Before exploring the history of the French avant-garde, it's useful to have a working definition of the avant garde movement itself. The avant-garde movement itself tends to defy definition, eschewing boundaries.
The words avant-garde are an old French military phrase meaning the advance guard. An advance guard consists of troops sent into battle. In other words, they are the first wave of warriors encountering the enemy. The original artists in the avant-garde movement saw themselves as soldiers in the day's culture wars, battling the entrenched establishment in Paris who deemed their paintings worthy to hang in the coveted Paris Salon.
The definition of avant-garde today includes artists, musicians and writers who work on the edge of modern culture. The avant-garde artist breaks new ground by exploring traditional concepts, but often beyond the bounds of propriety or even cultural norms. Most avant-garde artists seek art for art's sake, and not for popularity, fame or fortune, although they may find all three over time as their works become known to the public. Avant-garde artists urge social, political and cultural changes through their artwork.
History of the French Avant Garde
Scholars generally credit the official beginning of the French avant-garde movement to 1863.
The Salon de Refusés
The most coveted art exhibition for painters in the late 19th century was the Paris Salon. Exhibiting one's paintings in the Paris salon could make or break an artist's career. The Salon, however, had grown crusty and tired over the years, rejecting more and more paintings and choosing instead artists whose work reflected pedantic tastes. In 1863, the salon jury rejected over 3,000 works, an unprecedented amount. The furious artists banded together to open their own exhibition.
On May 17, 1863, a group of painters, under the aegis of Emperor Napoléon II, opened the "Salon de Refusés", or salon of rejects. The list of rejected artists reads like a who's who of brilliant painters: James McNeil Whistler, Edouard Manet, and others. The Salon de Refusés occupied a gallery attached to the famous Paris Salon, adding insult to injury to the staid salon executives. The Salon de Refusés was held in 1863, 1874, 1875 and 1886. After this, it was no longer the exciting, counter culture event it was back in 1863 and was discontinued. Each generation produces a wave of avant-garde artists. Other avant-garde artistic concepts include Cubism, Dada, and Fauvism.
The Spread of the Avant-Garde Movement
After the burgeoning modernist movement became popular, it ceased to be considered avant-garde. As new forms of art became acceptable, the boundaries had to be pushed further from the norm. Sculpture, painting, and photography explored avant-garde concepts, with each subsequent generation of artists combining new techniques and forms to create original art that sought to push beyond cultural values. Soon the avant-garde philosophy spread beyond the visual arts to other arts as well.
Like avant-garde visual artists, musicians composing and playing in the avant-garde tradition seek to break past the limits and boundaries of modern music to explore and encourage cultural, political and societal changes. Music scholars generally point to the period immediately following World War II as the start of the avant-garde music tradition. Hallmarks of avant-garde music include disregard for traditional chord structures and blending several musical traditions together. Avant-garde musicians may combine several musical styles, such as rock, jazz and classical, to form a never-before head sound. Musique concrete, for example, is a French avant-garde musical technique that uses various sounds, instruments and tones that when mixed together form original pieces.
Writers noticed the avant-garde movement, and by the 1920's and 1930's, works of literature began appearing that were considered in the avant-garde tradition. As with music, pushing the boundaries of established forms exemplifies avant-garde literature. One of the earliest avant-garde writers was the French playwright and actor Anton Artaud. Artaud's best-known work, The Theater and Its Double, was published in 1930 and gave rise to the concept of The Theater of Cruelty, another avant-garde literature form that uses shock, horror and disgust to push viewers beyond the typical reaction to drama. Another well-known French avant-garde writer is Guy Debord. Debord's work is credited with sparking the Paris uprising of 1968.
Today's Avant-Garde Movement
Today, the French avant-garde movement continues with groundbreaking films and dance productions continuing the rebellious tradition of the avant-garde movement. The avant-garde movement has also spread beyond France to nearly all countries. Major works by avant-garde artists can often be seen at museums, such as the Museum of Modern At in New York City as well as galleries, exhibitions and museums throughout the world.