- Boris Taslitzky 1911–2005
- Original title
- Les Grèves de juin 1936
- Oil paint on cardboard
- Support: 404 × 607 mm
frame: 500 × 700 × 40 mm
- Presented by the artist 1998
The Strikes of June 1936, in common with many of Boris Taslitzky's works, reflects particular events gathered into a composition of monumental aspirations. This is a sketch for a larger painting which was subsequently destroyed. The simplified treatment of some areas confirms its preparatory role. There is a notable jump in scale from the couple in the foreground - the resting man and his standing female companion - to the ranks of smaller figures behind. The arrangement of the crowd emphasises constriction, with those on the left restricted between a converging railway and a wall, and those to the right stacked in tiered stands. The overall effect, however, is of festivities. The many small figures are colourful and gesticulating. That they are workers is confirmed by the simple clothing of the large couple and the urban-industrial surroundings, which include the centrally placed factory and crane. The carnival atmosphere is most evident in red flags against the sunny Paris skyline of pale houses which suggest the colours of the French tricolore.
The painting was inspired by the political events of 1936. General strikes for better working conditions helped the election of the left wing alliance headed by Léon Blum and known as the 'Front Populaire' (Popular Front) in May. The strikes ended after the announcement in June of reforms, including pay rises, a 40-hour working week and two-week annual paid holidays. Taslitzky was a committed communist and supportive of the government, and The Strikes of June 1936 reflects the success of proletarian power.
For Taslitzky, art and politics have always been tightly enmeshed. Born in Paris of Russian Jewish emigrants, he came to prominence in the mid 1930s as one of the young French exponents of Socialist Realism, following its declaration as the official style of the International Communist Party. He is often described as an 'engaged' artist, but prefers to see himself as an 'adherent', reflecting the experience of the ordinary people among whom he lives (interview with the author, February 2000). In May-June 1936, these concerns became the subject of structured debates organised by the Communist Maison de la Culture, of which Taslitzky was a secretary. The so-called 'Querelle du réalisme' (dispute about realism) took anti-Fascism as a point of departure and examined the question of the reconciliation of realism and contemporary artistic practice in order to speak to, and reflect, the views of the masses. Senior artists such as Fernand Léger and Jacques Lipchitz participated, but the debates and accompanying exhibitions signalled the emergence of Taslitzky's generation of younger artists including Edouard Pignon and André Fougeron. Taslitzky exhibited The March to Père Lachaise in 1935, which recorded the annual workers' march to the cemetery, and this was something of a companion piece to The Strikes of June 1936. Both paintings announced his ambitions to make large scale works on proletarian themes. The sketch for The Strikes of June 1936 shows the efficacy of a carefully focused realism and reflects Taslitzky's admiration for the nineteenth-century realist paintings he studied at the Louvre. The finished canvas survived only until the German occupation of Paris, when it was destroyed by Nazis ransacking his studio.
Eric Michaud, 'À Propos des réalismes', in Suzanne Pagé ed., Années 30 en Europe: Le temps menaçant 1929-1939, exhibition catalogue, Musée d'art moderne de la ville de Paris 1997, pp.36-8, reproduced in colour p.381
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Boris Taslitzky born 1911
The Strikes of June 1936, 1936
Les Grèves de juin 1936
Oil on board
404 x 607 mm (15 7/8 x 23 7/8 in)
Inscribed in black oil paint ‘BORIS TASLITZKY | 1936’ bottom right
Presented by the artist 1998
Paris-Paris, Musée nationale d’art moderne, Centre George Pompidou, Paris, May- November 1981 (614 as ‘L’Esquisse pour les grèves de juin 1936, 1937’, reproduced p.51 as ‘Les grèves de juin, 1936’)
Boris Taslitzky: Peintures, Salle Gérard Philipe, Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois, May 1987 (2)
Années 30 en Europe: Le temps menaçant 1929-1939, Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris, February-May 1997 (no catalogue no., as Les Grèves de mai, reproduced in colour, p.381 as Les Grèves de juin)
Boris Taslitzky, ‘Souvenir du Front populaire’ in Paris-Paris, exhibition catalogue, Musée nationale d’art moderne, Centre George Pompidou, Paris 1981, pp.51-2
Eric Michaud, ‘À Propos des réalismes’, in Suzanne Pagé ed., Années 30 en Europe: Le temps menaçant 1929-1939, exhibition catalogue, Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris 1997, pp.63-5, reproduced in colour p.381
Like the majority of Boris Taslitzky’s works, The Strikes of June 1936 is an explicitly political painting. It reflects the French General Strikes that followed the election, in May 1936, of the left-wing alliance headed by Léon Blum and known as the ‘Front Populaire’ (Popular Front). The strikers generally supported Blum’s Socialist majority and their Communist allies within the Popular Front, but felt frustrated by the inaction during the statutory period of a month between the election result, on 5 May, and the new government taking power, on 4 June. The strikes initiated in this period - particularly those centred on the Renault car plant in Paris - were a ‘reminder’, as Taslitzky recalls, to the politicians to keep their election promises. As a committed Communist, the twenty-five year old painter found an ideal subject-matter in these events and this painting asserts a heady sense of worker power. The political importance of such works was subsequently recognised by the Nazis during the German occupation of Paris, as they seized and destroyed the full-scale canvas of the same title; this occurred around the time that they arrested the painter (13 November 1941) as a member of the Resistance.
As a preparatory work for the full-scale canvas, The Strikes of June 1936 functions on a formal and technical level within the structure of Taslitzky’s practice. The modest size and the simplified treatment of some areas confirm its experimental role, as the painter worked-up the composition in the studio. This life-long practice was rooted in the tradition of composition through progressive stages of enlargement. He had encountered it during his short period at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in the early 1930s, but its importance was reinforced by regular study and copying of the great nineteenth-century works of French realism in the Louvre, pre-eminently those by Théodore Géricault and Eugène Delacroix.
Although Taslitzky has emphasised the importance of experiencing the events that he depicts, The Strikes of June 1936 was - like the nineteenth-century works that he admired - a synthesis rather than direct reportage. He has discussed this approach in relation to the closely related Demonstration at the Père Lachaise 1935, 1936 (artist’s collection). This painting is also known as both The March to Père Lachaise in 1935 and Cemetery Wall of the ‘Federates’ and it depicts the annual commemoration of the leaders of the revolutionary Paris Commune of 1870. Of this work, Taslitzky explained: ‘La composition est volontairement basée sur l’idée d’un émaillement de scènes multiples.’ [The composition is deliberately based on the idea of an enamelling of several scenes.] Of the spirit that generated The Strikes of June 1936, he added: ‘C’est ce même climat qui guide l’organisation de la toile consacrée aux grévistes de mai et juin 1936. Mouvement social généralisé, omniprésent dans l’actualité, il apparaît sans répit sous la forme de scènes multiples qu’ordonne un cloisonnement discret.’ [It is the same atmosphere that determines the organisation of the painting devoted to the strikers of May and June 1936. The general social movement, that was ever-present at the time, appears unceasingly in the form of multiple scenes that establish the order of a discreet cloisonné-effect.] This suggests that the compositional synthesis reflected the political solidarity felt on the streets, and that Taslitzky made deliberate reference to the colour and techniques of traditional enamels in resolving the various elements.
Such a synthetic compositional method is evident especially in the jump in scale from the large couple in the right foreground - the resting man and his standing female companion - to the ranks of smaller figures behind. Even the arrangement of these crowds, suggests an amalgam of several different viewpoints. There is an emphasis on constriction: those on the left are restricted between a converging railway and a wall, and those to the right stacked in tiered stands. However, in both cases, the perspective brings about a spilling-forward of people, that reflects the political optimism of the strikers. The compositional device of foreground figures framing crowds controlled within plunging perspectives was also used in Demonstration at the Père Lachaise Cemetery, where they appear to be indebted to the processions in Jan Van Eyck’s panel of The Adoration of the Holy Lamb in the Ghent Altarpiece.
The overall effect of The Strikes of June 1936 is festive. The many small figures are colourful and gesticulating. Again, the full-scale Demonstration at the Père Lachaise allows some idea of the brightness that must have been achieved in the final - lost - version. That the crowds in The Strikes of June 1936 are made up of workers is confirmed by the urban-industrial surroundings, which include the centrally placed factory and crane. The carnival atmosphere is most evident in red flags against the sunny Paris skyline of pale houses which suggest the colours of the French tricolore, so that working class and national aspirations may be understood to coincide. The foreground figures embody the simply dressed crowd: she in a (symbolically) red dress and he in a blue and white striped shirt. Taslitzky has written of their role as ‘signifient la fin du “malheur d’être jeunes”’ [signifying the end of the ‘misery of being young’], a tangible change achieved by the reforms resulting from the strikes. In so doing, he evokes the concern with the grinding poverty of factory work - ‘One bends beneath the yoke’ - voiced in Simone Weil’s eye-witness account of these events in ‘La Vie et grève des métallos’ [Life and the strike of the metalworkers].
In 1955, nearly twenty years after the events, Taslitzky recalled the excitement of the ‘strikes that submerged the country’ over two weeks. Having received a pass from the workers’ union - the Confédération générale du travail (C.G.T.) - to enter the factories, he made his way to the strike committee at the Renault car plant on the Seine. There his project was greeted with bemused good-humour.
J’expliquai vivement que j’avais le désir de dessiner, de faire le portrait de la grève. Ils se mirent tous à rigoler, ils étaient contents. Le vieux me dit: ‘Assied-toi là, gars, et photographie-nous à la main.’ Ensuite je visitai l’usine, ses halls immenses, les ateliers de l’Ile Séguin; partout les grèvistes dansaient, partout s’exprimait la certitude de la victoire, et partout se graissaient et s’entretenaient les machines. [I quickly explained that I wanted to draw, to portray the strike. They all looked amused, they were happy. The oldest one said to me: ‘Sit down there, lad, and photograph us by hand’. Then I visited the factory with its immense machine-halls and the workshops of the Ile Séguin; everywhere the strikers were dancing, everywhere the certainty of victory was expressed, and everywhere the machines were greased and maintained.]
It is possible that this visit was in the last week of May, when reports of the plant’s occupation were first reported in the newspapers. The mischievous suggestion that the painter ‘photograph us by hand’ may acknowledge the publication of accompanying news photographs. In particular, Simon Dell has drawn attention to Pierre Unik’s illustrated article about the situation at Renault, entitled ‘Dans les Usines avec les métallos en grève’ [In the Factories with the Striking Metalworkers], that appeared in the Communist periodical Regards on 4 June. Both the photographs and Unik’s report substantiate Taslitzky’s memory of festivities. As Dell has pointed out, the emphasis that Unik placed on organised negotiations - through the union and with reference to the Popular Front - served to diffuse the more revolutionary threat of the expropriation of factories feared by the Government’s third coalition partner, the bourgeois Radical Party.
Taslitzky’s 1955 account asserts his desire to root his art in actuality. A later recollection confirms that, in the process, he made a great number of drawings in the factories ‘qui furent à la base de ce tableau’ [that formed the basis of this painting]. The gateway at the top left may be equated to the arches of the suspension bridge at Renault’s Ile Séguin factory. However the artist has stressed the synthetic nature of his composition, adding: ‘La composition de ce tableau veut résumé, toutes ces grèves, et non pas a dire une particulière.’ [The composition of this painting was a résumé of all the strikes, and cannot be said to be any one in particular.] Thus, The Strikes of June 1936 is (just as the title suggests) a summary of the atmosphere of the moment rather than a view of a single place.
The ‘certainty of victory’ that Taslitzky recalled was repaid. The strikes ended in June – though not immediately - after the Matignon Agreements of 7 June between the employers and the Popular Front government. These agreements proposed reforms of working practices, including pay rises, the right to union membership, a 40-hour working week and two-week annual paid holidays. On Bastille Day, the festive atmosphere of the strikes was revived in a massive demonstration. ‘Tous ces visages,’ Taslitzky recalled, ‘nous les retrouvions triomphants au défilé populaire du 14 juillet, coiffés de bonnets phyrgiens en papier rouge à cocardes tricolores, fiers, disciplinés et chantant.’ [We would encounter all these faces again, triumphant, at the popular march of 14 July, dressed in red paper Phrygian bonnets with tricolore cockades, proud, disciplined and singing.] Here, as elsewhere, the emphasis lies on an indigenous revolutionary tradition rather than the more threatening international communism.
Despite the wave of optimism, the events captured in The Strikes of June 1936 represent a brief interlude in a period of wider political crisis. In the context of the world-wide economic instability that followed the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the appointment of Hitler as Chancellor of Germany in 1933 brought an acute feeling of menace to democracy already expunged in Mussolini’s Italy. Even in 1936 the French events were outweighed by the Nazi annexation of the Rhineland (March), the victory of Italian forces in Ethiopia (June) and, in July, General Franco’s rebellion against the Spanish Republican government. In the turmoil of ethical policies faced by brute force, the French Popular Front government (like the British government) refused to intervene actively on behalf of its Spanish counter-part and the Spanish Civil War became a cause célèbre.
Taslitzky’s political convictions were forged in this climate of increasing tension. Jacques Gaucheron reports a personal moment of realisation on May Day 1933 when, because he was on his military service, Taslitzky was among the soldiers issued with live ammunition and posted at points where disruption of the traditional labour marches was anticipated. The crisis of conscience that this brought about led to his commitment to Communism. He joined the anti-fascist Association des écrivains et artistes (AEAR) [Association of writers and artists] soon after and, in 1934, the explicitly Communist Maison de la Culture situated in rue de Navarin. The secretary general was Louis Aragon, who had recently abandoned Surrealism in favour of direct political action. Taslitzky eventually became his secretary, responsible for the Maison’s publications and helping to hang its exhibitions.
At the time of the victory of the Popular Front and the making of The Strikes of June 1936, the Maison de la Culture held a series of important debates known as La Querelle du réalisme [the dispute about realism]. These took anti-Fascism as a point of departure and examined the question of the reconciliation of realism and contemporary artistic practice. The impetus came from Soviet policy. Two years earlier, Andrei Zhdanov received official backing for the notion of Socialist Realism laid out as ‘reality in its revolutionary development’ at the 1934 Soviet Writer’s Union Congress in Moscow. Dismissing modernism in all its forms as failing to speak to, and reflect the views of, the people because of its bourgeois and individualist origins, Socialist Realism was promoted as an intelligible means of conveying life as experienced by the majority. In Soviet art it was to draw upon the Russian nineteenth-century tradition of realism. The result was a confirmation of the resurgent position of realism within the Soviet Union as it became the most faithful servant of state propaganda.
The painters Marcel Gromaire, Edouard Goerg and Jean Lurçat addressed the first of the Querelle du réalisme meetings on 16 May 1936 at Salle Poissonnière. Fernand Léger, André Lhote and the architect Le Corbusier were among the speakers at a further meeting on 31 May. Taslitzky showed Demonstration at the Père Lachaise 1935 at the ensuing exhibition at the Galerie Billiet-Vorms in June, and helped to organise the exhibition at the Alhambra Theatre the following month where works by his generation (including Edouard Pignon and Francis Gruber) were shown alongside those by Matisse and Picasso. A third debate on 30 June united the speakers from the previous two meetings, together with the Academic painter Franz Jourdain, the writers Jean Cassou and André Malraux, and the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz.
Fervent though the debates were, they were inconclusive. This was partly because, though the threat of Fascism provided a focus, there were divergent opinions about how modernist artists could maintain their individuality while responding to the need to communicate ideas to the widest possible audiences. Among fellow-travellers, there was a suspicion of submitting to the demands of Soviet ideology. Even among Taslitzky’s generation, La Querelle du réalisme did not generate an immediate stylistic uniformity under the umbrella of Socialist Realism. A comparison between The Strikes of June 1936 and André Fougeron’s Martyred Spain (Tate T07703), painted early in the following year, demonstrates this diversity within the scope of realism. Taslitzky’s synthetic method is quite distinct from Fougeron’s highly emotive style.
One thing that did emerge from La Querelle du réalisme, however, was a growing reference to what was recognised as the French Tradition as a means to placate fears of Soviet indoctrination. While this was in-built in Taslitzky’s engagement with French nineteenth-century realism, it became central to Aragon’s theoretical approach. The very name of the Maison de la culture suggested an identification between Communism and culture (by implication specifically French, culture). Reconciling Soviet ideology with the French Tradition was the explicit purpose of Aragon’s lecture Réalisme socialiste et réalisme français [Socialist Realism and French Realism]. He delivered it on 5 October 1937 (twenty years after the Bolshevik revolution) and published it in the following spring.
In this important address, the fear of foreign cultural influence in the return to realism was mitigated by national pride, and an underlying, longer-lived, tradition in French art was evoked. In a fluid account, Aragon characterised the whole history of art as a history of realism and focussed upon a French realist tradition distinct from an imported cosmopolitanism – setting Le Nain and Callot against Rubens. It is significant to note that in this he was inserting Socialist Realism into an established Republican paradigm going back to the French Revolution, within which Renaissance art and ‘foreignness’ were bound up with an undesirable Royalism. Aragon acknowledged the national tradition as ‘ce bagage énorme de réalités ammassés au milieu desquelles vous êtes nés, vous avez grandi, de ces réalités qui sont pour vous la France’ [this enormous baggage of amassed realities in the midst of which you were born and grew up, realities that are France to you]. Confessing his waywardness under the spell of Surrealism, Aragon dramatically concludes this identification: ‘Chaque fois que vous vous détournez de la réalité, vous vous détournez d’abord de la France. J’ai connu cette maladie-là.’ [Each time that you turn away from reality, you turn away from France. I have known this sickness.]
From this position, Aragon drew the logical equivalence between the triumph of a French realist tradition (‘the overarching achievement of progressive thought in France’) and the theory of Socialist Realism:
Le réalisme socialiste ne trouvera dans chaque pays sa valeur universelle qu’en plongeant ses racines dans les réalistés particulières, nationales, du sol duquel il jaillit.
Vous ne parlarez pour tous, ô poètes, que si votre voix sort de ce sol, et que si dans son trouble chantent les forêts et les villes de votre pays. Alors seulement, vos livres deviendront des armes, des instruments pour la transformation du monde, à l’image de la transformation de votre propore pays. [Socialist Realism will not find its universal quality in each country except in sinking its roots into the particular national realities of the soil from which it sprouts. | You will not speak for all, oh poets, unless your voice comes from this soil and unless the forests and towns of your country sing in its troubles. Only thus, will your books become arms, instruments for the transformation of the world, in the image of the transformation of your own country.]
As a first public assertion of the relevance of Socialist Realism in France, Aragon’s argument was both emotive and persuasive. ‘In a period of political instability and increasing xenophobia’, Sarah Wilson has remarked, ‘this emphasis on a “French tradition” was paramount.’ Aragon’s skill was to establish a path that had both a national and an international relevance, and, by appealing to a longer sweep of history, could circumvent the vagaries of fashion. In a moment of political extremism, Aragon made a call-to-arms that rang true.
For Taslizky, who was close to Aragon at this time, a political painting like The Strikes of June already fulfilled the call for an ‘image of the transformation of your own country’ and opened the way for ‘the transformation of the world’. His painting remained, like the work of his colleagues, recognisably individual however much it was self-consciously located within a revolutionary tradition.
 Boris Taslitzky, interview with the author, 7 February 2000.
 Boris Taslitzky, Tate acquisition questionnaire, 28 August 1998, Tate catalogue files.
 Jacques Gaucheron, ‘L’Atelier de Boris Taslitzky’, in Boris Taslitzky: Peintures, exhibition catalogue, Salle Gérard Philipe, Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois 1987, unpaginated.
 Boris Taslitzky in 1936: Crises et Esperances, exhibition broadsheet, Nouveau musée, Musée d’art et d’histoire, Saint-Brieuc 1996, p.3.
 Simone Weil, ‘La Vie et grève des métallos’, La Révolution prolétarienne, no.244, 10 June 1936 and Oeuvres compètes II: Ecrits historiques et politiques, Paris 1991, pp.349-61, quoted in Dell 2000, p.615.
 Pierre Unik, ‘Dans les Usines avec les métallos en grève’, Regards, no.125, 4 June 1936, cover and pp.5-7, discussed in Dell pp.607-8, 612-13, reproduced pp.608-11.
 Ibid., p.612.
 See the photograph in Regards, in Dell p.610.
 Tate acquisition questionnaire, 28 August 1998.
 Taslitzky in Paris-Paris, p.52.
 Ibid., p.26.
 See for instance, Toby Clark, Art and Propaganda in the Twentieth Century: The Political Image in the Age of Mass Culture, London 1997, pp.85.
 Wilson ‘La Querelle du réalisme 1936’.
 Le Réalisme et la peinture; 3eme debat, 30 June , flier, Jacques Lipchitz papers, Tate Archive.
 See Eugen Weber, My France: Politics, Culture, Myth, London 1991, pp.21-39.
 Ibid. pp.61-2.