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From a Nation Torn: Decolonizing Art and Representation in France, 1945-1962

by Hannah Feldman
Duke University Press, Chapel Hill, NC, 2014
336 pp., illus. 63 b/w, 21 col. Trade, $99.95; paper, $27.95
ISBN: 978-0-8223-5356-0; ISBN: 978-0-8223-5371-3.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

Hanna Feldman’s book (a first book!) is perhaps one of the strongest studies on French modernism in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s that I have ever read, and one that, definitely, will change our thinking on arts, culture, nation, and postcolonialism in the postwar period. It does not only achieve a real paradigm shift in our long standing vision of that kind of modernism (actually the leap of France into the world of mass consumption), it also engages in a highly challenging debate with some major thinkers in the field of visual culture, especially Guy Debord and Jacques Rancière. Feldman’s critique of their ideas on what it means to see and to be seen in mass media culture is courageous but very convincing and may prove a fertile ground for new and further research in this period.

The book opens with a critical discussion of the notion of ‘postwar’ France, which Feldman discards as utterly deceptive. Between 1945 and 1962 (the year of Algeria’s independence), France was uninterruptedly at war, although less in Metropolitan France than overseas (mainly in South-East Asia and Northern Africa), and the reason for the hegemonic use of the term ‘postwar period’ was exactly that: the refusal to accept the reality of postcolonialism (during the period in question, the various wars in which France was involved were not called wars, but ‘troubles’ or ‘problems’, if they were called something and recognized at all) and, corollarily, the attempt to impose a homogeneous vision of France based on the erasure of everything non-traditionally French. The subtitle of Feldman’s book, ‘Decolonizing Art and Representation’, has to be read in two ways: on the one hand, the aim of the author is to change our idea of Modernist culture in France and to make room for a postcolonial vision of it; on the other hand, to demonstrate that art itself was a major player in this decolonizing process, which it actively helped produce. The two other key words of the subtitle are no less important: ‘art’ refers her to a wide range of artistic practices, which Feldman frames within their institutional and social context; ‘representation’, finally, and this is perhaps the most radical proposal of the whole book, has to do with a reflection on the dialectic relationship between seeing and being seen in the public domain (defined here in the visual, hence very material sense of word) . The most fundamental questions of the book come down, therefore, to questions related to the possibility or not to have access to the artistically and mediatically structured public domain.

Besides the theoretical introduction and a brief epilogue showing the lasting influence of the issues under discussion in contemporary France (this part contains readings of Haneke’s Caché and Huillet and Straub’s videotract Europe 2005-27 October), Feldman’s book contains studies on Malraux’s cultural policy (with a first chapter on his ‘museum without walls’ and a second one on the literal white-washing of Paris’s façades in the 1960s); on Isidore’s Isou lettrism (a radical avant-garde movement that the author will interpret as an ambitious but failed effort to contest ideas like those exemplified and eventually implemented by Malraux); on the short-lived yet politically and artistically crucial ‘decollage’ (ripping-off) work of Raymond Hains (an artist opposing both the abstract fashions of these days and the impact of directly committed, often socialist-realist work); and finally, the visual recordings of the bloody repression of a protest rally of Algerians on October 17th 1961 (an event that was longtime considered systematically wiped out from media coverage, the public domain, and cultural memory in general, but that Hannah Feldman succeeds in disclosing and rereading in totally new ways).

In all cases, the twin notions of postcolonialism (its denial as well as the attempt to disclose it) and visual culture (as materialization of the public sphere) are central, and it is their mutual implication that Feldman is mainly interested in. The author persuasively demonstrates that the refusal of the postcolonial reality (a nation in war with itself, more specifically with its own racialized other) is actually realized through a certain type of visual hegemony, whereas, on the other hand, the critique of that cultural hegemony is always rooted in a political agenda that tries to foreground the presence of this other.

The analysis of Malraux’s cultural policy, not only during the years he served as minister of culture, but in the whole ‘postwar’ period and even before, is extremely illuminating in this regard and offers a clear idea of Feldman’s broad and interdisciplinary approach (it is quite rare to read an art historian who has such an acute awareness of literature and rhetoric, for instance). In her analysis, Feldman does not only read the ‘museum without walls’ (which brings together works of art from all periods and all areas, all ruthlessly decontextualized thanks to the photographical medium that helps first to extract them from their origin and then bring them together according to purely formal correspondences) as a typical postcolonial enterprise, she also stresses its strong nationalist overtones (it is the universalizing tendency of photography and the museum without walls that enable France to proclaim its renewed importance at a moment in which the country is losing its colonies as well as its cultural leadership). The emphasis on photography, which reduces all living cultural practices to pure forms, and the invention of the museum without walls, which continues this disembodiment of culture, is then transferred by Malraux in the real space of Paris, where he imposed forms of urban restoration and architectural heritage that had been experimented in the previous decades in most French colonies: the segregation of populations (the preservation of old buildings meant also the expulsion of less wealthy, often racialized groups, gathered in shantytowns or kept at a distance in suburban ghettos), the reduction of culture to mere visual culture (i.e. the conversion of the city into a set of façades that were to promote a unified and economically and leisurely attractive image of Paris and France), and finally the legally imposed obligation to keep all these walls as French, as classic, and therefore as white as possible.

The chapters on Isou and Hains propose tactics (in the sense that Michel de Certeau gave to this word in his studies on everyday life, where he opposed hegemonic strategies and counterhegemonic tactics) to fight such a denial of the nation internal differences. In both cases, Feldman gives first a very fine close-reading of lettrism (a radically avant-garde way of destroying language via the dissociation of the visual and the oral dimension of letters and sounds) and of the torn poster-art of the late 1950s (a forerunner of what we could call today street art, yet a form of street art directly mediated through the gallery and museum circuit) and second a thorough reading of the problems of these artistic interventions (Isou’s attempts to destroy language in order to reinvent new forms of universal language, in literature as well as in cinema, did not escape the straight-jacket of certain nationalist forms of thinking, mainly due to the author’s involvement with Jewish culture; Hains’s work, which was an appealing testimony of ongoing debates and dissensions within the public domain, used to be criticized as either scandalously aesthetic or insufficiently political by most contemporary critics, from the left as well as from the right, yet for different reasons, of course).

The chapter on the repressed protest rally of Oct. 17th 1961, actually a meeting organized by the FLN (one of the pro-independence armed parties during the Algerian war), raises fundamental questions on the relationship between visual culture and politics. Feldman’s reading, which I consider absolutely ground-breaking, proceeds here on two levels. On a practical level, she demonstrates, first, that this meeting and the subsequent repression resulting in several hundreds of casualties (protesters shot by the police, killed in prison, or drown in the Seine) were not as radically censored or made invisible as even serious historians still go on thinking today. Various newspapers reported on the events, and Paris-Match, the leading photo reportage magazine devoted a cover story on it. The close-reading of this material, here carefully reproduced, offers Feldman the opportunity, on a second and more theoretical level, to question the condemnation of the ‘spectacle’ as it is often thought by and after Debord and today by and after successful authors such as Rancière, who all dismiss the importance of being seen. To have the possibility to be seen, according to Feldman, is not a surrender to the alienating power of the society of the spectacle or something that is just a superficial aspect of visual culture, it is instead an absolutely crucial feature in the construction of a different public sphere. The dismissal of the image as deceiving, artificial, if not false and treacherous, is often an alibi to maintain hegemonic policies that continue to keep the postcolonial other out of sight, and therefore voiceless. Or in other words: to be seen is not something passive, a passive and involuntary act of to-be-looked-at-ness, but a way of speaking.

Last Updated 6 May 2014

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