One of the effects of colonial expansion in the nineteenth century was that museums stopped being exclusively Euro-centered. The mapping of the annexed world was a responsibility of colonial governments which employed scholars to carry out the tasks of collecting and recording. Curators changed their collecting focus.
Works of art from Africa and Pacific Oceania that were looted, stolen or cheaply acquired without concern about provenance, found their way from British, French, Dutch, and Belgian colonial territories to the museums and curiosity shops of Paris, London, Amsterdam, and Brussels.
Founded in 1878, the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro was the first anthropological museum in Paris. In 1904, Pablo Picasso rented a studio in a dilapidated building in Montmartre. At the time, the painter was exploring new creative directions. A visit to the Trocadero proved a pivotal moment in his career.
He hated the museum’s musty galleries, but was struck by the wealth of exhibits. The section of sacred masks made him aware of art’s transformative power. Creativity is a means of seizing control by imposing form on one’s anxieties. This realization led to Pablo’s proto-Cubist or African period. Thanks to his inspiring presence, the aesthetics of ancient African sculpture became a potent influence on contemporary art.
Parisian passion for African imagery merged with the popularity of African-American jazz musicians who had settled in the metropolis. This mix of new impetuses exercised a profound influence on Western artistic expression, particularly in the Fauvist and Cubist movements, that signaled the transition from traditional to modern art. Much of it started with the cake walk.
Harlem in Paris
In the course of the 1900s Harlem, a Dutch neighborhood in the New Amsterdam era, was taken over by families who had left the rural South seeking work in urban areas. The district established itself as a center of African-American culture.
By the early 1920s black theatre was well established there and featured the work of playwrights and performers, including Ridgely Torrence, Josephine Baker, Ada “Bricktop” Smith, and others. Duke Ellington would become a central figure in Harlem’s fountain of inspiration.
This was a talented but restless generation of artists. Many felt the need to escape segregation and find recognition elsewhere. By the mid-1920s, many cultural torchbearers had left Harlem for Paris. The 1926 New York City Cabaret Act, aimed at containing “noisy” club life in Harlem, was the last straw as it prohibited all unlicensed musical entertainment, singing or dancing.
One of the first musicians to pack his bags was Louis Mitchell, a black jazz drummer with a fine tenor voice who had settled in New York in 1912. Performing with his Southern Symphony Quintette at the Café des Beaux-Arts on Manhattan’s 40th Street and 6th Avenue, his concerts were admired by young Irving Berlin who himself had won instant fame with his “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”
After spending some time in London, Mitchell settled in Paris. His music took Montmartre by storm. He encouraged fellow African-American musicians to come to the French capital and exploit the city’s joy of jazz. Living conditions were cheap, club life was roaring, alcohol flowing, the dollar strong, and there were no Jim Crow laws. Americans started to arrive in droves, especially after the Volstead Act had gone into effect in January 1920 and Prohibition was enforced.
These newcomers made an immense impact on Parisian culture. As artistic praxis became increasingly experimental, modernists courted creative black personalities such as Josephine Baker, Henry Crowder, and Langston Hughes for their vitality and sense of style.
Henri Matisse, André Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck, Alberto Giacometti, Georges Braque, and many others were attracted to African art. They collected sculptures and wore tribal outfits and jewellery. While these artists may not have been aware of the significance of the works they encountered, they sensed their spiritual aspect and adapted this quality to overcome the naturalism that had defined European art since the Renaissance.
The blending of black and white cultures in jazz-age Paris led to a period described within avant-garde circles as one of “négrophilie.”
In April 1900, bandmaster and “March King” John Philip Sousa took his sixty-one-piece band on its first tour of Europe. The musicians sailed via England (where no concerts were given) to Belgium where the band performed at Hainault. Such was the impression that the local Academy of Arts, Science, and Literature awarded Sousa with the Cross of Artistic Merit (a distinction he would wear with pride throughout his career).
From there, members of the band headed for Paris to mark the opening of the World Exhibition. On July 3rd they were present at Place d’Iéna for the unveiling of Daniel Chester French’s bronze statue of George Washington on horseback. Donated by the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution, the statue was erected to commemorate the “brotherly help given by France to their fathers in the fight for Independence.”
The day after, the musicians joined in the festivities around the presentation of the Lafayette Monument on Cours-la-Reine along the Seine. Bestowed on behalf of the children of the United States in the presence of President Émile Loubet, the sculpture portrayed Lafayette offering his sword to the American cause in the Revolutionary War. At the unveiling the Sousa gave the first performance of “Hail to the Spirit of Liberty,” composed specifically for that occasion. After the ceremony, the musicians marched through the main boulevards of Paris towards the Arc de Triomphe.
Sousa’s afternoon concerts at the Esplanade des Invalides during the staging of the Exhibition drew huge crowds. A balanced mixture of popular and cultivated music was his hallmark of entertainment. With American flags flying, the band performed a program that included excerpts from Richard Wagner, Giacomo Puccini and Johann Strauss, in addition to patriotic marches such as “The Washington Post,” “King Cotton,” and Sousa’s own hit composition “Stars and Stripes Forever.”
The introduction of a new type of vernacular music caused a sensation. Sousa gave the French a first taste of melodies by such composers as Kerry Mills and Abraham [Abe] Holzmann. Known as ragtime in the States, the French dubbed these compositions “cake walks.”
After seventeen days in Paris, the band traveled to Germany and the Netherlands before returning home. Sousa’s presence inspired Claude Debussy to compose a number of cake walks. The phenomenal success of the band and the quality of musicianship helped dispel the prejudice (widely held in Europe) that the United States was an artistic void.
On his first tour, Sousa and his band had turned Europe into a ragtime-loving continent. Leo Feist, one of the world’s major music publishers, declared from New York that Paris “had gone ragtime wild.”
There are various narratives about the origin of the cake walk, but the consensus is that it emerged from the African-American experience of slavery.
Presented as plantation entertainment, dance competitions were organized for enslaved workers in which their “masters” acted as judges. Those who participated would try to out-dance each other. With back-arching movements and springy steps to the sound of an upbeat tune, dancers parodied the structured ballroom formalities of bowing and curtsying. Unaware of being mocked, slave owners took part in the fun by awarding cake to the champions – hence the cake walk.
From 1890 to 1910, cake walk passion swept the United States. Performed in minstrel and vaudeville shows, it became a form of entertainment popular with both black and white audiences.
Contests were organized all over the place. A Grand Cake Walk show was held in New York’s Madison Square Garden on February 17, 1892. In July 1898, the musical one-act comedy Clorindy, or, The Origin of the Cake Walk opened on Broadway with ragtime music composed by the classically trained Will Marion Cook. Black dancers mingled on stage with white cast members. The first steps towards (artistic) integration were taken on New York’s stage.
In October 1902 Mr. and Mrs. Elks, a white couple who billed themselves as American cake walk champions, came to Paris and performed in the Nouveau Cirque at 251 Rue Saint-Honoré (owned by Joseph Oller, co-founder of the Moulin Rouge). Hired by its director Hippolyte Houcke, they appeared in a variety show entitled Les joyeux nègres.
The review comprised comedy by the clown Chocolat (stage name of Rafael Padilla, a French black entertainers of Afro-Cuban descent), a boxing match, and a dancer on roller skates, but the Elks were the star attraction. Dominant feature of their routine was not the elegant smooth lines of other dances, but a physical tour de force driven by the relentless beat of music. It encouraged members of the audience to join in.
The Elks entourage included two child backup dancers who were billed as “Les enfants nègres.” Rudy [Ruth] and Fredy [Frederick] Walker were born in Chicago and had traveled to Europe in company of their mother. Louis Lumière produced a short film on the cake walk, recording the Elks troupe in 1902. In his 1935 memoir Portraits-souvenir, Jean Cocteau recollected seeing the Elks-show as a thirteen-year-old and the spectacular impression the show left on the audience.
The cake walk craze paved the way for an array of modernist cultural expressions of “négrophilie” in French painting, music, cinema, and entertainment. How to explain this impact?
The 1870 Franco-Prussian War had ended in humiliation for the French and gave rise to bitter internal conflicts in which national pride, politics and aesthetics became mixed up. For at least a quarter of a century, the controversy was fought out by rival factions in the intellectual and artistic arenas accompanied by violent confrontations in the streets.
Traditionalists highlighted a past era of cultural superiority and longed for a return to the grand and refined Classical styles of old. Culture to them was a fixed concept. What they witnessed instead was a fractured domain and an “anarchy” of competing movements. They complained that art had deteriorated into an open playing field for all ranks to enter and express their eccentricities.
Nationalists wanted to retake control of their cultural borders. During the 1880s a quarrel erupted around the “intrusion” of the Russian novel into French literature. Richard Wagner’s presence in cultural life proved an even more toxic issue. When on May 3, 1887 Charles Lamoureux succeeded (at his own expense) in staging a Parisian performance of Lohengrin, the maestro’s devotees saluted the occasion, but riots in the street forced a halt to further performances.
There was another dilemma. Ever since the world fairs in Philadelphia (1876) and Chicago (1893), European entrepreneurs and engineers had become aware of the USA’s economic rise (the “American miracle”). Visitors flocked to the industrial centers of Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania to take note of the latest labor saving technologies. Europe looked at America with a mixture of admiration and disquiet. For cultural conservatives, Americanization was a looming nightmare. For younger generations, it opened the prospect of renewal.
Cake walk mania was met with curiosity and intrigue, but interpreted in opposite terms. Critics lambasted such performances as savage. Owing to the African-American origins of the dance, they were judged to be “uncultured.” Some historians have considered such criticism to be born of racism. There may be some truth in that, but also since Rousseau and Diderot the word “sauvage” had acquired a poetic ring in French discourse.
Other critics reveled in the natural authenticity and innovative character of the cake walk shows and hailed them as cultural celebrations. Artists were enthused and inspired by the “otherness” of the spectacle. It gave them the audacity to break down cultural barriers of their own and explore new artistic avenues.
Amidst the noise of the tumulte noir, post-1870 France redefined its sense of self in an outward looking and inclusive manner from which the modernist movement drew creative pride and power.
Illustrations: Photo of Daniel Chester French’s 1900 bronze statue of George Washington at Place d’Iéna, Paris; John Philip Sousa, Hail to the Spirit of Liberty March (John Church Co., Cincinnati, 1900); Playbill of Clorindy (1898); Franz Laskoff, Le vrai cake walk au Nouveau Cirque, 1901/2 (from a private collection); Maurice Mahul, Rudy and Fredy Walker (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris); Rudy [Ruth] and Fredy [Frederick] Walker, “Les enfants nègres.”