No European nation escaped the devastation of the Second World War, and yet the damage was particular to France, which suffered neither the infernal rain of the fire-bombings of Dresden nor the pluvial death afflicted on London during the Blitz— a city particularly used to downpours one might add. Of course, one must inevitably acknowledge the shellings of coastal Brittany and Normandy, the first sixth months of the war before France’s humiliating defeat &c., but France emerged from the war like a bourgeois family from a Maupassant story, its façade intact and its soul absent. This is the France that turned its coat on its capitulation from Germany and scampered over to the side of the victors, and through the maneuverings of de Gaulle joined the allied forces in occupying a quarter of Germany, Austria, and their respective capitals. This is the France that officially denied its complicity in the Shoa until 1995 when Chirac acknowledged “collective responsibility”— an avowal of guilt that was not universally welcomed in 1995. None of this is news, but this moral eye, not so much blind as glass, provides useful context.
It is not surprising, then, that much of the gallery space in a show devoted to French art “in war” from just before its outbreak to just after its close, gives one the pleasant sensation you receive after leaving the bitterness of winter to enter a room where a softly chuckling fire is lit; the room stands not so much in relation to the cold as in its refusal, or in this case denial. So while it would be churlish of me to deny the power and beauty of many of the works presented, the relationship of much of the art presented to war is one of complete negation, and it is something of a quixotic notion to try to present them as in agitation to the war, or more damagingly as noble acts of resistance. And yet, among these works there are those that truly confront the stained Nazi boot. The major current, however, is of a warming Gulf Stream soothing France from its chilly longitudinal altitude.