Les Années Folles: Paris in the Twenties
"I couldn't care less for convention, taste and established style, if there is any of this in my paintings it will be found out later. Right now, I'm going to do some living." Fernand Léger, 1924
As Paris emerged from the ashes of the Great War into a new decade, in the wake of deprivation, decadence flourished and a wave of hedonism swept through the city. Paris became the centre of modernity and creativity in the heyday before the worldwide depressions brought on by the Wall Street crash of 1929. With economic prosperity came easier travel and trade. The city of light drew people like a magnet in search of the intellectual, artistic and sexual freedom only the French capital could offer. Movies and radio proliferated modernity to the masses; dancing to a jazz soundtrack, flappers hemlines flicked rhythmically in the nightclubs and dancehalls of Pigalle and Montparnasse; Josephine Baker exuded exotic eroticism; Coco Chanel's luxe lifestyle perfumed the air; Charles Lindbergh epitomised speed and international fame flying solo across the Atlantic, rewarded with the Legion d'honneur. Consumerism flourished and champagne and ideas flowed from the city to the beaches as cultural practices shifted with the seasons and the fashions as people took refuge from the urban intensity of the capital. This was the excitement of Les Années Folles; Paris in the Twenties.
Against this tableau vivant a host of artists from across wider Europe underlined the fact that France, beneath her glittering veneer, was mourning the losses that war brings and welcoming its refugees. We confront a simultaneity of modernist styles ranging from the purity or machine aesthetic of Fernand Léger's advertising motif inspired paintings to the neoclassical and monumental figures portrayed by those artists that pre-war had been cubists; Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Juan Gris. The first surrealist manifesto was also issued in this diverse and exciting period. Embracing the enigmatic and surrendering themselves to "pure psychic automatism" and Freud's work with free association, dream analysis and the hidden unconscious, Max Ernst, Giorgio de Chirico, Joan Miró, Yves Tanguy and Rene Magritte produced images of mystery, dreams and nightmares. As Walter Benjamin wrote of the Surrealists in 1929: "At the centre of this world of things stands the most dreamed-of of their objects, the city of Paris itself."
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