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October 24, 2012 5:38 pm
In occupied Paris in 1942, the Musée d’Art Moderne reopened its doors in the deco Palais de Tokyo with a display set to “glorify the French spirit of measure and balance”. The museum’s director Jean Cassou had joined the Resistance and been sacked; along the Seine at the Orangerie, a retrospective of Hitler’s favourite sculptor Arno Breker was on show. The new regime sought, bewilderedly, to present the acceptable face of modern art while excluding surrealism, abstraction and any work by foreigners. Braque, Bonnard, Delaunay, Derain, Vlaminck were in; Picasso was out.
Seventy years later, in a provocative anniversary exhibition, L’Art en Guerre, France 1938-1947, the Musée d’Art Moderne reconstructs that display and amplifies it by many others – from a gallery of outstanding wartime Picassos to a room of works produced in the transit concentration camps. It is the most expansive presentation of art in France in this still-contested period – and riveting. Far more than an account of resistance versus collaboration, the show asks how art bears witness; whether artists necessarily reflect their times; what determines political engagement or withdrawal; if, as Braque put it, “one can suffer without being militant”.
Both Braque and Picasso stayed in Paris during the war and concentrated on still life – compacted, inward-looking canvases concerned with the creation of pictorial space but also reflecting the claustrophobia of occupation. Braque’s motif was often fish, painted a grainy black, dense rather than luminous like the blacks of Manet or Matisse. Sometimes the black is offset by the pale yellow of a sliced lemon, as in “Nature morte a la serviette” (1943), or by a leek. In French slang, a leek is someone, perhaps an informer, who keeps an eye on people. Picasso’s “Nature morte à la tête de mort, poireaux pot dans la fenêtre” (1945) here rhymes a skull with the same vegetable. The skull appears in Braque’s paintings for the first time during the war – “Hamlet ou Pichet et crâne” (1943) is crustily textured, austere, brown-dominated; the setting is the kitchen, the only room in Braque’s house that was moderately warm.
“How can a great painter like you work in the cold! We will provide you with two lorry-loads of coal,” announced German officers who marched into Braque’s glacial home one winter evening. “No thank you,” the artist replied delicately, “for if I accepted I should no longer be able to speak well of you.” He was not invited – “fortunately my paintings didn’t please” – on the fateful trip to tour Nazi Germany which departed from the Gare de l’Est with Dunoyer de Segonzac, Othon Friesz, Vlaminck, Van Dongen and Derain on board.
Why did they go? On the evidence here, their art had stalled – Derain’s evolution from glorious Fauvism in the 1900s to the absurd heroic classicism of the 1920s-30s, as in the mythological narrative “L’age d’Or” here, is one of the worst descents of any painter in history; and you can see why Dunoyer de Segonzac’s clumsy, monumental “Bacchus” might flatter Nazi sensibilities. Perhaps the attention these languishing artists garnered from the Germans was hard to resist. Vlaminck particularly returned triumphant, to launch a public attack on Picasso: “This Catalan . . . as far from painting as pederasty is from love . . . has dragged French painting into the most fatal dead end.”
“Other men will make history, I clearly cannot judge those others,” Braque commented, though he never spoke to any of the German tourists again. This show, like Braque and his work, is understated, inviting less judgment than an understanding of what life felt like in occupied France. Picasso is represented not by sensations such as “The Charnel House” but by sombre still lifes and a revealing series of portraits. These begin with a fresh work from a private collection, the creamy-grey-rose “Marie-Therèse accoudée” (1939), where the lithe blonde model for the sensuous nudes and beach pictures of the late 1920s and early 1930s is transformed into a wide-eyed, distorted emblem of anxiety, anticipating the form of the “weeping woman” portraits of Dora Maar. These begin months later with the angular, tense “Buste de femme au chapeau (Dora)” (1939), in subdued tones, and progress to a pair of stunning grisailles, “Nu” (1941) and “Femme au chapeau” (1942). Brassai’s accompanying photographs of the rue des Grands-Augustins studio includes an image where Picasso, in 1944, shows an array of his Dora paintings – an enclosed, self-contained world.
There are many such interior realities here, at all artistic levels. In 1940 Joseph Steib, a middle-aged municipal employee in Mulhouse, gave up his job and started painting in a naïve style scenes of daily humiliation under the Nazis – the appropriation of local power, the swastika draped over official buildings – which progressed to satirically grotesque portraits such as “Le Conquérant”, and allegories including the three graces swept up in the French flag, “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité (Quand?)”.
In Paris at the same time, Jeanne Bucher, an elderly dealer of modest means, defiantly showed Kandinsky, Paul Klee and the young Nicholas de Staël and Robert Motherwell – all foreign abstract painters – in her Montparnasse gallery, restaged here. Another hero, American journalist Varian Fry, who rescued thousands of refugees stranded in Vichy France, is commemorated through a collection of letters and works made by those whom he saved – Chagall, Jacques Lipchitz (the cubist sculpture “La Fuite”) – and failed to save, including an unfinished abstraction by Otto Freundlich, hidden by French peasants, denounced in 1943 and murdered on the day he arrived at Lublin-Majdanek concentration camp.
The depictions of deportations, malnourished prisoners and sketch after sketch of ghostly figures trapped behind barbed wire, almost all by artists who did not survive the camps, are correctly displayed apart, in a long, darkened room, to be read as documentary evidence of each victim’s personal hell.
So many voices, so many experiences, give a powerful edginess and ambivalence throughout, demanding our constantly changing responses. So too among artists at the liberation. In glowing, hallucinatory blue, red, white, Georges Rouault summed up the atrocities in a painting of a hanged man entitled “Homo homini lupus” (Man is a Wolf to Man). Giacometti’s sculptures shrunk so small that they fitted into a matchbox; Jean Dubuffet’s blank figures, as existentially questioning, trumpet raw materiality after years of shortage. The floating black/red crescents and spheres of Alexander Calder’s mobiles and Joan Miró’s “Femme dans la nuit” (1945) acknowledge despair but embrace hope. Matisse’s “Jazz” (1943-7) recounts the inner exile of a near-octogenarian teasing out the future of modernism. All are here – a superb conclusion to a difficult exhibition which celebrates, above all, art’s seriousness and essential relationship with history.
Until February 17, www.mam.paris.fr
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