2012 EAMS: Paint, Pavilions, Performance, Poems and Posters: (Inter)Mediality and Postwar Modernism

This session examines the ways that materials produce meaning in the diverse field of postwar modernist arts production in Europe. Its particular focus is the negotiations between individual and collective artistic practitioners, their materials and techniques, and the foundation processes of European postwar reconstruction in the 1950s and 1960s: the aftermath and repression of World War II; technological modernization; the construction of pan-European or transnational styles in the arts amid the postwar constitution of national identities (with France the central case- study) and a nascent notion of ‘Europe’; decolonization; and political mobilization in and around 1968.

We consider how these issues became legible as material and immaterial aesthetic phenomena. Our particular interest is in the slippages and elisions between domains, whether the realm of aesthetics, philosophy, politics or the fabric of life in urban and industrialized environments. In tandem, moving past the emphasis on the transatlantic relationship and a profoundly asymmetrical understanding of the artistic relationship between Europe and the United States, we propose a more fluid, dialogic and reciprocal set of transnational artistic and political linkages, including a significant relationship with China, at the same time as productively re- conceptualizing the legacies of the avant-gardes and the complex transition to a neo-avant-garde understanding of culture in Europe.

Each paper takes a singular instance of artistic production in order to investigate the broader valences of materials and their contextual, discursive implications in the material, political environment of national and transnational concerns. From the liquid substances of paint, wood stain and tar in the case of the French painter Pierre Soulages, to the sonic and visual abstraction of Le Corbusier, Edgar Varèse and Iannis Xenakis’ Poème éléctronique at the World’s Fair in Brussels in 1958, the materials of theatre and performance practices in France during the ‘long sixties’, and the production of Maoist-inflected silk-screen posters during the ‘events’ of Mai ’68, this session proposes venturing into a postwar world where art’s media and materials were subject to profound pressures and in turn yielded new propositions for modernism.


Chairs:  Natalie Adamson, St Andrews, and Noit Banai, Tufts University


Imagination and Materiality in the Paintwork of Pierre Soulages
Natalie Adamson, St Andrews

This paper addresses the conceptual potential of a theory and practice of material imagination in the work of the French artist Pierre Soulages (b.1919-), as a means by which we discern the lineaments of a specifically European emphasis on materiality in postwar art. Further, a new framework for understanding the complex network of affinities and conflicts between national (French and American) and transnational (European and American) identities and artistic practice emerges when the materials and techniques of a specific practice are analysed in relation to a historical and multi-tiered conceptual architecture.

Till now, historians have focused on the parallels between the philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s ideas and the ostentatiously materialist surfaces of Jean Dubuffet’s paintings as an indication of Bachelard’s importance for the analysis of postwar French art. In an instructive contrast to the Dubuffet-Bachelard connection, the direct impact of Bachelard’s suggestive analysis of matière and the productive capacities of the imagination will here be explored in relation to Soulages’ darkly coloured, roughened, abstract paintings on canvas, bedsheets, paper, glass, and later plastic, using oils, charcoal, brou de noix (walnut stain), tar and acrylics, applied with a diverse utensil set of house-painting brushes and hand-fabricated tools. An initial catalyst for my analysis is found in the participation of Soulages in the group exhibition entitled Prises de terre, organised in Paris by the Revolutionary Surrealists in 1948 upon Bachelardian principles. More broadly, Soulages’ work negotiates the two dominant paradigms for postwar abstract art – the constructivist legacy of art concrèt and its flat-plane, geometric conjugations of forms vs. the subjective and spontaneous lyricism of gestural painting which engages the heritage of Surrealist automatism and variant forms of expressionism. In doing so, Soulages has formulated a complex theory of creative practice which is both aleatory and deliberate in its experimentation with the tradition-bound medium of paint, surface and the tools of application.

Moreover, I will argue that Soulages’ and Bachelard’s theories of creativity posit an imaginative will or drive which is submissive to the imperatives of experience and sympathetic intuition, and refuses the divide between subject and object. In the case-study of Soulages, which may usefully be taken as emblematic for the particular problems facing postwar European painting, the hoped-for outcome is an authentic form of modernist materialism in paint which is reducible neither to transcendent formalism or primal, mythic baseness.


A Synthesis of the Arts, a Dissonant Politics : The Philips Pavilion and the Materialization of Europe 
Noit Banai, Tufts University

Perhaps the most iconic symbol of the pan- European World’s Fair in Brussels (Expo ’58) is The Atomium, a structure built by architects André and Jean Polak, which became the veritable image of the celebratory collaboration between science and technology in the formation of Europe. In contrast to this dominant and uncritical representation of the relation between Europe’s cultural and political production, this paper examines another seminal building that was constructed for Expo ’58 –The Phillips Pavilion –and the vexed intersections between its materials and meanings and the processes of technological modernization, decolonization, and repression of World War II, which were foundational for European post-war reconstruction. 

The Phillips Pavilion was sponsored by the Dutch electronics company, designed by the architect Le Corbusier in collaboration with avant-garde composers Iannis Xenakis and Edgar Varèse. Contextualized by the signing of the Treaties of Rome (March 25, 1957), The Phillips Pavilion was an exemplary synthesis of different disciplines and mediums (architecture, music, and film) that also communicated the divisions and dissonances within the European political body. At the entrance, Xenakis’ electronic score “CONCRET PH” consisted of electronic sounds of crackling coal; Varèse’s sound composition, “Poème Électronique,” accompanied a black and white film made up of discrete photographs – meditating on the destiny of humanity – that was projected on the pavilion’s interior walls. Patterns of colored lights and additional images were projected throughout the space, transforming it into both an absorptive and disjunctive sound and image environment. While its original intention was to showcase the Phillip’s production line in a totally integrated scenography that would elide the company with the advanced values of modernism, I claim that it was also a staging of the conflicted aspirations and dynamics surrounding the relationship between the avant-garde and the construction of a distinctly European public sphere.


Materialist Fantasies: Questioning the Value of Art and Currency in the Era of the “New Franc”
Sophie Cras, Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne

After two inflationist crises in 1951-52 and 1956- 57, and seven successive devaluations of the franc since 1944, the French new Republic of 1958 began a profound monetary reform aimed at restoring confidence in the franc, modernizing the currency, and getting inflation under control. The most visible constituent of this reform was the introduction, on January 1st, 1960, of the New Franc, also called “Heavy Franc,” which was worth a hundred times the old franc and was based on a certain weight of gold. Although this operation was purely symbolic, it demonstrates that at this time of international monetary uncertainty, turning back to the materiality of money – a “heavy” currency, backed up by gold – seemed a reassuring protection against the immaterial threat of modern financial economy, embodied in the financial markets, and of inflation, which disconnected face value from real, purchase value.

My paper discusses the way artists at the turn of the 1960s addressed this particular moment in economic history. Focusing on the works of French artist Yves Klein and of his friend Larry Rivers, the American painter who lived in Paris in 1961-62, I show that the question of the materiality or immateriality of money paralleled modernist interrogations on the value of art. Does the value of an artwork depend on intrinsic, material worth or on supply and demand? Is there a difference between price and value? How to give a price to what is deemed priceless? These questions were especially pressing at a time when painters were experimenting with material and immaterial mediums, and when the French art market boomed at the end of the 1950s and collapsed in 1962, demonstrating the contingency of prices. I will discuss the ambivalent attitude of these artists toward France’s – vain – attempt to preserve the materiality of its currency, as a token of its legitimacy and power when both where under attack by decolonization wars and international competition.


Mao-sur-Seine: The Chairman’s Influence on the French Posters of 1968
Victoria H.F. Scott, Emory University at Atlanta 

In May 1968 artists, students, and workers came together in collectives in art schools and professional schools all over Paris and produced 500 000 posters with over 700 different designs. These posters were created to support the general strike, which was quickly gaining momentum all over France, and they were pasted up throughout the Latin Quarter—the student quarter in Paris—before being painted over, torn down, and finally cleared away by the authorities at the end of June. The majority of the posters were made using the silk-screen technique and their expressionist aesthetic, their slap-dash style, is often considered definitive proof of their revolutionary credibility. Indeed in the literature the posters are often presented as a form of unprecedented popular expression (the voice of the people). In contrast, I argue that they were modeled on a poster campaign that took place at the outset of the Cultural Revolution in China and that furthermore, that the hand-made aesthetic of the posters, which notably rejected photography, was ideologically motivated rather than merely expedient. It is not so surprising: as Mark Kurlansky has pointed out, in the sixties, while America excelled at producing hippies, France excelled at turning out Maoists.

In my paper I explain the growing popularity of Maoism in France in the sixties and link the phenomenon to certain militant artistic circles in Paris, such as the writers and artists associated with the journal Opposition Artistique (Artistic Opposition) and the Salon de Jeune Peinture (the Salon of Young Painting), bringing to light new evidence concerning the depth and breadth of the French art world’s relationship with China at this time. Addressing the ways in which Maoism and Maoist visual culture or propaganda was imported and received in France, it answers questions about the role visual imagery played in this transmission of ideology, what historian Megan M. Ferry calls the “transnational” dimension of Chinese propaganda in these years, in order to analyze its influence specifically on the production of the revolutionary posters of May and June 1968.


Time: 09/08/2012, 1:30 PM—3:30 PM

Location: Kent University, Room KS14