Art at War surveys creativity under Nazi occupation, from Picasso to Dubuffet

0 Posted by - January 31, 2013 - Features, Reviews, Visual art

“History isn’t the lies of the victors … I know that now. It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated.” – The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

On the last Sunday in the year, the Parisian bourgeoisie were out in force. The queue for the Impressionism and Fashion exhibition at the Musee d’Orsay moved in sudden leaps but still took over an hour to get to the security checks. For the Dali exhibition at the Pompidou Centre, those with pre-booked tickets queued for an hour, those without considerably longer

Meanwhile, across the Alma Bridge from the Eiffel Tower, all was quiet outside the Palais de Tokyo and the Musee de l’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Inside, the galleries hummed with an apprehensive curiosity as the patrons moved in physical comfort around exhibits that were anything but comfortable, couched as they were in the context of the annees noires of the Nazi occupation. L’Art en Guerre, France 1938 to 1947 was an opportunity for Parisians to confront a difficult past that lay within the memory of many of them.

In the pamphlet accompanying the exhibition the curators make a number of bold claims, few of which are sustainable in the light of recent, revisionist histories on political and cultural events in France in the inter-war period and during the German occupation from 1940 to 1944. Whilst the claim that this is the first exhibition to explore in detail the artistic achievements of the occupation is doubtless accurate, it is not true that the period has “hitherto remained in the shadows of history”; that the artistic community in France waged “war on the war” through their art and in the face of “total violence inflicted on the innocent”; nor that the artists were “more politicized than their average contemporaries”.

Douanier Rousseau, La Guerre, 1893-1894 (© RMN - Musée d'Orsay)

Douanier Rousseau, La Guerre, 1893-1894 (© RMN - Musée d'Orsay)

The Yale historian, Frederik Spotts, brought the period out of the shadows with his 2009 work The Shameful Peace: How French Artists and Intellectuals Survived the Occupation. Nazi bureaucrats pursued a generally benevolent and lenient approach towards the artistic community, viewing the encouragement of a vibrant cultural environment as a palliative to occupation, and, anyway, cultural freedom would merely testify to French degeneracy.

In Picasso’s view “to create is to resist” and on that basis he was most energetic in his pursuit of the artists’ “war on the war”, though just how 1500 mainly still lifes and portraits of his mistresses contributed to the war effort is not easy to quantify. Artists, too, were rarely particularly politicised. Anouilh avoided political comment whilst most adopted “le système D” and focussed on getting-by. After all, as Simone de Beauvoir put it, “il fallait bien vivre”, one had to survive.

Many were far from being innocents. Sartre sought out Nazi approval for his plays. His defence that “a subtle poison corroded even our best intentions” is not persuasive. Derain, Vlaminck and van Dongen accepted invitations to visit Weimar on a propaganda tour; Cocteau attended German embassy parties and Matisse and Braque, “the artful dodgers” (Spotts) navigated an ambiguous path through the period, as did a youthful Francois Mitterand who, though not an artist, represented that dominant part of the French professional and intellectual class whose approach to the Nazi occupation made collaboration acceptable, even the norm.

This sense of wholesale class betrayal emerges clearly in Suite Francaise, the novel written by Irene Nemirovsky, a “stateless person of Jewish descent” living in Paris at the start of the occupation. The novel was completed in 1941, just a year before her death at Auschwitz. It is full of the rampaging selfishness of the Parisian establishment whose sole response to what was euphemistically referred to as the armistice, was relief that they could now return to the normality of their lives in Paris.

Joseph Steib, Le Conquérant, 1942 (© Joseph Steib)

Joseph Steib, Le Conquérant, 1942 (© Joseph Steib)

This sentiment was echoed in an article in the Times newspaper, in June 1940, which reported apparent French resignation, even indifference, to the six week military collapse and the subsequent abject surrender. Little seemed to have changed, in terms of allied attitudes to the French by the time of the invasion of Normandy in 1944. It was felt necessary to issue a pamphlet to D-Day troops warning against “a fairly widespread belief that the French are a gay, frivolous people with no morals and few convictions” (quoted in D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, by Antony Beevor).

The appearance of Marcel Ophuls’ documentary The Sorrow and the Pity in 1969, though not shown on French TV until 1981, provided convincing evidence of the extent of French compliance, exposing France’s collective secret that Vichy had embraced the Nazis with vigour and exploding the myth of a member of the Maquis in every barn. Ophuls’ film made clear how France might be seen to have aided the Nazi war effort. Vichy, backed by organisations such as Action Francaise, that had threatened class warfare in the thirties, made occupation easy, provided willing backing for Nazi ant-semitic policies (with the zealous deportation of 75,000 Jews), a labour force for the production of war materials and 7,000 troops to fight in the uniform of the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front.

Ophuls’ damning documentary included an interview with Anthony Eden, Britain’s Foreign Secretary during the war. ”One who has not suffered the horrors of an occupation has no right to judge a nation that has”, Eden said. In similar vein, Beevor quotes Jock Colville, Churchill’s Private Secretary, on witnessing in Bayeux the “ugly carnival” of the epuration sauvage, in which, throughout France, 14,000 alleged collaborators, one third of whom were women, were killed: “While disgusted at this cruelty, I reflected that we British had known no invasion or occupation for some 900 years, so we were not the best judges”.

Indeed, as a swathe of counterfactual, historical novels have suggested, there was a ready-made cast of characters more than happy to play the roles of Anglo-Saxon equivalents to Petain, Laval and the rest; Edward and Mrs Simpson, Halifax and Lloyd George, the press barons, Rothermere and Beaverbrook, the Cliveden set and cultural giants like Shaw and Eliot. The latest offering in the genre, CJ Sansom’s Dominion, makes for uncomfortable reading in its suggestion that the British might well have been no less susceptible to Hitler’s psychotic leadership and Nazi policies of racism. From Isherwood, in Goodbye to Berlin, via I am a Camera and Cabaret, we may well have become only too familiar with the refrain “Suppose you are unafraid and wise … What would you do?”

Pablo Picasso Nature morte à la tête de mort, poireaux pot devant  la fenêtre, 1945 (© Succession Picasso 2012)

Pablo Picasso, Nature morte à la tête de mort, poireaux pot devant la fenêtre, 1945 (© Succession Picasso 2012)

However, this rather misses the point. There remains in France an unwillingness fully to accept the truth about the past. Not everyone was either in the Maquis or the Milice (Vichy secret police) but the former is celebrated to a much greater extent than the latter is condemned. Neither the egocentric patriot De Gaulle, whose history of the French army contains no reference to the Battle of Waterloo, nor the trimmer Mitterand, decorated by both the Vichy Regime and the resistance, was up to the task of acknowledging the extent of French ambiguities and criminal failings. More worrying still is the fact that Nicholas Sarkozy, when President of France, stated in 2008, “The true France was not at Vichy and never collaborated”. Whatever his qualities as a politician he is certainly no historian and the exhibition L’Art en Guerre is hardly a sufficient corrective.

L’Art en Guerre is, on the other hand, an effective survey of the creative output of the period, set convincingly in the wider context of the occupation. There is much for the student of art history or political history to learn from the exhibits and much to chill those whose relationship with the period is more personal. It has much to say, too, at least by implication, about Franco-German relations and the importance of the European Union for peace in Europe in the Twenty-first Century.

The exhibition is museological in content and organisation, the artefacts on show representing an anthropological rather than a high art definition of culture, whilst the photographic record cover the period comprehensively, from the Nazis jackbooting down the Champs Elysees to the photos of Lee Miller, following American troops through France after D-Day. Rooms devoted to the French Camps, in which 600,000 “undesirables” and “enemy forces” were interned, display unique, irreplaceable works, often the last creative acts of often unknown prisoners, soon to be deported to the death camps.

One surprising aspect of the paintings on show is the large number of leading artists represented, including Braque, Delauney, Motherwell, Matisse, Dubuffet, Rouault, Bonnard, Derain, Picasso, Giacometti, though rarely does the art reflect any kind of political message and is sometimes the product of artists whose association with France and the occupation is at best fleetingly tenuous. Giacometti’s tiny signature figures were made in 1942 before he left on a visit to his home in Geneva. He did nor return to Paris until after the liberation. Picasso is a dominating figure throughout the exhibition and Guernica is referenced, though his anti-war masterpiece was painted in 1937, left France in 1938, went on to New York via the Whitechapel Gallery in London’s East End, and never returned.

L’art en guerre can be seen at the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris until February 17, 2013.

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