L’Art en guerre, France 1938-1947

Woman Sitting in an Armchair

After the Nazis occupied France, Pablo Picasso could have sought exile abroad. Instead, he remained in Paris, a form of protest in itself. It was risky but the Spaniard, by virtue of his incredible fame perhaps, managed to escape the absolute horrors of the war, as well as outright persecution.

He was hounded nevertheless. The Gestapo endeavoured to find evidence of his links to the French resistance, but failed. They did however succeed in diminishing the visibility of his art, which both the Vichy government and the Nazis termed as degenerate, a perversion of what art should be.

Still, he lost none of his power, nor his acidic wit. For example, there is a famous incident where a Gestapo officer, on coming across a reproduction of Picasso’s monumental work Guernica, asked the artist if he had made this. “No,” he retorted. “You did.”

An entire section is dedicated to the artist in a new exhibition at the Guggenheim Bilbao. L’Art en guerre, France 1938-1947: From Picasso to Dubuffet examines the way in which artists responded to the “ominous and oppressive” environment of Nazi-occupied France during the Second World War. Art was not just about existing, or a way to escape; it was also a weapon against tyranny.

Eleven other sections provide a sweeping, poignant and thoughtful overview of this period, which are comprised of 500 works by over 100 artists, across various media such as paintings, sculptures, documents, films and photographs.

“The pieces created over the course of those years reflect very different aspects of the daily reality of those who lived through that period: their dreams, nightmares, and hopes – in short, the cognitive, creative and emotional atmosphere that made life meaningful in different sectors of society,” the gallery explains.

“Yet that context of social chaos and spiritual darkness was also a productive and innovative time for art, which survived everywhere and flowed forth in all variety of circumstances, both as an underground trend and within the parameters of official taste.”

Even against all odds, artists endeavoured to create, utilising whatever tools and materials they could. The art that was created during this “spatiotemporal framework” was unlike anything before it, surprisingly dynamic, full of energy and, at times, monumental. To be able to express oneself through art was vital. Otherwise they would truly have vanished into oblivion.

Below is a succinct breakdown of the various sections that make up this seismic show.

Section 1: History

The exhibition opens with an overview of the important events that occurred after France was occupied, resulting in the creation of a double-dictatorship. Through this came the French resistance and a spirit of unity, among ordinary citizens and artists. There was, in short, a resolve to live and see a better world again.

Section 2: The Official Taste

Official taste was something that left a bitter taste. This section reveals the art that was effectively sanctioned and ticked off as acceptable during this period. The likes of Jean Arp, Constantin Brancusi, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Wassily Kandinsky, Joan Miró and Pierre Mondrian were ostracised, while movements such as cubism, fauvism and surrealism were neglected.

Section 3: The Surrealists

“The Parisian art world, now cleansed of ‘undesirables’, was every bit as dark and dismal as the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme (January 1938) had predicted,” the gallery highlights.

“Organised in Paris by André Breton and Duchamp, this show offered irrefutable proof of the growing strength of the surrealist movement, but the exhibition’s disconcerting atmosphere also turned out to be an uncanny premonition of the horrors of war.”

Section 4: The Camps

Even in horrific, inhuman conditions, the desire to create art endured. The French internment camps, originally developed to house refugees fleeing Franco’s Spain, were later used to intern a strange mix of anti-Nazi and pro-Nazi Germans, people from countries that were sympathetic to Hitler and French communists.

Here we observe the co-option of miscellaneous items into art. From cans to matches, to fragments of wood and iron, artists manufactured works that captured the terror of this period.

Section 5: Exile, Refugees, and Concealment

An interesting aspect of this section is dedicated to the American journalist Varian Fry, who was sent to France by the US government as a representative of the Emergency Rescue Committee. His responsibility was to rescue intellectuals, artists and Jews who were being persecuted.

Some, of course, had no option but to go into hiding within France. Joseph Steib was such an individual, who produced caustic works of art that reflected the hardships, humiliations and atrocities experienced by many.

Section 6: Masters of Reference and the Young Painters in the French Tradition

The Young Painters in the French Tradition were a group of artists that included Jean René Bazaine, Francisco Bores, André Fougeron, Charles Lapicque, Jean Le Moal, Édouard Pignon, and Alfred Manessier.

Their bright, abstract and colourful works were inspired by both Romanesque and modern art, echoing the ideas of Pierre Bonnard, Georges Braque and Henri Matisse, which jarred against the official idea of what art should be.

Section 7: Picasso in His Studio

Picasso was supremely productive in isolation, producing masterpiece after masterpiece. It didn’t matter if pro-German painters like Maurice de Vlaminck derided him, the Spaniard endured.

It was nevertheless difficult, with Vlamick’s assertion that Picasso had “dragged French painting into the most fatal dead end, into indescribable confusion” a sentiment shared by Nazis and their sympathisers.

Section 8: Galerie Jeanne Bucher

Jeanne Bucher was one of the few gallerists who did all she could to support arts during the occupation, opening her gallery to artists like André Bauchant, Francisco Bores, Louis-Auguste Déchelette, and Paul Klee.

Section 9: Camps and Prisons

“As the years passed and the number of detainees in French camps continued to swell, living conditions became increasingly harsh,” the gallery notes.

“For these prisoners, creating works of art was the only way to make sense of a cruel and absurd existence, fashioning surprising objects from the scant resources and materials at hand.”

Section 10: The Liberation

Exaltation came to Parisians in August 1944, when the city was finally liberated. The French communist party, with Picasso in tow, began to reclaim the cultural scene and judge, albeit it with compassion, those artists who had collaborated with the Nazis.

Section 11: Decompressions

A postscript, this section explores how artists, after the war, sought to understand what had happened through their art. This can be see in the morose works of Bernard Buffet, Olivier Debre and Hans Hartung, as well as in Wols’ (Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze) fraught scratches.

Section 12: The Anartists

The concluding part of the show looks at the Anartists, who were artists that rebelled against the established order, as well as those who were keen to journey forward into the unknown, to know more about life, spirituality and the human condition.

L’Art en guerre, France 1938-1947: From Picasso to Dubuffet opens at the Guggenheim Bilbao runs until September 8th 2013.

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