Shock­ing Paris: Sou­tine, Cha­gall and the Out­siders of Montparnasse

  • Review
By – May 11, 2015

This immense­ly read­able book tells the sto­ry of the immi­grant artists in Paris from just before World War I to the years lead­ing up to the Sec­ond World War, most of whom were Jew­ish and came from the Russ­ian empire. It is more social his­to­ry than art his­to­ry, for the author is not a trained art his­to­ri­an but a jour­nal­ist with an inter­est in the artists who lived in Paris in the 1980s.

Of those artists who fled reli­gious per­se­cu­tion and ide­o­log­i­cal repres­sion, Chaim Sou­tine and Marc Cha­gall receive the great­est atten­tion — though it was not only the escape,” but also the des­ti­na­tion that count­ed. Paris was con­sid­ered the cen­ter of artis­tic cre­ativ­i­ty and many non-Jew­ish artists, includ­ing Picas­so and Diego Rivera, spent years work­ing there. Sou­tine and Cha­gall — as well as fel­low art stu­dents from Vil­na, Pinchus Kre­meg­ne and Michel KikoÏne — lived and worked at La Ruche (“the Bee­hive”), a famous home for artists on the Left Bank of the Seine that opened in 1902 and still func­tions today.

The author con­tex­tu­al­izes the sto­ry of the poor immi­grant artists who spoke very lit­tle French, giv­ing his­tor­i­cal back­ground to the atmos­phere in which the artists lived — includ­ing the Drey­fus Affair and World War I. Meisler quotes con­tem­po­rary assess­ments of many of the artists whose lifestyles often worked against their recog­ni­tion in their life­times: Amadeo Modigliani, who had arrived in Paris from Italy in 1906, for exam­ple, also set­tled in Mont­par­nasse on the Left Bank and chose to asso­ciate with the immi­grants, even though he spoke flu­ent French and was from a wealthy family.

The chap­ter on Dr. Albert Coombs Barnes, the Philadel­phia physi­cian who became an art col­lec­tor and in 1922 bought more than fifty works by Sou­tine, includes the var­i­ous accounts that have been pub­lished over the years about that pur­chase, which turned a lit­tle-known artist into an instant, if some­what con­tro­ver­sial, celebrity.

By the late 1920s, the fact that so many of the artists of the so-called School of Paris” were immi­grant Jews began to elic­it anti-Semit­ic reviews, espe­cial­ly by the increas­ing­ly xeno­pho­bic French writ­ers. The edi­tor of Le Figaro, Camille Mau­clair, called Mont­par­nasse the filth of Paris” and vil­i­fied the Jew­ish artists open­ly and aggres­sive­ly. Oth­er crit­ics tend­ed to dis­tin­guish the School of Paris” from oth­er French art and pre­dict­ed its dis­ap­pear­ance from the world of impor­tant art.

The Depres­sion, the scan­dal of the swindler Serge Alexan­dre Stavisky, and the grow­ing threat of Hitler and Fas­cism are all inter­wo­ven with the lives of the Jew­ish artists. Meisler focus­es on the trag­ic life of Jules Pascin and on Soutine’s trag­ic death. The fall of France sig­ni­fied the end of Jew­ish art in Paris, which includ­ed deal­ers, poets, crit­ics, and col­lec­tors. (Hitler planned to con­fis­cate much of the great art in muse­ums but dis­missed any­thing by Jew­ish artists as degen­er­ate.”) Cha­gall man­aged to escape to the Unit­ed States, as did sev­er­al oth­ers; few returned to France after the war.

Shock­ing Paris is enhanced by small but high-qual­i­ty col­or repro­duc­tions of works by Sou­tine, Pascin, Cha­gall, and Modigliani.

Esther Nuss­baum, the head librar­i­an of Ramaz Upper School for 30 years, is now edu­ca­tion and spe­cial projects coor­di­na­tor of the Halachic Organ Donor Soci­ety. A past edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World, she con­tin­ues to review for this and oth­er publications.

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