Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA)

MANUEL BORJA-VILLEL AND SERGE GUILBAUT don’t want to set the world on fire, they just want to detonate a thermonuclear device in the heart of art history. Ostensibly trying to blow a hole in the more conservative habits of exhibiting institutions and scholarship on postwar art, the curators’ recent exhibition, “Be-Bomb: The Transatlantic War of Images and All That Jazz, 1946–1956,” at the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, gathered a politically charged collection of artworks, documents, and artifacts of popular culture from the decade following the Crossroads nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll in 1946. The show covered a lot of territory: It was about art and the Bomb, Franco-American cultural discourses during the cold war, the complex and changing relationship of modernism to popular culture in an age of accelerating consumerism, art and haute couture, art and Communism, art and jazz, even art and existentialism. Ultimately, it was about the decadelong funeral march of modernism after World War II that ended at the doorstep of what many call the neo-avant-garde.

Guilbaut’s catalogue essay is lengthy, erudite, and ambitious. Meant to be as explosive as the exhibition, its tone is also rousing, if sometimes gratuitously so. Within the initial paragraphs of what at times reads like a manifesto, Guilbaut raises the specter of Clement Greenberg and writes, “To decolonize the Western eye is one of the major goals of this exhibition. The idea is to let us finally wander around the immediate post-war culture without those formalist blinders.” Later, he says that this will break “the sanctity of the white cube and the straitjacket constructed by a powerful formalist or connoisseur tradition.” This rhetoric of confrontation with formalism seems a bit unnecessary. It isn’t as if “Be-Bomb” were the first large-scale exhibition ever to consider French or American art from the 1940s and ’50s beyond its formal aspects. The exhibition’s conceit of displaying works of art next to examples of popular culture and historical documents is not a novelty, either. (Wasn’t it just last spring that I reviewed—also for this magazine—a show of Op art in which films, vitrines of pamphlets, and mannequins wearing Op dresses were accompanied by a catalogue that attempted to explain the movement’s social context?) And plenty of recent scholarship about French and American art of this period has ventured beyond Greenbergian paradigms. Need we still empower Greenberg’s formalism by casting it as the dread menace against which art history must ever work?

But if the tone of the catalogue is occasionally shrill, its content, as well as that of the exhibition, is a gold mine for any scholar of postwar art. Indeed, the catalogue might best be described as a textbook, considering Guilbaut’s scholarly survey of the period and the dozens of important primary and secondary sources included in the volume. Particularly enlightening (and amusing) is a volley of articles from the early ’50s in which French and American critics each malign the opposing team’s modernism. In 1953, for example, George Besson told Parisians to save themselves the trouble of attending MoMA’s touring show of contemporary American art, warning that it was “a trap for simpletons.” A few months later, Art Digest published a symposium under the thoroughly unbiased title “Is the French Avant-Garde Overrated?” (A short version of Greenberg’s answer: Yeah, pretty much.) There were some defectors, of course. MichelTapié’s article “Jackson Pollock Is With Us,” first published in a 1952 catalogue, performs a breathtaking bit of critical self-deprecation. Tapié writes, “When it comes to sincere and profound experiments in non-figurative art, America will have benefited from an especially propitious climate . . . free from any cheap propositions made up of clichés and highly up to date plagiarisms that we, on the other hand, know only too well in our historico-traditional crab baskets.” Some critics did negotiate a middle position, however, in which each nationality’s modernism could be appreciated on its own terms. In 1952, Claude Bourdet praised the respective strengths of abstract art in France (steeped in tradition, but that’s OK) and the United States (young and naive, not that there’s anything wrong with that). All of this, of course, was shaped by the larger transatlantic dilemma of the cold war: To what extent, and at what cost, would the United States be allowed to colonize France economically and politically, as well as culturally?

The exhibition was similarly archival, with scores of journals, magazines, comics, exhibition pamphlets, manuscripts, and films on display. A 1947 copy of the important but short-lived journal Possibilities (where odd couples like John Cage and Robert Motherwell worked on the same editorial board before parting ways) lay a few feet away from notebook pages abraded with the snickering, self-mocking deep thoughts of Wols. Visitors could examine rarely seen drawings and watercolors by US servicemen depicting their experiences in France after the Liberation, and they could sit for hours and still not finish watching the dozens of short subjects, documentaries, and artist’s films that Borja-Villel and Guilbaut had dug up.

The risk of such an exhibition, of course, is that the artworks might be diminished by the larger historical project, especially when they are placed next to magazines and films crafted to vie for popular attention in the greater spectacle of consumer culture. However, the paintings were arranged in provocative ways. Rooms pitted French and American artists against each other, as viewers were invited to compare the ectoplasmic lines and shadings of Arshile Gorky and Henri Michaux or the impastoed surfaces of Jean Dubuffet and Jackson Pollock situated nearby. Some painters not usually given much airtime were brought out to breathe. Art historians concentrating on this period will likely be unfamiliar with underknown painters, such as Steve Wheeler, who was represented in the show by small, glossy paintings densely packed with motifs borrowed from Native American imagery (imagine Lari Pittman after a couple peyote buttons). Hans Hartung, who does not typically beckon more than a roll of the eyes, started to seem kind of interesting, particularly as the curators juxtaposed what looked like an action painting next to a meticulous preparatory drawing that tested signifiers of spontaneity, as Hartung had clearly planned out every mark, down to each feathery terminus of the horsehair brush. As with any explosion, though, this exhibition did cause some collateral damage: Viewers had to suffer through a lot of candy-colored canvases by Bram van Velde.

Most sections of the exhibition staged the material in some sort of art-historical or cultural conflict from the period. One room, for example, focused on the contested value of high fashion as a propaganda weapon for France in the ’40s. Photographs recorded the wildly successful exhibitions in which foot-high mannequins, dressed in French finery, paraded that country’s congenital taste and cultural supremacy before American and English audiences. A full-size mannequin included in “Be-Bomb,” padded and pinched into Christian Dior’s notorious Bar suit, allowed visitors to marvel at the impossible waistline of 1947’s New Look—a look so scandalous that bystanders at a photo shoot in Paris attempted to tear it from the models’ bodies. Americans, eager to pitch a rock through the glassy facade of French sophistication, thought the riot sufficiently amusing that Life magazine restaged and photographed it later that year. At MACBA, the image from Life hung around the corner from an English documentary titled New Look Underwear, 1948, which demonstrated (if only to pillory) the corset cinching and hip padding necessary to achieve that trademark wasp waist.

Other rooms examined the ethical and formal crises of the School of Paris that began during the war. Making an early appearance was a 1942 portrait of a comfy chair by Henri Matisse—that artist who famously hoped his work would be like an armchair to the tired businessman. Sure, Matisse made the whole thing a little edgy by rendering it in gray and dirty yellow and, of course, by balancing a clutch of spherical fruits like gonads on its seat, but one still has to wonder how an artist confronted with the end of civilization decides to spend his time riffing on naughty jokes told earlier by Gauguin and van Gogh. Contrasted with Matisse was Picasso, whose dark and anguished still lifes from the ’40s (we see a skull lying like a lump against a crude pitcher) register the tenor of the times a bit more appropriately.

Even in the optimism after the Liberation, things looked grim for France’s artistic future. On view was L’Art retrouvé, a French documentary from 1945 that tried to renew confidence in Paris’s artistic supremacy. We see crates of artworks forklifted out of secret wartime warehouses. We see shots of masterpieces hanging proud and unmolested in the Louvre. And then we see footage of a grizzled Georges Braques relying on his walking stick and clasping at his lumbar region for support as he patrols the grounds of his bucolic retreat. Shortly thereafter, we see a seated Matisse bossing around his assistant, the artist’s shoulders wrapped in a shawl like a granny’s. It is on these stooped and liver-spotted shoulders that the future of modernism rested? One can see why L’Art renaît wasn’t chosen as the title.

Again, Picasso appears as an early counterpoint to modernism’s dotage, particularly as the curators attempted to re-create, in miniature, a portion of the Salon d’ Automne, or Liberation Salon, of 1944, in which Picasso was able to exhibit after suffering four years of Nazi-enforced obscurity. Also re-created was the debate among artists, Picasso included, over the aesthetic terms in which Communism would make its appearance in France. Which would prevail: the stout and humorless women of André Fougeron’s Les Parisiennes au marché, 1948, or the bold stripes and wedge forms of Jean Dewasne’s abstract (and oh-so-shiny) mural Apothéose de Marat, 1951?

The latter canvas was part of a remarkable postwar movement, charted in the show, among politically progressive painters to claim Jacques-Louis David as the muse of Communist artists, particularly on the bicentennial of his birth, in 1946. The curators hung David’s small Neoclassical drawing of two women giving bread to the rhapsode Homer (presumably chosen because it exemplifies David’s liberal ethos of social responsibility) next to French paintings from the postwar period that allude to the revolutionary painter. The David of numerous portraits of Napoleon was clearly repressed here in order for the most radical aspects of this progressive patrimony to be established (no one seemed to be painting equestrian portraits of Stalin making his way across the Saint Bernard Pass). Rather, David’s Marat seems to have been the most politically useful emblem. Then again, Fernand Léger managed an anodyne Marat picture that would have made even the Directory happy: His 1948–49 Les Loisirs—Hommage à Louis David (Leisure—Homage to Louis David) features a contented intergenerational and interracial grouping of people lounging on the sand. Doves fly in a brilliant blue sky. Cactus flowers blossom. A girl in orange swimwear (apparently, socialism will make the world more like the Mediterranean) reclines on the sandy ground in a posture similar to that of the dead Marat, though the letter in her hand replaces Charlotte Corday’s duplicitous missive with a salutary “Hommage à Louis David.”

Appropriately, at the epicenter of the exhibition was the bomb itself, which appeared by way of a smorgasbord of mushroom-cloud paraphernalia. Vitrines were packed with atomic imagery ranging from the ridiculous (a photograph of Crossroads chief Admiral Blandy and his wife cutting, like newlyweds, into a cake shaped like a nuclear explosion) to the inscrutable (Ralston Crawford’s abstract interpretations of atomic explosions for a special issue of Fortune magazine dedicated to the bomb in 1945). As much as one was tempted, however, it was hard to smile at these quaint examples, given that they lay next to a wall-size projection of Bruce Conner’s 1976 film Crossroads. A serial presentation of nuclear explosions from the Bikini tests, the film is a bit like the end credits of Dr. Strangelove, though without the ironic sound track. Indeed, the background music of the thirty-six-minute film occasionally shifts into dissonance, and then, jarringly, there is the unexpected concussion of the blast itself. Conner’s film was the only work (other than the David drawing) to venture far beyond the temporal frame of the exhibition, but the exception was well warranted. In escaping the “duck and cover” clichés of the early cold war, it demonstrated the magnitude of what was and is at stake. Conner’s sequencing of mushroom clouds takes the concern with time and the event so common to ’70s video and returns to it the disruptive content of Warhol’s “Death and Disaster” series. The serial presentation of explosions forces one to contemplate the cultural implications of repetition within such a context: An entire era of political interaction, of course, was defined by the threat and delay of further repetition. The cycles of anticipation and explosion in Conner’s film dramatize the dynamic of the cold war itself.

Catastrophe lurked in more remote corners of the exhibition, too, even in the room dedicated to the reception of jazz music in France. Shinkichi Tajiri’s short artist’s film The Vipers, 1955, like a lot of Beat material, equates jazz with reefer and the collapse of civilization. Even the title—a common slang term from the period that refers to a pot-smoking hipster—connects marijuana to a lethal reptile. It’s a bit like a music video in that it dramatizes a cacophonous number by the Stan Kenton band—a group about which critic Barry Ulanov complained in 1948, “Kids are going haywire over the sheer noise of this band. There is a danger of an entire generation growing up with the idea that jazz and the atom bomb are essentially the same natural phenomenon.” The film features shots of Tajiri passing a joint among fellow Americans in Paris. Following the crescendos of the music, it pictures the subsequent dreamlike meditations of stoners in their fitful reverie. Visions of a swaying woman dance in their heads, as do a stream of cigarettes and, ultimately, a city consumed by fireworks. Other jazz documents were less apocalyptic, more sexy. An entire wall featured photographs by several artists that caught French women as they gazed upon, snuggled up to, and otherwise expressed an unwholesome attachment to the horns played by Miles Davis and Sidney Bechet.

As with any exhibition, no matter how comprehensive, there were a few marked absences. Oddly, there was hardly any sculpture in the show (how did David Smith fly below the radar?). Given that Richard Pousette-Dart was the only Abstract Expressionist to make explicit reference to the atomic (as in Comprehension of the Atom, Crucifixion, 1944), it would have been interesting to see his work in this context as well (though, admittedly, that would have been almost impossible given the nearly concurrent exhibition of Pousette-Dart at the Guggenheim Museum in New York). And the transatlantic emphasis of the show would have been well served by some examples of George Mathieu’s wackier painting- performances. Though this exhibition cast Mathieu as an ambassador of action painting who, with Tapié, helped introduce the work of Pollock to the French artistic community, Mathieu’s patriotic, old-world paintings, such as the 1955 Bataille de Bouvines, tell a different story. For the benefit of Art News—the American magazine that provided the dominant critical voice for Abstract Expressionism in the ’50s—Mathieu dressed like a medieval knight (or so he described his outfit; in reality, his costume consisted of a few rags tied around his legs and what looked like an aviator’s cap) to paint a victory of the French monarchy. Claiming he had an ancestor who had fought in the Battle of Bouvines in 1214, Mathieu assumed his predecessor’s role and reenacted each stage of the battle (the capturing of standards, the siege of hills) with thrusts and parries of his long brushes. The finished canvas was mammoth, and it was delivered to the Salon de Mai on a horse-drawn cart; the artist later posed in front of it with a candelabra.

This was not the behavior of a painter deferring to American-style action painting; this was a French artist attempting to reclaim cultural supremacy from the Americans. His gesture was supposed to be one of noblesse, an inborn aristocracy to which the Americans (whose land had not even been discovered at the time of the Bouvines battle) could hardly lay claim. His performance seems like self-parody, perhaps the only manner in which the masquerade and gleeful superficiality linked to the aristocracy could appear in the postwar era. Or perhaps it was a way of deflating his performance just enough that the Americans would still watch. However, even though “Be-Bomb” did not include such works, the show and the catalogue did a superb job of charting out the historical context that made them possible. They laid out, in vivid terms, the artistic and cultural terrain on which an artist like Mathieu could see the US as both ally and rival—and how an artist at that time might have felt compelled to render the threat of war and destruction, if only to repress its catastrophic effects through spectacle and historical displacement.

Sarah K. Rich is an associate professor of art history at Pennsylvania State University.