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Paris: The Cradle of Modern Art

Report of the lecture given by Michael Howard BA MA
on February 22nd 2012

Very quickly it became clear that Michael Howard was no dilettante: we were going to be presented with more than biographical details of the late 19th and early 20th century Paris artists. He began by describing the background to the huge outpouring of art in Paris at that time. Paris was a city familiar with revolutions. In 1890 an avant-garde movement was establishing and institutionalizing itself in the modern fashion for the first time. Paris had become the centre of art and food; a place to which people flocked.

Howard pointed out how people's lives were changing owing to the advancement of science, technology, travel, photography and engineering.
They built the Eiffel Tower because they could, quipped Howard.

Whilst we were assimilating the volume of information coming from the zealous Michael Howard, he gave us a quote from Oscar Wilde, who had taken refuge in Paris after his imprisonment in England. Wilde was said to have lunched regularly under the Eiffel Tower. When asked why he replied: "My dear boy, it's the only place in Paris where one cannot see the thing."

Howard pointed out that Spiritualism was becoming popular. In 1899 Freud published his "Interpretation of Dreams". Photography dealt with the way things looked but the avant-garde wanted to portray the inside of things.

It was stressed that all art is derivative. We were shown Seurat's Un Dimanche d'été sur l'île de la Grande Jatte 1886.

The subjects are not communicating; all is not what it seems. The artist is taking us beyond the superficial. Cezanne's Bathers came up on the screen and we could see his geometric patterns and be aware of Cubism that was to be explored by Picasso and Braque in later years.

Howard went on to show us Degas' studies of human movement and the paintings by Monet: a theme to be studied by the Futurists later on.

The speaker moved on to the two giants of the Paris scene: Matisse and Picasso. Matisse was experimenting with colour; he wanted to extend colour as an emotional form. We were shown some of his portraits where vibrant colours adorned his sitters' faces: Matisse had insisted that the paintings were not real to look at but the qualities of the sitters are there. We were shown several examples of the vibrant, exciting paintings done by Matisse when he joined with Derain and other artists to form a group known as the Fauves [wild animals]. If any of the audience were feeling sleepy they surely were woken up by the joyous colours.

Howard goes on to describe Picasso as voracious compared to the more reflective Matisse. We were shown Picasso's The Family of Saltimbanques: a group of itinerant circus performers occupying a desolate landscape, each figure psychologically isolated from the other. We are told that artists at that time were interested in African masks. It seems that Matisse sees the beauty in them but Picasso sees the mystery. We were shown Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon: a harsh depiction of five women in a brothel; three of the women wear African masks. The lines of their bodies are sharp and hostile.

Our lecturer saw Matisse as a creator who saw the human body as beautiful. His Dancers express the joy of living whereas Picasso was a destroyer. He sees the dark joy of living.

Well we have the freedom to come to our own conclusions, however, I am left not knowing which to admire more: Michael Howard's vast knowledge or his ability to fire information at the audience in large volumes.

Gerry Hincks

Michael Howard with one of our members