André Derain, Woman in a Chemise, 1906, oil on canvas, 39 3/8 x 31 7/8".

André Derain, Woman in a Chemise, 1906, oil on canvas, 39 3/8 x 31 7/8".

“Paris: Capital of the Arts 1900–1968”

Rarely does such a “major” historical exhibition fail so lamentably to account for why its many works were included and why they were ordered in such a way. It is equally rare for a show of such size and ambition, covering a period of extraordinary achievement, to contain so many duds. There were moments here when you had to pinch yourself to make sure you were in the Royal Academy and not at a secondary modern sale at Christie’s. But no, you really were in one of the premier exhibition spaces in Britain looking at a show that purported to examine painting and sculpture in Paris during seven decades of tumultuous polyglot creativity.

The curators (Sarah Wilson of the Courtauld Institute with the Academy’s Norman Rosenthal and art historian Ann Dumas) made several questionable decisions, the most obvious being the time span. Why stop at the student riots of 1968, after a low point in French political art? Why begin before Fauvism? A more manageable and probably more refreshing exhibition might have skipped the first, well-trodden decades and concentrated on the less familiar art in Paris in the second half of the twentieth century, the period in which the city’s creativity seemed to dwindle rapidly but, as this show intermittently demonstrated, still had some life left. Further, why break the exhibition down to four arrondissements—Montmartre, Montparnasse, Saint-Germain-des-Prés, and the Latin Quarter—when in fact artists were working all over the city? Geography is no substitute for argument. If this structure was meant to give coherence to a bulky ground plan, it actually worked in reverse—you didn’t know where you were, as one quartier dissolved into another. It didn’t help that the curators included work made elsewhere in France. Though viewers were told that works not originating in the capital had been excluded, there, in the very first room, was André Derain’s iconic head of Matisse, 1905, well known as having been painted in Collioure, on the Mediterranean coast. Call me persnickety, say I’m splitting art-historical hairs, but an exhibition as ambitious as this must stick closely to its stated guidelines if it is to maintain any authority.

The first room was exemplary with respect to the gaps that existed between the shopping list (drawn up by Wilson, known for her dense texts rather than any visual acuity) and the goods in the cart at the checkout. It was a dog’s dinner presumably meant to demonstrate that in the early 1900s artists of several nationalities working in several styles were living in Paris. Wow! Van Dongen, Matisse, Picasso, Utrillo, Sickert, and Vuillard took a supporting role to the two largest canvases in the space. These, by Marie Laurencin and Suzanne Valadon, fell flat on their faces in a room designed as an overture of dazzling innovation to the supposed symphony that followed. Bonnard, appearing two rooms later, was incredibly poorly represented, by only one work, and it was painted in the South of France. And there was no sign anywhere of Monet, Renoir, Rodin, or Pissarro, who were visiting Paris from their rural studios in and after 1900 and whose achievements had greatly endorsed the city as artistic capital of the world.

Traveling deeper, the babble of voices in Montmartre gave way to that of Montparnasse. Here and there were very good works—by Léger, Picasso, Arp, Picabia, Soutine—but their potential impressiveness was frequently dulled by shabby neighbors and an often careless hang. The attempted inclusiveness left most topics raw or incomplete. Ellsworth Kelly and Sam Francis stood in for the Americans in Paris, but Edward Hopper and Stuart Davis, who had painted the city at crucial moments in their careers, were absent. British artists were thin on the ground although several lived and worked in Paris. C.R.W. Nevinson was present, along with Marlow Moss, an epigone of Mondrian, but Ben Nicholson was a glaring omission, Paris having partly provided the impetus for his mid-’30s white reliefs.

There is nothing so dispiriting as responding to a work of art on its own terms only to have the curators breathe down your neck and tell you it’s only there to show this or that aspect of politics, geography, class, etc., a situation that reaches its nadir in currently chi-chi thematic exhibitions. As art, for example, Romaine Brooks’s portrait of Jean Cocteau against a backdrop of Paris is a feeble, inflated painting; as documentation, it has its point. The privilege given throughout to work by women was not always to the show’s advantage. Fortunately, almost by accident, there were illuminating visual moments and passages to be enjoyed without excessive curatorial intervention. We were reminded of how good Pierre Soulages could be; absorbed by the conjunction of works by Soutine and Fautrier and by excellent Picabias; surprised by a revisionary impression of early Niki de Saint Phalle. But in the end it was all too like an overpopulated parrot house, its colorful inmates outscreeching one another for attention.

“Paris: Capital of the Arts 1900–1968” travels to the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, May 21–Sept. 3.

Richard Shone, associate editor of the Burlington Magazine, is a frequent contributor to Artforum.