The Art World in Paris between the Wars


                      Coco Channel (1930) by Man Ray

Man Ray

Man Ray arrived in France in 1921 when the bistros and artists’ workshops in Montmartre and Montparnasse were buzzing with artists, writers and poets. He loved the arty world of Paris in which he moved.  His portraits of Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Mina Loy, Peggy Guiggenheim, Coco Channel, Alberto Giacometti propelled him to fame in 1921.

In Man Ray’s portrait of actress Génica Athanasion she is wearing a thick, patterned cloak designed by Coco Channel. The cloak was a costume commision for Jean Cocteau’s production of Sophocles in 1922.

Channel’s biographer, Axel Madsen, recalls how the designer became angry during one rehearsal because  Picasso’s stage sets were getting more attention than her costumes.  Channel proceeded to march on stage and, in a temper, started to pull a thread of one of the knitted costumes.  The costume consequently began to unravel much to the dispair of the assistant who had knitted the costume.

In the spirit of the Dada and Surrealist movements in which he was associated, Man Ray stated that the purpose of his experimental  photography was to “to amuse, bewilder, annoy or to inspire reflection”.  He didn’t take fashion photography seriously but sought instead to blend it into his artistic life.

Lee Miller in Lamb Creek, Cornwall, 1937

        Miller in Lamb Creek, Cornwall (1937) by Man Ray

In 1929 he met Lee Miller and photographed her nude which would have shocked the French bourgeoisie at the time.  He was fascinated by the female form and his most famous photograph “Le Violon d’Ingres”   is of a woman’s body transformed into a musical instrument .


Le Violon d’Ingres (1924) by Man Ray

In 1925 Man Ray’s work was included in the first exhibition of Surrealism in Paris.

Several magazines at the time sought Man Ray’s photos. In 1932, he joined the staff at Bazaar magazine and his stunning photographs continued to be a regular feature of the publication.  For eight years he photographed models in dresses of the great designers of the time.

His celebrated photo of singer and model Kiki de Montparnasse (“Noire et Blanche“) was featured in the U.S. Postal Service’s “Modern Art in America” series of stamps.


Noire et Blanche (1926) by Man Ray

Dorothea Tanning

Dorothea Tanning was an American painter and, when she was ninety one years old, she was asked during an interview what her thoughts were looking back  on the Surrealist movement.  She said:

“I still believe in the Surrealist effort to plumb out the deepest subconcious to find out about ourselves.”

As a young woman, Ms Tanning had read Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “and other nineteenth century dreamers” and decided she wanted to live in Paris.  She arrived in France in 1939 armed with letters of introduction to prominent artists.  


                              Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943) by Dorothea Tanning

However, when she finally arrived in Paris, Hitler had just started his march in the city. Most of the artists in Paris had already fled to the United States and Americans were told it would be in their best interests to return also.

When Tanning was asked at the end of her life what was the one thing she wished for – she responded “more colour in my dreams”.  Tanning was known for her vivid renderings of dream imagery in her paintings.


               Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning (1947) by Man Ray

In 1942, Max Ernst was living in the states and was sent by his then wife, Peggy Guigeinheim, to visit Dorothea Tanning at her home.  She was looking for contributions for the “Art of this Century” which was an exhibition featuring women of the Surrealist movement.

When Ernst arrived at Ms Tanning’s home, she was finishing a self-portrait entitled “Birthday”.  Ernst played a game of chess with her and within a week he had moved into her apartment.

After the war they moved to France together where they were to spend the next twenty eight years.  Ms Tanning was very much part of the inner cirlcle of artists in Paris at the time.

In her memoirs she writes that in those days the art world was “a kind of chic club based on good contacts, correct behaviour and certain tactical chic”.

Marcel Duchamp


                                                  Duchamp as Rrsose Sélavy (1921) by Marcel Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp was thought of as the “Daddy of Dada” as the movement developed during World War I.  His art was the most radical response to changes imposed by the industrial era of the 20th century.  He pushed the inspiration for his art into other spheres such as science, industry and literature.

why not sneeze

Why Not Sneeze? by Macel Duchamp (1921:1964)

The “Why not Sneeze” object by Duchamp  has links with  a poem by Gertrude Stein.

Gertrude Stein was a Jewish American writer who  spent many years living in Paris.  Duchamp was familiar with her work and also her role as patron of the Cubist painters in Paris.

The reader of Stein’s  poem is confronted with a succession of ideas which escape logic just as Duchamp’s “Why not Sneeze” causes the spectator to loose his or herself in artist’s strange sensibility.  It leaves the viewer disorientated and perplexed, still searching for the familiar.

According to Lanier Graham, Marcel Duchamp is now regarded as the most influential artist of the 20th century.  He states that Duchamp succeeded in giving a new status to the artist when he said that art is whatever the artist says it is as opposed to what the critics say about it.

In his painting “Nude Descending a Staircase” (1912) Duchamp moves past Cubism towards mental imaginary images.  While Cubist painting were  conventionally static, Duchamp gave a new vitality to his paintings.


Nude Descending a Staircase (1912) by Marcel Duchamp

Duchamp’s brothers, both painters themselves,  were embarrassed to have to inform him that “Nude Descending a Staircase” was rejected from the Salon des Indépendants (1912) in Paris. The  jury felt  that Duchamp was poking fun at Cubist art and that it was too “futuristic” for their taste. The Cubists wanted to distinguish themselves from the other “isms”  at the time.  This was to be a turning point in Duchamp’s life.

From that point on, Duchamp realised that he had to look out for himself, he could no longer count on others to support him in his artistic endeavors.  In 1912 he announced that painting was over.  He began to metamorphise his paintings into living structures.

Interestingsly, his painting “Nude Descending a Staircase”  was considered a Masterpiece of Avante-garde art by  half of America, the other half thought it was “the work of the Devil”.  Nonetheless, Marcel Duchamp was considered the most famous French person besides Napoleon amongst New Yorkers at the start of the twentieth century.


Traveler’s Folding Item Readymade (1916/1964) by Marcel Duchamp

Duchamp was not interested in “retinal” art, the type of art that appeals only to the eye.   He wanted his art to engage the mind instead.  His assembled Readymades were ordinary manufactured objects.  In his conversations with Pierre Cobanne in 1967, Duchamp stated the  word “Readymade “seemed perfect for things that weren’t works of art, that weren’t sketches and to which no art term applied”.

While he was living in the United States, Duchamp got to know Man Ray and collaborated with him on several projects.  They were to become lifelong friends and, in his biography, Man Ray describes how strongly he was influenced by Duchamp’s work.

Duchamp once claimed that had he died in 1912, nobody would have hear of him. “Success is a bush fire”  he stated “and one has to find the wood to feed it”.

His painting “Nude descending a Staircase” was replenished with the Readymade, then the Readymade was replenished by the “Large Glass” and on it went.

Gertrude Stein

Gertrude stein was a prominent figure in Avant-Gardism before World War I.  She collected the works of Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso among others.  She had a very important role among the literary circles of Paris.  Joyce and Hemmingway were frequent visitors to her home.


                Portrait of Gertrude Stein (1906) by Picasso

In 1934 she returned to the United States and gave a series of conferences on art and literature which probably influenced Marcel Duchamp.


Egouttoir/Porte-Bouteilles by Marcel Duchamps (1914/1964)

When the Surrealists of Paris joined the Communist party  in 1927 they had a difficult decision to make.  How could they channel their artistic message, that of drawing on fantastical dreaming, into Marxist politics?

Communist belief, which rejected commercial artwork and any ideas not based in everyday reality, was opposed to Surrealism.

André Breton , the leader of the Surrealist movement, drew his inspiration from Marcel Duchamp .

Duchamp is best known for having transformed  a  worthless urinal into high art.  He did this in order  to protest against the French bourgeois of his day.  Duchamp proposed they use inexpensive, everyday objects  such as wood, string, mannequins and umbrellas as their art forms. These objects were on display for all to see at the   “Surrealism and The Object” exhibition at the George Pompidou Museum in Paris (30 October – 3 March 2013).

 Pablo Picasso

Picasso’s belief  that the language of painting and sculpture really mattered to the people gave him a large audience in his own lifetime.  Picasso’s restless changes in style, and his constant pushing of limits, made him controversial and gave him celebrity status.  His output was vast and his masterpieces filled the world and left marks on every discipline he entered.

According to Robert Hughes, Picasso was the artist with whom every other artist had to reckon with.  There wasn’t a 20th centrury movement that he didn’t inspire.

Even though Picasso was never a member of the Surrealist group,  they acknowledged their debt to the inventor of Cubism.   He was best  known for his distortions of the human body in his paintings in the 1920s and ’30s.


Bathers by Pablo Picasso

Picasso’s Cubism was difficult to read and intentionally ambiguous, at times even demonic.


      Reclining Nude (1932) by Pabo Picasso

Picasso found the notion  of art having some sort of historical mission ridiculous.

“All I ever made was made for the present and will remain in the present.  When I have found something to express, I have done it without thinking of the past or future”

Modernism rejected story telling, but Picasso brought it back in disguised form.  He despised theorizing since he believed that it undermined paintings.  He wanted his paintings to be seen as visual, graphic and sensuous.

1938 International Surrealist Exhibition

Duchamp was enthroned as generator, come arbiter, of the exhibition at Galerie des Beaux Arts in 1938 where each of  the exhibitionists were invited to dress a mannequin taken from a department store window.

Mannequins formed a line on either side of the street to greet visitors and an authentic looking descendant of Frankenstein’s monster greeted them. When darkness enveloped the exhibition, visitors discovered the works of art using blow torches.


Buste de femme retrospectif 1977 edition of 1933 work, bronze by Salvador Dali

By the 1940 in Paris, most artists and dealers of art anticipating a German attack and they were eager to sell anything they could and flee from the city.   It was the year that Peggy Guggenheim hovered in Picasso’s studio.  “Madame” he said trying to get rid of her “you will find the lingerie department on the second floor”.

However Guggenheim was not to be deterred.  She was planning to open a splendid gallery in Paris  seemed not to be phased by imminent war. For someone with a predominantly Jewish name, she was not put off.  While German bombs had reached the factories on the outer boulevards of Paris, Peggy Guggenheim sat in café in the city sipping champagne. (“The Wayward Guggenheim” by Jacqueline Bogard Weld)

After several affairs with artists in Paris, Guggenheim bullied Max Ernst, who had barely a penny to his name, into marrying her in 1941.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s