'Paris the Luminous Years' a dazzling re-creation of the birth of modern art

The city of light shone especially brightly in the early 20th century as artists in nearly every discipline came together and revolutionized the art world.

The new documentary "Paris the Luminous Years" explores major turning points and crucial relationships that started much of what we see today in the visual arts, music, dance, literature and theater. It airs Wednesday, Dec. 15, on PBS (check local listings).

"It's the period from 1905 to 1930 when everybody, almost nearly everyone -- it's just amazing -- who did anything that was important in the arts, in nearly all the arts, was in Paris," explains filmmaker Perry Miller Adato. "Sometimes only for a couple of weeks, sometimes for a couple of months, others for their whole lifetime, but it didn't matter because no matter how short or long it was, it changed their work, and it changed their life."

Adato first became interested in the subject while working on her 1970 film about the writer Gertrude Stein called "Gertrude Stein: When This You See, Remember Me."

"I began finding out about who was in Paris besides Gertrude Stein, and all the people that she knew and the artists, and of course Picasso she was very, very close to, and lots of others. … I began to wonder what was it about Paris that not only drew them, but once they were there, they made such a difference."

The artists themselves provide the answers on camera and in their own words drawn from a variety of primary sources, including writings, witnesses and scholars. The result is a vivid and well-paced treatment of the period that is both illuminating and engaging.

"You know, the fact is that I have never been interested in making a film which is a scholarly dissertation," Adato says. "My whole attitude in making films has always been that any subject can be made interesting if you do it with a certain kind of approach, and this is a subject that lent itself. The whole idea of the film is to give an idea of how wonderful and exciting and lively it was."

"Paris the Luminous Years" brings to life the friendships and fervent atmosphere that inspired a cultural revolution through a unique mix of archival footage, photographs and works of art from 113 international sources with live contemporary footage of relevant locations.

"It's just astonishing we have got, not counting the film images, we have got 441 images, photographs, black and white and color, mostly black and white, painting and graphics, 441 separate things that had to be cleared … by at least three sources that you had to get permission from. It's a gigantic task, and it's amazing to be able to do it in two one-hour films in two years."

Even more amazing is how accessible Adato makes the transformation of centuries of tradition in the art world. No prior knowledge of art history is required to appreciate its effect on contemporary culture.

"I would say that for any contemporary artist who is not working in, let's say, a realistic way with images, that is free to paint however he or she wants to paint, or sculpt, and I'm talking now of the visual arts, that cubism was the breakthrough," Adato says.

New York's Museum of Modern Art is the best place to see works by almost all the artists referenced in "Paris the Luminous Years," including French painter Paul Cezanne, whom Picasso called "my one and only master." Cezanne's "The Bather" currently is on view, along with Picasso's radical and controversial "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," which initiated cubism and is discussed in detail in the film. Other examples from 1905 to 1930 include Joan Miro's "The Birth of the World," Picasso's "Three Musicians," Henri Matisse's "The Moroccans," "The Red Studio," "Goldfish and Palette," and "Dance (I)"; Marc Chagall's "I and the Village"; and several from Georges Braque, including "Road Near L'Estaque" and "Man With a Guitar."

Many of the important events in the film took place in 1910, so its premiere in 2010 marks a kind of 100th anniversary.

"Picasso and Braque actually started working together and began creating cubism in 1910," Adato says. "(Serge) Diaghilev founded the Ballets Russes in 1910. Stravinsky did the first modern score, 'Firebird,' in 1910, and that was the beginning of the move of the center of modern music from Germany to Paris, And in 1910 also, the center of art moved from Montmartre to Montparnasse. Chagall arrived in Paris, and a couple of the other Eastern Europeans."

"I knew who (Sergei) Diaghilev was, and I knew about the Ballets Russes, but just a little bit, and I was fascinated to find out how important Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes were at that time. … He brought over these wonderful Russian dancers to do a season of Russian ballet. Ballets Russes didn't exist, but there was such enthusiasm in Paris about the Russian ballet and the dancers and the exotic costumes and the decor, the sets, … that he decided he was going to create a permanent ballet company in 1910."

Paris also had an enormous effect on American literature. Ernest Hemingway, considered by may to be the most important writer in the 20th century, first arrived in Paris in 1921 after fighting in World War I in Italy. He developed friendships with Stein and Picasso, among others, and began making a name for himself as a reporter and fiction writer. From 1925 to 1929, he wrote some of the most important fiction of his generation, including "In Our Time," "The Sun Also Rises," "Men Without Women" and "A Farewell to Arms."

"The thing about that period," Adato says, "is that these people were young, and they were having a great time, and they were having a tough time in many ways as far as money was concerned. But they were all poor, most of them, and there was a community, a kind of exchange, and that, I think, is the essential thing. Paris was so international that you had all these people who never would have met each other -- Picasso and Braque never would have met -- in a million years."

At its simplest, "Paris the Luminous Years" is the story of young rebels sharing ideas about art and politics and banding together in an effort to change the world during a time of dramatic upheaval. As such, its relevance and potential appeal extends far beyond a niche audience of art enthusiasts to viewers of all ages.

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