Obituary: Andre Fougeron

Sarah Wilson
Friday 18 September 1998 00:02 BST

ANDRE FOUGERON was the foremost socialist realist painter in France. With an admirable tenacity he maintained his belief in painting's duty to comment on the social injustices of the day, from Third World famine to contemporary police brutality and racism; "De la negritude" was the title of a 1994 exhibition at the Galerie Jacques Barbier.

As a very young art historian, I met Andre Fougeron in 1979 while involved with the retrospective exhibition at the Pompidou Centre: "Paris-Paris, Creations en France 1937-1957". This necessarily included coverage of the Occupation years and the socialist realist period in French art by a national institution. Fougeron was the most patient of tutors; his remarkable story was a parable of French cultural history during the post-war and Cold War decades.

Born in 1913, to a working-class family, Fougeron completed primary-school education and worked as a metallurgist in the Renault factory, among other jobs, before facing unemployment. Like so many autodidact artists who were later to become his comrades-in-arms during the French Communist Party's cultural offensives, Fougeron was welcomed to the "Maison de la Culture". Founded after the riots of February 1934, this was the powerhouse for a united Left front of intellectuals and artists in Paris.

Subsequent to the Stalin-Laval pact of 1935 and no small degree of Comintern involvement with Franco-Soviet relations at the time, it became the forum for the poet Louis Aragon's 1935 lecture published as "Pour un realisme socialist" and the famous "realism quarrel" of 1936 (Anthony Blunt assisted as British representative). Fougeron's work at this time was influenced by Andre Masson, German expressionism and Picasso, for whom he had great admiration; Death and Hunger, Spain, was exhibited at the Salon des Independants of 1937, and launched his professional career.

Fougeron joined the Communist Party after the Nazi-Soviet non- aggression pact in 1939. Demobilised, during the Occupation of Paris he became one of the so-called "young painters of the French tradition", his colourful canvases becoming closer to Matisse. Simultaneously he was the driving force behind the Front National des Arts, at the forefront of French intellectual resistance.

He printed clandestine journals including L'Art Francais and the album of lithographs Vaincre, a collaborative work containing explicit denunciations of Hitler and concentration camps, but also Petain and French collaborationist brutalities. At the Liberation, Fougeron became the force behind epuration in the arts; on the death of the veteran painter Maurice Denis in 1943, Fougeron asked Picasso to become President of the Front National des Arts, and thus nominally responsible for many punishments under the purge programme.

In May 1947, France accepted American aid for reconstruction and the Marshall Plan. In response, Moscow launched a range of cultural initiatives and a concerted programme of socialist realism together with the international peace movement symbolised by Picasso's dove.

At the very moment when the French Communist Party was required to leave government, its cultural spokesman, Louis Aragon, prefaced an album of Fougeron's drawings, denouncing the international abstraction of the current Unesco exhibition: "Andre Fougeron, in each one of your drawings the destiny of figurative art . . . the destiny of the world . . . is at stake . . ." Fougeron became the official Communist painter. The Party espoused the "cult of personality": Fougeron's portrait of the Party leader Maurice Thorez's mother was in pure Stalinist tradition. Yet Picasso had joined the Party with great fanfare in December 1944; his line drawings of Thorez, together with contributions from Fernand Leger, for example, lent authority to many Party exhibitions where subject matter was doctrinaire and painting ranged from the amateur to the banal.

Fougeron's painting led the way against the modernists with panache. The colourful Parisians at the Market, 1948, showed poor working class women haggling over fish prices. Over 40,000 people saw the huge canvas Homage to Andre Houiller, Communist Militant Murdered at the age of 54 , While Flyposting Anti-war Tracts, which dominated the exhibition held in honour of Stalin's 70th birthday in December 1949, prior to its departure among trainloads of birthday presents to the Soviet Union for display at the Pushkin Museum.

While every political move was Moscow-approved, the French Communist Party used revolutionary rhetoric to promote a patriotic image. Fougeron was proud to be appointed as a contemporary Jacques-Louis David in the wake of David's bicentennial retrospective in Paris in 1948 and Party celebrations of the 125th anniversary of his death in 1950.

Fougeron's Mining Country series, exhibited the following year, showed this notion of a revolutionary French history painting at its most developed; the characteristic "miserabilism" of socialist realism together with its eschatological dimensions - the dead miner spread out like Holbein's Christ - was curiously combined with the lesson of contemporary photojournalism. Willy Ronis would later photograph Fougeron's model, a crippled miner, in the same pose as Fougeron's Pensioner of the Mining Country series.

While the works of Ronis or Robert Doisneau, skilled reportage at the time, now have an international market, Fougeron's paintings of this series, shown in the chic Galerie Bernheim-Jeune before touring not only the major French mining centres but the capitals of Eastern Europe, have almost all been lost or destroyed.

Fougeron continued to paint disturbing and provocative pictures at a period when Party strategy was to precipitate police intervention and "decrochages" - the taking down of paintings - at official Salons. Subsequently, French Peasants Defend their Soil and American Occupation of 1953 were violently anti-American. Fougeron tragically miscalculated his value, however, later in 1953 in the wake of Stalin's death. His public rejection of Picasso's obituary portrait of Stalin, a drawing published in Les Lettres Francaises, misfired; the Party realised its modernist painters, Picasso and Leger, were its passport to intellectual rehabilitation.

Transatlantic Civilisation, Fou-geron's massive canvas exhibited only once at the Salon d'Automne of 1953, marked both his apotheosis and downfall. Louis Aragon now performed a hatchet job; Fougeron tumbled from grace. The Salon was preceded by a retrospective of Mexican mural painting in Paris. The Mexican government had banned the export of Diego Rivera's mural Nightmare of War and Dream of Peace (Stalin and Mao confronting American and British top-hatted capitalists grouped with a baffled, female, Republican France).

Fougeron, working with the same ambition as Rivera or Renato Guttuso in Italy, decided to abandon his miserabilist palette and adopted the colliding spaces of the muralists. Dominated by the electric chair used to execute the Soviet spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the dialectic between left and right, male and female, good and evil, joy and despair, new life and death rotates around the blue American car that explicitly makes an elision between American capitalism, and the Nazi occupation of France. The American Nato building in Paris is plastered with recruitment posters for the Korean war; French mothers mourn their dead; pensioners are unhoused while American soldiers lounge in decadent luxury. Yet in a France coming to terms with modernisation, any idea of a Soviet alternative in 1953-54 was risible. While the tergiversations of the Party in the wake of Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin's crimes were yet to come, it was perhaps the very lucidity of Fougeron's expose at this moment which was intolerable in and outside the French Communist Party.

Fougeron continued to exhibit; canvases on the Algerian war and Vietnam followed, while his reputation in the Eastern bloc remains undiminished. The photomontage artist John Heartfield welcomed him officially to the Neue Berlinier Galerie in 1968, and Fougeron helped with the organisation of Heartfield's major retrospective in France in 1974. Fougeron, Taslitzky and the socialist realist movement still tended to dominate accounts of postwar European painting written in the Soviet Union by art historians such as Mikhail Lifschitz.

Fougeron's rehabilitation as a historical figure began in 1981. In 1982, besides the veteran Surrealist Roberto Matta, Fougeron was the only living artist to come to see his work in "Aftermath: new images of man, France 1944-1954", which inaugurated the Barbican Art Gallery. Surrounded by colourful paintings by Matisse, Bonnard and Picasso, Fougeron's 1950 painting The Judges (a row of mutilated miners stares out of the canvas, accusing the patrons of industry for their plight) none the less dominated coverage of the exhibition.

Throughout the 1980s Fougeron's work was seen regularly in France and in the Galerie Tonielli in Italy. In 1987 the gallerist Jean-Jacques Dutko gave him a large show whose catalogue reproduced many important early paintings.

During his last 10 years, however, when far less interesting School of Paris painters were granted Grand Palais retrospectives, Fougeron became increasingly frustrated by the fact that he would never see a full retrospective of his own art. The Pompidou Centre's decision not to show Transatlantic Civilisation - even temporarily - during the run of its international art and politics show, "Face a l'histoire 1933-1996", was pusillanimous. The highly censored presentation of France's socialist realist period here demonstrated a continuing embarrassment and silence around many uncomfortable memories and issues still very much alive.

Fougeron was painting, drawing and exhibiting, despite severe problems with his vision, until the recent onset of Alzheimer's disease. His French obituarists are quite wrong to think he is forgotten; a new generation of Anglo-American scholarship is emerging and the artist's granddaughter Lucie Fougeron has been working in the recently opened French Communist Party archives; revelations are forthcoming. Transatlantic Civilisation entered the mythological life of the nation recently in Pascal Quignard's novel L'Occupation Americaine (1994). Fougeron's legacy and importance within cultural studies of France during the post-war and Cold War period rest assured.

Andre Alfred Fougeron, artist: born Paris 1 October 1913; married Henriette Marecat (died 1992; three sons): died Paris 10 September 1998.

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