Narrative Figuration #2 - By Jean-Luc Chalumeau

Narrative Figuration in New York

Fifty-seven years after its appearance in Paris, Narrative Figuration is presented in New York thanks to the Richard Taittinger Gallery, essentially as a historical movement, which is good news. It was in 1964 that an exhibition was organized at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris that has become mythical: Mythologies quotidiennes. This group exhibition was immediately part of the Paris-New York debate. Let's summarize the context at that time: Ileana Sonnabend had moved to Paris in 1962 and, as early as 1963, she was exhibiting Andy Warhol's already famous Marilyn. Artists of all nationalities working in France were thus directly confronted with Pop Art, as they had been for a long time with American abstract expressionism, which had triumphed since the 1950s. A painting by the Icelandic artist Errò soon summarized a feeling widely shared by the young painters: The Background of Pollock (acrylic on canvas, 260 x 200 cm, 1967). The tutelary figure of Pollock seemed to dominate and complete the history of art according to the scheme imposed at the time by Clement Greenberg: from Manet to Cézanne and from Cézanne to Pollock, the disappearance of the anecdote was consummated. Painting no longer had to tell stories, it was time to abstain from all narration. The pop artists were certainly not abstract, but they were content to represent objects of the industrial society, without commenting on them: they did not tell stories either. But what brought together the artists of Narrative Figuration was the need to give meaning to their works, more precisely a political meaning.

Let us give just three examples that were to dominate the early 1970s: First, the great painting In China, at Hu-Xian (oil on canvas, 200 x 300 cm, Musée National d'Art Moderne-Centre Pompidou), painted in 1974 by Gérard Fromanger following a trip to Mao's China, which exploded as a challenge to the Maoist conformism of many intellectuals of the time. The painter's critical intelligence had detected the gigantic imposture hidden behind the phraseology of the Great Helmsman's "cultural revolution" and denounced it with exclusively plastic means. Secondly, in 1972, the Italian artist Valerio Adami created Il Gile di Lénine (oil on canvas, 239 x 367 cm, Centre Pompidou), a painting with a precise and elliptical drawing, with a dominant red color, which emphasized a typically petty-bourgeois element of clothing: the vest. The homage to the father of the October Revolution was therefore ironically critical! Third, the Spanish artist Eduardo Arroyo, an anti-Franco activist who had taken refuge in France, painted El Caballero español in 1970 (oil on canvas, 162 x 130.5 cm, Centre Pompidou), a portrait ridiculing a macho representative of the reactionary Spanish bourgeoisie, accompanied by a high-heeled woman's shoe parodying a 1937 image by Miró, a painter who had been rejected because he had not left Franco's Spain. By themselves, these three examples allow us to understand why the most important thinkers of the twentieth century were keenly interested in the painters of Narrative Figuration through texts that have made history: Jacques Derrida on Adami, Jean-François Lyotard on Monory, Pierre Bourdieu on Rancillac, Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze on Fromanger etc. ...


Let's go back to the historical facts: it all began with Bernard Rancillac who, in 1962, was disgusted by twenty years of domination of various abstractions in galleries and cultural institutions around the world. At that very moment Hervé Télémaque arrived in Paris from Haiti via New York, where he himself had rejected the hold of abstraction on young painters while observing with interest the early work of the pop artists Lichtenstein and Rosenquist.  Rancillac and Télémaque met at the first Latin American Salon in Paris, in which the Haitian Télémaque participated, but his paintings had nothing to do with "Latino art", which Rancillac immediately noticed: the two young men sympathized and rallied around them artists and critics who, like them, did not accept to bend to fashion and practiced, in one way or another, a critical vision of the everyday. Among them: Jacques Monory, Eduardo Arroyo, Peter Saul, the critics Alain Jouffroy and Gérald Gassiot-Talabot. The first, a friend of Rauschenberg, defended a "new history painting" which he saw emerging in Paris, the second would soon give his name to Narrative Figuration and theorize it. For various reasons, Errò, Adami, Fromanger and Cybèle Varela would not join the movement until later.


Interested in pop art, Rancillac and his friends were not long fooled by what it represented: "We were present at all the openings of Ileana Sonnabend," Rancillac told me. Perhaps we also thought that one day we would exhibit there, but we were really fooling ourselves. Sonnabend found us sympathetic, but for her, what was being done in New York was far better than what we were doing! "Of course, this statement should be qualified by other testimonies, in particular that of Monory (a memory I collected in 2004): "At the time, I believe that the idea of 'resisting' Pop Art was not formulated at all. The artists of the Narrative Figuration were formally influenced by Pop Art, and not only them. In Cuba, the 'revolutionary' artists painted very militant, very anti-American things, but in a style that was perfectly consistent with pop. "The influence of pop art from a formal point of view was certainly real, but obviously not from a substantive point of view, the rupture increasing with the explosion of 1968. Very active within the framework of the Salon de la Jeune Peinture, some artists of the Narrative Figuration, accompanied by Gérard Fromanger, created the "popular workshop of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts". For a month, they invented and produced every night the famous silk-screen posters stuck on the walls of the Latin Quarter in the early morning. But these directly political works had only a time: in 1968 the young artists read in particular Herbert Marcuse: "The more a work is immediately political, he had written, the more it loses its power of decentering and the radicality, the transcendence of its objectives of change. "It was well what thought Fromanger, Arroyo and their friends: their model would be henceforth Rimbaud, not Jdanov.  All despised the socialist realism and its epigones.


The truth is that the artists of the Narrative Figuration never constituted a real group. The critic Pierre Gaudibert observed in 1992 that it was "simply an arbitrary grouping of those who wanted to give painting a politically active function. "As a result, these artists had essentially individual careers and, over the years, opportunities to meet together became rare. The exhibition at the Richard Taittinger Gallery is thus exceptional, and it is therefore appropriate to situate each of the nine artists gathered here today, some of whom have unfortunately disappeared.