Jean Fautrier

Head of a Hostage


Not on display

Jean Fautrier 1898–1964
Original title
Tête d'otage
Lead on marble base
Object: 540 × 295 × 310 mm, 25.2 kg
Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1997


Head of a Hostage is both the last in Jean Fautrier's Hostage series of 1943-5 and the last sculpture that he made. This example in lead is one of an edition of four bronze and two lead casts. It is inscribed 'Fautrier' and '3/6' and is stamped with the Valsuani mark, the foundry used by Fautrier for casting the majority of his sculptures. It is believed that the edition was completed before the artist's death in 1964. The other lead cast is in the collection of the Musée de l'Ile de France, Château de Sceaux, Sceaux.

Fautrier was part of a Resistance circle of writers, poets, and artists in Paris during World War II. In January 1943 he was arrested by the Nazis because of this affiliation. He was released upon the intervention of the German sculptor Arno Breker and withdrew to Châtenay-Malabray, a mental asylum in the suburbs of Paris. The writer Jean Paulhan arranged for him to have a studio space in the sanatorium and, while there, Fautrier produced his most famous series of paintings and sculptures, known collectively as the Hostages ('Otages'). The Nazis used the forest surrounding the clinic to torture and execute prisoners and, although their actions were out of sight, the screams of the victims could be heard by those in residence. This harrowing experience is reflected in Fautrier's works. The manipulation of the material of Head of a Hostage, with its layered and scored surfaces, lends the appearance of mutilated flesh to the truncated form. Despite this apparent formlessness, a delicate profile is drawn out of the mass, just as occurs in a number of the paintings of the series. In this way, Fautrier combined elements of figuration and abstraction, conveying both the individuality of the hostages and the amorphous quality of anonymous bodies found in mass graves.

The Hostage series was first exhibited at the Galerie René Drouin, Paris, in 1945. The paintings were hung closely in rows, an arrangement which suggested an association with mass executions. The stark portrayal of recent horrors, and the works' combination of beauty and aggression, made viewers uncomfortable. The poet Francis Ponge described the Hostages as 'tumified faces, crushed profiles, bodies stiffened by execution, dismembered, mutilated, eaten by flies' (quoted in Paris Post War, p.89). André Malraux, the politician, critic and writer, in his essay for the exhibition catalogue, traced a link between the sculptures and the paintings. He singled out Head of a Hostage as central to the series: 'The Hostage which is the key to all the others is the large hostage sculpture. Rather than coming from Fautrier's paintings, these figures come from his sculpture. From his sculpture which has found, through torture, what it had sought for a long time in vain: a means of incarnation.' Such a view was redemptive and Malraux went on to claim that Fautrier had created in his Hostages series 'the most beautiful monument to the dead of the Second World War' (quoted in Jean Fautrier, p.222).

Further reading:
Aftermath: France 1945-54, exhibition catalogue, Barbican Centre for the Arts, London 1982, pp.49-53
Jean Fautrier 1898-1964, exhibition catalogue, Musée d'art moderne de la ville de Paris 1989, reproduced p.164
Paris Post War: Art and Existentialism 1945-55, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1993, pp.89-103, reproduced p.94 in colour

Amy Dempsey
January 2000

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Display caption

This work belongs to a series of paintings and sculptures, known collectively as the ‘Hostages’, made in 1943–5. Fautrier spent most of this period in a sanatorium on the outskirts of Paris. At night, he could hear the Gestapo torture and execute prisoners in the nearby woods. The pitted and scarred surface of Head of a Hostage suggests both individual features and the anonymity of bodies found in mass graves. Versions of the piece exist in bronze, but this cast is made from lead, carrying with it connotations of weight, toxicity and mortality.

Gallery label, July 2012

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Technique and condition

A hollow lead cast mounted on a polished Belgian Black marble base in two parts. The head is attached with two bolts to a shallow five-sided base, which is held to a larger rectangular base by a central pin. It is a lost wax cast approximately 5mm thick with a very textured and gouged surface.

This piece is one of an edition of six, two of which are cast in lead and the other four cast in bronze. Since lead is a much softer metal than bronze, the crispness of the bronze casts is now somewhat lost in the lead version. Raised mould lines are visible on the surface. On the left of the flattened surface near the base there is a cast rectangular foundry mark that reads, 'C Valsuani'. On the right corner of the same side there is a cast inscription 'Fautrier' and an edition number '3/6'. These were inscribed in the wax prior to casting.

The sculpture is generally in good condition. There are numerous small marks and bruises evident in the surface, and a light brown casting residue in many of the deeper crevices. Tiny horizontal and vertical score marks over the surface are probably the result of cleaning after casting at the foundry. At the base of the sculpture are two internal lugs through which two brass bolts and nuts secure it to the marble bases. On acquisition a curatorial decision was taken to remove the five sided marble section, considered to be a later addition, and display the lead cast directly on the rectangular marble base.

Sandra Deighton
October 1997

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