Interviews

The Immoveable Feasts of French Modernism

by John Seed on September 2, 2014

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Jean Hélion, “L’Homme au Front Rouge” (1946) (image via gandalfsgallery/Flickr)

Paris, because of its centrality, gave artists the strength to be intuitive, skeptical, ferociously individualistic. Paris was a place, but also an idea, liberating in its largeness. And so it was in Paris that most of the essential revolutions of twentieth-century art had their beginnings.

—Jed Perl

LOS ANGELES — In 1988 Jed Perl, a critic in his mid-thirties who had written for Vogue, Art in America, and The New Criterion, published his first book: Paris Without End: On French Art Since World War IIt consisted of a series of critical, historical and biographical essays on Matisse, Picasso, Derain, Léger, Dufy, Braque, Giacometti, Balthus, and Hélion, assessing and generally praising some key achievements, and also locating each man in the “liberating largeness” of modernism’s first capital.

55970109874380LConceived as a kind of “love letter,” this billet-doux between two covers was addressed not only to the eight dead and one living artist (Balthus) who Perl had written about, but also to the many living artists and others who the author felt would share his view that many of the seminal achievements — and lesser known periods — of French modernism’s “Old Masters” had been ignored, pushed aside or wrongly dismissed. It was Perl’s first book and also his concentrated attempt at doing what emerging critics need to do in order to be taken seriously: convincingly re-assess and re-rank major figures.

Just re-published by Arcade Publishing in a 25th anniversary edition, Paris Without End is still an edifying, and engaging read. Even if Perl’s essays fail to convince you — for example, that Raoul Dufy is an “inadequately appreciated genius” — the grace and smoothness of his prose will likely earn this book a place on your bedside table. In his chapter “Matisse: The Cathedral and the Odalisque,” Perl writes that there is “ … something infinitely reliable at the center of French art; something that attracts artists, that they want to make contact with.” As a critic, Perl feels the same pull, and he seems to have found his critical bearings while writing about Parisian art and culture.

Some of the biases and oversights that Perl discerned when he first wrote his essays have since been more than corrected. In particular, the critical estimation of Picasso’s late works, which Perl had lauded in a chapter titled “A Grande Finale,” has made a dramatic leap upwards. The rankings of several of Perl’s other artist/subjects — most notably Jean Hélion, who Perl feels is “one of the great artists of our time” — haven’t risen in the same fashion. For example, in a stinging 2005 review of a 60-year Hélion survey at the National Academy Museum, critic Roberta Smith of the New York Times dinged the artist as having been “just an above-average apostate … ”

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Balthus, “Thérèse Dreaming” (1938) (image © Balthus and courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Several artists that Perl praised twenty-five years ago — including Braque and Derain — have since remained museum standards with steady but carefully circumscribed reputations. In his essay on Andre Derain, “Angles are the Fate of a Form,” Perl wrote with great suavity and conviction, reminding his readers that the man was once “part of the ruling triumvirate of School of Paris art.” In Perl’s essay Derain is presented as doing his best work in the twenties and thirties, not in his canonical and much-loved Fauvist period. Perl sees Derain as an exemplar of an admirable French quality: modesty.  While acknowledging some of the controversies that tainted Derain’s reputation — the artist’s visit to Weimar to shake Hitler’s hand is one of them — Perl offers context and tries to keep the focus on Derain’s art. In Perl’s view Derain remains, “one of the company of modern art.” Contrast that with what Edward Lucie-Smith’s damning assessment of 1999: “Of all the major figures in the École de Paris, André Derain’s reputation has sunk into the deepest trough. It is doubtful if it will ever again stand as high as it did between the two World Wars.”

Perhaps the book’s most convincing and revelatory chapter, “Popular Dance Halls,” paints Fernand Léger as the “unsinkable vessel” of Parisian styles and ideas: in Perl’s estimation, his work is “never less than first rate.” Perl also credits Léger with pulling off a rather amazing trick: his art “revels in clichés,” and “operates in the very midst of mass culture without getting generally sullied by it.” Reading those words, I felt a renewed interest in Léger. I hadn’t heard him praised in those terms before and Perl’s essay left me wanting to look at his work with new eyes.

After reading Paris Without End, I contacted Jed Perl to ask him a few questions.

*   *   *

John Seed: Has the group of nine artists you wrote about in Paris Without End set the standard against which you have continued to measure the work and achievements of other modern and contemporary artists? 

Jed Perl: I don’t think there’s one standard: I think quality in art depends on a fluid, interrelated range of qualities. I would say that the artists I love have continually challenged me to rethink what’s possible in the visual arts, what new qualities can be discovered, qualities that always relate to older qualities and add up to a general sense of quality or possibility. What I love about Balthus — what I loved about watching his work evolved for some twenty-five years — was seeing the new challenges he set himself, the way he kept evolving. He was a great experimentalist to the end — but of course that was because he understood that tradition itself is a continuing experiment: a tradition that doesn’t keep evolving will die.

JS: Tell me a bit more about your relationship with the city of Paris. Have you spent much time there?

JP: Although I’ve never spent more than a week or two at a time in the city — I first went while still in college — I’ve always felt the pull of the city’s civilized magic: something easy and elegant but also somehow astringent about the life of the streets, the cafes, the bakeries, the bookstores, the restaurants, the apartments, the markets, the movie houses, the bridges, the little squares, the fountains, the parks, and of course the museums.

JS: It sounds like one of the reasons these essays came about is that so many fine shows of French modernism came to New York in the 80s. Is that all part of a bygone era?  

JP: Not all the shows I wrote about in Paris Without End were in New York, and there have certainly been remarkable shows of School of Paris work in New York in more recent years: terrific Picasso shows at Gagosian; a sensational Braque show at Acquavella; Bonnard and Vuillard shows at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Jewish Museum; several dazzling Giacometti shows in galleries. And we have the Matisse cutout show coming to MoMA this fall. You always have to pick and choose: the exhibitions are always a mixed bag.

JS: If there is one artist in your book that really needs to be seen again in the US would you say it is Hélion?

JP: Hélion has never been well understood in the US, although he lived here for some years, had many friends here, and wrote his World War II memoir, They Shall Not Have Me, in English and had an American publisher. Frankly, I worry that America will never really understand Hélion. Not that he’s very well understood in France, either. Hélion was both a formalist and a naturalist — he invented his own, dazzling synthesis — but people don’t seem to accept it. The problem, so I believe, is that he had no patience for all the twentieth century’s fixed assumptions about abstraction and representation and how they can and cannot be joined. There was an Hélion show at the National Academy in New York not too many years ago, and it was not big enough or well selected enough, and it received a viciously negative review from Roberta Smith in the Times. But many great artists have been misunderstood at one time or another. Hélion will endure. Two new publications promise to bring Hélion’s ideas to the attention of a new generation of readers. Double Rhythm, edited by Deborah Rosenthal, is the first book to collect the writings he produced about art in English; and there is also a new edition of his war memoir.

JS: In “Transatlantic Relations” — your book’s closing essay — you mention that postwar American artists gradually came to think of themselves as equal to and even superior to French artists. Were they deluded? 

JP: No, not deluded. There was an energy in New York: a kind of energy that was increasingly in short supply in Paris. Certain traditions have flourished more in New York than in Paris: for example the intimism of Vuillard and Bonnard, which in the 1960s and 1970s was probably better understood in the New York work of Fairfield Porter and Nell Blaine than in anything being done in Paris.

Jed Perl’s Paris Without End: On French Art Since World War I is available from Amazon and other booksellers.

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  • KathleenFennessy

    Thanks, John for bringing the 25th Anniversary Edition of Jed Perl’s Paris Without End to our attention…it is well worth our time.However, contrary to Mr. Perl’s assertion that Roberta Smith’s 2005 NY Times review of the Jean Helion show at the National Academy Museum was “viciously negative”, Ms. Smith’s overview even identifies what Mr.Perl calls Helion’s “own, dazzling synthesis” as an admirable distinction of the artist’s work.In her review, Ms.Smith says, “As an artist, Helion appears to have been a brilliant sponge, but one whose command of brush, composition and color enabled him to lift his synthesis of other artists’ ideas above humdrum derivativeness.” Hardly a particularly “vicious” take on Helion, but unlike Mr. Perl, Ms. Smith does seem to recognize that his brilliance as a “synthesizer” of artistic styles did not take him to the level of “one of the great artists of our time”.

  • John Seed

    Kathleen, your points are well taken. Smith’s take on Helion hardly seems vicious. You are a careful, thoughtful reader.

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