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Defense d'afficher : the wartime art of Jean Lurç̧at and Jean Dubuffet Cowan, Mary Jane

Abstract

Given the emphatic rupture with the past resulting from the invasion and occupation of France by Germany in 1940, the consequent censorship of any oppositional art or writing, the usurpation of the walls by Vichy and Nazi propaganda, and the defamiliarization of the social environment caused by dislocation and occupation, how and what could an artist -- one who wished to avoid cultural collaboration -- produce? This thesis examines the works of two artists who, however secretly, executed works which took up concerns of a public nature during the Occupation. These gestures toward the growing resistance in France between retreat and liberation participated in a conspiracy of culture that arose in the period. Without public exhibition, and including a coded means of communication, these works nevertheless embodied a concern for testimony, and an opposition to propaganda -- a refusal to submit to words and acts of order. What this thesis explores is the way in which Jean Lurçat, in the rural south (a 'free' zone until the end of 1942), and Jean Dubuffet, in occupied Paris, shared an obsession with the 'wall' as a public forum, thereby reclaiming that space that had been seized by the German and Vichy authorities. They also shared a preoccupation with language as a manifestation of la vie intérieure, the preservation of the realm of individual and social liberty. Yet Lurçat and Dubuffet differed, in part the result of their respective positions vis à vis Vichy or occupied Paris, in their artistic means, in their constructions of the 'primitive', and in the types of written language included in their works. Lurçat, who had participated in the 1930's in the debates surrounding the issue of public art -- mural art, or art with a more public face than easel painting -- had begun a revival of France's ancient art of tapestry. During the war, Lurçat continued to practise this art for the wall, despite the seizure of the spaces which would receive it. Moreover, with his giant mural tapestries of the wartime period (Le Poète of 1939, L'Hallali of 1940, L'Apollinaire, Es la verdad and Liberté of 1942, Le Ciel et la Terre from 1944), Lurçat discovered a means with which to confront both Nazi and Vichy ideology. His endeavour paralleled, in themes and imagery, the efforts of French contraband and militant poetry, and he included many of these poems in his tapestries. Dubuffet, in the 1940's, took up the 'wall' and public spaces as the subjects of his series: Vues de Paris, Un Voyage en métro -- les dessous de la capitale, Messages and Les Murs, executed between 1943 and 1945. These works flowed from a subterranean, resistant current alive in the public arena and on the walls of Paris -- the underside of the world upside-down which formed the Parisian daily experience. In both cases, these artists working during the Occupation cast in their lot with the 'outlaw': for Lurçat, the rural Maquisard; for Dubuffet, the urban guerrilla. As a result these images stood as the bearers of the spirit of opposition to the Vichy and Occupation regimes governing France, and combatted the Nazi 'barbarian'. Each artist reached out to a wider public in this period, one grown sensitive to coded forms of resistance. After all, at this time even the simple act of listening to the BBC was an act of defiance, and ordinary citizens were deemed outcasts from the pays réel. In sum, the thesis examines both Dubuffet's and Lurçat's attempts to stake an obstinate claim for the wall as a space for artistic production, and traces their pursuit of the right to use their own means of expression, to speak that which was forbidden. In doing so both articulated, in the years 1940-1945, the concerns of a more general culture of resistance, one which included not only their own milieus of intellectuals, but a more widespread underground movement. This network constituted, in fact, a society within a society, a power within established powers, struggling to aright the topsy-turvy situation of the Occupation.

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