Monday, April 6, 2015

coming soon to a bookstore near you: Shocking Paris: Soutine, Chagall and the Outsiders of Montparnasse, by Stanley Meisler

Palgrave Macmillan, 2015
238 pp

(my copy from the publisher - thank you!)

Shocking Paris, according to the author Stanley Meisler, a "story of the foreign-born immigrant painters in Paris in the 1920s and the 1930," who collectively became known as The School of Paris -- "not a school or a movement in the usual sense ...simply a phenomenon of history."  He also notes that the story of the School of Paris is
"part of a much greater story of mass migration from the Russian empire because of religious persecution, political oppression and economic hardship." 
Meisler discusses the School of Paris artists both individually and as a whole.  As a group he states that
"The artists of the School of Paris came to France in a mass and rare migration, honed their art in the schools and museums of France, ignored the styles of French painters as young as themselves and produced a host of exciting and unique works of art. A good deal of great art would have been lost if they had come to Paris and did nothing more than mimic the bland work of young French painters."
--  individually, he looks at artists such as Modigliani, Chagall, and Jules Pacsin.  But the "key artist" in this group, the man who gets the bulk of the attention here, is  Chaim Soutine.  This may be because when Meisler graduated from college in the early 1950s, he discovered a family connection to the artist, and as he notes, whenever he saw a Soutine painting in a museum afterwards, he gave it extra notice. The anti-social, anti-hygienic, often downright bizarre artist most definitely has an interesting story, especially once his work was discovered and people started trying to acquire his paintings and he literally went from rags to riches.  And while Soutine's life and work is definitely the main thrust of this book,  Shocking Paris also reveals much more:  a brief examination of Russia and the anti-Semitic policies that drove many artists to find a haven in France, a look at forces inside Jewish orthodoxy that also had an impact on some artists' emigration to Paris, a look at the changing art scene that had moved from Montmartre to Montparnasse, French anti-Semitism, the effects of outside forces (the Depression, or luck in finding a patron to support one's work) that had the potential to make or break an artist's career and set up rivalries among the artists, and then there's the exploration of the Nazi occupation of France that sent huge numbers of foreign-born Jews to the camps and sent some of the artists in this book into hiding. Moving chronologically through 20th-century French history, he intertwines these outside events with the stories of some of the artists of the Paris School, although I've already said, it is Soutine's work and life that is the main thrust of the book, so perhaps the title is a bit misleading.

Personally speaking, if he had just made this book about Soutine, it would be much more reflective of what Meisler's actually accomplished here than what the title makes the reader think is going to be in this book.  Even the paintings by artists of the Paris School he's chosen to illustrate this book are dominated by Soutine's works, and his "Aftermath" chapter is given largely over to discussions about Soutine.  At the same time, Soutine's life was anything but dull and makes for really good reading -- especially his life in hiding after the Nazi occupation.   As part of his focus on this artist, Meisler also points out the problems with trying to get a handle on the man from the biographical standpoint, and even from criticism of his works. For example, he notes how Jewish critics have come up with some "convoluted theses" about him by looking for Jewish content that isn't reflected in his work.

When all is said and done, the book is very reader friendly, interesting from an historical standpoint, and even if the reader knows absolutely nothing about the School of Paris or any of the artists that composed this group, Meisler makes the information accessible and interesting from the standpoint of human interest.  However, the focus on Soutine, while incredibly interesting, detracts a bit from what is seemingly implied by the title.  Still, I would definitely recommend it to anyone who may have an interest in the topic -- even though it's a bit top heavy on the Soutine side, it's still a good introduction to the Montparnasse art scene and the history of the time that helped to shape this group of incredible artists.