Protean: Art & Architecture in Post-War France | Hanina Fine Arts

Everything sounds better in French. Their version of massive, heavy, dour post-war Abstract Expressionism is the lither, prettier Abstraction lyrique. While Pollock and Rothko painted with the weight of the world on their shoulders, their counterparts across the pond seemed to share a brighter, lighter outlook.

Perhaps their happiness came from the large amount of government support on offer. This exhibition focuses on paintings from artists who benefitted from the “1% policy” - promoted by the novelist André Malraux, who became France’s first cultural affairs minister in the post-war years. The policy got its nickname because that was the proportion of construction costs that, by law, needed to be spent on artwork. And, given the enormous war damages in the country, this meant an enormous amount of money for public art.

James Pichette, ‘Soleil Levant’ (1955)

The 1% policy funded Gustave Singier’s abstract mosaic in the huge concrete ring of the Maison de la Radio in Paris - recently restored. It also paid for large public sculptures in stainless steel by Claude Viseux. And provided support for artists who are still globally-known and shown like Pierre Soulages and Victor Vasarely.

Less well known artists like James Pichette were also in prime position to benefit. His Soleil Levant (1955), on show in the exhibition, is a modest composition that is obviously deeply influenced by Pichette’s Abstract Expressionist peers across the ocean.

Compositionally similar, but the mood is different.

When Rothko composed his Seagram Murals for the (private, expensive) dining room of a new office skyscraper, he intended to express “tragedy, ecstasy, doom”. He eventually cancelled the contract because he didn’t think the venue was appropriate.

By contrast, Pichette’s work was outward-facing, friendly, aimed for the widest possible public. From these bright abstract oil paintings came much larger works: most famously, a massive mural using similar forms on the side of a public housing block in Vitry-sur-Seine.

It’s good to see a show which showcases Abstract Expressionism’s less-celebrated but better-adjusted cousin.

Protean: Art & Architecture in Post-War France is at Hanina Fine Arts (London). 27 February - 27 May 2023