How France's Années Folles paved the way for modern French culture

The busy terrace of a famous Paris café at night in winter

Les Deux Magots café in Paris was a meeting point for Paris' literati in the 1920s - Credit: OT Paris Daniel Thierry

Two days before the Armistice in 1918, a French soldier died in Paris. He had been discharged two years earlier with a head wound and although the shrapnel lodged in his skull left him in pain, it was not the cause of death. His name was Guillaume Apollinaire. A renowned avant-garde poet, he was declared mort pour la France because of his injuries in the war, but he was actually the victim of a deadly pandemic.  

Dubbed the Spanish Flu, or la Grippe Espanole, (as it was first reported in neutral Spain, while other governments censored coverage to protect wartime morale), the virus was thought to have been spread by the movement of Allied troops. But even as the war drew to a close, the fourth wave of the virus continued into 1920.  

In France, the pandemic killed more than 400,000 people and hampered efforts to return to normal in a country ravaged by war. La Grande Guerre had claimed the lives of more than a million French soldiers and decimated the northern landscape. And while many mourned the end of the world as they had known it, others seized the opportunity to start anew. 

The Surreal 

Although Apollinaire’s life had been cut short by the two great tragedies of his time, his work helped to set the scene for an artistic movement that would dominate the 1920s. Apollinaire first coined the term ‘surrealist’ in 1917 in his programme notes for the ballet Parade, which he described as ‘a kind of surrealism’. Created by composer Erik Satie and writer Jean Cocteau, the production caused a sensation at the Ballet Russes with its shocking score and Cubist sets and costumes, designed by Pablo Picasso. 

Like the anti-establishment Dadaist before them, the Surrealists called for a rejection of reason and the stuffy aristocratic society that had previously dominated the arts. After the war, this ethos gained traction with European intellectuals, who believed that the status quo had led to death and destruction. Surrealism offered new ways to understand their experience and to express themselves, particularly for those traumatised by the horrors of the trenches. 

The Surrealist movement was formally born in Paris in 1924, when the poet André Breton published his Surrealist Manifesto. Heavily influenced by the works of Sigmund Freud, Breton believed that the unconscious was the key to the imagination. Working alongside other Surrealist writers such as Paul Éluard and Pierre Reverdy, Breton practiced automatism, or free writing, and the juxtaposition of disjointed ideas.  

A black-and-white postcard of Paris during the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs

The 1925 Exposition des Arts Décoratifs was held in Paris - Credit: Wikimedia

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Artistic licence 

The movement was arguably most successful in the art world, attracting French artists Yves Tanguy, Francis Picabia and André Masson. It also inspired the many international artists who came to Paris to practice their metier, including the Belgian painter René Magritte and German painter Max Ernst, as well as the American visual artist, Man Ray and Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel.  

In 1926, a young Spanish artist named Salvador Dalí arrived in Paris and soon met with his compatriot, Pablo Picasso. Although more firmly associated with Cubism, Picasso had been welcomed into the fold by Breton and introduced Dalí to other Surrealists. Dali soon produced his first Surrealist painting, Honey is Sweeter than Blood, which he believed bridged the gap between Cubism and Surrealism.  

Another newcomer, Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, was inspired by Surrealism to create thought-provoking looks such as trompe l'oeil knitwear. Her shocking new style helped her work compete with that of her main rival, Coco Chanel, who was already revolutionising French fashion with her innovative mode garçon

Swiss artist Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, or Le Corbusier, applied Surrealist principles to architecture. Le Corbusier went on to found the Purist movement with Amédée Ozenfant. The pair also collaborated on the Esprit Nouveau pavilion for the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts.  

Part of the World’s Fair held in Paris in 1925, the exhibition would eventually lend its name to the Art Deco style that we associate with the period. The exposition also sparked a renewed interest in non-western art forms and the Surrealist’s fascination with African culture that would help to propel the careers of African-American expats such as Josephine Baker.   

Outside the famous Paris bookshop Shakespeare and Co

Shakespeare and Company bookshop was a meeting point for Paris' Lost Generation - Credit: Getty Images

The Lost Generation  

France had long been seen as the epicentre of the art world, but in the 1920s it emerged as the unlikely source of a new era in English literature as British and American writers moved in. Among them were many Allied soldiers who had decided to settle in France after the war. Gertrude Stein famously dubbed them ‘The Lost Generation’ as she believed the young men who came of age as soldiers would never be a part of civilised society.  

Like the Surrealist, much of their writing reflected post-war disillusionment and a rejection of the status quo. For those from the US, France offered the artistic freedom and culture they lacked in industrial America. Often seen as the godmother of the group and of Modernism, Gertude Stein was an avant-garde American writer, who helped to promote many of her contemporaries’ careers.  

Stein proclaimed that “Paris was the place” and she wasn’t wrong. Many of the 20th century’s greatest writers were there, including George Orwell, Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound and John Dos Pasos. Most of them gathered at Stein’s home on the Rue des Fleurus, where they mingled with the likes of Picasso and Dali. Stein took a particular interest in a young American journalist named Ernest Hemingway, whom she encouraged to focus on fiction.  

Greenery covers the entrance to the famous Closerie des Lilas cafe in Paris

The Closerie des Lilas in Paris was a favourite of Hemingway - Credit: Getty Images

Literary champion 

Hemingway immortalised the experiences of the Lost Generation with his debut novel, The Sun Also Rises in 1926 and later with his memoir A Moveable Feast. Although he primarily lived in the Latin Quarter, Hemingway became a fixture of the cafés and brasseries of Montparnasse and Saint-Germain-des-Prés, where he would often set up office for the day, and where other expat writers came to rub shoulders with Surrealist thinkers and artists.  

Writers found another gathering place and literary champion at Shakespeare and Company. Founded by another American expat, Sylvia Beach in 1919, the English-language bookshop was said to be where The Lost Generation came to borrow books and money. Beach was known for bailing out struggling writers and personally helped to finance the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses.  

While many expat writers lived like starving artists, F. Scott Fitzgerald arrived in Paris as an established author, thanks to the commercial success of his debut novel This Side of Paradise. No strangers to luxury, Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, preferred the posh surroundings of the Right Bank to Bohemian Montparnasse and were known for their extravagant lifestyle.  

When Paris proved to be too much of a distraction, Fitzgerald accepted an offer to stay with some friends on the Riviera, a popular spot with wealthy expats. The Fitzgeralds eventually moved into their own house, the Villa Saint-Louis in Antibes Juan-les-Pins (now the Hotel Belles Rives). While there, he finally finished work on The Great Gatsby and began writing Tender is the Night, two novels that would cement his position as the chronicler of the Roaring Twenties. 

Waterfront view of hotel villa on French Riviera in summer

The Hotel Belles Rives in Juan-les-Pins, formerly the Villa Saint-Louis - Credit: Hotel Belles Rives

The Jazz Age 

Exciting things were also happening on the music front. Erik Satie and Jean Cocteau (who had collaborated on Parade) began promoting a group of young composers known as Les Six who sought to move away from the Romanticism of Wagner and Strauss and the Impressionism of Debussy and Ravel.  Meanwhile Ravel was busy completing his chef d'œuvre, Le Boléro.  

A young American composer named George Gershwin came to Paris hoping to learn from the old masters and ended up writing a seminal piece of modern music, An American in Paris. With its infusion of jazz and blues, Gershwin’s music was distinctly American, but he also drew heavily from the works of the French composers like Ravel and Debussy, who had themselves drawn from Ragtime. 

Derived from African-American music and distinguished by its syncopated, or ragged, rhythms, Ragtime music had been popular in France since the turn of the century. But by the 1920s, the French were fast becoming enamoured with its musical successor, an exciting new sound that had arrived in France with the American soldiers. 

In 1918, an all-black unit known as the Harlem Hellfighters had wowed crowds in Brittany with a jazz rendition of La Marseillaise as their ship sailed into Brest. They were among the more than 350,000 Africa-American soldiers to serve during World War I. When faced with returning home to Jim Crow laws and a resurging Klu Klux Klan, some chose to stay in Europe. And soon other black Americans would follow.  

One of the only black pilots in the war, Georgia native Eugene Bullard settled in Paris and eventually purchased Le Grand Duc – one of the most fashionable nightclubs of the day. Over the years, he employed many of his fellow black expats including a young Langston Hughes and Ada ‘Bricktop’ Smith. The daughter of a former slave, Bricktop opened her own successful nightclub in 1924 and went on to become one of the most influential expats in France. 

A colourful print of couples dancing in an Art Deco building in Paris

Manuel Orazi's Paris la nuit, dans un dancing de Montmartre epitomises the era - Credit: Manuel Orazi

Celebrity scene 

At a time when the French were both fascinated with blackness and obsessed with all things from the US, African Americans suddenly found themselves at a social advantage. And no one benefited from that advantage more than Josephine Baker. A celebrated dancer from Missouri, Baker became one of the most beloved performers in Paris and regularly headlined places such as the Folies Bergère and the Casino de Paris.  

Of course the Americans weren’t the only celebrities in town. It was already the heyday of the Parisian cabaret and music halls, where crowds gathered to see popular performers including Mistinguett and Kiki de Montparnasse, as well as a handsome, young crooner named Maurice Chevalier.  

When the Surrealist set and the Lost Generation weren’t hopping from one nightclub to another, they would often gather at Cole Porter’s lavish parties, where Bricktop could be found teaching French guests to dance the Charleston and the Black Bottom. Or that other new dance that, like its namesake, had recently traversed the Atlantic: the Lindy Hop. For many American expats, French nightlife offered a carefree hedonism that had been stamped out by Prohibition back home.  

It was a raucous, heady time. But for a generation that had survived both war and pestilence, it was a time to celebrate. And somehow between all the parties and soirées, these crazy years in France led to some of the 20th century's greatest works of art. Although the party would come to an abrupt end in the 1930s, the artistic legacy of the Années Folles endures today.