Museo Reina Sofia Honors the Forgotten Foreign Artists in Post-War Paris

November 28, 2018

Since the beginning of the late 18th and early 19th century, the city of Paris was a bohemian cradle and an artistic melting pot. Because of that continuity and reputation during the 20th century, the French capital became the perfect shelter for the international avant-garde scene or rather a crossroads for a great number of intellectuals, socialites and artists who mingled through the notorious cabarets, soirées, and cafes.

The outbreak of World War II completely changed that. A couple of months after Germany invaded Poland in 1939, the French decided to enter the war and started mobilizing; however, the country was then invaded so Paris was completely occupied by 14 June 1940. Until the end of the war, this city suffered from great causalities in infrastructural and population sense. Although the country was extremely poor and the people suffered from war trauma, the artistic production grew (largely thanks to the American influence), so as the time passed by the former cultural capital of the world restored its fame.

In order to shed a new light on forgotten Parisian history and the consolidation of the art scene during the post-war years and the development of new generation of artists, Museo Reina Sofía decided to produce an extensive collective exhibition titled Lost, Loose and Loved: Foreign Artists in Paris 1944-1968.

Wasilly Kandinksy - Around the line, 1943
Wasilly Kandinksy - Around the line, 1943. Oil on cardboard, 42 x 57,8 cm. Courtesy of The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum

The Historical Context

Despite the immense atrocities, the former atmosphere of tolerance in Paris apparently did not fade, so the foreigners who arrived found the bars, jazz clubs and studios very welcoming and cozy. They willingly supported the cultural reconstruction of the city and took place in various debates concerning an image of the ever changed world in the context of new geopolitical order (the Cold War, the arousal of consumer society, anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist movements and articulation of modernity).

On the other hand, Paris had its rival on the other side of Atlantic ocean: New York, which at the time was an epicenter of American art scene comprised of critics, wealthy institutions and the rising art market. However, Paris offered a special kind of creative enthusiasm with an array of different tendencies, conflicts, and disparities. The debate on art was not just based on whether abstraction or figuration are adequate approaches, but it was also interwoven with the latest theoretical proposals such as Existentialism.

Through more two decades the city witnessed the resurgence of art informel, antimilitarist artistic practices critical of the Algerian war, as well as of op and kinetic art. All of those different aesthetic and conceptual approaches influenced much the foreign artists (who continued to experiment and contributed to the development of later movements such as Conceptual Art) and it can be even said that demands of the artists somehow reflected on a new generation of rebellious and critically charged young people who wanted a different society and became involved with the Student protests in 1968.

Enrico Baj, Roberto Crippa, Gianni Dova, Erro, Jean Jacques Lebel, Antonio Recalcati - Large collective anti-fascist painting
Enrico Baj, Roberto Crippa, Gianni Dova, Erro, Jean Jacques Lebel, Antonio Recalcati - Large collective anti-fascist painting, 1960. Oil on canvas, 400,5 x 497 cm. Courtesy of Jean Jacques Lebel Endowment Fund

The Installment in Madrid

The artists from America, Europe, Africa, and Asia were welcome in Paris, the city which was liberal and more or less set free of racial, homophobic or political discrimination. Interestingly so there is a data that in 1965 there were around four thousand five hundred of them.

For this particular exhibition, more than two hundred works of more than one hundred artists of different nationalities who expressed themselves in numerous styles and formats were gathered to tell the story of the advantages of living and working in Paris. Pablo Picasso, Jean Tinguely, Mohammed Khadda, Minna Citron, Sam Francis, Ellsworth Kelly, Nancy Spero, and Eduardo Arroyo are just some of the artist's names whose works are on display.

The installment spreads chronologically across twelve spaces and it begins with the works of Wassily Kandinsky. It continues with Jan Krizek's Art Brut and the geometric abstraction experienced by Carmen Herrera or Wifredo Arcay, the Spaniard José García Tella, who explored the social and political future of Paris, and it ends with works by an international group CoBrA founded in 1948 by artists such as Asger Jorn or Karel Appel. In between, there are works of other artists who explored, experimented and produced in different media during the course of the given time frame (from 1944 until 1968).

The exhibition also includes films, newspapers, archives and radio programs, and a monitor screening the film of Japanese sculptor Shinkichi Tajiri called The Snakes from 1955, which documents the artistic atmosphere of the city and its bohemian atmosphere.

Wifredo Arcay - Alroa
Wifredo Arcay - Alroa, 1950. Oil on canvas, 67 x 103 x 4 cm. Artists' Estate, courtesy of The Mayor Gallery, London

Foreign Artists in Paris 1944-1968 at Museo Reina Sofia

This outstanding show makes quite a contribution to art history in both local and global terms. It is a proof that coexistence is possible and necessary in building a unique culture and should be perceived in regards to the contemporary moment which is colored with the rise of racism and general disregard of the foreigners who are considered as strange and undesirable elements set to disrupt and endanger alleged traditional cultural values of nation-states.

The professor emeritus of Art History at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Serge Guilbaut curated the show, while The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía published an extensive catalog with essays written by various scholars.

Lost, Loose and Loved: Foreign Artists in Paris 1944-1968 will be on display at Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid until 22 April 2019.

Featured images: Lost, Loose and Loved: Foreign Artists in Paris 1944-1968 - Installation views. Photo: Joaquin Cortes/Roman Lores. Archival photographs of Museo Reina Sofia