The imagery of this large three-panel painting, or triptych, is taken from the artist’s memory of an incident he witnessed while travelling around the Maghreb, Algeria, in 1964. ‘[The Emigrants] was prompted by my hearing a story-teller on a ship telling a story to a group or groups of North Africans going to Africa,’ de Francia has explained. ‘To me, it felt as though it had something Homeric about it.’ (Quoted in Dodd, p.8.)
This work’s panels, which each measure almost three metres in height, are designed to be read in sequence: ‘I think of the triptych form like chapters of a book’, the artist has said (quoted in Dodd, p.8). The scenes are loosely painted in large, angular areas of colour. Each one is dominated by a small cluster of figures standing on the deck of a ship. In the left panel, two young men – one facing the viewer and one in profile – are shown idly leaning against a rail. The colours are clear and bright, suggesting daytime. The scene in the middle panel is compositionally more complex than the first and, because of the darkening sky, appears to take place later in the day. In it, an old man, who wears a pink scarf that blows wildly in the wind, sits between two young men and gestures emphatically. The youth on his left has closed eyes and a sallow pallor, reminding us of the arduousness of the voyage the travellers are making. In the right-hand panel, the old man, his scarf now yellow and swirling, sits with one younger man. In this scene, the darker and more muted palette and deepening shadows on faces indicate that night has fallen. The old man gazes directly at the youth and points to him with his index finger.
The Emigrants is related to a group of works the artist began in the later 1950s that were critical of France’s involvement in North Africa. Of principal importance in this regard is The Bombing of Sakiet 1959 (L02458), which records the attack on the Tunisian village of Sakiet Sidi Youssef by the French air force in 1958. In this work, de Francia produced a scene of violence and destruction. In contrast, T07980, which deals with story-telling amongst travellers returning to Africa, focuses on oral tradition as a moment of transition between the old and young and so points to the survival of indigenous culture.
Interviewed about The Emigrants in 2006, de Francia explained:
The presence of listeners and one orator is an attempt to bring the subject matter into the twentieth century and ... it aims, or probably aims, at employing a situation that is at the same time immensely old. The figures of the first two panels have resolutely nothing to do with the past, but the old man is both contemporary and archaic – that is what I found so fascinating.
(Quoted in Dodd, p.9.)
In terms of its ambition and size, The Emigrants is one of the major works of de Francia’s early to mid career. This artist’s characteristic concern with ordinary people and everyday circumstances has aligned him to some extent with the so-called Kitchen Sink artists of mid 1950s to early 1960s Britain, but his art differs from that group in its more overt political content. An Anglo-Italian, de Francia, grew up in France, studied art in Brussels and, after the Second World War, made extended visits to Italy. His work of this period falls within a tradition of politically-engaged European realism. In particular, his imagery has elements of the direct manner and socialist message of the art of the Italian painter Renato Guttuso (1912–87), whom he knew and admired. In terms of its style and format, The Emigrants is reminiscent of the work of the German artist Max Beckmann (1884–1950), who also painted triptychs (see, for example, Departure 1932–3, Museum of Modern Art, New York).