“I was born in Vitebsk, but I was also born in Paris,” the artist we know as Marc Chagall said in the mid-1920s. What he meant was that, though he hailed from the western edge of the Russian Empire, his career had only come alive after his move to the French capital in 1910.
As if to emphasise this, he changed his original name of Moyshe Segal there to something more French-sounding.
Chagall was one of myriad, foreign artists drawn to Paris in the first decades of the 20th century. Picasso is the best known. Juan Gris, Joan Miró and Salvador Dalí followed his path from Spain. Modigliani came from Italy, Mondrian from the Netherlands, Brancusi from Romania.
The allure of Paris was felt beyond Europe too, with the likes of Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita arriving from Japan, and Sanyu and Lin Fengmian from China.
Writing in a publication called Comœdia in 1925, the art critic André Warnod used the name “École de Paris” (School of Paris) to describe the foreign artists contributing to contemporary French practice.
“The École de Paris exists,” he wrote. “Later art historians will be able, better than us, to define its character and to study the elements of its make-up, but we can still affirm its existence and its power of attraction, which brings to us artists from all around the world”.
Warnod’s choice of name stuck – and is still used today. However, his reluctance to state what exactly it was that united the school’s artists has meant a looseness in how the École de Paris is understood. It has come to be seen as encompassing pretty much any art made in the French capital in the first four decades (at least) of the 20th century.
This includes work by native figures such as Matisse, Léger and Derain; and even by photographers who lived in Paris, such as Brassai, Man Ray and Andre Kertesz.
The term “school” is typically used to describe a close-knit group of artists with a similar ideology. This didn’t apply to the School of Paris. Apart from being in the same location and revelling in its creative competitive atmosphere, there wasn’t too much that tied École figures together.
It has been tentatively suggested that Parisian architecture had some sort of impact on them. The Eiffel Tower alone features in paintings by Chagall, Robert Delaunay, Diego Rivera, Raoul Dufy and Gino Severini.
The artists associated with the School of Paris, however, gave more to the city than they took from it – working in all manner of ground-breaking styles, from Fauvism to Surrealism.
It’s almost as if Warnod was so overwhelmed by the great art being made in Paris that he just felt the need to designate it somehow.
What’s generally agreed is that the turn of the 20th century marked the start of the École period (Picasso held his first Parisian exhibition in 1901). The end date is of slightly greater debate.
For some, it’s 1940, the year the city fell to the Nazis. The Second World War would see Mondrian, Max Ernst and many other big names flee for New York; as well as a tragically large number of Jewish artists (Henri Epstein, Adolphe Feder and Vladimir Baranov-Rossine, to name but three) die in the Holocaust.
More usually, the École de Paris is said to have lasted till around 1960. It thereby includes the abstract artists who flourished in Paris after the War – figures who represented what might called the School’s second wave or final hurrah.
Chief among them were Pierre Soulages; German-born Hans Hartung; Russian-born Serge Poliakoff; along with Zao Wou-Ki, who arrived in 1948 from China.
Works by this quartet all appear in Absolument Moderne, Collection Rambaud, a sale taking place at Sotheby’s in Paris on June 3. It features the splendid set of École de Paris works once owned by the collector Fernand Rambaud (1926-2017), all of them from the post-War period.
Born in Marseilles, Rambaud took up studies at a Paris business school in 1944. In his free time, he began an activity that he’d pursue for the rest of his life: visiting the city’s art galleries, particularly those in Saint-Germain-des-Pres.
Interestingly, the epicentre of Paris’s art scene shifted from one quartier to another across the decades: from Montmartre and then Montparnasse (whose bars and cafés were transformed into round-the-clock, artists’ hang-outs) to Saint-Germain-des-Pres from 1945 onwards.
For a sense of the buzz that still existed in the École’s later years, one might consider watching the musical film, An American in Paris, from 1951 (winner of Best Picture at that year’s Oscars). Gene Kelly plays a US army veteran who stays behind in the French capital after the War, trying to make it as an artist.
“Brother,” he exclaims. “If you can't be a painter here, you'd better give up and marry the boss's daughter”.
Banner image: La galerie Pierre, in Paris, circa 1953, Jean-Paul Riopelle, Jacques Germain, Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, Pierre Loeb, Georges Mathieu and Zao Wou-Ki. © Denise Colomb / ADAGP Paris, 2021