There are moments in the past of every city that are romanticized, whether they happened to be a time of great prosperity or of intellectual fruitfulness that altered the history of a place forever. While some changes had a political or economic impact, others momentarily hijacked the international art scene and changed the possibility of what could exist on the sidelines going forward.
It’s often the vastness and seeming incomprehensibility of the city that makes it a mecca for all kinds. Writers, artists and other creative types might be drawn to the urban landscape for the flexibility it allows and the divergence that can peacefully exist within its borders, and it’s for this reason that so many cities have become a meeting place for people to flock to, whether they share interests with the locals or feel at home in a certain place like nowhere else. International cities like Berlin and New York will always manage to draw artists and thinkers, but there were specific times, in specific places, where artists almost ran the town.
In the 1960’s, the city of San Francisco was seen as hallowed ground for the beat movement that largely gave rise to the New Poetry whose influence still persists today. Though an array of art scenes have flourished in a different way and in different places over the years, there are a few whose legacy has been left behind and documented, making their past a little richer and making them a place creative people flock to.
The port city of Tangier, Morocco is still among the Middle East’s most popular destinations for its proximity to Spain and Gibraltar, but there was a time when it was a favored destination for many writers attracted by its exoticism. Between 1923 and 1956, the city of Tangier became part of a neutral demilitarized area known as the International Zone that stretched for 373 kilometers and existed under the administration of several foreign European governments. The Sultan of Morocco still reigned over the region, but the area’s status gave it new appeal for a crowd that differentiated itself significantly from many of the mores of Muslim Morocco, and it became a playground for businessmen, spies, criminals and an influx of artists that found a temporary resting place in Tangier.
While the writer Paul Bowles was among the first to venture to the city in 1947, even centering his novel The Sheltering Sky around North Africa, playwright Tennessee Williams and writer Jean Genet also spent time in the city to take in its heady freedom as did artists like Ira Cohen, Mohammed Choukri and Brion Gysin. The so-called ‘interzone’ of Tangier even served to inspire the setting for writer William S. Burroughs most famous book, Naked Lunch. The influx largely ceased after the center was reintegrated into Morocco on October 29, 1956, but Paul Bowles remained behind as if to maintain the artistic imprint of that time.
While the city of London has always existed as the cultural epicenter of Britain and one of the most art-centric cities in Europe, the area of Bloomsbury in Central London became a meeting place for many esteemed artists, thinkers and writers in the early 1900’s who had attended the University of Cambridge together . Known as the Bloomsbury Group, the collective of figures that came to include economist John Maynard Keynes, art critic Clive Bell and writers E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf started out of the “Friday Club” and “Thursday Evenings” discussion groups and gatherings.
Inspired by their artistic ethos which favored the personal over the political and a liberal-minded point of view, the collective altered its diverse and informal group of members over the years as some passed away, but it persisted to offer conversation and support to those who had philosophical, artistic and intellectual endeavors. While the Bloomsbury Group largely dissolved with the passing of its key members in the 1940’s, they persist as a well-known group whose art and philosophy are still influential today.
San Francisco, California
San Francisco remains the most popular city on the West Coast for artists and creative types, but it’s the city’s past as a stomping ground for writers and poets that has given San Francisco its status as a culture capital. New York may be well known for the beatnik movement of the 1950’s but many famous figures in the arts also flocked to San Francisco to test out their creative bandwidth and change the rules of poetry. Often known as the San Francisco Renaissance, the city came to the forefront largely due to the poet Kenneth Rexroth, who was responsible for organizing the First Festival of Modern Poetry in 1947.
Writing in a style that was experimental and controversial, poets like Robert Creeley, Philip Lamantia and Lawrence Ferlinghetti rose to the top of a rising wave that became known as part of the “beat generation”, who distinguished themselves from the materialism and idealized conformity of mainstream culture. While the political power of poetry has largely subsided today, memories of that time in San Francisco still remain with the presence of City Light Books, an independent bookstore owned by the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti that first published the most significant poem of the beat movement, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl.
New York City, New York
New York City may remain one of the centers for creative activity due to its size and its American ethos, but the city experienced a period of intense creativity in the 1950’s and 1960’s when a group, known as the New York School, comprised of artists, dancers, painters and musicians hit the scene. Many famous artists emerged around this time but it was the Abstract Expressionist painters who made the period in the city’s history truly progressive.
A movement commonly associated with Jackson Pollock, what was known as Abstract Expressionism rose quite radically as a post-war reaction to the chaos of life. While figures like Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still were a part of the scene and represented its diversity, it was Pollock’s method of placing a raw canvas on the floor and letting loose on it by layering paint and other industrial materials that gave the movement its identification and its rebellion. Though the artwork that came out of this school was not necessarily popular with many critics, it is still recognized as one of the most dynamic periods for art in the city’s history.
Following the devastation of World War I, the city of Paris, still among the most popular of tourist destinations today, became a haven for the Lost Generation, a phrase coined by F. Scott Fitzgerald for those who had “grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.” As people flocked to Paris in the 1930’s due to Prohibition in the United States and the city’s status as a mecca for intellectual life, the scene that had taken hold in the Montmartre area in the 1930’s shifted to Montparnasse.
Where art movements like Dada and Surrealism had risen up to take hold of the city’s cultural consciousness, entertainers like Josephine Baker became popular as did writers like Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller and Ezra Pound, who all found in Paris a place that nurtured art and artists. While the bevy of artists, writers and photographers that flocked to the streets of Paris largely dissolved with the onset of World War II, Paris is still seen as one of the most awe-inspiring cities in the world for the multitudes that flock to it each year to visit the sites made famous by figures like Simone de Beauvoir, John Paul Sartre and Salvador Dali.