The horror and the pity: Nazis and Parisians

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Date: July 3, 1993
From: The Economist(Vol. 328, Issue 7818)
Publisher: Economist Intelligence Unit N.A. Incorporated
Document Type: Article
Length: 483 words
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Abstract: 

The exhibition, 'Paris Post War' showcases art and literature done in Paris both during and after the German occupation. Artists' reactions to occupation ranged from cooperation to madness. The show dedicates the most space to Pablo Picasso and Alberto Giacometti.

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PARIS was blighted by privations and terrors during the Nazi occupation. Its artists and writers reacted in various ways. Some valiantly resisted; others collaborated shamelessly. Jean Cocteau sucked up to the Germans but also tried to protect some fellow artists from their wrath. Picasso quietly got on with his work. Chaim Soutine, a painter, was one of the many Jewish artists the Nazis hounded to death.

The show chronicling it all is at London's Tate Gallery until September 5th. But "Paris Post War: Art and Existentialism 1945-55" is a misleading title for it. The show includes examples of the work made during the occupation as well as after the Liberation when the full horrors of the war became clear: the betrayals by collaborators, the concentration camps, the atom bomb.

Jean-Paul Sartre was the most influential French intellectual of the day. During the war and soon after it he befriended and championed Samuel Beckett, Albert Camus, Jean Genet, Alberto Giacometti, Wols and others. They were all part of a loose cafe- based, existentialist network. They shared a disdain for possessions and lived in cheap hotel rooms.

Much of the Parisian art of the time is reminiscent of ancient cave paintings: grafitti on weathered or war-scarred buildings; pitiful messages discovered scrawled on Gestapo cell walls. Many artists scornfully rejected the traditional practices of fine art and conventional notions of what is beautiful. Jean Dubuffet, who was actually a most compassionate man, said he believed in "values of savagery . . . mood, violence, madness". He was much taken by the Outsider Art of visionaries and the insane. His paintings depict grotesque, grimacing figures with inflated bodies and, often, splayed sexual organs.

The exhibition is dominated by Giacometti and by Picasso, who famously said: "I have not painted the war because I am not the kind of painter who goes out like a photographer for something to depict. But I have no doubt that the war is in these paintings I have done." It is eerily there in his nearly monochrome, semi- abstract still-lifes of human and goat skulls, juxtaposed with bottles, candles and books--timeless meditations on human vanity and death.

Giacometti's bronze figures confirm Genet's high opinion of them. They possess, as he said, a vulnerable beauty, with their attentuated limbs and torsos, massive feet and tiny heads. Genet admired the sculptor above all men (although he characteristically stole a masterpiece drawing from him). Edmund White tells of the friendship between the two men in a superb new biography whose publication coincides with the exhibition: "Jean Genet" (Chatto & Windus; 820 pages; Pounds 25). It is well worth reading before going along to the Tate.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A14017728