Summary

The Strikes of June 1936, in common with many of Boris Taslitzky's works, reflects particular events gathered into a composition of monumental aspirations. This is a sketch for a larger painting which was subsequently destroyed. The simplified treatment of some areas confirms its preparatory role. There is a notable jump in scale from the couple in the foreground - the resting man and his standing female companion - to the ranks of smaller figures behind. The arrangement of the crowd emphasises constriction, with those on the left restricted between a converging railway and a wall, and those to the right stacked in tiered stands. The overall effect, however, is of festivities. The many small figures are colourful and gesticulating. That they are workers is confirmed by the simple clothing of the large couple and the urban-industrial surroundings, which include the centrally placed factory and crane. The carnival atmosphere is most evident in red flags against the sunny Paris skyline of pale houses which suggest the colours of the French tricolore.

The painting was inspired by the political events of 1936. General strikes for better working conditions helped the election of the left wing alliance headed by Léon Blum and known as the 'Front Populaire' (Popular Front) in May. The strikes ended after the announcement in June of reforms, including pay rises, a 40-hour working week and two-week annual paid holidays. Taslitzky was a committed communist and supportive of the government, and The Strikes of June 1936 reflects the success of proletarian power.

For Taslitzky, art and politics have always been tightly enmeshed. Born in Paris of Russian Jewish emigrants, he came to prominence in the mid 1930s as one of the young French exponents of Socialist Realism, following its declaration as the official style of the International Communist Party. He is often described as an 'engaged' artist, but prefers to see himself as an 'adherent', reflecting the experience of the ordinary people among whom he lives (interview with the author, February 2000). In May-June 1936, these concerns became the subject of structured debates organised by the Communist Maison de la Culture, of which Taslitzky was a secretary. The so-called 'Querelle du réalisme' (dispute about realism) took anti-Fascism as a point of departure and examined the question of the reconciliation of realism and contemporary artistic practice in order to speak to, and reflect, the views of the masses. Senior artists such as Fernand Léger and Jacques Lipchitz participated, but the debates and accompanying exhibitions signalled the emergence of Taslitzky's generation of younger artists including Edouard Pignon and André Fougeron. Taslitzky exhibited The March to Père Lachaise in 1935, which recorded the annual workers' march to the cemetery, and this was something of a companion piece to The Strikes of June 1936. Both paintings announced his ambitions to make large scale works on proletarian themes. The sketch for The Strikes of June 1936 shows the efficacy of a carefully focused realism and reflects Taslitzky's admiration for the nineteenth-century realist paintings he studied at the Louvre. The finished canvas survived only until the German occupation of Paris, when it was destroyed by Nazis ransacking his studio.

Further reading:
Eric Michaud, 'À Propos des réalismes', in Suzanne Pagé ed., Années 30 en Europe: Le temps menaçant 1929-1939, exhibition catalogue, Musée d'art moderne de la ville de Paris 1997, pp.36-8, reproduced in colour p.381

Matthew Gale
June 2000