In Search of Past Times
Marcel Proust was the master of artistic time travel, as he spent the final decades of his life exploring the nature of memory, in a quest to understand the relationship between past and present. In today’s troubled present of economic malaise and political agitation, the art world of Paris is currently engaged in a Proustian exercise of reexamining, and celebrating, a lost golden age of splendor and creativity.
But it is a poet, rather than a novelist, whose spirit informs the current gathering of masterpieces in Paris’ museums. Guillaume Apollinaire was not only a great poet, but also moonlighted as an art critic – perhaps the most important French critic of the early 20th century. And it was in this latter guise that he extolled the triumphs of his close friend Pablo Picasso. Apollinaire first wrote of Picasso’s prodigious talent in 1905, and it is just this period that is now saluted in an enormous exhibition at the Musee d’Orsay that puts Picasso’s Blue and Rose periods in a spotlight. Apollinaire later became the first critic to write a book about Cubism, the most important art movement of the 20th century, and the crowning achievement of Picasso. The Pompidou currently presents a vast survey of that movement, that includes Picasso’s Still Life with Chair Caning, the first collage, that touched off a century of new genres created by conceptual young geniuses who were inspired by Picasso’s brash defiance of centuries of artistic tradition.
Apollinaire later coined the term surrealism, which was taken over by the poet André Breton as the name of his literary and artistic movement dedicated to automatism and the unconscious mind. Alberto Giacometti would become a key figure in Breton’s cause, as the inventor of the Surrealist object, before Giacometti was banished by Breton because of his realization that he had to pursue the art of reality. Giacometti’s sculpture, and its influence, is currently on display at the elegant Musee Maillol.
And the Grand Palais presents a major retrospective of another child of Surrealism, Picasso’s fellow Catalan Joan Miró. The younger Spaniard was influenced by both Fauvism and Cubism during his early years in Paris, but it was Surrealism that “opened a universe”
In a celebrated article of 1913, Apollinaire explained that Paris was the capital of art in the 19th century, because it combined the great talents of French artists with those of geniuses from other countries. This status continued in the period that Apollinaire celebrated with his critical essays and books. Apollinaire was gravely wounded while serving in the French army in 1915, and died at the age of 38 in the 1918 influenza epidemic, so he did not live to see Paris’ demise. Paris’ dominant status in the Western art world was shaken by World War I, and it was ended entirely by World War II: France ceased to produce great artists, and Paris ceased to be a magnet for the most ambitious artists from other countries.
Today France struggles with economic adversity and social unrest. Yet amidst their current troubles, the French can nonetheless take pleasure from the masterpieces that serve as visual reminders of a magical time when the western world’s greatest artistic advances were made in the studios and workshops of Paris.