Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Bohemian Paris by Dan Franck. Cynthia Hope Liebow, translator.

Bohemian Paris is a lively portrait of the arts social scene between Montmartre and Montparnasse, from the late 1890’s to the 1930’s. Its chapters are predominately short biographical sketches of the personalities who lived in Paris. Their stories are laced with personal, sentimental and often lurid details of each subject’s life. Artists weave in and out of each other’s biographies, giving a sense of community and atmosphere to the book.

The writing is quite good. Dan Franck has an excellent translator in Cynthia Hope Liebow, who is able to maintain the author’s images with the smooth, informal style of an experienced storyteller. And a story it is, told in a narrative form by an author who has written some fiction. Those seeking hard, empirical historiography will be disappointed.

Sometimes factual reality suffers for the sake of story: “While Kiki and Man Ray were drifting off to sleep on the first page of their love story, a girl of about twenty was pushing open the door of her apartment on the rue Cardinet” (Franck, p. 332). This is a clumsy segue, not a chronological fact. The author also employs conflation as if it were a noble device, when describing a scene: We know that, when Picasso was told that his portrait of Gertrude Stein did not look like her, he responded “she will end up looking like it.” We know that Stein said of Madame Picasso “All she can talk about are three things: hats, perfume and furs.” We know that Braque was upset that his paintings were being blackened near Stein’s hearth. These are old chestnuts. But we can be relatively certain that they did not occur at the same party as expressed in the chapter “An Afternoon on the Rue de Fleurus.” Finally, there is a good deal of hyperbole: Derain “Knew everything there was to know about the literature of his time” (Franck, p. 66). “When [Picasso] was fourteen, his father deposited his own paints and brushes at his son’s feet, giving up an art in which the youngster had already surpassed him” (Picasso’s father was both a professional artist and art professor who did not give up his career at the age of 57)  (Franck, p. 16).

Because of this elevation of story above history, one begins to question some of the book’s claims. I found myself hitting the internet to investigate some of the more dramatic assertions. I was pleased to find that there were no deliberate falsifications. The reader will be amazed at the number of sordid details Franck was able to catalog.

There are undoubtedly times when the serious art lover or historian will be frustrated by the quantity of gossip and the obsession with subjects’ eccentricities. Additionally, there are segments that are tasteless. The author feels it necessary to mention more than once that Kiki of Montparnasse did not wear undergarments. The suicide of Jules Pascin is gratuitously described. Serious study is not a phrase that accurately describes this book.

One consistent problem with Bohemian Paris is that there is so little about the art itself. In a social history of art, one would expect to read more about how the artists influenced each other, what they discussed in terms of theory or technique, etc. Certainly there is some of this, but the author is more concerned with what drugs or lovers these people shared than what influences they shared. More time is spent describing how individuals dressed, rather than how they thought about their work.

To his credit, Franck covers some lesser-known figures of early 20th Century Paris. Some are artists whose biographies are hard to find. More importantly, Franck includes the women of Paris. So few women were accepted in the artistic domain, that it is refreshing to discover their lives and ambitions. Unfortunately, (except for Gertrude Stein) the women are only important in terms of the men with whom they’re sleeping. Even Marie Laurencin, an artist in her own right who sold more paintings than many of the men, is discussed mainly as an appendage of Guillaume Apollinaire.

There is some value, beyond entertainment value, in the dishy social approach Franck chooses. This book is helpful to someone who already knows a good deal about Modern Art history, because it provides so much more information about personal lives and relationships than a traditional text. As a record of friendships, rivalries and social interactions, Bohemian Paris can help connect some dots in terms of social and environmental influence. One can even benefit from the sordid details: Knowing the eccentricities, problems, addictions and obstacles faced by the artist, does lend perspective to his or her work. There is little value in other books’ attempts to depict the artists of this (or any) period as flawless paragons of their profession. Few histories of this culture contain so many personal and environmental details recorded in one place. I would suggest that those new to Art History read a text first; then use this book to make connections and flesh-out the environment in which the creativity of Modern Art occurred. My personal recommendation on the subject of Modern Art is The Shock of the New by Robert Hughes, but that is a subject for a future review.

Franck, Dan & Liebow, Cynthia Hope (translator). Bohemian Paris. New York: Grove Press, 2001.

For review of a book that contains a comprehensive discussion of this time and place in art, see:
http://greatnonfictionbooks.blogspot.com/2013/05/jansons-history-of-art-by-hw-janson.html

For review of a general history on France during this time period, see:
http://greatnonfictionbooks.blogspot.com/2013/09/france-in-modern-times-by-gordon-wright.html

For a discussion of cubism, see:
http://greatnonfictionbooks.blogspot.com/2013/07/cubism-synthesis-of-robert-hughes-eh.html