André Fougeron

Atlantic Civilisation


In Tate Modern

André Fougeron 1913–1998
Original title
Civilisation atlantique
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 3800 × 5590 × 70 mm
Presented by the artist's family 2000


Atlantic Civilisation is Fougeron's key work of social criticism and an extraordinary example of Cold War rhetoric. Fougeron caricatures the Americanisation of Europe, then a major target of Communist Party propaganda. At more than five and a half metres wide, Atlantic Civilisation was a self-consciously grand gesture with which Fougeron was inextricably identified after it was shown at the Salon d'Automne in Paris in November 1953. In contrast to the relative precision of smaller works, such as Return from the Market, 1953 (Tate T07705), Fougeron used a simplifying style that deliberately plays on the comic-strip culture it attacks.

The image is packed with conflicting narratives of corruption, rooted in colonialism, class and capitalism. Reference is made to the French colonial wars in Indo-China through the posters of the colonial parachutists and the returning coffins with mourners set against the Asian woman with a dead child. This last image quotes from Guernica (Museo de Reina Sofía, Madrid), the 1937 mural by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) that epitomised the civilian cost of war. There are allusions to the consequences of other French colonial policies: the subjugation of black Africa in the person of the child shoe-shine and of North Africa in the immigrant Algerians sheltering under corrugated iron (at the bottom left). Fougeron re-used this particular detail in his 'triptych of shame' of which Massacre at Sakiet III (Tate T07706) is a part. In Atlantic Civilisation Fougeron addressed more general fears about the break-down of family life by showing old people abandoned on a bench, the mother and children living in a tent, and a circle of children engulfed by industrial pollution. That these contrasts are borne of class disparities is emphasised through the juxtapositions of Algerians next to the middle-class children in their camouflaged air-raid shelter, and the shoe-shine in a vest next to pet dogs in coats.

The root of this corruption, in Fougeron's view and as indicated through his title, is the post-war culture promoted by the United States, the embodiment of capitalist consumerism and militarism. At the centre of the composition is a huge American car, flanked by a uniformed G.I., feet up on a French café table, reading a soft porn magazine. France, in the caricatural figure of the fat businessman, pays homage to the car. The detail of the second soldier, shooting across the car, confirms that these symbols are implicitly fascistic, as his German helmet is marked with the SS of the Nazi storm-troopers. Over all of this is the towering electric chair used by the Americans to execute Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, in June 1953, on charges of 'conspiracy with the aim of espionage'. As they were accused of passing nuclear secrets to the USSR out of conscience rather than financial gain, they exemplified - according to the political left - a principled peace movement. This detail is set against that of the children in the air-raid shelter to underscore the nuclear threat that defined the polarisation of the Cold War.

The principles of Socialist Realism ensured that all these references were readily intelligible to Fougeron's audience, just as his espousal of the party line could be measured by the readers of the powerful Communist press. For this left-wing audience, the corruption of France through an engagement with America was embodied in NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation), the implicit target of the anti-militarism of Atlantic Civilisation. New headquarters for the organisation opened in Paris in 1952 and the membership of West Germany (admitted in 1954) was under debate. This was especially contentious as the seemingly permanent division of Germany stood for Cold War polarities that the Communist Party opposed; Fougeron's inclusion of a German soldier reflects this anxiety.

Fougeron made no pretence that Atlantic Civilisation was anything other than a modern history painting with an overt political motivation. It was immediately controversial when shown at the 1953 Salon d'Automne, and became embroiled in the internecine struggles within the party over the relationship between Socialist Realism and a more personal modernism, championed by Picasso. On the death of the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, in March 1953, the Communist author and critic, Louis Aragon (1897-1982) published Picasso's Portrait of Stalin in Les Lettres françaises. The portrait was not deemed to be sufficiently dignified, and Fougeron contributed to the bitter debate by condemning the 'sterile tricks of aesthetic formalism' (Utley 2000, p.187). When Atlantic Civilisation was exhibited, Aragon, though formerly a supporter of Fougeron, returned the attack. He questioned the crudity of the caricatures and the 'anti-realist' composition, and, paradoxically, called on Fougeron to return to realism. Acknowledging the validity of the major themes - 'the American occupation of our country, the politics of war, the war already underway in Vietnam' - Aragon described the painting in Atlantic Civilisation as 'hasty, coarse, contemptuous' (Aragon 1981, p.134).

Even as Atlantic Civilisation epitomised Socialist Realism, it was part of the debates which marked the last throes of the doctrinaire style which was swept away with Stalin's death. When the painting emerged from storage thirty year later, it was seen by the critic Raymond Perrot as an extraordinary slice of Cold War rhetoric, the rediscovery of 'one of the missing links in the vast history of figurations' (Perrot 1996, p.69). By then, the anti-realist composition was praised by Perrot for its 'multi-iconic' juxtapositions that appeared to anticipate the compositional solutions of subsequent Pop art.

Further reading:
Louis Aragon, 'Toutes le couleurs de l'Automne', Les Lettres françaises, 12 November 1953, reprinted in Ecrits sur l'art moderne, Paris 1981, pp.115-35, reproduced p.132
Raymond Perrot, Esthétique de Fougeron, Paris 1996, pp.22-3, 69-75, reproduced p.68
Gertje R. Utley, Picasso: The Communist Years, New Haven and London 2000, pp.189-90, reproduced p.190)

Matthew Gale
December 2001

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Display caption

Fougeron was the leading artist associated with the French Communist Party in the early 1950s. Here he caricatures the increasing Americanisation of Europe, then a major target of Communist Party propaganda. Fougeron’s style plays on the comic -strips associated with American culture. A businessman greeting an American car embodies capitalism. The composition is full of elements that imply criticism of the French colonial wars in Indo-China and North Africa, the continuing nuclear threat and the exploitation of the underprivileged. The electric chair on a pedestal refers to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, American citizens convicted of spying for the USSR.

Gallery label, February 2016

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