Across a full wall on the ground floor of Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, a gigantic photomontage is installed, La Grande Misère de Paris (Paris’ Great Poverty, 1936), by Charlotte Perriand, whose work is currently on view in a large exhibition there (which will be reviewed by Kunstkritikk shortly). The montage, which addresses the French capital’s escalating housing crisis, belongs to a series of “photomurals” that Perriand produced during the years of the French Popular Front – that is, the political coalition of liberal and left-wing parties that was created in order to establish a united front against the rise of fascism, and which formed government the same year.
La Grande Misère de Paris is composed like a film. From left to right in the sixteen-meter-wide mural, a sequence runs from crisis to solution, from the urgent lack of housing and high child mortality rate in Paris, to vast natural resources, modern production techniques, and trade union organisations promising health, well-being, and equality. Close-ups alternate with landscape views and maps; texts in different fonts, sizes, and colors provide slogans and more or less detailed information; the motifs shift from overcrowded urban spaces and cluttered dark interiors, to rural vistas, open skies, and modernist living cells bathing in light.
It’s agitprop, straight off. The work belongs to what in the mid-1930s was a well-established tradition of large-scale didactic photomontages. But it also transmits a sort of lightness, a playfulness, an enthusiasm that separates much of the political art of the French Popular Front period from, for example, its Russian or American counterparts. Compare La Grande Misère de Paris to El Lissitzky’s famous photomontage for the Pressa exhibition in Cologne in 1928, or to the gigantic photomurals installed in 1942 by the FSA (Farm Security Administration) at Grand Central Station in New York. The latter two exhort the viewer to shoulder the great weight of history and responsibility; across the former, the gaze plays fleetingly, like a dance.
Earlier this year, the philosopher and cultural critic Michaël Fœssel published Récidive: 1938 (Recidivism: 1938). It’s a relatively short book, based almost exclusively on readings of French periodicals and newspapers from that fateful year – the year the French Popular Front collapsed and the new president Daladier travelled to Munich together with the British prime minister Chamberlain in order to negotiate appeasement with the Germans, who had just annexed Austria. “Peace for our time!” Chamberlain triumphantly declared as he stepped off the airplane back in London, signed papers in hand.
During 1938, the comprehensive progressive social reforms which had been rapidly enacted by Léon Blum’s Popular Front government were aggressively dismantled: the 40-hour week, paid vacation, large cultural policy initiatives, open borders for refugees from Nazism, etc. The French, it was argued, must be put back to work again; this time of state-financed indolence must cease; France must once again defend its national identity and its borders. Voices who objected that the country’s economic problems had deeper roots than the Popular Front’s redistributive reforms were dismissed as irresponsible and unrealistic; voices who remarked that nationalist and xenophobic rhetoric played right into the hands of the fascists, were accused of conducting alarmist scaremongering.
What, Fœssel asks, does it mean to turn to the past in order to understand the present? History does not repeat itself, he establishes. Our time is not “the return of the thirties.” On the contrary, with their at once comfortable nostalgia and resigned fatalism, such notions can work against their purpose, and get in the way of proper understanding. It is precisely in order to confront such false historicism that Fœssel first engages in his project. And yet, he gets stuck in front of the digital archives, sifting through the collections of scanned newspapers and journals on sites such as Gallica and Retronews. 1938 does not let him go. He begins to recognise himself. The past appears to be ahead of him, as in a nightmare.
Fœssel’s argument in the book is simple at core: No, history does not repeat itself; 1938 is not the same as 2018; A is not the same as B. However, he realises, it is possible to construct possible analogies in history. The relation between A and C, that is, between the fall of the Popular Front and the fascist-friendly Vichy regime, can be compared to the relation between B, our present, and D, the situation we are facing. “The final hypothesis of this book,” Fœssel writes,
is that Daladier’s politics, consisting of economic deregulation and the return of a strong authoritarian hand, relates to the totalitarian regimes to which it was opposed, in the same way that the neoliberal politics that have today been led since more than a decade, relates to the authoritarian nationalism that now threatens a number of European countries.
In other words, history as a chain, not of events, but of relations in analogy. The French right, Fœssel concludes, saw the Popular Front’s social reforms as a threat greater than the fascism that the reforms were initiated to prevent. The call for a return to order, in the name of a politically “neutral” economic realism, was connected to an enforced security policy that sidelined democratic processes, and to a radicalisation of nationalist and anti-immigrant rhetorics. The politics of anti-socialist dismantlement and deregulation stood in a direct proportion to the surge of the extreme right. The Vichy regime was a logical consequence, not a deceitful aberrance.
To see Perriand’s Popular Front mural installed at the Fondation Louis Vuitton – an institution that bears the name of a multinational luxury corporation, is deeply embedded in that corporation’s business plans and tax avoidance schemes, and is designed by the most famous proponent of global icon architecture – is in a way to see this process in a condensed form. The analogy is embodied: Perriand’s celebration of the project of the Popular Front (A) relates to the conservative counter-reforms of 1938 (C) in the same way that the vision of a radically democratic urban planning in La Grande Misère de Paris (B) relates to the oligarchic opulence of the edifice (D) where the photomural is today on display. The question is: can a historical analogy become a contradiction in history? Can we once again learn to see B and D as incompatible?