UAM: Twilight of the Moderns?

On 02 July 2018, by Jean-Louis Gaillemin
Studio Saint-James, Jacques Doucet's house in Neuilly, with "Les Demoiselles d’Avignon" by Picasso, c. 1928-1929.
© Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

A brand? A political party? Nobody apart from specialist historians now knows what was represented by the ephemeral UAM ("Union of modern artists"), which emerged in 1929 when it split off from the Société des Artistes Décorateurs (founded in 1904), and struggled for two decades with the crisis and then the war before being swallowed up by Formes Utiles, one of its offshoots (…). Born too late, in painful circumstances, it never fulfilled the destiny it aspired to. This exhibition at the Centre Pompidou looks back, with relative success, at the origin and highlights of its short life. So how can this evanescent UAM be given shape? Very simply by showing everything its members achieved in the twenty years before they joined it. A clever sleight of hand that makes it possible to go right back to the founding of the Salon d'Automne in 1903, and attribute the birth of the "modern" decorative arts to the influence of the Fauves and Nabis. That took some thinking! Some comparisons are comical, like these two chairs by Prouvé and Chareau, which seem to be engaged in a gym-like ballet; some are regrettable, like this shelf of ceramics by Francis Jourdain, somewhat overshadowed nonetheless, with their affected rusticity, by the subtle furniture of Chareau. It might have been a "prehistory" of the UAM if, to pad out their presentation, the curators had not gaily exhibited several pieces by Paul Poiret, Djo-Bourgeois, Ruhlmann, Marcel Breuer, Louis Sorel, Auguste Perret, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, Louis Marcoussis, René Prou, Ivan da Silva-Bruhns and Adnet… who were never part of the movement. And what can we say about a whole section devoted to Sonia Delaunay, who was never very active in the UAM? In that case, why not include Jean Royère, who was rejected by the UAM because he still worked for "the suburbs"? Or Jean-Michel Frank, who avoided all public events but whose "strange luxury of nothing" (to quote Mauriac) would have been appropriate here? What is most surprising is the omnipresence of Francis Jourdain, eclipsing both Robert Mallet-Stevens and Jacques Doucet. What is really shocking – and that's not too strong a word – is the absence of Jacques Doucet's Studio Saint-James, one of the leading laboratories of modernism if ever there was one. The Centre Pompidou exhibition, in all its ambition and inconsistencies, is symptomatic of a turning point in the history of art, finally caught up, as ever, by that of taste.

"L'UAM, une aventure moderne", until 27 August,
Centre Pompidou, Paris. 
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