The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant Garde in France, 1885 to World War 1 Paperback – 29 Apr 1988
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From the Inside Flap
Portrays the cultural bohemia of turn-of-the-century Paris who carried the arts into a period of renewal and accomplishment, who laid the ground-work for Dadaism and Surrealism.
About the Author
Roger Shattuck was a scholar, writer and literary critic, best known for his studies on French literature, culture, and Proust. He was born in 1923, received his B.A. at Yale, and was appointed to the Society of Fellows at Harvard. He has been a recipient of both a Fulbright and a Guggenheim grant. He taught at Harvard, the University of Texas, the University of Virginia and Boston University, from which he retired in 1997. He is the author of several books of literary criticism as well as several definitive texts on Proust. His biography of Proust won the National Book Award in 1975. Shattuck died in 2005.
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I am not sure that I got it completely, but this is what I came away from after a long and enjoyful read. What the 4 artists had in common was that they created a movement that was entirely self-referential rather than embedding itself in known (or expected) forms of discipline. Each of their visions was subjective, based on their inner worlds more than observation of the outside world. Anyone who looked at, listened to, or read their work would encounter their personal vision. Each artist expressed emotion, knowledge and projection of self with its own particular beauty. What they expressed was knowable in a single instance: they did not depend on conventional processes, but each part was a whole unto itself, to the point that there wasn't a beginning and end, just the present perception of the work.
This is best exemplified, I think, in Satie's later music. In stark contrast to traditional forms, which followed an introduction, buildup, and climax, Satie strove to evoke a mood at each instant. You don't have to listen to the whole piece as it unfolds, but merge with the emotion he is expressing. Apollinaire did similar things with his poetry, Jarry with his alter-ego persona in prose, and Rousseau with his naive primitivism. If I understand it, this is similar to, but a step beyond, Impressionism, in that it is not about perception of the outside world, but a direct link to the artist's subconscious mind. The 4 artists were coeval with the Symbolists, the Cubists who emerged slightly later, and their work came to an abrupt end with WWI, during which other artists continued to work out their ideas with dadaism and other radical refinements of their original visions. From another angle, Freud was analyzing all this in a clinical perspective.
The book is uneven. There are many biographical details that I found interesting, but was not sure of their relevance to the principal arguments, which were never succinctly stated. Much of this remains unclear to me, which is perhaps not a fault of the book, but I do feel I have to seek clearer ideas of how all these movements are inter-related. It didn't help that the only artist of the 4 whose work I truly love was Satie's, and as I discovered, I like his earlier work, which is not even part of the avant-garde that Shattuck purports to explain. I never liked Rousseau's work, Apollinaire seems obscurantist to me, and Jarry I had never heard of.
Recommended. This book is not for everyone, but even non-academics who have a deep interest in the period will find it very worthwhile.
I found nothing remotely dry in the writing: it seemed to me to strike a good balance between the evocative and the informative. I only wish I had read this as a teenager, before I began to delve into writings and art of the following decades; I would have been spared a good deal of puzzlement. If ever you've failed to 'get' early 20th-century art, the last two chapters in particular are an excellent introduction.