Wendy Smith is a contributing editor of the American Scholar.

Soutine, Chagall and the Outsiders of Montparnasse

By Stanley Meisler

Palgrave Macmillan.
238 pp. $26

Although they were eventually dubbed “the School of Paris,” the immigrant artists who lived in that city during the first four decades of the 20th century had no common style and produced no manifestos. Amedeo Modigliani’s sleek, sexy nudes, Marc Chagall’s symbol-laden fantasias on Jewish village life, Chaim Soutine’s visceral portraits and still lifes conjured up entirely different worlds and emotions; work by their peers ranged from Jules Pascin’s sharply observed street scenes to Jacques Lipchitz’s abstract sculptures.

“It makes more sense to think of the School of Paris as a historical phenomenon — an unprecedented and unexpected migration of young artists, mostly Jewish, many from the Russian empire,” veteran journalist Stanley Meisler writes. Indeed, the core members were almost all Jews, and the resentment expressed toward them by French critics in the 1930s was unquestionably fueled by anti-Semitism. Following the Nazi invasion of France, some 20 School of Paris artists died in death camps, and the rest fled abroad; their heyday was over.

“Shocking Paris: Soutine, Chagall and the Outsiders of Montparnasse” by Stanley Meisler. (Palgrave Macmillan/ )

Meisler aims to “tell the story of foreign-born immigrant painters in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s . . . through biography, mainly of Soutine with a good deal about Marc Chagall and somewhat less about Amedeo Modigiliani and others.” It’s reasonable to focus on the group’s most prominent artists, and presumably the fact that Modigliani died in 1920 — early in the group’s history — accounts for his getting somewhat less coverage. He gets a lot more space, however, than the lesser-known Lipchitz, Ossip Zadkine, Moïse Kisling and Pinchus Krémègne, whose names are trotted out occasionally to remind us that the School of Paris contained more than three people. There are glimpses (but only glimpses) of the intricate network of friendships that created a vibrant community in the Left Bank neighborhood of Montparnasse, which supplanted Montmartre as the center of the Parisian art scene shortly before World War I.

Pascin is the sole School of Paris artist beyond the big three to get even a mini-biography, and it is jarringly inserted into a chapter about the Depression’s impact. This points to Meisler’s two central problems: organization and focus. He lurches from biography to history to critical evaluation without managing to weave these elements into a coherent narrative; “Shocking Paris” is instead a parade of loosely connected and meandering chapters.

It’s too bad, because Meisler has done a commendable amount of research and made it accessible to nonspecialists. He provides useful thumbnail sketches of important figures such as the art dealer Léopold Zborowski, who represented Modigliani and Soutine; supportive collectors such as Jonas Netter and Madeleine and Marcellin Castaing; and critics who shaped public perception of the School of Paris for better (André Warnod) or worse (Waldemar George). He makes good use of contemporary diaries and other documents to paint vivid portraits of his central figures: sophisticated, sociable Modigliani; shy, solitary Soutine; and ambitious, calculating Chagall.

Unfortunately, interesting information is frequently padded with irrelevant digressions. One initially good chapter does a nice job of describing American collector Albert Barnes’s 1922 buying trip to Paris, which gave Soutine and four other School of Paris artists their first big breaks. The same chapter explains how the resentment this sparked in gentiles and assimilated French Jews was related to the decision at the 1924 Salon des Indépendants to group artists by nation of origin, separating the works of French-born artists from those of immigrants. This, in turn, led critic Roger Allard to support the foreign artists by giving them the name by which they became known — “School of Paris” — in recognition of their intimate association with French art.

We don’t need to be taken to Philadelphia so that Meisler can discuss Barnes’s philosophy of art exhibition and hostility to art experts, nor to learn about the new Barnes Foundation building that opened in 2012. It’s not the only instance of the author yanking us out of his time frame; the most startling is when he leaves Soutine painting a beef carcass in 1925 to critique an essay in the catalogue for a 1998-99 retrospective in America.

As the narrative moves bumpily into the 1930s and World War II, Meisler has trouble balancing the historical background with the specifics of his subjects’ plight. He should have drastically pruned familiar material on French anti-Semitism and the Vichy regime to focus more directly on Soutine’s desolate wanderings prior to his death after stomach surgery in 1943. The admittedly inspiring story of journalist Varian Fry’s work with Hiram Bingham IV, U.S. vice consul in Marseilles, to provide some 2,000 people with asylum in America occupies more pages than does the escape the same pair facilitated in 1941 for Chagall.

For all the author’s difficulty with deciding what is relevant, this book is clearly aimed at general readers, who will probably enjoy the colorful anecdotes about Soutine’s lack of personal hygiene (he seldom bathed) or his poor reaction to criticism (told that one of his paintings recalled a Renoir, he slashed it to shreds). As for its larger purpose, “Shocking Paris” can be regarded as an outline for a much more complete book on an important moment in art and world history.