Posted By Tom on April 2, 2015
Paris is a city of culture, romance and revolution. The Paris art world reached its apex in the twentieth century, when it played host to the daring and colourful modernist movement. Aidan Meller is currently paying homage to the breadth and diversity of Parisian modernism with a new display of rare and unique artworks.
Future stars such as Picasso and Matisse were drawn to the city by an art scene that had been flourishing for generations. But throughout the nineteenth century, French art was a battleground. The neoclassical painting championed by the state was in constant competition with brilliant, controversial figures such as Édouard Manet, whose work seemed to continue the insurgent spirit which had sparked the revolution of 1789.
The rise of capitalist entrepreneurship at this time created a new wave of art collectors; figures such as department store magnate Ernest Hoschedé had no interest in continuing the collecting habits of the old aristocracy. They bought the art of the future, sustaining the Impressionist movement and laying the groundwork for the more shocking developments to follow.
Artists such as Edgar Degas, Auguste Renoir and later, Paul Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Cézanne, made Paris a beacon of creativity. By the early twentieth century the districts of Montmatre and and Montparnasse saw the arrival of foreigners such as Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Juan Gris and Joan Miró. Artists were also drawn to Paris from other parts of France, Henri Matisse and Raoul Dufy, hailing from the north, were among the most notable. Cheap studio space allowed these artists to devote themselves to daring and inventive work which as yet, had no real market.
In the early 1900s, the likes of Picasso, Chagall and Matisse were making daring experiments. Not only were they taking the methods of Gauguin, Cézanne and others to new extremes, they were combining European influences with a melting pot of outside sources. These included the tribal sculpture of Africa and the folk art of Russia.
In the coming years, modernism would explore everything from Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic discoveries to the cave painting of pre-historic Spain. In the first decades of the century, the use of symbolic and expressive colour found in Post-Impressionism was fused with the raw energy of Matisse’s fauvism and of Picasso’s early cubism. This was a clear sign that modernism was breaking with realism in order to explore the life of the mind and the totemic power of the art object.
For Picasso the artwork was not simply a representation of scenes or objects in the world, it was a new reality with a magnetic life all of its own. He was drawn to the city’s outcasts, circus performers and street musicians, all of whom took on a romantic status for the artist, reappearing throughout his opus.
A number of works in the Aidan Meller Galleries’ collection reflect stylistic changes that came over modernism in the wake of the First World War. At that time immigrant artists suffered from xenophobic suspicion, and a number of Picasso’s own close circle were conscripted or forced into exile. Picasso gained new friends in the world of ballet, including his wife Olga Khokhlova and Jean Cocteau. At various times, Picasso, Cocteau, Dalí, Miró and Matisse all worked as designers (and in Cocteau’s case, as a writer) for the famous Ballet Russe, with which Khokhlova danced.
Picasso immersed himself in the world of classical mythology and his work assumed the softer form we see in a number of the original etchings in this collection. The influence of what is known as his classical period extends to the famous Vollard Suite, his finest graphic work, well represented in Aidan Meller’s collection. Cocteau’s own work shares with the classical Picasso a sense of pastoral mystery and a warm poetry of line.
Matisse’s work takes on a similar tranquility at this time and the collection documented in this book contains an example of the “odalisque” style he adopted in the 1920s, when he left the hustle and bustle of Paris for the Mediterranean.
The return to a more figurative style at this time underlines the fact that, despite the modernist tendency towards abstraction, a deep respect for figure drawing underpins most of these artists’ work. Aidan Meller’s collection boasts early life drawings by Chagall and Raoul Dufy. Dufy, like Matisse, came from the industrial north of France and rose to prominence as part of the Fauvist movement. He first saw Matisse’s work in 1905, and it had a profound affect on him, setting him on a course to making his own boldly coloured Fauvist paintings. Dufy is particularly well known for his nautical scenes. The life drawings in Aidan Meller’s collection date from 1909, when he was studying the work of Cézanne and introduced soft, subtle contours into his work.
Modernism was also, of course, profoundly affected by World War Two, and much of the work documented here reflects their dispersal from Paris. For Joan Miró, a Catalan, art was a medium of both joy and rebellion. Always concerned with the expression of his national identity, Miró had resisted the prevalent academic culture in Barcelona, and developed a wild, hieroglyphic style which referenced ancient cave painting even as it drew on the cerebral worlds of surrealism and modern poetry. Like the art of George Braque, Miró’s work exhibits an interest in the power of the letter or glyph divorced from everyday language.
Miró’s career initially had parallels with that of Salvador Dalí, another Catalan who moved to Paris and became involved with Surrealism. But whereas Miró’s work was never programmatically surrealist, Dalí became a leading light of the movement, until his expulsion from it in 1934. Dalí refused to accept the judgement, saying, “I myself am Surrealism”. Dalí was a prodigiously talented draughtsman, and his work operated with the same sense of scale and drama associated with Old Masters such as Francisco de Zurbarán and Diego Velázquez.
Aidan Meller’s collection includes a number of pieces by Dalí and Miró from the postwar period, when the contrasts between these two Catalan surrealists became even more pronounced. Dalí spent World War Two in the United States, returning to his native Spain thereafter. His work took on a religious and classically-inspired turn. His work was characterised by what he called “nuclear mysticism”. Inspired by quantum physics and Catholicism, this phase of Dalí’s career is concerned with the nature of perception and with hidden realities.
Miró, in contrast, continued to work in a demonstrative manner. Rather than, as Dalí did, placing figurative objects into surreal juxtapositions, he made work that was abstract and yet rooted in political realities. Miró’s work relies on the complex interplay of compositional elements. A given piece would often start off with spontaneous gestures, and Miró was quoted as saying “The starting point is absolutely irrational, sudden and unconscious: I start off blindly.” However he would complete his works in a very measured fashion, gradually adding elements to harmonise the balance and overall energy of the composition. The freedom and life the work expressed was, for Miró, an analogy for the freedom of spirit which resisted the Franco regime.
Aidan Meller’s collection reflects the breadth and diversity of the School of Paris. The modernism of Picasso, Matisse, et al., set down intellectual and stylistic challenges which the art world is still assimilating. Modernism is both cerebral and immediate, mystical and yet grounded in the primacy of the well-made object. It continues to animate the art world, to fascinate critics and collectors.
Dr. Thomas Slingsby.