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WOID Bulletin

Review: COUNTER CULTURE: Parisian Cabarets and the Avant-Garde, 1875-1905.
Grey Art Gallery, New York University
100 Washington Square East, NYC 10003
(212) 998-6780.
Through January 16.
Tues-Thur-Fri 11:00-6:00 pm.
Wed 11:00 - 8:00
Saturday: 11:00 - 5:00

There is a common tactic in American intellectual life, similar to what
Lacan called "revolutions:" a tactic of bold intellectual moves that end
up leaving things exactly as they were. This is particularly true in Art
History, where more time is spent claiming such-and-such an artist or art
movement was "revolutionary" than explaining exactly what they did, or
why. It may be thrilling to hear that the Barbizon painters were once
described as men in dirty underwear, but unchanged underwear won't change
the world.

Arguably the same tactic might be found among many of the artists on view
in "Counter Culture;" unfortunately the tactic is carried over into the
organization of the show. Nominally it's about the outbreak of anarchistic
art after the Paris Commune and through the first years of this century;
in practice it restricts itself to Montmartre and its cabarets ("counter
culture" - get it?). Though it brings in some works by the caricaturist
Andre Gill (who was out of the picture by 1879 - he died in the Asylum at
Charenton) it does not include the posters he produced during the Siege
of Paris, or mention the flowering of poster culture during the Siege and
the Commune, among the strongest roots of the movement it describes.
Finally, the sense of Montmartre itself as an alternative neighborhood is
for the most part, missing. True, there is a poster for the impressario
Salis when he ran for local office on a platform of Montmartrean
independence; and on its masthead the journal "Le Chat Noir" which he
published describes itself as the "Organe des interets de Montmartre."
Yeah, sure. The way the musical "Rent" represents the interests of the
Lower East Side, or the way Norman Mailer once ran for mayor of New York.

That said, "Counter Culture" offers a fine survey of posters, pamphlets,
caricatures and tasteless jokes from such unknown groups as "les arts
incoherents," or "les hydropathes," with the requisite works by Steinlen,
Bonnard, and Lautrec. One section traces the evolution of typographic
design from a kind of Victorian silliness through Mallarme's famed visual
poem "Un coup de des jamais n' abolira le hasard" to Apollinaire's
"Calligrammes." It's particularly challenging to trace lettering and
layout as willed political acts: the mixed cases and rambling structure,
the odd initials shaped like contemporary caricatures, owe a great deal to
Gill's hugely popular journal La Lune Rousse, La Lune and (after it was
banned), L' Eclipse. Like the great radical writer Jules Valles (with whom
Gill and Manet once planned to start a newspaper), Gill was engaged in a
near-desperate attempt to break with the classical tradition in form, and
this effort carried over into his typographic design.

At least it carried over into the mid-1880s. There is a clear break in
approach after that, as if the effort to break with the classical
bourgeois style had freed the artists to experiment with an approach we
might call Modernist because it seems to owe little to the past, pro or
con. Alfred Jarry's visual work, which appears at the end of the show,
seems to come from another planet altogether.

At the same time, there is something odd about the back-and-forth shifts
between the verbal and the visual which set the pattern for this show. So
many of the works shown here (jokes, puns, artistic-put-ons), exist only
through their labels - for instance the reproduction of Paul Bilhaud's
painting "Blacks Fistfighting in a Cellar by Night" which the catalog
describes as "the first documented monochrome painting," thereby proving
that avant-garde art also occurs twice: first as parody, second as
self-parody. It's as if a type of visual spontaneity were being repressed
as much as it was celebrated - as one often finds later on Surrealism. At
a time when we ourselves are confronted with so much art that is primarily
verbal, academic, and has more of the posture of political engagement than
the reality, it's a good question to ask, and a great show to visit.

Paul Werner, New York City

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