Boris Taslitzky
Riposte 1951

Artwork details

Boris Taslitzky 1911–2005
Date 1951
Medium Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions Unconfirmed: 2100 x 3100 mm
frame: 2430 x 3138 x 50 mm
Acquisition Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1998
Not on display


Boris Taslitzky made Riposte in direct response to current events. In the aftermath of the Second World War (1939-45), France fought to suppress claims for independence in its colonies in Indo-China which had just been freed from Japanese occupation. Supplies and troops were shipped from French ports, which became the focus for unrest. In 1949 the dockers of Port-de-Bouc, near Marseille, refused to load the ships and staged a strike which was broken up by armed police. The violence of this official action appalled Taslitzky, as the use of police dogs against French citizens raised memories of Nazi wartime atrocities. Drawing accounts from newspapers, he set out to encapsulate the conflict. He dramatised his image through sharpened colour and a spatial concentration created by the lighting and the pattern of the cobblestones. The details are deliberately emotive. At the centre a dog bites into the arm of a collapsing woman. The darkly uniformed police are largely faceless, with the exception of one held down in the foreground who resembles the Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler (1889-1945). By contrast, the dockers are dressed in light colours, and they launch their 'riposte' using the available bricks. A woman seizes the French tricolore flag, symbol of the revolutionary ideals of 'Liberty, Fraternity and Equality', so that, by implication, she represents the true nature of French sympathies.

In style, subject and scale Riposte demonstrates Taslitzky's admiration for the great nineteenth century painters Francisco Goya (1746-1828), Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) and Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863). The characterisation recalls the victims of execution in Goya's Fourth of May, 1814 (Prado, Madrid), while the woman with the flag echoes Delacroix's Liberty at the Barricades, 1834 (Louvre, Paris). Taslitzky's commitment to political art derived from the Communist Party's doctrine of Socialist Realism, which was first proposed in the early 1930s as a contemporary realism legible to the vast majority, for whom avant-garde art was considered abstruse. Taslitzky first emerged as a key practitioner of French Socialist Realism in the 1930s, as shown by his The Strikes of June 1936 (T07404). He resumed his social criticism on his return in 1945 from wartime imprisonment in the concentration camp at Buchenwald, where he had been interned as a communist by the Nazis.

The strength of Taslitzky's work is demonstrated in the reception of Riposte when, in 1951, it reached the Salon d'Automne, which had already been the site of political controversy in the preceding years. Although hung by the committee, Riposte was among seven works protesting against the war in Indo-China (including a portrait submitted by Taslitzky under a pseudonym) that were removed by police as an 'offence to national feeling'. This was in preparation for the visit by the President of the Republic, Vincent Auriol (1884-1966, President 1947-54), and attracted a storm of publicity, ranging from the issue of censorship to the questionable legality of the action. The re-instatement and the removal again of some of the works - not including Taslitzky's - only served to prolong the authorities' difficulties. The prominent communist intellectual Louis Aragon (1897-1982) wrote a coruscating article, entitled 'At the Salon d'Automne: Painting has Ceased to be a Game'. He revealed that the arts Minister Baylot, who was responsible for the removals, had previously been the Prefect for the area of Port-de-Bouc at the time of the strikes.

Further reading:
Louis Aragon, 'Au Salon d'Automne: Peindre a cessé d'être un jeu', Les Lettres françaises, 15 November 1951, reprinted in Ecrits sur l'art moderne, Paris 1981, pp.78-86, reproduced p.79
Aftermath: France 1945-54, exhibition catalogue, Barbican Centre for the Arts, London 1982, pp.70-1

Matthew Gale
June 2000