Patrick Carpenter

The Death of Gabriel Péri


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Not on display

Patrick Carpenter Active 1939–1946
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1166 × 1524 mm
Presented by the Estate of David King 2020


The Death of Gabriel Péri 1943 is a landscape-format painting depicting the inner courtyard of a prison complex. The right-hand half of the painting is dominated by a long prison wall in deep perspective receding to a tower that bisects the painting; behind it is another building and tower, and to the left is another wall that sweeps around enclosing the courtyard. The courtyard is paved and littered by sheets of paper on which the French word ‘L’Humanité’ can be made out; a prominent puddle of water sits towards the bottom of the composition. To the right lies the dead figure of a man whose right hand rests over a piece of paper on which is written ‘I die that France may live / Péri’. The painting depicts the execution of Gabriel Péri by the German Gestapo on 15 December 1941 at Fort Mont-Valérien, Suresnes, in the suburbs of Paris. Péri was a prominent French journalist and politician, a member of the Communist Party since 1920 and managing editor of the foreign desk of the newspaper L’Humanité through which he gained a reputation throughout the 1930s as a persistent anti-fascist, denouncing both Hitler and Mussolini as well as France’s non-intervention in the Spanish Civil War. Following the occupation of France in 1940 Péri went into hiding in Paris, during which time he continued publishing, encouraging acts of resistance before he was captured on 18 May 1941 by the Gestapo.

The Death of Gabriel Péri was included in and specifically painted for the Artists’ International Association (AIA) exhibition For Liberty which was held at the John Lewis Basement Canteen in Oxford Street, London in 1943. The exhibition was the most substantial result of the AIA’s directive the previous year that called on artists to be propagandists for the war effort. The exhibition was sponsored by The News Chronicle, opened by the Minister of Information Brendan Bracken with the Russian ambassador Ivan Maisky in attendance. Misha Black, in the unsigned foreword for the catalogue of the exhibition, envisioned a new role for the artist in wartime as the creator of a propaganda ‘which appeals to the imagination’ (in Artists’ International Association 1943, p.3). Artists were asked to submit paintings on a group of themes and to standard sizes. At the core of the exhibition was a group of sixteen paintings on the subject of the four freedoms of the Atlantic Charter – freedom of speech, freedom to worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear – all to the same size of four by five feet and all painted in the six weeks before the exhibition; these included The Death of Gabriel Péri. The paintings were hung together in a single room. Each painting was separated from the others by frames specially produced by Peter Ray, who also worked with Misha Black, FHK Henrion and Ronald Dickens on the production and design of the exhibition as a whole. Carpenter’s painting hung next to Kenneth Rowntree’s (1915–1997) Freedom of Worship 1943 (private collection, illustrated in Artists’ International Association 1943, unpaginated insert).

The subject of Péri’s execution provided a particularly poignant example of the fascist destruction of freedom of speech. He was recognised as a martyr for the French resistance and his death was immortalised in poems by both Louis Aragon (‘Ballad to He Who Sings While Being Tortured’, 1943) and Paul Eluard (‘Gabriel Péri’, 1944). Péri was one of a group of seventy prisoners killed at the same time at the fortress at Suresnes and yet Carpenter has depicted his body alone in the courtyard slumped against the pockmarked wall – drawing direct reference from the nineteenth-century French painter Jean-Louis Gérôme’s (1824–1904) The Execution of Marshal Ney 1868 (Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield). The major difference being that where Gérôme shows the firing squad marching away from the dead body of Ney, Carpenter depicts Péri’s body completely isolated, the architecture of the fortress being otherwise unpeopled. Carpenter’s decision starkly communicates both the manner of Péri’s death and the significance of what he fought for: not just freedom of speech but also the humanity identified in his newspaper’s title. The deserted architecture, describing accentuated recessive space and communicating a repressively cold atmosphere, also suggests the metaphysical painting of the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico (1888–1978), highlighting the troubling distance between the conviction and ideals that Péri held and was killed for, and the brutal manner of his death.

The historian Robert Radford has identified the sculptor Peter László Peri (1899–1967) as perhaps the best example of an artist in Britain in the 1930s and 1940s producing a socialist realism that embodied conventional Soviet-style revolutionary romanticism. For painting, however, Radford observed that ‘the number of paintings of stature and conviction which were produced in Britain in the authentic modes of Soviet-style Romantic realism in terms of form and content are very few indeed’. In this respect he identified Carpenter’s The Death of Gabriel Péri as the pre-eminent painting produced in Britain (there being no corresponding painting identifiable from the 1930s). The only other such painting noted by Radford was Derek Chittock’s The Arrest of the Dockers of 1952 (private collection, illustrated in Radford 1987 p.180). That both paintings were owned by Communist Party newspaper The Daily Worker (subsequently The Morning Star), before both were acquired by the graphic designer David King, attests to their status in this regard. (Radford 1987, pp.73–5.)

Further reading
For Liberty, exhibition catalogue, Artists’ International Association, London 1943, illustrated unpaginated insert.
Lynda Morris and Robert Radford, The Story of the Artists’ International Association 1933–1953, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford 1983, reproduced p.69.
Robert Radford, Art for a Purpose, the Artists’ International Association 1933–1953, Winchester 1987, reproduced p.138.

Andrew Wilson
December 2019

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