Jan 9th 2019

In Search of Past Times

by David Galenson

David W. Galenson is Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago; Academic Director of the Center for Creativity Economics at Universidad del CEMA, Buenos Aires; and a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. His publications include Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity (Princeton University Press, 2006) and Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art (Cambridge University Press and NBER, 2009).

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.

DG Cubism
Le Cubisme at Centre Pompidou, Paris, France

 

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.

 

DG Giacometti
Giacometti exhibit at Musée Maillol, Paris, France

 

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”

 

DG Miro
Joan Miró exhibit at the Grand Palais, Paris, France

 

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.

 

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Feb 1st 2014

I first read Lewis Hyde’s The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, now in its 25-year anniversary edition, in the mid-eighties and I began to breathe again, I began to write to live—and I don’t mean support myself.

Jan 1st 2014

When Nobel Prizewinning author Alexander Solzhenitsyn died five years ago, I experienced several days of flashbacks to the surrealistic times of Soviet power. I had been a correspondent in Moscow in the 1960s and 1970s and my most vivid memory was encountering the great writer face to face.

Dec 31st 2013

“I wonder if anyone in my generation is able to make the movements of faith?”

Nov 16th 2013

This article was originally posted on Truthdig, www.truthdig.com, poste

Oct 21st 2013

Following on the heels of a new book by Jesse Ventura that maintains Lee Harvey Oswald was not John Kennedy’s lone assassin, plus a movie just out about the event, entitled “Parkland,” several books are about to be released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of

Sep 30th 2013

The demand for gossipy detail on writer J.D. Salinger’s private life seems to be a bottomless pit.

Sep 1st 2013

Alvin Lucier’s book: Music 109: Notes on Experimental Music, reviewed by Michael Johnson is in the Music Review section.

Aug 2nd 2013

I thought the book business was being choked to death by television and iPods but I must be wrong. Clean, well-lighted superstores are still going strong. Could customers merely be doing penance for spending too much time slumped on their living room couch? 

Jul 22nd 2013
Margaret Brown: You have your main character creating the story of his deceased wife’s affair through memory and invention. It’s a novel approach to narrative — how did you arrive at it?
Mary L.
Jul 20th 2013

The first time I encountered poet Dana Gioia was in 1991 when I read his controversial essay in The Atlantic Monthly, “Can Poetry Matter?” and then the book with that title that followed. Gioia has deeply influenced my own thinking about poetry, about literature and about work.

Jun 19th 2013
Journalists who left their native countries to report on the outside world find few things more distressing than the death throes of their profession. As today’s newspapers shrink, fold and “go digital”, television turns to entertainers and opinionators.
May 31st 2013

Robert Craft knew from an early age that his considerable musical gifts would never be quite enough to make him a great composer, conductor or performer.

May 20th 2013

Adventurous readers, myself included, make a practice of looking for talented new writers who are just waiting to be discovered. These solitary artists are often buried alive in the overcrowded publishing world, wondering if word-of-mouth will ever kick in.

May 20th 2013
None of us can say for certain how starvation might affect our behavior but I’m guessing that slow death by hunger is one of the most degrading ways to exit this life.