The Jazz Age in France by Charles A. Riley II is actually more a scrapbook than a conventional art book. Filled with photographs, most of them snapshots, of artists and writers placed alongside reproductions of their artworks, this thin volume is really no more than an introduction to that group of American expatriates who flocked to Paris and the Riviera in the 1920's, those whom Gertrude Stein once famously described as the "Lost Generation." As such, it is of interest primarily to those who have no prior knowledge of the period as it provides no more than an overview of that glamorous era and, at best, serves only as a guide to further study. But even those who have a more in-depth knowledge of the period will enjoy the sense of nostalgia the book offers and will no doubt be as charmed as I was by the profusion of illustrations, many of them unfamiliar.
The book is divided into eight chapters and begins, appropriately enough, with an account of the years Gerald and Sara Murphy spent in France. Although the brief essay in no way expands on the account provided in Calvin Tomkins's Living Well Is the Best Revenge and indeed leaves out many important details of their lives, it does stress the central role the couple played in introducing newly arrived Americans to European modernism. Though the pair epitomized perfectly the chic glamour of the period, they were also kindhearted and generous individuals of whom no one apparently ever had an ill word to say. It was for this reason more than any other that almost all the major artists of the period, from Picasso to Fitzgerald, were drawn to their company. But the Murphys were artists in their own right as well even if their accomplishments are today often overlooked. One of the best features of The Jazz Age is that it reproduces almost all Gerald's paintings and thus demonstrates convincingly his claim to be considered a major modern artist on the same level as those more famous painters who gathered around him and Sara at Villa America in Cap d'Antibes.
In the following chapters, the book goes on to give brief sketches of those who associated with the Murphys both in Paris and in the south of France. These constituted pretty much a Who's Who of the cultural and social elite in the years following the end of World War I and included both the American arrivistes and the more established European figures. Aside from Picasso and Fitzgerald, mentioned above, there was Cole Porter, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Fernand Léger, Jean Cocteau, and Diaghilev.
It is in its treatment of Afro-American artists that the book distinguishes itself from other accounts of the period. Author Riley deserves a great deal of credit for discussing these artists who, all but forgotten today, earned a great deal more appreciation during their lifetimes in Paris than they ever did in their native country and who became a respected part of the city's cultural life. These artists included such important figures as Henry Ossawa Tanner, who had once been a student of Eakins, Hale Woodruff, William Edouard Scott and William H. Johnson.
The book's discussion of close friends John Dos Passos and E.E. Cummings is surprising for the emphasis it places on the pair's visual art rather than their better known literary works. There are reproductions of paintings by both these famous writers with which I had previously not been aware.
All in all, The Jazz Age is an excellent introduction to one of the most exciting periods of the twentieth century. It not only describes the wild parties and Paris nightclubs that characterized the decade, but it also captures very well the cultural and intellectual ferment that permeated all areas of the arts in France during the post-war period. As usual with books published by Abrams, the richly colored illustrations, many of them taking up an entire page, are expertly reproduced. The text by Riley, while hardly profound, is engaging and knowledgeable and hits exactly the right tone for such an introductory work. A more comprehensive bibliography, though, should have been included for those who wished to learn more of its central characters who are here only briefly sketched.