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Culture and France are synonyms

The culture of France is noted for its cosmopolitan, civilised approach to life, combined with great concern for style, fashion and appearances.

French people are sometimes perceived as taking a great pride in the national identity and positive achievements of France, although many French people would argue that all nations tend to do that.

French people address each other with formality, calling each other Madame, Mademoiselle or Monsieur in a way which may seem formulaic to outsiders, but signifies a respect for the individual which permeates the French way of life.

The French value family life, the art of cooking good food and enjoyment of theatrical and musical arts.

Creative Arts Visual Arts Main article: Visual Arts in France

Historical OverviewThe French Renaissance

The French Renaissance is roughly the period from Charles VIII of France through Henri IV of France and is said to begin with the French invasion of Italy in 1494.

The reigns of François I (from 1515 to 1547) and his son Henri II (from 1547 to 1559) are generally considered the apex of the French Renaissance.

After Henri II’s unfortunate death in a joust, the country was ruled by his widow Catherine de Medici and her sons François II, Charles IX and Henri III, and although the Renaissance continued to flourish, the French Wars of Religion between huguenots and catholics ravished the country.

In the late 15th century, the French invasion of Italy and the proximity of the vibrant Burgundy court (with its Flemish connections) brought the French into contact with the goods, paintings, and the creative spirit of the Northern and Italian Renaissance.

Thus, the initial artistic changes in France were often carried out by Italian and Flemish artists Jean Clouet (and his son François Clouet) and the Italians Rosso Fiorentino, Primaticcio and Nicolò dell’Abate of the (so-called) first School of Fontainebleau (from 1531).

Leonardo da Vinci was also invited to France by François I, but other than the paintings which he brought with him, he produced little for the French king.

The art of the period from François I through Henri IV is often heavily inspired by late Italian pictorial and sculptural developments commonly referred to as Mannerism (associated with Michelangelo and Parmigianino, among others).

This is characterized by figures which are elongated and graceful and a reliance on visual rhetoric, including the elaborate use of allegory and mythology.

There are a number of French artists of incredible talent in this period including the painter Jean Fouquet of Tours (who achieved amazingly realistic portraits and remarkable illuminated manuscripts) and the sculptors Jean Goujon and Germain Pilon.

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the French Renaissance was the construction of the Chateaux of the Loire Valley: no longer conceived of as fortresses, these pleasure palaces took advantage of the richness of the rivers and lands of the Loire region and they show remarkable architectural skill.

The old Louvre castle in Paris was also rebuilt under the direction of Pierre Lescot and would become the core of a brand new Renaissance château.
To the west of the Louvre, Catherine de Medici had built for her the Tuileries palace with extensive gardens and a grotto.

The French Wars of Religion however dragged the country into thirty years of civil war which ecplised much artistic production outside of religious and political propaganda.

Late Mannerism and Early Baroque

The ascension of Henri IV to the throne brought a period of massive urban development in Paris, including construction on the Pont Neuf, the Place des Vosges (called the ‘’Place Royale’’), the Place Dauphine, and parts of the Louvre.

Henri IV also invited the artists Toussaint Dubreuil, Martin Fréminet and Ambroise Dubois to work on the château of Fontainebleau and they are typicalled called the second School of Fontainebleau.

Marie de Medici, Henri IV’s queen, invited the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens to France, and the artist painted a number of large-scale works for the queen’s Luxembourg Palace in Paris.Another Flemish artist working for the court was Frans Pourbus the younger.

Outside of France, working for the ducs of Lorraine, we find a very different late mannerist style in the artists Jacques Bellange, Claude Deruet and Jacques Callot.Having little contact with the French artists, they developed a hightened and extreme (and often erotic) mannerism (including night scenes and fantastic images), and excellent skill in engraving.

The period of the early 17th century shows influences from both the north of Europe (Dutch and Flemish schools) and from Roman painters of the Counter-Reformation.

Artists in France frequently debated the merits between Peter Paul Rubens (the Flemish baroque, voluptuous lines and colors) and Nicolas Poussin (rational control, proportion, Roman classicism).

There was also a strong Caravaggio school represented in the period by the amazing candle-lit paintings of Georges de La Tour. The wretched and the poor were featured in an almost Dutch manner in the paintings by the three Le Nain brothers.

In the paintings of Philippe de Champaigne there are both propagandistic portraits of Louis XIII’ s minister Cardinal Richelieu and other more contemplative portraits of people in the Catholic Jansenist sect.

Louis XIV and French Classicism

The architecture and the arts in the mid to late 17th century in France are most often referred to by the term Classicism, generally implying an adherence to certain rules of proportion and sobriety.

The Baroque as it was practiced in Italy was not in French taste and Bernini’s famous proposal for redesigning the Louvre was rejected by Louis XIV.

Through propaganda, wars and great architectural works, Louis XIV launched a vast program designed for the glorification of France and his name.

The Palace of Versailles, initially a tiny hunting lodge built by his father, was transformed by Louis XIV into a marvelous palace for fêtes and parties.
Architect Louis Le Vau, painter and designer Charles Le Brun and the landscape architect André Le Nôtre created marvels : fountains danced; wandering revelers discovered hidden grottos in the gardens.

The initial impetus for this transformation of Versailles is generally linked to the private château Vaux-le-Vicomte built for Louis XIV’s minister of Finance Nicolas Fouquet.

Having offered a lavish festival for the king in the newly finished residence in 1661 (Le Brun, Le Vau, Le Nôtre, the poet La Fontaine, the playwright Molière were all under Fouquet’s patronage), the minister was accused of misappropriation of funds and was sentenced to life imprisonment.
The architects and artists under his patronage were all put to work on Versailles.

In this period, Louis’ minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert established royal control over artisanal production in France; henceforth France would no longer purchase luxury goods from abroad, but would herself set the standard for quality.

This control was also seen in the creation of an Academy of painting and sculpture which maintained a hierarchy of the genres of painting (the noblest being history painting), a strong use of pictorial rhetoric and a strict sense of decorum.

The furnishings and interiors from this period are referred to as ‘’Louis XIV style’’; they are characterized by thick brocades of red and gold, heavy gilt work on plaster moldings, large sculpted sideboards, and heavy marbles.

Eventually, Versailles was transformed into the official residence of the king (1682); the Hall of Mirrors was built; other smaller châteaux like the Grand Trianon were built on the grounds; a huge canal featuring gondolas and gondoliers from Venice was created.

In his youth, Louis XIV had suffered during the civil and parliamentary insurrection known as the Fronde.

By relocating to Versailles, he could avoid the dangers of the capital; he could also keep his eye very closely on the affairs of the nobles and could play them off against each other and against the newer ‘’noblesse de robe’’.

Versailles became a gilded cage: to leave spelled disaster for a noble, for all official charges and appointments were made there. A strict etiquette was imposed. A word or glance from the king could make or destroy a career. The king himself followed a strict daily program, and there was little privacy.

Through his wars and the glory of Versailles, Louis became, to a certain degree, the arbiter of taste and power in Europe and both his château and the etiquette in Versailles were copied by the other European courts.

Yet the difficult wars at the end of his long reign and the religious problems created by the revocation of the Edict of Nantes made the last years dark ones.

Rococo and Neoclassicism

The death of Louis XIV lead to a period of licentious freedom commonly called the Régence.

The heir to Louis XIV, his great grandson Louis XV of France, was only 5 years old; for the next seven years France was ruled by the regent Philippe II of Orléans. Versailles was abandoned from 1715 to 1722.

Painting turned toward ‘’fêtes galantes’’, theater settings and the female nude. Painters from this period include Antoine Watteau, Nicolas Lancret and François Boucher.

The ‘’Louis XV style’’ of decoration (although already apparent at the end of the last reign) was lighter: pastels and wood panels, smaller rooms, less gilding and fewer brocades; shells and garlands and occasional Chinese subjects predominated.

Rooms were more intimate. After the return to Versailles, many of the baroque rooms of Louis XIV were redesigned.

The official etiquette was also simplified and the notion of privacy was expanded: the king himself retreated from the official bed at night and conversed in private with his mistress.

The latter half of the 18th century continued to see French preeminence in Europe, particularly through the arts and sciences, and the French language was the lingua franca of the European courts.

The French academic system continued to produce artists, but some, like Jean-Honoré Fragonard and Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin, explored new and increasingly impressionist styles of painting with thick brushwork.

Although the hierarchy of genres continued to be respected officially, genre painting, landscape, portrait and still life were extremely fashionable.

The writer Denis Diderot wrote a number of times on the annual Salons of the Académie of painting and sculpture and his comments and criticisms are a vital document on the arts of this period.

One of Diderot’s favorite painters was Jean-Baptiste Greuze. Although often considered kitsch by today’s standards, his paintings of domestic scenes reveal the importance of Sentimentalism in the European arts of the period (as also seen in the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Samuel Richardson.)

One also finds in this period a kind of “Pre-romanticism”. Hubert Robert’s images of ruins, inspired by Italian cappricio paintings, are typical in this respect. So too the change from the rational and geometrical “French garden” (of André Le Nôtre) to the “English garden”, which emphasized (artificially) wild and irrational nature.

One also finds in some of these gardens curious ruins of temples called “follies”.

The middle of the 18th century saw a turn to Neoclassicism in France, that is to say a conscious use of Greek and Roman forms and iconography. In painting, the greatest representative of this style is Jacques Louis David who, mirroring the profiles of Greek vases, emphasized the use of the profile; his subject matter often involved classical history (the death of Socrates, Brutus).

The dignity and subject matter of his paintings were greatly inspired by Nicolas Poussin in the 17th century.

The ‘’Louis XVI style’’ of furniture (once again already present in the previous reign) tended toward circles and ovals in chair backs; chair legs were grooved; Greek inspired iconography was used as decoration.

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The French neoclassical style would greatly contribute to the monumentalism of the French revolution, as typified in the structures La Madeleine church (begun in 1763 and finished in1840) which is in the form of a Greek temple and the mammouth Panthéon (1764-1812) which today houses the tombs of great Frenchmen.

The rationalism and simplicity of classical architecture was seen — in the age of Enlightenment — as the antithesis of the backward-looking Gothic.

The Greek and Roman subject matters were also often chosen to promote the values of republicanism. One also finds paintings glorifying the heroes and martyrs of the French revolution, such as David’s painting of the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, a student of David’s who was also influenced by Raphael and John Flaxman, would maintain the precision of David’s style, while also exploring other mythologicial (Oedipus and the sphynx, Jupiter and Thetis) and oriental (the Odalesques) subjects in the spirit of Romanticism.

Romanticism

The French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars brought great changes to the arts in France.

The program of exaltation and mythification of the Emperor Napoleon I of France was closely coordinated in the paintings of Gros and Guérin.

Meanwhile, Orientalism, Egyptian motifs, the tragic anti-hero, the wild landscape, the historical novel and scenes from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, all these elements of Romanticism created a vibrant period that defies easy classification.

One also finds in the early period of the 19th century a repeat of the debate carried on in the 17th between the supporters of Rubens and Poussin: there are defenders of the ‘’line’’ as found in Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, and the violent colors and curves as found in Eugène Delacroix.
The comparison is however somewhat false, for Ingres’ intense realism sometimes gives way to amazing voluptuousness in his Turkish bath scenes.

The Romantic tendencies continued throughout the century: both idealized landscape painting and Naturalism have their seeds in Romanticism: both Gustave Courbet and the Barbizon school are logical developments.As is too the late 19th century Symbolism of such painters at Gustave Moreau (the professor of Matisse and Rouault) or Odilon Redon.

Birth of the Modern

Walter Benjamin called Paris “the capital of the 19th century”.

In order to understand the amazing diversity of artistic expressions which Paris gave birth to from the 1860s to the 1940s, one needs to understand both the unique experience of this city and the financial, social and political experiments that it was host to.

Baron Haussmann’s massive renovation of the city created amazing perspectives and broad boulevards, but also replaced poorer neighborhoods and created fast routes to move troops through the city to quell unrest.

Yet there was also a second Paris at the limits of Haussmann’s city on the hill of Montmartre with her windmills, cabarets and vineyards.

Café culture, cabarets, arcades (19th century covered malls), anarchism, the mixing of classes, the radicalization of art and artistic movements caused by the academic salon system, a boisterous willingness to shock… all this made for a stunning vibrancy.

What is more, the dynamic debate in the visual arts is also repeated in the same period in music, dance, architecture and the novel: Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Proust, Nijinski… This is the birth of Modernism.

Edouard Manet represents for many critics the division between the 19th century and the modern period (much like Charles Baudelaire in poetry).

His rediscovery of Spanish painting from the golden age, his willingness to show the unpainted canvas, his exploration of the forthright nude and his radical brush strokes are the first step toward Impressionism.

Impressionism will take the Barbizon school one further, rejecting once and for all a belabored style (and the use of mixed colors and black), for fragile transitive effects of light as captured outdoors in changing light (in part inspired by the paintings of Turner).

Claude Monet with his cathedrals and haystacks, Pierre-Auguste Renoir with both his early outdoor festivals and his later feathery style of ruddy nudes, Edgar Degas with his dancers and bathers.

Some of these techniques were made possible by new paints available in tubes. These painters were also to a certain degree in a dialogue with another discovery of the 19th century: photography.

From this point on, the next thirty years are a litany of amazing experiments.Vincent Van Gogh, Dutch born but living in France, opened the road to expressionism.

Georges Seurat, influenced by color theory, devised a pointillist technique that controlled the Impressionist experiment.

Paul Cézanne, a painter’s painter, attempted a geometrical exploration of the world (that left many of his peers indifferent).

Paul Gauguin, the banker, found symbolism in Brittany and then exoticism and primitivism in French Polynesia.

Henri Rousseau, the self-taught dabbler, becomes the model for the naïve revolution.

The products of the far east brought new influences. Les Nabis explored a decorative art in flat plains with a Japanese print graphic approach.

The discovery of African tribal masks lead Pablo Picasso to his ‘’Demoiselles d’Avignon’’ of 1907.

Picasso and Georges Braque (working independantly) returned to and refined Cézanne’s way of rationally understanding objects in a flat medium.

But their experiments in cubism would also lead them to integrate all aspects of the day to day life: collage of newspapers, musical instruments, cigarettes, wine… Cubism in all its phases would dominate Europe and America for the next ten years.

At roughly the same time, Les Fauves (or “wild beast”), exploded in color (much like German Expressionism).

Dada and Surrealism

World War I did not stop the dynamic creation. In 1916 a group of discontents met in a bar in Zurich (the Cabaret Voltaire) and create the most radical gesture possible: the anti-art of Dada.

At the same time, Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp in Paris were exploring similar notions.

In an art show in New York in 1917 Duchamp present a white porcelain urinal signed “R. Mutt” as work of art, becoming the father of the ‘’readymade’’.

The killing fields of the war (nearly one-tenth of the French adult male population had been killed or wounded) had made many see the absurdity of existence.

This was also the period when the “Lost Generation” took hold: rich Americans enjoying the liberties of Prohibition-free France in the 1920s and poor G.I.’s going abroad for the first time.

Paris was also, for African-Americans, amazingly free of the racial restrictions found in America (James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Josephine Baker).

When Dada reached Paris, it was avidly embraced by a group of young artists and writers who were fascinated with the writings of Sigmund Freud, and particularly by the notion of the unconscious mind.

The provocative spirit of dada became linked to the exploration of the unconscious mind through the use of automatic writing, chance operations and, in some cases, altered states.

The surrealists quickly turned to painting and sculpture.

The shock of unexpected elements, the use of frottage, collage and decalcomania, the rendering of mysterious landscapes and dreamscapes were to become the key techniques through the rest of the 1930s.

World War II ended the feast. Many surrealists (like Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, André Breton and André Masson fled occupied France for New York and the States (Duchamp had already been in the U.S. since 1936), but the cohesion and vibrancy were lost in the American geometric city.

Meanwhile a new generation of Americans were making art that finally owed nothing (or nearly so) to the old world.

Post War

The French art scene immediately after the war went roughly in two directions.

There were those who continued in the artistic experiments, especially surrealism, from before the war, and there were those who took on the new Abstract Expressionism and action painting from New York and tried them in a French manner (Tachism or L’Art informel).

Parallel to both of these tendancies, Jean Dubuffet dominated the early post-war years while exploring child-like drawings, graffiti and cartoons in a variety of media.

The late 1950s and early 1960s in France saw what might be considered “Pop Art” :

  • Yves Klein had attractive nude women roll around in blue paint and throw themselves at canvases ;
  • Victor Vasarely invented Op-Art by deisgning sophisticated optical patterns.
  • Artists of the Fluxus movement like Ben Vautierin corporated graffiti and found objects into their work ;
  • Niki de Saint-Phalle created bloated and vibrant plastic figures
  • Arman gathered together found objects in boxed or resin-coated assemblages and César Baldaccini produced a series of large compressed object-scuptures (similar to Chamberlain’s crushed automobiles).

In May 1968, the radical youth movement, through their atelier populaire, produced a great deal of poster-art protesting the moribund policies of president Charles de Gaulle.

Many contemporary artists continue to be haunted by the horrors of the war and the specter of the holocaust. Christian Boltanski’s harrowing installations of the lost and the anonymous are particularly powerful.
French culture is profoundly allied with the French language, expressing a national psychology of high emotion, playfulness, and joie de vivre.

The artful use of the mother tongue, and its defense against perceived decline or corruption by foreign terms, is a major preoccupation for some persons and entities.

The French Minister of Culture works to promote the French cinema, and the Académie française sets an official standard of language purity.

France counts many regional languages, some of them being very unrelated to standard French such as Breton and Alsatian.

Most of them are from the same language group (Indo-European), and some regional languages are Romance, like French, such as Provençal.

Many of them have enthusiastic proponents among the people. There is also a language completely unrelated to French, Basque.

In April 2001, the Minister of Education, Jack Lang, admitted formally that for more than two centuries, the political powers of the French government had repressed regional languages.

It announced that bilingual education would, for the first time, be recognized, and bilingual teachers recruited in French public schools.

The real importance of local languages remains subject to debate.

Social reform

The revolutionary ideal is a powerful totem in the French psyche. Some ideas of Situationism were realised in Disneyland Paris, although doubtless this would be denied by its builders.

The French Revolution was itself an extreme form of social change, and its reverberations are everywhere apparent in day to day life there.

Consider also the 1848 Paris Commune, and the 1968 student riots. Parallel to these events, it is possible to discern deeply conservative trends in French life.

 

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