A colony of some 100 foreign artists enabled the emergence of a unique and colourful phenomenon in the legendary territory of Montparnasse between 1910 and 1940, the School of Paris (Ecole de Paris).
No one really knows who invented such label during the years when Paris was the centre of the world for art creation.
The French had invented Impressionism, Cubism, Fauvism and Paris was the ideal meeting place for all sort of groups. Every good artist had only one wish in mind and that was to go to the French capital and inhale its unique atmosphere. There were dozens of celebrated studios but also an exciting life outside especially in the cafés of Montmartre and Montparnasse.
Many artists came from central Europe after a stop in Vienna, Berlin or Munich and they naturally brought with them their own culture. That is how the School of Paris emerged in the footpath of Impressionism, Cubism and Fauvism. Its artists all showed a leaning towards Expressionism, a trend never absorbed in France in pure form as it was rather alien to the culture of harmony and restraint despite finding its roots in French picturalism.
These artists were first of all willing to fulfil the promise of a life different from the one they experienced in their native countries. They wanted freedom in every respect and it was in Paris that they could find it. As Chagall once stressed, it was because the sun of art shone at that time only in Paris.
They came with their sorrows, their memories, their habits, their Russian, Polish, Romanian or German accents and their dreams. They lived with little means sharing attic rooms and shacks in Montparnasse or Montmartre. They soon adopted a fatalist philosophy and regrouped together so as to protect themselves from an unfriendly environment. They lived day by day, carrying on endless chats about art, attended popular balls, engaged in love affairs and some of them drank a lot but they overcame vicissitudes by working intensely over their canvasses.
As the Polish writer Mariusz Rosiak pointed out in an article published in 1992 there were 172 foreign artists out of the 950 who participated in the 1919 Salon d'Automne. A year later, there were 181 foreigners amongst the 928 registered at the Salon des Indépendants and in 1924, at the same Salon, their number rose to 322 out of 1150 participants.
Many foreign artists had settled in France and a growing number of galleries took the risk of exhibiting their works. These were the Galerie Berthe Weill, Galerie Bernheim Jeune, Galerie Bing, Galerie Druet, Galerie des Quatre Chemins, Galerie Chéron, Galerie Denise René, Galerie Georges Petit and the Galerie Zborowski which opened in 1926.
Earlier Leopold Zborowski had been active selling the paintings of Modigliani, his close friend.
Many intellectuals backed this foreigners who had invented a new style of painting which gave the School of Paris its own specificity. However, these painters did not form a united grouping or did not belong to a movement. They in fact were attached to the School through their place of residence and also because they did not belong to any other movement. All the more Picasso, the Dutch Kees Van Dongen and some French painters like Derain, Vlaminck, Utrillo and even Matisse were once linked to such School as Fauvism was notably a reference of the past by 1914.
One could say that the School of Paris was also the emanation of an artistic atmosphere which had much influence on these painters who primarily painted with deep feelings using a poignant and violently colourful brush.
These painters were not simply Expressionists like the Germans were simply because they instilled something Jewish in their paintings and it is not really by accident that the great painters of this so-called School, Marc Chagall, Amedeo Modigliani, Chaim Soutine, Moïse Kisling or Julius Pascin, were Jews.
By referring to the School of Paris embraces one should understand that it embraces the output of all foreign artists whose biographies, works and careers were inseparable from Paris of the years 1910-1930. It is also interesting to note that the term Ecole de Paris was used before World War One by German newspapers when they pinpointed all avant-garde trends that could be set against German Expressionism. Therefore, Picasso was the most remarkable representative of that School which also had Matisse, Rouault, Utrillo, Chagall, Soutine, Suzanne Valadon, Foujita and Modigliani in its ranks.
In fact such classification was rather wrong because of the short-lived experience of Fauvism and of the difficult task critics faced when they had to link certain artists to a specific movement. For instance there were some exhibitions in the French capital called «paintings from the new Ecole de Paris» which showed only Cubist works.
So the best approach to explain the meaning of that School would be to take into account the output of a historic group of painters active in Montparnasse before 1930. Now, it is true that most of the artists linked to the Ecole de Paris were of Jewish descent and mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and that their art had some connections with Expressionism though many among them assimilated new trends such as Cubism, Futurism, Post-Impressionism and Fauvism.
Above all, they evoked a variety of emotional states ranging from sadness and despair to joy and ecstasy. These mental attitudes crystallised the works of the Ecole de Paris artists into what was an expression of the universal meaning of life and creation, often turning into hyberbolic exegeses of the condition : birth, motherhood, transience, transcendental longings, old age and death plus reflection on the ugliness and beauty of the world, Mariusz Rosiak once wrote.
Melancholia, tragedy, nostalgia, poetry and some symbols of the Jewish and Slav world were the usual mixtures to be found in the paintings produced by these artists. It was also a clash between their cultures and that which prevailed in Paris as well as the confrontation of their dreams and the reality of the life they faced which resulted in such production.
Experiencing a new order of the world, these artists were unable to forget their original roots. Their childhood, upbringing, religion and habits clung to them despite the fact that they had jumped into a modern world. They had escaped dictatorship and oppression but still, they seemed to feel some dizziness breathing their new freedom. They still had their fears within their hearts and some anguish about the future probably fearing that they, as foreigners, would remain different from the French natives who, it must be stressed, generally considered them as aliens.
They had run away from cruel social conditions and perhaps even more from the cultural circles of their ancestors who were hostile to painting and this can be sensed in their works which expressed the longings for the continuity of tradition, history and culture and at the same time for the development of their art.
For many centuries, figurative images had been banned by the Jewish orthodox rabbis and it was only the emancipation of many Jewish communities during the second half the 19th Century in Europe which enabled the development of painting among the Jews. However, the absence of images within the religion was not without meaning either. In this respect, art historians have singled out the phenomenon of Jewish Expressionism that refreshed the world of symbols, signs and rituals of Jewish culture. As a result, many achievements of the School of Paris had an almost archetypal dimension.
This School was a mixture of nationalities, talents, moods and trends. Its artists painted by exhaling their experiences and instincts and by displaying rich effects of texture and colour. In some way, they expressed their emotions, obsessions, passions and sufferings during a period called the «Mad Years» (Années Folles) when, after witnessing the atrocities of the war, they felt the urge of grasping beauty and sensuality not only in representing the female image but also in still-lives and landscapes.
Nevertheless, for a long time the French were reluctant to acknowledge that most of the great painters of the School of Paris were foreigners who were in some way open to French tradition and also giving something in return to their country of adoption. There could have been no Soutine, and also no other famous foreign painter -Van Gogh, for instance-without France, a country which gave him moreover the language of expression and yet he was quite distant from French painters, Corot, Vuillard or Bonnard.
Soutine and many of his likes had an admiration for the culture of harmony and moderation but they later turned against it through their nostalgia, their difficulties to adapt to normal life and their frustrations. Paris had a fantastic impact over their workmanship and the atmosphere there enabled them to reach potentialities they would probably have never achieved had they stayed in their native countries.
Yet their brilliant careers suffered a setback in the 1930's when xenophobia swept Europe. The former openness and tolerance was superseded by antagonism during these difficult years. Suddenly, these foreign artists became ostracised and those who supported them changed sides and accused them of undermining French tradition in art.
Describing the Ecole de Paris as «a house of cards built in Montparnasse», Waldemar George, who used to shower fulsome praise on the artists belonging to this School during the 1920's, was quoted some years later as saying «that time had come for France to be on her feet again and find the seed of salvation in its own soil».
As a result, the Parisian Press ceased to publish articles on the Montparnasse painters and the Ecole de Paris became a vague definition for many people who had previously been flocking at many exhibitions.
What they only vaguely remembered was that several foreign painters had settled in their capital coming from Japan (Foujita, Koyonagui and a few others), the Netherlands (Van Dongen), Spain (Picasso, Juan Gris), Italy (Modigliani), Hungary (Czobel, Kolos-Vary, Bondy), Bulgaria (Pascin), Lithuania (Soutine, Lipchitz, Band), Czechoslovakia (Coubine, Kars), Romania (Codreano, Brancusi, Brauner), Norway (Krogh), Russia (Chagall, Zadkine, Orloff) and Poland (Kisling, Zak, Marcoussis, Hayden, Aberdam, Epstein, Feuerring, Halicka, Kanelba, Kirszenbaum, Mondzain, Menkes, Weingart, Kramsztyk, Landau, etc.,) whose artists outnumbered by far those of other countries.
At the outbreak of World War Two these painters were rejected and persecuted. Several among them fled France but many did not survive the war.
Sources : Sotheby's, Christie's, Gordon Tel Aviv, Frank Van Wilder (Annuel des Arts-Paris), Galerie Marek Paris, Aaron Kupfer Paris, Galina Glubocka-Lvov, Renata Piatkowska-ZIH Warszawa, Matsa for Public Auctions-Tel Aviv.