On Sunday afternoon, 1 October 1882, the artists Edouard Manet, Pierre Auguste Renoir, and Camille Pissarro, the composer Richard Wagner, and the king of Bavaria were among two thousand curious invitees reported to have crowded into the Left Bank apartment of the young writer and Hydropathe Jules Lévy to view the exhibition bizarrely entitled Arts incohérents. Two months earlier, as a challenge to academic art, Lévy had organized a show of “drawings made by people who don’t know how to draw.” Lévy’s October proto-happening included professional artists who poked fun at the art establishment and produced “incohérent” works using a variety of peculiar and everyday found materials, for example, sculptures made from bread and cheese. One entry, a group painting by six artists, anticipated the collaborative efforts of the Surrealists some forty years later. The most provocative work was the first documented monochrome painting by the poet Paul Bilhaud and entitled Negroes Fighting in a Cellar at Night. Artist Alphonse Allais expanded on Bilhaud’s conceit by exhibiting a white and then a red monochrome painting in the 1883 and 1884 Incohérent shows; in 1897 he published a book of these images along with an empty musical score billed as a funeral march for the deaf. As early as 1885, with photographs of an ear filled with cotton and a hand holding a rose, filmmaker Emile Cohl prefigured the uncanny juxtapositions of Surrealists. And in 1887 proto-performance artist Sapeck (Eugène Bataille), who was known to travel the streets with his head painted blue, portrayed the Mona Lisa smoking a pipeyears before Marcel Duchamp added a moustache to the Louvre’s venerated icon. But while these pieces anticipate the work of later avant-garde artists, the Incohérents employed raucous humor rather than esoteric theory to challenge academic tradition.
Beginning in 1882 and continuing until the mid-1890s, Lévy organized each year either an Incohérent exhibition or an Incohérent ball and, occasionally, both. Although these events were held outside Montmartre, sometimes even in the provinces, the bohemian spirit of that neighborhood held sway, both through friendships among the participants and in the attitudes of Lévy and his associates. The Incohérents included many Hydropathes as well as a growing number of the younger participants in the Chat Noir group. In 1882, the artist and writer Henri Detouche summed up the artists’ basic motivations: “It seems to me that in front of Michelangelo’s masterpiece, Moses, the true artist of today should say: ‘I would like to do something else.’ “