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Starting From Scratch: American and European art in the aftermath of World War Two (1945-1950)
Sal Sirugo, C-25, 1950, casein on masonite, 31 x 37 inches. Courtesy of Hollis Taggart Galleries.

LYON, FRANCE.- In October 2008, the Musée des Beaux Arts de Lyon will present a major exhibition devoted to European and American art in the wake of the Second World War, with particular attention to the emergence of various movements in each country. The exhibition starts with the end of World War II and concludes with the advent of the Cold War (1945-1950). At that specific moment in time, American and European artists were united in a feeling of starting from scratch, of re-creating art forms stripped of the ideologies that had accompanied artistic creation since the beginning of the twentieth century.

These five years were a moment of intensive research and redefining of pictorial practices, which were to have a deep impact on the subsequent development of modern art.

The traumas of the war – the destroying of entire countries, the deaths of millions of human beings, the discovery of Nazi concentration camps, the launching of two atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – provided the point from which numerous artists, on both sides of the Atlantic, although with differing approaches, would henceforth consider the act of artistic creation itself. Their shared conviction would later be articulated by the American painter Barnett Newman who advocated that there could be no other approach but to "start over from scratch, to paint as if painting had never existed before”.

For a few years, until new and unbridgeable gaps were created, the art world was dominated by a spirit of candor and generosity, shaped by dominant perceptions of urgency and loss, by the sudden disappearance of the past and by the hope of radical revival. To an unprecedented degree, artists exchanged ideas, works, and methods in a highly diversified artistic landscape, with a new freedom that paved the way for the rise of experimental practices of primitivism and automatism, more specifically in painting, but also in sculpture and photography. These practices may seem to stem from Surrealism and Abstraction, but while these two movements certainly laid the ground-work for the future development, their clear-cut divisions were, for the moment, abandoned (although they would return, with a vengeance, in the 1950s).

Art history soon chose to characterize this era as a mere parenthesis, a naïve formative moment, that lasted until artists moved on to more mature periods. Simultaneously, it also fixed the situation into two opposing blocks. On the one hand, the American Abstract Expressionists (such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, David Smith and Willem De Kooning), were said to have sought a brutal break with the past, espousing a new heroic subject: the pioneering ideal of the West transposed onto the fine arts. On the other hand, the Lyrical Abstractionists of the Ecole de Paris (Nicolas de Staël, Wols, Bram van Velde, and Pierre Soulages), attempted to recover the glory days of the cosmopolitan art capital of the early twentieth century, by synthesizing abstract experimentation with well-tempered traditions.

This exhibition seeks to look beyond these standard conclusions and to recreate that transient and little-know moment at which artists, often without preliminary agreement or reciprocal knowledge, wished to start from scratch. In particular it seeks to enlarge the Paris/New York facing off, by showing how the exuberant creativity of these cities went well beyond the two or three figures generally cited. Moreover, by proposing a broader geographical approach, including the rest of the old continent as well as the West Coast and Canadian art scenes, the exhibition seeks to emphasize the intricate and neglected networks that sometimes entirely bypassed the two rival capitals of the art world.

Since Paris/New York, organized in 1977 by the Centre Pompidou, dealing with the years 1930 – 1960, no exhibition held in France has broached that subject, although it is one of the major themes in the history of twentieth century art. The forthcoming exhibition at the Musée des Beaux-Arts of Lyon will thus represent a substantial and much-needed contribution to the understanding of one of the most fascinating periods of art history.

In order to reevaluate the categories traditionally, but improperly, applied to this period (categories that are better suited to describe the art of the 1950s), the exhibition will be organized along the lines of the various strategies used to implement the new artistic departure. Thematically-organized rooms will be interspersed with rooms devoted to specific bodies of work by single artists.

The exhibition is curated by Eric de Chassey, professor of XXth century art history at the Université François-Rabelais of Tours and member of the Institut Universitaire de France, and Sylvie Ramond, curator in chief and director of the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon.

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