Essays by James Hyman

The Plight of Paris

The Plight of Paris

 
 

James Hyman
Royal Academy Magazine
2001


TEXT EXTRACT:

In 1948 in his longest essay to date, the young critic David Sylvester wrote for the first time of a School of London. Writing in a French journal he declared that an `Ecole de Londres' merited consideration alongside the Ecole de Paris. Although he was making claims for a greater international awareness of British art, it is clear that for Sylvester, and for his compatriots, Paris was the touchstone upon which all artistic achievement should be judged. Indeed he even wrote many of his early reviews under the more French sounding name of Sylvestre!

Certainly Paris was the Mecca for young British artists and critics, who journeyed there in numbers as soon as contact could be re-established after the isolation of the war years. Lucian Freud, Eduardo Paolozzi, William Turnbull, Alan Davie, Stephen Gilbert, Stanley William Hayter, William Gear and Raymond Mason, all spent weeks, months and even years in Paris in the years after the Second World War, formative moments which did much to internationalise British art and stimulate a dynamic post-war culture.

Francophilia had been a key note of pre war British art, so it is no surprise that the aftermath of the Second World brought not only renewed contact with the continent but also a wave of exhibitions in London. Especially significant were two exhibitions at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Matisse and Picasso in 1945-46 and Braque and Rouault in 1947, which reaffirmed the importance of the elders of the School of Paris, confirmed their status as a touchstone for British artists and brought their work to a young British public for the first time. Such artists spawned a host of young imitators from Heron's veneration of Braque to Sutherland's homage to Picasso.

But it was travels to Paris that did most to stimulate young artists. Eduardo Paolozzi is exemplary. Having studied at the Slade from 1945-47, Paolozzi could not wait to leave for Paris with the money he had made from his successful first exhibition at the Mayor Gallery in 1947, living there, initially in a room vacated by the sculptor Raymond Mason a contemporary at the Slade, who had moved to Paris in 1946. From the summer of 1947 until 1949 Paolozzi lived in Paris even taking part in two group exhibitions: Les mains eblouies at the Galerie Maeght (1948) and Les Réalités Nouvelles, Palais des Beaux Arts (1949). Paolozzi later recalled to me the excitement of these years: "I spent my first summer in Paris after the Slade in a large wooden studio at Denfert-Rochereau where there seemed to be a permanent summer fairground, and lots of shooting booths [also] I used to draw that summer at the Musée de l'Homme." Reflecting this environment the sculptures Paolozzi produced such as Forms on a Bow, had a playful interactive quality, suggestive of a children's game or an object from another culture.

Meanwhile the sculptor and painter WilliamTurnbull, another friend of Paolozzi's from the Slade, visited Paris in 1947 before returning for a longer period in 1948. This was a time when the greatest artists in France were surprisingly accessible. Although Picasso and Matisse had exiled themselves to the South of France, in Paris it was perfectly possible for a young British artist to meet Giacometti in a Montparnasse café and then visit him at his studio. What could have been more exciting for a new arrival to Paris than to find his heroes so approachable! The imprint of Turnbull's friendship with Giacometti can be seen in Turnbull's sculptures of the late 1940s and early 1950s which echo Giacometti's surrealist work of the early 1930s, and his paintings of the mid 1950s with their resemblance to Giacometti's recent work. Turnbull was well aware of existentialist readings of Giacometti, having read Sartre's essay on the artist of 1948, but he, like Paolozzi, combined this with the sense of fun they had at the fairground. Indeed shortly after Turnbull first arrived in Paris he did some drawings of a high-wire act that he saw at a Parisian circus, in which a figure purchases precariously on a monocycle, which would culminate in a sculpture of 1951 entitled Acrobat.

However, as Horizon, the leading cultural journal of 1940s Britain made clear, the fantasy of pre-war surrealism was increasingly subsumed by a more engaged post-war sensibility that was fuelled by existentialism and nihilism. In Paris this witnessed not only the supremacy of Alberto Giacometti but also of André Masson, artists who brought in their wake such tormented figures as Antonin Artaud and Jean Fautrier. As Sylvester asserted in a review of 1950: `the fact remains that it is these two men (Masson and Giacometti, aged fifty-odd and forty eight respectively) and not their juniors, who constitute the real avant-garde of contemporary art.'

Their anxious legacy can be inferred, too, from Lucian Freud's visit to Paris in 1948, one of the turning points in his career. Previously Freud had amazed with his equisite draughtsmanship, but now he added something more profound: a sense of disquiet, memorably encapsulated in his most brilliant early etching Ill in Paris. Meanwhile, Masson's pictures of the 1940s with their scenes of carnage would find a counterpart in the horrifying paintings that filled Bacon's first one-person show in 1949.

But perhaps above all others it was Giacometti whose status was most assured. A retrospective at the Tate Gallery in 1955 ensured that his mature work became as influential to young British painters such as Uglow, Auerbach and Kossoff as his surrealist work had been in the late 1940s for young sculptors including Butler, Paolozzi and Turnbull. But now Giacometti's example was moral, not just formal, signalling a decisive shift in the self-imaging of the artist from inventor to struggler. If Picasso represented facility and endless creativity then Giacometti was the antithesis: his was an art of effort and failure, attracting artists of similar commitment in Britain. Coldstream became a friend of the artist, putting up Giacometti when he visited London. Euan Uglow met Giacometti in 1957, meeting him for coffee on subsequent visits to Paris. More surprisingly, Francis Bacon only met Giacometti a few times and apparently only once in private. This was despite the fact that one of Bacon's closest friends and models, Isabel Rawsthorne, had previously been painted by Giacometti as well as by Derain and Picasso.

By now, Jean Dubuffet, had emerged as a serious rival. He, too, was the subject of a London exhibition in 1955, at the ICA, and the materiality of his surfaces and those to be found in a wave of other ICA exhibitions such as Mathieu (1956), Wols (1957), Michaux (1958) and Fautrier (1958), would generate a host of similarly concerned artist in Britain. The paint surface assumed a new significance in paintings and sculptures that oscillated between figuration and abstraction, as in such differently motivated artists as William Scott, Eduardo Paolozzi and Frank Auerbach.

Nonetheless, despite all the initial excitement, as early as the Festival of Britain of 1951 disillusionment at post-war French art had began to set in. It became commonplace to regard Paris as a city of two generations: an older generation of unsurpassed quality and a younger generation who had failed to live up to this. The British artists who had travelled to Paris soon returned to Britain - Raymond Mason was an exception, remaining in Paris to this day - and critics began to suggest that London had usurped Paris. Certainly, the quiet privation of Bernard Buffet and the playful exuberance of Jean Hélion had their admirers, but for British artists and critics, and indeed many of their French counterparts, there was a sense of dashed hopes. The suicide of Nicolas de Stael in 195 symbolised this sense of crisis.

Sylvester summed up this disillusionment in `Plight of Paris' (1952), declaring that Paris was a `tourist city in decline' in which there was a 'virtual extinction of the intellectual's café life. Its culture is in a process of mummification. In such an atmosphere, the imagination cannot breathe. The Paris School remains consummately professional as it becomes increasingly pointless. One would like to have just one contemporary artist to write home about - somebody who has not been labouring for years under an international reputation.' A few months later John Berger, otherwise Sylvester's great adversary drew similar conclusions, suggesting that in this verdict, at least, there was unanimity of opinion in Britain. In `Judgement on Paris' (1953) Berger declared that `Paris today seems to me to be a city sick with art, the victim of the second and third generation of its own genius. Or to put it less fancifully,[...] Economically there is a glut; intellectually a drought.'


As such British critics make clear, the denigration of post war French art certainly had a strategic imperative, coming alongside claims that young British artists were the true heirs to the pre-war giants of France and that London had replaced Paris as art capital of the world. Now, half a century since such denigration, it is timely to consider once again the achievements of a much maligned generation of French artists.

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