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Modernism/Modernity 7.2 (2000) 309-310

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Book Review

Le Tumulte noir: Modernist Art and Popular Entertainment in Jazz Age Paris, 1900-1930

Le Tumulte noir: Modernist Art and Popular Entertainment in Jazz Age Paris, 1900-1930. Jody Blake. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999. Pp. 207. $65.00.

Le Tumulte noir was the title of a set of lithographs by Paul Colin, published in 1927 and inspired by the fashion created by La Revue nègre. The phrase connotes ebullient creation and the disorderly uproar of a mass of people. Jody Blake implicitly retains this dual connotation in order to examine the complex and changing responses to two major forms of primitivism--African art and African American music--in the context of French popular entertainment since the beginning of the century. She argues that examinations of primitivism in modernist art have been largely formalistic, and studies of the relations between visual arts and performing arts in Europe have been overly elitist; as a consequence, approaches to modernist art have underplayed its social and racial contexts. Therefore, by analyzing early French responses to black performance, notably the cakewalk, she documents how African objects were considered not in isolation but in their context.

In order to contextualize the flourishing of "primitivism" among Paris painters and sculptors, Blake starts with the trend to Africanize music and choreography and later examines the relationship to primitivism in modernist visual arts. Thus perceptions of (pre-)Jazz Age entertainment provide a framework for understanding modernist artists' evolving conception of African sculpture. Ragtime was introduced at the 1900 Exposition universelle and the cakewalk at the Nouveau cirque in 1903. Parisians embraced both because this music and dance represented the capitulation of "civilization" to "savagery" and an alternative to Western tradition: those strange rhythms were like the grotesque shapes of African art. This is apparent in the essay "La Danse est un sport" by Guillaume Apollinaire (1907) as well as in the popular success of the [End Page 309] "Negro" dances. And the fact that a fête noire featured black music at Galerie Devambez as early as 1919 shows that the artists who, like Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, "discovered" African art were well aware of African American music. Indeed, the French were more than ready to believe that ragtime and jazz were not only the next best thing to "the jungle tam-tam, they were also equivalent to savage fetishes" (5). French thinking, shaped by exotic novels and travelogues, actually gave priority to music and dance in defining the artistry of the race.

Blake thus considers trends like Orphism, Unanimism, and Futurism in relation to ragtime in pre-World War I France. She discusses mixed racial dancing at Bal Bullier and its impact on works by Francis Picabia, Sonia Delaunay, Albert Gleizes, or Gino Severini's painting The Bear Dance at the Moulin Rouge in the 1920s. She also considers literature and how, with the emergence of dadaism in Paris, jazz was enlisted into the agitational, antiart campaign.

In a very fine discussion of the split reactions of the audience of La Revue nègre at Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in 1925, Blake shows how quickly, in France, a reaction started against this "decadence." Soon satirists exploited the anxieties caused by the threat of negrification, which was subsumed under the notions of jazz and art nègre. The Catholic church and nationalist organizations asked for a return to decency and order.

The tumulte noir, however, was part of a generation for whom new dance steps were inseparable from changes in society. The surrealists embraced all kinds of African American music, although they believed that the revolutionary potential of art nègre had been used up. Jazz provided surrealists with a theoretical model for automatic writing, while their attempt to discover the truth of this music called attention to European racism. In their theorizing, the "Purists" opposed to the tumulte noir employed l'art nègre along with ancient art as a point of reference for jazz. This reduction...