A u g u s t 27, 2012
A glance back at the most difficult period of European history between 1939 and 1945 makes it clear that we don’t know much about the actual developments in the center of Europe. The stereotypes formed by the well-oiled Soviet propaganda machine have little in common with concrete historical events and the European reactions to them.
Our views, nurtured by films about the brave pilots of the Normandy-Neman squadron and French Resistance heroes, were at variance with the desire of our French acquaintances to avoid talking about the French involvement in the Second World War. Expecting to see memorials to defenders of the homeland from the Nazi invaders, we found it strange to see only stelae with “1914-1918” or even “1812” engraved on them in squares of small provincial French towns and well-kept soldier cemeteries of the First World War period. This prompted the idea that there was something wrong about it that had to be clarified.
BRIEF HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
Along with Britain, France declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939, and for seven months fought primarily on the seas. On French territory the war started on May 10, 1940, and lasted for six weeks. The French Army proved incapable of mounting worthy resistance to the invaders and, unwilling to admit capitulation, the French government signed the shameful armistice agreement on June 22, 1940. Adolf Hitler willed it that the signing take place in the same Compiegne forest and the same railway carriage that the first Compiegne armistice had been signed in 1918, putting an end to the First World War. Nothing could be more humiliating for the French.
The French use the stable expression “drôle de guerre” (Phoney war) to describe the wartime period prior to the invasion of France by the German army. Compared to the Great Patriotic War of the Soviet Union, it was no less strange after the invasion as well. What was that war for the ordinary citizens and artists of this great land?
Under the terms of the armistice, which was never followed by any peace treaty, France was divided into two parts: the north and the Atlantic coast were occupied by the Nazis, and the south was formally considered a “free” zone, with the capital of Vichy as the seat of the French government collaborating with the invaders. That armistice provided for the return of all German prisoners of war to Germany, while all French captives stayed in confinement. What was more, the French government was obliged to give away every French citizen and foreigner at the first Gestapo summons. Paris, the city of kings, ceased to be the capital of France. Now it was the place where the French embassy was situated, together with the embassies of other states that recognized the new state.
What happened in the summer and autumn of 1940 looked like a nightmare. Developments were tempestuous, the political crisis was obvious, and the ministers were replaced one after another. The situation in which new government decisions were made was a caricature of real life. The resort town of Vichy had to accommodate the French government ministries and departments, which was far from easy. Thus, the ministry of education and youth was housed in the pompous building of the casino, partitioned into offices. From now on youth problems were decided at the former gambling table, where the French used to play roulette. The new government, too, held its sessions at the Vichy casino.
After fleeing en masse in the early days of the invasion, many Parisians who reached the Atlantic coast returned home. What followed next was like some ghost-like existence. German servicemen in the streets were courteous, offered their seats to elderly citizens on public transport, joked with kids and behaved decently even in night raids. It was okay to speak French loudly and even to discuss the political situation on the streets and in cafes. At first the Parisians were shocked to see their native city invaded, but then somehow composed themselves and stopped noticing the Germans. Life went on.
Art life changed but didn’t die out altogether. Exhibitions were held regularly; the only difference was that Jewish-owned galleries had been requisitioned and now exhibited drawings by German soldiers. Some booksellers reoriented their business to new buyers – Wehrmacht officers and soldiers. A photo of a German soldier leafing through a book at a Paris bookseller’s is well-known.
The cinema virtually thrived and attendance grew from 225 million in 1941 to 304 million in 1943, not necessarily owing to entire units of German soldiers going to the movies.
There was a fairly brisk trade in art objects. Canvases, pieces of sculpture and furniture from galleries of Jewish antique dealers were auctioned. The former owners had to vacate premises fast: forbidden to engage in professional activity, they were in a hurry to leave for the south and while away the hard times in small towns and mountain villages of the free zone.
The buyers were mostly politicians and aristocrats sympathizing with the invaders, as well as German officers who came to galleries in civilian clothes or resorted to the services of French art dealers. Classical art was primarily in demand, and the Impressionists were likewise bought up actively. The government, too, made purchases − between 1939 and 1945 state-run French museums acquired 2,760 works of art.
Trade was even more active in auction houses than in galleries. Antiques always, and especially so in the years of crisis, served as a safe means of capital investment. In the 1941/1942 winter alone two million art objects were auctioned through the Hôtel Drouot. Modigliani, Chagall, Leger and Picasso went for a song, while Bonnard, Braque and Matisse cost a lot. For instance, Picasso’s Portrait of the Artist cost 3,400 francs, the same as a pencil drawing by Maillol. A Still Life by Fernand Leger was priced at 5,650 francs, meanwhile the price of Maurice Vlaminck’s Village landscape soon soared to 55,000 francs.
Landscapes, still lifes and women’s portraits irrespective of the year of execution were especially popular. Prices for Édouard Manet’s landscapes reached 400,000 francs, Pissarro’s works were slightly less expensive, but the most expensive work to be sold in 1943 for 780,000 francs was Jean-Marc Nattier’s Portrait of a Young Woman.
Strange as it may seem, many aristocrats and government officials in Paris sympathized with Germany before the war and now gladly supported the invaders. Accustomed to noisy balls and cabaret shows, they willingly attended high life events, receptions and opening ceremonies.
An exhibition of the German sculptor Аrno Breker, who lived in Paris in 1928-1932 and studied under Аristide Maillol, was organized with great pomp at the Orangerie gallery in Paris in May 1942. The Parisians were not shocked to see Breker’s giants. Larger-than-life monumental sculpture was already exhibited in Paris during the World’s Fair of 1937 at the German and Soviet pavilions. The French still can’t forgive Jean Cocteau his friendship with Arno Breker, which dated back to the 1920s and received a powerful fresh impulse with the advent of the Nazis. It was Cocteau who clamorously welcomed Hitler’s “adopted son” on behalf of France on the front pages of Paris newspapers. André Derain, too, highly acclaimed Breker’s works, without thinking much about his own reputation.
It was quite safe for galleries and museums to organize exhibitions on neutral themes. Landscape was, beyond doubt, the least politicized. The most notable events were the exposition of Rodin and Claude Monet’s landscapes at the Orangerie gallery in 1940, that of Berthe Morisot in 1941, and the exhibition “French Landscape Painting from Corot to Our Day” at the Charpentier gallery in June 1942.
From the late 1930s on the press actively discussed the question of what French art was, of whether foreign artists of the so-called Paris School had imposed on it their national characteristics, and whether French Cubism had any prospects or had exclusively Spanish roots. Some denounced Derain and Vlaminck for departure from their own achievements of the Fauvism period, while others extolled their new manner of painting in Neo-classicist style. With the beginning of the war the artists recognized as representatives of national French art were showered with attention by the powers that be and attended every high life event, despite the fact that every one of them had a road of his own.
Maurice de Vlaminck, who turned 63 in 1939, was at the peak of his popularity. It seemed that the whole of Paris was one big exhibition of Vlaminck: his works were conspicuous in the gallery windows here and there. He was extremely fashionable and authoritative. He was so much sought after that he even dared to criticize Picasso in public. In June 1942 he published a diatribe in the Comoedia daily censuring Picasso for having led French Cubism into a deadlock. Neither Picasso, who lived in Paris illegally, nor his friends could respond openly to Vlaminck, who bravely engaged in polemics with himself.
Picasso was in Paris when the war broke out, his temporary permit to stay in France issued by the Spanish consulate soon expired, and formally he was an illegal. He preferred to stay on in his studio on the Rue des Grands-Augustins under the patronage of his friends. He worked assiduously and in the evenings went out to Le Catalan restaurant, which quickly became popular among the Parisian intellectual elite. Paul and Nusch Éluards, Jean Cocteau, Robert Desnos, Pierre Reverdy and others frequented it. Picasso’s studio was visited by the aristocrats and German officers. It was on such an occasion that a Wehrmacht officer asked him if he was the author of Guernica, to which Picasso replied: “No, it was not me, but you.”
The Gestapo made attempts to arrest Picasso as the brightest representative of “degenerate art”. That wouldn’t have been difficult because he did not even think of hiding. One can treat differently charges of collaboration raised against Cocteau after the war, but it was he who turned to Arno Breker for help to have Picasso left in peace. His intervention proved a guarantee of the great artist’s life and work during the war. Picasso also had patrons in the Vichy government with ties to Paris.
While nobody dared to exhibit or sell Picasso’s new works, official restrictions did not apply to other artists who remained in France. Owing to the few yet fairly wealthy patrons who appreciated modern art, several galleries, such as Galerie de France and Galerie de Louis Carré, regularly staged exhibitions of Henri Matisse, Raoul Dufy, Maurice Denis, Georges Rouault and Édouard Vuillard. They also sold illegally paintings by other artists; for example, works by Chaim Soutine were brought to the Louis Carré gallery from the province.
Unlike the French artists who were not in direct jeopardy, foreign and Jewish artists had to go into hiding or to leave France. Fearing for their own lives and those of their near and dear, the refugees went first to the “free zone” in Southern France, where they looked for a chance to move on to neutral Portugal, North Africa or Madeira and from there to the USA. A handful of enthusiasts headed by the American journalist Varian Fry helped save the lives of outstanding artists, such as Marc Chagall, André Masson, Moses Kisling and some two thousand figures of culture and science. For details see The Varian Fry List: the American Schindler.
Kisling, who had been granted French citizenship for heroism shown during the First World War, volunteered for frontline duty in September 1939. After the Compiegne armistice was signed, he (being a Polish Jew) decided to leave France. He left his wife and children in their house at Sanary-sur-Mer in Provence and went across Spain to Portugal to his sister-in-law and her husband, the Portuguese artist Adriano de Souza Lopez, in order to sail off to Havana. He fell seriously ill and was hospitalized in Lisbon. As he didn’t turn up on Cuba as scheduled, his relations and friends decided that he had died on his way and sent condolences to his wife. It was not until the summer of the following year that Kisling made it to the USA.
Right after the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact Chaim Soutine, who was regarded as a Russian in France, felt he was in jeopardy. In the summer of 1939 he worked in Civry-en-Montagne, Burgundy, in the company of Gerda Michaelis, also known as Mademoiselle Garde. Following the declaration of the war the town mayor, in compliance with the Interior Minister’s order, forbade Soutine to leave Civry. As a German citizen Gerda was detained and sent to the Gurs internment camp in the Pyrenees. Knowing that Soutine couldn’t do without support, his patroness Madeleine Castaing introduced him to Marie-Berthe Aurenche, a former wife of Max Ernst. Soutine underestimated the danger facing him, yet his new companion managed to persuade him in March 1941 to leave Paris, which he visited now and then in violation of the ban. Marie-Berthe Aurenche found a haven for them in Champigny, the Loire Valley, where Soutine spent the last two years of his life in relative safety and did about thirty paintings. On July 31, 1943, Soutine, who had stomach ulcer, found himself in the Chinon hospital with acute pain. He was in need of an urgent operation, and Marie-Berthe decided to take him to Paris. To avoid detention, they went via Normandy. On August 7 Soutine was operated upon, which was too late, and within two days he died at the age of 50. In order not to attract the attention of the Gestapo, they buried Soutine at the Aurenche family plot in the Christian part of the Montparnasse cemetery. Picasso and Max Jacob (who was to be arrested the following year) attended his funeral. Until the end of the war there was no name on the artist’s tombstone.
Throughout the war the 70-year-old Henri Matisse lived in Province. Ill and confined to the wheelchair, he never stopped working. His daughter Marguerite, who was very close to her father, was arrested as a Resistance activist and put into the Rennes prison. She was on a train heading for the Ravensbrück concentration camp when an American bomb raid saved her.
I believe that André Derain, who embarked on his creative career as a troublemaker, is yet to surprise us more than once: his archives are yet to be made public and the events of his life seem to be mutually exclusive. When the war broke out, the 59-year-old artist was in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. A First World War veteran, Derain was dismayed by the signing of the Compiegne armistice in June 1940. Leaving all his canvases painted over the past few months for storage at the museum of Pau in the Pyrenees, he decided to return to his house in Chambourcy. The house had been devastated and occupied by the invading troops. Sixty soldiers had been accommodated in his house. At some point they found in his studio sketches of Hitler’s portraits done in an “improper way”. They started asking the neighbors if the owner of the house was a Jew. Derain and his family had to urgently look for refuge. He lived for a while in Normandy, where relations of a Chambourcy baker housed him until friends found a temporary refuge for him in Paris. In December 1940 he was summoned to the Gestapo to be interrogated about his nationality. It was not until 1943 that his house in Chambourcy was returned to him.
LOSS OF MASTERPIECES
Paris has always had many museums. Its historical buildings were used to store theme collections – after all, it is a cultural capital! Without waiting for the saying “A good artist is a dead artist” to come true, the French government in 1930 founded a museum of modern foreign art, for which works by Van Dongen, Picasso, Gris, Modigliani, Soutine, Foujita, Chagall and other artists were purchased. The museum was housed in the indoor tennis (jeu de paume) court built in the time of Napoleon III in the eastern part of the Tuileries Garden, where art exhibitions had been held from 1909. The name of the National Gallery Jeu de Paume has stuck to our day. Those who frequent Orangerie gallery exhibitions are familiar with that old building.
When France was invaded by the Nazis, collections requisitioned from Jewish antique dealers and collectors were brought there. A total of 203 collections were confiscated, including the Rothschild family collection. Paintings were sorted out there and supplied with different labels. In the early hours of July 27, 1943, about 600 paintings of André Masson, Juan Miro, Francis Picabia, Moses Kisling, Mane-Katz and other artists, labeled “E.K.” (Entartete Kunst – degenerate art) were burned down on the terrace of the Tuileries Garden outside the Jeu de Paume museum.
Showing great interest in French cultural treasures, Hitler and his myrmidons were initially rather civilized and negotiated exchanges in historical relics with the French government. In general they tried to maintain the by now illusory image of Paris as a cultural capital and that of France as a democratic state – exhibitions were held, lively opening ceremonies and jazz and swing festivals were organized, cabarets and theaters staged performances. At 25, Édith Piaf became a star at the Bobino cabaret in Montparnasse, then frequently performed in occupied Paris for Wehrmacht officers and went on a promotion tour of Germany. Her photograph taken against the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin was used by the Nazis for propaganda purposes.
To strengthen “cultural ties” between the victorious Germany and France, which had acknowledged defeat, cultural exchanges were developed, with music hall performers and film actresses and actors visiting Germany in 1942 through 1944. In the autumn of 1940, the period of general confusion and panic, the Nazi government came up with a more serious undertaking – a trip of French sculptors and artists of international renown to Berlin.
Methods of persuasion to participate in that trip were common and individualized, personal and public. The 80-year-old Aristide Maillol had fears about the future of his model and lover Dina Vierny, the 21-year-old Jewess hailing from Moldavia. He was aware of her involvement in helping Jewish cultural figures hiding in small French towns to reach Marseille, where the group of Varian Fry organized their transfer to Lisbon or shipped them to the USA. When Vierny was arrested by the Gestapo as a Resistance activist, Maillol had to turn to Arno Breker, who was instrumental in Vierny’s release from prison.
One of the models who had worked for Derain in the 1920s gave him an invitation for the trip from Arno Breker, whom he had not known personally. It isn’t clear what made Derain accept that invitation. He could hardly have feared for his life: he had the guts to refuse to paint Ribbentrop’s children in the summer of 1940.
Were Vlaminck and his family in any danger? The occupation authorities had banned two of his books − Le Ventre and Désobéir. The sculptor Paul Belmondo, who was to be elected to the Academie de Beaux-Arts of France subsequently and is better known to us as the father of the famous film actor Jean-Paul Belmondo, joined the trip at the request of the 67-year-old sculptor Charles Despiau, who had asked his disciple to accompany him.
The participants in the trip had handed a list of artists and art school students, who had found themselves in Germany at the outbreak of the war and had been taken prisoner, to the director of the Academy of Fine Arts, demanding their release. To vindicate French art by showing that modern France could pride itself on classical art, in addition to “degenerate” art, was one of the motives of that trip. At that time André Derain was a bright representative of Neo-classicism: from the 1920s on he had renounced Fauvism and African art influence and stuck to the line of classicism and ancient art worship. Irrespective of personal reasons, the trip took place for the sake of boosting the prestige of French art, and among those who took part were André Derain, Кees van Dongen, Мaurice dе Vlaminck, Оthon Friesz and Аndré Dunoyer dе Sеgоnzаc.
The trip failed to bring the desired effect. The prisoners were not set free, the members of the trip were under strict control, and their inner discomfort was aggravated by bad weather and a persistent feeling of cold. Of course, they were glad to visit the best of the German museums – they were taken to Munich, Nuremberg, Dresden, Berlin and Dusseldorf, but a better time could have been chosen for that. The thought that they had agreed to that trip caused disappointment and bitterness. The trip lasted eight days and has been discussed now for eighty years.
The organizers of the trip, on the contrary, got what they wanted. The departure had been planned in detail. In addition to Wehrmacht officers who had come to see the voyagers off, the Gare de l’Est platform was full of reporters with cameras. Needless to say, their photographs flew around the world. Some members of the trip tried to hide their faces from the cameras, but the Nazi authorities did everything they could to make the event public.
After the liberation numerous “purge” committees were formed across the country. As there were fears that the military tribunals would concern themselves exclusively with war criminals and that other collaborationists would go unpunished, those committees were formed on occupational basis. Thus, artists judged artists. Picasso, who joined the Communist Party of France in October 1944, chaired the National Art Front Committee. Maurice de Vlaminck, Othon Friesz, André Derain, Paul Belmondo and others were censured severely. However, from 1946 to 1953 collaboration cases were re-heard and the accused exonerated.
For some reason the local Chambourcy “épuration legale” committee summoned André Derain to a court session, but he didn’t show up. As the French judiciary did not pronounce the committee activity illegal, Derain broke off all official relations with the authorities and, in particular, refused to sell his paintings to government.
When this material was just conceived, it was supposed to deal only with the visit of the leading French artists to Nazi Germany, their purposes and future consequences for the participants. I could have hardly imagined that this theme would take so much time and effort.
This is just another proof of the importance of the context and knowledge of concrete circumstances. Any seemingly insignificant fact or little-known name encountered in-between the lines opened up new horizons for the elaboration of the theme. Research snowballed into this immoderately long text, raising a lot of questions the answers to which are far from obvious.
Our ideological indoctrination in no way promotes univocal answers. Say, what standards are to be used when one fact in the life of an individual artist or another is being judged? Can the fact that a great artist or renowned cultural figure made one action or another serve as its justification? Can mistakes be justified and were they indeed mistakes? Could it be that we still don’t know many things?
We have consciously reproduced here works made by great artists when France was invaded by the Nazis. Of course, it is a matter of personal taste to pass judgment on the works of a concrete artist. But where is that fine line drawn permitting some more than others? Can one’s talent serve as a protection of sorts? Or is it a heavy burden? Are people ready to excuse men of genius? What is the value of the works created by the surviving artists after the war from the point of view of their contribution to world culture rather than moneywise? Do they count in absolving their creators?
Is compromise justified if it helps save at least one human life? Is compromise justified for the sake of the appearance of just another gem of world culture? What is admissible in a critical situation? And what line can on no account be crossed? Where is this borderline? And who are the judges?
Apparently, every person has to decide for himself what to do, and when. It is a matter of one’s conscience, inner culture, decency and responsibility. Time is the ultimate judge for all and everything.
Olivier Barrot, Raymond Chirat. La vie culturelle dans la France occupee. Decouvertes Gallimard Histoire, 2009
Laurence Bertrand Dorléac. Art of the Defeat. France 1940-1944. The Getty Research Institute publications program. Los Angeles. 2008
Jacques Lambert. Kisling, Prince de Montparnasse. Les Éditions de Paris, 2011.
Nadina Nieszawer “Peintres Juifs à Paris. 1905-1939. École de Paris”, Édition Denoël 2000
L’Essentiel. La collection Jonas Netter. Modigliani, Soutine et l’avanture de Montparnasse. Pinacotéque de Paris. 2012.