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  • Le Tumulte Noir: Modernist Art and Popular Entertainment in Jazz-Age Paris, 1900–1930
  • Michael Wutz
Jody Blake. Le Tumulte Noir: Modernist Art and Popular Entertainment in Jazz-Age Paris, 1900–1930. University Park: Penn State UP, 1999. viii + 207 pp.

Le Tumulte Noir is an interesting and engaging book. It aims at delineating the varied links and reciprocities between African American art, music, and dance popular in Paris before and after the Great War and the development of classical modernist art forms. As such, it extends and [End Page 1084] rewrites the formalist and elitist bias of many a modernist study in the visual arts (exemplified in Robert Goldwater’s Modern Painting and the Museum of Modern Art’s ambitious exhibition on “Primitivism” in 1984). Thus it is a welcome addition to the various cultural histories of modernism of late. Like William R. Everdell’s The First Moderns (1997) and Peter Nicholls’s Modernisms (1995), Le Tumulte Noir pays close attention to the various formations that successive generations of scholars have homogenized into the period labeled “modernism” and, as in the work of Everdell and Nicholls, the reader emerges with a more nuanced understanding of some modernist facets. While Le Tumulte Noir is not (and does not purport to be) as theoretically or scientifically informed as are Nicholls’s and Everdell’s studies, respectively, Blake’s work is similarly cross-disciplinary and, leaving aside some recent studies in the visual arts (such as Kenneth Silver’s Esprit de Corps or Mark Anthill’s Inventing Bergson), introduces a long-neglected but crucial social and political dimension into the production of art.

In a series of chronologically arranged chapters, Blake maps out the numerous resonances of l’art nègre in Jazz-Age Paris. In chapter 1, for example, she demonstrates how the “discovery” of “primitive” art by Matisse, Picasso, and André Derain, among others, was preceded and prepared for by the widespread acceptance of the cakewalk, the danse du gâteau, at the beginning of the century—the then-reigning dance of fashion among not only lower-class dance halls but also the private dances of the upper crust. She thereby provides not only an important context for one of the grand récits of modern art, but also suggests how avant-gardists, even as they appropriated “primitive” African motifs in the service of cultural critique, yet participated in a “form of artistic imperialism.” In chapter 2, Blake similarly shows that such artists as the orphist Sonja Delaunay, the salon cubist Albert Gleizes, the Italian futurist Gino Severini, and the maverick cubist Francis Picabia, among others, saw in the new dances and songs from North and South America expressive vehicles to capture the rhythmic pulsations and instinctual mass energies of the modern urban experience. Like Picasso and his circle, they too constructed African and South American rhythms and songs, particularly ragtime and the tango, as elemental and instinctual, and hence recognized in them a synergy of the old and the new, the supposedly primitive with the contemporary, the paradoxical fusion of body and machine energy. Chapter 3 presents [End Page 1085] an interesting alliance of jazz music and dada ideology, arguing that early jazz was frequently seen as a chaotic aggregation of (industrial) noise and hence a kind of musical equivalent to the frequently deafening agitations of dadaist performances. At the same time, given that the chromatic scales of jazz were, both literally and figuratively, at the fringes of the Western system of notation, it was an easy leap for the dadaists to see in African American music an vehicle for the channeling of what they championed most: unconscious, irrational forces beyond the threshold of clear articulation. As well, Blake suggests that it was precisely because of its paradoxical similarity to the noises of industrial warfare that the dadaists understood jazz as a form of Africanized bruitism, as an auditory bombardment aimed at entrenched notions of bourgeois art and civility. Chapter 4 traces the reaction formation against jazz in the wake of reascending patriotic sentiments after the war and the perceived need for a return to orderly classical forms, while the last chapters map out many suggestive reciprocities...

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