A vintage 1966 art print (9.5" x 11.75") of the contemporary abstract work Gray by Roger Bissière on thick glossy paper with a light patina.


In spite of fundamental differences, and for all the undeniable originality of postwar painting, there is undoubtedly a close connection between the work produced in France since 1945 (not only by French artists like Bissière, Bazaine and Soulages, but by De Staël and Poliakoff, both Russian-born, by Singier, a Fleming, and Hartung, a German) and the work of the great masters of the previous generation. Matisse, Picasso, Braque, and even Kandinsky, Klee and Mondrian (to mention no others) had prepared the way; they were the starting point from which any renewal of pictorial language had to be made. Their lesson was not lost on the younger men when, after the war, the traditions of the modern movement were being challenged in the quest, then so urgently felt, for a new dimension at once stylistic and spiritual, a new justification, in short, for artistic endeavor. Painting in the later nineteenth century had been an exploration of sensations. In the early decades of the twentieth it became an exploration of the human consciousness, passing on, in its new flowering after the Second World War, to an ever deeper probing of human realities. In this, as in their eager experimentalism, the postwar masters were admittedly stimulated by the example of Picasso, above all the Picasso of Guernica (1937).

Feeling themselves to be the responsible heirs of the modern tradition, the new painters set themselves to pursue and work out, without any compromise, without any deviation into a bygone classicism, the logical consequences of its discoveries. So it is not by chance that in Paris, as early as 1941, a group of these painters, which included Bazaine and Singier, calied themselves "Peintres de Tradition Française" and exhibited their work under that name. For them that tradition meant above all the impressionist handling of light, the cubist conception of space and the stimulating innovations in Picasso's work from Guernica onwards. The aims of the group were shared by an older master, Bissière, for long an influential teacher at the Académie Ranson in Paris. Already they were intent on a sincerity of expression intimately connected with the actual conditions of the postwar world, of a society which, transformed by the "disasters of war," called for active participation on the artist's part. There could be no escape into the past, no lingering over appearances, for these were too well known, too hackneyed, to arouse any emotion. It was for the artist to investigate the realities behind appearances.

This has been the abiding purpose of painting since the war, and the lines of investigation pursued have been many and varied. It was necessary for each of these painters to work out a personal relationship with a new reality which has nothing in common with the apparent reality of things seen, nor with the pure, unchanging, wholly logical world of geometric painting. Setting little store by geometry and even less by naturalistic stimuli, they proceeded to solve the problem of renewing pictorial language in more dramatic terms which, in the work of men like Bissière, Bazaine and Singier, went far beyond the postulates of Post-Impressionism and Post-Cubism. Their means of expression became increasingly autonomous, no longer referring to anything recognizable or immutable. Their art is itself the expression of a reality in movement, in a state of perpetual flux, and is always marked by that scrupulous craftsmanship and subtly modulated lighting which are so characteristic of the French tradition. Dramatic expression, wholly free of rhetoric, is perhaps seen at its purest in the pictures of Nicolas de Stael, who in the last few years of his life worked his way back toward a figurative art. But for the most part these artists feel irresistibly impelled to express things that lie beyond visual perception. That aspiration informs the dynamic surfaces and signwork of Hartung as it does the more dispassionate monumentality of Soulages, while the limitations of a geometric order have been successfully overcome in the great color tracts of Poliakoff, whose chromatic refinements surround form with an aura of mystery which has no precedent in the staid geometric patterns of Neo-Plasticism. Here are a variety of expressions, called forth, as is only natural, by different ways of feeling, of reacting, of interpreting the aims and purpose of the work of art. A variety of expressions which, however, demonstrate the validity and continuity of modern art and its inexhaustible powers of renewal.