On a grey December day in 1941, the journalist Gabriel Péri, a leading figure in the French Resistance, was taken from a disused chapel at Fort Mont-Valérien outside Paris along with some 70 other hostages and shot dead by the German occupying forces.
The shock that greeted the news in France was profound. The author Albert Camus (1913-1960) wrote, ‘I recall the day when the waves of revolt within me reached their climax. It was a morning in Lyon, and I had just read in the newspaper of the execution of Gabriel Péri.’
It was an outrage that prompted the novelist to renounce his pacifism and join the French Resistance. He later used the subject of Péri’s death in the allegorical work The Stranger.
Péri had left a farewell letter in which he declared, ‘I should like my fellow countrymen to know that I am dying so that France may live… In a few minutes I am going out to prepare a future that will be des lendemains qui chantent (the tomorrows that sing)’. The phrase made him a hero of the French Resistance and was used for propaganda purposes to encourage the US to join the war.
Péri (1902-1941) was the brilliant foreign affairs correspondent on the Communist national newspaper L’Humanité. In the build-up to the Second World War, the strident anti-fascist had written unequivocally about the threat of Hitler’s ambitions and exhorted the French government to action.
When Stalin announced his pact with Germany in 1939, Péri was horror-struck; he slumped at his desk in the offices of L’Humanité unable to write or speak.
Inevitably, the French Communist party fell into disarray and was forced underground with the German invasion of 1940. Péri was captured on 18 May 1941, following a wave of arrests ordered by General Otto Edwin von Stülpnagel (1878-1948), a strategy designed to rip the heart out of the Communist resistance.
While in captivity, Péri was pressurised to denounce the party but emphatically refused, despite his earlier rejection of Stalin.
After his execution Péri’s great friend, Louis Aragon, the poet and co-founder of the Surrealist group, commemorated the journalist in the poem La Légende de Gabriel Péri. ‘The poem talks very evocatively about where Péri is buried and the pain emerging from his tomb,’ explains Christie’s specialist Valérie Didier Hess.
At the end of the war, the provisional government commissioned the sculptor Alberto Giacometti to create a full-scale monument to Péri to be placed in front of the Gare Saint-Lazare (now known as Place Gabriel-Péri).
According to Hess, the site was emblematic because it is ‘a symbol of modernity and industrialisation’. The station was painted many times by the Impressionists because, she says, ‘It represented modern France’.
Giacometti proposed a sinewy figure striding towards a grave, an early prototype of his sombre walking man sculptures — like Aragon and Camus, Giacometti was interested in existentialist thought and the crisis of identity wrought by two World Wars.
‘Péri died a martyr, but Giacometti shows that his soul still lives and remains an example for France to follow’ — Valérie Didier Hess
‘For Giacometti, 1946 was a pivotal year,’ says Hess. ‘It was when he began making these incredibly slender figures which later became his signature.’ In an interview with the art critic David Sylvester in 1964, Giacometti responded to a question about these emaciated forms saying, ‘I fought against it, I tried to make them broad. The more I wanted to make them broad, the narrower they became. But I don’t know what the real explanation is’.
Today, these post-war sculptures are highly coveted: in 2015, L’homme au doigt, conceived in 1947, sold at Christie’s for $141,285,000.
Project pour un monument à la mémoire de Gabriel Péri (piédestal par Paul Nelson), which measures 45.5 cm in height, has attracted much attention because of its date. ‘So many of Giacometti’s plasters were lost or destroyed in the 1940s,’ explains Hess, ‘so this is one of the earliest known representations of the walking man we have today.’
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With the fall of the provisional government in 1947, plans for the monument were cancelled. This bronze, cast in 1961, was gifted by Matisse’s son Pierre (whose sister Marguerite had been in the French Resistance) to the collector Maurice Lefebvre-Foinet.
For Hess, the beauty of the work resides in its resilience. ‘This man is caught in the rush for modernity and facing the future, walking towards the challenge,’ she explains. ‘Péri died a martyr, but Giacometti shows that his soul still lives and remains an example for France to follow.’