Guts, Gusto & Gin

07 July, 2016

Can we really say "FOMO" when it comes to events that took place half a century before our birth? Professor Charles Riley, an arts journalist, curator, and our guide through 1920s Paris, thinks so. But it’s a dangerous game.

Riley took us on a stroll through Parisian streets, where the likes of Joyce, Hemingway, Picasso, and Gershwin bravely set out to master new mediums in an era of artistic experimentation. In our time of over-specialization, where what you do equates to who you are, these legends traded their pens for paint brushes. As Riley admitted, "that took guts!" But all the guts, gusto, and glasses of gin in the world couldn’t return us to that time or place. Paris in the ’20s wasn’t New York: you didn’t go there to find yourself; you went there to prove yourself, after conquering the world. And the world, itself, had been conquered. After serving as a volunteer ambulance driver during World War I, Hemingway returned to a city that had, as Riley put it, “a vicious limp and a hell of a lot to say.”

“Paris in the ’20s was a ‘wretched muse.’”

Even if we could, by some miracle, recreate the effervescence of the Jazz Age, we wouldn't want to. There was no pity at Gertrude Stein's table. You either kept up or faded away. For artists like Picasso, it was a sea-change moment. (Who needs cubism in a world where a body can be torn apart on a battlefield?) Artists like Léger wanted to restore order to a chaotic reality. But in our nostalgia-infused retelling of the era, we must not forget that this was a time of terror and tragedy. Paris in the ’20s was a “wretched muse.”

Words by David Shargel.

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