The history of a revolutionary decade in modern art.
Art historian Roe (The Private Lives of the Impressionists, 2006, etc.) investigates the intersection of lives and cross-fertilization of the arts in Montmartre, beginning in 1900, when Picasso first arrived, and ending in 1911, when radical reconstruction began in the storied neighborhood of shacks and cafes. Her colorful narrative includes scores of painters and the gallery owners who promoted them; dancers, such as the Duncan siblings, Nijinsky and Serge Lifar; fashion designers Paul Poiret and Charles Worth; and a host of writers, notably Gertrude Stein, Apollinaire and Max Jacob. Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Derain and Vlaminck take center stage, but as in Roger Shattuck’s classic The Banquet Years (1955), many others populate the scene. Because Roe draws on histories of the period and biographies of the major figures, much information may be familiar to readers: Picasso’s painting of Stein’s portrait, for example; his rivalry with Matisse; Matisse’s marital problems; and artists’ discovery of African art. Roe contends that Picasso first found ethnic sculpture “disgusting; they reminded him of the fusty old bits of bric-a-brac for sale at the flea market.” African art came to influence him intensely, but Roe hardly explains why other than to suggest that the artifacts “made him think about—perhaps even identify with—the people who had made them and their motives for doing so.” The author is strongest in conveying social history: the gritty reality of the Bateau-Lavoir, with its “creaking floorboards beaten by winter storms and splintered by summer heat,” where many artists made their homes; the intricate ballet of their friendships and romantic liaisons; their frustrations in exhibiting and selling their work.
Although Roe has created an informed and graceful narrative, fresh sources or insights would have greatly enriched the book.