When the Germans pulled out of France in 1945, they left behind a country irredeemably changed.
Nowhere was this truer than in the world of French art. Before 1940, Paris has been the unchallenged hub of modernity, home to more "isms" than anywhere else on earth: Cubism, Surrealism, Constructivism, Neo-Plasticism. If these movements weren't born French, they became so when their champions arrived from Nazi Berlin or Stalinist Moscow or Francoist Spain, with manifestos in their bags. Sit at the right café in 1930s Montparnasse, and you could eavesdrop on the Spanish Picasso, Dutch Mondrian, the Russian brothers Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner and the Hungarian Laszlo Moholy-Nagy fighting their various corners as you sipped your pastis. By 1945, all but Picasso had fled to England or America, never to return.
So the question that hangs over the Timothy Taylor Gallery's new show, The Tightrope Walker, is to a degree self-answering. No, French art didn't recover after the war, and it never has. The struggle to do so makes for interesting history, though, and this is where the TTG's show comes in.
If 1945 was an artistic Year Zero for Parisian artists, then how did they go about regrouping? A decade later, Jean Genet, he of the sailors and petty thieving, wrote the essay from which this exhibition takes its name. La Funambule – "the tightrope walker" – suggested, roughly, that all artists take risks to deal with hidden wounds; even more roughly, that French art would rebuild itself on its own blessure secrète, this being the recent Occupation. But what did that mean in practice?
From the work in this show, chosen by the new editor of Apollo and a former senior Tate curator, it seems to have meant grafting an aesthetic of the slightly miserable on to memories of pre-war modernism. The Tightrope Walker follows fashion in showing fine art side by side with design, although this fashion is older than the show may realise. Before the Great War, one of the principal movers in a Dutch school known simply as "the style" – De Stijl – had also pitched up in Paris. Among the many oddities of Piet Mondrian was his insistence that art and architecture had to co-exist, that each was a foil for the other. Mondrian's biggest canvas was his own studio in the rue du Départ, a three-dimensional work-in-progress whose walls were hung with panels of primary colours, where even the (plastic) tulip in its (glass) vase were painted white.
Nothing so new, then, about Charlotte Perriand's metal and wood bookcase, Mexique (1953), a functional rejigging of Mondrian's rectangles. Perriand's library winks at its own ancestry by including a small recessed panel of green – a colour the Dutchman hated – on one of its book-bearing tiers.
Nothing so new, either, about Anna-Eva Bergman's No. 14 – 1952 of the previous year, whose abstract but modelled forms had been abandoned by the one-time French abstractionist, Jean Hélion, when he left for a life of naturalistic painting in America 20 years before. The ink-on-paper works of Bergman's husband, Hans Hartung, a German who lost a leg fighting in the French Foreign Legion in the Second World War , suffer from the same dreariness as hers, a dispirited feel that is possibly explicable by the teachings of existentialism.
All of which is to say that while The Tightrope Walker may be of historical interest, there is little in it to lift the spirits. If rereading L'Etranger is your idea of a good time, then this is the show for you: Jean Dubuffet's faux-mad L'Effrayé is guaranteed to make your heart sink into your Camus boots. The general feel is one of loss, of the great foreign ghosts of Mondrian and Gabo supplanted, post-war, by the pallid ones of Hartung and Bergman. Failed pre-war experiments redone in beige don't really set the pulses racing.
The sole exception to this dreary rule is in the field of design. By and large, the further away the objects in this show get from the fine arts, the more interesting they become. When George Jouve tries his hand at ceramic jugs, they look like ho-hum Picassos. When Serge Mouille breaks away from the past to make the witty, calligraphic three-armed light on the TTG's far wall, there's a sudden tremor of exuberance. It's hard to imagine Jean-Paul Sartre sitting down under Mouille's happy lamp to pen yet another existential tract, and I can think of no greater praise for it than that.
Timothy Taylor Gallery, London W1 (020-7409 3344) to 27 Aug
Charles Darwent is away. Gareth Harris dives into the Edinburgh Art Festival
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