In the days of the broken cubes of Picasso
And in the days of the broken songs
of the young men
A little too drunk to sing
And the young women
A little too unsure of love to love –
I met on the boulevards of Paris
An African from Senegal.
Knows why the French
Amuse themselves bringing to Paris
Negroes from Senegal
He brings them as a gift
From light to darkness
From the boss to the bossed
From the game of black and white
From the city of the broken cubes of Picasso
(passages from ‘Cubes’, Langston Hughes, New Masses, 13 March 1934)
During the 1920s and 1930s the new art movements jostled for position. A plethora of group exhibitions displayed cubism, surrealism, expressionism, magic realism, new objectivity and the impressionist revival. For artists these were revolutionary times, both in the art world and society at large.
Many became actively engaged in communism, fascism or socialism and felt greatly involved with the lot of ‘the worker’ and the indigenous peoples in colonies. This sense of involvement is sometimes reflected in their works.
Many Dutch artists sought innovation – in style, colour, form and content – amongst major art movements abroad. In Germany and France the expressionists and fauvists had associated their quest for innovation with their hero Paul Gauguin 1848 –1903, who had abandoned the phenomenal world and embraced the emotional world of colour, in order to detach himself still further from civilisation.
During the 1920s the Groningen-based artists of De Ploeg became involved in their own search for form and colour, inspired by the premises of Die Brücke, in particular those of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner 1880 –1938.
Other Dutch artists, like Jan Sluijters, looked rather to Paris and the fauvists. Sluijters’ contemporary, the art critic Albert Plasschaert, described the artist’s quest for colour thus: ‘Colour is his meaning for living and feeling’.
New music types and dance forms also provided diverse artists with fresh forms of inspiration. A genuine craze for jazz and all things African gripped Paris, from which many Dutch artists took their lead as well as Sluijters.
In 1923, for example, the Ballets Suédois performed La Création du monde in the French capital. The ballet was based on the text l’Anthologie nègre by the French poet Blaise Cendrars 1887 –1961, while the music by Darius Milhaud 1892 –1972 was influenced by New York jazz and black Brazilian folk music. The set and costumes were designed by the artist Fernand Léger 1881 –1955, who modelled these on African masks from the Congo and the Ivory Coast. The ballet created an uproar.
Two years later nineteen-year-old Josephine Baker 1906 –1975 produced an even greater stir when she danced in La Revue Nègre. She soon became world famous, the muse of many artists, and also performed in the Netherlands.
The African mania in Paris was caused in part by the fact that large numbers of Africans, African Americans and blacks from the Caribbean had settled in the French capital after the First World War. African Americans in particular felt comfortable in Europe, for they were tired of segregation in their home country.
Paris was not the only attractive destination for black migrants: increasingly larger groups of Surinamese, Antilleans and African Americans also came to the Netherlands during the 1920s and 1930s. The jazz craze dominated most major European cities, and every city acquired its own ‘Negro Club’ where jazz could be heard. Amongst the clubs opened in Amsterdam were the Casablanca and the Kit Kat Club, where the Surinamese musicians Kid Dynamite (Arthur Parisius, 1911 –1963) and Teddy Cotton (Theodoor Kantoor) performed.
The burgomaster of Amsterdam, W. van der Vlugt, soon closed these clubs, in 1937, as it was feared that black men and young white women would ‘mix’ at these venues. Newspapers had run worried reports on the malign influence of ‘Assantines’, ‘Abyssinians’, ‘negroes’ and ‘negro music’ on white women from around 1900.
In Paris there were fewer problems and Le Bal Nègre became a rendezvous for the international art avant-garde from the early 1920s. A large number of Dutch artists visited the club whose influence reverberated through their work.
Esther Schreuder in: Black is beautiful, Rubens to Dumas (2008)
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Research has been made possible thanks to a contribution of de Mondriaan foundation, AFK and VSB fonds.