Summary

Study for 'The Death of Danielle Casanova' is Boris Taslitzky's definitive study for the three metre wide painting of the same title completed in the following year (Musée de l'histoire vivante, Montreuil, reproduced Boris Taslitzky, p.11). It commemorates the death of Danielle Casanova, the founder of the communist Union des jeunes filles de France (Union of the Daughters of France) in the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. The theme drew upon Taslitzky's own experiences as a prisoner in the concentration camp at Buchenwald, while bearing witness to his belief in the resilience of the human spirit and the communist cause.

Since the mid-1930s, Taslitzky has been active in developing Socialist Realism in France. He and his associates believed in a modern realism that could speak to the people and represent their struggle. In this they followed the doctrine of Socialist Realism as 'reality in its revolutionary development', which was established by Andrei Zhdanov at the 1934 Soviet Writer's Union Congress in Moscow (Utley, p.136). Such allegiances were dangerous after the German Occupation of France in 1940. Taslitzky joined the Resistance, was captured and imprisoned in Clermont-Ferrand, and subsequently at Riom and Saint-Sulpice-la-Pointe near Toulouse. He was able to paint in all of these French camps (decorating a chapel at Saint-Sulpice), but in August 1944 the Germans deported him to Buchenwald.

Taslitzky's experience of Buchenwald provided subjects for his immediate post-war paintings. The Death of Danielle Casanova, 1950 is one such work. It balances a harrowing vision and a sense of transcendence, raising to the status of martyrdom the death of the young communist. With its focussed composition and lighting, the painting exemplifies Taslitzky's debt to the politically charged realism of the nineteenth-century French painters, Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) and Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863). This style was especially apposite, as Casanova's husband, the prominent post-war Communist Party official, Laurent Casanova, was a vociferous advocate of Socialist Realism. Taslitzky's pictorial point of reference was the Deposition of Christ, and this follows widespread post-war use of Christian imagery as 'a means of literalizing transcendental ideas and expressing human suffering' (Utley, p.76). More specifically, his use of Christian iconography for an image of a woman of cult status - a street in Paris was later named after Danielle Casanova - has been seen in the context of the Communist Party's renewed appeal to Catholic voters at this moment (Wilson, p.246).

The study is very close to the final painting in colouring and rigorous composition, though more sketchy in handling. This reveals Taslitzky's academic practice of composing over progressively larger versions; twenty studies preceded this one. He has explained that, rather than painstaking enlargement, the repeated versions allowed him to paint the final canvas quickly from an accumulation of practice and memory (conversation with the author, 4 October 2001). The final painting was shown at the Salon d'Automne in 1950, where Taslitzky was a regular and controversial exhibitor; his Riposte (Tate T07431) was removed the following year for its anti-government stance.

Further reading:
Sarah Wilson, 'Réalismes sous le signe du drapeau rouge, 1945-1960', in Face á l'histoire 1933-1996: L'Artiste moderne devant l'événement historique, exhibition catalogue, Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 1996, pp.244-51
Gertje R Utley, Picasso: The Communist Years, New Haven and London 2000, pp.76-7
Boris Taslitzky: Tableaux et dessins 1929-1999, exhibition catalogue, Siège national du Parti communiste française, Paris 2001, p.29

Matthew Gale
August 2002