Summary

Extremely detailed realism and working class subject matter come together in André Fougeron's portrait of a pair of miners as The Cock Fighters (Les Coqueleux - literally 'the breeders of fighting cocks'). The ruddy faces and hands of the two men set off the flamboyant colours of the groomed and armed cocks (their metal spurs temporarily corked). They are the only points of colour in the grey landscape under a glowering sky, just as the fight itself provides relief from relentless labour. The cocks confront each other and, although the miner on the left looks at the viewer, the challenging glance of the man on the right suggests that the forthcoming bout is seen as personal. The head of a third bird emerges from the central pannier, an indication, perhaps, that this will be a continuing ritual.

By the time The Cock Fighters was painted, Fougeron was the leading artist associated with the French Communist Party. He had emerged from the Second World War as a prominent member of the Front national des arts and became secretary (1946-50) of the Union des arts plastiques. Both organisations were left-wing and associated with the purging of those deemed to have collaborated during the German Occupation. In this period he moved through the post-Cubism shared with Edouard Pignon (1905-93), Renato Guttuso (1912-87) and others, towards a heightened realism which he heralded in 1948 as a 'new French realism'. The pivotal work was Parisians at the Market, 1947-8 (reproduced in André Fougeron: Pièces détachées 1937-1987, exhibition catalogue, Galerie Jean-Jacques Dutko, Paris 1987, p.59) in which, with exacting detail, working class women inspect fish at a stall. In 1947, when the Communists were briefly part of a coalition government, Auguste Lecoeur, the party secretary and Under-Secretary of State for coal production, commissioned Fougeron to document the lives of the coal miners of Northern France and the Pas-de-Calais (Utley 2000, p.144). The commission and Fougeron's response were overtly political. His new style was especially suited to this work. He lived with the miners for eighteen months, producing images that were both realistic and symbolic. In The Cock Fighters, the miners clasp the symbol of French nationalism - the cock - and frame the pit's slag heap on the horizon. These men are dramatised as patriotic but downtrodden, proud but potentially armed. Other works, notably The Judges 1950 (Musée national d'art moderne, Paris), record the impoverished miners as the victims of industrial accidents and disease. They are shown as the over-looked foundation of French post-war industrial resurgence.

The back of The Cock Fighters is inscribed with the title and the collective name of the series 'Le Pays des Mines' (The Land of the Mines). When forty paintings were completed in Fougeron's Paris studio, they were shown under this heading at the elegant Bernheim-Jeune gallery in Paris before touring France as a solo exhibition in 1951. They exemplified the Communist Party's emphasis on Socialist Realism in contrast to the personal modernism of their most famous adherent, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). The catalogue accompanying Fougeron's exhibition evoked the miners' strike of 1941 under the German occupation as an act of resistance (Stil 1951, p.10). This was also seen as an anticipation of the miners' political struggle in 1949-50 for better working conditions against a government which had sent in the riot police against them. Fougeron's Socialist Realism captured the combination of suffering and stoicism that he believed the miners exemplified, and made explicit his political message to the nation.

Further reading:
André Stil, André Fougeron: Le Pays de Mines, Paris 1951, reproduced pl.9
Christine Lindey, Art in the Cold War: From Vladivostok to Kalamazoo, 1945-1962, London 1990, pp.82-4, 94
Gertje R. Utley, Picasso: The Communist Years, New Haven and London 2000, pp.143-4

Matthew Gale
June 2001