Boris Taslitzky



Not on display

Boris Taslitzky 1911–2005
Original title
Oil paint on canvas
Unconfirmed: 2100 × 3100 mm
frame: 2430 × 3138 × 50 mm
Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1998


Boris Taslitzky made Riposte in direct response to current events. In the aftermath of the Second World War (1939-45), France fought to suppress claims for independence in its colonies in Indo-China which had just been freed from Japanese occupation. Supplies and troops were shipped from French ports, which became the focus for unrest. In 1949 the dockers of Port-de-Bouc, near Marseille, refused to load the ships and staged a strike which was broken up by armed police. The violence of this official action appalled Taslitzky, as the use of police dogs against French citizens raised memories of Nazi wartime atrocities. Drawing accounts from newspapers, he set out to encapsulate the conflict. He dramatised his image through sharpened colour and a spatial concentration created by the lighting and the pattern of the cobblestones. The details are deliberately emotive. At the centre a dog bites into the arm of a collapsing woman. The darkly uniformed police are largely faceless, with the exception of one held down in the foreground who resembles the Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler (1889-1945). By contrast, the dockers are dressed in light colours, and they launch their 'riposte' using the available bricks. A woman seizes the French tricolore flag, symbol of the revolutionary ideals of 'Liberty, Fraternity and Equality', so that, by implication, she represents the true nature of French sympathies.

In style, subject and scale Riposte demonstrates Taslitzky's admiration for the great nineteenth century painters Francisco Goya (1746-1828), Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) and Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863). The characterisation recalls the victims of execution in Goya's Fourth of May, 1814 (Prado, Madrid), while the woman with the flag echoes Delacroix's Liberty at the Barricades, 1834 (Louvre, Paris). Taslitzky's commitment to political art derived from the Communist Party's doctrine of Socialist Realism, which was first proposed in the early 1930s as a contemporary realism legible to the vast majority, for whom avant-garde art was considered abstruse. Taslitzky first emerged as a key practitioner of French Socialist Realism in the 1930s, as shown by his The Strikes of June 1936 (T07404). He resumed his social criticism on his return in 1945 from wartime imprisonment in the concentration camp at Buchenwald, where he had been interned as a communist by the Nazis.

The strength of Taslitzky's work is demonstrated in the reception of Riposte when, in 1951, it reached the Salon d'Automne, which had already been the site of political controversy in the preceding years. Although hung by the committee, Riposte was among seven works protesting against the war in Indo-China (including a portrait submitted by Taslitzky under a pseudonym) that were removed by police as an 'offence to national feeling'. This was in preparation for the visit by the President of the Republic, Vincent Auriol (1884-1966, President 1947-54), and attracted a storm of publicity, ranging from the issue of censorship to the questionable legality of the action. The re-instatement and the removal again of some of the works - not including Taslitzky's - only served to prolong the authorities' difficulties. The prominent communist intellectual Louis Aragon (1897-1982) wrote a coruscating article, entitled 'At the Salon d'Automne: Painting has Ceased to be a Game'. He revealed that the arts Minister Baylot, who was responsible for the removals, had previously been the Prefect for the area of Port-de-Bouc at the time of the strikes.

Further reading:
Louis Aragon, 'Au Salon d'Automne: Peindre a cessé d'être un jeu', Les Lettres françaises, 15 November 1951, reprinted in Ecrits sur l'art moderne, Paris 1981, pp.78-86, reproduced p.79
Aftermath: France 1945-54, exhibition catalogue, Barbican Centre for the Arts, London 1982, pp.70-1

Matthew Gale
June 2000

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Display caption

In 1949, dockers at Port-de-Bouc, near Marseilles, refused to load the government ships that were being sent to suppress claims for independence in the French colonies in Indo-China. Taslitzky painted Riposte to record his horror at the breaking of the strike by armed police. One policeman resembles Hitler - an especially powerful device for an artist who had been imprisoned by the Nazis. A woman striker seizes the French tricolore, symbol of the Revolutionary ideals. Government ministers were so sensitive to the painting that they ordered its removal from an exhibition in 1951.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Technique and condition

The support for Riposte was prepared by the artist. The work was painted on one piece of sized, linen canvas with a fine threads and a close weave. A thin layer of off-white oil priming was applied over the linen surface. The canvas was then stretched over a heavy wooden stretcher with one horizontal crossbar and two vertical crossbars. The joints were expandable with squared mortise and tenon joints. The flat front profile of the stretcher bars contributed to the development of stretcher cracks on the front face of the painting. There was a small tear in the canvas, with raised and crackled paint, located at 700 mm left and 105 mm bottom.

Thin black lines visible around the paint indicate that the major design elements were first sketched on the priming, using an undetermined material. Taslitzky initially worked out his compositions for his large paintings in oil paint on artist board. The colour oil sketch for this work is currently displayed on the wall of the artist's studio in Paris.

The first layer of paint is thinly applied, almost scumbled over the surface. The priming is not exposed but the paint is so thin and transparent in some areas that the colour of the priming has a significant effect on the appearance of the painting. The canvas weave is visible in large areas of the background but, due to its fine threads and close weave, the texture is not a significant design factor.

Subsequent layers of paint are brushed on thinly. There is little mixing of paint on the canvas, although the paint has been applied wet in wet in several areas. The brushwork is gestural with application in broad strokes of colour. Colours are layered thinly to suggest modelling and give depth to the surface. Some brush strokes are visible but the texture is generally smooth.

The surface was coated with a thick layer of glossy, natural resin varnish. It was applied unevenly, resulting in a few drips down the front and varying thickness. The resin has yellowed obscuring the paint surface.

The original frame was a wooden strip nailed to the outer edges of the painting.

The structure of the painting was in good condition upon acquisition but it required major treatment in order to make it displayable in a gallery. The work was coated with mud, dirt and mould from a previous exposure to water. There are some alligator cracks exposing the underlayers of paint or priming. In the paint film there are large areas of wrinkled paint that occurred due to an oil-rich paint consistency and areas of drying crackle. The stretcher was also contributing to the cracking of the paint.
The yellowed varnish interfered with the legibility of the image.

The painting was treated in 2002 in the Conservation Department at the Tate. The old stretcher was replaced with a new, expandable wooden stretcher. The mould and dirt were carefully removed. The varnish was cleaned from the surface. The tear was repaired and small scuffs and losses to the paint surface were retouched. A new varnish coat of Paraloid B72 was applied to the surface. The painting was installed in a new wooden frame. The painting is now in very good condition for display.

Patricia Smithen
August, 2001

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