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Academic & writer

The New York Times

ARTS ABROAD; French Writer Explores Two Cultures Entwined

The New York Times
Published: November 22, 2001

By Alan Riding
PARIS— When Annie Cohen-Solal took the position of France’s cultural counselor in New York in 1989, her first unexpected discovery was that she felt more comfortable with the American cultural model than with the French. Her job was to promote French culture across the United States, but the freedom and eclecticism of American culture better suited her cosmopolitan background.

Born into a Jewish family in French-ruled Algeria, she was 13 in 1962, when Algeria’s independence forced her family to move to France. After receiving her doctorate from the Sorbonne, she lectured at universities in Berlin and Jerusalem before writing a well-received biography of Jean-Paul Sartre. Fluent in six languages, she was less than typically French when she arrived in New York.

”French culture has a vocation to be universal and by becoming universal, it erases differences,” Ms. Cohen-Solal, 53, said. ”I am proud of French culture, but I do not accept this universality. I feel enhanced by the bits and pieces I am made of. When I’d talk to Americans, I came to understand the bits and pieces that make up American culture. And in a funny way I liked it more than the model I was representing.”

Her book ”Painting American: The Rise of American Artists, Paris 1867-New York 1948” (Knopf), just published in the United States, is the result of her reflections on two cultures that to this day are both complementary and competitive. Told through art, the book recounts how in 80 years American painters went from being mocked at the 1867 Universal Exhibition in Paris to imposing their will through Jackson Pollock and Abstract Expressionism after World War II.

It is also the story of how two contrasting art worlds operate, the French centralized around the government and official institutions, the American shaped by private collectors and philanthropy. Yet even here the lines have occasionally blurred: French Impressionism represented a revolt against the academy, and between 1932 and 1943 the United States government employed artists, including Pollock, through the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration.

Ms. Cohen-Solal, who turned to teaching and writing after she left the counselor’s post in 1993, stumbled on her book’s topic by chance. Two weeks after she arrived in New York her good fortune was to meet Leo Castelli, the New York art dealer who played a central role in promoting postwar American artists like Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein and Frank Stella. ”Leo told me, ‘I’m going to train you in American art,’ ” Ms. Cohen-Solal recalled.

No less important was her discovery of American museums and what she calls their admirable organization, openness and educational programs. Above all two things struck her: that American museums owned more late-19th-century and early-20th-century French art than those in France did, and that when she attended the openings of French art shows in the United States, the exhibitions always portrayed France’s past. She began to wonder why.

She knew from experience how little the French were aware of American art, even postwar art that proved so influential elsewhere in the West. ”The French did not like Abstraction coming from the United States after World War II, so we have very little American art in our museums,” she said. ”Do you know how many paintings by Jasper Johns there are in French museums?” The answer, she said, was one, given by the Houston collector Dominique de Menil.

But Ms. Cohen-Solal also concluded that beyond the works of Whistler, John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt, 19th-century American art was little known in the United States. ”It has always been the orphan of American art,” she explained. ”This is why I felt it important to start much earlier than the famous modernist show at the Armory that introduced New Yorkers to post-Impressionism, Cubism and Fauvism in 1913. The American inferiority complex toward French art began well before then.”

She opens her story in 1867, she explained, because during the Civil War American artists had been cut off from Europe and had begun developing American subjects, notably landscapes. While this trend later led to the Hudson River School, the landscapes presented at the Paris exhibition were dismissed as bland and unsophisticated. Their self-confidence shattered, American artists by the thousands began heading to France to learn their trade.

Three communities — Pont-Aven, Barbizon and Monet’s outpost at Giverny — became bustling expatriate artists’ colonies, while many young Americans attended courses in Paris at the Académie des Beaux-Arts and the Académie Julian, adopting painters like Jean-Léon Gérôme and Alexandre Cabanel as their mentors.

Outside academic circles, however, French art was being shaken up by the Impressionists, with Courbet and Manet leading the revolt and Monet, Seurat, Degas, Pissarro, Renoir, Sisley, Signac, Rousseau, Cézanne and others following. And since French collectors were unimpressed by their work, one enterprising art dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, decided to test the emerging American market by organizing the first Impressionist show in New York in 1886.

”Durand-Ruel quickly understood that there was a supply in France and a demand in the United States,” Ms. Cohen-Solal said. ”What followed is amazing. There is no precedent in art history for 75 percent of the paintings done over 25 years in one country finding themselves within 10 years in another country. Can you imagine that there were three Manets at the Met in New York before the French had any in their own museums?”

The timing of this large-scale transfer of French art to the United States was not accidental. Not only did a new generation of American multimillionaires view collecting art as a passport to respectability, but also in the years that followed the founding of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1870, new museums were springing up all over the United States. And both new collectors and new museums were eager to acquire the work coming out of France.

The next crucial stage, Ms. Cohen-Solal said, occurred when French artists themselves took modernism to the United States: Duchamp and Picabia during World War I; Léger, Matisse and Brancusi between the wars; and finally the Surrealists who fled France during World War II. Many were impressed by the United States; in 1931 Matisse predicted, ”One day, they will have painters.” (Ms. Cohen-Solal uses this remark — ”Un jour, ils auront des peintres” — as the French title of her book.)

While private collectors and the new Museum of Modern Art (founded in 1929) in New York remained dazzled by French art, young American artists were in search of their own identities. Thomas Eakins encouraged them ”to remain in America to peer deeper into the heart of American life.” Some did so by heading west or south or, in the case of Georgia O’Keeffe, to New Mexico. Edward Hopper echoed the views of many who had studied in France when he declared, ”We are not French.”

In tracking the new American realists Ms. Cohen-Solal draws attention to the often overlooked influence of post-revolutionary Mexican art, notably the muralism of Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, who worked extensively in the United States in the 1930’s. Mexican government support for their art encouraged President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration to employ artists in its Federal Art Project.

Yet even though Pollock admired the Mexicans, when he made his breakthrough to abstraction and his subsequent drip paintings, his main influences were Duchamp, Cézanne and Picasso, Ms. Cohen-Solal observed. ”Pollock never went to Europe, but he did not need to,” she said. ”At the MoMa, Alfred Barr had brought together German Expressionists, French Surrealists and Russian Futurists. The MoMa acted like a European embassy. Pollock could see it all in New York.”

Pollock was not alone. After the war, when Peggy Guggenheim wowed the 1948 Venice Biennale with selections from her newly acquired American collection, there were works by Alexander Calder, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, William Baziotes, Arshile Gorky and Clyfford Still, along with six by Pollock. But by the time Pollock died in 1956, Ms. Cohen-Solal writes, Americans no longer had any doubt that ”Pollock was their first real master.”

”Painting American” ends with the torch passing from Europe to the United States, with a whole new generation of American artists — Leo Castelli’s generation — preparing to make their entrance. For Ms. Cohen-Solal, though, this is also the beginning of her next book, which will trace American art from 1948 to the present. But in this story, she added with regret, French art plays virtually no role.

Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company