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The Modernist 'outsiders' in Paris
Piet Mondrian, Composition no. IV. Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. c/o Pictoright Amsterdam.

by Nina Siegal

AMSTERDAM (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- When Marc Chagall received the prestigious commission to paint the ceiling of the Palais Garnier opera house in 1960, the anti-Semitic protests and threats against him were so vicious that he had to be accompanied to the Paris theater by a police escort, recalled Paul Versteeg, a Dutch artist who worked with him.

Chagall, born Moishe Segal, was a Belarusian Jew who had fled Vitebsk for Paris a half-century earlier, at age 20. He was trying to leave behind Russia’s discrimination against Jews and the periodic violent pogroms, trading them for the center of the art world.

“It was as if I was discovering light, color, freedom, the sun, pleasure in life for the first time,” he said of his early days in Paris.

Even though Chagall immediately became one of the leading modernist painters, he continued to face difficulties in the French capital. When the Vichy government came to power in 1940, Jewish artists could no longer exhibit in Paris. Even in the 1960s, many French critics still regarded him as no more than a “foreign Jew” who should not be able to paint a national monument, said Maurice Rummens, a research assistant at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.

This story is part of “Chagall, Picasso, Mondrian and Others: Migrants in Paris,” an exhibition curated by Rummens at the Stedelijk Museum until Feb. 2, 2020. It seeks to remind visitors that while Paris may have been an artistic melting pot in the first half of the 20th century, “outsiders” experienced xenophobia and anti-Semitism.

Chagall, who is represented in the show with 38 original works, takes center stage, but many other artists also tell this story. They include Uruguayan artist Joaquín Torres-García; Russian-born Jewish painter Chaim Soutine; Ukrainian-born artist Sonia Delaunay; and African-American dancer and choreographer Josephine Baker. Even Pablo Picasso, a Spaniard, and Piet Mondrian and Kees van Dongen, both Dutchmen, are cast as outsiders.

In the first two decades of the 20th century, Paris became a magnet for international artists, Rummens said, and art critics latched onto this notion. “They said that all people of all nationalities could live in Paris together,” he said.

The critic André Warnod invented the name École de Paris (School of Paris), “which stood for French modernists and also for foreigner artists,” said Rummens. “But after the Wall Street crash of 1929, anti-Semitism and xenophobia increased, and from that moment on, École de Paris became associated only with foreigners. First it was positive, but then it became a negative.”

Many of the works in the show are from the museum’s permanent collection, reflecting an effort by major modern and contemporary art museums to bring works out of storage to share with the public, rather than borrowing from other museums.

“It gives us an opportunity to show parts of our collection that haven’t been shown and are discoveries in our own collection,” said Jan Willem Sieburgh, interim director of the Stedelijk Museum. This exhibition “highlights the stories behind Chagall, Picasso and Mondrian, but at the same time it gives us an opportunity to show lots of other artists who are migrants as well, to show female artists that haven’t been shown before, and to tell the stories of their reception.”

The theme of migration frames these artists through a topical lens. “It helps us to reflect on the subject,” Sieburgh said. “We’re not taking a stand. We’re just adding to the discourse. It’s one of the things a museum can do, and should do.”

Many visitors will be drawn by the big names, but the subject of the show is more subtle. It is the lesser known “others,” who also migrated to France — some of them only briefly — who become the focus.

Baya Mahieddine, for example, was an Algerian orphan who had her first Paris gallery show at 16, with a catalog essay written by André Breton. She was promoted by art dealer Aimé Maeght and praised by Jean Dubuffet and Picasso. But at the same time, she was infantilized as “la petite orpheline,” the little orphan.

The Dutch painter known as Nicolaas Warb, we learn, was in fact a woman, whose real name was Fine Warburg; she used a masculine pseudonym so that her work would be taken more seriously by French critics, who she believed would ignore her art if they knew her true identity. She was able to study art at French academies — off limits to women in other countries at the time — and in 1930 wrote a manifesto, “Perspectives and Thoughts on Abstract Painting,” in which she asserts that avant-garde art could uplift people morally and spiritually.

Poet Aimé Césaire, who was from Martinique, was one of the most influential voices of modernist literature in France. He named the anti-colonial Négritude movement of French-speaking African and Caribbean writers in France, he said, after a white Frenchman shouted a racial epithet (“Eh, petit nègre!”) at him near the Place d’Italie in Paris in 1934. He was using the word as a “boomerang” against discrimination, Rummens said.

Cuban-born artist Wifredo Lam, whose father was Chinese and whose mother was Afro-Cuban, moved to Paris in 1938 and became friends with Picasso and the surrealists, but then left again in 1941, during World War II. He later “developed a surrealist visual idiom to express a conscious and assertive Afro Cuban identity, often incorporating the symbolism of Santeria and voodoo,” according to the exhibition’s catalog.

Many of the stories of the artists in the show tell not of a single migration to Paris, but a transition through Paris and back to their homelands. Baya, as Mahieddine became known in France, later returned to Algeria. Lam resettled in Cuba. Chagall moved to Russia for several years and ultimately died in St. Paul de Vence, France, at 97.

“During the second half of this century, Chagall had arrived at something close to ubiquity,” John Russell wrote in the artist’s New York Times obituary in 1985, mentioning his works at Lincoln Center, his mosaics and tapestries for the Knesset in Jerusalem, his stained-glass windows for the United Nations headquarters in New York, and in the cathedrals of Metz and of Rheims in France.

And his Paris opera house ceiling now has landmark status, regarded as a symbol of modernism at its peak.

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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