BOOK REVIEW: 'Shocking Paris': Comprehensive, Accessible Account of Immigrant Artists of the School of Paris

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen

Stanley Meisler's "Shocking Paris: Soutine, Chagall and the Outsiders of Montparnasse" (Palgrave Macmillan, 256 pages, color insert, sources, index, $26.00) is an outstanding contribution to the history of 20th Century art.

BOOK REVIEW: 'Shocking Paris': Comprehensive, Accessible Account of Immigrant Artists of the School of Paris

Paris has always attracted artists from the rest of the world, including America. But for a couple of decades before World War II, a group of immigrant painters and sculptors, including Amedeo Modigliani, Marc Chagall, Chaim Soutine and Jules Pascin dominated the new art scene of Montparnasse in Paris.

Many of them rented studios at La Ruche (the beehive) a 16-sided complex of inexpensive (yes, parts of Paris were inexpensive in the 1920s and 1930s!) studio apartments that were the first stop for immigrants from eastern Europe. La Ruche was the brainchild of wealthy sculptor Alfred Boucher. He bought some cheap land on the west bank of the Seine and, using materials recycled from the World's Fair of 1900 created spaces where artists could live and work.

The immigrants were dubbed "the School of Paris" to distinguish them from the French-born -- and less talented -- young artists of the time.  Modigliani, a secular Italian Jew,  and Chagall from a mostly Jewish village in Russia, eventually attained enormous worldwide popularity, but in those earlier days most School of Paris painters looked on Soutine as their most talented contemporary. Willem de Kooning proclaimed Soutine his favorite painter, and Jackson Pollack hailed him as a major influence.

Americans played major roles in both publicizing the School of Paris, and saving them from Nazi extermination.

When Doctor Albert C. Barnes (1872-1951), the wealthy American collector, made his annual shopping trip to Paris in 1922, he decided to concentrate on the works of the young artists there. He returned to Philadelphia with paintings by Amedeo Modigliani, Chaim Soutine, Jules Pascin, Moïse Kisling and sculpture by Jacques Lipchitz and mounted a show to demonstrate what the young artists of Paris were up to. His choices shocked the Paris art establishment. Not a single one of his chosen artists was French-born. All were immigrants, and all were Jewish.

Two Americans who worked to save many Jews and gentiles from the Nazis were Varian Fry and Hiram Bingham IV, Meisler writes in Chapter 13, beginning on Page 163. Fry was in charge of a private rescue mission and Bingham was the vice counsul of the American consulate in Marseilles. Five years older than Fry, Bingham managed to issue visas for people escaping to Spain and Portugal, and eventually to the U.S. Chagall and Hungarian Jewish author Arthur Koestler were two of those aided by Bingham.

Meisler's wonderfully readable book focuses on Soutine, while giving more than adequate space to other artists of the movement. Soutine arrived in Paris while many painters -- including Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp -- were experimenting with cubism. Meisler tells how trends didn't influence Soutine. He was intense, demonic, and fierce. He managed to escape the Nazi and Vichy French roundup of Jews, but died of stomach cancer in August 1943.

The School of Paris was both praised and vilified by French critics. The usual anti-Semites were present, but a surprisingly large number of critics were proud that the immigrants were attracted to Paris. It served as confirmation that Paris was the undisputed art capital of the world.

BOOK REVIEW: 'Shocking Paris': Comprehensive, Accessible Account of Immigrant Artists of the School of Paris

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Stanley Meisler is the author of the biography "Kofi Annan: A Man of Peace in a World of War", the history "United Nations : The First Fifty Years" and his latest book "When The World Calls: The Inside Story Of The Peace Corps And Its First Fifty Years." Meisler served as a Los Angeles Times foreign and diplomatic correspondent for thirty years, assigned to Nairobi, Mexico City, Madrid, Toronto, Paris, Barcelona, the United Nations and Washington. He still contributes articles to the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Sunday Opinion and Art sections and writes a News Commentary for his website, For David M. Kinchen's  review of "When The World Calls" click: