Repartir à zéro

Musee des Beaux-Arts de Lyon

IN A DARKENED AND CONFINING antechamber at Lyon’s Musée des Beaux-Arts, two videos set the tone for what was to come: On a screen to the left, a mushroom cloud silently unfurled over Nagasaki; on the right played an excerpt from Roberto Rossellini’s Germania anno zero (1948) in which a blond boy wanders in Berlin’s postwar rubble, picking up a piece of debris, distractedly pointing it like a pistol at his own head, and then throwing it like a grenade into the window of a neighboring ruin. Both clips ran as short loops (just a few minutes each) and without sound, producing a hypnotic repetitiveness reminiscent of a traumatic symptom, a memory that digs in and curls itself around the psyche. Such was the unrelenting desolation by which and against which art would recount the story of its own beginning, according to the exhibition “Repartir à zéro, comme si la peinture n’avait jamais existé.” Amassing a substantial collection of objects produced from 1945 to 1949, many from private collections and university museums, curators Eric de Chassey and Sylvie Ramond explored the ways in which European and American artists addressed the historical crisis that followed World War II by, in Barnett Newman’s words, “starting from scratch, as if painting had never existed before” (hence the show’s subtitle). For de Chassey and Ramond, painting was most representative of this critical moment, though the show also included a smattering of sculpture and photo-based works.

Starting from scratch was modernism’s favorite (end) game, of course. Throughout its history, modernism developed a vast arsenal of strategies whereby it repeatedly claimed to break from the past, or, in a reciprocal impulse, repeatedly claimed to have reached the end of history. But if this exhibit hardly documented an unprecedented phenomenon in the history of art, it did chart with great diligence the particulars of a moment in which modernism’s longing for a new start was especially palpable and urgent.

The exhibition was packed with splendid works by titans of the postwar period such as Lucio Fontana, Asger Jorn, Mark Rothko, and Pierre Soulages as well as by less familiar artists from Eastern Europe, particularly Czechoslovakia and Poland. Attempting to herd this mass of unruly art objects into an intellectual framework, the curators divided the exhibition into seven zones, each of which exemplified a mode by which a “return to zero” was attempted. These modes were: “witnessing” (returning the art object to degree zero as a means of registering specific atrocities of war); “experimenting” (fighting against the censorship and repressions of fascism by venturing into new media and techniques, as, say, artist Willi Baumeister did with a kind of pictorial code); “babbling” (the most sprawling and heterogeneous section, featuring Jean Dubuffet’s attempted regressions into the “uncivilized” or the infantile as well as various shades of primitivism pursued by Cobra and Abstract Expressionism, along with weirder and less readily classifiable works by artists such as Peter Busa and Charles Seliger); “tracing” (a gamut of investigations through which artists such as Hans Hartung tested connections between mark making and artistic agency); “filling/emptying” (with artists like Clyfford Still, his evocations of primordial fecundity conveyed via canvases slathered with painterly ooze, representing the “fullness” side of this binary, while Fontana, Newman, and Soulages—somewhat unconvincingly, in my opinion—represented “emptiness”); and “saturating” (which comprised painterly, abstract photography). The logic governing the application of each theme was, at times, elusive. I doubt Newman would have been pleased to discover that his work had become an example of “the empty.” And it often seemed that the aforementioned terms were better suited for describing the overlapping circles of a Venn diagram than for schematizing a roster of equal and discrete artistic strategies, since many artists surely belonged at the intersection of multiple categories, and the circle labeled “experimenting” really could have circumscribed the whole show.

And yet such categories no doubt stemmed from an admirable desire to break from the tedium of monographic arrangements (which yield few surprises), as well as from the need to avoid repeating the cultural and political categories (such as “Communist-friendly art” or “jazz-friendly art”) by which objects were arranged in a recent and at least superficially similar show: Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona’s mammoth “Be-Bomb” exhibition of postwar objects last winter. And sometimes the “zone” arrangement was merciful to the underdogs: Had the curators grouped works according to, say, artistic movement, an Abstract Expressionist room might have stolen all the attention from a Group Ra alcove.

The portion of the exhibition devoted to the project of “witnessing” was the most affecting and politically legible. Opposite several works from Jean Fautrier’s gruesome occupation-era “Hostages” series—agglomerations of painterly pulp frosted with ashy dust—were Olivier Debré’s aluminum-on-paper responses to the Holocaust. Both artists rendered the body as one might render fat—as a greasy accumulation, a lump from which identifying particulars have been melted away. The composition of Debré’s Mort de Dachau (Dead of Dachau), 1945, does not, however, “start from scratch” in quite the same way as does Fautrier’s Fusillé-otage (Shot Hostage), 1943, and here the thematic installation facilitated some useful comparisons: Unlike Le Fusillé-otage, in which the central motif persists as a free-floating smear, Debré’s painting comforts the viewer with a palpable gravity, as the two lowest points of the swollen squiggle rest upon a shared invisible baseline, and a seam along the bottom edge of the paper stabilizes the visual field by giving it a ground on which to rest. And even as Debré attempted to convey the degradation of the body, his canvases also hint at something like a eulogy. His metallic paintings won’t let us decide if the body is now a mere contraction of industrial ash, or if some essential portion of the body has transcended this condition to become a new organism in shimmering silver.

This section might have become a monument to the informe were it not for the important contribution of Władysław Strzemiński’s series of collages titled “To My Friends the Jews.” The works are dated 1945, but they summarize five years of persecution in Eastern Europe. On each small sheet of yellowed paper Strzemiński affixed a single photograph documenting a moment from the Holocaust: In one, a man’s haggard face emerges from a pile of rubble, as a soldier casts a blasé look back at the camera; another shows a heap of dead children. Intersecting with these photographs are delicate, barely legible silhouettes in gouache of faces, hands, and bodies. Strzemiński began composing the original drawings as a response to the deadly mass deportations from eastern Poland after the Nazi invasion, and he recycled these drawings by tracing them into his collages of 1945. At times the original drawings seem to have uncannily anticipated the elongated curves of tortured bodies pictured in the photographs of subsequent years. Did the drawings serve a Cassandra function for Strzemiński, a dark foreshadowing, recognized too late, of even greater massacres to come? Or perhaps the comparison was more epistemological than temporal; in bringing drawing and photography together on such intimate and minimal terms, the collages seem to ponder two systems of representation whose union here is based entirely on their shared incapacity to comprehend death on such a scale.

Painting the insufficiency of painting was a major concern of works in this show. While some canvases, such as Pollock’s expertly rugged Number 26 A, 1948: Black and White, seem to brim with ballsy confidence that painting can indeed regain primal authenticity, other works, like Wols’s slapstick horror shows, smirk about the inevitable failure of such a project. Bram van Velde sought a middle route—his rainy-day pastels and oversize, primitivist archetypes seemed especially citational, as if the painter were (as T. J. Clark has said of Cubism) producing a modernism in the subjunctive mode, to suggest what a primal painting might look like were the medium able to return to that point.

The exhibition did not deliver a verdict about which of the above approaches was wisest artistically or politically, and did not for the most part attend to the pitfalls of “degree zero” logic. And the pitfalls are legion. The desire to wipe the cultural slate clean can, after all, express itself through the very horrors that much art of this period had hoped to counteract. It was such a desire that fueled the Holocaust. And what reduces a site to a tabula rasa more effectively than the purifying force of a bomb? The yearning to return to Day One of history must, paradoxically, be articulated in conversation with the lessons of history, or it becomes mere irresponsibility, complacency, or, in its mobilized state, fascism.

Indeed, “starting from scratch” can become a sort of alibi, providing one with an expedient means of ignoring the past. For Jean Dubuffet, for example, whose Vénus du trottoir, 1946, appears in the “babbling” section, the war had actually been a financial windfall, allowing him to run a lucrative wine business on the black market. The end of the war was a bit more problematic, however: During the épuration Dubuffet narrowly escaped persecution for his illicit business activities. In light of such developments, one must note the convenience of his call to infantile smearing, the freedom from accountability that his cherished outsider art could provide. It is indeed hard to resist the allure of the reset button when the game you’re playing has become a losing one.

Sarah K. Rich is an associate professor of art history at Penn State University, University Park.