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Galerie Handschin, Basel.
Michel Tapié, Paris.
Private Collection, Solothurn.
In the wake of the Second World War, Paris once more became a crucible for art. Movements sprung up after the end of the Occupation. The city again became a capital for the avant garde, for the intellectual, for the contemporary. It became more of a magnet for developing artists than ever before. These various characters were lured in part by the number of great minds who still held court in the various cafés of the Paris streets, and in part by the legacy of their artistic forebears, by the myths as well as the works of the prior generations of artists. Even after the Occupation, after the punitive and restricting regime that had strangled so much of the cultural and social life of the city, it remained a magnet whose streets still dripped with the stories and pictures and spirit of Toulouse-Lautrec, Bonnard, Picasso, Braque, Léger, the Surrealists... Many of these figures were still there, re-emerging at the end of the Second World War to reclaim their thrones, but they found themselves surrounded by as many challengers as disciples.
As well as the former avant garde, a new one appeared during the 1940s. It was now, in the wake of the War, that abstraction truly came to the forefront of art in Paris. It had long been apparent, not least in the Orphism of the Delaunays. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, though, it developed a new and crucial momentum, spurred on by the intellectual atmosphere of the day, by the sense of release, by the cataclysmic change to the surface and structures of the entire world, be it architectural, political or humanitarian. Europe and its cities were scarred; the old orders had been undermined and were outdated. War had shown the ugly side of everyday existence, and the search for a new, raw means of expression became central to a generation of artists. In figurative terms, this was shown in the works of Dubuffet and Fautrier, Giacometti and the CoBrA movement; the abstract artists included Michaux, Van Velde, Mathieu, Poliakoff, Estève, Soulages, Riopelle, de Staël, Vieira da Silva amongst their ranks. All these artists pioneered new visual idioms for their age, new ways of capturing the chaos of modern existence, the pain and torment of daily life, and the sublime extremes of emotion.
These artists were all influenced by the new philosophical force of the day: existentialism. Foremost amongst the existentialists were writers such as Camus, Sartre, Artaud, Beckett and Simone de Beauvoir. These writers had a huge impact upon thought throughout the Western world, but especially in Paris. This was the age of the Café de Flore and Saint-Germain. There, Camus and Sartre developed new ideas that were based largely on their own experiences in wartime France. The pair had met while working with the resistance group Combat, who published an underground paper of the same name. Working in Orwellian circumstances where even thought could become illegal and dangerous, they had discovered their similar world views, and began a friendship that was not long but that had a huge influence. They had each already developed the kernels of the philosophies that would become French existentialism. By the time they met, Sartre had published La nausée, Camus L'étranger and Le mythe de Sisyphe. This last book began with a simple question that was to inform much of existentialism: Camus stated that the only really important philosophical question in life was whether or not to live. After that, after the vertigo-inducing realisation that our lives are in our own hands first and foremost and that we are alone to make such a momentous decision, all other decisions pale into insignificance. Living was the focus, nothing else. It was the only viable solution to the absurd realities and ordeals thrown out by the world. The errant ramblings and failures of Sartre's lead character Mathieu in L'age de raison further exemplified this. The absurdities and anxieties and violence of life and existence came to take precedence in the thoughts of a new cultural generation, and these all made their way into art as well.
This partly manifested itself in the new value accorded to a painting's own individuality, to the selfhood of the object and of the materials. In the light of existentialism, these took on new values. This new interest in the material extended through the works of many artists, both figurative and abstract, and is exemplified in the impastoed surface of Dubuffet's and Fautrier's paintings. Even Picasso began to treat his paint and canvases in a new way, heightening their appearance of self-awareness. This consciousness of a work's materiality formed much of the basis of Art Informel. Amongst the abstract artists, it was seen in the thick and glistening paint on the canvases of Riopelle and Soulages and the fully abstract paintings of de Staël. This revolutionary sense of objecthood, arguably prefigured by Duchamp, would later drive Nouveau Réalisme in Paris, Arte Povera in Italy, and would eventually come to be twisted to Wittgensteinian degrees in the works of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns in the United States.
The abstract paintings of the Post-War Ecole de Paris discarded figurative meaning and representation and sought to present something more universal, more direct, more about life. Pictures of landscapes and flowers now seemed redundant, recalling Adorno's famous observation that, ' To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric'. Intensely subjective yet universal, these works are records of the artists' decisions as to colour and form. In some cases, the artists deliberately attempted to let the forms dictate themselves, to be self-generating, creating an existential microcosmos upon the canvas. This was certainly true of de Staël's early abstract paintings. It was likewise important in building up the harmonies of form and colour of Poliakoff's paintings, which are oases of abstract contemplation within the frenetic chaos of the world. By contrast, the Orientally-inspired application of paint in Francis' works, the thick strokes of paint that are smeared down the canvas in Soulages' oils and the dripping and smearing in Riopelle's tell of an interest in the artistic gesture itself. These are records of the artist's physical activities, an existential graffiti that tells us so many years later that 'I was here.' Some artists blurred the boundaries between figurative and abstract, adopting the structures of the recognisable visual world in order to capture a more tangible sense of existence. Thus, Vieira da Silva created strange, impossible spaces, perspectival illusions that hinted at the real world around her and yet remained inscrutably labyrinthine, impossible similes for modern existence. Meanwhile, the visionary de Staël went full circle, trying to find a way to portray the figurative world in abstract terms, creating his pared back, colouristic and semi-abstracted landscapes and still life paintings.
Ironically, the term Ecole de Paris had a whiff of condescension about it in the years before the Second World War. It was often used to refer to the foreigners in Paris, rather than the home-grown talents. In the wake of the War, and following the horrifying results of racism and anti-Semitism under the Nazis, this aspect of the term became redundant, and even bad taste. Foreign artists had long been the backbone of many of the most exciting developments in Paris, from Picasso and Gris to Ernst and Miró. In the years following the War, this was truer than ever. De Staël and Poliakoff were Russian, Riopelle was Canadian, Vieira da Silva was Portuguese. The CoBrA movement was founded in Paris by Dutch, Belgian and Danish artists living there. Even the American artist Sam Francis was in Paris during this same vital period. Paris only truly remained the capital of the arts as long as there were foreigners making their pilgrimage there.
PROPERTY FROM AN IMPORTANT EUROPEAN COLLECTION
Y. Riopelle, Jean Paul Riopelle, Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 2, Acatos 2004, no. 1952.044H1952 (illustrated, p. 426).