Gino Severini, ‘Suburban Train Arriving in Paris’ 1915
Gino Severini
Suburban Train Arriving in Paris 1915
© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2021

City as modernity

Paris was where the twentieth century was…Paris was the place to be
Gertrude Stein

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Paris was the unrivalled centre of the art world, a city in the throes of rapid modernisation. In 1909 Bleriot flew the English Channel, while faster trains and cars seemed to quicken the pace of urban life. Culture reinvented itself through technology: cinema, photography, the gramophone and the telegraph were just a few of the developments changing society. New scientific ideas, including Einstein’s theory of relativity and Freud’s theory of the unconscious were overturning the understanding of reality.

Paris acted as a magnet for a remarkably international range of artists, writers, poets and musicians. They met in the studios, cafes and bars of Montmartre and Montparnasse, creating a culture of cross-fertilisation and collaboration. Cubist and Futurist artists sought a visual language to convey the dynamism and complexity of the contemporary world. Some began to bind the detritus of urban life into their work, making collages using newspaper cuttings, strips of wallpaper, and cardboard. Poets and musicians similarly invented new forms to convey the city’s pulsing rhythms. This optimistic vision of a technological modernity ended with the First World War and, for many artists, first-hand experience of its killing machines.


Fauvism was unveiled in Paris in 1905. The Fauvists shocked the salons by using intense colour as a means of expression rather than trying to represent the world naturalistically. ‘When I use a green it doesn’t mean grass’ Henri Matisse wrote, ‘when I use a blue it doesn’t mean the sky’. Such paintings were famously criticised as the work of fauves or ‘wild beasts’ when first exhibited. Although the nucleus of the group, which included Matisse, Derain, Marquet, Vlaminck, and van Dongen, lived in Paris, they often ranged beyond the city, finding inspiration in the Mediterranean fishing village of Collioure or the port of Le Havre, for instance.


Paris was the acknowledged centre of the art world at this time. Robert Delaunay celebrated this cultural supremacy in his monumental painting The City of Paris, which locates the three Graces of Greek mythology in a fractured city panorama featuring that symbol of technological might, the Eiffel Tower.

An international community of artists gathered in the city. Chagall arrived from Russia, Kupka was Czech, Brancusi was Romanian. German and Scandinavian artists were drawn to the academy founded by Matisse. Many exiles and emigres used Paris as a vantage point from which to reinvent their own native cultures, fusing folk art with a modernist sensibility. Something of this kaleidoscope of nationalities is suggested in a portrait of the Mexican artist Diego Rivera painted by the Italian Amedeo Modigliani, in Paris in 1914.

Collaging the city

‘The painters scrutinised everything’ wrote the poet Blaise Cendrars. Picasso and Braque were at the forefront of this process of visual experimentation. One of their breakthrough innovations, which followed from the development of Cubism, was the papier collé. By glueing real objects such as newspaper cuttings and strips of wallpaper onto the canvas, they literally incorporated urban reality into their work. It was an art form capable of expressing the clutter, sensations and textures of contemporary life, and was eagerly taken up by others.

The Ballets Russes

The Ballets Russes, founded by Russian impresario Sergey Diaghilev, electrified Paris. Productions such as The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring combined groundbreaking modernist scores by Igor Stravinsky, with experimental choreography, and costumes and sets designed by artists such as Alexandre Benois and Léon Bakst. In 1912, the Russian ballet’s star, Vaslav Nijinsky produced a scandalously erotic performance as the goat-god in Claude Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. Dance, for many writers, musicians and artists of the period, was viewed as an excitingly dangerous ritual which could tap into primal, creative forces.

Modern visions

The conventional, academic styles of art that dominated the Paris salons were rejected by the avant-garde. They sought new forms that could express their experience of modernity. Gino Severini’s Suburban Train Arriving in Paris bursts like a fist through the outskirts of the city, scattering hills and houses. This Futurist enthusiasm for speed and machine energy would begin to flag as the reality of war and its unprecedented mechanised violence became apparent.

In creating the world anew, modernist artists also looked back to their origins. Picasso’s early Cubist painting Three Figures under a Tree suggests the influence of African carving on his work. Masks and carvings from non-Western cultures, and from Africa in particular, fascinated artists. The avant-garde appropriated the forms and motifs of these objects and applied them to their own images of the human figure.

A love of popular entertainment, including music, theatre, and performance is reflected in numerous works, such as Henri Laurens’s multicoloured, contorted Clown. Images of musical instruments abound in the Cubist works of Picasso and Braque, their fragmented style suggesting a sense of rhythm and reverberation that matches the musical subject. Movement was another obsession, a response to the speed of modern life. Leopold Survage painted a series of watercolours called Twelve Coloured Rhythms, which he intended to form the basis for the first abstract colour film. Severini’s Articulated Dancer incorporates moving parts: the viewer could pull at its string to make the dancer move. The dream of flight inhabits Brancusi’s mythical golden bird Maiastra. This sculpture was inspired by a Romanian folk tale, but the smooth and simplified form, poised above a roughly carved base, makes it above all modern, and a creature of Paris.