Many a living artist is preoccupied with achieving recognition in their own time, and not without reason — we cannot all rely on the luck of Vivian Maier, to be discovered and championed posthumously. While finding reception for one’s work is a gratifying and necessary career aspect for those artists without other means of support, there is perhaps a blind spot to this obsession, as it supposes that once discovered, a legacy will remain. That’s one of the interesting parts of Theatres of Melancholy: The Neo-Romantics in Paris and Beyond (Thames & Hudson, 2022), by Patrick Mauriès, which highlights a movement and group of artists who found acclaim and patronage in some of the biggest names of their era, only to fall back into obscurity, eclipsed by the shifting shadows of more titanic art movements.
Mauriès focuses on a group of artists — Christian Bérard and Thérèse Debains, both French; Russians Pavel Tchelitchew and the brothers Eugène and Leonid Berman; and the Dutchman Kristians Tonny — who sparked the movement in 1926 with a three-day exhibition at the Galerie E. Druet in Paris. The show made waves, rejecting abstraction and making a return to figurative painting that employed anachronistic techniques, such as trompe l’oeil. Its practitioners were also playful and experimental, contributing to theater, decorative arts, and ballet through their painting, rather than remaining hermetically sealed off from other forms of expression, and were dubbed the “Neo-Romantics” or “Neo-Humanists” by art critic Waldemar-George, one of their passionate supporters.
Waldemar-George was hardly their only major champion; additional fans of the movement or individuals within it included Gertrude Stein, Alfred Barr, George Balanchine, Coco Chanel, and Christian Dior, among others. Some of these connections were overt, as with Stein, who incidentally features Neo-Romantic paintings in the final chapter of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), as “a pretext for a final discussion of the course of modern art in the early years of the twentieth century,” according to Mauriès.
Part of the Neo-Romantic shtick was a determined resistance to the idea that abstraction was the logical endpoint of contemporary art, though it seems the group agreed on little besides a general rejection of any unifying ethos or aesthetic. Regardless, the Neo-Romantics seem truly to be artist’s-artists, with a willingness to engage in lively discourse, backed by the production of beguiling paintings. The work of Mauriès to recover these once-darlings of the popular imagination — swept aside by the rise of Surrealism and the shifting tides of the art world from Paris to New York, following WWII — demonstrates that in order to endure, artists need not simply be recognized in their own time, but to find an audience even in the unimaginable future.
Theatres of Melancholy: The Neo-Romantics in Paris and Beyond by Patrick Mauriès (Thames & Hudson, 2022) is available through online retailers.
Editor’s note 2/2/2023 6:40pm EST: A previous version of this article included an error in the timeline of the Galerie E. Druet exhibition referenced. The exhibition took place in 1926 and did not coincide with Cubism. This error has been corrected.
Goya’s Coded Love Letter to the Duchess of Alba
Goya neatly clothes himself in his own world of fantasy: He will have her in the end. In life, where the climate is much chillier, it was, alas, to be otherwise.
Witches Take Over Westchester
Bowen’s multimedia art is an alchemical mix of the sensuous and arcane, and it is more than a little witchy.
The Public Theater Explores the Hurricane Katrina Diaspora in shadow/land
Written by Erika Dickerson-Despenza and directed by Candis C. Jones, this lyrical meditation on legacy, erotic fugitivity, and self-determination is on view in NYC.
14 Art Books and Catalogues We’re Reading This Month
Anthologies and catalogues on feminist art in Latin America, Native mound building, Armenian photography, and more are on our reading list.
Saudi Arabia Announces $1M “Freedom of Expression” Art Award
Kanye West, Roman Polanski, and Carl Andre are among the shortlisted artists.
The Rubin Museum Presents Death Is Not the End
Tibetan Buddhist and Christian works of art made across 12 centuries explore death, the afterlife, and the desire to continue to exist. On view in NYC.
British Museum Offers Greece “Exclusive NFT” of the Parthenon Marbles
“With the power of blockchain technology, there will be no question who the real owner is,” said a British Museum spokesperson.
MoMA to Co-Curate Exhibition With NYPD
Arrest Me, Daddy hopes to cast a more positive light on the work of law enforcement officers.
When I Am Empty Please Dispose of Me Properly
Ayanna Dozier, Ilana Harris-Babou, Meena Hasan, Lucia Hierro, Catherine Opie, Chuck Ramirez, and Pacifico Silano explore the myths of the American Dream at Brooklyn’s BRIC House.
Repatriation-Inspired Fragrance Line Hopes to Heal Collector Wounds
The exotic scents of the Rapatriement line offer solace and joy to dismayed collectors who were forced to return looted artifacts.
Mediocre Painting Thought AI-Generated Revealed as Work of Real Artist
Visitors who spoke to Hyperallergic said they were “horrified” to learn that a human could come up with such a banal and poorly executed artwork.
Pratt’s 2023 Fine Arts MFA Thesis Exhibition Is On View in Brooklyn
The two-part exhibition features the work of 41 graduating artists across disciplines, including painting, sculpture, printmaking, and integrated practices.
Prince Harry to Star in New Van Gogh Biopic
The estranged prince said he took the role to raise awareness of mental health issues.
Newly Discovered Trove of Vermeer Works Reveals He Painted Mainly Dogs
A cache of 243 paintings found in an English castle, all depicting canine subjects, suggests Vermeer’s true aspiration was to become a dog portraitist.