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Steven Harris (University of Alberta, Canada)
The Gaulish and the Feudal as Lieux de mémoire in Postwar French Abstraction

If, in postwar Paris, it was generally agreed that gestural abstract painting was an art of the sign and a form of writing that had turned away from the _expression of particular meanings, there was nevertheless a struggle over its direction and orientation, which is found in the art criticism of the period. Although there were more than two sides to this debate, this paper will focus on two of them: the first is identified with the art critic Charles Estienne, who in a strategic alliance with the postwar surrealist group advocated a spiritual dimension to gestural painting, linked to the notion of an automatic exploration of unconscious thought; and the second with the art critic Michel Tapié, who in association with the painter Georges Mathieu advocated a more Nietzschean understanding of gestural painting as an art of sovereign individuals who had moved beyond the formal preoccupations and conceptual limitations of modern art and culture.

In each case, there was a critique of the classical underpinnings of French culture, which was related to the unraveling of determinate form in gestural abstraction. However, there were also important political and cultural differences between the two interpretations, which are revealed in the way they associated gestural painting with different moments in ‘French’ cultural history. In 1955, Estienne and André Breton organized an exhibition in Paris called Pérennité de l’art gaulois, in which surrealist and abstract painting were brought together with Gaulish coins from the period before the Roman conquest. In this way, a long counter-classical tradition, in which surrealism and contemporary gestural abstraction were included, was posed against the Roman imperium and classical values. In 1957, Mathieu and the former surrealist painter Simon Hantaï organized an exhibition and series of ceremonies entitled Les Cérémonies commémoratives de la deuxième condemnation de Siger de Brabant, which celebrated both the condemnation for heresy of the thirteenth-century Aristotelian scholar Siger de Brabant by the Catholic Church, and the thought and activities of certain contemporary individuals like Charles Maurras and Marcel Duchamp, who in the view of Mathieu and Hantaï represented an ideal of aristocratic sovereignty in an age of bourgeois individualism. Siger’s revival of Aristotelian thought preceded the turn to the classical that served as the foundation of the modern nation-state and the Enlightenment project, and Mathieu and Hantaï oppose this history with an _expression of faith, orthodoxy and authority, and in more general terms with a synthesis of feudal and postmodern values (as these latter are represented by contemporary gestural painting). My interest is not in the political choices or interpretations made by these opponents alone, but in the lieux de mémoire with which they chose to identify their cultural and political choices, and what these might mean in relation to contemporary constructions of French national identity.

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