Art and the Dark Sun of Consciousness: Bilbao’s L’Art En Guerre

Art and the Dark Sun of Consciousness: Bilbao’s L’Art En Guerre

Perhaps there could not be a more appropriate venue for the French art show L’Art En Guerre France1938-1947, than the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum.
The show features artists, both famous and unknown, who painted throughout the occupation of France by Germany during the Second World War. These individuals suffered censor and/or detention and include Salvador Dalí, Jean Dubuffet, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Jean Fautrier, Alberto Giacometti, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, René Magritte, Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, and Pablo Picasso. In the case of a few, including Felix Nussbaum, Horst Rosenthal, and Charlotte Salomon, the art in the exhibit is all that remains of them as they were shipped to the death camps.

Some were detained for the content of their work, others imprisoned because they were communist or for their part in the Resistance or because they were Jewish or Gypsies. Upon detention many immediately began creating as a way to deal with the nightmare of the experience. Using scraps of paper and other discarded materials, they created booklets, paintings, and miniature dioramas depicting camp life, even a children’s book about a little boy in the camps. One is sobered by the efforts of these detainees who worked to keep the spirit alive through creative expression.

One section featured the art deemed aesthetically acceptable by the Germans. The figures were perfect, though oddly chilling, particularly next to the vibrantly emotive works of the French. During the Spanish Civil War, Pablo Picasso fled Spain, applying for citizenship in France, which was denied. He chose to live in Paris anyway, his work declared “degenerate” by the Vichy Regime whose motto was “ Work, Family, Homeland.” I am reminded of some of our own propagandas which call for narrowly defined “family values” and are actually attempts to stamp out expression of divergent feelings, attitudes, or life styles.
Dora Maar au Chat, 1941, Pablo Picasso

Of course, many of the detainees were of the French Resistance, a significant force in helping the Allies gain ground in France and eventually liberate them. This exhibit is a testament to the importance of expression. Through creative effort, not only was the spirit was kept alive in the face of such atrocities and hardships, but newly evolving art forms emerged. Never before released film clips of the of detainees returning to their communities after the occupation showed eyes stunned with the knowledge of what they had suffered. This footage of the rawness of the human spirit was that which also enlivened those now familiar works of Picasso and Matisse, Miro and Dali.

Art offered the alembic to transform unspeakable acts of human violence, evil, and cowardice, and, as the occupation ended, the evolving knowledge of acts of courage. In the wake of this period was a task: in the words of the exhibit, the necessary “rejection of the belief in history’s radiant line (Decompression, L’Art en Guerre).” In so doing, these artists offer mature visions of war, of intolerance, of alchemy’s dark sun of consciousness.
Interior, Bilbao Guggenheim.
Photo by Donald Harms.

This exhibit is housed in Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao. Gehry’s architecture stretches the psyche, transforming the unconscious acceptance of status quo into wonder. Upon first sight of the building, one can no longer assume anything about what will be experienced next. The soberly poetic and yet playful structure experiments with light, water, stone, and metal in surprising ways. The large reflecting pool surrounding the north side of the building visually melds the building with the river Nervión. The bridge arching over the river becomes an extension of the building, the transformation a seamless extension with what was and with what will be.