The French have been slow in coming to terms with one of the darkest chapters of their history, the German Occupation in World War II.
For many years, they cultivated the myth that, except for a few collaborators, the whole nation stood up to the invaders. More than half a century would pass before a French leader, President Jacques Chirac, publicly recognized the country’s responsibility for deporting thousands of Jews to their death.
“L’Art en Guerre: France 1938-1947,” at the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, is the first exhibition to examine the French art scene during the Occupation without avoiding any taboos or imposing self-censorship.
The venue is well chosen. At the very same Palais de Tokyo, the Vichy regime had presented, from 1942 to 1944, French contemporary art -- without Pablo Picasso, without abstract painters, without Surrealists, without Jews.
The show starts with the big retrospective of Surrealism, organized by Andre Breton and Marcel Duchamp in 1938, the last highlight of the pre-war years when Paris was the undisputed art capital of the world.
The second room is devoted to the kitsch industry that was supposed to restore France’s battered self-esteem after the 1940 debacle -- ashtrays, pipes, and cookie jars with the portrait of the new head of state, Marshal Philippe Petain.
By then, Breton and Duchamp had fled to the U.S. with the help of Varian Fry and his Emergency Rescue Committee which also saved Max Ernst and Marc Chagall.
Not everyone was so lucky. Felix Nussbaum, Otto Freundlich and other Jewish artists from Germany were first interned in French camps and later deported to Auschwitz or Majdanek. The works they created in the camps with the primitive means at hand are the final traces of their lives.
Figures of international stature, on the other hand, were left unfettered by the occupying force. Paintings by Henri Matisse and Georges Braque, though banned in Germany as “degenerate art,” continued to be exhibited in French museums and galleries.
EvenPicasso, who stayed put in Paris, didn’t face any serious danger. Although his antipathy toward the Fascist government in his native Spain was well known, German diplomats and officers treated him with respect.
For his part, he was careful not to produce anything that might give offense to the enemy or the Vichy regime. When his friend, the poet Max Jacob, was arrested and sent to the detention camp at Drancy, he refused to use his German connections and intervene on Jacob’s behalf. Jacob died in the camp in 1944.
Georges Rouault, who had retreated to a remote village near Nantes, was a bit more courageous. His canvas “Homo Homini Lupus” (Man is a Wolf to Man), depicting a hanged man, is a lament over France’s desperate situation.
The only works in the show openly critical of the occupiers were produced by an amateur. Joseph Steib, a retired civil servant, denounced the Nazis and their French henchmen in naive paintings not unlike ex-votos in pilgrimage churches.
The opposite was more common. Maurice de Vlaminck, Andre Derain, Kees van Dongen and others gladly accepted invitations to visit the Third Reich as guests of the Nazi regime.
Vlaminck also attacked Picasso in the Comoedia weekly magazine for “having dragged French painting into the most fatal dead end, into indescribable confusion.”
One showcase reminds us of the most glittering event of the Occupation years -- the 1942 exhibition at the Orangerie, attended by Le Tout Paris, of giant sculptures by Arno Breker, Hitler’s favorite artist.
It would be nice to assert that the artists who compromised themselves during the dark years produced junk and that the victims created masterpieces. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
The show confirms that talent and virtue don’t necessarily go hand in hand.
When Picasso, after Liberation, re-emerged from his semi- seclusion in his studio on Rue des Grands-Augustins, he was lionized at the Salon d’Automne as a national hero. He immediately aligned himself with the new trend setters and joined the Communist Party.
“L’Art en Guerre: France 1938-1947” runs through Feb. 17, 2013. Information: http://www.mam.paris.fr.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Richard Vines on food and Warwick Thompson on London theater.
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