Summary

The loose style of André Fougeron's Massacre at Sakiet III underscores a shift that took place in his work of the late 1950s. The doctrine of Socialist Realism had been formulated in the Soviet Union in the 1930s as a means of securing an intelligible contemporary art that addressed the lives and concerns of the proletariat. However, the political thaw that followed the death of the Soviet leader Josef Stalin (1880-1953), which included the public acknowledgement of his purges and exterminations, brought a related relaxation of cultural doctrines. In France, although realism remained of fundamental importance to the Communist Party, Fougeron's Atlantic Civilisation, 1953 (Tate T07645) was one of the last major works bound strictly to Socialist Realism.

The crisis of French colonial policy became especially acute in the mid-1950s as indigenous peoples in North Africa fought for independence. In Algeria which was considered integral to France by the then government, there were acts of violence on all sides. The Communist Party actively supported the cause of colonised peoples and this is reflected in Fougeron's choice of subject matter for Massacre at Sakiet III. On 8 February 1958, French airforce bombardment resulted in the deaths of sixty-eight civilians at Sakiet Sidi Yousef on the Algerian-Tunisian border. Fougeron's painting captured the immediate response to an event that summarised the brutal war and evoked uncomfortable comparisons with the fascist bombardment of Guernica that had inspired Pablo Picasso's mural of 1937. When shown at the Salon des indépendants in April 1958, Fougeron's painting was the focus of controversy for its identification of official French involvement (then still under debate), summarised in the line of military boots at the top of the canvas. This detail recalls the equally contentious use of French uniforms in The Execution of the Emperor Maximillian, 1867-8 (National Gallery, London) by Edouard Manet (1832-83). The massacre at Sakiet was deplored by the United Nations, and was a international cause célèbre inspiring the contemporary painting The Bombardment of Sakiet, 1958 (reproduced in James Hyman, The Battle for Realism, London 2001, p.84) by the British artist Peter de Francia (born 1921).

Fougeron conceived Massacre at Sakiet III as the third part (hence the 'III' of the title) of a notional 'triptych of shame'. He named two earlier paintings as the other parts: North Africans at the Gates of the City, 1954 and The Orphans, c.1955 (both in private collections, no reproductions found). Massacre at Sakiet III is the same width as, and may serve as a pendant to, North Africans at the Gates of the City, which reworked the detail of immigrants sheltering under corrugated iron seen in the bottom left corner of Atlantic Civilisation. However, the link between the components of the 'triptych of shame' was thematic rather than compositional (as might be expected from orthodox triptychs) and Fougeron only occasionally showed them together.

Further reading:
Raymond Perrot, Esthétique de Fougeron, Paris 1996, pp.25-7

Matthew Gale
November 2001