ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

American art in Paris.

American art in Paris.

Taking in the Americans who found their voice in the French capital.

Taking in the Americans who found their voice in the French capital.

By: Jay Brida
Photos: Jay Brida

Paris has inhabited the minds of artists and intellectuals for centuries. A muse and a canvas, it’s long been the kind of place where a restless Enlightenment thinker like Benjamin Franklin could meet a literary genius like Voltaire and provoke loud cheers from onlookers, including future President John Adams, who was there in February 1778 to witness it. It’s generous to the pursuits of thinking and creating—as well as to the thinkers and creators themselves.

There are ironies, too. Few would doubt that the French capital is at the center of the French identity, but it’s also a place accepting of outside ideas and influences that, in turn, make Paris a global center of culture and art. After all, the most famous piece of art in the city is a work of the Italian Renaissance, and two of its most famous painters were Spanish and Dutch.

It was here, in this fertile artistic ground, where maverick American artists, marginalized voices and loudly eccentric ones have, for more than a century, found a receptive home—one that still feels vibrant and vital even today.

The search for the history and the present of American art in Paris will take you through the legends—and the former mansions—of glamorous socialites, the once-modest neighborhoods of troubled geniuses, the ghosts that seem to haunt Lost Generation taverns. Perhaps most importantly, it will put you in the middle of a lesser-known but deeply moving history of the African-American artists who, liberated from Jim Crow and racism, found their audiences and their voices outside their home country.

It starts with Josephine Baker—and a walk.

Just to the southeast of the modern, less-than-beloved Montparnasse Tower, there is a modest square ringed by a couple of cafes. It’s here, in the Place Joséphine-Baker, where the story of American art in Paris starts to veer from the well-trod, well-known “movable feasts” to something different.

The name of the square is but a small monument to someone who became a very big star. Baker wasn’t necessarily the first major African-American artist—in her case, singer, dancer and entertainer—to leave America and find fame and fortune in Paris, but she was the one who changed everything for all the ones to follow. Born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri, in June 1906, Baker was to become the symbol of the jazz age in France, a talented supernova whose debut in 1927 caused all of Paris to take notice. Later, she became a French citizen, a spy for the French Resistance, a Chevalier of the Legion d’honneur (basically, a knight) and a symbol of a global civil rights movement.

It was there, in the small square named in honor of this transformational international superstar, where Kevi Donat started our walking tour. Donat, a French citizen from the Caribbean island of Martinique, works as a guide for Walking the Spirit tours, a company started in 1994 by Julia Browne, an African-Canadian. Browne sought to give a deeper context to the legacy of African-American artists and intellectuals who made their way to Paris to escape from a segregated U.S., so she started a series of walking tours of the black American experience, the artistic diaspora, in the City of Light.

The walk was a revelation. Strolling through the heart of the Latin Quarter, the famed neighborhoods of St. Germain des Prés and Montparnasse—once the intellectual and artistic nexus of the city—Donat rattled off names and pivotal figures like Baldwin, Davis, Wright, Delaney and so many more. Some of them resonated, and some of them were new to me. These were philosophers, authors, painters and musicians. They spanned the familiar eras—Donat pointed out that African-Americans who served in France during World War I brought jazz into Paris, along with the same sense of alienation that brought other Americans into the city after the war—and lesser known ones, like the late ’40s, when surrealism flourished in small cafes like Cremerie Restaurant Polidor.

“Whoever you are, Paris gives you permission to create,” Donat said, summing it up near the end of our tour, giving light to a kind of American history that you need to be outside the country to fully understand.

It ends in an old mansion—and a modern exhibit.

American socialite Mona Bismarck was a rather extraordinary character in her day. Born Margaret Edmona Travis Stader in Louisville, Kentucky, she was married twice before marrying Harrison Williams. At the time of their marriage in 1926, he was considered the richest man in America, having made a fortune in financing public utilities. Bismarck spent time in her residences in New York, Palm Beach, Capri and Paris, the last of which was a large limestone manor that overlooked the river Seine and, just beyond that, the Eiffel Tower.

Bismarck was known as a beautiful fashionista who cultivated friendships with the top artists and photographers of her time. In 1955, she married her former secretary, the grandson of the former Iron Chancellor of Germany, Otto Bismarck. Not long after she died in 1983, her house became the Mona Bismarck American Center—expressly funded to “engage visitors in a dialogue with the depth and diversity of the current American scene.”

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It’s here, in this eccentric, eclectic mansion, that I found a contemporary example of the artistic legacy Baker and others before her forged more than a century ago.

Beginning in 2018, the Bismarck will host the “Posing Beauty in African-American Culture” photography exhibition. It explores how African-American artists represent themselves in art. As Raina A. Lampkins-Fielder, the center’s former artistic director said, “It’s an exhibition of how we see ourselves.”

An African-American herself, Lampkins-Fielder said most of the photos were taken by African-American artists and the overall theme explores how African-Americans see themselves as people and artistic subjects. This kind of representation hearkens back to one of the first major African-American exhibits ever hosted outside the United States.

“These themes—of history, of identity, of aesthetics—are ones W.E.B. Du Bois brought up at the Exposition Universelle [the Paris World Fair at the Grand Palais] in 1900,” she said.

Du Bois, an African-American and one of the founders of the NAACP, compiled a series of early photos called “American Negro” to challenge the perceptions of the world community, to show the diversity and creativity of African-Americans at the turn of the 20th century. Some 117 years later, in the same city, Lampkins-Fielder noted not just the similarities of the exhibits but also the location—and the intent.

“Paris is receptive in a more modern way—the [expo of 1900] was kind of a start—but there is still a particular pull, to be sure,” she said. “Paris supports an artistic tradition, we are part of that, through contemporary times.”

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