The America of art in post-war France

CRITICAL – Thanks to the GI Bill issued by Roosevelt, the veterans resume their studies in Paris. After Nantes, Montpellier tells their story in 90 works.

From our special correspondent in Montpellier

More than 400 artists have taken advantage of the GI Bill scholarship, allowing each veteran to fund their studies by enrolling in Parisian art schools and academies between 1946 and 1963. Why Paris, when the capital of the arts moved to the New World, that abstract expressionism, the New York school, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, are the heroes after 1945? American universities were saturated.

Life in Paris, much cheaper – you could live comfortably on the $75 a month from the GI Bill (the name of his soldiers comes from galvanized iron, in French “galvanized iron”, engraved on metal trash cans, trash cans and equipment of the US military). The Paris of artists, intellectuals and expats, more flexible than Eisenhower’s America, was found in the cafes of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, underlines Catherine Dossin, art historian at Purdue University who specializes in the geopolitics of the art world and cultural transfers in the contemporary time.

After the Musée d’arts, in Nantes, this spring, the Musée Fabre, in Montpellier, highlights this widespread American presence in France from 1946 to 1964. Its contribution to the redefinition of abstract art, both through its wide formats emerging from abstract expressionism and the great American spaces, only through a new search for expressiveness. In Montpellier, the director of the Fabre Museum, Michel Hilaire, and the curator, Maud Marron-Wojewodzki, take up the torch from Sophie Lévy and Claire Lebossé and follow in their very didactic way the history of “United States of Abstraction Artists Americans in France (1946-1964).

American universities were saturated. Life in Paris, much cheaper – you could live well there with the $75 a month from the GI Bill

From Mark Tobey to James Bishop, from Robert Breer to Jack Youngerman, this small group of diverse artists is rich in adventurous temperaments, free spirits, as they are regarded by the great critic Michel Tapié as “virgins of artistic tradition”† The proof in 90 works that are often discoveries for the French public, even revelations.

• Ellsworth Kelly

Born Newburg (1923), New York state, joined the Beaux-Arts de Paris in 1948. In 1949, with his friend the American painter and his exact contemporary Ralph Coburn (98 years old!), he visited the studio of the composer and poet John Cage (1912-1992). In their correspondence he defined his work in 1950: “Painting, as we’ve seen it for a long time, that is, just hanging on the walls of a house, doesn’t interest me anymore. Damn those paintings! They should be the wall…’ He visits the studio of Brancusi, Vantongerloo, Magnelli, Picabia and especially Arp, in Meudon. He exhibited at Galerie Maeght in 1951. He stayed with his artist friends in Belle-Île, Sanary-sur-Mer and Meschers-sur-Gironde. In 1953 he befriended Calder, Morellet. He left for New York in 1954, after severe jaundice. The Fabre Museum exhibits Window, Museum of Modern Art, Paris (1954), exact copy of a chosen object and treasure from Beaubourg.

• Joan Mitchell

Born in 1925 in Chicago, Joan Mitchell is the daughter of a poetic mother, Marion Strobel Mitchell, an athlete (diving and skating) who “approaches painting almost like a competitive sport”† She first came to France in 1948, married American publisher Barney Rosset, defender of DH Lawrence. She spent her winters in New York, returned to France every summer from 1955 and settled permanently in Paris in 1959 with her companion, Canadian painter Jean-Paul Riopelle. Nourished by Cézanne, Kandinsky, Matisse and Van Gogh, this temperamental woman joined the Galerie Jean Fournier but stayed away from the School of Paris, of which Riopelle was one of the stars. She remained close to Americans Norman Bluhm and Sam Francis, who shared a studio, boulevard Arago, and Shirley Jaffe, who came to France in 1949 with her husband, the journalist and poet Irving Jaffe, holder of the GI Bill.

• William Klein

The young New York prodigy (he finished high school at age 14!) enlisted in the United States Army before he was 20, which added him to troops stationed in Germany from 1946 to 1948. Thanks to the GI Bill, he came to Paris, enrolled at the Sorbonne (sociology and psychology) and settled in Fernand Léger’s studio. He still lives there (93 years!). The young man very quickly met the Swiss architect trained by the Bauhaus Max Bill, the American artists Jack Youngerman and Ellsworth Kelly. In 1952, the Italian architect and designer Angelo Mangiarotti (1921-2012) commissioned him to create revolving panels intended to partition a space: here is his model of six mobile panels with photographs on wood. William Klein experiments in the darkroom. He knows the research of the Hungarian Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and practices the photogram, he is an artist of black and white.

• Sam Francis

Seriously injured during flying exercises for the United States Air Force in 1944, the young Californian spent several years in the hospital and began painting “to stay alive”, after a 1945 visit from Bay Area Figurative Movement painter David Park. Sam Francis had studied music. After being discharged from the hospital, he studied art at Berkeley, before settling in Paris in 1950 – he stayed there until 1961 – thanks to the GI Bill, as well as taking courses in Fernand Léger’s workshop.

In 1951, Riopelle introduced him to the art critics and great pioneers of their time, Georges Duthuit and Michel Tapié. In 1952, the man who was first influenced by the painters of Abstract Expressionism, Mark Rothko, Arshile Gorky and Clyfford Still, met Henri Michaux. And journey to the Mediterranean, steeped in water lilies, by Monet (1953). His compositions are somewhere between painting and music.

• Shirley Jaffe

On the liner that took her to France with her husband in 1949, Shirley Jaffe met the Ukrainian-born American painter, Jules Olitski, who had come to study in Paris, thanks in part to the GIBill, with Ossip Zadkine and at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. (he represented the United States at the 1966 Venice Biennale). At the tobacco bar The three chestnut trees from the rue du Dragon she visited foreign North American artists, James Bishop, Norman Bluhm, Riopelle and Joan Mitchell, thanks to whom she took over the studio of Louise Bourgeois. She is exhibited, the only woman with Sam Francis and Kimber Smith, in 1953. Montpellier, like Nantes, exhibits her works from before her geometric period.

“United States of Abstraction. American Artists in France (1946-1964)”, until October 31 at the Fabre Museum in Montpellier. Joint catalog with the Musée d’arts de Nantes, led by Sophie Lévy and Michel Hilaire, Snoeck, 29 euros. Read, Surrealism in American Art, joint publication City of Marseille and RMN-Grand Palais, 39 euros.

» Follow all the news from the Figaro culture on facebook and Twitter
» Discover the program of guided tours of the Figaro shop here

Leave a Comment