Bohemian Paris: Picasso, Modigliani, Matisse, and the Birth of Modern Artby Dan Franck; translated by Cynthia Hope Liebow
Grove, 480 pp., $27.50 "Drop everything," Andre Breton wrote in 1924. "Drop your wife, drop your mistress/drop your hopes and dreams/Abandon your children in the corner of a wood." Breton's poem is deadly earnest advice for the bohemian, formulating the root of the bohemian impulse, which is to remove every barrier between oneself and some sublime moment. Given genius, that moment will be great art. Given merely talent, that moment might be endlessly deferred. The life story of most members of the tribe exhibits a sequence of increasingly bitter failures, as sublimity gives way to alcoholism and resentment. To drop, or give up, the conformist lifestyle is to try to make an end-run around capitalism -- to seek the awful satisfactions of an archaic economy of sacrifice. It is no coincidence that the three periods in which bohemianism has blossomed since the French Revolution -- the 1840s, the years around World War I, and the 1960s -- have also been revolutionary epochs, when the dominance of capital was most powerfully opposed. As in all economies of sacrifice, the point is to deal in power, not profit and loss (the Sublime, like God, keeps no ledgers).
Franck's book is a vast compendium of anecdotes about the artists of Montmartre and Montparnasse between 1900 and around 1924. It could serve as a field guide for fans of Moulin Rouge (although the Toulouse-Lautrec epoch in which the film is set does come a little earlier). The English subtitle, "The Birth of Modern Art," is skewed -- this is about the birth of the modern Artist, a whole other topic. This book is about imago, not images. Franck clusters his stories about certain key figures: Picasso, Max Jacob, the poet, Guillaume Apollinaire, Modigliani, Breton. These anecdotes have been told elsewhere, but they are served up here in such abundance that this book will serve as a quick reference guide for the reader who wants to know just how much of a bastard Picasso was, or to what degree Soutine disdained hygiene, or who hit whom when the Surrealists partied (somebody always hit somebody).