Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 24, 2000
Jody Blake Le Tumulte Noir: Modernist Art and Popular Entertainment in Jazz-Age Paris, 1900-1930 University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999. 207 pp. Cloth $65.00 (0271017538)

As a reflex of the growing resistance among European intellectuals in industrialized societies to glaring colonialist appropriations, an avant-garde emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries which adopted an open-minded anthropological perspective. Rejecting racially tainted claims of the superiority of Western cultural traditions, it proposed a series of expressive theories that valued the authenticity and originality of the “primitive.” After World War I, however, and notably since the twenties when a “Call to Order” was issued, a different attitude supervened critics, extolling High Art in terms of a timeless, present, assimilated art négre to the purist forms of abstraction.

Why this reinterpretation of the “primitive” has prevailed and how it originated are questions that Jody Blake addresses in Le Tumulte Noir. Like the exhibit “Looking Forward, Looking Black” (1999), her book contests cultural constructions of blacks that render their identity inconsequential and invisible. Moreover, she takes a historical perspective on African art and views it in the context of its reception without lifting it out of its time. (One might compare her project to the 1989 exhibit, “The Blues Aesthetic,” which like her book integrates the history of African music and dance into the culture of Europe and America.)

This valuable book expands the contextual approach that Patricia Leighten applied to the primitive elements of Picasso’s Cubism, to include Dadaism, Purism and Surrealism. Blake thereby counters puritanical interpretations of primitivism that homogenize and trivialize linguistic difference and focus on the visual, ignoring dance, music and language as “theatrical.” But more strikingly and specifically she makes a crucial distinction between African art and Afro-American music. That distinction, sustained throughout the book, enables her to add to the criticism of formalist reductionism a cogent and original point made in a postscript on “Playing Down le Tumulte Noir” (165): “What critics of the formalist discourse of primitivism have failed to recognize is its historical origins in the backlash against the jazz age.”

In developing this thesis of a backlash she reviews the sociopolitical conditions of France between 1900 and 1930, and titles her chapters by playfully matching jazz-dance lingo to phases of modern art (“Taking the Cake: The First Steps of Primitivsm in Modern Art;” “Tam-Tam in the Urban Jungle;” “Ragging the War;” “Bamboula in the Temple of Auguste Perret;” “Jamming on the Rue Fontaine;” “Toeing the Line”). The argument of her chapters moves chronologically (9): “the revelatory debut of the cakewalk at the turn of the century and the emergence of primitivism with the Picasso and Matisse groups; the ragtime dance frenzy of the teens and the absorption of primitivizing impulses into the celebration of machine-age vitalism with Orphism, unanimism and futurism; the explosive arrival of jazz bands at the end of the First World War and the iconoclastic and irrational uproar of dada; the backlash against the revues négres of the 1920s and the vehement traditionalism and chauvinism of the ‘Call to Order,’ the illicit enticements of Montmartre jazz sessions and the surrealists’ primitivizing pursuit of automatism and subversive campaign against ‘civilized’ values; and the expurgation and codification of jazz and the purists’ classically and mechanically rectified interpretation of ‘primitive and primitivizing art.’”

A prime resource as well as target is the catalogue of the MOMA exhibition of primitivism (1984), with its “ahistorical and depoliticized formalism” (2), which Blake counters with “cross-media comparisons between tonality in music and color in painting or between danced rhythms and sculpted forms” (6). Equally important, she rejects the old white ethnocentrist premise that African influence was limited to decontextualized objects in Western museums. These points remain largely verbal, since most of her examples—largely by French artists and cartoonists—emphasize music and dance as a theme in painting (38).

Jazz (primarily in New York rather than New Orleans, though Bechet and Armstrong are cited) in fact is the theme around which the whole discussion turns. In her introduction the author demonstrates that modernist scholarship, in considering the interaction between primitivism and art, underscored the “fashionable exoticism” of Western dance while ignoring jazz, whose importance she displays in several illustrations (3). While “modernists in the Picasso and Matisse circles turned to African sculpture to subvert so-called civilized values” (35), she shows in Chapter 2 that by the twenties African-American dance and music were “thought to have assumed a rejuvenating role”—their fragmentation and simultaneity were compared to Cubism and Futurism (30). In Chapter 3 she asserts that jazz and dada “were considered quintessential expressions of the irrevererent, frenzied, and cosmopolitan post-Armistice period” (60). But the postwar years described in Chapter 4 turned from both expressions to a “classical revival” of French traditions which she illustrates with works by Léger and Picasso (84). Chapter 5 claims that both African-American music as well as dance and drugs “provided the Surrealists with a theoretical model for pure psychic automatism” (128). Chapter 6 links the Purists’ rectification and domestication of “le Tumulte Noir” to a general repression that has since persisted, culminating in “the subsequent emphasis on formal affinities at the expense of historical contexts” (165).

There are several issues that might be addressed in a second edition:

Dr. Blake could usefully extend her discussion (50-2) of dance in the art of Sonia Delaunay, a highly innovative fashion designer in the 1920s, to include the rhythmic patterns she applied in her textiles, especially those for the dresses of dancers. Perhaps neglect of the clothing worn by the dancers in Bal Bullier (1913) explains the inversion of Fig. 28.

She might reconsider the complexity of Picasso’s “classical revival” after World War I and the persistence of his relation to African art in the twenties (84). She asserts (102) that Picasso’s link to the Ballets Russes led him to want to restore “music and dance traditions”; and she notes (109) that “Léger’s The Three Musicians and Picasso’s The Dance, like the bals-musettes, were pointedly free of African influence and remained unequivocally français.” However, some scholars, taking a contrary view of the twenties have observed that two works by Picasso show an African influence in their mask-like silhouetted heads—The Three Musicians (1921) and The Three Dancers (1925). The savage dancers convulse before a classically decorated wallpaper, an incongruity suggesting desecration. This expresses perhaps disaffection with his wife Olga Khoklova, formerly a ballerina with the Ballets Russes.

In maintaining that the Call to Order is a postwar phenomenon (83), Dr. Blake should discuss the contrary view that “le discours du retour à l’ordre, se produit dès 1916, au sein de la guerre” (Laude 1974). Instead of Picasso and Léger, some scholars emphasize the role of Braque (and of Bissière and Lhote—both of whom referred to a “call to order” in discussing an exhibition of Braque in 1919). Some confusion may have resulted from relying on the mixed collection of essays in Cocteau’s Le Rappel à l’Ordre (Paris 1926: articles written between 1918 and 1926; Silver’s Esprit de Corps (Princeton, 1984) dates it to 1917!).

Dr. Blake links Parisian Jazz and Dada to the War as reactions (62), or in the case of Dada as political protest (79); but, she herself points out (60) that both were post-armistice: Jazz arrived in Paris with the AEF in 1918/9 and Dada in 1919/20. She rationalizes this seeming contradiction, explaining that Jazz responded to the “aftershocks” of the postwar period, “an internal upheaval nearly as momentous as the external cataclysm that had triggered it.” The dance floors were “sites for the ritual reenactment and catharsis” of the war (80). Curiously, at the same time the Purists’ reinterpretation of Jazz manifested “postwar conservatism” (139).

The chapter on Surrealism could be improved by turning to recent major editions of texts like those of Breton’s Oeuvres Complètes and of the Tracts, and evaluating “eye-witness” sources like Soupault, who was permanently expelled from the group in 1926. The assertion she cites by the Belgian Surrealist R. Goffin that African-American music served the Surrealists as “a theoretical and practical model for their own undertakings” (111), is explicitly contested by Parisian Surrealist G. Legrand in Puissances du Jazz (Paris, Arcanes, 1953). Tanguy’s watercolor Bar Américain (1925), which usefully documents the hectic Jazz scene, seems inapt to prove the Surrealists’ “convulsive reactions” to Jazz since it is not Surrealist—this awkward early work bears little relation to Tanguy’s mature Surrealism, which he only began to develop in 1926. Unfortunately, this is the only illustration offered of Surrealist painting.

In terms of its main argument the documentation is compelling and offers fresh archival materials. One can recommend it to researchers in the history of modern dance and music, and especially to students of Afro-American culture and its relation to modern art at the time before, during and after World War I.

—Jack J. Spector, Rutgers University

Jack J. Spector
Rutgers University