Le Tumulte Noir: Modernist Art and Popular Entertainment in Jazz-Age Paris, 1900-1930.
Jody Blake's interesting study of the interaction between African art and African-American musicians and dancers and Parisian society and artistic world asks the central question of what is modernity and how was it conceived. More particularly, Blake questions the role of primitivism--in itself a fascinating and complex subject--in the development of the modern. Blake is concerned primarily with the ahistorical disconnection and ideologically problematic and exploitative appropriation of things African and Afro-American by Europeans. It is in this problematic appropriation that Blake makes his most forceful arguments, taking special care to illustrate the transformative process by which the Parisian establishment sought to "civilize" le tumulte noir.
Blake, making excellent use of both printed and archival sources, illustrates for us the introduction of Afro-American music and dance in the closing decades of the nineteenth century through its Jazz Age pre-eminence in the 1920s to its decline in the 1930s. Through the use of contemporary playbills, advertisements, reviews, essays, and manifestoes (positive and negative), the reader is exposed not only to the variety and vitality of the "primitive" art forms, but also to the ambivalent reception often afforded them. Historians should note that this is not a work which attempts to define for us the Parisian identity or that of the Afro-American expatriates, but rather to illustrate the way in which these two groups were shaped by each other and the role that African art and Afro-American music and dance profoundly transformed and was transformed by the modernist art movement of the early twentieth century. Blake does cite several historians--Modris Ekstein, Annie Combes, Romy Golan, Jerrold Siegel, Kenneth Silver, and Mark Antliff (but not Tyler Stovall)--whose work grapples with such imposing issues as national identity, popular entertainment, and racial othering, but ultimately she is at her best when analyzing art, popular culture, and the critical reception of these two. Like Brett Berliner's Ambivalent Desire: The Exotic Black other in Jazz Age France (2002), Blake makes vivid the ahistorical, decontextualization of the Black other. Being an art historian, Blake's attention is most directed at the performative and plastic art rather than the body of black men and women.
Blake confidently, if somewhat briefly, dissects the relationship between primitivism and the evolution of modernist art and music from the end of the century (and before) to 1930, indicating both the enthusiastic embrace which certain artists, such as Picasso, bestowed upon nativist African and Afro-American music, dance, and objets, and the thorough-going rejection of this influence by more conservative commentators, such as Clive Bell (and many of those who had formerly embraced African influences, including Picasso who famously retorted, in the 1920s, "Negro Art? Never heard of it."). In well-crafted chapters, Blake describes the interaction between primitivism and the fauvists, cubists, dadaists, surrealists, and, lastly, purists. She also carefully illustrates the conservative reaction to le tumulte noir, especially after World War I and the call for a return to order, to a classical revival--that is, to "a return to Latin simplicity, clarity, and order" (p. 84).
Indeed, the efflorescence of African and Afro-American music and dance had highlighted the ambiguous nature of gender and class roles in fin-de-siecle Paris. As Blake's richly illustrated work clearly shows, the sexual nature of such dances as the cake walk, the bear, and others coupled with the highly rhythmic music of Afro-American musicians, the pounding drum beat, the close gyrations of the performers, and certainly, the colour of the performers' skin all conspired to rouse the indignation of those guardians of French morality to high dudgeon. It is in this aspect of her work that Blake, prefiguring Berliner, is of most interest to the historian, describing the process of "othering" through her analysis of popular entertainment and the subsequent "civilizing" of African art and African-American music and dance.
In her postscript, Blake returns to the issues that opened her work: the role of primitivism in modern art and the formalistic criticism of art negre that dominated the art historical field until recently. She accurately identifies the primacy of the cultural and racial critique of primitivism that held art to be an integral part of daily life in primitive society. While such an approach embraced racial stereotypes and was hardly critical of racial othering, it acknowledged the appropriation of African art and African American dance and music: "This approach acknowledged that modernist primitivism was also embedded in life, and that artists, writers, and musicians were ... drawn to the 'negro village' as well as to 'negro art'" (p. 166). For Blake, at least these artists--from Picasso to the surrealists--held Europe accountable for its brutal imperialism and the murderous fury of World War I.
Charles P. Crouch
Georgia Southern University
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|Author:||Crouch, Charles P.|
|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Aug 1, 2005|
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