In the early 20th century, Paris was the place to be for an artist, the undisputed capital of the art scene. Artists from all over the world converged on the city to escape political repression, economic hardship, religious persecution or just the stultifying boredom of provincial life. The School of Paris is the name traditionally given to the artists, some French but mostly foreign-born, working in Paris between the two world wars, “but they were not a school or movement in the usual sense,” writes Stanley Meisler in his new book. They produced no manifestos and indeed had no particular defining characteristics. “They were simply a phenomenon of history.”
One often overlooked feature of this phenomenon is that the foreign-born painters in the group were almost all from some part of the Russian Empire and almost all were Jewish: Moise Kisling, Pinchus Kremegne, Michel Kilkoine and Chana Orloff, to name a few, along with the much better known Marc Chagall, Amedeo Modigliani and Chaim Soutine. Meisler’s “Shocking Paris” tells the story of this group, who “made an impact on the history of art before most Parisians knew they were there.”
The title of the book alludes to the shock of many Parisian art critics and intellectuals when they realized that “their cherished world of painting was now in the hands of immigrants” — and, more shocking yet, Jewish immigrants.
The story Meisler tells weaves together art, immigration and, inevitably, politics. His focus is biography, with an emphasis on the story of Chaim Soutine, arguably the most talented and innovative member of the group, tracing Soutine’s story from his youth in a shtetl near Minsk to his death in 1943 while hiding from the Gestapo.
The first half of “Shocking Paris” paints a vivid picture of bohemian life in Paris, detailing the passions and personalities of artists, dealers and collectors, as well as shifting artistic currents: the “operatic tragedy” of Modigliani, the ambition and success of Chagall, the sauvage (wild) and fou (mad) intensity of Soutine, a painfully shy perpetual outsider who painted in frenzied bouts and savagely destroyed canvases not to his liking — even if they had been purchased.
The second half of “Shocking Paris” is darker, demonstrating the extent to which the art establishment’s xenophobic fear that French art would be bastardized by these immigrant (read: Jewish) artists was just one manifestation of the culturally widespread “anti-Semitism that enabled the French Vichy government to deport Jews to death so easily.”
“World War II obliterated the School of Paris,” Meisler concludes. “Hitler, the Nazis and the Vichy anti-Semites could count it as one of their victories … in their drive to rid the world of all things Jewish.” But the paintings did survive — many are reproduced in this volume — and they are testimony to a fascinating, if tragic, era in art history.
Patricia Hagen teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.