durkheim's "Individualism and the Intellectuals" is a document of the period. Intellectuals in this sense, with their sense of engagement with the public issues of their time, might seem to be far removed from the bohemians and the avant-gardists, who tended to withdraw from what they perceived as a hopelessly corrupt public sphere. There is in fact a tension between engagement and secession or withdrawal throughout our period. But there are also times when the two impulses fuse, when the avant-garde becomes politicized, as we'll see when we examine the series of crises that follow the great catastrophe of the First World War. Paris is so important in modern intellectual history because this culture capital is also a place with a long tradition of radical politics reaching back to the revolution of the late eighteenth century. "

(Bruce Thompson, Stefania Galante)


Paris, in a certain way, is Nestor Burma

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