Jean Fautrier produced twenty-two sculptures in the period between 1927 and 1944, all were based on the human figure. During 1940-4 he concentrated on a series of heads, of which Large Tragic Head is the penultimate and Head of a Hostage (Tate T07300) is the last. In each the head has been the site of a seemingly brutal attack, made all the more expressive by the evidence of the artist's physical manipulation of the material. Large Tragic Head, with its clawed and battered face, is a particularly potent example of Fautrier's work and led to his Hostage series of paintings and sculptures of 1943-5. All of these works were made under the threatening conditions of the German wartime occupation of Paris, where Fautrier was briefly arrested in early 1943. When his works were exhibited after the Liberation, they were seen to memorialise that collective experience. In 1945 André Malraux, the critic, writer and politician, wrote the catalogue introduction to the exhibition of the Hostage series. Though Large Tragic Head anticipates the series, it fits Malraux's description of them as 'the first attempt to dissect contemporary pain, down to its tragic ideograms, and force it into the world of eternity' (quoted in Paris Post War, p.89).
For Fautrier, art had to begin with reality. 'In matters of art', he said, 'all that comes from reality, on condition that it serves only as the initial thrust, appears more imaginative, more magic than anything which obstinately turns its back on it' (quoted in Jean Yves-Mock, 'Jean Fautrier', Apollo, vol.68, September 1958, p.83). This reflects Fautrier's overriding concern with the human condition. During the war he became acutely aware of the bleakness and potency of isolation, a state which 'offers us the purest and the most absolute solutions' (quoted in Paris Post War, p.90). Malraux described the response to wartime suffering found in Fautrier's works as an attempt 'to express the drama without representing it' (quoted in Aftermath, p.50). This may be felt in the balance between the striated part of Large Tragic Head and the delicate modelling of the remaining eye and gasping mouth. That Fautrier stopped short of completely obliterating the features - a tendency he pushed further in Head of a Hostage (Tate T07300) - suggests a desire to commemorate the victims of violence, while making that violence more pronounced.
This example is one of an edition of nine casts of Large Tragic Head made at the Valsuani foundry in Paris. It is believed that the edition was made towards the end of Fautrier's life. Other casts are owned by the Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris and the Moderna Museet, Stockholm.
Aftermath: France 1945-54, exhibition catalogue, Barbican Centre for the Arts, London 1982, pp.49-53
Jean Fautrier 1898-1964, exhibition catalogue, Musée d'art moderne de la ville de Paris 1989, reproduced p.165
Paris Post War: Art and Existentialism 1945-55, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1993, pp.89-103, reproduced p.93 in colour