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Friday, 25 January, 2002, 15:47 GMT
Paris stakes its claim
Reclining Nude by Amedeo Modigliani c.1919 courtesy of MOMO, New York
The exhibition covers a large part of the 20th century
By BBC News Online's Ben Davies

The latest offering from London's Royal Academy is essentially a survey of the first 70 years of the last century and in itself is a useful exercise in reminding us just how radically art changed during that period.

If art reflects what is going on in society then it is necessary to remember the radicalism of 1968, the brutality of Nazi occupation and the excitement of the 1920s that followed a dreadful war which had decimated much of the male population.

At the beginning of the century, Impressionism remained paramount in the consciousness of the international set of artists that flocked to Paris.

Dancers, the theatre, nude studies of women and depictions of the famous literary characters of the day all figure but you have to hear the names of the artists in Paris at the time to know just how radically styles would develop: Picasso, Matisse, Leger and Kandinsky to name a few.

Wrapped Vespa Motorcycle by Christo, 1963, photo by André Grossman
Christo's Wrapped Vespa Motorcyle was created during the upheaval of 1960s Paris
The exhibition begins in Montmartre and takes different quarters of Paris as its vehicle for guiding the visitor through the 68 years covered.

The years 1900 -1918 saw Montmartre continuing to dominate as the birthplace of Cubism with Braque and Picasso as key players.

From 1919 -1939 it was Montparnasse and the rise of Surrealism and from 1940-1957 we move on to St-Germain-de-Pres for the grim war and post-war years.

The vibrant Latin Quarter - which includes the Sorbonne - is the focus for the period that would climax in violent student riots and when art included crushed cars and wrapped Vespas.

Whether or not it is a useful exercise to skip across the century so rapidly and to appear to accept so unquestioningly the idea that there is a natural progession between one artistic movement and the next is best left to the art historians.

But the exhibition does allow the visitor the opportunity to gaze at Matisse's Carmelina, see the studies that would become Picasso's groundbreaking Desmoiselles d'Avignon and walk through Soto's Penetrable Curtain.

We see art reflecting social change when lesbian-chic became a Paris trend after the World War I, and where the carcasses of animals are used to illustrate the darker side of human existence.

Tour Eiffel, 1911, photo by Sally Ritts
The Eiffel Tower was a frequent subject for Robert Delaunay
Strangely there are few depictions of Paris itself in terms of its landmark buildings - although the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe do get a brief look in.

Instead we see how politics, literature and philosophy inform the art world - Man Ray's incredible Imaginary Portrait of the Marquis de Sade from 1938, Marie Laurencin's Apollinaire and His Friends from 1909, Jacques Lipchitz's Gertrude Stein from 1920 to Erro's Background of Jackson Pollock from 1967.

By the 1940s and 1950s the world's art capital had become, perhaps, New York and there is a sense of the inheritance of the Paris-based artist weighing heavily on many practitioners by the 1950s.

Toward the end of that decade there was the brutal Algerian conflict which, along with Vietnam and the Cold War, are reflected in the latter part of the exhibition.

Inevitably there are some glaring gaps and some strange choices in an exhibition that tries to capture the essence of a city through such a long period.

The very suggestion that Paris was the capital of the arts - if such a thing is possible - after the dawn of Abstract Expressionism will provoke hoots of derision in some quarters.

But if you want to see some truly great art and become reaquainted with a large chunk of the 20th Century's history then you should be heading to the Royal Academy between 26 January and 19 April.

See also:

25 Oct 01 | Arts
Royal Academy goes to Paris
31 May 01 | Arts
Blake shakes up Royal Academy
09 Jan 01 | Entertainment
Pop goes the Royal Academy
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