Review of: Laurence Bertrand Dorléac, L'Art de la defaite (Paris: Seuil, 1993), 482 pp.
Reviewed by: Arthur Goldhammer
It would be pleasant to think that when the dogs of war are let loose, the nightingales and peacocks flee for cover. But the relation between art and war is far from simple. Laurence Bertrand Dorléac here turns her considerable skills as a historian of both art and the Occupation to the question of art—French art and to a lesser extent German art—in World War II. The result is a work rich in savory and unsavory details, a tale of evils great and small relieved by occasional acts of heroism, and a powerful searchlight turned on some previously obscure pages in the history of les années noires. It is also a pioneering effort: much of the material is freshly dug up, and there is too much of it to be comfortably accommodated in a conceptual structure of necessity rather hastily erected and perhaps a bit rudimentary. The collection is nevertheless extraordinarily impressive: ça vaut le détour.
Although the book's title is L'Art de la défaite, its subject is not so much art as policies toward art and artists and the behavior of people associated with the arts under the German Occupation. Bertrand Dorléac begins with the Germans and ends with the Resistance, with Marshal Pétain and Vichy occupying central chapters.
The Nazis, of course, loved art with their characteristic all-consuming passion. How could it have been otherwise? All good (that is, non-degenerate) art confirmed the superiority of the Aryan spirit. Hitler's sprawling, torch-lit mises en scènes turned the chaotic masses into luminous symbols of organic national and racial unity. Europe itself was a canvas painted by History, and Clio was an artist of such transcendent perfection that she could permit herself the occasional pentimento: with an eye for symmetry, Hitler chose to end hostilities with France at the same clearing in the woods at Rethondes where the Germans had surrendered in 1918. This choice allowed him to have witnesses record the "expresssion of utter contempt" with which he looked upon the monument commemorating the defeat of "the criminal pride of the German Empire," an inscription that would be effaced on his orders three days later. And three days after that, on the morning of June 28, from first light until 9 A.M., Hitler realized "the dream of a lifetime": to visit Paris, that much-admired if soon-to-be-surpassed capital of the arts, in the company of other, hand-picked artists (the sculptor Breker, the architects Speer and Giesler), for the Führer always regarded the artist as the supreme expression of the race and persisted, despite his rejection by the Viennese Academy of Fine Arts for his "inadequate draftsmanship," in thinking of himself as an artist.
Speer was to duplicate, magnified two-fold, the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Elysées in Berlin, and the Palais Garnier, that castle of kitsch of which Hitler knew from his studies every nook and cranny, was in danger of spawning offspring all across Germany. But the Germans did not stop at reproducing the art they admired; they also appropriated it, by the trainload, much of it confiscated from Jewish collectors and dealers. Some 11,000 paintings and more than 20,000 art objects of all kinds passed from France to Germany. Bertrand Dorléac, always keen for ironies of the situation, notes that these figures tell only part of the story. Much of the confiscated art being deemed "decadent" by Nazi standards, countless works were sold to dealers in exchange for more acceptable ones. Dealers who bought decadent art at a time when the Thousand-Year Reich seemed secure in Fortress Europe were thus betting on the future—a modest act of resistance for which a few of them would be handsomely rewarded when the war ended. Once, Goering, who was not above slipping an occasional decadent work by Degas, Seurat, Braque, or Matisse into his private collection—to say nothing of several works by the despised Jew Pissarro—even defied Hitler's orders by having a trainload of Impressionists shipped through Germany to be exchanged abroad for nondecadent works. Other entartete Kunst fell victim to the final solution, however: works by Masson, Miró, Picabia, Valadon, Klee, Max Ernst, Léger, Picasso, and others were consigned to the flames outside the Tuileries.
All this took place at a time when official German policy was to behave "correctly" toward the conquered French in order to secure their docility. The Nazis justified the plunder of French collections on two grounds. In the first place, the victims were mainly Jews, not of the "French race," and it was only natural for Germany to receive "a small indemnity for the Reich's readiness to bear heavy burdens and make great sacrifices in the battle against Jewry." Furthermore, the Reich had been kind enough to put up for auction those confiscated works it did not want for itself, the proceeds of the sale being intended for French war widows and orphans. There were, nevertheless, protests from within the French bureaucracy: "Les Français, eux, rechignaient, tergiversaient, gagnaient du temps, pas toujours suivis par leurs chefs." It was not always clear, however, whether the protests were meant to restore the confiscated works to their owners or to retain them in France for the glorification of the French rather than the German state. We thus encounter a theme that is the leitmotif of Bertrand Dorléac's book: across the French political spectrum, from l'Etat Français to the underground resistance, the French defense against German cultural encroachments was to raise the banner of French nationalism. That such a situation should obtain in wartime is hardly surprising; the irony is that, invoked in the cultural realm, it invariably tended to reinforce the Nazi claim—a claim shared of course with Maurrassians and others—that art is above all else the embodiment of a national spirit. Bertrand Dorléac is at her best in exposing the paradoxes that this situation created in abundance.
She also writes with a marvelously acidulous pen when it comes to denouncing the champions of la collaboration dure and of what she calls l'ultracisme. Of Abel Bonnard, Laval's minister of national education, for example, she draws this sharply etched portrait: "Tête majeure de la collaboration intellectuelle, ce causeur de salon ... maniait le verbe en académicien emphatique. ... Considéré comme le pionnier le plus efficace d'une collaboration germano-français par les Allemands, il restait pourtant, par son âge, attaché aux valeurs de la terre et se distinguait ainsi des fascistes français plus jeunes et plus prompts à enterrer la France rurale. Son vieux fonds maurrassien le rapprochait-il pour autant du Maréchal? Ce dernier était en tout cas opposé à sa candidature au poste du ministre de l'Education nationale, ne fût-ce qu'en raison de la préciosité féminine qu'il affectait." But Laval was in charge now, not the hero of Verdun who so disliked Bonnard's mincing ways, and the Germans were no longer satisfied to stop with the expropriation of Jews: they wanted, among other things, the Basel Altarpiece that Emperor Henry II had presented to the Basel Cathedral early in the eleventh century, now in the Musée de Cluny. Bonnard was impressed by Goering's arguments when he met with the Reichsmarschall at the end of 1943: the Germans were careful of the art they confiscated, unlike the British and Americans, who pillaged recklessly, besides which, Bonnard reported, the work was eminently German in character. He therefore recommended that France give the work to Germany and expressed surprise at the tone of ultimatum in Goering's pronouncements. Museum conservators were nonetheless opposed. Goering then slily proposed exchanging French prisoners for the altarpiece. The case neatly encapsulates many of the ambiguities of Franco-German relations: the Germans were the masters, but generally cautious; the bureaucracy was often shrewd and resourceful in finding ways to resist German pressures; that resourcefulness was at times undercut by leading government figures, only too eager to please and only too glad, for ideological reasons, to sacrifice what limited freedom they had.
Bertrand Dorléac has an excellent chapter on the contamination of art criticism by the rhetoric of nation and race, by the condemnation and incrimination of "presque tous les 'autres.'" Her survey includes not only the "usual suspects" such as the vividly rabid Lucien Rebatet and his prewar traveling companion Georges Hilaire, who judged "la peinture juive, comme tous les arts juifs ... parasite," but also academics of more moderate stripe, the kind who could denounce the "cosmopolitanism" of the Ecole de Paris by noting that "la presque totalité était des peintres ou des sculpteurs étrangers ou sémites, tous n'étaient pas sans talent ... [mais] ils n'éprouvaient ... [ils] n'écrivaient pas [en Francais]. ... En sorte que l'étrangeté de leurs réactions contribuait au désarroi des pensées." One is reminded of Paul de Man's now notorious articles published in the Belgian Le Soir at around the same time. As early as 1929, Louis Hautecoeur, who became head of the Beaux-Arts under Pétain and served until 1944, when he was replaced by Hilaire, had denounced the stifling effect on living art of the presence in France of foreign artists and critics using "un jargon qui [semblait] traduit d'idiomes slaves ou germaniques."
There is also a lively chapter on the ways in which art was put to the service of Franco-German diplomacy: the notorious November 1941 German junket of a select group of French artists and painters (some of whom may have believed their cooperation would lead to the release of French prisoners of war); the exhibition of Arno Breker's sculpture in Paris; and the Franco-fascist cooptation of Aristide Maillol. Of Breker's colossi Bertrand Dorléac writes: "c'était bien plus qu'une oeuvre grandiloquente mimant l'Antiquité gréco-romaine, c'étaient les fantasmes nazis à Paris, le fameux surhomme glacial et sa compagne aseptisée, le monde des hommes arraché enfin à son humanité." If the cream of the collaborationist cultural elite turned out to pay homage, reasons other than aesthetic delectation and/or adherence to fascist ideology motivated some of the guests: Maillol, whom Breker admired, was in the German sculptor's debt for having arranged the release of his Jewish résistante model Diana Vierny; Cocteau, whose théâtre inverti was under attack by Rebatet in the pages of Je Suis Partout, no doubt valued the protection his old friend Breker offered, extending even to a direct telephone line to Berlin. If any of the attendees felt discomfort at being used by the Germans, they confined their protest to the formulation of des sarcasmes bien parisiens: Sacha Guitry, for instance, remarked to Cocteau that if Breker's gigantic heroes "entraient en érection, on ne pourrait plus circuler," a remark that has earned a place among off-color boutades second only to Napoleon's "de la merde en bas de soie." Of course Laval, in the formal address he gave at the Breker opening, defended French honor à sa manière by insisting on the indebtedness of German art to France. This was a critical sword that cut two ways, however: Karl Epting, the director of the German Institute, praised Maillol for a "sensuality" that was not French but "Mediterranean" and "pagan" if not almost—the crescendo is virtually audible—"German."
Vichy, Bertrand Dorléac contends, had "no official aesthetic program" but did have a "style." The purpose of that style was to maintain the distinctiveness of the French nation within the New European Order, and to that end the principal means employed were realism, symbolism, and folklore. Pre-eminent among the symbols of Vichy were of course icons of Marshal Pétain himself, the man who had made a "gift" of himself to France, whose artists now labored to make him the embodiment—at once martyr and savior—of his "race." Bertrand Dorléac recounts in fascinating detail how this was done. Republican imagery was supplanted by the personalized iconography of Marshalism: Marianne disappeared from mairies and préfectures, to be replaced by portraits of the Marshal festooned with emblems such as the francisque, the double-headed Frankish axe that symbolized the Germanic warrior component of French nationhood. Old propaganda devices such as the eighteenth-century images d'Epinal were mobilized in service of l'Etat Français. Billions of stamps bore Pétain's paternal visage. Citizens were rewarded for services to the state with memorabilia of the Marshal. Coloring books featuring the stages of Pétain's career were distributed to schoolchildren.
Meanwhile, in keeping with the principles of La Révolution Nationale, the arts and crafts were organized along corporatist lines. Ideologues envisioned a role for art in the regeneration of a nation whose degeneracy had led to defeat and humiliation: "'L'art pour tous' ne devait pas être un amusement mais un outil de rénovation des esprits relâchés." For Abel Bonnard, the arts were to provide a rich repast for the soul, "le repas de nectar et d'ambroisie qui réconforte les hommes," in compensation of sorts for the shortage of food for the body. The rallying cry of "l'art pour tous," traditionally raised on the left, now emanated from the right. Jean Bazaine, a follower of Emmanuel Mounier and his philosophy of personnalisme as well as a painter who had decorated youth hostels for the Popular Front in the '30s, became a leader of the Jeune France movement, an instrument of Vichy's youth policy (until it was banned in 1942). A leading promoter of "la francité artistique," Bazaine was joined by many artists who resisted the Nazi aesthetic by proposing a national aesthetic of their own devising.
Curiously, this national theme became the bridge that allowed those, like Bazaine, who had found support for their cause in Vichy to rejoin those who viewed l'Etat Français as a betrayal of la France éternelle. Thus Pierre-Henri Teitgen, a Gaullist who became minister of justice in 1946, faulted collaborators not for their support of fascism or Nazism but for their betrayal of the "French soul," the fruit "de ce long héritage d'humanisme chrétien, de cette croyance que nous avons tous en un droit naturel .... cette vocation française ... faite des qualités fondamentales des hommes de toutes les couleurs, de toutes les races, de toutes les nations et de toutes les croyances, de tous les territoires et de tous les horizons. Elle est faite cette vocation, de ce sens de l'universel." The leap from "Christian humanism" to the "universal" is effortless, and Teitgen in 1946 could invoke such terms untroubled by memories of the recent but repressed exclusion, internment, and deportation of hommes of certain condemned couleurs, races, nations, et croyances. Bertrand Dorléac is firm in her judgment of this period of épuration: "Elle servait moins de réparation véritable envers les vraies victimes ... que d'exorcisme pour tous ceux qui, la plupart du temps, s'étaient contentés de déplorer tout en demeurant attentistes." She is also wise in her observation that art did not truly regain its health until it had recovered its insolence: "La démocratie libérait les forces insurrectionnelles d'artistes acharnés à conjurer cinq années sombres et couleur de terre."
I cannot end this review without mentioning a competing work, Michèle Cone's Artists Under Vichy: A Case of Prejudice and Persecution (Princeton, 1992), which was reviewed in these pages by Daniel Sherman (FPS, vol. 10, no. 3, pp. 124-127). Cone has harsh things to say about Bertrand Dorléac's previous book on this period, and Bertrand Dorléac has equally harsh words for Cone, whose book she finds "truffé de contresens et d'inexactitudes." L'Art de la défaite is clearly the superior book: more comprehensive, more secure in its understanding of the political complexities of the time, more firmly grounded in archival sources. It assumes, however, thorough familiarity with the military and political context. Artists Under Vichy is more accessible to the reader not yet familiar with the period, but anyone seriously interested in the subject will want to read Bertrand Dorléac as well to correct certain misimpressions and anachronistic readings offered by Cone, who overstates the importance of a Rebatet and unduly neglects the propagandistic "low art" on which the present work is so informative. Subsequent writers on wartime culture will certainly wish to give greater weight to the longue durée than either Bertrand Dorléac or Cone is able to do. Bertrand Dorléac's remarkable book will go a long way toward making that next step possible.