The Second World War left a battered, ruined Europe.
The scale of the destruction, coupled with the death toll of those killed in combat and in concentration camps, had a profound and enduring impact on artists. For those who didn’t take up arms or go into exile, there was the continual fear of bombing, German Occupation, collaboration, rationing and deportation. The multiple traumas of war pushed them to radically rethink man’s relationship to the world and the way of representing it. Faced with what mankind had been capable of doing to his peers, many were led to question the relationship to the other. Art and culture offered a potential response to such subjects. Questioning the possibility of writing poems after Auschwitz, as the German philosopher Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno wrote in 1949, resonated across all art forms. Painting had become unthinkable after Auschwitz and the question of representation became a crucial one. Was it possible to express the inexpressible; paint the unrepresentable?
Marked by the experience of war, artists reconsidered the representation of the world and the traditional tools of painting. While many of them were unable to express their sense of horror to events as they happened, like Francisco Goya and Otto Dix, others, such as Jean Fautrier, painted to the sound of weapons and warfare. Overcome by the executions of hostages and the persecution of the Jews, Fautrier realized his most important series, Les Otages, during the war. By working with paint in a new way, Fautrier’s human forms can be said to emerge from a shapeless mass of pigments, in which we recognize faces and body parts that have been tortured and mutilated.
Painted in 1943, his emblematic work Sarah evokes the fate of European Jews, just as Léon Zack’s Hommage aux amis would do fifteen years later. Jean-Michel Atlan would evoke his fear of deportation through the black eagle, while Wols haphazardly applied networks of co- lour and disordered lines to the canvas. This experimental form of painting was born from the new manipula- tions of materials, where accident and chance played an essential role. The violence of man was reflected in the violence of painting. While voicing nightmares, many ar- tists also believed that the representation of war required a tabula rasa, the only possible response to the traumas of destruction and mass murder. It was for this reason that the members of the CoBrA group called for a return to a fundamentally primitive form of painting.