Modern Masters
To Paris and Beyond
October 29, 2011 – January 21, 2012

In the early years of the 20th century Paris became the centre for an international community of artists. Some of them were French, but the city also offered its hospitality to artists from an increasingly wide range of other nationalities. The result was a mixture between a stewpot and a laboratory. A stewpot, because all kinds of cultural traditions were blended together. A laboratory because this is where all kinds of artistic ideas were continually tested to their limits. Nothing like this artistic community had ever existed previously, not even in Rome during the 17th century, when artists from northern Europe flocked to Italy, to complete their technical and intellectual education. 


Paris became a magnet for artists from all corners of Europe, and perhaps particularly to those who felt themselves to be disenfranchised in their native countries. Chagall, who was Jewish, had had to deal with the discrimination against Jews in Russian society. Miró was Catalan, and belonged to a culture that had never felt itself to be entirely Spanish. Picasso, though not Catalan, had his earliest contacts with the world of contemporary art in Barcelona. Barcelona, disaffiliated from conservative Madrid, looked more readily to Paris than it did to the Spanish capital. Even where this element of cultural disaffection was not a factor, ambitious artists were drawn towards Paris. The Dutchman Van Dongen followed in the footsteps of his compatriot Vincent van Gogh. Alexander Calder was attracted by the romantic affection that artistically ambitious Americans had long felt for France. The world he moved in is portrayed in Hemingway’s posthumously published memoir A Moveable Feast. For Frenchmen, too, Paris was a magnet. Matisse, Léger and Dubuffet were all provincials, who came to Paris to find a wider stage for their art.

A large part of the attraction of Paris was that it was a city of writers and other intellectuals, in addition to being a city of artists. What moved art forward was not simply what took place in studios, but ardent, incessant discussions in cafés, bars and bistros. It was here that the theories that governed the direction taken by new developments in the visual arts were worked out. Painters, sculptors, poets and critics lived in one another’s pockets. The city was a buzzing hive of new ideas. While major artists arrived there already equipped with a sense of their own potentiality, it was contact with their peers that provided crucial moments of revelation. Alexander Calder’s experience offers a good example. A visit to Mondrian’s studio opened his eyes to the possibilities offered by abstract art. Following this, it was Marcel Duchamp who found the name – ‘mobile’- for the new kind of abstract sculpture that Calder then began to create. Mobiles combine the apparent capriciousness and playfulness of the Dada aesthetic with the discipline and rigor characteristic of Mondrian’s compositions. In Paris, both possibilities existed in the same place. This was by no means the only breakthrough of its kind achieved by the great generation of artists whom we now lump together as the Ecole de Paris. ‘Ecole’ – ‘school’ - is correct in more senses than one. They taught each other.

Gradually, however, the major figures recognized what were the boundaries of their own creative personalities. They needed external stimulation less, and tranquilly to explore their own ideas rather more. The break up of the Parisian community was accelerated by external events. By the end of the WWII hostilities, it was becoming obvious that the great days of Paris as the place where artists pre-eminently lived and worked were coming to an end. Some important artists stayed, but many more had already departed for other locations. And many of those who were genuinely important now began, wherever they chose to live, to find their most important sources of patronage elsewhere. In large part this was due to the impact of the war itself. Artists who were not French by birth sought refuge wherever they could find it. Chagall, under particular threat because he was Jewish, went to America. So did Fernand Léger. Joan Miró, despite his lack of sympathy with the Franco regime in Spain, returned to his native Catalonia. 

The war had other major effects as well. First, it consecrated the idea of Modernism. What the Nazis had hated so much became a touchstone of the innovative liberal culture that had defeated them. When Paris was liberated, Picasso, who had lived there more or less in seclusion throughout the war years, became an instant international celebrity. Modern art ceased to be the plaything of a small section of the cultural elite and became something that interested a much wider public. Old prejudices against the avant-garde were gradually broken down.

This process was hastened by a new fashion for ambitious public exhibitions of Modern and contemporary art. The New York Guggenheim Museum, which opened its doors to the public in 1959, was probably the first statement building that was unequivocally a shrine to Modernism in art. In the post-war years, it was followed by many others, reviving a situation in which Americans were major patrons of the arts, both in the United States and in Europe.

The United States played a major role in the triumph of the artists who had originally gathered in Paris. American economic success encouraged American collectors and institutions to patronize the major names in European art, just as Americans had patronized the French Impressionists in the previous century. The major commissions offered to Léger and Miró in the post-war period are examples.  In Léger’s case, his association with the United States was one of very long standing. He had already decorated a New York apartment for Nelson Rockefeller in 1931 and had been given an exhibition at the still fledgling Museum of Modern Art in 1935.

The flight from France of a core group of French painters and intellectuals, and their presence in New York during the war years certainly had a profound effect on American art. For example, Léger’s role in the birth of American Pop Art should not be underestimated. This does not, however, amount to saying that the Ecole de Paris became in any sense interchangeable with the School of New York. The Abstract Expressionists learned to make daring visual experiments from these French exemplars, but they were less, rather than more, inclined to copy what the Modern Masters did. The time when the still immature Arshile Gorky could say, “When Picasso drips, I drip” was soon over. Personal contact put an end to it.

After the war, while Paris remained a centre for exhibitions and a place where reputations continued to be made –Dubuffet’s rapid post-war success, with the help of the leading French literary intellectuals who were his friends, is an instance of this – the leading artists of the Ecole de Paris more and more tended to remove themselves physically from the city.

Miró remained in Spain, living first in Barcelona, then in Majorca. Other leading members of the school increasingly tended to root themselves in the South of France. Matisse had already migrated to Nice in 1917, tired of the privations imposed on Parisians during World War I. Picasso migrated there after the war, and lived in various locations on the Côte d’Azur – Antibes, Vallauris, Cannes and, finally Notre-Dame-de-Vie at Mougins. After his wartime stay in America, Chagall also settled in the South of France.  After returning to Paris from the United States in 1945, Léger traveled regularly to Biot (Alpes-Maritimes) where he had a ceramic workshop. In deciding to settle on the Côte d’Azur, these artists were following an already well-trodden path.   Renoir and Bonnard both decided to settle there; Signac spent every summer either at Collioure or Saint-Tropez, where he was visited often by Matisse. Life in the south was the reward that many leading French artists offered themselves once they had begun to make a success of their careers. There is a Matisse Museum and a Chagall Museum in Nice, a Léger Museum in Biot, and Picasso Museums in Vallauris and Antibes.

In the case of Picasso and his contemporaries, there were other reasons for wishing to leave Paris – the increasingly relentless pressure of public scrutiny. Picasso in particular became a major cultural hero, which is to say that he was also an early victim of the modern cult of celebrity. It is not surprising that one of his major themes, during the later years of his career, was life as it was lived within the confines of the studio. While he certainly continued to see old friends, his social life was increasingly constricted by his overwhelming fame.

One thing, however, that continued to link the artists of the Ecole de Paris, even after they had scattered from the city, was the French language. Even artists for whom French was not their first language – Picasso and Miró are cases in point – remained keenly aware of French intellectual values. They could never completely go back to being Spaniards after their years in France. The core members of the Ecole de Paris, wherever they ended up, carried with them a certain intellectual mind-set throughout their working lives.

Edward Lucie-Smith
London, October 2011

Born in 1933 in Kingston, Jamaica, Edward Lucie-Smith moved to Britain in 1946 and was educated at King's School, Canterbury and Merton College, Oxford, where he read History.  He is an internationally known art critic and historian who is also a published poet, an anthologist and a practicing photographer.  He has written more than sixty books about art, including Lives of the Great Modern Artists, Visual Arts in the 20th Century, Sexuality in Western Art, and Movements in Art since 1945.  Lucie-Smith’s now classic Lives of the Great Modern Artists, first printed in 1999, was recently republished.