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The Gaulish and the feudal as lieux de memoire in post-war French abstraction.

If gestural abstract painting was an artistic practice that turned away from figuration and legible meanings, there was nevertheless a struggle over its interpretation and orientation in post-war Paris. This struggle is exemplified by two exhibitions that took place in the 1950s: Perennite de l'art gaulois, at the Musee pedagogique in 1955, which was organized by the art critic Charles Estienne in association with the surrealist group; and Les Ceremonies commemoratives de la deuxieme condamnation de Siger de Brabant, at the Galerie Kleber in 1957, which was organized by the abstract painters Georges Mathieu and Simon Hantati. Each exhibition was oriented against the classical foundations of modern French culture and the French nation-state, and each was identified with a site of memory in French culture. This article undertakes to identify and comprehend the significance of these cultural choices, in relation to the political and cultural options of the 1950s.

Keywords: abstract art, Andre Breton, Charles Estienne, France, Georges Mathieu, surrealism, Michel Tapie


Although the development of a gestural abstract art after 1945 is usually attributed to American painters alone, there was a lesser-known but synchronous development in Paris after the Liberation, which was variously described as 'lyrical abstraction', 'informel' or 'tachisme'. While it was generally agreed that this was an art of the sign rather than an art primarily concerned with form, there was a struggle over the meaning and direction of this gestural abstraction, which was particularly fraught in the 1950s. (1) Although there were more than two sides to this conflict, I wish to focus here on two exhibitions that exemplify two different positions on the broader cultural significance of contemporary gestural abstraction: Perennite de l'art gaulois, organized in good part by the critic Charles Estienne (in association with the surrealist poet and theoretician Andre Breton, and with specialists in Gaulish art), at the Musee pedagogique in Paris in 1955; and Les Ceremonies commemoratives de la deuxieme condamnation de Siger de Brabant, organized by the artists Georges Mathieu and Simon Hantai at the Galerie Kleber, again in Paris, in 1957. (2)

Estienne was a critic who, in the 1950s, attempted to seek a rapprochement between the surrealist movement and contemporary abstraction; Mathieu is a gestural abstract painter who, with the critic Michel Tapie, developed a theory of gestural abstraction whose conceptual bases were very different from those established by Estienne and Breton. For Perennite de l'art gaulois was a comparative exhibition in which Gaulish coins from the period before the Roman invasion were displayed alongside contemporary abstract and surrealist paintings, in an effort to demonstrate a continuity of aesthetic concerns that, in this sense, was ahistorical in character, but which attempted to make visible what Estienne, in his eponymous essay for the catalogue, called a 'line of heresy', a counter-tendency to the centrality of classical thought to European culture (Perennite, 1955: 85). Mathieu and Hantai's exhibition was not an art exhibition exactly, but rather a series of events and changing displays that took place over a period of three weeks, which celebrated the Catholic Inquisition's second condemnation for heresy, in 1277, of the teachings of the Aristotelian scholar Siger de Brabant at the University of Paris, whereby the church attempted to halt the revival of classical thought in the Middle Ages. Though not directly concerned with painting, this exhibition, organized by two abstract artists, identifies a site of memory with a set of values which their own paintings attempt to realize. (3)

Thus two historical moments are referenced in these exhibitions, which act to consolidate different notions of contemporary abstract painting, and which attempt to orient them to different notions of culture. Each, in fact, is oriented against the classical foundations of the French nation-state; imaginary identifications with different moments in 'French' cultural history are deployed to make meaningful a relatively unprecedented development in the history of art, whose interpretation and significance are not yet fixed.

It can be argued that each of these events represents a defeat or catastrophe, as much as an alternative to the values of the Fourth Republic. An interest in Gaulish coins was stimulated by the writings of Andre Malraux and Lancelot Lengyel on this subject in the 1950s, to be sure, but it can also be understood as an ahistorical turn to the distant past in light of contemporary disappointments, in particular the defeat of the revolutionary option that had been central to the surrealist avant-garde project from the 1920s onwards. The surrealist movement had from its inception proposed a counter-tradition to the classical foundations of French culture that was generally romantic or symbolist in nature: one, in other words, that was historical and even modern. In the 1950s, Breton proposed an atavistic leap to a time before the Revolution and before the French nation, when the Gauls were developing aesthetic values that were, according to Malraux and Breton, remarkably modern in appearance, before their defeat by Caesar. (4)

For Mathieu, 1277 was a touchstone that informed his political and cultural views throughout his career, for it is in his view the last moment at which the restoration of classical values was successfully resisted by European culture--and specifically by the Catholic Church, which would soon incorporate Aristotelian philosophy into its own doctrine. For Mathieu, this restoration represents a defeat of the greatest magnitude, the effects of which have come down to us in the materialism of our own day. If the surrealists had come to have an ambivalent relation to the revolutionary tradition in the 1950s, Mathieu is against the Republic as such, and it is no accident that the turning point of Western culture is located, for him, in the feudal period rather than the modern era.

Mathieu's conservative lament is perhaps not surprising, for as Anne Simonin has pointed out with reference to Simone de Beauvoir, the French right spoke in the language of defeat--in part, in Simonin's view, to excuse its collaboration during the Occupation (Simonin, 2000: 15). (5) Mathieu was not a collaborator, nor was he particularly active in politics, but as a professed advocate of absolute monarchy, and as a Catholic opposed to the modernization of the Church, he was firmly and explicitly located on the extreme right of French politics; he was also openly associated with a monarchist weekly, La Nation francaise, through his design of a device for the paper's masthead. This paper, founded in 1955 by Pierre Boutang, a former Action francaise militant, made the retention of North Africa an explicit concern from its first issue. (6)

Such political affiliations set Mathieu and Hantai's celebration of the Holy Inquisition's condemnation of heresy in a contemporary context, though Mathieu's discussion and description of this event is always a work of mourning for the subsequent defeat of this act of orthodoxy, rather than simply a celebration of the event itself. (7) Breton and Estienne's discussion of Gaulish coins is not so melancholy, but is nevertheless conditioned by the Roman conquest of Gaul, which for them, too, is a defeat of monumental proportions. In neither case is the association with contemporary abstraction triumphalist, but is given as the persistence of contrarian or subterranean tendencies in European culture, which are offered as models for a kind of culture other than that for which classical culture provides the foundation.

Estienne, like Tapie, first emerged as a critic in 1945, in the flux of liberation. At first promoting all types of abstract art, he gravitated to gestural abstraction in 1950, and began associating with the surrealists in 1953, though he never became a member of the group. (8) Perceiving an affinity between the surrealist theory of automatic expression and the abstract painter Vassily Kandinsky's proposal that art was the expression of 'inner necessity'--an affinity underscored by the surrealists themselves, who had admired Kandinsky's work since the 1930s--Estienne set himself a double task: on the one hand, to convince the surrealists of the identity of surrealist and abstract procedures, by means of his writing on Kandinsky; and, on the other, to convince contemporary abstract artists of the relevance to their own working process of surrealist theory and practice. (9)

Estienne worked diligently to achieve the rapprochement of surrealism and gestural abstraction between 1952 and 1956, through his art criticism in Combat and the Observateur, and through his curating of a number of exhibitions--several of which brought surrealism and contemporary abstraction together. He was more successful in convincing the surrealists of the necessity of situating themselves in relation to contemporary abstraction, however, than he was in convincing contemporary abstract artists of the relevance of this relation, and Tapie and Mathieu were not alone in opposing to it another conception of the imperatives and orientation of gestural abstraction. While several of the gestural artists working in Paris, such as Hans Hartung, Camille Bryen, Raoul Ubac, Jean-Michel Atlan and Jean-Paul Riopelle, had been loosely or closely associated with surrealism in the past, Estienne was only able to convince four painters to interact more closely with the surrealist group, and none of them benefited from this alliance. (10) Only one of the four, Jean Degottex, would achieve a significant reputation in Europe, and it was not due to this collaboration.

Nonetheless, Estienne proposed a rapprochement of surrealist automatism and Kandinsky's approach to abstraction as a way of conceptualizing an unpremeditated approach to the act of painting, one that would come from the interior, and he used the not-unprecedented metaphor of the natural growth of plants to describe this process (Estienne, 1951: 4; Estienne, 1954b: 1). Rather than the imitation of nature, this was nature, an internal movement from subjective to objective, and works by Degottex or Marcelle Loubchansky (Figures 1 and 2), another of the artists who associated with Estienne and the surrealists in this period, bear a metaphoric relation to the sea or to human skin, without being descriptive.

Sea and skin are, of course, surfaces, akin to the surface of a painting. Each work hovers on the edge of figuration, and thus of meaning; the point of being or non-being of the painting is in each case referenced by an allusion to blood or violation: in Degottex's case the blood of a sea-bird floating on the ocean, in Loubchansky's the body of a woman. The latter painting, with its provocative title and its allusions to holes and blood and evisceration, even threatens to slip back into the matter out of which signification emerges; there is in its title and its facture the suggestion of a sadistic act, which in its destructive violence would obliterate the possibility of spiritual expression (which is particularly poignant in this case, since the artist is a woman). In each case, there is also a suggestion of something below the surface of sea or skin, which can be read in the context of these paintings and their sources as the unconscious, out of which any such expression emerges. The being or non-being of these paintings is thus given as tentative and exploratory, in keeping with the way they are made, and with the notion that they are, in Estienne's terms, 'prefigurations' rather than figurative paintings that would bear a previously determined meaning (Estienne, 1954b: 1). (11) They are, rather, just on the edge of meaning, of signification, even of existence as paintings.

The notion of expression as something akin to nature but not descriptive underpins Perennite de l'art gaulois, in its presentation of Gaulish coins that deform their Hellenistic prototypes in the interests of an anti-classical aesthetic. It was Andre Malraux who first directed Breton's attention to Gaulish coins, in an appendix to his Psychology of Art in 1949 (which was incorporated into The Voices of Silence in 1951). In the former, he wrote of 'the change from representation to the sign' (Malraux, 1950: 196) he observed in Gaulish coins, and asserted that 'the result was a startling modernism. The engraver was no less obsessed by the circular surface he was about to pattern with abstract lines than is a modern artist by the rectangle of his canvas' (Malraux, 1950: 207). (12)

This projection of modernist values on to Gaulish artisans is the premise on which Perennite de l'art gaulois was organized by Estienne and Breton, with the aid of professionals in the field of numismatics. It is not so much modernist art that is at issue here as the notion of a common aesthetic that had led a subterranean existence throughout the period of the hegemony of classical culture, and that only fully reemerged in the contemporary era once the principles of the imitation of nature and of closed form had been rejected in contemporary abstraction. Breton, Estienne and the other contributors to the catalogue see a 'taste for abstraction' in the development of Gaulish coins away from their Hellenistic prototypes, so that lines and forms take on an existence independent of description, abstracting from the initial portrait heads and quadriga to arrive at virtually abstract images (Perennite, 1955: 20) (Figures 3 and 4). (13) Lancelot Lengyel, whose 1954 book on Gaulish coins was decisive for Breton's interest in them, wrote in the catalogue:
   It appears that the Gaulish artist chose the Greek prototype apart
   from any monetary consideration, inasmuch as it was an image of
   objective reality which he undertook to deform or, even better, to
   destroy in its essence, in order to replace it with an act of his
   faith. (Perennite, 1955: 74) (14)

The appearance of Gaulish coins was thus, for Lengyel as it was for Breton, the effect of a deliberate intention to realize an anti-classical aesthetic, rather than the consequence of a decline of craft. It was evidence of another culture and another mental structure, which had been effaced by the catastrophe of the Roman conquest. For Lengyel, Gaulish art, as seen in these coins, 'dissolves the concrete, and leads to the abstraction of the visible' (Lengyel, 1954: 4)--in this sense, it is a spiritual art rather than a naturalism, akin to surrealism, to the work of Kandinsky and to the gestural abstraction of the 1940s and 1950s, insofar as these were the manifestation of an inner necessity. It was the purpose of the exhibition to demonstrate the persistence of this shared aesthetic through the comparison of pre- and post-classical art and artefacts, along with photographs of other works of art made between past and present that manifested this same aesthetic.

Mathieu and Tapie's views on abstract painting were quite different from this, though they are not identical to one another. For Tapie, dada was the definitive negation of classical values, and its negation made the art that was produced during the next twenty years irrelevant, whether it had upheld or had been critical of the classical foundations of French culture (Tapie, 1952: n.p.). (15) It was only in 1944, he claimed, that an art had begun to emerge that was neither classical nor anti-classical, but that was other or indifferent to modern art's preoccupation with form, which for Tapie was a legacy of classical thinking (Vicens, 1960: 18). This other art he called the 'informel': an informal or casual art that was not concerned with form any more than it was with the 'informe', or formless (Bandini, 1997: 92). He also called it 'un art autre', an other art, to signify its indifference to the concerns of both traditional and modern art (Tapie, 1952: n.p.). Tapie refused to develop criteria to define this new art, and was critical of those, like Estienne, who attempted to do so, in for instance conceptualizing artistic process as a form of natural growth. This was a priori reasoning, in Tapie's opinion, and an art autre could only be identified a posteriori, as other than existing categories and criteria of and for art (Vicens, 1960: 21). The idea that an 'other' art was post-movement in nature was essential to this view, for collective movements like surrealism defined themselves theoretically, and dada had for Tapie put an end to specious theorizing (Vicens, 1960: 40-1; Tapie, 1952: n.p.).

What would replace form, for Tapie, was an art of the sign, which for both Tapie and Mathieu was a form of calligraphy that did not signify a particular meaning, as Islamic or Oriental calligraphy did, but that would be the existential sign of a lived experience during the making of a work, as the painting was created 'ex nihilo' each time (Mathieu, 1984: 478). The sign was to be the indexical trace of the sovereign individual who had mastered space, time and matter, but who had an aristocratic disdain for received form. For Mathieu, the ground of the canvas is a void, and the act of painting is conceived as an agonistic battle, not only with the void of the canvas, but with his own preconceptions of what a painting might be. The products of this process are signs, through which spirit is expressed. Unlike true calligraphy, these signs do not signify other than as traces of an elaboration of the self in its engagement with the canvas, as traces of an intensely lived moment.

Such views, of course, are not foreign to some of the more existential interpretations of abstract expressionism, such as that put forth by Harold Rosenberg, and like them they are antithetical to the relinquishing of mastery and the loss of self that are hallmarks of the automatic process. (16) It goes without saying that Mathieu and Tapie are never less than critical of surrealism, and refuse it any place in their conception of an 'other' art or of 'lyrical abstraction' (Mathieu's term, which he first used in 1947). (17) With the advent of the informel, Tapie claims: 'Western man finally discovers the Sign, and explodes in the vehemence of a transcendental calligraphy, of a hyper-significance drunk with the cruel vertigo of a becoming in its pure state' (Tapie, 1952: n.p.).

Although we can discern a reference to writing and to an irrational state of mind in such a statement, what is invoked here is more the Dionysian ecstasy described at times by Nietzsche than the modest recording instrument that the automatic artist or writer took him- or herself to be; these are in fact the contrary models on offer for the gestural abstract painter (or at least they are those under discussion here).

For Mathieu, the key accomplishment of lyrical abstraction was that the sign now preceded signification, once it dispensed with a concern for composition or with the imitation of nature. (18) The sign was elaborated in a process of becoming that brought order out of chaos or matter, yet it remained an open form, rather than assuming a more determinate meaning; it was oriented to the future rather than to the past of given cultural meanings. As he would write in 1975, in La Reponse de l'abstraction lyrique:
   New values will only be created tomorrow by beginning from a lived
   experience that will become the only law; their quality and their
   legitimacy will be verified through their confrontation with life
   in its immediacy, and with other men ... Security vanquished,
   terror gone, we will live the apotheosis of risk, this festival of
   being. (Mathieu, 1984: 14-15)

Painting in this conception becomes not only a battle but a rite, and Mathieu often compares his public performances of paintings, which took place between 1956 and 1962, to a sacred rite in which both artist and audience participate. (19) His painting practice is not, in this conception, a critique of form or composition, but a beginning from zero, from the void, which is positive in its realization of signs and of the individual. For Mathieu, art is a means of realizing being, as opposed to the having that is the hallmark of consumer society (Mathieu, 1984: 339-40). This being can only be realized through risk, including the risk of failure, which is opposed to the security that comes with having, which is a property of bourgeois culture. The elaboration of signs whose signification is still to be determined is an exemplary practice, then, of an ethical nature, which will attempt to offer a model of giving and of risk necessary to the realization of being.

These are aristocratic virtues, in the light of which Mathieu's political choices become clean We can examine this issue in relation to one of the artist's better-known paintings, Les Capetiens partout! of 1954 (Figure 5), in the collection of the Centre Pompidou. This painting was made in much the same way as his other works of the 1950s, which are also often titled with reference to twelfth- or thirteenth-century events (and which, in turn, are often battles: La Bataille de Bouvines, 1954, Battle of Hastings, 1956, La Bataille des Eperons d'or, 1957, and so on). This was Mathieu's second painting in a large format, and was made in one hour and twenty minutes, a concentrated period of time in which to engage with one's materials in a continuous process of feint and assault. (20) The title of the painting involves a monarchist conception of the origins of the French state, since it refers to the election of Hugues Capet in 987 as the first in a continuous line of French kings down to the French Revolution of 1789--in this conception of the French state, we are all Capetians now. (21) On the occasion of the first exhibition of this painting in 1954, Mathieu used the device he had designed for Pierre Boutang's monarchist weekly La Nation francaise in his catalogue, making explicit his political affiliations at this time. (22)

Works like Les Capetiens partout! enact an aristocratic version of the sovereign individual, whose first gesture in this instance was to make an outline of an orb topped with a cross. The painting was elaborated following that initial gesture, in an action that brings both the artist and the painting into being, through a process conceived as conflict and struggle that engages the whole being (and not simply the intellect) over the void of the ground.

Les Ceremonies commemoratives de la deuxieme condamnation de Siger de Brabant was not an art exhibition precisely, though it was held in an art gallery; there were no paintings by Mathieu or Hantai on display, though there were audio-visual displays and documents on view, in addition to the four-metre crucifix at the entrance to the exhibition, busts of Enlightenment figures hung (by the neck!) from the ceiling, and effigies of Rene Descartes and Louis Pasteur on the floor that visitors were encouraged to step on. (23) Elsewhere, Mathieu calls the condemnation of Siger 'the most lucid gesture of Christianity' (Mathieu, 1984: 340), in its recognition of the threat posed to faith by the separation of the spiritual from the intellectual, and in his own ritual moments Mathieu offers a model for the reconciliation of these separated mental faculties (as the surrealists, conceptualizing this split in a different manner, wish to reconcile conscious and unconscious thought processes).

The cycle of ceremonies that were the focus of the exhibition began with a mass in Notre-Dame in honour of Etienne Tempier, the archbishop of Sens responsible for Siger's condemnation. (24) Successive events during the exhibition commemorated other incidents of condemnations for heresy in the medieval period, and celebrated the Byzantine Empire as the perfect realization of an absolute monarchy in which Christianity was the state religion. There were also homages to the Christian kingdoms' military repulsion of Islam at different moments in European history, and to Spain's colonizing mission, which had brought Christianity to the New World. Feudalism was celebrated for its concept of honour, and for its free contract between estates or classes. The modern bourgeois era was treated more critically, but a number of works and events were celebrated here too, not all of which were openly reactionary. In all, the exhibition offered an anti-modernist version of history and culture from the Edict of Milan in 313 to the late 1940s, or the moment when Mathieu's own career began--it too conceived, as we have seen, outside the terms of modern art and culture. The exhibition turns on the condemnation of Siger, which is for Mathieu the last moment before classical caries sets in, or the moment just before the fall of the sovereign individual, whom he wishes to restore through a contemporary enactment of virtu.

Despite the apparently narrow focus of the exhibition's title, it is very much oriented to its own time, and in this way it offers a structural similarity to Estienne and Breton's slightly earlier exhibition. Needless to say, both events have much broader implications and intentions than the usual art exhibition. Perennite de l'art gaulois does not just provide a pedigree for gestural abstraction, but also aims to offer an alternative to the emphasis on reason and the acceptance of the given that the surrealists believe underpin classical culture. This alternative may certainly have been repressed and driven into the margins of cultural expression, but here it is: it is being taken up by contemporary artists, and it offers a viable path to the future. The Siger exhibition is not explicitly concerned with contemporary painting, but its view of history and culture determines the aesthetic choices of the two artists who conceived it; Hantai, who had been a surrealist, in fact abandoned his surrealist comrades at the time of the Perennite exhibition, and became a lyrical abstractionist under the tutelage of his new mentor Mathieu. He changed his convictions at the same time, shifting from atheism and Marxism to monarchism and the Catholic faith, positions that, like Mathieu's, were openly reactionary. (25)

These political options need to be aligned to this moment in French history, which was a little more than a year before the coup that brought Charles de Gaulle back into power in 1958, and at the height of internal conflict over the future of Algeria. The surrealists were among the first French intellectuals to become involved in political resistance to French conduct of the war, in November 1954. (26) They protested against the seizure of anarchist and Trotskyist journals critical of the war effort, and Breton wrote articles and addressed meetings on the question of Algeria on several occasions in the 1950s. The surrealists were also closely involved in the writing, editing and distribution of the famous 'Declaration on the Right to Insubordination in the Algerian War' of 1960, along with Dionys Mascolo and Maurice Blanchot. (27)

As Genevieve Bonnefoi pointed out in 1958, in an essay published in Les Lettres nouvelles, the celebration of Spanish colonialism in 1957 can only serve to reinforce the views of those who wished to retain North Africa as an integral part of France, and this was the position of La Nation francaise, the weekly for which Mathieu designed the masthead (Bonnefoi, 1958: 591-2). (28) Breton contributed an appendix to Bonnefoi's article in which he too deplored this celebration of the Inquisition at a time when journals were being seized and the press cowed; a time moreover when the right was manoeuvring to seize power (Breton, 1958: 594). (29) Both positions, whether of the noncommunist left or the extreme right, are of course politically interested, and mobilize an imaginary relation to the past for fundamentally different conceptions of the present, not to mention of the role that may be played by art, and in particular by abstract art. Although I would claim, even in spite of Mathieu's titles, that the art itself is not explicitly political--since it remains in either case just prior to signification, as the outcome of a process rather than a work produced in light of a predetermined meaning--there are nonetheless subtle differences to the works themselves, and it is difficult to avoid reading into them the procedures advocated by their critical champions; if mastery appears to be avoided by Degottex or Loubchansky, it is more than easily read into Les Capetiens partout!, in spite of its open form. And this notion of mastery is keyed to the celebration of faith, orthodoxy and authority in the 1957 exhibition, at a moment of intense conflict over the future of the French nation-state.


I would like to thank Natalie Adamson for inviting me to participate in her panel on 'Art and Nation in the 1950s' in the conference 'Cultural Memory in France' held at Florida State University in 2003. This paper had its origins many years ago in a seminar taught by Serge Guilbaut.


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Copyright information

It has not proved possible to find the copyright holders for the estate of Marcelle Loubchansky or for the photographs in L'Art gaulois dans les medailles. Anyone who has information regarding copyright for these images is encouraged to contact the author.


University of Alberta


(1.) When a non-mimetic abstract painting was first invented in the years before the First World War in Russia, Germany and France, its formal organization was nearly always premised on geometric form, which provided an established sense of order to what was otherwise an unprecedented development in art. Vassily Kandinsky, whose work in the 1910s was considerably more chaotic, was the single exception to this rule among the pioneers of abstraction, followed by Hans Hartung in the 1930s. Virtually all abstract artists worked with geometric form up until the 1940s, when a significant number of Canadian, American and European painters began to paint gesturally during and after the Second World War; Jackson Pollock remains the most famous exemplar of a gestural approach to painting, but there were many others on both sides of the Atlantic. A great many others continued to work with geometric form, on the grounds that it provided a vocabulary of form that was universally accessible and comprehensible, and that it provided the requisite order to a composition. On the other hand, those critics and artists who favoured a more gestural approach countered the reproach that gestural abstract painting was chaotic and insignificant with the view that it was a calligraphic kind of writing, an art of the sign--even if what it signified was not immediately recognizable or comprehensible. For an excellent introduction to the issues surrounding abstract art in the period of its invention, see Harrison (1993). There does not yet exist a corresponding synthesis for the post-war period, given the general neglect of post-war European art by art historians.

(2.) Hantai had been a member of the surrealist group between 1952 and 1955; he broke with it at the time of Perennite de l'art gaulois over the question of his participation in another exhibition organized by Estienne, Alice in Wonderland, and aligned himself at that point with Mathieu.

(3.) Pierre Nora writes, in 'The Era of Commemoration': 'The commemorative phenomenon was the concentrated expression of a national history, a rare and solemn moment, an invariably difficult form of collective return to the sources, a symbolic affirmation of ancestry, a choice of heritage for a form of transmission, a bridge between the past and the future' (Nora, 1998: 626). It is in this particular sense that I am using Nora in this essay, with regard to both exhibitions.

(4.) Breton first responded to the writings of Malraux and Lengyel in 'Triomphe de l'art gaulois', published in Arts no. 476 in August 1954 (Breton, 1965); the initiative for the exhibition can probably be dated to conversations between Estienne, Breton and Lengyel after that date.

The surrealists, who tried to fashion a working relationship with the French Communist Party between 1925 and 1935 gradually distanced themselves from a communist conception of revolution after their denunciation of Stalin and the French party in their August 1935 tract 'Du temps que les surrealistes avaient raison'. While the surrealists openly associated with Leon Trotsky and Trotskyist organizations between 1936 and 1940, this orientation was put in crisis by Trotsky's assassination in 1940; although they never formally renounced Marxism or communism after the war, there was a pronounced turn to utopian socialist thinkers like Charles Fourier and Flora Tristan from the 1940s on. On the political conflicts of the 1930s, see Harris (2004); on the politics of the surrealist group in the post-war period, see Reynaud Paligot (1995).

(5.) Simonin refers to Simone de Beauvoir's 'La Pensee de droite, aujourd'hui', which appeared in Les Temps modernes in 1955, for her description of a language of defeat specific to right-wing thinking. For her part, de Beauvoir only identifies this language of defeat with the consequences of wartime collaboration once (Beauvoir, 1955: 2249); more generally, she describes rightwing thought as a rearguard reaction to the eventual and inevitable victory of communism, and it is in this sense that it speaks the language of defeat. Needless to say, de Beauvoir's essay was written in the fellow-travelling days of Les Temps modernes, prior to the Soviet invasion of Hungary.

(6.) A meeting organized by the weekly is announced in La Nation francaise no. 1 (12 October 1955), with the title 'Pas d'avenir francais sans Afrique du Nord'. Boutang was scheduled to speak at the meeting. Mathieu and Boutang were part of a significant conservative tendency in post-war intellectual and cultural life, which also included such figures as Philippe Aries, Marcel Ayme, Maurice Bardeche, Antoine Blondin, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, E.M. Cioran, Jean Cocteau, Salvador Dali, Daniel Halevy, Jacques Laurent, Gabriel Marcel, Thierry Maulnier, Francois Mauriac, Jules-M. Monnerot, Paul Morand, Roger Nimier, Louis Pauwels and Denis de Rougemont.

(7.) While the ceremonies are both a celebration of orthodoxy and a condemnation of classical reason (not to mention a symbolic joining of tradition and experiment in the homage they render to various figures in twentieth-century arts), it is always made clear in Mathieu's discussions that Siger's condemnation failed to stem the tide of classical reason. See, for instance, Mathieu (1972: 128); 'Vive Monseigneur Tempier!' (1977), in Mathieu (1984: 337-40); 'Discours a l'ambassade de Belgique' (1982), in Mathieu (1984: 583); and Mathieu (2002: 210).

(8.) For a discussion of Estienne's career, see Charles Estienne (1984).

(9.) Estienne's writings on Kandinsky include L'Art abstrait est-il un academisme? (1950a); his introduction to Kandinsky (1950b); his postface to Kandinsky (1954); and his 'Hommage a Kandinsky' (1955a). He discusses the rapprochement of surrealism and abstraction in Estienne (1953, 1954a, 1955b).

(10.) The four painters in question are Jean Degottex, Rene Duvillier, Marcelle Loubchansky and Jean Messagier.

(11.) Margit Rowell writes of gestural abstraction in terms that seem appropriate to this reading: 'The spirit incarnated by the sign or writing is still chaos, but chaos mobilized in a trajectory of which an exteriorization is the sole and proper end. Formless [informe] and insignificant, this is the first indication of a possibility of form, and of a possibility of signification. Thought at this stage does not know itself as thought, it does not represent itself, it does not reflect; it manifests itself as dynamism, passage or becoming' (Rowell, 1972: 95).

(12.) The second quote is also found in Malraux (1953: 140).

(13.) The quote here is from Jean Babelon, 'Originalite de l'art gaulois', one of several essays in the catalogue. Babelon was the director of the Cabinet des medailles at the Bibliotheque nationale at the time of writing, and one of several specialists who collaborated with Estienne and Breton on the exhibition.

(14.) This quote comes from Lengyel's essay, 'L'Art gaulois et l'art occidental' in Perennite (1955).

(15.) See also Tapie (1953: 7). Tapie had been part of a neo-dada group, Les Reverberes, in the late 1930s, which was highly critical of surrealism. While most of his comrades gravitated to surrealism during the Occupation, and in fact formed the nucleus of the surrealist group in occupied Paris, Tapie did not follow them, and remained true to his pre-war critique of surrealism as an outmoded aesthetic.

(16.) See Rosenberg's 'The American Action Painters' (1952), in Rosenberg (1959: 23-39). Mathieu expresses his agreement with Rosenberg's interpretation of abstract expressionism as action painting in Mathieu (1972: 101).

(17.) Tapie discusses surrealism in Tapie (1952). For Mathieu's views on surrealism, see Mathieu (1972: 70); 'Cent Questions discretes et moins discretes' (a 1960 interview with Alain Bosquet), in Mathieu (1984: 33); and 'La Culture et le desfin' (a 1961 interview with Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes), in Mathieu (1984: 369).

(18.) This notion was first articulated in 1951, and was appended to Mathieu's 1949 text 'Analogie de la non-figuration', when it was reprinted for a New York exhibition in 1952. See Mathieu (1972:67 and 166). See also the 'Avertissement' to his 1975 book La Reponse de l'abstraction lyrique, which is reprinted in Mathieu (1984: 11-12), and 'L'Avenir de l'Occident face a la dissolution spirituelle' (a 1960 interview with Jean Parvulesco) in Mathieu (1984: 350).

(19.) Mathieu's first public performance of a painting was at the Sarah Bernhardt Theatre in Paris in May 1956, before an audience of 2000, and later performances occurred in several countries. He speaks of the notion of the rite in relation to public performance in 'Cent Questions discretes et moins discretes', in Mathieu (1984: 52).

(20.) On the rapidity of his technique and the rationale for it, see Mathieu (1972: 102-3), and 'Entretien avec Jean-Marie Dedeyan' (1978) in Mathieu (1984: 472).

(21.) In 'The Era of Commemoration', Nora writes of what he calls the 'empty' celebration of the millennium of Huges Capet's coronation in 987, which was the legendary origin of the French monarchy and thus of a monarchical conception of the French nation (Nora, 1998: 619). See also Mathieu (1993: 40), wherein Mathieu discusses the political significance of Capet.

(22.) In his text for Mathieu's exhibition (which also bore the name Les Capetiens partout!) at the Galerie Rive Droite in November 1954, Tapie wrote: 'Au conformisme d'une gauche intellectuelle bien en place il oppose un non-conformisme d'extreme droite.' For a reprint of this text, see Vicens (1960: 152).

(23.) For two photographs of the exhibition and a reproduction of its emblem, see Mathieu (2003: 67-8).

(24.) The programme for the ceremonies is reproduced in full in Mathieu (1984: 317-32).

(25.) On Hantai's shift from revolutionary to reactionary, which is registered in his 1958 manifesto 'Notes confusionnelles accelerantes et autres pour une avantgarde reactionnaire non reductible', see Genevieve Bonnefoi (1958). On this period of Hantai's work, see also Sjolin (2001).

(26.) They joined the Comite pour la liberation de Messali Hadj in November 1954, the Comite de lutte contre la repression coloniale in December 1954, and the Comite d'action contre la poursuite de la guerre en Afrique du Nord in November 1955. For a discussion of the surrealist group's political involvements after the Second World War, see Reynaud Paligot (1995), and more particularly Reynaud Paligot (2002).

(27.) On the history of this document, see Jose Pierre's commentary in Pierre (1982: 390-6).

(28.) Jose Pierre reiterated this point in Pierre (1959: 64).

(29.) At the time of the 1957 exhibition, the surrealists produced a tract, 'Coup de semonce', which denounced it. This tract can be found in Pierre (1982: 164-9).

Steven Harris is Assistant Professor in the Department of Art and Design at the University of Alberta. Address: Department of Art and Design, 3-98 Fine Arts Building, University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB, Canada T6G 2C9 [email:]
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Author:Harris, Steven
Publication:Journal of European Studies
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Jun 1, 2005
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