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-from Matisse’s “Jazz”

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.

The exhibition does begin with a generation of artist whose work was formed by war; only this conflict began twenty-four years before the period covered. (The enormous effect the First World War had on artists across the continent makes only more remarkable the much lighter touch of the second.) Hans Bellmer and Raoul Ulbac’s photographs of mannequins open the scene, and already there is a curatorial overreach. These photos owe little to “a strange premonition,” as the description implies, of the Oslo Agreement (these men were not psychic), so much as their work continues in a direct line from Dada’s reaction to the absurdity of that previous abattoir. This skewed reading of surrealism as prophecy also includes a vitrine of surrealist work including Duchamp’s “porte-bouteilles,” (bottle-holder) perhaps anticipating the Luftwaffe’s occupation of the Ritz as their Headquarters in Paris and the Nazi officer corp’s penchant for France’s fermented blood. But this skewed reading does offer insight into a lens that continues to mythologize a vast noble underground even as it admits the atrocities perpetuated on French soil.

As the exhibition continues, this trajectory of artistic triumph over Nazi barbarism is made more explicit with work from Max Ernst and Hans Bellmer during their internment at the French Camp des Milles. These gouache and pencil drawings are triumphs over Nazi barbarism and scant recourses, even under the scrutiny of an eye that does not allow leniency for the poor offerings at the camp’s art supplies outlet. Their courage is not over-valorized, but seen pass off as representative of France’s courage in the face of iron rule their personal bravery seems almost exploited.

Their efforts are ultimately intimate. An untitled line drawing of Bellmer’s from 1940 is particularly remarkable in the charming whimsy it evokes; a kind faun sits, its long sprouting hair grasping like ivy, under the wooden slats of a structure evoking a worm-eaten industrial folly. While the work has no given title, it is not hard to see it as an auto portrait. Max Ernst’s, who shared a cell with Hans Bellmer, drawing, “Apatrides” (The Stateless) of two metal files standing upright uncertainly, shares a similar quality of a symbolic transposition of the face of the artist onto a chimera, and yet these metaphorical jumps beautifully reveal the features of the artists, whether through the sad fantasy of Bellmer, or Ernst’s weary insouciance.

These transposed faces are immeasurably more effective than the wall of what seems to consist of the almost obligatory photos of Nazi-occupied France, and the contrast is jarring when it leads into a room devoted to the “Young Painters.” This group participated in an exposition at the beginning of the Occupation entitled “Twenty Young Painters in The French Tradition,” who marshaled light resistance by painting non-figurative works in uncomfortably bright colors against the official classical order. Despite the group’s small protest in pastels, swirls of pink did not tear the Swastika from L’Arc de Triomphe, and years later all I cared to do was tear my eyes from their canvases. (I will admit to violent reaction to certain color palates, to which this frothy pastel belongs.) But before we turn from these rebels’ “patriotism” as the catalogue puts it, let us note that it was briefly aligned with Pétain’s “Young France.”

The “Young Artists” adjoins a gallery of “Established Masters,” whose work is charming and as beautiful as it is myopic. Bonnard’s “Nu dans le bain” (1936-38) depict the artist’s wife Marthe reclined in the tub with the corners of the bathroom peeling away to dissolve in pattern and light. Of course during the painting’s composition Bonnard was between sixty-nine and seventy-one and it seems judgmental to deny him his home in Provence or his last years devoted to beauty. We are, after all, still enjoying his mature fruit. More ambivalent is André Derain’s “L’Age d’or” or “La Chasse” (1938-44), which casts The Golden Age as of man as the virile pursuit of beast with only the blood missing. Before one can envision this irony as an act of defiance, we are reminded by the wall that Derain took part in a triumphal propaganda tour of Germany.

Derain, Bonnard, Matisse and Roulaut give way to Picasso with his monumental “L’Aubade” (1942) presiding over the room like une grande dame, and so she is. She measures 195 by 265 centimeters and looks out at us from her perch on the bed with a crinkled smile as she is serenaded by a seated a blue woman playing the lute. The work was at first conceived as an odalisque, but the presence of the second figure interrupts the sexual character of the reclining nude: almost as a chaperone to our gaze. There is nothing here to explicitly link the nude to the war save the date beside the painting. Picasso said of his work during the occupation that, “I didn’t paint the war, because I am not that kind of painter that goes like a photographer in search of a subject. But there’s no doubt that the war exists in the paintings that I did.” There is wisdom in this acknowledgement of war’s shadowy influences on an artists, and yet one gets the sense from this room, whose subjects are almost universally female, not that, “For Picasso to create is to resist,” as the exhibition catalogue puts it, but that this is a man whose world has been lost and has taken refuge in his art. “L’Aubade,” as magnificent as it is, has none of the fury and anguish of “Guernica.” After loss of Spain to Franco and the capture by France by the Germans, there must have been little left for Picasso outside his studio walls. This is not resistance but refuge.

The next room traffics neither in denial nor sanctuary but in the collaboration by French artists with the Nazi aesthetic order. In some ways it’s a valuable curatorial decision to include the room, but among the artists that we remember there are those who are only a painted footnote to the Second World War. Perhaps this inclusion is necessary, but I cannot help feeling I need no proof that the Third Reich’s favored court artists were as stale as the bread most Parisians had to gnaw on. Joseph Stieb stands among them as a folk exception that confronts Hitler à la The New Objectivism of Otto Dix and George Grosz. But as an artist isolated in l’Alsace and suffering from epilepsy, his work exists outside the tradition, and is better compared with The Museum of Everything’s current exhibition on outsider art on Boulevard Raspail. One series perfectly crystallizes art in France between 1940 and 1945, Pierre Jahan’s “La Mort et les statues” (Death and the statues). Jahan’s surreptitious photographs of the dismantlement of Paris’s pubic art cast in precious ore were destined for the foundry and hot metamorphoses into instruments of death for use on the Eastern front. These quiet assassinations could not be a more apt metaphor for France’s gentle genteel rape during the war.

It is the next two rooms that give reason enough, to attend the show. They do not equivocate or seek harbor in denial or collaboration, but document human evil and suffering with a lucid gaze. The work is devoted entirely to the art of the prisoners in French internment camps, many of whom would travel to Eastern Europe to receive their death sentences. It demands no explanation. It is not that these pieces exist outside and above any possible criticism, but that they exist almost outside art. Like outsider art, the perspective is one of isolation, but here the exclusion goes further to exclusion from life. We are privileged to observe their last testaments. The brilliant light of these collected memories owes a debt to their former owners, artists before their detention. It is this link between craft and testimony that blinds.

The last series that seriously confronts the Nazi occupation and genocide is Jean Fautrier’s series “Otages” (Hostages), which owes its genesis to the painter’s time spent in Châtenay-Malabry. From his home he would overhear the execution of prisoners in a clearing nearby. The blobs on the canvases hover faceless like anonymous ghosts; they do not haunt, but bear witness without possibility of perception or communication: no touch, sight, smell, audition, and no voice.

Perhaps my earlier characterization of the exhibition as a warm bath seems unfair given the richness and power on display, and yet Fautrier’s “Otages” series is immediately followed by Matisse’s “Jazz” cut-outs. The Jazz series has always been one of my favorite Matisses (an artists for whom I have no small affection) and yet the inclusion of the series is mystifying. The work figures in the Liberation section and the return of liberté (along with églalité and fraternité) was as joyous as an occasion as Matisse’s buoyant work; however, the pieces dates from 1947, three years after liberation (excluding Bordeaux) and two years after the end of the war. This posteriority re-raises the question of dates, whose curiously early start in 1938 at least provides context for the subsequent work. The final gallery Jean Dubuffet and the discovery of “primitivism” is a digressive afterthought to a flawed show.

These galleries finally serve an uncomfortably accurate mirror to the deep ambivalence France continues to have with its collaborationist past. Like many self-portraits, particularly collective ones, it is wildly skewed without leaving anything out.


L’ART EN GUERRE continues through February 17th at Le Musée d’Art Moderne de La Ville de Paris, 11 Avenue Président Wilson 16e

Métros: Alma-Marceau or Iéana on the 9.

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