Im­mi­grants who were ‘School of Paris’ artists

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - RE­VIEW BY WENDY SMITH Wendy Smith is a con­tribut­ing editor at the Amer­i­can Scholar. book­world@wash­

Although they were even­tu­ally dubbed “the School of Paris,” the im­mi­grant artists who lived in that city dur­ing the first four decades of the 20th cen­tury had no com­mon style and pro­duced no man­i­festos. Amedeo Modigliani’s sleek, sexy nudes, Marc Cha­gall’s sym­bol-laden fan­tasias on Jewish vil­lage life, Chaim Sou­tine’s vis­ceral por­traits and still lifes con­jured up en­tirely dif­fer­ent worlds and emo­tions; work by their peers ranged from Jules Pascin’s sharply ob­served street scenes to Jac­ques Lip­chitz’s ab­stract sculp­tures.

“It makes more sense to think of the School of Paris as a his­tor­i­cal phe­nom­e­non — an un­prece­dented and un­ex­pected mi­gra­tion of young artists, mostly Jewish, many from the Rus­sian em­pire,” vet­eran jour­nal­ist Stan­ley Meisler writes. In­deed, the core mem­bers were al­most all Jews, and the re­sent­ment ex­pressed to­ward them by French crit­ics in the 1930s was un­ques­tion­ably fu­eled by anti-Semitism. Fol­low­ing the Nazi in­va­sion of France, some 20 School of Paris artists died in death camps, and the rest fled abroad; their hey­day was over.

Meisler aims to “tell the story of for­eign­born im­mi­grant pain­ters in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s . . . through bi­og­ra­phy, mainly of Sou­tine with a good deal about Marc Cha­gall and some­what less about Amedeo Modig­iliani and oth­ers.” It’s rea­son­able to fo­cus on the group’s most prom­i­nent artists, and pre­sum­ably the fact that Modigliani died in 1920 — early in the group’s history — ac­counts for his get­ting some­what less cov­er­age. He gets a lot more space, how­ever, than the lesser-known Lip­chitz, Os­sip Zad­kine, Moïse Kis­ling and Pinchus Krémègne, whose names are trot­ted out oc­ca­sion­ally to re­mind us that the School of Paris con­tained more than three peo­ple. There are glimpses (but only glimpses) of the in­tri­cate net­work of friend­ships that cre­ated a vi­brant com­mu­nity in the Left Bank neigh­bor­hood of Mont­par­nasse, which sup­planted Mont­martre as the cen­ter of the Parisian art scene shortly be­fore World War I.

Pascin is the sole School of Paris artist be­yond the big three to get even a mini-bi­og­ra­phy, and it is jar­ringly in­serted into a chap­ter about the De­pres­sion’s im­pact. This points to Meisler’s two cen­tral prob­lems: or­ga­ni­za­tion and fo­cus. He lurches from bi­og­ra­phy to history to crit­i­cal eval­u­a­tion with­out man­ag­ing to weave these el­e­ments into a co­her­ent nar­ra­tive; “Shock­ing Paris” is in­stead a pa­rade of loosely con­nected and me­an­der­ing chap­ters.

It’s too bad, be­cause Meisler has done a com­mend­able amount of re­search and made it ac­ces­si­ble to non­spe­cial­ists. He pro­vides use­ful thumb­nail sketches of im­por­tant fig­ures such as the art dealer Léopold Zborowski, who rep­re­sented Modigliani and Sou­tine; sup­port­ive col­lec­tors such as Jonas Net­ter and Madeleine and Mar­cellin Cas­taing; and crit­ics who shaped public per­cep­tion of the School of Paris for bet­ter (An­dré Warnod) or worse (Walde­mar Ge­orge). He makes good use of con­tem­po­rary di­aries and other doc­u­ments to paint vivid por­traits of his cen­tral fig­ures: so­phis­ti­cated, so­cia­ble Modigliani; shy, soli­tary Sou­tine; and am­bi­gen­tiles tious, cal­cu­lat­ing Cha­gall.

Un­for­tu­nately, in­ter­est­ing in­for­ma­tion is fre­quently padded with ir­rel­e­vant di­gres­sions. One ini­tially good chap­ter does a nice job of de­scrib­ing Amer­i­can col­lec­tor Al­bert Barnes’s 1922 buy­ing trip to Paris, which gave Sou­tine and four other School of Paris artists their first big breaks. The same chap­ter ex­plains how the re­sent­ment this sparked in and as­sim­i­lated French Jews was re­lated to the de­ci­sion at the 1924 Sa­lon des Indépen­dants to group artists by na­tion of ori­gin, sep­a­rat­ing the works of French-born artists from those of im­mi­grants. This, in turn, led critic Roger Al­lard to sup­port the for­eign artists by giv­ing them the name by which they be­came known — “School of Paris” — in recog­ni­tion of their in­ti­mate as­so­ci­a­tion with French art.

We don’t need to be taken to Philadelphia so that Meisler can dis­cuss Barnes’s phi­los­o­phy of art ex­hi­bi­tion and hos­til­ity to art ex­perts, nor to learn about the new Barnes Foun­da­tion build­ing that opened in 2012. It’s not the only in­stance of the au­thor yank­ing us out of his time frame; the most star­tling is when he leaves Sou­tine paint­ing a beef car­cass in 1925 to cri­tique an es­say in the cat­a­logue for a 1998-99 ret­ro­spec­tive in Amer­ica.

As the nar­ra­tive moves bumpily into the 1930s and World War II, Meisler has trou­ble bal­anc­ing the his­tor­i­cal back­ground with the specifics of his sub­jects’ plight. He should have dras­ti­cally pruned fa­mil­iar ma­te­rial on French anti-Semitism and the Vichy regime to fo­cus more di­rectly on Sou­tine’s des­o­late wan­der­ings prior to his death af­ter stom­ach surgery in 1943. The ad­mit­tedly in­spir­ing story of jour­nal­ist Var­ian Fry’s work with Hi­ram Bing­ham IV, U.S. vice con­sul in Mar­seilles, to pro­vide some 2,000 peo­ple with asy­lum in Amer­ica oc­cu­pies more pages than does the es­cape the same pair fa­cil­i­tated in 1941 for Cha­gall.

For all the au­thor’s dif­fi­culty with de­cid­ing what is rel­e­vant, this book is clearly aimed at gen­eral read­ers, who will prob­a­bly en­joy the col­or­ful anec­dotes about Sou­tine’s lack of per­sonal hy­giene (he sel­dom bathed) or his poor re­ac­tion to crit­i­cism (told that one of his paint­ings re­called a Renoir, he slashed it to shreds). As for its larger pur­pose, “Shock­ing Paris” can be re­garded as an out­line for a much more com­plete book on an im­por­tant mo­ment in art and world history.


Marc Cha­gall in 1959 with his paint­ing “Le Dimanche” at the­Mu­seum of Dec­o­ra­tive Arts in Paris.

By Stan­ley Meisler Pal­grave Macmil­lan. 238 pp. $26 SHOCK­ING PARIS Sou­tine, Cha­gall and the Out­siders of Mont­par­nasse

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