TJ McNamara: In the shadow of war

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A Paris exhibition shows the trajectory of French art before and after WWII

I Saw A Grand Duchess Who Lost Her Shoe, by Max Ernst.
I Saw A Grand Duchess Who Lost Her Shoe, by Max Ernst.

A plaque fixed to the wall at 7 Rue des Grandes Augustins, in the St Germain district of Paris, records that Picasso lived and worked at that address from 1936-55, which includes World War II and the German occupation of France. It was here that he painted his prophetic masterpiece Guernica.

During the occupation, Picasso, who was forbidden to exhibit, kept to himself but other artists did not fare so well.

A new major exhibition in Paris looks at art in France just before, during and after the war. L'Art En Guerre (Art at War), France, 1938-47, at the Musee D'Art Moderne on the Avenue President Wilson, is a huge show arranged in 10 sequences with more than 400 works by more than 100 artists, set in context by films and documents.

The exhibition opens with work from the Fourth Exposition Internationale Surrealisme in Paris in 1938. The ceiling is hung with coal sacks just as Duchamp did at the original show, and one of the first exhibits is his "found" sculpture of a bottle-drying rack.

These surrealist oddities exemplify the many things that would be swept away as "degenerate art" under German occupation during the war years. The work is uneasy with a sense of impending danger.

Even a charming little work by surrealist Max Ernst, called I Saw a Grand Duchess Who Lost her Shoe, from 1940, has dark clouds and a rocky landscape. Ernst and other surrealists would escape to the United States, with important consequences for art there.

The show's extensive documentation includes the chilling proclamation by the Ministry of Propaganda in 1940 that France would be reduced to a tourist destination, and that in every matter, "only Germany decides".

The reactionary Vichy regime that ruled most of France under Marshal Petain condoned the deportation of Jews. Important artists fled if they could or went into hiding. Dozens of Jewish artists were sent to concentration camps.

Masses of newspapers, magazines, films and photographs in the show record those events but they are all in black and white. This is in contrast to the painting in the exhibition which, whether good or bad, is very colourful.

Bright colour became the rule in the work of young French artists acceptable to the regime. Abstraction and the other extreme Expressionists savoured too much of the "degenerate art" denounced in Germany and were discouraged. The School of Paris had been noted for colour and bright light, and the artists who stayed bowed to this regime.

Young artists influenced by Matisse and Bonnard produced timid variations on their work, which were often pleasant and attractive, and there are charming examples in the show by artists such as Lapicque and Singier, who have been left behind by history.

On May 27, 1943, in the gardens of the Musee du Jeu de Paume, works by Masson, Miro, Picabia, Klee, Ernst, Leger, Picasso and others deemed degenerate were slashed and burned. Fine examples of the work of these artists are in the show to represent the splendid work that was destroyed.

Picasso's work was daring, fractured and featured weeping women and an imagery of skulls and owls as symbols of ill-omen. One of these works, the sad and elegiac L'Aubade, features in all the publicity for the exhibition.

Although artistic freedom was restored after Paris was liberated, painting in France became disillusioned, sad and ironic. The tradition of belle peinture was finished. Typical of the time was the funereal, elongated work of Bernard Buffet. His gaunt woman holding a dead chicken in Femme au Poulet is typical of its time.

In some quarters, where many of the surviving artists were members of the Communist Party, it was felt that social realism might prevail. Instead, pre-war Surrealism returned with Andre Breton.

In 1947, an 87-artist exhibition was staged at the Gallery Maeght. The cover of the catalogue featured Duchamp's rubber breast titled Please Touch. Irony and intellectual shock was back. Abstractions such as Nicolas de Stael's Composition, Nice could emerge. Yet the gloom and the movement against accepted conventions remained.

Jean Dubuffet practiced what he called Art Brut, applying materials randomly. Here he has a work called Venus of the Footpath, painted with clay and asphalt.

Art such as this makes a vivid ending to an immense and fascinating show, but seldom has the shadow of history fallen so heavily over an exhibition.


For gallery listings, see nzherald.co.nz/arts.

- NZ Herald

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