Deep influence of a rebirth and renewal in Paris

July 19, 2017

I love to visit Paris and its galleries; the beauty of the City of Light – those cool boulevards, soaring churches, as well as the silvery Seine herself, inspires art lovers as well as artists.

The Paris influence also seems more potent when the sun is shining; whose feelings are not stirred by the pink cherry blossoms in the Seine-side garden of Square Jean XXIII or the scent of old-fashioned roses in the garden of the Musee Rodin?

The real power of Paris is rooted deeply indeed. Paris is the home of the intellectual painter, the philosopher creator, as well as writers, poets, dancers and musicians; it has proved a melting pot for ideas over the centuries and a crucible for artistic movements from the Impressionists to Fluxus.

Many of its most creative periods have followed times of turbulence. Paris exists in one of those rare geopolitical crossroads, where its very location often seems to make it especially vulnerable and important in history.

I am reminded, for example, of how even as the city convalesced after World War II, its people weary and poor, its magic somehow remained undimmed by the years of Nazi occupation.

In those post war years, important modern artists including Matisse, Picasso, and Giacometti made it their home. So did a new generation of influential émigré artists, including Russians, Hungarians and Italians, not to mention the Pole Mieczyslaw Janikowski who had survived serious injury whilst an allied tank commander.

And then there were the Americans who famously used their GI Bill grant to settle in Paris, such as Bill Parker and John Levée. The latter, who died earlier this year, based himself in Montparnasse and became the foremost American abstract expressionist in Europe.

Those years were an era of incredible cultural richness and have inspired many to think more deeply about how we see life. For example, the classic Gershwin musical An American in Paris, which has just opened in London, explores this world with compassion and humour. Telling the story of GI-turned artist-Jerry who falls in love with shop-girl-turned ballerina Lise, it explores the difference between artists who wanted to draw on the horrors of war to others who wanted to move on and take the world with them.

Is this art reflecting life, perhaps? Not necessarily, though I note the fascinating tension here between the way we are expected to feel and the way our natural human optimism leans.

Perhaps the most famous American in Paris after the war was artist Ellsworth Kelly. He recalled one of the first drawings he did there, a still life. “I bought a hyacinth flower with a lot of leaves, just to make me feel like spring,” he said.

Which reminds me that for most of us – happily – we will never have to dig deep for optimism after wartime or occupation. Instead we may seek our own inspiration where we can: in art, music, dance and beauty.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation