Paris was the cultural capital of the world. As Thomas Jefferson would qualify it ‘the second home of every cultured person. Is culture of any part distinct to be a beacon to every man who may have cut his teeth in the cultural milieu of his own corner under the sun?’ The difference may be illustrated in simple terms by the manner Parisian artists discovered Japanese art.
In about 1856 the French artist Felix Braquemond first came across a copy of the sketch book Hokusai Manga at the workshop of his printer; they had been used as packaging for a consignment of porcelain. In 1860 and 1861, black-and-white reproductions of ukiyo-e were published in books about Japan. Baudelaire wrote in a letter in 1861, “Quite a while ago I received a packet of japonneries. I’ve split them up among my friends …”. In 1862, La Porte Chinoise, a shop selling various Japanese goods including prints, opened in the rue de Rivoli, one of the most fashionable shopping street in Paris, and counted numerous artists from this art circle, like James Tissot, among its clients. This craze would lead to an art movement that we know as Impressionism. Whistler who was a frequenter of the salons of artists in Paris would introduce it in England. Such dissemination of Japanese art to all across the globe cannot happen by some fluke. Take music for instance: Maurice Ravel, saw the Indonesian Gamelan at the world fair in Paris and was inspired by its relaxed pentatonic sound. He did write some pieces for a full Gamelan and was forever influenced (Fray Hackbarth/quora.com). One need consider elsewhere in Europe the trends in music were becoming either loud ( shall I say ‘Wagnerian’?) or continuing the prevailing romantic style as was in the works of Brahms. French composers would resist such schism since in their fertile genius the use of pentatonic scale was more renewing and to the point. Whatever they did, carried their own stamp and it made a point. Thus they would set new trends after their own fashion. In short the world saw its own cultural heritage transformed and made altogether new. What was made in Paris sold across all the corners. Period.
Balzac was right: the city was the thinking voice of the world.
There is only one culture and each nation makes a part of it, and emotionally places hedges around it but holds nothing in their expression that can satisfy their intellect. Paris is where reverse is true. Besides the novelty of Japonism or Oriental music after having artistically elevated into a new mode, what else was there? Paris in short was the prism that can bear every colour of the spectrum.
Art in Paris as in the case of impressionism shall set the trends and la Belle Époque indeed showed it to its glorious best. If we continue we can well see the explosive colors and pictorial aberrations of the Fauve were not an anachronism but reflecting the moods of the times despite its surface glitter and gaiety. In 1905 it created furore when Salon d’Automne exhibited a room full of Matisse, Deraine, Marquet, Vlaminck. (A leading Fauvist spoofing critics who were enraged by the canvasses of the wild beasts(les fauves) used a donkey to create a canvas,’And the Sun set over the Adriatic-and it sold for 400 francs at an avant-garde show.) Victor Hugo’s dictum holds true: literature is civilization itself.’ Art was no exception reflecting the nation careening towards a catastrophe. The city exuded the national angst despite its thinking voice, and its own divided soul never fully recovered from the days of Revolution.
(To be continued)