The caged bird sings
with fearful trill
of the things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom
Josephine Baker was a living symbol of the new 20th Century woman. Sexually daring, athletic, funny and beautiful, she became the cultural amima of Paris in the Jazz Age. Matisse was one of many admirers and she dined well among luminaries of the Moveable Feast. Flappers like Zelda Fitzgerald lived on the edge, walking a tightrope between two world wars, booze in one hand, pen and paper in the other. Paris embraced the world of American Jazz, Oriental art, philosophy and African and Sub-Saharan culture with a explosion of visual art, music and literature. From Dada to Existentialism, the French avant garde movements provided vigorous intellectual fireworks, until they were overshadowed by the bombs of World War II. Salons, like Gertrude Stein’s gathered and supported writers and artists who found patronage and creative synergy. The Cone Sisters and the Steins were among the most loyal collectors of Matisse, including most of the paintings and sculptures shown in these posts.
Matisse painted vital, often sexual imagery in the inner language of the subconscious. Yet, he portrayed women with their own agency who were emotionally and intellectually complex.
Obviously, we have a long way to go before we achieve true equality; there always seems to be one step backward for every two forward. But, the energy of independent women in the arts, in the workforce and culturally propells us forward through interminable wars.
We started with Josephine Baker and I’ll end with a clip from Princesse Tam Tam, somewhat ironic yet apt. Josephine Baker’s character came to Paris as an exotic Moroccan “princess” who arouses the ire of blonde society matrons. They trick her into throwing off the flimsy chains of civilization, revealing the wild beast within as she must respond to the beat of tribal drums. Notice the synchronized choreography of the white chorus girls (ala Busby Berkeley) before she leaps into the dance, a wild woman freed.
The Matisse: Life in Color exhibit at the San Antonio Museum of Art, on loan from the Baltimore Museum of Art features more than 80 drawings, paintings and sculptures. The extensive Cone Sisters collection contributes the bulk of these phenomenal works and will only be in San Antonio until September 7, 2014. A pop up cafe (The Wild Beast) and Matisse themed treats are offered around town, in the spirit of the man whose exquisite sense of color started a movement all its own.
Fauvism was a short lived but potent bridge between the impressionist and later avant-garde movements of the early 20th Century. Henri Matisse was the acknowledged leader and the yin to Pablo Picasso’s Cubist yang. Wild beasts were loosed into Europe, through the advent of psychoanalysis, World War I and the Jazz Age. Vibrant, living, emotive color flowed from the Impressionists into the palettes of these passionate, unruly artists. In 1906, the 20th Century was full of promise, psychology having just lifted the lid off the unconscious mind. Wild beasts fighting the repression of the Victorian era found a welcome home in Paris, which later became an international haven for writers, artists and African American jazz musicians in the 1920’s. I’ve separated the photos I took at the exhibit into 2 parts. The gallery below focuses on the undulating rhythms of color and form, the beasts. The second post will focus on the emergence of the dark feminine, the liberated erotic woman of the new era. Asian and Africa design themes influenced European culture in ways never imagined by colonialists who kept Queen and country sacrosanct.
Paris was the crucible of art, literature, philosophy and fashion in the early 1900s. France and Spain were always more open to the exotic influences of the Orient and of Africa than the English and Dutch colonialists. Artists began to see the world in ways that could be considered prescient, given the perspectives science and technology afford us today. Light, form and color were transformed to capture the life of the mind, the spirit and speak directly to the flesh. It’s that experience of color splashing into the body, senses undulating with the rhythm of the paintings, the secret language of artistic seduction that a live viewing of these works convey. Energizing the body, mind and spirit and lifting us out of the doldrums that being human imposes – this is the gift of art. Go and see for yourself.
I would like to recapture that freshness of vision which is characteristic of extreme youth when all the world is new to it.