French artists had a mixed record under the occupation

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It's one of those questions one is not supposed to raise in France, like so many others concerning that period. But what did happen in the art world during the occupation? Resistance, collaboration or cautious withdrawal? To simplify matters, one might say there was one painter for each stance: Picasso joined the Resistance, Derain collaborated and Matisse kept a low profile. Others such as Breton, Duchamp, Ernst, Léger, Masson or Mondrian sought exile in New York.

That at least was the story and as far as it goes it is fairly accurate. Picasso, for ever associated with Guernica, personified the refusal to play along with the regime, living as a hermit in Rue des Augustins. In 1941 Derain made a disastrous trip to Berlin, accompanied by Vlaminck, Van Dongen, Despiau, Belmondo and several others. Matisse, old and sick, was ostracised in his Nice studio, much as Bonnard at Le Cannet or Braque at Montsouris. The exiled surrealist and abstract artists contributed to the formation of the first artistic avant garde in North America, and hence the abstract expressionism of Pollock and Rothko. But what about their less illustrious fellows, the younger generation, dealers and curators?...

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