Books: French culture under the Nazis

How artists and the arts fared under the Vichy regime and the German occupation of France, 1940-44


France’s dark years—between military defeat in June 1940 and during the ensuing German occupation until the summer of 1944—continue to attract the interest of Anglo-Saxon historians as recent books by Julian Jackson, Robert Gildea and others have shown.

In contrast to these more general studies, Frederic Spotts’s excellently written book focuses entirely on the activities of French artists and intellectuals and their German censors.

Whereas in the occupied countries of eastern Europe where the Nazis permitted scarcely any cultural life, the German military administration in France prided itself on having allowed artistic activity to recover quickly. The occupiers were well aware that the continuation of cultural life, most notably in Paris, could be used to showcase an allegedly benevolent and liberal rule. They also needed the theatres, night clubs and concert halls to entertain their own troops garrisoned in France or on leave from the bloody battlefields elsewhere in Europe. Hence roughly one third of the seats of the Paris Opéra were reserved at any one time for those belonging to the Wehrmacht.

Most importantly, a rich cultural life was intended to help the French forget the material hardships of occupation and thus keep the country calm and controllable with relatively little military manpower. And indeed, theatres, concerts halls, opera houses and art galleries in France saw a considerable increase in visitors in the years 1940-44 compared with the pre-war years. This was no surprise given the scarcity of food, consumer goods and even heating and electricity which the French suffered at home.

Needless to say, at the same time the occupiers imposed severe restrictions especially on the arts based on the written or spoken word, less so on music and the visual arts. Any book manuscript and play for the theatre had to be submitted for approval. The Germans were only interested in a political, not an aesthetic censorship. Thus Jean-Paul Sartre managed to get approval for his existentialist plays “Les Mouches” and “Huis Clos” and Albert Camus for “Le Malentendu”. Nevertheless, theatres preferred to stage reruns of old plays rather than risk something new which might encourage the intervention of the Wehrmacht watchdogs.

There was also a general ban on any work of art which originated from German Jews or people who had been forced into exile after 1933. No paintings by Paul Klee and Max Ernst could be shown in Paris galleries, and all books by Thomas Mann had to be withdrawn from distribution. Some artists like Pablo Picasso and André Gide decided to withdraw from the public realm rather than play the game of the Germans. The occupiers claimed that under their guidance more books were published per year in France than in peace time. But they omitted to mention the fact that because of their control of the distribution of paper most of these titles had only small print runs. In contrast books of right-wing writers such as Henri de Montherlant who praised the French defeat as a starting point for a new era of Franco-German collaboration in a Europe devoid of Jews, democracy and Anglo-Saxon influence, could count on almost unrestricted material and moral support by the occupation authorities. Quantity and not quality prevailed in the arts in France from 1940 to 1944.

Spotts’s book is a good synthesis of existing scholarship but contains nothing new to readers familiar with the topic. In contrast, Laurence Bertrand Dorléac’s study about the visual arts in occupied France is based on an impressive array of material from the notoriously difficult to access French archives. It therefore covered a lot of new ground when first published in France in 1993. Unfortunately her work has not been updated for the English translation and the argument often gets lost in the abundance of findings from the archives.

Lavishly illustrated with black and white and coloured plates, the book investigates in its central chapters how the autocratic Vichy regime under World War I hero Marshall Philippe Pétain tried to determine the direction taken by the visual arts in order to generate a kind of national renewal after the defeat. Vichy had no official aesthetic programme but did have preferences in terms of style, favouring realism, symbolism and folklore in the attempt to maintain the distinctiveness of the French nation within the New European Order propagated by the Nazis. This was, in particular, the case through what Dorléac sarcastically calls “Marshall Art”, that is the mass production of paintings, prints, busts, stamps but also ceramics and lamp shades with Pétain’s portrait and slogans through the newly created Service Artistique du Maréchal. These kitsch products glorified him as the paternal, selfless leader—as the saviour of France.

Dorléac also shows how those artists sometimes linked to movements such as Jeune France and Jeunes peintres de tradition Français attempted to maintain a genuine French way of iconography glorifying medieval and rural themes and relying on the colours red, white and blue. This art had a clearly nationalist and hidden anti-German thrust while at the same time maintaining a distance from the failed Third Republic. According to some painters like Maurice de Vlaminck, but also Vichy officials like the head of the Directions des Beaux Arts, Louis Hautecoeur, the defunct regime had allowed too many foreign and modernist influences on the arts, epitomised by the Spaniards Picasso and Joan Miró and the Russian Wassily Kandinsky who had worked and lived for decades in France. Hence they were absent from the collection of the Musée de l’Art Moderne which opened in Paris in the summer of 1942. Their works had allegedly undermined France’s sense of national identity and strength and therefore the visual arts of the Third Republic had their share of responsibility for the crushing defeat of 1940.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The art of war: French culture under the Nazis'