Brinksmanship

Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man: An Interpretive Biography

by Norman Mailer
Atlantic Monthly Press, 400 pp., $35.00

The twentieth century in Paris opened with a curious lull, almost a whimper. During the previous century, each generation had staged at least one political upheaval, culminating during the 1890s in a spate of anarchist bombings and the near revolution of the Dreyfus affair. By organizing their own exhibits, the Impressionist painters had found a detour around the Beaux Arts-Salon system. With their recently developed prose poetry, free verse, and stream-of-consciousness style, writers had abandoned the authority of the Académie Française in literature. But the seething activity designated by the loose term “avantgarde” seemed to slow down as the new century opened.

At the first Salon d’automne, in 1905, one central room housed the color-saturated works of Matisse, Derain, Braque, and Vlaminck along with a huge predatory jungle scene by the Douanier Rousseau. A journalist named it “the wild animal cage,” la cage aux fauves, and the movement known as Fauvism came into being. But it flourished for only two years before it flickered out. Scores of talents were hard at work in the Latin Quarter and on the slopes of Montmartre. But in literature Zola’s Naturalism and Mallarmé’s Symbolism appeared to hold everything at a standstill. In painting, the unprecedented work of Cézanne, van Gogh, Gauguin, and even the aging Monet would fall awkwardly into the makeshift category of post-Impressionism. It was Virginia Woolf who, on seeing their paintings in London, wrote: “On or about December 1910 human character changed.” What was happening in these years? Were the first two decades of our century an intermission or a turning point?

A bold simplification would focus on three forces affecting the cultural life of Paris during this period. The new technologies of automobiles, airplanes, electricity, telephones, phonographs, radios, cinematography, and bicycles led to an ethos of speed, belligerence, and scientism to be proclaimed in Paris by a group of Italian artists as Futurism. The best self-promoters and publicists in Europe, they persuaded the Paris daily Le Figaro to publish their manifesto in 1909.

At the same time other artists, writers, and musicians were discovering the appeal of African and Oceanic masks along with children’s drawings, the art of the insane, jazz, and folk music. No one wrote a counterpart manifesto of Primitivism, but the ingredients were there for the taking. Many of them became associated with the amorphous movement soon to find a name: Cubism.

A revived spirituality tending toward occultism and exotic religions ran even deeper through these years than Futurism and Primitivism. This was the era of a revived Rosicrucianism, Mme. Blavatsky’s theosophy, cosmic consciousness, and similar doctrines, many of them considered in William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). In Paris, as all over Europe and America, these spiritual currents left a deep mark on the arts.

Today, because of founding works by Stravinsky, Debussy, Schoenberg, Braque, Picasso, Matisse, Kandinsky, Proust, Apollinaire, Lawrence, Joyce, Chekhov, Mann, and Rilke, we see this pre—World War I interlude not as a lull …

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Letters

Tea with Alice April 4, 1996