Chapter 13: Postwar Art in Europe (1940s)

General de Gaulle and his entourage proudly stroll down the Champs Elysees to Notre Dame Cathedral for a service of thanksgiving following the city’s liberation in August 1944. Image source: Wikipedia

The atmosphere in Paris after the close of World War II was grim.  Wartime depravations, the human cost of battle, and the humiliation of four long years of German occupation were enough to cause feelings of despair.  But the war’s end also brought revelations of atrocities that were staggering in their enormity:

“Freedom . . . for Paris came with the liberation of the city in August 1944, after four years of German occupation, but the peace was not easy.  As the occupying forces retreated, in their wake came revelations of Nazi atrocities and of the full horror of the concentration camps — first in the press following the Russian troops’ arrival at Auschwitz in January 1945, and then on the return of deportees in May.  And with the unravelling of clandestine networks of Resistance came accusations of collaboration, and retribution, both official and unofficial.  Then in August 1945 the atomic explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which brought an end to the global war, introduced a devastating new dimension both for the individual and for world politics.  As Simone de Beauvoir commented:  ‘the war was over; it remained on our hands like a great, unwanted corpse, and there was no place on earth to bury it.'”
Francis Morris, “Introduction,” Paris Post War:  Art and Existentialism 1945-55, Tate Gallery, 1993, p. 15

H. Miller, Buchenwald Concentration Camp, April 16, 1945
Life Magazine

Disillusionment and despair caused many to lose faith in the beliefs that had previously sustained them:  the belief in human goodness, and that human agency, harnessed to collective action, could produce a better and more just world.  With little left to hope for, and still less to believe in, many individuals turned to the Existentialist philosophy of Jean Paul Sartre, who proclaimed that there is no god, no “intelligent design,” and no external purpose or meaning to life.  Instead, Man’s purpose in life must be self-determined:  each individual must struggle to make meaning or purpose. According to Sartre, existence precedes essence:  “We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world and defines himself afterwards.”

Human, All Too Human (BBC) – Jean Paul Sartre:  Part 1

New Images of Man
Sartre’s philosophy is reflected in the work of several artists working in Europe in the immediate aftermath of the war — including Alberto Giacometti, Jean Dubuffet, and Francis Bacon.  All three of these artists were included in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1959 titled “New Images of Man.” The exhibition documented a new direction in European art that decisively turned its back on the values of the Humanist tradtion:

The revelations and complexities of mid-twentieth century life have called forth a profound feeling of solitude and anxiety.  The imagery of man which has evolved from this reveals sometimes a new dignity, sometimes despair, but always the uniqueness of man as he confronts his fate.  Like Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Camus, these artists are aware of anguish and dread, of life in which man – precarious and vulnerable – confronts the precipice, is aware of dying as well as living.”
Peter Selz, “Introduction,” New Images of Man, Museum of Modern Art, 1958


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