- Réveil anarchiste: Salon Painting, Political Satire, Modernist Art
Où sera votre Exposition? Dans les kiosques.—Jean-Louis Forain
The most notable fact of modernism is its “revolutionary” style: abrupt transitions, antinarrative structure, surprising juxtapositions. Such techniques depart from traditional “naturalistic” modes of discourse and communicate their all-important innovative relation to form. In pre-World War I France, many modernists—including Pablo Picasso, Frantißek Kupka, Maurice Vlaminck, and Kees van Dongen—thought anarchist politics to be inherent in the idea of an artistic avant-garde and created new formal languages expressive of their desire to effect revolutionary changes in art and society. 1 Yet while Fauvism, Cubism, and Orphism radically altered the art of this century, the social-esthetic theories that nurtured some of their most significant manifestations were discredited by the decline of the anarchist movement after 1914, the rightward swing of political discourse during and after the war, and the concurrent advent of a resolutely apolitical formalist art criticism. Thus a “revolutionary esthetics”—a “politics of form”—played a crucial role in the development of modern art in prewar France, but its significance was first suppressed and then forgotten. 2 [End Page 17]
To view the birth of modern art in this light fundamentally changes the received understanding of modernism in art-historical discourse. Rather than a small handful of ivory-tower artists fixed in a (post-World War I) canon that valorizes a few isolated careers, one sees a broad field of artists making artistic choices in response to the hot realities of cultural and political life. Picasso, for example, seeks a unity of theme and style expressive of his rejection of established art and society in much the same way as Kees van Dongen, and does so at the same time—though no “market,” intellectual or otherwise, recognizes their equivalence. Rather than the current galaxy of modernist giants, fixed in place by a system privileging “high” painted abstraction and equally high auction prices, one sees an entirely different constellation of figures whose work was valued at that complex time for offering a variety of pictorial solutions to the problems of expression and experience. Théophile Steinlen is a superb example of an artist whose work was considered of major importance to cultural critics in the period, but whose very allegiance to political themes, caricatural styles, and allegorical and narrative genres—all germane to his career as a cartoonist—disqualifies him as a significant modernist for the wilfully amnesiac culture of post-World War I. Rather than finding them subject to the autocracy of oil on canvas, one sees artists purposely working in other media—particularly satirical cartoons—with the aim of reaching a variety of audiences for specifically political purposes; an understanding of the contemporary issues that inspired these cartoons and influenced the left-wing bohemia of Paris before World War I will help to make sense of the involvement of modern artists with anarchist journals such as L’Assiette au beurre and Les Temps nouveaux, and the seriousness of their engagement with political issues of the day. Anarchism as a political philosophy was without question more influential on turn-of-the-century artists than socialism, in part because anarchist theory specifically called for the participation of artists in social transformation and in part because anarchism at one end of its spectrum stood for an absolute individualism fully compatible with a politicized bohemianism; socialism played a smaller, if still significant, role in prewar French artistic culture. 3 In short, attending to the role of left-wing politics, and specifically anarchism, in prewar Europe presents a telling corrective to myths about modernist art still in force. 4
Leftist politics characterized the art of prewar France much more than is usually realized. From large-scale salon paintings to political cartoons to avant-garde abstractions, artists preoccupied with social criticism sought appropriate mediums, styles, and audiences based on their differing conceptions of art’s influence on society. 5 Whether they employed “high” or “low” media and aimed at “high” or “low” audiences reflected conscious choices made in relation to a complex field of production and marketing. Socially-critical academic artists such as Jules Adler...