L'art en Guerre : France 1938-1947
Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris
by Erik Matiny
About Erik Martiny
Erik Martiny's reviews have appeared in London Magazine and The Times Literary Supplement. He lives in France.
If you come to this exhibition expecting to see only works of art that illustrate the social historian's view that art produced in times of war is an expression of its horror, then you are in for a surprise. Of course, the exhibition showcases the expected kinds of works exuding period angst: Georges Rouault's Homo Homini Lupus with its hanging Judas, Gérard Vulliamy's Le Cheval de Troie and its stretching red cheese of surreal sludge and slime, Joseph Steib's cartoonish renderings of Hitler simmering in the flames of hell, and Bernard Buffet's starkest attempt at rendering a dead plucked chicken and a screaming woman. Works such as these are all present (to the notable exception of Picasso's Guernica, which has no French connection) and there are a relatively high number of grim vanitas depictions too.
Picasso's Nature Morte à la Tête de mort, Poireaux, Pot devant la Fenêtre is appropriately grisly, making the skull look as if it's biting the dust of three twisted leeks that look more like a cross between an electric snake and a stick of writhing dynamite. And Georges Braque's Hamlet ou PIchet et Crâne is somewhat unexpectedly less cubist than expressionistic, but Georges Rohner's Nature Morte au Crâne offers an extremely peaceful and smoothely soothing version of the memento mori motif. In fact, most of the paintings and sculptures at this exhibition evince a calmness that suggests that despite the war's atrocities and internment for certain artists, "art as usual" was the order of the day. Pierre Bonnard's relaxing tub of colours in Nu dans le Bain is a prime example of the mood of at least half the exhibition.
Although the vast majority of the paintings on display fit the temporal parameters of the exhibition, it also stars Douanier Rousseau's La Guerre (1893-4). The show might have included a contemporary war-inspired work for the sake of symmetry.
Another notable picture that does not fit into the strict time frame is Eugène Robert Pougheon's Le serpent, a work usually included in discussions of Art Déco painting. Despite the fact that it was painted before 1930, it epitomizes the balance established between menace and serenity in the exhibition as a whole. The serpent of the title is nowhere to be found in this Arcadian landscape. Even the androgynous figure in black who could represent a human embodiment of the Serpent looks as if he or she is mostly savouring the doffing of the garment as it slides off his or her naked skin. The figures on the balcony in the top right-hand corner accentuate the mystery of this enigmatic allegory, adding a further discreet note of menace and apparently intensifying the opposition between good and evil, even if it all remains a bit vague and dreamy.
This paradoxically little-known icon stands as a key moment in the history of French art: it was widely commented on after it was exhibited at the opening of the modern art museum at the Palais de Tokyo during the war in 1942.
Le Serpent (before 1930)
Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou
Copyright Musée La Piscine
While the depiction of sexuality in the works on display at the show is most often crude, violent or disturbingly surreal as in Gérard Vulliamy's La Salamandre Pompéienne or the French Surrealists' cadavres exquis, others, like Pougheon's The Serpent, disseminate a seductively eroticised aura. Paul Delvaux's Les Noeds Roses was painted before the Second World War in 1937 but was included in the exhibition because it was first shown at the 1938 first great Surrealist retrospective in Paris at the Galerie des Beaux-Arts. It seems at first glance to be little more than a painting pandering to the male heterosexual appetite, offering as it does the spectacle of naked women packaged for consumption as ribboned sexual gifts.
Those cognizant with Delvaux's oneiric oeuvre might rightfully point out that his work entitled La Ville Inquiète (1941), which looks like a direct response to the war, might have been a more obvious choice for the exhibition, but although Les Noeux Roses seems ostentatiously more erotic in theme, the more discreet vanitas skulls on the sides, as well as the skeleton walking in the building at the back, bespeak the presence of impending death. You might say that all of Delvaux's characters evoke chess pieces in a game in which the two same figures are repeated endlessly: Eros and Thanatos. The curators of the exhibition at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris have carefully chosen the works to offer a balance between the death drive engendered by the war and the sexual survival instinct that it also arouses.
Les Noeux Roses (1937)
Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunste, Anvers
Copyright Fondation Paul Delvaux