Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 18, 2011
Natalie Adamson Painting, Politics and the Struggle for the École de Paris, 1944–1964 Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009. 330 pp.; 60 b/w ills. Cloth $124.95 (9780754659280)

Natalie Adamson’s Painting, Politics and the Struggle for the École de Paris, 1944–1964 provides a thoroughly researched account of postwar debates about the School of Paris. It describes the various redefinitions of the school after World War II as inconsistent and directly conflicting, such that the school exists largely as a set of competing discourses, a discursive “complex” in Adamson’s description (3). In the late 1940s, artistic discourse was strongly divided as Communist painters like André Fougeron and critics like Louis Aragon and Jean Marcenac launched New Realism in defense of figurative painting as part of a French humanist tradition that also directly supported Soviet Zhdanovist aims at populist transparency (120–29), while partisans of abstraction like Julien Alvard and Léon Degand condemned Fougeron’s art for supporting the Soviet oppression of the avant-garde. Meanwhile, the abstractionists disagreed equally vehemently among themselves: Alvard and other supporters of gestural abstraction condoned a lyrical, subjective, gestural abstract painting conceived to be at once universal and created of diverse personal styles (183), while Degand promoted geometric abstraction, including the stable of artists around Galerie Denise René, such as Victor Vasarely and Richard Mortensen. Degand claimed that geometric painting was also humanist, and thus uniquely French, in its depiction of signs forming a pictorial language that resonated in the spectator’s perception like music (172). Other overt challenges arose to the abstractionists’ promotion of the School of Paris as contemporary and vital, as, for example, when certain exhibitions of the school abroad, such as L’Ecole de Paris, 1900–1950 at the Royal Academy, London, in 1951, chose to present it as a purely historical grouping of great modernist masters (219).

By the mid-1950s, gestural abstraction came to dominate all discussions of the contemporary School of Paris. Adamson details the school’s ultimate transformation into a cosmopolitan collection of individual abstract painters, and their promotion internationally by state curators such as Jean Cassou and René Huyghe as belonging to a liberal humanist tradition with a French lineage. Cassou and Huyghe were responsible for the French painters included in the 1955 “Exposition Internationale de Jeune Peinture,” including Jacques Busse, Jean-Marie Calmettes, Jean Cortot, Pierre Dmitrienko, Bernard Dufour, Jacques Doucet, and Serpan. This fairly obscure list is typical of Adamson’s tendency to discuss individual artists in relation to the school’s group identity rather than to explore the more groundbreaking contributions of better-known artists such as Jean Fautrier or Jean Dubuffet, who are sidelined here. In the 1955 exhibition and other shows, the French state’s propaganda efforts were equivalent in intent to the much more aggressive U.S. promotion of Abstract Expressionism around the world—if smaller in scale and far less successful, due in part to the internal conflict revolving around establishing younger painters’ simultaneous innovation and indebtedness to tradition. Adamson for the most part passes over the reaction of French critics to international developments, deeming it well-covered by other scholars, such as Serge Guilbaut; she marginalizes it here in favor of the internal French discussion. In fact, Guilbaut’s eminent scholarship is typical of almost every English or French account of this period in focusing almost exclusively on Franco-American debates; the broader global context of postwar criticism, including the role of France’s former colonies and that of the former Socialist countries, deserves much closer exploration.

In the first two chapters, Adamson describes how already during the Vichy period a group of “Jeunes peintres de tradition française” (such as Jean Bazaine, Maurice Estève, and Alfred Manessier) became annexed to the pre-1930 School of Paris, to the explicit exclusion of both pre- and postwar foreign-born artists, such as Wassily Kandinsky, Chaim Soutine, Hans Hartung, and Jean-Michel Atlan. In chapter 1, “A Complete Change of Décor: The Nouvelle École de Paris,” Adamson provides a valuable exposition of the foundation of the “École de Paris” in the 1910s as an assimilationist critical move that aimed to address the primarily foreign group of avant-garde painters in Paris. The École de Paris was first conceived to support modernist abstraction in opposition to the traditional conception of the “École française” as a classicizing and even more exclusively French tradition. Only later, in the late 1930s, did more liberal critics such as André Lhote begin to praise the School of Paris for its cosmopolitanism, but the reactionary tendency to lament the impact on French tradition by foreign-born artists continued, as Adamson describes, not only through Vichy, but into the postwar period, in the writing of reactionary critics such as Waldemar George. She attempts here and in chapter 2, “An ‘Individualist Internationale’: Foreign Artists and Abstract Painting,” to bring greater historical specificity to the rise to prominence of postwar gestural abstraction with the wartime and immediate postwar successes of the “Jeunes peintres” group, which by 1946 had already been reframed as the “Nouvelle école de Paris.” This section reads to some degree as a defense of conservative tendencies during and after the war, as Adamson separates Bazaine’s claims for a French tradition invigorated by its assimilation of foreign influences, tempered by the values of simplicity and purity he saw in the medieval past, from the more reactionary racism of Vichy administrators like Georges Hilaire who valued the Greco-Latin French heritage in explicitly xenophobic rhetoric. She claims that the account of Bazaine’s circle has been framed far too narrowly by scholars such as Michèle C. Cone (Michèle C. Cone, “‘Abstract Art’ as a Veil: Tricolor Painting in Vichy France, 1940–44,” The Art Bulletin 74, no. 2 [June 1992]: 191–204). While Cone argues that the modernist abstraction and individual “artistic freedom” based on prewar artistic models exemplified by Bazaine’s group were actually encouraged by Vichy authorities and functioned as a veil to distract attention from innumerable instances of political disregard for human rights by the Vichy régime, Adamson attempts to theorize an “arrière-garde” (“rear guard”) comprising Bazaine and his circle which aims “to return painting to its true path without collapsing into reaction or restoration” (39).

Yet Adamson’s attempt to redefine this tendency as “subversive” (a strange term indeed to apply to Bazaine’s statement that the blue, white, and red so prominent in his paintings registered the “profound instincts of a people” (48)) fails to undermine the scholarship of Cone and others which demonstrates, as Adamson describes, the “inability to account for the terrible truths of the war” in an art that emulated the expressive individualism of past modernist masters (54). Adamson strangely does not make clear that, as she explains in an essay in another volume and mentions only in passing here (93), the use of “arrière-garde” in this context originates in the writing of extreme right-wing critic Lucien Rabatet, who used it during the Vichy period to dismiss the Jeunes Peintres group and all contemporary modernism as decadent manifestations of “the old Jewish anarchy” (Natalie Adamson, “‘The Serpent Eats its Tail’: Avant-garde and Arrière-garde in Paris, 1943–1953,” in Academics, Pompiers, Official Artists and the Arrière-Garde: Defining Modern and Traditional in France, 1900–1960, Adamson and Toby Norris, eds., Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009, 214). Rather than successfully redefining arrière-garde to mean something rebellious instead of the usual “behind or out-of-date,” Adamson merely restores some historic context to the discursive history of a group of relatively conservative artists and critics attempting to revive classic modernism by rejecting classicism and admitting foreign influence as long as it be properly assimilated into French tradition. Adamson’s refusal to critique the ongoing ethnocentrism of this tendency is problematic in a field whose most relevant scholarship focuses increasingly on issues of incipient globalization, challenges to painting and to art more generally as a luxury commodity, and the understudied repercussions of decolonization on the postwar cultural scene. An excellent recent book by Laurence Bertrand Dorléac, published in French in 1992, further explores the original context of these painters’ reception under Vichy, but without overstating the work’s radicality (Laurence Bertrand Dorléac, The Art of the Defeat, France 1940–1944, trans. Jane Marie Todd, Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2009).

In the remaining chapters, Adamson examines how the reintegration of foreign-born artists into the school as part of the post-Liberation overturning of Vichy cultural and immigration policies was accompanied by neo-humanist arguments. Chapter 3, “The Crisis of Realism and Reality,” summarizes key debates about realism and Communism in the immediate postwar period. The initial predominance of realist discourse limited the reception of not only abstract artists like Kandinsky and younger geometric painters like Auguste Herbin, but also postwar Surrealists, accused of cosmopolitan decadence by many prominent critics and artists, including Bazaine. Adamson does an excellent job of negotiating discursive complexities that from a distance appear as obscure internal debates amounting to an overarching pluralism. Chapter 4, “The Critics of the École de Paris,” addresses at last the postwar critics such as Degand, Georges Mathieu, Michel Tapié, Charles Estienne, Michel Ragon, and Pierre Restany who are well-known precisely for their intense skepticism toward postwar revivals of humanism, cultural progress, and national tradition increasingly attached to the School of Paris. While her account is useful in situating their critical forays in relation to each other, Adamson is less interested in doing justice to these critics’ challenges to normalizing claims than in positioning them in relation to an overtly traditionalist framing of the School of Paris as a “reconstitution of a unified community following the war and occupation” (165).

Chapter 5, “Is the École de Paris Condemned to Death?” (the title comes from a 1956 article by Alain Jouffroy) examines the critical turn away from the School of Paris from 1954–64. Adamson argues that internal debates within the French art world contributed as much as any external influence to the purported “collapse” of the school. She notes the increasingly dominant presence of foreign-born artists in School of Paris exhibitions sent abroad, and takes younger artists’ collective refusal to participate in the eclectic “Salon de l’École de Paris” at Galerie Charpentier in 1964 as exemplary of the school’s increasing anachronism and dismissal by critics like Jouffroy as embodying “juste milieu” conservatism. Adamson’s intensive focus on French debates, however, does not take into account larger factors related to global shifts in the discourse of painting per se that reached far beyond questions of the “École de Paris”: primarily, the unsustainability of the explicitly mythic discourse of Informel beyond a small circle of increasingly defensive “believers” in the face of a situation to which Adamson alludes with a single, strangely undeveloped phrase—the “possibility of painting’s anachronism in a newly consumerist and spectacular culture industry” (232). While Samuel Beckett’s 1948 musings on painting and the work of mourning, described in the brief conclusion (translated in Samuel Beckett and Georges Duthuit, Three Dialogues, London: John Calder, 1965), are indeed apropos of the situation of painting as a traditionalist or “arrière-garde” discourse in the contemporary period, they have little to say to Adamson’s perpetuation of the “École de Paris” as a construct of mythic “community.” In the contemporary period, such claims to community should be tempered with an acknowledgement of their local, and in this case newly provincial, status and inoperative position in the face of the alienating tendencies of global capitalism and its recuperation of oppositional culture. While her detailed examination of critical debates within France as preserved in the numerous archives she examined are a significant scholarly contribution, Adamson only makes the briefest allusion to the ideological context of School of Paris discourse as a defensive return to modernist tradition artificially maintained after the war in response to radical social and technological changes. The text barely mentions the “profound asymmetry between events in the artistic life of Paris and the politics of colonisation” (240) as the Fourth Republic collapsed in the wake of the “loss” of France’s colonial empire, and as the Fifth Republic under Charles De Gaulle and Minister of Culture Andre Malraux co-opted the cosmopolitan, individual-humanist discourse of gestural abstract painting as a nationalist reassertion of French cultural supremacy.

In all, Adamson’s account is valuable to English-language scholars seeking a more detailed understanding of internal French debates about postwar modernist painting and national traditions, but it does not situate its subject in the radically expanding field of competing international discourses after World War II. This period is of course marked by massive global changes: the rise to political, economic, and cultural prominence of the United States; the establishment of the Cold War; an increasing “internationalist”—meaning in the end Western humanist—outlook on the part of many industrialized nations but above all France, the headquarters of UNESCO; and finally, decolonization, which would ultimately shift the terms of these debates from the international to the global. Adamson’s resistance to the political polemics that mark so many groundbreaking transnational studies of this period by scholars such as Guilbaut or David Craven limits her account; her hesitation to criticize reactionary cultural tendencies and biases, such as Bazaine’s own condemnation of Surrealism (whose impact on the postwar art scene remains regrettably marginalized), tends to perpetuate naturalizing art-historical concepts such as “national tradition” that have been critiqued for decades. To reinscribe notions of artistic tradition in the guise of historical accuracy threatens to close down oppositional discourse and to enshrine mainstream constructions of art history, which always tend to resist the more radical tendencies within culture that the avant-garde attempted to defend, even at the risk of tearing down the very notion of “culture” as itself elitist. It is these polemics, and not the comfortable negotiations of the definition of the cultural center, that make modern art significant and vital in the first place.

Karen Kurczynski
Lecturer, Department of Art and Design, Northeastern University

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