Jean Fautrier

The Executed

c.1945, published c.1960–4

In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Jean Fautrier 1898–1964
Original title
Les Fusillés
Photo-etching on paper
Image: 335 × 269 mm
Purchased 1986

Catalogue entry

P77161 The Executed c.1945, pub. c.1960–4
Les Fusillés

Heliogravure and etching 335 × 269 (13 1/4 × 10 5/8) on cream Vergé d'Auvergne paper 658 × 505 (26 × 19 7/8); plate-mark 356 × 299 (14 × 11 3/4); watermark ‘RICHARD DE BAS’ with a heart shape and ‘1326’ in a banner above; printed by Jacques David, Paris and published by Michel Couturier, Paris in an edition of 50 (another edition of 25 published on Japon Impérial paper)
Inscribed ‘Fautrier’ below image b.r. and ‘8/50’ below image b.l.
Purchased from Galerie Bonnier, Geneva (Grant-in-Aid) 1986
Exh: Paris Post War: Art and Existentialism 1945–55, Tate Gallery, June–Sept. 1993 (172)
Lit: Rainer Michael Mason, Jean Fautrier: Les Estampes, Geneva 1986, p.114 no.237, II, repr. (another impression). Also repr: Edwin Engelberts, Jean Fautrier: Oeuvre gravé, oeuvre sculpté, Geneva 1969, [pp.18, 44] no.1943/1 (unspecified impression); Fautrier: 1898–1964, exh. cat., Musée d'art moderne de la ville de Paris 1989, p.203 no.258 (different impression)

This print depicts a group of figures in profile, their bodies tilted diagonally across the picture plane, highlighted against a dark shadowy background. Their mask-like faces are given the basic features of eyes, noses and mouths but are otherwise anonymous, while their bodies are indicated by a few rudimentary lines. Four parallel lines across the torso of each figure suggest exposed ribcages. The angle of the bodies may suggest that they are falling backwards or that they are lined up on the ground.

It has not been possible to date the image used in P77161 with certainty. Fautrier often left his work undated or dated it retrospectively, sometimes incorrectly. In his catalogue raisonné published in 1969, Engelberts dated this image 1943, following the artist's own dating of the work when it was published in 1949 as part of the book Fautrier l'enragé. More recently, Rainer Michael Mason has tentatively dated the image 1945 (see Fautrier: 1898–1964, exh. cat., Musée d'art moderne de la ville de Paris 1989, p.203). This dating relates in part to an unrealised project for a book of poems by André Frénaud, entitled La Nourriture du bourreau (The Food of the Executioner), which was to have been illustrated by some Fautrier etchings. Mason cites a letter dated 22 November 1945 from Frénaud to the Parisian publisher Georges Blaizot, in which the writer presents his proposal for a volume of poetry, referring, though not by name, to certain etchings by Fautrier which had partly inspired his verses (Mason 1986, p.191 n.28).

Although Frénaud did not give in his letter the full details of the images he planned to use, Mason claims that ‘The Executed’ is one of three etchings which Frénaud intended to accompany his poem ‘La Libération des corps’, written in 1945 (ibid., p.189). In the letter to Blaizot, Frénaud mentions ‘the poem ... entitled: La Libération des corps’ and ‘the three etchings by Fautrier from which certain elements have been transposed into the ... poem’ (quoted ibid., p.191). Although it is not possible to provide conclusive evidence for Mason's claim, certain lines from Frénaud's poem do indeed closely echo the imagery of ‘The Executed’. In particular, the lines ‘Pitié pour les fusillés | emballés dans la fosse comme des anchois’ (‘Have pity on the executed | packed into the ditch like anchovies’) evoke both the title of the print and the way in which the victims' bodies are lined up close together. Later in the poem, Frénaud may allude to Fautrier's depiction of the victims' ribcages (‘Branle-bas de brandebourgs des cages thoraciques’, meaning ‘The chaos of greatcoats and ribcages’) and the rigid dignity of their pose (‘Ainsi se tiennent-ils avec roideur | dans la dignité cadavérique’, or ‘Thus they hold themselves stiffly | with the dignity of corpses’). The full poem is published in André Frénaud, La Sainte Face: Poèmes, Paris 1968, pp.161–2. Frénaud envisaged the book as being ‘a desperate dialectic from which Fautrier's art and my texts draw their full significance’ (quoted Mason 1986, p.191 n.28). For a full discussion and transcription of Frénaud's letter, see Mason 1986, pp.114, 189, 191.

In a related print which dates from the same period as ‘The Executed’, ‘Oradour’, c.1945 (repr. Mason 1986, p.124 no.249), Fautrier employed the same imagery as in P77161 of schematic figures in profile, this time reduced to disembodied heads, superimposed diagonally upon one another against a darker background - ghostly and anonymous evocations of the arbitrary atrocity of war. This print relates in turn to a painting of the same subject, ‘Oradour-sur-Glane’, 1945 (The Menil Collection, Houston, repr. Tate Gallery exh. cat., 1993, p.103 in col.), which takes it title from a French village whose inhabitants had been massacred by German troops in June 1944 (see Dominique de Menil, The Menil Collection, New York 1987, p.248). ‘Oradour-sur-Glane’ forms a part of Fautrier's celebrated series of ‘Otage’ (‘Hostage’) paintings (see Yves Peyré, Fautrier: ou Les Outrages de l'impossible, Paris 1990, pp.148–79), which were exhibited at the Galerie René Drouin in 1945.

Between 1943 and 1945 Fautrier had been living and working in the grounds of a psychiatric clinic at Châtenay-Malabry on the outskirts of Paris, having retreated from the city itself after his arrest as a suspected member of the Resistance. It was here that he worked on the ‘Otage’ paintings. It has been argued that their subject matter is inextricably linked with Fautrier's experience at Châtenay, where the surrounding woods were used by the occupying German troops for the torture and summary execution of French prisoners (see Sarah Wilson, ‘Orthodoxy and the Outsider’, Art International, no.4, Autumn 1988, p.36). André Malraux's description of these paintings as ‘the hieroglyphics of pain’ (preface to the catalogue of the 1945 Galerie René Drouin exhibition, quoted in Engelberts 1969, [p.19]) might apply equally to the printed images he produced during this period.

Both ‘The Executed’ and ‘Oradour’ serve to illustrate the way in which Fautrier's prints ‘are linked to the development of his painting and drawing work, as though he had been drawn by the appeal of a second look, had wanted to approach them once more, but this time standing back, in a definitive yet open-ended manner, from what had gone before’ (Rainer Michael Mason, ‘Fautrier Painter-Engraver: Desire versus the Norm’, in Paris exh. cat., 1989, p.190). As a peintregraveur, Fautrier valued the importance of printmaking as an artistic process in its own right, rather than merely a reproductive means. He set up his own printing press in his studio at Châtenay and experimented with a number of innovative techniques by which he could produce, in his own words, ‘incomparable richness of matter in a large number of originals’ (unpublished note, quoted ibid., p.190).

In P77161 and a number of other etchings, he made use of the nineteenth-century reproductive technique of heliogravure, a process involving the photographic transfer of a drawing onto a copper plate covered with a light-sensitive gelatine ground, before etching it (also known as hand photogravure, see Antony Griffiths, Prints and Printmaking: An Introduction to the History and Techniques, 1980, p.124). The use of heliogravure in ‘The Executed’ allowed Fautrier to achieve the subtle tonal effects of the dark background, and to go on to produce the linear details of the figures, using an etching needle. This desire to experiment with the printed medium culminated in his conception of ‘multiple originals’, prints to which pictorial matter was added by hand, either by Fautrier or by an assistant under his direction, before being pasted onto canvas and stretched (see Mason 1986, pp.154–69).

Literary collaborations played an important part in Fautrier's printmaking and throughout his career he worked on a number of projects for books. One of these was Jean Paulhan's text Fautrier l'enragé, published in September 1949 in an edition of 250, for which Fautrier provided forty-eight images including ‘The Executed’ and ‘Oradour’. Paulhan's text for Fautrier l'enragé is a eulogy of Fautrier's work and the prints serve not as illustrations, but as examples of the artist's oeuvre. Most of the images date from between 1946 (when the project appears to have been conceived) and 1948, and were printed on Fautrier's own press at Châtenay. In addition to these, Fautrier included the three earlier images which Mason has suggested are those which Frénaud intended to use in his unrealised book, ‘The Executed’, ‘Oradour’ and ‘Les Otages’ (repr. Mason 1986, p.127 no.254). As with ‘Oradour’ and ‘The Executed’, this last includes mask-like faces, suggesting the anonymous victims of wartime brutality. Of the other prints provided by Fautrier for Fautrier l'enragé, some derive from the ‘Otage’ series, while others are depictions of cadavers and truncated bodies. For a full discussion of Fautrier l'enragè, see the 1986 Geneva exhibition catalogue, pp.107–8.

In the early 1960s Michel Couturier undertook the project of reprinting and publishing a large proportion of Fautrier's prints. Rainer Michael Mason notes that although the records of the ‘dépôt légal’ at the Bibliothèque nationale, Paris, indicate that the Couturier editions date from 1962–4, the printer Jacques David thought that the reprinting began in 1960 (see Mason 1986, p.11). Nearly all of the images from Fautrier l'enragé were reprinted and published by Couturier, usually under different titles. ‘The Executed’ was one of the few to retain its original title. Many of the revised titles have less violent overtones than their earlier versions, but ‘Oradour’, published as ‘Les Massacrés’, ‘Les Otages’ and ‘The Executed’ remained as reminders of that period in Fautrier's work which André Malraux described as ‘the first attempt to dissect contemporary pain, down to its tragic ideograms, and force it into the world of eternity’ (catalogue preface for the 1945 exhibition at Galerie René Drouin, quoted in Dominique de Menil, The Menil Collection, New York 1987, p.248).

‘The Executed’ exists in three different states, each printed from a different plate. In the first (repr. Mason 1986, p.114 no.237, Ia), the image measures 296 × 236 mm (11 5/8 × 9 1/4). Only a few trial proofs were printed, on Vergé de Montval paper. In the second state (repr. ibid., p.114 no.237, Ib), the heliogravure process was used to transfer the image onto another plate while reducing it slightly in size to 286 × 232 mm (11 1/4 × 9 1/8) before it was etched. This was the version used for Fautrier l'enragé. In the third state produced for the Couturier edition, of which P77161 is an example, the heliogravure process was again used to transfer the image onto the new plate, this time slightly enlarged. In conversation with the compiler on 8 November 1994, Rainer Michael Mason explained that the new plate would then have been reworked by covering it with a varnish and etching certain areas. Close examination of the second and third versions of ‘The Executed’ reveals slight variations in the impression which are due to this combination of reproduction and hand-working, which is in itself typical of prints involving the heliogravure process. Mason has also confirmed that it is not possible to clarify whether it was Fautrier himself who worked on the plate, or the printer working under the artist's direct supervision.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996

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