Blue as an Orange

By Alba Arikha

The hidden histories of Bohemian men and women who are little known in the Anglo-Saxon world.

Art | Biography
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Henry Murger, the so-called father of Bohemia, quipped in 1851 that ‘Bohemia is not possible anywhere but Paris.’ Alba Arikha argues that it was and takes us on unexpected - and long ignored – journeys through countries which best reflect the Bohemian movement’s importance, not only for its originality but its diversity.

A spotlight is also shined on the hidden histories of Bohemian men and women who are little known in the Anglo-Saxon world: the Martinican Suzanne Césaire, a woman who André Breton deemed ‘as beautiful as a cup of flaming punch,’ who was the first to coin the term ‘Afro-surrealism’. The Brazilian artist Tarsila, one of the leading Latin American modernists. Andreas Embirikos, the ‘Guru of Greek surrealism,’ who introduced modern literature to a Greek audience and was also a key figure within the anti-nationalist ‘Generation of the 30’s’ movement. Vladimir Mayakovsky, the bad boy of Russian poetry who, in 1912 became one of the founders of Futurism. His love life was as tangled as his poetic advocacy to the Soviet regime. Meanwhile in Italy, Benedetta Cappa Marinetti embraced the Italian branch of the Futurist movement and experimented with different forms of art. Her lifelong passion for aerodynamics, reflected in her paintings, was not shared by the male members of the group.  

Arikha shows how surrealism and symbolism, and later expressionism, crossed all borders, religions, and beliefs. André Breton’s modernist influence was paramount – and contagious. His celebration of the power of the unconscious (how art can unlock the mind), the combination of individualism and rebellion, the tapping into myth and metaphysical spread world-wide, forever changed our perception of art. Thereafter, every decade produced another avant-garde movement which adapted it into its national zeitgeist, despite each society’s loud disapproval of its eccentricities.

‘Bohemia is always yesterday,’ wrote the writer Malcom Cowley of 1920’s Greenwich village. But today the political divisions in the western world have given rise to a new form of Bohemianism, a return to the ‘purity’ of rebellion. BLUE AS AN ORANGE tells the stories of the artists and visionaries, the nomads, narcissists and hedonists who shared those Bohemians ideals, and shows how the legacy of their art is more vital and relevant today than ever before.

Afro-Cuban art: Wilfredo Lam: the Jungle, 1943

 

***

I have always been fascinated by the Bohemians, not only because of their contribution to the world, but also because of how they lived. Until recently, I knew only of the French and English members, and their spirit of rebellion. As I delved into the topic, I realised that the movement straddled many more continents and countries than I had imagined: Mexican artists in the 1920’s, America, with its creative commune in 1940’s Brooklyn and the Harlem Renaissance, the Negritude movement (African and Caribbean writers living in Paris), and its 1930’s protest against French colonial rule, 1960’s Morocco, with Paul and Jane Bowles. The book will end with the glamorisation of the myth, and its capacity to absorb both the nefarious and the creatively fertile.

The more I read about these men and women, the more intrigued I became. Who were they? Was there a common thread between them? This is the first book about Bohemianism on an international scale. We are overdue for a more inclusive understanding of what Bohemianism consists of, especially in terms of its geographical/ethnic/artistic resonance. I have chosen the countries which seemed to best reflect this aspect of the movement.

Art is about the other. It is what brings us together in times of strife and discord, but also natural disasters, such as the pandemic we are living through today. It is about connecting with humanity and a sense of belonging. About travelling through walls. Not about us versus them but us and them. Therein lies its power: the opposite of tribalism. And this is what the Bohemians fought so hard against: the tribalism of convention. Its inability to transcend borders, its fear of the outsider.  That is what the clamour was about. And this is their story.

Brazilian modernist: Tarsila do Amaral, Abaporu, 1928

 

Credits: Music in the film was composed by the author. https://www.albaarikha.com

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  • Alba Arikha avatar

    Alba Arikha

    Alba Arikha was born and raised in Paris, in an artistic household. She has written five books, in fiction and non-fiction, including a narrative poem, 'Soon', published by CB Editions. Her memoir, Major/Minor, described as ‘extraordinary and heartbreaking’ by Edmund de Waal, was shortlisted for the 2012 Spear’s Awards. Her novel, ‘Where to find me,’ was published by Alma Books in 2018. It was longlisted for the Wingate Prize, and selected among the best books of 2018 in the Evening Standard. Her stories, poems and articles have been published in the London magazine, the TLS and Tortoise Media, among others. She has collaborated on two operas, based on her books, with her husband, composer Tom Smail. Alba is also a singer/songwriter and has performed in Paris and London. She has recorded two CD’s of songs, ‘Si j’ai aimé’ and ‘Dans les rues de Paris.’

  • NORWAY: Bohemian identity in Kristiana

    Café culture in late 19th century Paris was split between Montmartre and Montparnasse. While Renoir and Toulouse Lautrec favoured the steep streets of La Butte, as the former was called, the poets Max Jacob and Guillaume Apollinaire opted for Montparnasse. By 1884, the café de Versailles, in the 6th arrondissement, had become a favourite establishment for French and Scandinavian artists. To ensure privacy, the patron gave them access to a back room, behind the billiard table. One of the regulars, who happened to be in Paris at the time, was called Christian Krohg. He was Norwegian, from Kristiana (Oslo). The alcohol-fuelled evenings in that Montparnasse café seldom ended before early morning, and Krohg enjoyed every minute: the poets reading their latest poems. The heated arguments about what it meant to be an artist. The conversations about pointillism - a reaction to impressionism. The current pictorial and literary interest in labourers and workers - naturalism, or social realism –topics which fascinated Christian Krogh. He had attracted attention in his native country, not only for his portraits of seamen from the fishing village of Skagen, on the north coast of Jutland, but also his portraits of women: tired seamstresses, slumbering young girls, struggling mothers. His depiction of their plight, and the working-classes in general, had set him apart in Norway– but not in France: the writer Emile Zola, the painters Gustave Caillebotte and Courbet, whom he admired, equally rejected romanticism in favour of naturalism. Could this artistic trend resonate in Kristiana?

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  • 7th July 2021 BLUE AS AN ORANGE: on the road with the Bohemians

    Dear Friends,

    An enormous thank you to those who have supported my book. I’m truly grateful. The book has reached 19% and is starting to take shape. 

    To those of you who have expressed interest but haven't pledged yet, here is some more information about BLUE AS AN ORANGE, in case you decide you’d like to support it.

    This project is one I’ve wanted to embark upon for years - and I’m delighted…

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