was liberated from the Krauts; it must now be liberated from the
(Archives of the
From what we are
told by the abstract painter Wols, the postwar period was not
going to be either easy or completely restful! After the war,
everything in France, of course, had to be rebuilt, but especially
its cultural and symbolic image had to be remade. Paris, the capital
of the arts, which had suffered not only from the Occupation but
also and especially from collaboration, had to find itself again
and to reinvent itself. What Wols saw and felt so deeply in the
recesses of his spare hotel room, which also served as his studio,
was the established cultural powers’ inability to recognize
and to defend certain new forms of modern art that expressed the
malaise then seeping into the consciousnesses of a great number
of people. This anxiety, rooted in modernity, that lay at the
heart of the issues haunting the West, and which New York embraced,
nonetheless too often seemed to be ignored by French cultural
institutions. Indeed, through the voices of and positions taken
by its critics and museum directors, Paris had a hard time seeing
or accepting art located at the antipodes of what had always been
the image of France: an optimism mixed with luxuriousness and
sometimes with voluptuousness.
The Grasshopper and the (American) Ant
Be-Bomb: The Transatlantic War of Images and All That Jazz
was an attempt to bring out this symbolic friction. By presenting
on its walls the mutual lack of understanding between Paris and
New York, this show let us see the intense cultural production
going on in the West as it grappled, up to 1956, with a frightening
cold war that had recruited culture almost by force into its political
arsenal. The exhibition tried to highlight the different artistic
and political currents that were dividing each culture and that
participated in the elaboration of quite specific and varied identities.
It also was intended to show the complexity of these two artistic
and political scenes by laying emphasis on the different currents
that shared them while setting out to present, of course, the
currents of artists who had received international recognition
but also those ones that had not succeeded in getting their message
across to others, despite the quality and inherent interest of
what they had to say.
thanks to the presentation, along the way, of popular and avant-garde
films as well as of jazz music, the exhibition set out to delimit
and to analyze the vast cultural field of battle onto which modern
artists had been hurled. It is rather striking to see how much
France, like the United States, interiorized stereotypes of their
respective cultures. On this account, America was brutal and violent
but free, and France, the land of culture, was suave to the point
of decadence as well as bursting with internal contradictions.
One was rough and unfinished, the other smooth and refined. The
positive characteristics of the one became for the other negative
their reconstruction efforts, Parisians, for example, tried to
capitalize on the image of luxury traditionally afforded by haute
couture and Parisian fashion without truly realizing all
the negative aspects this image conveyed as the Cold War was starting
up and as all signs of culture were becoming highly symbolic.
While Paris continued to be, for Americans, the center of the
culture of luxury as well as of fashion, at the same time the
latter confined the City of Light to a somewhat ethereal space
that had no genuine hold over what was then going on. While
The Theater of Fashion--a haute couture exhibition
presented on doll-sized models because of rationing--enjoyed considerable
success in the United States in 1945-1946, the exhibition of paintings
entitled Painting in France 1939-1945 was gleefully reviled
by American critics on account of its old-fashioned character.
Paris was becoming artificial and somewhat effeminate, whereas
New York was appropriating for itself the most up-to-date intellectual
and virile forms of artistic production.
in Paris, while Christian Dior had won acclaim for his New Look,
which transformed the militarized woman of the Resistance into
a desirable and carefree being, American critics used her to define
the French soul in general. The buxom mother-woman who was the
heroine of Vichy (1) had of course been purged by then, but by
becoming a desirable woman, this erotic mistress-woman symbolized
the loss of intellectual power. It was easy for New York to take
this place since Paris, in replaying its old cards of a tradition
of luxury, calm, and voluptuousness, seemed unthinkingly carefree
to American critics worried about looming confrontations with
the USSR. For others, however--artists like Jean Fautrier, Bram
Van Velde, Wols, Pierre Soulages, and Hans Hartung--this flashy
luxury and carefree attitude were replaced by a critical countenance
which was also depicted on stage by Boris Vian, Marcel Mouloudji,
and Juliette Gréco. These “cellar rats” of
the Latin Quarter defined the desires of a new generation that
was now in breach of norms in a society where the existential
was replacing the artificial. The black of jumpers was replacing
the pastels of organdy dresses while the authenticity of the cellar,
of the inner world, was replacing the superficiality of the surface.
War rhetoric tended to present two opposing camps, each one employing
against the other an entire panoply placed at their disposal by
the media. Now, political reality was, even during the Fifties,
more complex, more contradictory, and sometimes more confused.
Under such conditions, one will not be surprised to learn that
the ideological positions and attitudes adopted by intellectuals
were always complicated and often imbued with irony. In fact,
in order to understand the Paris world of art between 1947 and
1951, one must mull over what the poet Christian Dotremont, of
the “revolutionary Surrealist” group then connected
with the Communist Party, had said. To a journalist from Carrefour
who asked him in 1948 what he would do if Soviet troops invaded
France, Dotremont, in full possession of his dialectical powers,
answered without beating an eyelash that he would take the first
plane leaving for the United States.
Peace, Freedom, and Fantasy
for America, it knew that it had become the leader of the West
and the main line of defense against Communist ideology. It had
very quickly become obvious that, if the United States wanted
to guarantee itself a position of strength in the postwar arena,
it had to gain cultural supremacy, or at least broad cultural
recognition--which would help in persuading the rest of the Western
world that their military and economic hegemony did not represent,
despite what some people were saying, a threat. On the contrary,
not only could one rely on it but one also had to rally around
it. Indeed, it had to be shown that America was defending and
cherishing the same values and the same complex civilization as
the Europeans. For the American avant-garde (and by that term
I am alluding not only to artists but also to art critics and
to individuals who make financial contributions to museums), it
was a matter, first of all, of persuading a portion of the public,
even in the United States, that the works they were in the process
of creating or those they were defending (the Abstract Expressionists)
were just as sophisticated as those produced by the modern European
masters. It was obviously going to be necessary, after that, to
convince the Europeans of the intrinsic quality of specifically
American artistic characteristics and of their universal supremacy--though
that was going to prove distinctly more difficult to accomplish.
to the writings of Clement Greenberg and to the activist stance
of the major American museums, modern art in the United States
between 1948 and 1951 was going to be not only protected but also
dressed up in new clothes and presented as the sole movement capable
of refashioning the image not only of postwar America but also
that of the West as a whole. This was a completely new phenomenon
for the United States. To judge by the events surrounding the
episode of the Institute of Contemporary Art of Boston--which
came into conflict in 1948 with the Museum of Modern Art of New
York over the issue of the word Modern, considered dangerously
elitist by Boston--it is clear that people like Clement Greenberg,
Robert Motherwell, Alfred Barr, and Nelson Rockefeller, to mention
but a few names of the people upholding a certain ideology (which
we could describe as liberal new modernism, in order
to distinguish it from the watered-down academic modernism then
in vogue), felt it quite necessary to promote a kind of art that
was based on individualism and freedom of expression, as opposed
to productions pertaining to a socialist or populist ideology.
was possible for New York’s Museum of Modern Art to defend
in this way the so-called extremist Abstract Expressionists
because it was easily demonstrable that modern art did not pose
a danger to America and that, contrary to what many on the Right
had tried to insinuate, this form of art was in no way harming
American values (the Soviets, following the example of the Nazis,
were ferociously hostile to it). Modern art--as it happened, its
most advanced bastion--insolently held its own between the two
blocs traditionally opposed to it: the Right and the Old Left.
It is this central, and therefore crucial, position that served
for Albert Barr as an argument in 1949 when he wanted to convince
Henry Luce, the head of Life, to alter his magazine’s
policy toward the novelty of Abstract Expressionism. And Barr
added that one must not be afraid of modern art--which he showed
was not destined to destroy American values.
divided, the Parisian world of art was not at all inclined to
consensus. And the violence of the impressive campaign organized
by the popular and powerful Communist press kept it from achieving
unity when, after 1947, the Party rejected the idea that abstract
art might have any value at all. As the review Esprit
indicates, the French Communist Party (PCF) also conducted an
active campaign of anti-American propaganda. The “peace
offensive” launched starting in 1947 was quite impressive,
as much on account of its relentless attacks against American
culture and the American way of life as on account of the portrait
it painted of America as warmongering. For the entire time this
offensive was to last, the PCF, knowing the importance of France’s
cultural image, guaranteed itself the support of a large number
of famous intellectuals, including Tristan Tzara, Roger Vailland,
Louis Aragon, Paul Éluard, Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger,
Jean Lurçat, Edouard Pignon, and André Fougeron.
In this battle for the soul of France, art was going to become
one of the most prized stakes--without, for all that, offering
a rallying point. Neither the political scene nor the world of
art could foster a viable middle ground. The Parisian art world
resembled a shattered mirror--each of its factions dreaming of
gathering together the broken pieces so that that mirror might
again reflect the grandeur of France, though in its own image.
if by magic, as soon as the Communist ministers ceased to be part
of the French government, there would no longer be for the PCF
anything but one artistic style that could fittingly represent
the working class. A revised and updated version of Socialist
Realism was to become the Communist criterion in matters of aesthetics.
Straightforward and easily accessible to the masses, this art
form had its roots in the French tradition (David, Courbet). The
writer Louis Aragon would become the theoretician of this current,
and the Realist painter André Fougeron was to be its leader.
Through Realism, one could hold back the tide of abstraction and,
at the same time, violently attack capitalist decadence.
what really is to be noted here is that the contemporary art being
produced in Paris at the end of the 1940s and through the 1950s
shared most of the characteristics of what was then being produced
in the West in response to the horrors of war: a strong interest
in abstraction as well as an unconcealed fascination for the force
of the individual. But as this art was often played in a different
key and did not harmonize with the formalist art criticism being
developed in New York, American eyes were incapable of seeing
what Wols, Fautrier, and Antoni Tapies were expressing in the
early 1950s. Their detached silence and their introspectiveness
did not fit into the well-coached Greenbergian outlook of American
criticism. Everything that did not fit into this perspective quite
literally was neither seen nor known. For the first time in the
United States--and this, as early as 1948--avant-garde art had
become lodged at the center of American identity. Few people in
France realized this, and very few had heard of the book Thomas
Hess had published in 1951, Abstract Painting: Background
and American Phase, where the New York School was placed
at the end of a long line of artists who represented the tradition
and the renewal of modern art. The book’s layout was clear.
All the reproductions of American works were in color, those of
European artists were tiny and in black and white. Responding
to a questionnaire entitled “Is the French Avant-Garde Overrated?”
proposed by the review Art Digest in September 1953,
Greenberg answered unambiguously: “Do I mean that the new
American Abstract painting is superior on the whole to the French?
I do.” This now-famous reaction laid stress on the fact
that French abstract painting was no longer a match for America’s
since the former had become soppy and feminine. The French knew
how to be inventive, of course, but unfortunately they “finished,”
they “polished” their canvases. As for the Americans,
they were, according to Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, rougher,
more audacious, and more robust. According to Greenberg, what
was being produced in Paris was “tame,” which conjures
up an image of castration and slavery. Paris was like a lion whose
teeth had been removed. Paris was now purring like a cat, and
that was not the image the West needed in order to oppose the
dangerous Communist hordes.
Drips and Stains
was at stake at the time, and what the critic Charles Estienne
understood very well, was in fact the creation of a new and modern
identity for France--an identity rooted, he thought, in a long
and glorious national past but also armed with a contemporary
force. What was needed, but that had not truly been assimilated,
was the construction of a present that would be open to a universal
future, yet clearly built upon French foundations. Of course,
the Americans were dripping, as Estienne knew since he had taken
a vague interest in Jackson Pollock, but what to him seemed much
more interesting was that the French themselves were staining!
The French were making “stains [taches].”
“Tachism”--which, according to him, had been invented
around 1952 by painters whom he was defending, such as Marcelle
Loubchansky, Simon Hantai, Roger-Edgar Gillet, Jean Degottex,
René Duvillier, Jean Messagier, Fahr-el-Nissa, and even
the American Alfonso Ossorio--was also, like the New York version,
an art of free expression. But in Paris, he explained, expression
always started again from scratch [B partir de zéro],
from the inarticulate, from filth, from the stain--like the placenta,
as he liked to say. This was a birth with deep roots. This kind
of art, Estienne said, employing the fashionable phrase drawn
from Roland Barthes who had just published his famous book Writing
Degree Zero, is a total re-creation. “The Stain is
the degree zero of artistic writing,” he wrote. This was
a kind of art that, as Estienne pointed out, emerged from the
individual rather than from any style. Tachism was--we often forget--a
parallel French version of American Abstract Expressionism, a
type of painting created after the war and mustered into service
by Estienne in order to neutralize the publicity people like Michel
Tapié were giving the Americans by inviting Pollock to
“be with us” in 1952 at the Facchetti Studio. The
drip and the stain were two sides of the same coin, the heads
or tails of contemporary art. This contemporary-art scene was
clearly divided between those who were looking toward the US and
those who preferred to show an interest for neutralism. Michel
Tapié and Georges Mathieu, for example, were so immersed
in the ideology of freedom being advocated at the time by the
United States in opposition to the notion of peace being defended
by the Communists that they were quite often suspected of “collaboration”
with America. What made things even worse was that they also published,
as the propaganda war was stepping up, a review entitled The
United States Lines Paris Review, for a transatlantic luxury-liner
company, in which they were not afraid to speak of “the
vitality and the grandeur of our Western civilization on both
sides of the Atlantic Ocean.”
very clear opposition to this definition, Estienne, with the help
of André Breton, dug deeply into the French past until
he found--as surprising as this might seem--a relationship between
the art of the Celts and that of the “Tachists.” The
Celts, perceived as the direct ancestors of the French, allowed
one to bring out the way in which they had deconstructed realism
and Greek anthropomorphism with the help of a certain form of
abstraction that is found on their coins. This deconstruction
through abstraction allowed Estienne, in a dazzlingly simplistic
shortcut, to connect the contemporary with the antique. The Celt
was the source for the new critical abstraction that had resurfaced
after centuries of slumber. The sudden irruption in Paris of this
long European tradition was perceived as a major critical force,
similar to the one put into place by the Celts against Greek imperialism.
All one needed to do was change the names in order not only to
give back to contemporary art a counterattack force but also to
furnish it with an impeccable pedigree that gave Parisian abstract
impressionist art a primacy over the American. This was a rather
exceptional adventure for a “stain,” but one that
was essential for it to be propelled to the front of the modernist
stage and to the forefront of its history. This was, Estienne
and Breton thought, a particularly powerful and amusing argument,
even though it seemed at times a bit far-fetched. This battle
seems somewhat idiotic--until, that is, one glimpses the fact
that all this was being played out on a highly unstable international
was in fact at stake during this entire polemic was France’s
position relative to political issues that, on a daily basis,
involved two allies who were clashing over the most varied set
of problems. It was a matter of positioning oneself at the very
moment the Cold War seemed to be accelerating upon Stalin’s
death and as neutralists violently opposed Atlanticists. There
was also the tremendous conflict over the European Defense Council,
as well as the complex negotiations with the United States following
the defeat at Dien Bien Phu that were taking place just as the
first bombs were exploding in Algeria. None of this encouraged
one to take lightly discussions about culture. It really does
seem, therefore, that Estienne and Breton were trying to carve
out an independent space, one removed from American culture. The
image that comes to mind is somewhat comical: Estienne standing
in his little Breton sailboat facing the giant Liner on which
his enemies--the aristocrat Michel Tapié de Celeyrand and
the reactionary Georges Mathieu, those two characters who very
much seemed to have sold their souls to the most powerful interests
of the time (those of the United States)--sat enthroned. The battle
was obviously lost, and Estienne knew it, as he soon afterward
abandoned what he deemed to be a corrupt world of art in order
to isolate himself on his boat, preferring to write popular songs
for the anarchist Léo Ferré.
I almost forgot. To set all this in perspective, we must mention
a postcard, found in the archives of the Getty, that was sent
by the famous art critic Clement Greenberg to his mother while
he was on a trip to Europe in 1939. The man who later on did so
much for New York art to be welcomed into the universal pantheon,
succinctly characterized the Paris scene as follows: “I’m
leaving for Avignon tomorrow. I’ve already stayed in Paris
too long, and Paris is not France. Among the people I’ve
met have been Éluard, Sartre, Hugnet, Man Ray, Hans Arp
and several others. They’re all crackpots…every one
of them.” Clem.”
The die, if not already loaded, had already been cast.
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1 Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Circus Girl Resting, no date.
2 Jackson Pollock, Big Dipper, 1947.
3 Bikini Atoll atomic bomb test, 1946.
4 Admiral Blandy and Mrs Blandy celebrate operation Crossroads
with an atomic cake, 1946.
5 Jean Cocteau’s set for Ma Femme est une sorcière
(I married a witch), Theater of Fashion, 1945 (reconstruction
6 Christian Dior’s “New Look,” Bar Suit
(photo: Willy Maywald), 1947.
7 The revolution of February 12, 1947, when a discontented
crowd in the street attacks the first winners of the “New
Look,” tearing off their clothes (photo: Walter Carone)
8 Jean Fautrier, Nude, 1945.
9 Hans Hartung, T1948-38, 1948.
10 Lee Miller, Civilians and US Soldiers with Dead Prisoners,
Buchenwald, Germany, 1945.
11 Irene Rice Pereira, Green Mass, 1950.
12 Pablo Picasso, Faune, musicien et danseuse (Faun,
musician, dancer), 1945.
13 Jackson Pollock, Search, 1956.
14 Pierre Soulages, Peinture (Painting, 196x270 cm,
July-August 1956), 1956.