“During the Occupation, the art scene was devastated in Paris” – Déborah Laks (DFK Paris) about art in France during the German occupation and afterwards

The Deutsche Forum für Kunstgeschichte (DFK) dedicates its annual theme 2014/15 to the Arts in Paris after the liberation from German occupation in August 1944. Déborah Laks holds a scholarship at the DFK Paris, her research focuses on  La mémoire des ruines : ténuité, matière et traces dans l’art parisien de l’après-guerre . In our interview, she gives an insight into the annual theme of the DFK.

Jacques Villeglé: Fils d'acier-Chaussée des Corsaires, Saint-Malo, 1947, Fils d'acier, 63 x 49 x 9 cm, Fils d'acier trouvés sur la Chaussée des Corsaires à Saint-Malo, Sculpture en 2 éléments, Centre Pompidou, Paris. Die Skulptur fertigte Villeglé unmittelbar nach dem Krieg an. Er nutzte dazu Metall-Schrapnelle, die er am Strand von Saint Malo gefunden hatte und die aus den Kämpfen von  “le mur de l’atlantique” stammten.

Jacques Villeglé: Fils d’acier-Chaussée des Corsaires, Saint-Malo, 1947, Fils d’acier, 63 x 49 x 9 cm, Fils d’acier trouvés sur la Chaussée des Corsaires à Saint-Malo, Sculpture en 2 éléments, Centre Pompidou, Paris.
This is a sculpture Jacques Villeglé did in the direct aftermath of the war, using metal scrapes he found on the beach of Saint Malo that came directly from the battles of “le mur de l’atlantique”.

Mrs. Laks, the annual theme 2014/2015 of the DFK Paris is “The liberated Paris and the arts“. In what situation were “the arts” in Paris during the German occupation?

During the Occupation, the art scene was devastated in Paris. The major museums were closed, used as storage for despoiled artworks. All Jewish art collectors, art dealers and artists disappeared from the public scene. Most galleries were closed. In this very poor artistic context, the Musée National d’Art Moderne opened for two years on August the 6th of 1942, and although it strictly favored « all-French » artists, and silenced all modernist expression, it was perceived as a reassurance of French art’s independence. Regarding modernist expression and avant-garde, the resisting galleries were sparse. The Jeanne Bucher Gallery however maintained a vivid role, exhibiting throughout the war French and international artists, such as Otto Freundlich (shown in the “Entartete Kunst” exhibition), Jacques Lipchitz (targeted by the French racist press) and Kandinsky.

How did the cultural life in France develop after August 1944?

The situation after 1944 is characterized by continuation and the attempt of renewal. Only some weeks after the liberation, the Salon d’Automne opened its doors to an excited public, showing the recent and abstract work of young unknown French artists and giving at the same time a central place to Pablo Picasso who became the main public artist figure in the years after the war. Publishers and art critics like Christian Zervos or E. Tériade resumed their work by continuing the Cahiers d’art and Verve while at the same time many new art magazines were founded. The artists of the Lettrisme entered the streets of Paris and the cinema – as medium and venue – began to become an important part of the French culture as well as American pop culture find its way in. Beyond that, the Informel had its beginnings in the late 1940’s in Paris and became the epitome of European avant-garde art right after World War II.

To what extent did war and everyday experiences find their way into art in the postwar period?

The war scarred profoundly the artists and the art world, although the enthusiasm of the Liberation seemed to diminish the depth of the wounds. Art History is currently engaged in the rereading of art of the 1950’s through the perspective of World War Two. Experimentations around madness, that were driven by an interest for the dream and the strange in pre-war Surrealism took a whole new meaning after the war, especially in the work of Antonin Artaud, Henri Michaux, and Wols. The matter itself expresses sufferings of body and mind in the work of Jean Fautrier, while sculptors as Alberto Giacometti and Germaine Richier question the human figure.

Is there currently an increased interest in art during and after the Second World War in French art history?

The French Art History scene has been involved for several years the study of the arts in both Occupation and Reconstruction, mostly lead by the research of Laurence Bertrand Dorléac, currently co-director, with Thomas Kirchner, of the annual research theme in the Deutsches Forum für Kunstgeschichte. Moreover, this year’s commemorations of the end of the War did put an emphasis on this particular topic.


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