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In the first chapter I have sought to give an account primarily, of the historical developments and
the cultural parameters within which Gego produced her abstract oeuvre. I endeavoured to refrain
from a bias for or against abstraction without omitting the problematic that arose from the
increasing fusion of post-war modernism with the interests of cultural and economic elites in
Venezuela. It was important to show that in the case of Gego post-war abstraction was in continuity
with a pre-war modernist aesthetic derived from the German Bauhaus. In the following second
chapter I will argue that many of the issues that have been raised in the anti-modern and our current
post-modern era have their source precisely, in this encounter between pre-war utopianism and
societies geared towards consumerism and a fetishistic relation to the object.

For this reason I want to highlight in Gegos and Jess Sotos work their referencing of pre-
war European abstract aesthetic and suggest that this announced the post-modernism that is by now
part of the experience of a whole generation. Both oeuvres articulated shifts in perception which
transformed modernist notions of artistic identity as well as the audiences perception of works of
art. Moreover, their status as exiles seems to me a key to a better grasp on this so called post-
modern condition, by which I mean a particular mode of living that is defined, among other things,
by loss of object attachment.

I am using this term here in a very general sense and associate it with both its Marxist and its
psychoanalytical meaning. Most significant in the context of this thesis concerned with abstract art and the
issues around exile is naturally, the fetishs role as substitute for an assumed rather than real absence.
In France, the shift from the modern search for expression towards the post-modern
articulation of limmatriel
would be unthinkable without the events of the mid- to late 1960s. The
engagement with matter was part of radical critique, formulated in the French context above all, of
normative forms of social interaction and, hence, of the control exerted over the individual by the
state and by society. The very term liberation was re-defined in this period and the artists working
in the context of Cintisme and Cinetismo
positioned themselves in this particular cleavage, the
narrow margins within which the modernist subject was re-evaluated. Despite all differences that
open up in an analysis of their work, their oeuvres remain thematically connected by their
ambivalence toward subjectivity and their implicit critique of authorship. Arte Abstracto, Cinetismo
and Cintisme can only be understood, properly, under these aspects and in doing so I hope that the
work of Gego, Soto and many other artists working abstractly during the post-war years, will
acquire their rightful meaning not as imitations of life but, paradoxically, as original works of art.
Here I focus on theoretical questions that possibly remained to Gego and Soto only vague
sensations or annoying distractions from the real tasks at hand. Yet, the philosophical debates
around materiality, so crucial for French culture of the post-war period, are intended to clarify the
differences between Gegos and Sotos respective use of materiality within their abstract oeuvres.

This term is particular to a French intellectual and philosophical context and is clearly, on the one hand,
used to refer to Les Lumires that is eighteenth-century philosophy and, on the other hand, has religious
connotations by invoking esprit in opposition to matire. In 1985, the French philosopher of post-modernism
Jean-Franois Lyotard curated an important exhibition with the title Les Immatriaux: preuves dcriture at
the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. However, in the context of early Cintisme its use was motivated
primarily by a firm belief in the merit of rationality and logic. The transformation of this term during the
following two decades will be one of the problems discussed in this chapter.
The two terms are related but are not equal in their meaning. However, some artists belonged to both
groups, for instance Soto and Cruz-Dez. Cintisme seems more clearly defined as referring to kinetic objects,
works containing moveable parts, or to works making use of optical effects created by the spectators
movement. Cinetismo has been used as a much more general umbrella term under which artists were grouped
that strictly speaking are not working with kinetic means. In Gegos case it can be claimed that her work was
definitely kinetic until the late fifties but that it developed subsequently towards a form of Constructivism.
It is relevant to consider in which way both artists negotiated their position between abstraction and
authorial intentionality. Further, in this chapter I will pay less attention to chronological
development and instead introduce thematic sections each of which centres on an issue that has
relevance to my interpretation of Gegos and Sotos oeuvre. This methodology mirrrors a central
argument of my thesis in which I seek to demonstrate that post-war abstract art was the result of a
detachment from a modern historical consciousness. Emphasis on subjectivity and linear
temporality were sacrificed for post-modern simultaneity. Moreover, French post-war Geometric
Abstraction was an aesthetic and hence, defined by social conventions and an ideology. Despite the
claim to represent an original avant-garde it was in fact appropriating and thus doubling, imitating
or reproducing a formal language invented in the pre-war period. The particular significance of
Cintisme is to have announced, within the field of Geometric Abstraction, political and cultural
events that would transform French society on a much larger scale. The implications of these events
for the status of the object, I will discuss by way of an analysis of a group of works created by Soto
in the late fifties and early sixties. They raise the most challenging questions concerning Sotos
wish to express idealist universalism and simultaneously convey a materialist experience and thus,
historical specificity. I will argue that, at this point, ambivalence toward the historical object
became Sotos key artistic concept and remained it for the rest of his career. In conclusion, I will
show that his oeuvre was an expression of the effects of exile as well as a reflection on the profound
ambivalence towards the historical object that sustained the political, philosophical and cultural
discourses in post-war France.

2.1 French Post-war Politics
In France, the time immediately after the Second World War was characterised by a highly
emotional reaction, by a large proportion of the population, against the French governments role
during the war. The nation was badly shaken not only by the German occupation but also by a
humiliating shame over the Vichy regimes collaboration with the Nazis. This manifested itself, at
least initially, with a wide popular support of the Communist Party. Simultaneously, the heroes of
the French Rsistance acquired almost mythical status. The Communists gained public support to
such a degree that it allowed them to enter the political platform. However, the post-war history of
the French Left, especially the Communist party, cannot be told without a brief reference to the pre-
war years. The socialist Lon Blum (1872-1950) was president of the third French Republic until
1939. He was succeeded by the Christian Democrat Daladier who, after the signing of the German-
Soviet non-aggression pact, banned the French Communist party. After 1940, when Philippe Ptain
(1856-1951) signed the armistice between France and Germany, the Gestapo persecuted, in addition
to Jews, French Communists, socialists and members of any other Left organisation. This led to the
clandestine organisation of the French Rsistance, first around the news organ LHumanit, edited
by Pierre Villon. The Front National, the French resistance organisation was founded in 1942. In
1943, it was joined by Combat, Comit dAction Socialiste, Libration, Francs-Tireur and Arme
Secrte to form the Conseil National de la Rsistance. Immediately after the war, in 1945, the
Communist Party held 25% of the French votes while Maurice Thorez (1900-1964), a Communist,
was elected Deputy Prime Minister. Already in 1947 the Communists were again forced out of the
cabinet but continued to receive during the next two decades the support of a large number, up to
20%, of French voters.
From the early fifties onwards, a conservative restoration, which was prompted not least by
anxieties created by the media over the Korean War and the threats of a possible use of the atomic
bomb, forced the Left into a defensive position. American anti-Communist propaganda added to the
decline of Communism and the Left in France. Internal party conflicts and fall-outs among pro-
Communist intellectuals over the legacy of Stalin (1878-1953), of Leon Trotzky (1879-1940) and
the future relation to Germany and the USSR aggravated the crisis. After Stalins death in 1953, the
party came under attack not only from the Right and the centre-left but also from within its own
quarters. The development of Marxist discourses in France was characterised from 1951 onwards
by the antagonism between pro-Communists and socialist thinkers critical of the Soviet State. The
disagreement among intellectuals focused on the issue of the Russian Gulag, which where know to
exist from the early fifties onwards. The cruelty that had come to light rendered it impossible for
many left-thinkers to further endorse a Russian-style Communism. This split became most
prominent in the violent fall-out between the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and the
writer Albert Camus (1913-1960).
Less dramatic but with profound consequences for the
development of French philosophy was the detachment of fellow philosopher Maurice Merleau-
Ponty (1908-1961) from the pro-Communist camp. Although Merleau-Ponty remained a Marxist
until his premature death in 1961, he was revolted by the totalitarian Russian regime and harboured
no illusions about its utopian goals. Sartre on the other hand, insisted on the need and effectiveness
of a literary production that followed primarily, a party-political agenda. However, from the mid-
fifties onwards the influence and credibility of French Communism was in rapid decline. Popular
support shifted toward the centre-left, and more worryingly, to the nationalistic Right. While the
conservative end of the French bourgeoisie demonstrated with obstinacy their unwillingness to
accept the end of France as colonising Empire, the rising middle class opted for a party that
represented middle-class values and promised economic stability combined with technological
In the late fifties, the conflicts in North Africa had created fears over the loss of national
prestige and economic stability, which both were now nostalgically associated with the pre-war

For an account of this controversy and its complex political and theological dimensions see Bernard-Henri
bourgeois society. This led to a recovery of the centre-right and Christian Democratic, that is, the
Catholic party and both regained the ground they had lost during the immediate post-war years. In
1958, at the outbreak of the civil war in Algeria, General Charles De Gaulle (1890-1970) was re-
called into office for a second mandate. His style of leadership exuded discipline and military
authority, both of which he had learned during the Second World War. He was charged with
resolving the North African troubles but eventually supervised the almost complete dissolution of
the French colonies. He wanted the complete reorganisation of the French Nation state and, in 1960,
he received special legislative powers which allowed France to enter the nuclear armament race
with the United States and the USSR. Around the same time France sought re-conciliation with
Germany and renewed its diplomatic and economic ties to the old enemy. De Gaulle and the
German chancellor Konrad Adenauer (1876-1967) signed a contract for future French-German
collaboration in political, diplomatic and economic matters, which coincided with the French
governments opposition to the inclusion of Britain, as full member, in the European Union. France
and Germany feared that this would give additional foothold to the United States, which already
exerted enormous cultural influence and economical control over central Europe.
On the most general level one can say that in the time between 1946 and 1965 the
engagement of the French Left had shifted from direct government politics onto a more communal
and regional level. They were able to influence French post-war culture via groups active in the
artistic and literary circles of Paris, in suburban areas and in smaller, often working-class towns in
Northern France. This is significant with respect to radical transformations of the infrastructural and
demographic level of French society at the time. Although De Gaulles conservative policy sought
to reinforce existing, hierarchical structures on a national level, he also recognised, under pressure
from the Left and the Right, the urgent need to develop those regions of France that lagged behind
as a result of a traditionally centralised state. His implementation of a progressive modernisation

Lvy, Le sicle de Sartre, Grasset, Paris, 2000, 464-82.
programme became most evident in the development of vast architectural projects in economically
underdeveloped areas of France. Urban planning aimed at de-centralisation and horizontal rather
than vertical development within society. It is precisely in this context that the activity and
effectiveness of Left politicians, academics, architects, artists, writers, curators, etc. became crucial.
They were installed in university departments, in cultural institutions, museums and art schools in
towns and had the advantage of acting on the communal level. One of the main ambitions was to
bring urban culture to rural areas, the centre to the periphery, civilisation to the primitive, order into
chaotic nature. The contradictions within De Gaulles agenda, his need to fulfil the demands of the
Right, to conserve existing structures, and those of the Left, to introduce social change, lie in the
emphasis on technological progress and modernity. While apparently bringing some improvement
to the life of the poor population, urbanism of the period was also a means to reinforce a capitalist
economy. Le Corbusiers five-point architectural programme, endorsed by CIAM
, often only
served as a distant model for planning and most architectural projects were designed by lesser
talents, in town such as Grigny, Chanteloup-les-Vignes, Forbach or Pantin. They suffered from
small budgets, hence emphasis on functionality, cheapness of material and poor aesthetic detailing.
Thus, urbanism of the late fifties was driven primarily by a rhetoric of urgency and need, giving
priority to speed over design. Although this balance began to be redressed during the sixties, many
planning projects even then neglected almost entirely the development of socially meaningful
spaces and infrastructures. However, deprived of space for creating meaningful social structures,
many communities in model estates built in the fifties were utterly dysfunctional by the seventies.

CIAM stands for Congrs International dArchitecture Moderne, This think tank for modern urbanism and
architecture was founded in Schloss Sarraz in Switzerland, in 1928. It had 28 members and among its
founders were the architects Sigfried Giedion and Le Corbusier. CIAM laid out a program for planning and
construction of rational cities, proposing high-rise residential blocks, the separation of residential areas and
transportation arteries, and the preservation of historic buildings. The key concept was the creation of
independent spaces for living, working, recreation, and circulation. CIAM was disbanded in 1956 after
increasing disagreement between the members about its aims and principles.
Over the years, the urbanisation of the periphery, be this new towns or large estates in suburban
areas, had the inverse effects of those intended. Far from creating social cohesion or raising living
standards it led to crime, racial hatred and segregation. The indifference of a technocratic generation
of planners, many of which came from the political Left, to consider the social and psychological
problems of a community in the rapid transition from a rural or industrial to a consumer society had
catastrophic results.
These were of course not the only reasons for the unrest of May 1968, first at the University
of Nanterre and later in the streets of Paris. The students, artists, feminists, intellectuals and
anarchists expressed a much more fundamental discontent with a conservative government and its
international and national policies, especially in the North African colonies. In 1969, De Gaulle,
after a humiliating electoral defeat chose to retire from office only to be succeeded by the similarly
conservative Georges Pompidou.

2.2 Abstraction/Figuration
The re-emergence of Geometric Abstraction in the post-war period does and does not respond to
these political developments. It had been part of French culture since the thirties and was promoted
first by artists around the short-lived group Cercle et Carr, founded in the inter-war years.

Cercle et Carr was created in 1929 by Michel Seuphore and Joaquin Torrs-Garcia (1874-1949). The
artist had moved from Montevideo to Paris in 1924. The group had approximately eighty members and a first
issue of an art magazine of the same name appeared on 15 March 1930. In April of the same year the Gallerie
23, in rue la Botie, Paris showed abstract paintings by members of Cercle et Carr. The groups ambition is
contained in Torrs-Garcias sentence To put things in order would already be something but this is not
activity remained more or less confined to Paris and was eventually overshadowed by the influence
of the much larger, internationalist organisation Abstraction-Cration, which counted at one point
more than 400 members and attracted a large audience thanks to the periodical published under the
same name. During the war artistic production and gallery activity had slowed down to some extent
due to lack of materials, lack of studio space or temporary exile of the artists from Paris. However,
artistic production and intellectual exchanges never ceased completely. The scene in Paris was
subdued but still active and engaged in the preservation and development of the modernism of the
pre-war years. While the situation for modernist artists was disastrous in Germany
, in Paris
several galleries were able to hold exhibitions, on a small scale of course, and after 1944 even
museums, such as the Jeu de Paume or the Muse dart moderne reopened. Immediately after the
liberation and definitely by the end of the war abstract art was revived, or rather, re-invented. Many
of the big names of the pre-war period were re-united in an association which still ran under the
name of Abstraction-Cration. Among its members were Jean Arp (1886-1996), Sophie Tuber-
Arp (1889-1943), Michel Seuphore (1901-1999), Elsworth Kelly (b. 1923) and in England Ben
Nicholson (1894-1982). By and large French Abstractions post-war promoters were the artists and
critics of the pre-war period and they consciously sought to establish continuity with the ideals and
artistic concepts of the founding movements, Cercle et Carr and Abstraction-Cration. Michel
Seuphore, Jean Arp, Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979) or the critics Charles Estienne (1908-1966), Lon
Degand (1907-1958), Gaston Diehl (1874-1947) and Michel Tapi (1909-1987) were important

enough, to create order, this is what is needed. (Emphasis by Torrs-Garcia). Mettre de lorder serait dj
quelque chose, mais cest trop peu, crer un ordre, voil ce quil faut. Quoted from, Jean-Luc Daval, Histoire
de la peinture abstraite, Fernand Hazan, Paris, 1988, p. 85.
For an excellent study of the situation for abstract painters in Germany and their contacts to the French
artistic scene see, Marie-Amlie zu Salm-Salm, changes artistiques Franco-Allemands et renaissance de la
peinture abstraite dans les pays germaniques aprs 1945, LHarmattan, Paris, 2003.
forces within this re-emerging abstract school and the so-called cole de Paris.
They were now
joined by a new generation of artists and critics, most important for the present thesis, Victor
Vasarely (1906-1997) and the gallery owner Denise Ren.
She entered the Parisian art scene
during the years of the German occupation when members of the French Rsistance and the artistic
and intellectual circles shared a common subversive interest. In 1944, she met Victor Vasarely, a
Hungarian designer who had come to fine arts via a Bauhaus oriented school in Budapest. Together
they decided to convert the haberdashery shop that she ran with her sister in rue Botie into an art
gallery. During the first two or three years they left the gallery programme fairly open and it
included also art informel and even figurative painting. This is an indication of how open the art
scene still was in the late forties. Only at the beginning of the fifties did the different positions
crystallise and were the lines drawn between the different camps of Geometric Abstraction, lyrical

cole de Paris is an ambiguous term in the sense that it was used differently by each critic. The term was
coined by Andr Warnod in his article LEtat et lart vivant, Comedia 4 January 1925. He used it to refer to
foreign artists working in Paris, in particular, Chagall, Soutine, Modigliani and Utrillo. During the post-war
period its meaning was transformed to designate all foreign artists working in Paris. The usefulness of
unifying artists of the most diverse orientations under such a broad term and to call it a school was put into
question very soon. It led to a controversy among Parisian critics which was held by way of several articles
published in the magazine Cimaise in the course of the years 1955 and 1956. For further information on the
subject see, Marie-Amlie zu Salm-Salm, changes artistiques Franco-Allemands et renaissance de la
peinture abstraite dans les pays germaniques aprs 1945, LHarmattan, Paris, 2003, pp. 76-7.
Denise Rens real name is Denise Bleibtreu. Her father was Jewish her mother from a Catholic family.
The French art historian Catherine Millet asked her in an interview conducted in 1991 about the reason for
this assumed name, When you invited people to the first exhibition what was the name of the place? Ren
answered, Galerie Denise Ren. Millet continued, How did you choose this name? Was it in order to hide
your real name during the war? Ren explained, No, I didnt need to. I was not in danger of coming under
the racist Nuremberg Laws since my mother was from a Catholic family. I had adopted this name already two
years before the war. In the original interview, Quand vous avez convi les gens la premire exposition,
comment sappelait le lieu dexposition? Ren, Galerie Denise Ren. Millet, Comment avez-vous choisie
ce nom? tait-ce pour cacher votre vrai nom pendant la guerre? Ren, Non. Je nen avais pas de besoin. Je
ntais pas menace par la loi raciste dite de Nuremberg, puisque ma mre tait dune famille catholique.
abstraction, informel or la tradition franaise. Denise Ren counted among her friends Communist
intellectuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986), Paul Eluard (1895-1952),
the artist Andr Breton (1896-1966) and others from the crowd of the caf Flore.
Rens relation to the political Lefts was ambiguous. The catalogue accompanying the exhibition
Le mouvement, contained a brief text by Jean-Paul Sartre entitled Calders Mobiles.
there is little evidence to suggest that they were ideologically close and the distance between the
politically engaged couple, Sartre and De Beauvoir, and a born business woman, Denise Ren,
could only have widened after 1958. Her commitment to the French Rsistance during the war did
not necessarily entail her support of Communist politics, despite her relationship with the
Communist Victor Vasarely. Evidence suggests that her nationalism outweighed political and
critical commitment.
In the most general terms, Communists favoured either social realism or

Jai adopt ce nom deux ans avant la guerre. Catherine Millet, Conversations avec Denise Ren, A. Biro,
Paris, 1991, p. 20.
For a description of the caf Flore as a place for encounters between intellectuals and artists see, Zu Salm-
Salm, changes artistiques Franco-Allemands et renaissance de la peinture abstraite dans les pays
germaniques aprs 1945, p. 86.
It was an extract from Jean-Paul Sartres Situations III, Les ditions Gallimard, 1949. It was reprinted in
the 1975 re-edition of the catalogue on the occasion of the re-staging of the exhibition at Denise Rens New
York gallery. It is not clear whether Denise Ren had permission from Sartre to include it in the catalogues.
Significantly, Ren made a disclaimer when asked about her Jewish background and she did not want to
disclose the real motivation behind changing her Jewish name Bleibtreu already two years before the war.
She was right when she claimed that at this point it was Nazi legislation that decided on her status as Jew or
non-Jew. However, Ren, aka Bleibtreu, omits from her account that she changed her name already two
years before the war clearly because of the strong anti-Semitic climate also within France. In retrospect Ren
is adamant in blaming German Nazis rather than her fellow French citizens for the persecution of French
Jews. However, one clear indication of the anti-Semitic resentment among French patriots is, for instance, the
fact that the Vichy government found popular support for anti-Semitic legislation, which had been drawn up
independently of German orders. In 1940 it defined Jews as [] those who belong or belonged to the Jewish
religion, or who have more than two Jewish grand-parents (grand-fathers and grand-mothers). Those grand-
parents are considered as Jews who belong or belonged to the Jewish religion. My translation. The original
wording is, [..] ceux qui appartiennent ou appartenaient la religion juive, ou qui ont plus que deux grands-
informel painters, some of which included figuration, such as Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985), Alberto
Giacometti (1901-1966), Jean Fautrier (1898-1964) or Wols (1913-1951). On the whole, the Left
tended to prefer matter or realism and could not appreciate the radical modernity of Geometric
Abstraction. For propagandistic purposes the Left sought instead the support of an already-
established pre-war avant-garde and artists such as Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) or Fernand Lger.
To promote Geometric Abstraction in the late forties and early fifties was, to some extent,
subversive and certainly meant to go against the grain. For many years the Galerie Denise Ren
remained the only commercial gallery to show abstract art in France. The yellow manifesto, so
called because it was printed on yellow paper, was written, designed and by Victor Vasarely in
1946. It gives evidence of a determination that, in retrospect, appears vaguely deluded in its
ambition to define socially meaningful forms ex nihilo. The task to establish a specifically European
post-war aesthetic was urgent because French artists were now competing with a strong abstract
scene based in New York and promoted by the art critic Clement Greenberg. Geometric Abstraction
could do so only by demonstrating continuity with a previous generation of painters and by using
the ethos of the French Rsistance as the ideological backbone of its aesthetic concept. Piet
Mondrian, Kazimir Malevich and especially the artists of the two internationalist groups formed in
the thirties, Circle et Carr and Abstraction-Cration, served as father figures. Geometric
Abstraction promoted formal clarity, transparency and progress combined with the belief in ethical
introspection. Against sentimental expressivity, or worse romanticist nostalgia, Ren and the artists
gathered around her held that liberation could only be found through disciplined self-effacement.
A central concern and even dilemma for many artists and critics was posed by the question
whether figuration could or should not be permitted in post-war art. This was less an ethical

parents (grands-pres et grand mres) juifs. Sont considrs comme Juifs les grands-parents qui appartienne
ou appartenaient la religion juive. (Lordonance du commandement militaire du 27 septembre 1940). Jean-
question, as it had been in Germany right after the war, than an aesthetic and philosophical one.
There was a consensus that a tabula rasa was a precondition for an entirely new art, one that no
longer answered to the ideology and formal criteria of pre-war modernism. In the eyes of those who
had resisted collaboration with the occupational forces, many artists had been part of the French
Rsistance, the real loss suffered during the war was one of prestige. Perhaps, the guilt over Vichy
collaboration weighed heavier on the French peoples consciousness than material loss or physical
trauma. What was needed was a sober, concrete and courageously forward-looking art. The
question whether this art need be abstract or could be allowed to contain figurative references to an
existing, hence historical world was crucial to the debates at the time.
Thus, Geometric Abstraction emerged as one of three possible directions defined, during
the following years, within the broad field of abstract art. Each direction had its critic to promote its
ideas and support the artists working in this particular manner.
The defenders of Geometric

Jacques Becker and Annette Wieviorka, Les Juifs de France, Les annes noirs, Liana Levi, Paris, 1998, p.
I am relying here on the work of Marie-Amlie zu Salm-Salm, who suggests three distinct trends. The first
of the three orientations was La tradition franaise, represented by the painters Jean Bazaine (1904-2001),
Alfred Manessier (1901-1993), Ernest Pignon (b. 1905)or Gustave Signier (1909-1984) who all worked
abstractly but made reference to a tradition of French still-life painting or landscape going back to Pierre
Bonnard or Georges Braque. The second group can be united under the term Abstraction lyrique which
appeared in many variations also as art informel, art autre, tachisme, non-figuration psychique, expression
gestuelle or action painting. As informel artists count Jean Dubuffet, Jean Fautrier, Wols or Georges Mathieu
(b. 1921) despite the fact that former two worked figuratively and the latter entirely abstract. This points to
the flexibility of its concept, which aimed at a liberation of expression rather than a definition of an aesthetic
style or formal vocabulary. Main promoters of abstraction lyrique were the painter and critic Michel Tapi
and, from 1954 onwards, Charles Estienne. Its supporters were in clear opposition to the last of the three
groups, abstraction gomtrique. Developed from Constructivism of the pre-war period, Cercle et Carr and
Abstraction-Cration, its leading figures were August Herbin (1882-1960), Jean Dewasne (1921-1999), Otto
Freundlich (1878-1943) and Victor Vasarely. Crucial for its theoretical development was the art critic Lon
Degand. Abstraction lyrique and abstraction gomtrique were further distinguished by the use of the
Abstraction argued that the lack of pictorial reference was also its most potent aspect. It could be
promoted as creation in the purest sense, without religious undertones and free of the contamination
by unsavoury desires, such as are expressed in figuration and also in the engagement with matter.
Geometric Abstraction represented a negative dialectic, the conscious refutation of historicism,
promoting instead liberation from an oppressive past. The most analytical approach to the issue of
representation was taken, at the time, by Lon Degand.
Clearly, to him the question whether to
choose abstraction or figuration was rhetorical. More pertinent to Degand was to define an original
formal language that could express the criteria of this new art and its value for a post-war avant-
garde. In 1947, he wrote, The merit of abstract sculptors is to have taught us to assign the same
importance and emotive power to forms devoid of realistic meaning as we do to a figurative statue,
to attach in the same way to a well modelled corpus or a beautiful arrangement of spherical, conical
or cylindrical shapes, more or less regularly arranged and unified by their correct relation, as to
heads, tummies or legs.
However, even Degand admitted that the question remained, But where
does decoration end and the beautiful begin?

In the writings of Charles Estienne we find a possible answer to this. He defined abstraction
in reference to Wassily Kandinskys (1866-1944) spiritualism
and its emergence rather like a

attributes chaud respectively, froid. See zu Salm-Salm, changes artistiques Franco-Allemands et
renaissance de la peinture abstraite dans les pays germaniques aprs 1945, pp. 72-6 and pp. 78-84.
Texts written by Lon Degand in the early fifties are collected in Lon Degan, Abstraction-Figuration,
Diagonales, ditions Cercle dArt, Paris 1988.
Le mrite des sculpteurs abstraits est de nous avoir appris donner des formes sans signification raliste
la mme importance, le mme pouvoir dmotion qu une statue figurative, nous attacher autant un ft
bien modul ou une belle assemblage dapparences sphriques, coniques et cylindriques, plus ou moins
rgulires et runies dans des rapports justes, qu des ttes, des ventres ou des jambes. Lon Degand,
Sculpture abstraite, in Charles Estienne, Pour et contre l'art abstrait, Cahier des Amis de l'art 11, Les Amis
de l'art, Paris, 1947, p. 22.
Mais o finit le dcorative et commence la beaut en soi? Lon Degand, Abstraction-Figuration, p. 22.
Wassily Kandinsky formulated the core elements of his art theory at the beginning of the century. His book
ber das Geistige in der Kunst was published first in Munich in 1912. It was translated into English by M.T.
temporal event, a moment consisting in a change of the mental and moral structure [of the subject]
without it being able to imagine the possibility of returning to a previous state; like a rock, for
instance, that passes from an amorphous to a crystalline state.
Estiennes notion of abstraction
thus emphasised a spiritual experience and he continued, To be true, the more one reflects, the
more Kandinsky gains in importance as having thus elevated, on the level of the universal, the most
specific and the most romantic word existing, of having succeeded, perhaps without knowing it but
certainly without wanting it, a classicist experience in the most precise use of the term like the one
used by Goethe, for instance.

In the most general terms, the problem inherent to French abstract art concerned the status
of the object and the perception of materiality within abstract modes of expression. The relation of
subject to object, or more philosophically, the mind-body problem was at the heart of a debate that
would continue well into the sixties. Again referring to Kandinsky Estienne wrote, What surprises
is that he always controlled the intemperate interventions of reason and the intellect something
that other seekers, noplasticiens and Constructivists often could not prevent that he instinctively
remained at an equal distance, in pictorial terms, from rationalism and expressionism, in short that
he limited himself, if one can call it so, to making visible and giving form to something that he

H Sadler and published in 1914 as Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Among Kandinskys most important later
texts are those written at the Bauhaus between 1919-1923, Die Grundelemente der Form; Farbkurs und
Seminar; ber die Abstrakte Bhnensynthese, and his second book Punkt und Linie zu Flche, published in
1926 in Munich. For an English translation of Kandinskys writings see Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo,
Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, Volumes I and II, Faber and Faber, London 1982.
Cela consiste changer totalement la structure mentale et morale sans envisager la possibilit d'un retour
en arrire; comme une roche par exemple, qui passerait de l'tat amorphe l'tat cristalline. Charles Estienne,
Lart abstrait au XXe sicle, Pour et contre l'art abstrait, p. 24.
En vrit, plus en y rflchit, plus Kandinsky revt dimportance davoir ainsi hauss au plan de
luniversel la chose la plus particulire et le mot le plus romantique qui soit, davoir russi, peut-tre pas sans
le savoir, mais certainement sans lavoir voulu, une exprience classique au sens le plus prcis de se terme -
comme celle de Goethe, par exemple. Charles Estienne, Pour et contre l'art abstrait, p. 25.
sensed (my emphasis).
His phenomenological perspective was made even clearer when he wrote,
For this reason a living inheritance of Kandinsky, is not a vocabulary of forms which can be
imitated or reproduced from outside with a more or less personal dexterity (and in this manner
imitate nature), it is this capacity to live the spiritual in matter to sense in nature as well as in
art the spirit of things (my emphasis), and to be able by way of an interior experience to abandon
outward appearances in order to attain right away the essential, that is, abstraction.
described Kandinskys spirituality as both, an experience taking place outside and within historical
time, But how extraordinary and lucky this experience was one of those experiences which
give evidence, to use Andr Malrauxs expression, of the independence of the creative spirit in
relation to history and simultaneously testify to a moment within history and culture.
In this
interpretation, the painter working with abstract means of expression engages in an esoteric practice
that nonetheless has a place within history and thus acquires social and cultural significance. He
renders visible the spirituality that lies behind the real in a different dimension. For the abstract
[painter], the image is hidden within the painting itself; under the surface. It is the essence of the
spiritual and in fact, it has a dimension. It is not the depth or the relief per se but a mysterious
dimension; I will call it simply fourth dimension perhaps, because it follows the third, and those

L'tonnant est de l'tre toujours gard des interventions intempestes de la raison et de l'intellect - que
souvent n'vitrent pas d'autres chercheurs, noplasticiens et constructivistes - de s'tre tenu d'instinct gale
distance, picturalement, du rationalisme et de l'expressionisme, bref de s'tre constamment born, si l'ont peut
dire ainsi, la mise en clair et en forme d'une chose sentie. Charles Estienne, Pour et contre l'art abstrait, p.
C'est pourquoi l'hritage vivante de Kandinsky, ce n'est pas un vocabulaire des formes imiter et
reproduire de l'extrieur avec une dextrit plus ou moins personnelle (et autant imiter la nature), c'est cette
"capacit vivre le spirituel dans le matriel" "ressentir dans la nature comme dans l'art" l'esprit des choses,
et par la voie de l'exprience intrieure, laisser tomber les apparences extrieures pour aller droit l'essentiel,
c'est--dire l'abstrait. Charles Estienne, Pour et contre l'art abstrait, p. 25.
Mais par extraordinaire et bar bonheur cette exprience tait une exprience type de celles qui
tmoignent la fois, pour parler comme Andr Malraux, " de l'indpendance de l'esprit crateur par rapport
good at mathematics will call it, if it pleases them, time-space. It is more than anything, I believe, a
sensation of the cosmic, of the rhythm of the world, easier to experience, in fact, than to define.

Estiennes description of aesthetic experience represented a very Eurocentric position and
did hardly reflect the multiculturalism of Paris after the war. In contrast, Denise Ren was
particularly important for the launch of the careers of European and Latin American immigrants.
Most members of Rens artist family were foreigners, for instance, Victor Vasarely (Hungarian),
Jean Tinguely (Swiss), Yaacovo Agam (Israeli), Alberto Magnelli (Italian), Richard Mortensen
(Danish), Robert Jacobsen (Danish) or Jess Soto. The open-minded climate of fifties Paris was
congenial to unexpected encounters, nonetheless, Soto had been one of the few original Disidentes
able to settle permanently in Paris. Around 1954, after showing a work at the Salon des Ralits
Nouvelles, Ren and Vasarely approached Soto and thus a life-long long relationship was first
established. A turning point in Sotos career and in the history of the Galerie Denise Ren was the
exhibition Le mouvement, held at her gallery in rue Botie in 1955. Ren had brought together
works by pre-war artists, such as Jean Arp, August Herbin, Sophie Tuber-Arp, Marcel Duchamp
(1887-1968), Alexander Calder and those of a younger generation, Victor Vasarely, Jean Tinguely,
Jess Soto and Pol Bury (1922-2005) to name only a few. (Fig. 28 Installation view of 'Le
mouvement' exhibition, Paris, 1955) The exhibition had been Victor Vasarelys idea, who made it,
in a commercial sense, the founding event of Cintisme and the official launch of Sotos career.

l'histoire", et aussi dun moment de lhistoire et de la culture. Charles Estienne, Pour et contre l'art abstrait,
p. 24.
Pour un abstrait [painter] le sujet est cach l'intrieure du tableau ; sous jacent. Il est l'essence du
spirituel, et en fait, de dimension. Ce n'est pas la profondeur ou le relief vrai dire, mais une dimension
mystrieuse; je l'appellerai "quatrime dimension" tout simplement, peut-tre, parce qu'elle vient aprs le
troisime, et les gens forts en mathmatiques l'appelleront, s'il leur plat lespace-temps. Il est surtout, je crois,
un sentiment du cosmiques, du rythme du monde, plus facile sentir, hlas, qu' dfinir, Charles Estienne,
Pour et contre l'art abstrait, p. 32.
In retrospect, 1955 was a crucial moment also for European history. Ten years after the end
of the Second World War, the German State had finally regained its sovereign status. The French
and German economy had fully recovered, the borders between the two countries had been open
since 1949 and everything added up to giving a sense of a return to normality. To the artists
included in Le mouvement this exhibition signalled the beginning of a more dynamic era, the end
of a particular type of post-war abstract painting, art informel, and it announced a daring departure
from medium specificity. Cintisme fused aesthetic experience with architectural space by
integrating the onlooker directly into the meaning and the effect of the work. Most objects
assembled in Le mouvement radically broke with a traditional viewing experience by interfering
on the level of subject-object relations. The dualistic structure of painting was abandoned for the
benefit of an experience taking place in three dimensions. By its spontaneity and unconventional
arrangement, Le mouvement announced the excitement and the internationalism of the liberated
sixties. Yet, Cintisme deliberately sought to promote an alternative to brute materiality and the
aggression of the emergent Nouveau Ralisme.
In the coming years, Denise Ren sought her

Despite alliances between Rens group of artists and those around the gallery Iris Clert, such as Yves
Klein and Jean Tinguely, Rens artists disapproved on the whole with the expression of violence. However
Ren herself did not abstain from expressing political dissent, as long as it remained within the law. An
interview between Catherine Millet and Denise Ren conveyed the highly politicised climate around 1958 and
how this affected everyone living in Paris at the time. Ren remembered, On May 13 1958 a large
demonstration against Charles De Gaulles coup dEtat took place. It was following a route from Nation to la
Bastille. On the same day the Muse dart moderne opened an exhibition of Kupka paintings with a
Vernissage. When we arrived I walked quickly toward Jean Cassou: Are you going? and he replied, Yes,
we go together. Wait for me. At four in the afternoon, he closed the museum despite the protestations of a
furious audience who thought it incredible that a museums director could allow himself to act in such a way.
Cassou declared that he and his personnel had the right to demonstrate if they wished to do so. We took the
metro. At each station the crowds grew. I remember, especially, that Le Corbusier was there too. In the
original, Le mai 13 1958, il y a eu un grand dfil, de la Nation la Bastille, contre le coup dEtat du gnral
de Gaulle. De mme jour, il y avait le vernissage dune exposition de Kupka au Muse dart moderne. En
arrivant, je me prcipite vers Jean Cassou: Y allez-vous? Il me rpond: Oui, nous irons ensemble.
Attendez-moi. quatre heures de laprs-midi, il a ferm le muse malgr les protestations dun public
audience increasingly elsewhere and traditionally Protestant Scandinavian countries, Germany and
Switzerland responded best to the gallerys puritan aesthetic programme. She established
connections with Northern European galleries, museums and artistic circles which enabled Soto to
break onto an internationalist platform.

Denise Ren hugely benefited from the sudden prosperity of the French bourgeoisie during
the sixties and seventies and only in the early eighties, which brought economic instability and
cultural changes, was her gallery, temporarily, on the brink of closure. Ren still is the stoic
defender of a liberalism that does simultaneously support the equal rights of all and a system
sustained by the concept of private property. Apart from Soto whom she represented during his long
career until his death in January 2005 in Paris, she regularly showed the work of another
Venezuelan artist, Carlos Cruz-Dez. He came to Cintisme via graphic design and gave, especially
during the sixties, important impulses toward a new concept of the gallery. For instance, by
introducing the production of multiples or the move away from the traditional art object toward
installation art. The events of the sixties transformed most peoples perception of the world and
radically changed how they thought about art. From being a collectors obsessive pursuit, the object
of fine art had become accessible to the masses. With the multiplication of objects, photographic
reproduction and its dissemination via popular media, the post-war version of the open artwork was
invented. At its most extreme it would be turned into the vehicle for popular entertainment and,

furieux qui sindignait quun directeur de muse se permette dagir ainsi. Cassou a dclar que son personnel
et lui-mme avaient le droit daller manifester sils le dsiraient. Nous avons pris le mtro. chaque station,
la foule grossissait. Je me souviens, en particulire, que Le Corbusier tait l. Catherine Millet,
Conversations avec Denise Ren, Adam Biro, Paris, 1991, p. 155.
Denise Ren extended her influence as far as Venezuela, where the type of modernism that she and her
artists defended acquired the meaning of a radical rupture. This is important to emphasise because it reveals
the underlying discontinuities within post-modernism. In Europe, post-war Geometric Abstraction and
especially Cintisme represented a second or third generation of abstract art while, in Venezuela, it signified
radical newness.
whether she liked it or not, Denise Ren played an important part in this development that
contributed to the loss of the art objects aura.

If the intense competition and debates during these early post-war years centred on the
issue, on the one hand, of figuration and, on the other hand, the experience of materiality, then we
need to ask why? In the remainder of this chapter I will argue that it manifested the
problematisation of pleasure, which was understood as linked, directly, to figurative representation
and experience of material objects. Sexuality per se had become a new moral problem because it
was no longer only organised by religious observance but was now cruelly overshadowed by the
psychologically highly complex response to the trauma of the Second World War. Adornos remark
that it was impossible to write poetry after Auschwitz was only one albeit, very important response
to this conflict.
After liberation many French citizens wanted to be freed of the guilt over the

This is of course a reference to pre-war Paris and Walter Benjamins (1882-1940) essay, Das Kunstwek
im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit (1936). Benjamin linked the loss of spirituality, its role in
the production and appreciation of art objects, to the emergence of photographic reproduction. With the
auratic Benjamin referred to a quality that intertwined the experience of spatial distance with material
presence. Walter Benjamin, Das Kunstwek im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit, Drei Studien
zur Kunstsoziologie, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 1979; Translation Harry Zohn The Work of Art
in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Illuminations, Hanna Arendt (ed.), Schocken Books, New York,
1969, pp. 217-52.
In 1949 Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969) wrote a text which was published two years later in a Festschrift
that is, a text celebrating a birthday or special event, Soziologische Forschung in unserer Zeit. Leopold von
Wiese zum 75. Geburtstag. Near the end of this text we find the sentence,Kulturkritik findet sich der letzten
Stufe von Dialektik von Kultur und Barbarei gegenber: nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben ist
barbarisch, und das frisst auch die Erkenntnis an, die ausspricht, warum es unmglich ward, heute Gedichte
zu schreiben. The Festschrift text was included as Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft, in Prismen, Suhrkamp
Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 1955, p. 26; and republished under the same title in Prismen, Munich, 1963, pp.
7-26. The essay was translated into English in 1967 and the sentence reads here, Cultural criticism finds itself
faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is
barbaric. And it corrodes even the knowledge why it has become impossible to write poetry today. Theodor
W. Adorno, Cultural criticism and society, Prisms, translation Samuel and Shierry Weber, Spearman,
London, 1967. The wording was reused in the American edition, Prisms, MIT Press, Cambridge,
Vichy Governments collaborated with the Hitler. And in contrast to Germans self-accusatory
impulses, the French very soon demonstrated pride again in their national identity.
Modesty and
tact was officially recommended as the most ethical response to the trauma of war. French abstract
painters ambivalent relation to the figure and sensual pleasure was one of the symptoms of the
silence imposed after 1944. For others the dilemma of how to experience and express pleasure after
a tragedy that had cost the lives of millions remained very real.

2.3 Les Temps Modernes
This section has the purpose of introducing political and cultural issues raised by the French Left
immediately after the liberation. I will show how the Left sought to explain the disastrous failure of
the Third Republic to resist Nazi Germany by addressing social and political issues that had hitherto

Massachusetts, 1981, p. 34. This sentence has created confusion and also, a vast amount of diverging
interpretations by cultural commentators, philosophers and artists. An interesting proposal was made in a very
recent text on the subject. Klaus Hofmann suggested that an imprecise translation has contributed to the
misinterpretation of Adornos statement, particularly within English speaking academia. He proposed that it
had been split into two separate parts which, often taken out of the context, found erroneous and misleading
application. The two statements taken up in post-war discourses are a) to write a poem after Auschwitz is
barbaric and b) it has become impossible to write poems today. Hofmann demonstrated, very convincingly,
that they have been taken as separate statements thus yielding distorting interpretations of the original German
sentence. He argued that most commentators neglected that it was the relation between the two phrases that
created oroginal sentence meaning. For detailed information on this discourse and references to
commentators see, Klaus Hofmann, Poetry after Auschwitz Adornos Dictum, German Life and Letters,
Vol. 58, No. 2, April 2005, pp. 182-94.
This is true also for Switzerland, which has its own complex history of involvement in the Second World
War. During the sixties and seventies the term Noblesse oblige became currency in Switzerland as a reference
to and in order to underline its famous political neutrality. Today, it expresses the arrogance of a society that
refused for more than fifty years to admit openly its financial involvement in Nazi Germany and its active role
in the development and prolongation of the Second World War.
been taboo within bourgeois society. Important for a subsequent consideration of Gegos position as
women within a male dominated culture I will introduce here Simone De Beauvoirs (1908-1986)
outspoken feminism and strong political voice. She represents a counterpoint to Gegos far more
restrained persona created at the same time in Venezuela. De Beauvoir was most articulate in
voicing a Marxist critique of womens traditional position within French society, identifying
religion and bourgeois family structures as instrumental in the suppression of women. I will then
revisit the conflict between Geometric Abstraction and art informel from a feminist perspective.
This provides the link to the following paragraphs concerned with philosophical debates around
materiality, which in turn have a strong bearing on the oeuvre of Jess Soto, discussed in the last
section of this chapter.

French Bourgeoisie, Religion and Feminism
The reaction of the French Left to the Vichy governments collaboration with Nazi Germany was to
expose, as the sources of French fascism, the values represented by the French bourgeoisie.
Repressive family structures and religion were main targets in this attack on pre-war societys
hypocrisy. They were identified as the pillars of a republicanism that betrayed its ideals by
protecting economic privilege and nationalistic pride for the cost of the lives of 75000 Jews and
thousands who died in the French Rsistance. The repulsion felt by many intellectuals towards pre-
war society clearly also informed De Beauvoirs decision to support Communism and embrace
atheist Marxism against the wish and hopes of her own family.
De Beauvoir published her

This is made most explicit in De Beauvoirs description of her own father, a state employee and later
independent business man. She attacks French bourgeois cultures disdain for the body and its literal horror of
anything intellectually stimulating, anything that might awaken the unhealthy curiosity of a young woman. In
1958 she described her first steps toward emancipation in terms of an exile, In fact, the sickness I was
suffering was to have been driven out of the paradise of childhood and had not found my place in the world of
men. [] I was hoping to hold fast to something, and, misled by the violence of this indefinite desire, I was
account of her bourgeois upbringing and years of study as a philosopher during the thirties in Paris
in 1958 as Mmoires dune jeune fille range. A scathing critique of French Catholicism, her
Mmoires followed almost ten years after the publication of Le deuxime sexe
, a milestone for
French post-war feminism, in Les Temps Modernes. Her Mmoires are a superbly written
description of traditionalist pre-war society and in De Beauvoirs own account, a working through
of the traumatic loss of her childhood companion Zaza.
The absurdity of Zazas death,
highlighting the mothers cruelty in enforcing a bourgeois morality and power structures within the
family, had provided the first material for De Beauvoirs feminist analysis of the traditional family
in Le deuxime sexe. It is important to note that De Beauvoir and Sartre were both sceptical of

confusing it with a longing for the infinite. De Beauvoir, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, translation James
Kirkup, Andr Deutsch and Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 1959, p. 230. En vrit le mal dont je
souffrais ctait davoir t chass du paradis de lenfance et de navoir pas retrouv une place parmi les
hommes. [] Je souhaitais tenir fermement quelque chose, et trompe par la violence de se dsir indfini, je
le confondais avec un dsir dinfini. De Beauvoir, Mmoires dune jeune fille range, pp. 316-17.
Simone De Beauvoir, Le deuxime sexe, Tome I et II, Folio Gallimard, Paris 1949. Although Le deuxime
sexe was a critical failure when it appeared in France, it subsequently influenced feminists in Europe and,
especially, in the United States.
Zaza, the daughter of a large and very conservative bourgeois family had been De Beauvoirs intimate
friend since their early teens and together they experienced the cruelty that accompanied the social integration
of women at the time. Together, they discover their sexual attraction to each other and to men, but also how
societal laws instantly limit their sexual aims by imposing prohibitions that prevent the very expression of
their desires. Intellectual curiosity, the will to independence and an insatiable interest in the forbidden prevail
in the account the philosopher gives of her friends and herself during those years. She described, how alone or
with her younger sister, whom she called by a pet-name Poupette, she began to explore areas of French
culture that were outside the close confines of bourgeois family life. Zaza, on the other hand, was portrayed as
being more restrained and reasonable, never quite allowing herself to transgress the boundaries of bourgeois
society as much as Simone did and would continue to do in later years. Zazas extremely devout Catholic
mother remained her only and absolute authority and it was also the mothers severe morality that prevented
her from marrying the man she loved. Zaza was forced to abandon a passionate love affair because her lover
belonged to the wrong class. As described by De Beauvoir in Mmoires dune jeune fille range, Zaza, at the
very moment when she found courage to fall in love with a young man, her jealous mother interfered,
Freuds theory of the unconscious and of the effectiveness of psychoanalysis as a methodological
and critical tool. Many French intellectuals regarded psychoanalysis as a pseudo-science with the
purpose of adapting dissidents (neurotics) to the norms of a moralistic society. Freuds writings
were seen as pathologising and his intention to liberate the neurotic patient from the symptoms of
his inhibitions understood as ultimately, re-enforcing a bourgeois ideology. Nonetheless, a quasi
psychoanalytical reading of her own fathers ambivalent feelings toward her appeared in De
Beauvoirs Mmoires dune jeune fille range. Here she described his paradoxical reaction to her
masculine ambitions and her intellectual independence. She wrote, I obviously didnt realize this
contradiction in my fathers personality: but I soon realized the one implicit in my own situation. I
was obeying his wishes to the letter, and that seemed to anger him; he had destined me to a life of
study, and yet I was being reproached with having my nose in a book all the time. To judge by his
surly temper, you would think that I had gone against his wishes in embarking on a course that he
had actually chosen for me. I kept wondering what I had done wrong; I felt unhappy and ill at ease,
and nursed resentment in my heart.
Earlier she had quoted her father for saying, What a pity
Simone wasnt a boy; she could have gone to the Polytechnique! I had often heard my parents
giving vent to this complaint. A student at the Military Academy of Artillery and Engineering, they
felt, was already someone. But my sex debarred them from entertaining such lofty ambitions for

anxiously guarding the familys reputation. Unsuccessfully fighting for her sexual and intellectual liberation
Zaza eventually succumbed to desperation and died, prematurely, of nervous and physical exhaustion.
De Beauvoir, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, p. 181. Je ne rendais videmment pas compte de la
contradiction qui divisait mon pre: mais je ralisai vite celle de ma propre situation. Je me conformais trs
exactement ses volonts: et il paraissait fch; il mavait voue ltude, et me reprochait davoir tout le
temps le nez dans mes livres. On aurait cru, voir sa morosit, que je mtais engage contre son gr dans
cette voie quil avait en vrit choisie pour moi. Je me demandais de quoi jtais coupable; je me sentais mal
laise dans ma peau et javais de la rancune au cur. De Beauvoir, Mmoires dune jeune fille range, pp.
me, and my father prudently envisaged a career in the civil service: []
The apparent
impossibility to ever find her fathers recognition, whatever role she would take, masculine or
feminine, had the most profound effect on De Beauvoirs feminist outlook. Her ambition to take on
a profession that society traditionally preserved to men, her decision to become a philosopher, an
engaged intellectual and a writer, in short, to overcome the defect of being a woman is of greatest

For De Beauvoir, the key to liberation from bourgeois thinking and towards female
emancipation lay in the insight that women were not born as women but became women only with
their entry into society. Women were judged, and judged themselves, with the language and criteria
of a paternalistic world. She wrote, I tried to put on protective armour by exhorting myself not to
be afraid of blame, ridicule, or lack of understanding: it little mattered what opinion people had of
me, whether well-founded or not. When I reached this state of indifference, I could laugh even
when I least felt like laughing and agree with everything that was being said. [] Life is a lie, I
would tell myself in a fit of depression. In principle, I had nothing against lying: but from a
practical point of view I found it exhausting to be always fabricating masks. Sometimes I used to
think that my strength would fail me and that I would have to give in and become like all the
The description of her intense fear, expressed at the end of this passage, to literally merge

De Beauvoir, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, p. 179. Quel dommage que Simone ne soit pas un garon;
elle aurait fait Polytechnique! Javais souvent entendue mes parents exalter se regret. Un polytechnicien,
leurs yeux, ctait quelquun. Mais mon sexe leur interdisait de si hautes ambitions et mon pre me destina
prudemment ladministration: [] De Beauvoir, Mmoires dune jeune fille range, p. 246.
Perhaps, we can even suggest parallels to Gego who early in her life decided against the expectations of
her own bourgeois class to aim for a career as a professional. It may be no coincidence that their date of birth
are only four years apart. Both grew up between the two wars, both came to maturity during the fifties and
achieved the aims of their ambitions during the following two decades, in response and reaction to the trauma
of the Second World War.
De Beauvoir, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, p. 195. Jessayais de me blinder; je mexhortais ne plus
craindre le blme, le ridicule, ni les malentendus: peut importe lopinion quon avait de moi, ni quelles ft ou
with society and become a passive object defined by the projections and norms of others was
written in reference to the historical context of the pre-war years. Since that time, she had sought to
define a theoretical position from which to formulate her dissent with a nationalistic and repressive
society. In 1958 language would become for her and Sartre the very tool for critique and, hence, for
womens emancipation. Acceptance of the inescapability of language, in De Beauvoirs account
accompanied by a sensation of disappearance of self, gave rise to a theoretical and literary oeuvre
with a preference for gender indifference. This right to indifference was subsequently challenged
by French feminists emphasising womens right to express a specifically female subjectivity.
Simone de Beauvoirs feminism, which viewed sexual difference as necessarily a source of
oppression, was called into question by the theoretical writings that emerged with the French
womens movement in the 1970s. For writers otherwise as diverse as Hlne Cixous (b. 1937) and
Luce Irigaray (b. 1932), it was precisely womens difference, repressed by the phallocentric
discourse of Western humanist tradition, that was the source of her potential liberation. Yet, in the
French theoretical field as a whole, subjectivity was in doubt and, during the sixties and seventies,
deconstructed by way of a critique of the function of the author. For instance by the literary critic
Roland Barthes (1915-1980) or the film critic Christian Metz (1931-1993). Their claim was that in
post-war society authorial voice had given way to anonymous agency.
De Beauvoirs critique of

non fonde. Quand jatteignais cette indiffrence, je pouvais rire sans en avoir envie et approuver tout ce qui
se disait. [] Vivre cest mentir, me disais-je avec accablement, en principe, je navais rien contre le
mensonge: mais pratiquement ctait puisant de se fabriquer sans cesse des masques. Quelquefois, je pensais
que les forces allaient me manquer et que je me rsignerais redevenir comme les autres. De Beauvoir,
Mmoires dune jeune fille range, p. 268.
Michel Foucault (1926-1984) is excluded from this list because for him the author is not anonymous but an
active and integrated element of the text itself. For Roland Barthes see, 'Le mort de l'auteur', Le bruissement
de la langue, essais critiques, Seuil, Paris, 1984. Translated as 'The Death of the Author', Stephen Heath, in
Image Music Text, Fontana/Collins, London, 1977; and Fragments d'un discours amoureux, Seuil, Paris,
1977. Translated as A lover's discourse: fragments, Richard Howard, Jonathan Cape, London, 1979. For
Christian Metz see, Langage et cinma, Larousse, Paris, 1971; English translation, Language and cinema,
paternalistic family structures which, as she had demonstrated, depended on the assumption of
gender difference, was radicalised by post-structuralist thinkers from within linguistic and semiotic
theory. In some sense, De Beauvoirs and Sartres attack on religious institutions and a scientific
positivism that sanctified empirical fact, developed in the sixties and seventies into theories that
gave, in the extreme, all authorial voice (back) to the masses.
From todays perspective we can be more appreciative of De Beauvoirs often ironic voice.
Her ambitious project was it to promote female emancipation by acknowledging the inescapability
of socially constructed gender without abandoning self-reflective consciousness.
There is no
doubt that De Beauvoirs writings contributed, beyond intellectual circles, to the development of a
more liberal society. Her literary oeuvre reached a wide group of women, effected changes in their
relation to their own bodies and sexuality and encouraged many women to openly claim their right
to equality. The fictionalised account of an intimate relationship between two women, De Beauvoir
and Zaza, manifests an important opening within feminist discourses. It implied homosexual
attachment and female narcissism and acknowledged a sense of solidarity rather than rivalry
between women. Her openness toward the complexity of female sexuality, including female

translation Donna Jean Umiker-Sebeok, Mouton, The Hague, 1974. Also, Essais sur la signification au
cinema, Klincksieck, Paris, 1971-1972. Translated as Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema, translation
Michael Taylor, New York and Oxford University Press, 1974; In the eighties, Metz adopted a
psychoanalytically informed methodology for instance in Le signifiant imaginaire, published in Paris in 1982,
which was translated as Psychoanalysis and cinema: the imaginary signifier, translated by Celia Britton,
Macmillan, London, 1982.
This seems to announce the discussion of this problem within the field of American gender studies
especially, the feminist texts by Judith Butler. See for instance, Gender Trouble: feminism and the subversion
of identity, Routledge, New York and London, 1990; and Bodies that Matter: on the discursive limits of sex,
Routledge, New York and London, 1993; or The psychic life of power: theories in subjection, Stanford
University Press, Stanford, 1997. Butler has based much of her theoretical work on Michel Foucaults
writings. I am referring here only to Surveiller et punir of 1975 and the three volumes of his Histoire de la
sexualit written between 1976 to 1984, which are his analysis of sexually repressive social structures and the
punitive system of Western society.
homosexuality, was her answer to a heterosexual societys fixation on the phallus, also among her
Existentialist friends. Yet, her novels are more than a documentation of her personal experiences
and they were carried by the hope that change may be possible beyond the world of a libertine
clique. The single-mindedness with which she fought this battle against male pre-conceptions of
women, which reduced women to mere objects of male pleasure had no equal at the time. And De
Beauvoirs feminism has relevance for the present thesis in two important ways. First, her Marxist
critique of fetishism brought to the fore the relation between subject and object but second, her
demand of equal rights for women situated her feminist critique increasingly within a Left that
favoured a neutral universalism.
De Beauvoirs political agenda becomes clearer when viewed in the wider French context.
Under the socialist Pierre Mends France, the Fourth Republic, which was in place from 1946 to
1958, had taken the form of a party-led government which is exceptional in French political history.
In place of a strong authoritarian figure it was the parliament that led the decision-making processes
and animated political discourses. The constitution of the Fourth Republic was closer to an ideal
republic than it ever would be again in France. However, the Fourth Republic failed dismally on the
issue of decolonisation of Algeria, which brought back to power, in 1958, the nationalist and strong
paternalistic figure Charles De Gaulle. The instalment of the Fifth Republic brought to conclusion a
process in which legislative structures and the opinion of the French people were increasingly
divorced. In Rod Kedwards words The ultimate paradox of economic boom and political collapse
in the 1950s left the decade with not just an ambivalent reputation but also one which highlights the
curious asymmetry of social and political developments.
In other words, the state pushed
Frances post-war modernisation without heeding the specific problems created by the rapid
individualisation of its citizens. Crucially, in the provinces the populist and nationalistic forces had

Rod Kedward, La Vie en Bleu: France and the French since 1900, Allen Lane: Penguin
Books, London, 2005, p. 381.
remained in place. The antagonism between the defenders of original French culture and supporters
of an egalitarian universalism reached new levels of urgency in the late fifties. Since the end of the
war, conservative forces, humiliated by the defeat of the Vichy government, which brought with it a
loss of self-respect and also guilt, felt obliged to respond with a defence of the good old values of
French culture. Its daily customs, its cuisine in short, French savoir vivre against a Parisian elite
culture or considered even worse, the non-culture of American robots. In fact, the French resistance
to universalism was split into a nationalistic message defending an original French culture and a
critique of capitalism, which argued against the banal and facile pleasures of consumerism and both
reactions hugely influenced the development of French post-war culture and identity.
The divorce of material substructures and abstract superstructures, referred to by Rod
Kedward as a gradual process which enabled the establishment of the Fifth Republic, is reflected
also, in the opposition between art informel and Geometric Abstraction, respectively, Cintisme.
From a feminist perspective, Geometric Abstractions emphasis of non-gendered universalism
appears to promise, on first consideration, the protection of women from mere object status so often
deplored in feminist texts. Yet, the promised equality of citizens can also be reinforcing masculine
structures and lead to a silencing of dissenting voices and this includes womens voices. The
universal laws of geometry and classicist aesthetics are, after all, the inventions of paternalistic
societies and are intended to perpetuate masculine domination and state hegemony. I suggest that
De Beauvoirs feminism was a scandal not because she asked for equal rights for women but
because she responded with rationality to the hysterical repression of the feminine by French men
of the immediate post-war generation. In order to tie this issue more clearly into French post-war
aesthetics I want to ask first what kind of values sustained discourses in favour of Geometric
Abstraction and Cintisme.
First, Geometric Abstraction was avant-gardist because it thought of itself as a movement
and a cultural elite. Second, it favoured stoic resistance to pleasure and quasi prohibited the
depiction of objects and figures from the pure world of abstraction it sought to represent. Similarly,
engagement with matire acquired the negative attribute of a weakness of character. The feminine,
including feminine aspects in a man, were defined by default as inferior and assigned a negative
function as obstacles on the path to perfection. One can refer here to the art historian Abigail
Solomon-Godeaus well known study of the representation of the male body in eighteenth-century
France which does describe a scenario that is situated at a period marked by radical political and
social imbalance and included for many the experience of traumatic violence.
In Male Trouble
the art historian defends the thesis that paintings produced during and after the French revolution
incorporated, rather than integrated, the feminine into the representation of masculinity. Thus, men
monopolised the representation of sexuality tout court while women were delegated the role of
mere human vases. Solomon-Godeau argues that the invention of a sensitive feminine male type
combined with the more conventional heroic warrior allowed painters to depict sexually dramatic
scenes without even having recourse to the depiction of women. Female sexuality was excluded
from the visual vocabulary of post-revolutionary painting because it was identified with the
materialistic decadence of the Ancien Rgime. I suggest that a similar repression was at play within
the heroic post-war avant-garde. Geometric Abstractions classicist emphasis on order excluded all
references to matire and this trend became even more pronounced with Cintisme. (Fig. 29 Victor
Vasarely, Vega-Lep, 1970) The use of synthetic materials and a tendency toward dematerialisation
suggest an extreme sensitivity to and even hysterical rejection of materiality.
Significant for the
present thesis is that a male homoerotic scenario did, as it did in representations of masculinity in
the early eighteenth century, effectively lead to the exclusion of the representation of women from
the field of artistic production. This is also true of course, for the self-representation of women. It is

Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Male Trouble: a crisis in representation, Thames and Hudson, London, 1997.
In the section Ambivalence in the work of Jess Soto, I will suggest that in his oeuvre ambivalence
toward materiality combined with a strong sense of nostalgia and that exile played significant part in the
certainly no coincidence that none of the women appearing in the photographs taken at gatherings
and parties of the gallery Denise Ren were practising artists. Instead they were figures remaining
in the shadows or at the side, as mere companions, of male artist heroes.
(Fig. 30 Group
photograph, artists included in the exhibition NUL65, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 1965)
I would like to argue that the repression of figuration and, hence narrative, prevented
historical integration of content that, just as in the case of eighteenth-century painting, was
identified with the decadence of a previous generation. Geometric Abstraction provided no basis for
a critical engagement with the past which it purged hysterically from its representations.
articulation of an artistic movement that understood itself as an avant-garde that is, the most
advanced artistic movement of its time does, paradoxically, hinge on its rejection of temporality.
The contradiction between the refusal to find historical articulation and the claim to be most
advanced seems evident. Geometric Abstractions avant-gardism was conservative in the sense that
it refused engagement with a problematic French history and instead sought to construct continuity
to pre-war abstraction, couching it in the mythical narrative of Gaullist Rsistance. When De

construction of this narcissistic identity. Sotos identification with master figures such as Mondrian, Malevich
or Le Corbusier and with peers such as Jean Tinguely and Yves Klein seems to support to this view.
There is little evidence that suggests that in Germany women had easier access to the artistic scene or were
accepted on a more equal terms. This changed however, dramatically in the seventies when we find in
Germany women like Valie Export or Rebecca Horn taking significant positions, as artists, within the art
In psychoanalytical terms, the rejection of the representations of the previous generation can be interpreted
a narcissistic renunciation of object attachment and, hence, active repression. In On Narcissism Freud wrote,
The relations of self-regard to eroticism - that is, to libidinal object-cathexis may be expressed concisely in
the following way. Loving in itself, in so far as it involves longing and depravation, lowers self-regard;
whereas being loved, having ones love returned, and possessing the loved object, raises it once more. When
the libido is repressed, the erotic cathexis is felt as a severe depletion of the ego, the satisfaction of love is
impossible, and the re-enrichment of the ego can be effected only by a withdrawal of libido from its object. A
return of the object-libido to the ego and its transformation into narcissism represents, as it were, a happy
love once more;, Sigmund Freud, On Narcissism: An Introduction, (1914), Standard Edition of the
Complete Psychoanalytical Works of Sigmund Freud, translation James Strachey, Vol. 17, p. 67-102.
Beauvoir argued with her writings for transgression of morality
she clearly reacted against a
nationalistic rhetoric in which the Rsistance would increasingly be used for a glorifying narrative
of Frances innocence. Rsistance was a convenient myth on which to build Frances rapid
economic recovery. Yet, the contradictions within post-war society soon became evident and had to
be disguised behind a representational screen of abstract artificiality which was supported with a
jargon borrowed from science and technology. Geometric Abstraction and kinetic art were
produced for post-war European citizens who believed that they had left behind the troubling
memory of the Second World War. In France, as in other European countries, the work of
mourning had been postponed.
The debates over the role of materiality in the creation of images, or perhaps, more
accurately, within the human imagination, expressed the anxieties of severely inhibited European
mind frames. The debates centred on how to enjoy pleasure without feelings of guilt in a time
following a conflict that had shown human beings capable of irrationality and violence of unknown
magnitude. How much carefree pleasure was permissible in a period of mourning? Geometric
Abstractions quasi prohibition of pleasurable attachment to an exterior world and hence the
repression of object relation is a symptom of such uncertainty. It reflected those ideological
structures that it initially sought to subvert, its radical detachment from matire culminating, in its
fusion with architectural space, in a complete integration within the ideological space of De
Gaulles Fifth Republic.
In 1958, De Beauvoir remembered her impatience with political moderation when she
described socialist meetings of the inter-war years Several of my fellow-students were socialists; I
thought the word had an evil ring; a socialist couldnt possibly be a tormented soul; he was pursuing
ends that were at the same time profane and limited : such moderation irritated me from the

For instance in Faut-il brler Sade?, Les Temps Modernes, December and January, Paris, 1951-2 ;
republished in Privilges, Paris, 1955. Translation Annette Michelson, The Marquis de Sade, John Calder,
London, 1962, pp. 9-82.
Elsewhere she noted, I was very fond of Lagneaus phrase: I have no comfort but in my
absolute despair. As I was going to continue to exist, once this despair had been established I had
to live as best as I could here below, that is, do what I liked.
Although De Beauvoir referred in
these sentences to the thirties, what she articulated was the sense of powerlessness French
intellectuals experienced by the end of the fifties. The political and social dynamic of the post-war
era had reached a point at which radical action seemed, on the Left and on the Right, inevitable. It
certainly contributed to the recall to power of General De Gaulle in the same year.

2.4 Philosophical Debates
The issues addressed in the previous section were accompanied by a theoretical debate over
ideologies in which historical materialism was pitted against phenomenological abstraction.

De Beauvoir, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, p. 239. Plusieurs de mes condisciples taient socialistes;
mes oreilles, le mot sonnait mal. Un socialiste ne pouvait tre un tourment; il poursuivit des objectifs la
fois profanes et limits: a priori, cette modration mennuyait., De Beauvoir, Mmoires dune jeune fille
range, pp. 329-30.
De Beauvoir, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, p. 243. Une fois ce dsespoir tabli, puisque je continuais
exister, il fallait me dbrouiller sur terre le mieux possible, cest--dire faire ce qui me plaisait., De Beauvoir,
Mmoires dune jeune fille range, p. 335.
In the thirties Sartre began to formulate his first critique of metaphysical philosophy which he had studied,
like De Beauvoir, at the Paris Sorbonne. Among their lecturers was the Jewish philosopher Lon
Brunschvicg, who taught an idealistic philosophy defined in terms of a critique of scientific methodology. De
Beauvoir described it as anachronistic and bloodless, the metaphysics of an isolated philosophy department.
The Sorbonne was an extremely conservative institution and dominated by an ethos of academic discipline
and the Christian morality that De Beauvoir so despised in her own class. Thus, Existentialism was
formulated already before the war in reaction to the conservatism emerging in the wake of the World War I
and the rise of French fascism. Its vehement attack on metaphysical philosophy is in hindsight less justified
than the uneasy relation to scientific positivism. After all, French integrationists campaigned with the voices
of reason for Frances collaboration with Nazi Germany. However, at the time, De Beauvoirs imagination
divided, within the Existentialist milieu, supporters of a Soviet-style Communism and those who
tried to formulate an internationalism that was more specific to developments in France. The fall-
out between Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty was one of its consequences.
Leftists recognised Sartres and De Beauvoirs sustained support of Communism as a misguided
utopianism, blind to the realities of Stalins reign. After Stalins death in 1953 details of his self-
aggrandising cult and the cruelty of his rule had leaked to the West and French Communists were
forced to ask the difficult question: is violence ever justified in the name of ideology? In very
general terms, the issue centred on the use of violence and on the inevitability, even need of
transgression in historical processes. The fact that the debates were hinged so crucially on physical
transgression and on the foreclosure of the historical object, was a result of Frances dismal role in
the Second World War. This is linked, so I propose, to an issue that I will address shortly; the issue
of the lack of acknowledgement and representation, by the Left, of the persecution of Jews in Vichy

was stirred by what she learned from her Communist friends about the Russian Revolution and she wrote in
1958, In Russia, perhaps, things were going on: but it was very far away. The Groups [quipes] had muddled
my ideas about social questions, and philosophy wouldnt have anything to do with them. At the Sorbonne,
my professors systematically ignored Hegel and Marx; []De Beauvoir, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, p.
231. En Russie, peut-tre, ils se passaient des choses; mais ctait trs loin. Sur les questions sociales, les
quipes mavaient brouills les ides et la philosophie les ddaignait. A la Sorbonne, mes professeurs
ignoraient systmatiquement Hegel et Marx; []. De Beauvoir, Mmoires dune jeune fille range, p. 318.
For an account and analysis of the significance of this fall-out see Jon Stewart (ed.), The debate between
Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 1998; Margaret Whitford, Merleau-
Pontys critique of Sartres philosophy, French Forum, Lexington, 1982. De Beauvoirs description of the
political and social tensions in pre-war Paris in Mmoires dune jeune fille range makes this fall-out
explicable as the culmination of a long process of individuation and prolonged definition of their respective
philosophical positions. Jean-Paul Sartre and the slightly older Maurice Merleau-Ponty were both part of the
Marxist/Communist intelligentsia of the thirties. The links between bourgeois culture and fascist nationalism
led to their radical rupture with the values of the bourgeois class into which they had been born. After the war
they had consolidated their friendship by founding, together with Raymond Aron, Les Temps Modernes.
Not surprisingly, it was De Beauvoir who was most outspoken on the issue of violence
which ties in with the issues raised in the previous section around female subjectivity.
lucidity of her analysis of the debate between Merleau-Ponty and Sartre was however, due to her
confident use of a highly analytical philosophical language. She most accurately recognised that the
disagreement between Sartre, who was closer to historical materialism than Merleau-Ponty, turned
around the issue of matire and she argued that the latter had misinterpreted Sartres Existentialist
philosophy. In Faut-il brler Sade
she addressed in three separate texts the ethical problems
posed by subjectivity and (literary) aggression pitted against bourgeois morality. The first essay,
which also provided the books title, focused on the writings of the Marquise de Sade and on his
legacy as critical thinker. De Beauvoir defended the use of sadistic sexual fantasy in De Sades
writings on the grounds of its literary value as caricature of a hypocritical bourgeois society and
debauched clergy. More importantly, she defended his negative analysis of human enterprise, De
Sades view that the source of all human ambition was to satisfy his or her greed and lust, as a basis
for potentially constructive criticism. She argued that De Sades aristocratic sadism and negativity
were ultimately more humane than the bourgeois emotional indifference to the cruelty of an unjust
society. The self-satisfied bourgeoisie, concerned with little else than its own economic safety and
physical comfort, was truly sadistic. Implicit in this was of course an attack on the Vichy

Throughout the controversy between Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, De Beauvoir remained
firmly at her lovers side. The letters exchanged between them give evidence of a deep affection and sustained
mutual respect. Any differences in their theoretical approaches were moderated not only by their infatuation
with one another but undoubtedly also by their dependence on each others support. It was decisive for De
Beauvoirs decision to fight a political rather than a philosophical battle. American cold-war policies, the
persecution of Communists, French colonialism and later, the war in Vietnam were additional factors giving
urgency to her political engagement in essays and a large literary oeuvre.
Faut-il brler Sade? was first published in Les Temps Modernes in December 1951 and January 1952.
First published as book in a collection of essays entitled Privilges, 1955; republished in Faut-il brler Sade?,
Gallimard Ides, Paris, 1972. The English translation was undertaken by Annette Michelson in 1962 and
published in The Marquis de Sade, John Calder, London, 1962, pp. 9-82.
bourgeoisie who had turned a blind eye to anti-Semitism and the deportation of Jews, Communist,
resistance fighters and political dissidents. De Beauvoirs conclusion was that at certain moments it
was more ethical to transgress the limits of morality - when it serves exclusively the protection of a
privileged class - than to remain emotionally detached.
The second essay in Privilges, La pense de droite, aujourdhui, provided an analysis of
the rhetoric of the French Right at the time.
In the third text De Beauvoir presented Sartres and
Merleau-Pontys conflicting views on the role of materiality in human perception and on the status
of the object. In Merleau-Ponty et le pseudo-Sartrisme she accused Merleau-Ponty of distorting
Sartres Existentialist philosophy by misinterpreting his analysis of the relation between the
subjective and objective world. De Beauvoir showed that Merleau-Ponty denied the facticity of an
objective world, which Sartre claimed existed outside and separate from the symbolic world of the
subject. Importantly, she argues that Sartre defended in Ltre et le nant
the thesis that the
subject and the object are ruled by different systems of symbolisation. She continued by explaining
that he thus introduced a split and an unknown component in the relation between subject and other,
subject and society. Expressed in temporal terms one could also state that, for Sartre, a radical a-
synchronicity existed between the imaginary world of the subject and its concrete, social
environment. Meaning formed in the mind of the subject did, in his view, not coincide with
meaning created by different rules outside him or her. This point is crucial because it allowed Sartre
and De Beauvoir to argue that the source for all social dynamic, including critique of it, resided in
the ambivalences that emerge with communication and social interaction within the public space.
They argued that no absolute values, negative or positive, were ever a given. This has the
consequence that meaning is unstable and always in need of redefinition and hence a process open
to experimentation, dialogue and development. De Beauvoir explained that in the ambivalence of

Simone De Beauvoir,La pense de droite, aujourdhui, Faut-il brler Sade?, Gallimard Ides, Paris,
1972, pp. 83-185.
the informel all potential meanings of a society converged and, as defined by Sartre, this was the
location of a radical freedom. She argued that Merleau-Ponty had misunderstood Sartres
philosophy by emphasising Existentialisms dependence on a belief in material reality at the
expense of immaterial values. De Beauvoir showed that it was over the issue of the status of matire
within Existentialist thought that the two philosophers parted ways.
Merleau-Ponty had sought to overcome bourgeois morality with a philosophy that freed the
subject from its dependence on matire and formulated a quasi metaphysical phenomenology.

Sartres Existentialism became problematic for Merleau-Ponty because Marxism assumes a subject
in eternal conflict with the material word and, implicitly, claims that it is only the bourgeois
capitalist who denies, or can afford to deny, the existence of the real. From Merleau-Pontys
perspective it was the split between subject and object, their a priori separation proposed by Sartre,
that turned the world into a world of violence.
While Existentialism was a social rather than philosophical theory, Merleau-Ponty
continued, essentially, the philosophical project of early twentieth-century phenomenology.
Edmund Husserl had defined the basic terms of phenomenology in Germany during and after the
First World War in the form of a systematic analysis of subjective perception. This was triggered by
the rapid development of science and the concurrent violence of the First World War. Merleau-
Ponty developed phenomenology further by questioning perception under the aspect of its potential
to register metaphysical truth. In contrast to Sartre, Merleau-Ponty understood the subject primarily,
as the passive receiver or interpreter of sensory data of which he or she would become conscious by
way of an analytical process. However, phenomenology in the Husserlian tradition proposed also

Jean Paul Sartre, Ltre et le nant essai dontologie phnomnologique, Editions Gallimard, Paris, 1943.
Merleau-Pontys most influential post-war texts are Phnomenology de la perception (1945), Loeil et
lsprit (1960), Sense et non-sense (1966), Le visible et linvisible (1968) most of which were published only
posthumously in 1961. In the most general terms all his texts use a very abstract language to describe the link
between visuality and a Christian idea of truth.
that the subject perceived only an imperfect reality and that a sense of wholeness was created
exclusively within the self. Any sensory data that was not made conscious, which was understood
as a process beyond the control of the subject, simply did not exist for it. His or her failure of
understanding the world as a whole had in Merleau-Pontys view no further consequence. The
assumption that human perception had universal validity guaranteed sameness and communication
between subjects. The fundamental equality of all subjects, regardless of gender, the specific
circumstances of their life or their personal history, rested ultimately on the acceptance of an
unsurpassable subjectivity of human perception. The need to acknowledge difference, so important
to Sartres humanism which insisted on the separation between subject and object, was redundant in
a philosophy in which absolute alterity was defined as unknowable hence insignificant in the
subjects experience. While Sartre thought that the other could be known (wissen) as difference, for
Merleau-Ponty otherness existed and was perceptible as truth despite its absolute absence. He thus
continued the phenomenological project of the early twentieth-century and re-instated
transcendental philosophy in the post-war period.
The disagreement between Sartre and Merleau-
Ponty was over knowing versus believing.
In contrast Sartre, although he had read Edmund Husserl before the war, turned to
Heideggers ontology in the forties. His concept of a radical otherness of the objective world, which

Here one has to acknowledge relevance of the Jewish thinker Emmanuel Lvinas (1906-1995) who
developed concurrently and in dialogue with Merleau-Ponty a philosophy that remained similarly attached to
a metaphysical idea of truth, the belief in the possibility of spiritual revelation. Among Lvinas most
influential texts of the post-war period are Totalit et infini of 1961, Difficile Libert of 1964 or a collection of
essays entitled Lhumanisme de Lautre homme published in 1972. In contrast to ontology, his
phenomenology proposes that in human experience inner and exterior worlds merge in a moment of
recognition of the others face. Alterity brings with it a fundamental responsibility towards the other and
imagines a social that is very unlike the existential fight over life or death described in Sartres ontology. For
Lvinas reciprocity is a process in which self-reflection and projection of inner world images create a constant
movement, which is the spiritual life force.
is impossible to represent or to know, he developed in the monumental Ltre et le nant
, written
during the war. He never fully rejected Heidegger but took, wisely, distance again in the post-war
period when Heideggers support for Nazism came to light. It is for this reason that matire does
take such paramount I suggest, even symbolic, function in the fracturing of the core Existentialist
group. The consensus between Sartre, De Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty and Raymond Aron, to name
only the most prominent figures around Les Temps Modernes proved, ultimately, to be very tenuous
and it faltered on the issue of violence.
Today, De Beauvoirs essay on this conflict is of such value because she understood
that Sartres Existentialism was in ideological rather than philosophical opposition to
Merleau-Pontys abstract phenomenology. Her text foreshadowed the political debates of
the later sixties in which visuality that is an immaterial attachment to the object, came
under anti-capitalist critique from the political Left. In reaction to a large consumer-
oriented middle-class, intellectuals and artists undertook the deconstruction of the
narratives of a culture increasingly controlled by its superficial object-relations. In
hindsight, Merleau-Pontys acceptance of imperfect knowledge and the utter subjectivity of
human perception can also be seen as announcing later developments in French thought.
These brought the increasing use of psychoanalysis as a methodological tool in the analysis
of social relations, gender roles and identity. In 1964, ten years after the publication of De
Beauvoirs essay, Les Temps Modernes printed the text Fantasme originaire, Fantasme des
origines, origine du Fantasme written by the French psychoanalysts Jean Laplanche (b.
1924) and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis (b. 1924), which has since become one of the key texts of
the period. In hindsight this essay seems to mark the definite arrival of a culture that had
lost its direct and engaged relation to the material world. One could say that Sartres

Jean-Paul Sartre, Ltre et le nant: essai dontologie phnomnologique, Gallimard, Paris, 1943.
ontological focus on matire detracted from an issue that Merleau-Ponty more directly
addressed, namely the role of visuality in human perception and, hence, image formation as
symbolic representation within a specific society.

Anti-Semitism in the Forth Republic?
The questions discussed in the previous section seem academic. However, at the time it served the
practical purpose of clarifying the nature of human interaction and creating understanding for the
functioning of communication and feelings such as love, empathy or hate. This was of greatest
significance in a French society that had to come to terms with the experience of the Second World
War. The questions how could Nazism happen? and how can similar horrors be prevented? were
on many intellectuals minds. The sheer magnitude of these questions, the enormous weight of
responsibility resting on those who sought to provide answers may excuse the clumsiness and
harshness that characterised their responses. Liberation had created a sense of enormous relief and
at the same time, anxieties and despair.
Many former members of the French Rsistance had found each other again on the editorial
board and in the printed pages of the journal Les Temps Modernes. The periodical stood in a
tradition of the organs distributed by Rsistance organisations such as Combat and Libration. They
had been crucial in organising and maintaining the contact between various Rsistance groups.
However, it is important to emphasise the ideological differences that separated, soon after the war,
the various organisations. The writers and intellectuals gathered around Les Temps Modernes
clearly represented the Communist and more moderate French Left. It published essays which
raised highly topical issues such as French and German post-war reconstruction policy, United
States capitalism, feminism and developments in psychoanalysis. It featured articles and essays on
literature, theatre, film and art and thus provided one of the most influential platforms for Left
intellectuals debates in France. The list of authors contributing to the journal during the first twenty
years of its publication included most leading French Left thinkers of the time.
In recent years, French intellectuals blindness, especially Sartres indifference to the fate of
Jews during the war and his ignorance of Jewish culture in general, has come under close scrutiny.
It is true that photographs of extermination and concentration camps were circulated within the
Rsistance already during the war. Images of the Holocaust were widely available immediately after
the defeat of Germany and witness accounts of survivors were published soon after. It is also true
that Sartre made no mention, either during of after the war, of the deportations of Jews by the Vichy
government, of the Vl dHiv (Vlodrome dHiver) where, in 1942, thousands of Jews were herded
together and left under the most atrocious conditions before being deported to German camps.
However, he did write Rflexions sur la question juive, partly in 1944, and published first excerpts
in Les Temps Modernes in 1945. The full text was available in 1946. From todays perspective
Sartres essay has become problematic because of his use of anti-Semitic stereotypes. The debate on
Sartres supposed anti-Semitism, opened up by American and French critics is too complex to
discuss in depth within the present text.
However, I wish to reiterate that Existentialism
understood human action primarily as a responsibility toward the other and, at this point, best
realised in building a new world out of the ruins of the past. Today, so much historical evidence has
been brought to light, so much research has been undertaken, so much emotion has gone into
thinking the Holocaust that it is hard to imagine how one could possibly ignore it at the time. Yet,
the historical distance and the language that we have today in order to address anti-Semitism and
the Holocaust were not available to Sartre, nor was it to the society in which he lived. One might

See Enzo Traverso, The blindness of intellectuals: Historicizing Sartres Anti-Semite and Jew, October
87, Winter 1999, pp. 73-88. The issue 87 of October, MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, winter, 1999, is
devoted to the reception of Rflexions sur la question juive at the time of its publication and from a
contemporary perspective. The October issue contains essays by Denis Hollier, Susan Suleiman, Naomi
Schor, Enzo Traverso, Anson Rabinbach, Pierre Birnbaum, Emmanuel Lvinas, et al. On the same issue see
also Bernard-Henri Lvy, Le sicle de Sartre, Grasset, Paris, 2000. pp. 254-61.
want to explain indifference as an effect of war trauma. However, in contrast to other theorists of
the Holocaust I am less convinced that silence and abstraction are necessarily the effects of
Also, I am sceptical about the link between silence, which Joan B. Wolfe implied, is a
political silence, and the inability to articulate a traumatic event. Indeed, I am defending the
opposite of historian Joan B. Wolfs position that trauma returns in the form of either inarticulate
abstraction or fragmentation. In my view, traumatic experiences do not return inarticulate but quite
the contrary, as over-determined images permeated by a sense of a violent totality.
They are
highly subjective images that haunt a self that seeks to embrace, love and yes, function within the
world. After all, trauma is defined as the return of what cannot be tolerated as experience or

Joan B. Wolf wrote, Others have gone so far as to claim that the story of the Holocaust cannot be told and
that even the attempt runs the risk of creating a false sense of comprehension, what Claude Lanzmann has
called the obscenity of understanding. For Lanzmann the Holocaust cannot be engendered because a
gap, an abyss separates all explanation, all description, from the reality of the horror. She continued, Jean-
Franois Lyotard has even suggested that the proper response to the Holocaust is silence, a silence that stands
for that which has not been determined and therefore cannot be articulated. Wolfe argues that, According to
Herman, [c]ertain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud; this is the meaning of the
word unspeakable. But because trauma refuses to be buried, [t]he conflict between the will to deny horrible
events and the will to proclaim them aloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma. Wolfe
continued, But how can trauma be managed, yet alone overcome, in the absence of communicable language?
And how, as Elizabeth Bellamy asks, can one enter into an exchange with the past that can negotiate trauma
and, at the same time, locate and preserve historical specificity? The internal contradictions of trauma can
cause great stress for victims, possessed by the shock and at the same time unable to articulate it. Denial of
reality makes [survivors] feel crazy, writes Herman, but acceptance of the full reality seems beyond what
any human can bear. Joan B. Wolf, Harnessing the Holocaust: The politics of Memory in France, Stanford
University, Stanford, California, 2004, p. 10-12. Quotes from, Claude Lanzman, The Obscenity of
Understanding : an evening with Claude Lanzman, Cathy Caruth (ed.), Trauma: Explorations in Memory,
John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1995, pp. 206-7; Jean-Franois Lyotard, Le diffrend, Les ditions
de minuit, Paris, 1988; Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence From Domestic
Abuse to Political Terror, Basic Books, New York, 1992, p.1; Elizabeth J. Bellamy, Affective Geneaogies:
Psychoanalysis, Postmodernism, and the Jewish Question after Auschwitz, University of Nebraska Press,
Lincoln, 1997, p. 8.
knowledge, and it is the latter two which are always only fragmentary. Subjective experience is, as
Merleau-Ponty argued in his Phnomnologie de la perception
, by no means total but always
partial. Further, the assumption that abstraction, in this context understood as a failure to articulate,
is related to trauma does little in the way of clarifying the ethical questions engendered by post-war
abstract art. The issue is debatable but it seems to me too general and too theoretical a framework to
make a contribution to the present discussion. To be more explicit, I cannot consider the abstract
quality of Gegos objects automatically as a symptom caused by the trauma of exile, as little as I
can assume automatically that Sotos Cintisme intended the silencing of the memory of the Second
World War. However, I will suggest that exile had an effect on both artists on a very personal level
and that this left traces in both oeuvres, but not necessarily by way of the oeuvres abstract quality. I
will further suggest that in both cases abstraction was related more likely, to the social and
historical conditions under which their oeuvres were produced. To return briefly to the accusations
raised against Sartre, De Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty and others intellectuals of the period. In my
view, these intellectuals were very consciously leaving issues unaddressed in order to engage with
what they knew was an imperfect world. It was their choice to address historical specificity from an
abstract point of view and it would mean to gravely diminish their real achievements as thinkers
were one to accuse them of either indifference or traumatised silence.
I will address related issues around the definition of Jewish Identity in the post-war period
in chapter III. At this point, I will discuss only briefly, the question of the availability today of
images of concentration camps and of the persecution of Jews in the Third Reich. The research and
analysis of the original photographic material is emotionally extremely draining and we have to
have great respect for those who engage in it. Yet, just how divided the public opinions are,
especially in contemporary France, over the use of Holocaust representation was exemplified by the

See on this issue Hal Fosters seminal The Return of the Real: the avant-garde at the end of the century,
MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts and London, 1996.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phnomnologie de la perception, ditions Gallimard, Paris, 1945.
debate around an exhibition held at the Htel de Sully in Paris in 2001. The curators of Mmoires
des camps had decided to include among others, photographs of the corpses of gassed Jews and of
several naked women prisoners being led toward the gas chambers.
These black and white
images had been taken clandestinely in Auschwitz in 1944 by a member of the Sonderkommando
that is, a group of Jewish prisoners ordered by the Nazis to gas and then burn their fellow Jews. We
know that the members of the Sonderkommando were regularly replaced, that is killed, and a new
group of men selected from among the prisoners to do their work. The photographer of these
particular images took the risk, before his own certain death, to take the photos literally under the
eyes of the guards and get the negatives smuggled from within the camp to the Polish Resistance.
Quite understandably, the exhibition of these images caused very strong reactions in the press,
notably in Les Temps Modernes, where the curators and contributors to the exhibition were accused
of perversion and attacked for abusing the memory of the Holocaust, since the viewing of
photographs implies pleasure. In his book Images malgr tout the art historian George Didi-
Huberman, a contributor to the exhibition catalogue, gave his own account of the debate together
with an essay in which he argued in favour of the use of images of the Holocaust even if they are
offensive to most peoples moral feelings.
Didi-Huberman refuted accusations of a manipulative
use of explicit photographic material by defending its importance in the creation of objective
knowledge on the Second World War. Within the limited space of this thesis I cannot possibly enter
into the complex questions raised in Didi-Hubermanns essay. However, the sections on
ambivalence in the work of Jess Soto, on Jewish Identity in the post-war period and on Gegos
work of the seventies, are intended as a contribution to this discourse by way of an analysis and

See the exhibition catalogue Mmoires des camps: photographes des camps de concentration et
extermination Nazi, 1933-1999, texts by Ilsen About, Georges Didi-Huberman, interviews with George
Angli, George Rodger, Naomi Tereza-Salmon, Htel de Sully, January - March, 2001.
Georges Didi-Hubermann, Images malgr tout, Les ditions de Minuit, Paris, 2003.
nuanced interpretation of non-figurative forms of memory that is, abstract art produced in the
second half of the twentieth-century.

2.5 Le Corbusier and the Festival de lArt davant-garde
As noted at the beginning of this chapter, French architecture played a vital part in the creation of
the new post-war culture and society. The government of the Fourth Republic had placed enormous
emphasis on the development of rural areas and towns which had, as a result of Frances traditional
centralism, lagged behind. Both, in economic as well as in cultural terms, the provinces had
remained attached to pre-war culture and hence were for the French Right the political space par
excellence. In 1944, the Swiss architect and town planner Le Corbusier, (Charles-Edouard
Jeanneret, 1887-1965) was charged with overseeing the French governments architectural
reconstruction programme. His influence, as a designer and public persona, dominated the
international architectural community since the thirties and would do so for the two decades
following the Second World War. I have alluded in the first chapter to Le Corbusiers influence on
the development of a modern Venezuelan aesthetic and culture. His enormous prestige in the post-
war period rested on architectural designs he had devised, effectively, between 1920 and 1930. A
first town-planning concept, the Plan voisin was formulated around 1922 and proposed,
unsuccessfully, to the town of Paris in 1925. In 1930 he had envisioned an even more daring
concept, La ville radieuse, a utopian pre-war megalomaniac town plan which was never realised.
Nonetheless, some basic proposals made in La ville radieuse became typical of post-war town
planning, for instance the emphasis on motorised transport and on the economically more
economical vertical rather than horizontal orientation of the modern skyscraper. Thus, Le Corbusier
post-war reconstruction programme was profoundly indebted to a bourgeois ideology and the
positivism of the pre-war years.
The enormous appeal of Le Corbusiers design lies in the combination of a classicist
aesthetic with the promises of efficiency, functionality and progress. In the fifties, it seemed ideally
suited for conveying a much needed sense of continuity, stability and order to a war-shaken society.
However, he enjoyed renomm only in certain political quarters, certainly not on the populist right,
and the French population at large felt patronised by his highly intellectual approach. His cool
aesthetic was too radical for most, his emphasis on the mechanistic and the embrace of a new
material, concrete, too anti-traditional and a-social. It is also true that in Le Corbusiers mind the
human body was afforded merely a conceptual consideration. The Modulor, an ideal and
standardised human shape, was invented by Le Corbusier in order to provide a measuring tool for
the design of living spaces.
Most important with reference to his influence in Venezuela is that he
had inherited his idealism from the French Lumires and Protestantism which formed together the
basis of his belief that architecture had a pedagogic function.
Le Corbusiers architectural theory

The Modulor was invented between 1942 and 1947, is non-gendered but implies universal man. In this
context it is significant to note that Le Corbusiers designs are all based on the ideal family at the head of
which is a father. The insistence on sexual difference and, as I suggest, Le Corbusiers repressed
homosexuality and problematic relation to the feminine, explicit in his artistic work, are important issues
which unfortunately, I am unable to address here but hope to develop elsewhere. A related issue was
approached recently by Simon Richard in Le Corbusier and the Concept of Self. Richard established links
between Le Corbusiers architectural practice, conventionalism exemplified by the Modulor, Le Corbusiers
political position within Vichy France and his relation to the sacred and to violence. The interlinking of
rational concepts with religious ideals, Richard showed, was present in Le Corbusiers entire oeuvre but
expressed most explicitly in his writings and the painted oeuvre. Simon Richard, Le Corbusier and the
Concept of Self, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2003.
The critical view of his totalitarian visions was part of the French sixties reaction against functionalism,
especially within French cinema. Examples of films using modernist architecture in order to evoke futuristic
towns whose inhabitants are deprived of their rights as individuals and hence of their humanity are Alphaville
(1965) by Jean-Luc Godard or Fahrenheit 451 (1966) by Franois Truffaut. Both were important for the
definition of the auteur-director and the theoretical basis of the French Nouvelle Vague.
was exemplary of the post-war ethos of transparency which erased the distinction between
architecture and autonomous art objects. Moreover, architecture itself became the art object when,
after 1951, the architectural industrys production capacity surpassed the actual demand for living
space and architecture acquired surplus value. The loss of the art objects autonomy was restored
via the term avant-garde, which claimed that art and architecture were able to represent contents
that effectively lay beyond the present, that it, they were able to represent the future.
The affinities between Le Corbusiers avant-gardism and the artistic production of the
fifties, the abstract painters and sculptors working in Paris, became manifest in an event organised
in 1956 on the roof of the Unit dhabitation in Marseille. The first of three Festivals de lArt
davant-garde promoted the optimism and belief in progress that pervaded cultural production
immediately after the war into the early sixties. There was, as yet, little sense of a radical opposition
between a cultural elite and a subversive sub-culture as it would emerge after 1968. There was less
talk also of critical strategies or institutional critique and instead terms such as liberation of forms,
advanced art and the celebration of technology dominated public lectures and discussions. The
first Festival de lArt davant-garde, conceived and organised by the theatre director and well-
known figure in the Parisian art scene Jacques Polieri, brought together painters, sculptors,
architects, dancers, musicians and poets. Michel Ragon, important promoter of informel painting
had an important role in providing a theoretical and art critical perspective on the event. Among
those invited to participate were Jess Soto, Jean Tinguely (1925-1991) and Yves Klein (1928-
1962) and thus a crucial link between Cintisme and Nouveau Ralisme was first established.
Tinguely and Soto knew each other since 1954 and their exchanges would lead, eventually, to
Sotos temporary digression into Nouveau Ralisme, which I discuss in the last section of this
At the first Festival, Cintisme was represented by Victor Vasarely, Jess Soto, Jean

In the following years Tinguely introduced Soto also to the circle of artists around the gallery Iris Clert,
where he met Yves Klein and made contact with the German artists group ZERO, founded by Heinz Mack (b.
1931) and Otto Piene (b. 1928) in Dsseldorf in 1957. In 1961 Soto demonstrated his preference for German
Tinguely, Yaacov Agam (b. 1928), Pol Bury and the Hungarian-born artist Nicolas Schffer (1912-
1992). As a new trend it was introduced by way of a reference to the German Bauhaus and in
particular to Lszl Moholy-Nagys (1895-1946) architecture de lumire
, Licht Architektur

architecture). The second Festival took place in 1957, again in a Le Corbusier design in Nantes, a
building that is almost identical to the Unit dhabitation of Marseille. The event was smaller and
somewhat more chaotic, giving more space to Nouveau Ralisme and performance arts, theatre,
dance, music and to film. The third and last festival, on the other hand, was a well organised event
taking place in Paris in 1960 over the course of an entire month. Several locations across Paris
served as the venues for an ambitious cultural programme, encompassing art exhibitions, music,
film, dance, and poetry readings. The balance between painting and sculpture was more or less
equal however, a trend toward figuration was obvious within both media. Clearly, the severity of
post-war abstraction appeared dated and restrained and was giving way now to Nouveau Ralisme
works by artists such as Daniel Spoerri (b. 1930), Jean Tinguely, Arman (1928-2005), Yves Klein
and Csar (1921-1998). Performing arts, however, manifested a trend toward the spectacular and
monumental for instance, in the design of rotating stages and the introduction of video technology
for a large screen. The event as a whole made apparent that important changes were now
perceptible across the whole spectrum of artistic production in France. Around 1960, the production
of objects had begun to give way to the conceptualisation of artistic production itself and its
positioning within a new symbolic order. While architecture acquired a surplus value, increasingly
taking on the role of the monument, the art object in turn lost its status as luxury item and was
integrated into the public space. ZEROs light aesthetic, Nicolas Schffers technophile installations
and Jess Sotos immaterial Cintisme, were only superficially in an opposition to Nouveau

Kinetische Kunst over French Nouveau Ralisme by collaborating with ZERO in exhibition held in
The French term was coined by Michel Corvin. See his Festivals de lArt davant-garde, 1956-1960,
Somogy Editions dart, Paris, 2004, p. 64.
Realisms attachment to consumer objects. Within the monumentality of modern architecture they
sought to negotiate the difficult position of the artist within this new order, which would soon
become the main task of the avant-garde.
The architect Claude Parent (b. 1923) had acted as a stage designer for the last Festival in
1960 and together with Paul Virilio (b. 1932) he would become crucial for the theorisation of a
post-modern aesthetic in France. They challenged the modern movement from 1966 onwards and
formulated a critique of architectural practice from within the architectural community itself. In
eight issues of a magazine called Architecture Principe they called for a more integrated
architectural programme, contextualised architecture and respect toward existing landscape and
Functionalist architecture and urban planning, so they argued, had become in the sixties a
capitalist enterprise. Predating the texts of Henri Lefebvre (1901-1991)
, they argued in 1966 that
architecture had become a means of control, extending from the commercial centres of the
economic and social structures in the peripheries.
Paul Virilios contributions in Architecture Principe point toward different problems and
anxieties within French culture. His ideas included the concept of a bunker aesthetic
which was a

The eight issues were collected and republished in the late 1990 as a book. Paul Virilio and Claude Parent,
Architecture principe: 1966, includes a German translation of the French original by Bernd Wilczek, Editions
de l'Imprimeur, Besanon, 1996.
The philosopher and urban theorist Henri Lefebvre described poignantly how the immediate post-war
reconstruction of France turned, via its architectural projects, into a functionalist enterprise with little interest
for the complexity of the social reality. He wrote, [In 1957] existed already elaborate plans concerning the
"districts; these were efforts to face up to, to organise, to prevent chaos. Unfortunately they announced, or
rather, they represented already the power of technocracy; they were inspired by a cold rationality. []Does
this willed homogeneity suppress the imaginary, creation, invention? Yes, formally; and however not, because
it relegates it to the margin; it makes of the "creative" a parano or a schizo. (My translation) Henri Lefebvre,
'Autour deux dates', Paris-Paris, 1937-1957, crations en France, exhibition catalogue, Centre Georges
Pompidou, Paris, 1981, p. 408.
See Paul Virilio and Claude Parent, Architecture principe, No 6, numro special: bunker archologie,
September-October, 1966.
direct reference to the ubiquitous bunkers built during the Second World War and still littering
European landscapes. One special issue of Architecture Principe was illustrated with photographic
self-portraits taken while researching bunkers along the Maginot line and the coast of Brittany.
Virilios attempt at integrating the signs of a traumatic European history into a post-modern
aesthetic led to the construction of a concrete building, a Catholic church built in 1967 in Nevers.
The bunker aesthetics memorial meaning was accentuated by the fusion with the religious function
of the church. An additional aspect of Virilios post-war aesthetic was to highlight emotional
instability. His design models and architectural installations incorporate slanting surfaces and ramps
leading towards rooms below ground level, into spaces that represent a literal underground and
perhaps, an architectural unconscious. Such room-installations were included for instance in the
35th Biennale in Venice in 1970, where they seem to symbolise vertigo, the fear of falling into a
fathomless pit. However, Claude Parent and Paul Virilio were responsible as well for some of the
most atrocious architectural projects realised during the time. Other than the above mentioned
church in Nevers, Claude Parent created in 1970 a shopping mall in Reims, which is nothing if not a
monument to the failure of modernism, announcing the social and economical problems of the
coming years. (Fig. 31 Reims shopping mall, architect Claude Parent, 1970) In some sense, Paul
Virilio and Claude Parent were no longer architects but had become producers of social
commentary. Lefebvre wrote, 'It is possible to show, if not "to demonstrate", that the schema that
was initially applied to environmental space was then extended, for example into knowledge: []
The diagram becomes model, is displaced from practice onto culture, generates ideologies in order
to justify itself (structuralism, for example). But it also can, once adopted as model, proclaim the
collapse of ideologies, once more. Thus the thought passes from a critical description to theoretical
analysis of society, integrating the part (space) into the total.
Levebres statement is crucial

Il est possible de montrer, si non de dmontrer, que se schma dabord prouv sur lenvironnement
spatial a t ensuite tendue, par exemple au savoir: [] Cest ainsi que la pense passe dune description
because it confirms what will be the main argument of the following section. Here I want to argue
that at this point of French history instability of meaning and hence ambivalence, became itself
integrated into the ideological space of De Gaulles Republic.

Ambivalence in the Work of Jess Soto
The argument that I will develop in the following section depends strongly on the use of the term
ambivalence. The word is composed of the Latin words ambo (both) and valentia (force) the latter
having the double meaning of strength and worth in the sense of moral goodness. This is against
expectations because ambivalence in todays usage implies an inability to decide on ones positive
or negative feelings toward an object. Especially with psychoanalytical theory the term acquired a
negative character. It implied denial of sexual difference hence was associated with fetishism and
also used negatively in Marxist theory. Properly speaking, today valentia would need to be replaced
with the Latin word for value in the sense of appraisal and judgement, which is aestimo
(Ambaestimo) Again we will be disappointed to learn that there is no link between aestimo and
aesthetics, which in turn is derived from the Greek aistike which means as we all know, the science
of what concerns the senses. So here we are, at the crossroad between quality (valentia) and degree
(aestimo), which both do not concern the senses directly but instead intellectual faculties, norms and
moral judgement. Such etymological word game seemed a helpful way into a chapter that is
concerned precisely with to be pulled in two directions which I am sharply distinguishing from
not to know what is good and what is bad. The former meaning points toward a situation within
temporality, a position from which both possible directions (forces) are open, a place where

critique une analyse thorique de la socit, en intgrant la partie (lespace) dans le global. Henri Lefebvre,
'Autour deux dates', p. 408.
everything is in motion and nothing foreclosed, the latter is sign of uncertainty, evasion or

Historically speaking, Cintisme represents a transitional art form first, because it no longer
maintained, as modernism did, the strict separation between the viewers space and the space taken
up by the art object, thus announcing post-modernism, and second, because it no longer insisted, as
Geometric Abstraction did, on the planarity of the picture surface, falling short however, of a return
to figuration and narrative, which was achieved instead by Nouveau Ralisme. In interviews, Soto
insisted that in the mid-fifties he thought in terms of optical illusions and virtual space rather than
painterly surface and even less, mass and volume. However, I will argue that, despite the utter
abstractness of a larger part of Sotos oeuvre and his emphasis on immaterial optical effect rather
than physical sensation, the central issues of his artistic concept were solidly materialist. A series of
works produced between 1958 and ca. 1962 brought to the fore the role of materiality within Sotos
thinking and I hope to provide, with my interpretation of these objects, a new perspective on Sotos
highly enigmatic abstract oeuvre.
In the late fifties, Sotos firm allegiance to Denis Ren and Geometric Abstraction was
seriously challenged by two prominent figures working in the less restrained circles of Nouveau
Ralisme. Jean Tinguely he had met in 1954 and Yves Klein he knew personally from 1958
onwards. Kleins monochromes he had seen first on the occasion of the Festival de lArt davant-
garde held in 1956 on the roof of Le Corbusiers Unit dhabitation in Marseille, which had
brought together internationalist artists from the whole of Europe. The work of both artists and their
presence within the French context, which was considerable, made an enormous impression on the
Venezuelan artist. Avant-garde artists were usually grouped loosely around one or the other gallery
and eventually Soto was introduced also to the German artist group ZERO based in Dsseldorf,

This term was used by the sociologist mile Durkheim (1858-1902) to describe the state of individuals
who are radically excluded from and without possibility to enter into the symbolic order of a society.
which became a significant new departure in his career.
Tinguelys formal freedom, Kleins
mysticism and to an even stronger degree, the ZERO artists Zen influenced Protestantism had
immediate effect on Sotos work. His emotional agitation became manifest in the production of a
series of sculptures and informel paintings which showed Soto capable of unusual aggression.

This phase of his oeuvre is generally known as Sotos baroque phase during which he engaged in an
intense exploration with raw and unfamiliar materials. (Fig. 32 Jess Soto, Leo Viejo, 1961).
Works of this period are neglected in the literature on the artist or interpreted as the products of a
temporary derailment, a glitch, prompted by the suddenly fashionable trend of Nouveau Ralisme.
The question remains why Soto chose, during those years, to allow realistic elements to enter his
work when he had been so resolutely abstract until this point?
We can safely assume that Sotos
use of realistic and informel elements was, at least in part, also an attempt at keeping up with a fast
changing art taste and market. The late fifties were indeed a turning point for the modern movement
as defined by Le Corbusier and artists working within Geometric Abstraction. It was fast losing
credibility as an avant-garde and was under pressure from Nouveau Ralisme, which had begun to
create expectations in audiences for realistic representation. However, a conscious rupture with
modernism or sheer conformism seem both too simple as explanations for the formal changes

ZERO was founded in 1957 by the German artists Otto Piene and Heinz Mack, they were joined briefly by
Gnter Uecker (b. 1930) in 1961. ZERO faltered in 1966. In 1959 Soto exhibited for the first time in an
exhibition organized by Pol Bury, Jean Tinguely, Daniel Spoerri and Paul van Hoeydonck in collaboration
with ZERO. Other collaborations with Otto Piene and Heinz Mack would follow.
In a conversation with the art historian and curator Ariel Jimnez held in Caracas in 2003, he confirmed
my view that in the late fifties, I quote, Soto was a very, very angry man.
In an interview, conducted by the art historian Ariel Jimnez presumably over a long period from the mid-
eighties onwards, Soto stated, I just wanted to show myself that my concept didnt depend on a specific way
of doing things. [] The idea was to take the most insignificant but strongly formal objects old wood, wire,
needles, gratings, and pipes- to integrate them into the work and bring them to a state of disintegration
through pure vibration. Ariel Jimnez, Conversations with Jess Soto, translation Evelyn Rosenthal,
Fundacin Cisneros, Caracas, 2005, p. 169. First published as Conversaciones con Jess Soto, Coleccin
Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, Caracas, 2001.
occurring in Sotos oeuvre at this point.
In the following I will suggest that, at this moment, Soto
was engaged in a very personal process, a conflict that pushed him literally, to his own limits.
However, at this juncture, I need to say first something about the historical developments around
1958. The late fifties was a moment when former structures on all levels of society in France and
Venezuela were seriously shaken. In 1958, France saw the return of Charles De Gaulle to power
charged by his people with solving the problems in Algeria and return France to its former status as
world power. Simultaneously, in Caracas General Perz Jimnez regime finally tumbled and its
totalitarian structures were replaced with a liberal democratic government under Rmulo
Betancourt. It can be assumed that Soto felt immense relief and perhaps, even sought articulation
for his nationalistic attachment to Venezuela. It has to be remembered that he had remained in Paris
not only in pursuit of a career as a painter but also, in order to escape a totalitarian regime that had
forced many of his fellow artists, former Disidentes, into collaboration. The immediate problem
presenting itself to Soto was how to communicate these very personal feelings within the European
context. How could he, if this was his intention, integrate his memory of a Venezuelan past in a
work that was produced at this point primarily for a European market and audience? In this unusual
moment, when radical political and social changes took place in both, Sotos home country and his
country of residence, he introduced quite unexpectedly elements of a rural environment into his
work. Wooden planks, branches, fish nets, metal grids, disused metal gates and door posts, all of
which he had obviously been found in street corners or on rubbish heaps. In an interview with the
Venezuelan art historian Ariel Jimnez, Soto confirmed that the Leos had particular significance
and were the result of a process which could be compared to a rite of passage.

He stated, I needed
to make those works, it was imperative. Sometimes I think that perhaps it has to do with the great

Ariel Jimnez pointed out the strong emotional quality of Sotos work at that time and asked, Did this
baroque period also emerge as a reaction to the rigidity of form, [Geometric Abstraction] as a need to break
with it? Soto replied, No it wasnt exactly a rupture, [] Ariel Jimnez, Conversations with Jess Soto, p.
leap I had to make from the landscapes that I had painted in Caracas and Maracaibo because I had
no other guidance, to pure abstraction.
In the same interview Soto confirmed also that these
works were relevant primarily on a very personal level. To Ariel Jimnez question, Isnt there a
parallelism between these baroque works and the French new realism of the seventies? Soto
replied, I met all those artists; they were my friends, and we exhibited together because we were
trying to force a new situation. But deep down, my attitude was very different from theirs, which
became clear when each of us took his own path after that specific historic moment.
In what
way, I need to ask, did Sotos use of realistic elements differ from Nouveau Ralismes? Soto
explained that, They [Nouveau Ralistes] were all pure structuralists in the beginning, but by the
seventies it was believed that man would become a prisoner of mechanics and technology, and that
is in part the reason for that reaction, very much in accord with the rebellion of May 1968.

According to Soto he, unlike Nouveau Ralisme artists, used realistic objects in a structural rather
than symbolic manner. Nonetheless, the question remains why, if Sotos artistic concept remained
essentially abstract he used realistic elements at all?
I suggest answers that seek to places Soto more firmly within the political and social
context of late fifties and early sixties France. For instance, one might ask to what extent Soto was
affected by the increasing awareness, among intellectuals and artists, of the cruel fighting in
and hence of the issue of French colonialism and reawakening nationalism? From this

Ariel Jimnez, Conversations with Jess Soto, p. 169-70.
The date suggested by Jimnez for the split between Soto and Nouveau Ralisme seems to me too late. At
least in formal terms this break was completed by the mid-sixties. Ariel Jimnez, Conversations with Jess
Soto, p. 172.
Ariel Jimnez, Conversations with Jess Soto, p. 172.
In 1958 the conflict between France and Algeria had come to a head and only after De Gaulles return,
over the following four years, de-colonization of Algeria was effected and approved via two important
referenda in 1961 and 1962, respectively. Nonetheless, De Gaulles militaristic style and nationalistic rhetoric
had the effect of a hardening of political positions within France as a whole and created a highly charged
climate in Paris.
perspective Sotos baroque objects could be interpreted as revolting against the tightening structures
in France and as representing a less civilised, more original expressivity. The bloody conflict in
Algeria beginning in 1954, had signalled that the French Empire was in terminal decline and that
France would have to change its relation to its colonies. The British historian Rod Kedward wrote,
The fourth Republic collapsed not because its governments changed so often but because it failed
to decolonize in Algeria. De Gaulle, brought back to solve the Algerian crisis, also failed in the
short term as he continued to back the French presence in Algeria which allowed the entrenched
forces of Algrie Franaise to dig in more deeply, but in mainland France the expectation of his
recall were so high that he was ensured of a majority support for any policy which would end the
The Fifth Republic promised from the outset to become a more controlled and less liberal
time. By the early sixties French racism and nationalism had become an issue of heated debates, led
to petitions and protest marches organised by the Left and the Right, some of which escalated in
The political climate in France had become tense and even if Soto followed the
Algerian war from a neutral distance, he became now almost certainly aware of political agitations
in Paris itself.
Was the lack of positive representation of the foreign in France a motive for

Rod Kedward, La Vie en Bleu: France and the French since 1900, p. 383.
Rod Kedward wrote, On 17 October 1961 a peaceful protest against these controls and in solidarity with
the FLN brought thousands of Algerian men, women and children in a festive mood on the streets of Paris.
They were brutally broken up by the forces of order under the authority of Maurice Papon, ex-Vichy
administrator in Bordeaux and ex-prefect of Constantine in Algeria, who was now Prefect of the Paris police.
[] In the nights action the police killed or made away with an unknown number of Algerians, and the
appearance of bodies floating in the Seine over the following days led to some estimates that as many as 200
were murdered. Again 1962 a protest march organized this time by French Communists escalated into
violence and led to the death of eight people, three of them women and a young child, who were crushed to
death trying to escape the beatings [of the police] at the entrance to the mtro station of Charonne. Rod
Kedward, La Vie en Bleu: France and the French since 1900, Allen Lane: Penguin Books, London, 2005, p.
The 1991 interview between Catherine Millet and Denise Ren provided evidence of the issue of
deportation of foreigners and, more generally, of the effects the Algerian war had on the group of artists
around her gallery. Millet asked, How come your signature is among those of the manifeste des 121? Ren,
Sotos expression, in a rebellious avant-garde manner, of the symbols of a Venezuelan identity? A
photograph taken in Paris in 1950 shows Soto with his close friend the Venezuelan artist, Narciso
Debourg. (Fig. 33 Photograph of Jess Soto in Paris with Narciso Debourg, c.1950) In looking at
this image I was reminded that Soto was mestizo and that his parents were descendants of the
indigenous people of Venezuela.
In fifties France, he would certainly have been identified as a
foreigner, and even though Paris was extremely cosmopolitan at the time, this placed him at a

Genevive Bonnefoi, who used to come to the gallery, came to ask my help in collecting the signatures of
artists for a manifesto against the Algerian war. This manifesto incensed French soldiers into insubordination
and demanded the right for self-determination for the Algerian people. This was in 1960; the war and the
horrors had been going on for six years. I had to reply immediately. In my mind, I made a quick check of the
artist that I knew: Sonia Delaunay would not sign, neither would Agam. Vasarely was still Hungarian and
Soto Venezuelan, etc. One was asked to show a serious moral engagement, which carried some risk. Those
gallery artists that were foreigners would have been deported. I then asked her if people like me could sign
too? She was very happy to say yes. She had not dared to ask me in the first place because of the [prominent]
position that I occupied in my business. In the original text Millet asked, Comment vous tes-vous retrouve
parmi les signatures du manifeste des 121? Ren, Genevive Bonnefoi, qui frquentait la galerie, est venue
me demander de laider rassembler des signatures dartistes pour un manifeste contre la guerre dAlgrie.
Ce manifeste incitait les soldats franais linsoumission et rclamait le droit lautodtermination pour les
Algriens. Ctait en 1960; la guerre et ses horreurs duraient depuis six ans. Il fallait rpondre sur-le-champ.
Mentalement, jai vite fait le tour des artistes que je connaissais: Sonia Delaunay ne signerait pas ni Agam.
Vasarely tait encore hongrois, Soto vnzulien, etc. Il sagissait de prendre un engagement morale grave qui
faisait courir un risque. Ceux des artistes de la galerie qui taient trangers auraient t expulss. Je lui ai alors
demand si des gens comme moi pouvaient signer. Elle tait toute heureuse de me rpondre oui. Elle navait
pas os me le demander cause de la position que joccupait par mon travail. Catherine Millet,
Conversations avec Denise Ren, Adam Biro, Paris, 1991, p. 156.
Sotos mestizo background is clearly underplayed in his artistic identity and rarely mentioned in the
literature on the artist. However, Narciso Debourg, who is a descendant of black slaves used, perhaps
ironically, black(ness) within his work. All surfaces of his abstract relief objects, consisting of wooden pegs
cut at an angle and arranged on a regular grid, are covered with the always-same, highly reflective black paint.
The interest of the work lies in the difficulty in judging the exact tone of these monochrome surfaces.
Following the Cinetismo concept, Debourg combined repetition, grid-like structure and ambivalence of visual
perception. He resided permanently in Paris since the early fifties but his work forms part of the collection of
the Museo de Bellas Artes, the Museo Soto in Venezuela. In 1985, a large relief by Debourg was installed in
the Caracas underground station Chacaito.
disadvantage in relation to a Frenchman from the North. Soto led, like many other internationalist
artists, to some degree a double-life. In daytime he worked as a painter and at night he embraced his
Latino identity by playing the guitar in bars and clubs frequented by Latin Americans, Spaniards
and many of his Venezuelan friends. During this period he encountered intellectuals and political
activists probably, from the Existentialist milieu. Yet, Soto insists that he remained at all times non-
political and that he defended his neutrality both in France and in Venezuela. He commented, I was
never interested in that [socialism] and I was certainly never passionate about Russian communism;
I wasnt a believer, and Stalin terrified me. I tried to participate, because the attraction and the
intellectual pressure were very strong. So many intelligent people were into it that I thought I was
wrong, but I was never convinced, and with respect to art, I always defended the artists
independence from political inclinations. I remember that in Paris I went to their meetings with my
guitar because I wanted to support them, but I always told them that I couldnt do the same with
painting, that I didnt understand that road. They chastised me with unpleasant words, and I would
tell them But I am a man of the people, and whatever I do must come from the people and must be
useful to them, but they said that I was a traitor to my class. These types of things started cooling
me down. I said to myself that perhaps they were right, but I didnt understand them and couldnt
follow them.
Indeed, all interpretations that seek to explain Sotos choice of realistic elements as
politically motivated fail because of a lack of written evidence. The few instances when Soto talked
about the Leos confirm that he thought of the series in terms of a purely formal exploration. Yet,
Soto was an exceptionally sensitive artist and it seems justified to ask whether the political events of
the time reached him perhaps less on a consciously level but affected him nonetheless?
I want to suggest in the following that ambivalence, the pull in two different directions,
evident already in Sotos earlier paintings and Cintisme objects, led during his baroque phase to
the introduction of a new subjectivity. Soto confirmed that, The Ambivalences were the solution I

Ariel Jimnez, Conversations with Jess Soto, p. 148.
found to a number of issues that were more or less implicit in the works of great Western artists
since the end of the nineteenth-century, but had not been developed.
I further suggest that the
emergence of ambivalence in Sotos oeuvre was symptomatic in the sense that it appeared to
interrupt a linear process of formal development and abstraction. Soto told Ariel Jimnez, When I
discovered the world of Constructivism and the Bauhaus, I said to myself that I had only one life
and I couldnt waste any more time waiting to conclude the process of abstraction. I had to throw
myself into the process of abstraction at the highest point of the moment, as I found it in the fifties,
to see how I could make it move forward. Now, perhaps this leap left me with some consequences,
like some resentment for not having concluded a process that had to be fulfilled.
Attempting to
negotiate between conflicting emotional poles, perhaps the Venezuelan versus the French, nature
versus culture, the rigorously ordered versus chaotic informel, Soto found an outlet for his tension
in aggressive engagement with matire. The intensity of the process seems reflected in the quasi
psychotic vehemence of the traces it left in Sotos work. These unusual objects and paintings were,
within Sotos oeuvre, of a hitherto unknown brutality. (Fig. 34 Jess Soto, Leo, 1961)
Sotos Vibracin roja, azul y negra is one of the very first pieces to radically brake with his
previous formal concerns. (Fig. 35 Jess Soto, Vibracin roja, azul y negra, 1958) By hanging
crumpled-up wire in front of an irregularly striated background Soto created his first Vibracin, an
idea that became an obsession and never left his oeuvre again. A Vibracin is a particular type of
optical illusion and the effect of a misinterpretation, by the subject, of the distance between himself
or herself and the material object. In the French context this was highly innovative because it
effectively added an immaterial and spatial dimension to informel painting. The informel had
existed as an aesthetic trend in Paris since the early fifties and it stood for everything Denise Ren
disliked most. Ren thought materialist painting was depressive, over-emotional and in bad taste.
This renders Sotos sudden turn toward matire even more surprising and irrational.

Ariel Jimnez, Conversations with Jess Soto, p. 178.
Ariel Jimnez, Conversations with Jess Soto, p. 170.
Under formal criteria Sotos totemistic objects can be called sculptures in a very traditional
sense. Emphasis on vertical orientation and preference of a frontal viewing position is clearly
indebted to figurative, perhaps even ecclesiastical sculptural traditions. However, in terms of their
content, Sotos objects contradict and even invert traditional sculpture by expressing irreverence
rather than celebratory feelings. In most cases Soto entitled these objects with Leo, the Spanish
word for a plank or a piece of wood. They recall elements of a rural architecture - doorframes or the
wooden pillars of a porch and hardly fulfilled the aesthetic expectations of a sophisticated Parisian
On each of these blocks of wood are inscribed, within a clearly delineated field, fine
hand-drawn white lines on an opaque red or black ground. (Fig. 36 Jess Soto, Sans titre, 1959-60)
Mounted at some distance in front of these graphic fields are fragile bundles consisting of thin,
sometimes regular, sometimes distorted and often rusty bits of wire.
The effect created by this
meeting of chaotically arranged wire with regular lines of a similar thickness is an optical
disturbance which prompts the viewer to engage with the object exclusively via his or her vision.
Trapped in an endless game of hide and seek, the viewer will soon realise that the vibratory effect is
enhanced rather than diminished by his or her change of position in front of the object. The
unpleasant ambiguity over the actual physical location of each element of this fragile construction is

Asked about the origin of the logs Soto explains,These works emerged almost by chance. It was a time
when I was a good friend of Jean Tinguely, and sometimes we would go looking for waste materials. They
sold materials from destroyed houses. One day I found the beams of a house that had been demolished. They
were very beautiful pieces of wood, with the mark of fine craftsmanship.[] I wanted to preserve that
craftsmanship, the work of man. So I bought a lot, because they were sold by kilograms. The series stopped
when the material ran out, because I went to look for more but they had already been sold. Ariel Jimnez,
Conversations with Jess Soto, p. 170.
Soto explains, When I bought my first apartment in the rue du Temple, we had a small storeroom on the
roof, and since the apartment had belonged to an artisan who made lampshades, the storeroom was full of
beautiful metallic structures. [] They were cones, cubes, perfect circles that I could not make myself, so I
integrated them into my works. Sometimes I deformed them a little, [] All the perfect circles that can be
seen in the works of that period of the early sixties come from that set. Ariel Jimnez, Conversations with
Jess Soto, p. 171.
reinforced by the viewers own action. His or her curiosity, the wish to know, is answered with
infinite deferral. In Sans titre of 1959-60, (Fig. 37 Jess Soto, Leo Viejo, 1960) Soto pushed his
analysis of ambivalent sensations even further. Here, he inscribed the wood with a rectangle that is
again divided vertically into two separate fields. The first consists of an opaque red ground, the
other of the usual striated black and white. Contradicting sensations, attraction and repulsion, the
wish to physically engage with an object and the wish to separate from it, are highly effective in
these works. Aggression seems evident first, in the deliberate distortion of the wire and second in
the particular way in which Soto had joined metal elements to the wooden posts, which seems to be
the result of a very forceful and uncontrolled action.
I suggest that Soto expressed here psychic
contents that in clinical terms could be called psychotic, that is, non-symbolised violence beyond
the subjects control, and they pull these objects apart. Splitting continued to preoccupy Soto and,

In my view, this implies an anxiety that is related to processes of splitting. Hal Foster, in his seminal book
on Surrealist art, Compulsive Beauty of 1993, gives a very poignant description of the relation between
splitting, anxiety and fetishism. He writes, Fetishism is thus a practice of ambivalence in which the subject
simultaneously recognizes and disavows castration: Yesbut This ambivalence may split the ego,
which, if disavowal becomes total, leads to psychosis; it may also split the object, as it were, which thereby
becomes ambivalent too. After all, the fetish is as much memorial to castration as a protection against it,
which is to say that both recognition and disavowal are often evident in the fetish, as are both contempt and
reverence in its treatment. Hal Foster, Compulsive Beauty, MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts and
London, 1993, p. 91. In Freuds oedipal account fetishism implies the complete disavowal of the mothers
lack of a penis. The boy compares it to his own sex and imagines the apparent difference to be the result of
the mothers castration by the father. He controls his horror of a similar fate by creating an imaginary
substitute for the mothers penis. Freud suggests that objects related to scenes which might allow the boy a
glance of the absent penis, such as shoes, are the preferred objects of fetishists but concedes that any object
can take on this function. This is clearly in direct relation to ego ideals. In On Narcissism he writes, The
sexual ideal [fetish object] may enter into an interesting auxiliary relation to the ego ideal. It may be used for
substitutive satisfaction where narcissistic satisfaction encounters real hindrances. In that case a person will
love in conformity with the narcissistic type of object-choice, will love what he once was and no longer is, or
else, what possesses the excellence which he never had at all. Sigmund Freud, On Narcissism, p. 101; And,
Fetishism (1927), Standard Edition of the Complete Psychoanalytical Works of Sigmund Freud, translation
James Strachey, vol. 21, pp. 149-57.
during the following months, a frenzied experimentation led to erratic shifts between his interest in
three-dimensional objects and the planarity of the picture surface. In two works, both produced in
1960 (Fig. 38 Jess Soto, Sans titre, 1960 and Fig. 39 Jess Soto, La scie metaux, 1960) Soto set a
heavily worked thickly layered picture surface in opposition to the already familiar striated field.
Inside the boundary of the object we find a wire inscribing a central arena as if to denote a theatrical
setting or stage. This field is split again vertically in two halves. In La scie metaux the fragile free
floating wire was exchanged with a saw, a symbol for construction as well as aggressive
dismemberment and fragmentation.
Soto had profited enormously from his dialogue with Jean Tinguely and Yves Klein. Leo
azul y negro of 1960 for instance, was clearly Sotos hommage to Kleins work by his use of
Kleins signature international blue. (Fig. 40 Jess Soto, Leno azul y negro, 1960) It is suggested
that Klein, by inspiring Soto to explore the possibilities of symbolic representation was decisive for
the transition from the expressivity of his Leos to a more contained abstract form language.
the most general terms, in symbolic representation the visual element is detached from its material
object and thus acquires a surplus value or meaning which is no longer derived directly from its
form or its materiality. In Leno azul y negro the black plank at the centre of the work acquires
meaning not by its placement or expressive materiality but as a conventional sign denoting the rural
architecture, the poor and precarious and perhaps, to Soto, Venezuela. Its realism is further
emphasised by the contrast to an entirely abstract, much smaller geometric element, a square placed
in the top right-hand corner of the work. (Fig. 40a Jess Soto, Leno azul y negro, detail square,

Yves Klein himself was engaged in a performative enactment of traditional painting and in order to grasp
the symbolism of Kleins work one has to look beyond the often-cited and often-misunderstood
monochromes. Kleins use of womens bodies as paint brushes, as in Anthropomtrie of 1960, or blow-
torching of a canvas, as in La peinture de feu of 1961, suggest that his conceptuality was, in fact, sustained by
conservatism and highly religious contents. Yve Alain-Bois suggested an entirely different, non-religious,
intention as the underpinning of Kleins artistic project. See, Yve-Alain Bois, Kleins Relevance for Today,
October 119, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2007, pp. 75-93.
1960) This is the first instance of Sotos use of the square, which in his own account is his symbol
for everything man-made, for non-nature and hence culture. It consists of a thin sheet of metal
which is off set by a few centimetres, against a field covered with hand-drawn fine white lines. The
same vibratory effect that arouses the viewers interest in the Leos occurs here along the sharp
edges of the metal square. The irregularly drawn lines of the background destabilise, in an optical
illusion, the rigid vertical and horizontal orientation of the geometric shape and create a halo around
it. The square seems to hover above the picture surface, in a virtual space. This work signalled a
turning point in Sotos development because here he combined the informel with an abstract shape
thus integrating ambivalence into a universally valid system, geometry.
Jean Tinguely was important on a different level. After c.1962 their respective affiliations
to Nouveau Ralisme and Cintisme would place them increasingly into rival camps but during the
late fifties and early sixties they had found common ground. Soto met Tinguely shortly before the
Le mouvement exhibition and from this moment onwards, they appeared together in photographs
taken at art circle events. Soto was attracted by Tinguelys humour, evident in his ironic
appropriation of Malevich and Mondrian, his somewhat brash activism but also his ability to create
a sense of community among artists from very diverse backgrounds. Also, Tinguely had the
professional contacts that Soto, in the mid-fifties, still lacked. Their friendship led, in 1961, to an
unusual collaboration. For Soto, this unlikely engagement turned into a disappointment and
contributed, so I suggest, to a radical reorientation within his oeuvre. The Mural (Fig. 41 Jess Soto
and Jean Tinguely, Mural, 1961) has a particular weight within Sotos oeuvre. It was installed
during the landmark exhibition Bewogen Beweging at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and,
thus, was shown to a very large and well-informed audience at a key moment of Sotos career.
However, the exhibition met with incomprehension and received only negative art critical attention.
Dieter Honisch confirmed that, The exhibition Bewogen Beweging (Moved Motion),
organized in 1961 at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam by the great Dutch museum curator
Willem Sandberg, in which Tinguely played a star role, caused violent reactions in the press. De
Volkskrant spoke scathingly of a warmed-over Dada clique.

For anyone familiar with Sotos abstract oeuvre of the fifties and his sophisticated
Cintisme objects, the Mural would have appeared uncharacteristically raw. The Leos, to my
knowledge, had not been exhibited in Europe at this point and few visitors would have read the
mural in relation to Sotos intimate baroque works. It is based on a traditional figure-ground
composition in which irregular structures, real tree branches, play the role of figures in front of a
background divided by regular vertical lines. Clearly, Tinguelys Nouveau Ralisme influence had
encouraged Soto to exchange the crumpled up wire with real objects, branches, roots and fishnets,
which seems well in line with Sotos own interests at the time. However, the installation photograph
provides also evidence of a fatal misjudgement of the effect of the physical enlargement by which
the attractive intimacy existing in a smaller original is often entirely lost. The work fails to convince
because of a grave disproportion between form and content.
Striking also is that Soto and Tinguely are using realistic elements connoting a rural
context. In Sotos case one might be permitted to ask whether this implied a renewed interest in the
landscape and nature of his country of origin.
However, the signs of the rural, regardless of
whether they were intended to denote an exotic or a European world, did not appeal to museum
visitor who most likely expected foremost pleasant relief and aesthetic stimulation. In particular
Latin America was at the time, despite its very real modernity, often associated with the images of

Quote taken from De Volkskrant, March 15, 1961. Reprinted in Dieter Honisch, Uecker, translation Robert
Erich Wolf, Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers, New York, 1989, p. 72. First published in German by Ernst
Klett Verlag, Stuttgart, 1983.
In 1962, the art critics Clara Diamante De Sujo and Angel Hurtado captured Soto in a black and white film
creating a different version of the Mural. Soto is seen excitedly gathering branches and pieces of wood and
loading them into the back of a car. A later scene documents the composition of the mural laid out, Jackson
Pollock-style, in front of Soto on the ground. Judging from the scenery it seems certain that the film was shot
in Venezuela. The film was shown during the exhibition Soto, held at the Museo de Bellas Artes, Caracas in
2004. Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to trace the exact details and whereabouts of copies of this film.
an urban version of the exotic, a sensual paradise, peopled with barely dressed beautiful savages.
For a European audience, the visual components of the mural must have seemed too banal, had
none of the symbolic charge that they had for Soto and smacked of the rural everyday.
Symbolisation could not take place because meaning and material object were not detached enough
from one another. Thus, in the viewer fetishisation could not take place, nothing seemed magical or
auratic and in short, the Mural was not beautiful enough. The effect of the work was unfortunately
that of utter banality. This was in the spirit of Nouveau Ralisme, which was an anti-aesthetic and
here we can detect Tinguelys influence. However, in Sotos artistic terms this would have
amounted to a failure because, even in his baroque phase, his aim was to engage the viewer in a
game of ambivalence, which entails, by necessity, a pleasurable visual experience. If it is true that
Soto sought recognition for his Venezuelan identity at this time the Murals failure as aesthetic
proposition would have intensified Sotos sense of disappointment.
An additional impulse for Sotos sudden return to abstraction came with his contact with
the German artist group ZERO, which lasted until 1966. Otto Pienes, Heinz Macks and Gnter
Ueckers quasi religious optimism, cloaked in a German version of Zen Buddhism, had yielded an
aesthetic in which everything was whitewashed or gilded and narratives carefully avoided. The
performative and ritualistic aspects of some ZERO performances are, in my view, a faint echo of
the Eastern mysticism that had currency at the early Bauhaus, especially of Johannes Ittens
Masdaznan teachings and the religious exercises performed in class with his students. (Fig. 42
ZERO demonstration, Rheinwiesen Dsseldorf, 1962) There are clear parallels between Heinz
Macks and Sotos use of the term Vibracin. The ZERO artists had recognised that pure
expression of the beauty of light lies in the way it shook up the repose of light and set it into
vibration. (My emphasis) And Otto Piene declared that the turbidity of colour, by which he
meant impure informel painting, was an expression of the human turbidity and he believed that, in
contrast, the purity of light would enable painting to arouse pure sensation.
Evidently, he had
felt uncomfortable with Nouveau Ralisme and the critique of fetishism and consumer culture.
Instead ZERO seemed to offer positive values especially to Soto, who had not lived through the
Second World War in Europe and could therefore hardly identify with its particular history. Thus,
abruptly in 1962, Soto abandoned his experiments with matire and Nouveau Ralisme and returned
to a highly controlled and very formal staging of ambivalence. During the following ten years, Soto
would patiently reduce his formal vocabulary to those elements that conveyed, beyond matter, an
eternal absence. (Fig. 43 Jess Soto, El ovalo verde y negro, 1969) Introducing fragile elements
suspended from the top of the frame, dancing like twigs in the wind in front of the background, Soto
had found a way to integrate the passing of time without taking recourse to matire. Sotos work
thus became truly kinetic, that is, if we agree on the definition that kinetic art objects contain one or
several mobile parts. However, titles such as Nouvelle criture or Le dialogue invoke an optimism
that seems, in hindsight, not entirely justified within the context of 1960s France. Although the
Algerian war had ended in 1962, the political situation remained unstable. Do Sotos kinetic works
not express, in the contemplation of the arbitrary play of fragile lines hovering in mid-air, a deeply
felt sadness? Is at the centre of Sotos oeuvre not also, a disposition to melancholic nostalgia?

Soto soon discovered that ambivalence was also part of a political and economic super-structure
that sought representation for anachronistic ideals.
Many of his large scale installations in banks,
industrial headquarters and airports, which made Soto famous, clearly convey the capitalist

Heinz Mack and Otto Piene expressed these views in the original catalogue for ZERO 2 exhibition held in
1958. They were reprinted in ZERO, Cologne, 1973, respectively pp. 39, 45. And in Dieter Honisch, Uecker,
translation Robert Erich Wolf, Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers, New York, 1989, p. 50. First published in
German by Ernst Klett Verlag, Stuttgart, 1983.
The period is marked by an increasingly conservative etatism, re-enforced by a paternalistic leader,
Charles De Gaulle, who vainly tried to compete with the two superpowers USSR and USA and sought
recognition abroad, while neglecting the social and economic realities within France.
message. (Fig. 44 Jess Soto, Volume virtuel suspendue, Royal Bank of Canada, Toronto, 1977)
Sotos life long defence of his political innocence is belied by works of the late eighties and the
nineties where economic liberalism combined with the waving of the French tricolore. (Fig. 45
Jess Soto, Volume virtuel Air France, Roissy) Sotos support for a conservative republican elite
informed also, from the beginning of the seventies, his role as a prominent artist and major
representative of French Cintisme in Venezuela. In his public sculptures Soto finally consumed his
experience with matire of the late fifties by translating it into synthetic representations of
interested control. A new kind of imaginary took hold of Soto, one that followed a sophisticated
logic in which the traces of violence were covered by shiny surfaces. In this logic ambivalence is no
longer contained within the work but projected violently, toward an external object as imaginary yet
disavowed difference.

The Object as Obstacle to the Free Flow of Fluids
In reading the transcript of the conversation between Ariel Jimnez and Soto recorded during the
nineties, doubts arise whenever Soto claims his utter ignorance of politics and describes his political
outlook in the fifties, sixties and seventies, as neutral. Soto was adamant, until the very last years
of his life, in his claim for his political neutrality and defence of this immaterial non-place. By the
end of the seventies, Soto had assumed the image of a successful artist and represented the
respectability and the values of a good French citizen. At the same time he moved, in Caracas and
in Paris, in highly exclusive circles and was on familiar terms with personalities in anything but
neutral political positions. Sotos dependence on the political influence of figures such Carlos
Ral Villanueva or Denise Ren was paramount for his career and suggests a more precise position
for Sotos artistic persona on the scale between Left and Right.
Soto explained that he wanted his work to acquire a transcendental value for humanity.

Therefore, the ideal audience for his work was the undifferentiated universal subject, an anonymous
citizen. However, speaking about his large Penetrables of the sixties and seventies Soto stated that,
The important thing is to show that space is fluid and full, [] more than a primal and universal
He pitted universalism against a fluid presence and in the concluding passage of the
same interview became more outspoken about this concept, The Ambivalences were the solution I
found to a number of issues that were more or less implicit in the works of great Western artists
since the end of the nineteenth-century, but had not been developed. As a result of the fauves, of
artists like Matisse, Lger, Delaunay, the Russian constructivists, and all those who tried to use
color independently of form and of extra-pictorial content, the power of color is expressed as an
ambiguous medium, capable of generating the illusion of space, but a space that is optically
variable, []. Later, Swiss artists and some Germans like Josef Albers proposed the independence
of color, but without consciously solving the problem I have called it the spatial ambivalence of
color. I then felt that color needed a space-time solution that could well find a place within the
spatial ambiguity that I wanted to make clear as a reality.
And [the Penetrables] isnt even a
work, it is more an idea of the space that can materialize in any situation and at any scaleif it
were possible, you could even make it cover the whole planet.
Soto claimed that no aesthetic
judgement was involved in his designs. Asked by Jimnez about the reason for choosing so often
the geometric shape of the regular square he comments, Because it is the most obvious [shape]; if
[I were] not [using it] the public would perceive it [the work] as something drawn, and would give
[it] an aesthetic value it doesnt have for me.
Yet, what contradicts Sotos claim to non-

Ariel Jimnez, Conversations with Jess Soto, p. 166.
Ariel Jimnez, Conversations with Jess Soto, p. 177.
Ariel Jimnez, Conversations with Jess Soto, p. 178.
Ariel Jimnez, Conversations with Jess Soto, p. 177.
Ariel Jimnez, Conversations with Jess Soto, p. 177.
intentionality is his own space-time concept, the space that can materialize because clearly, with
the engagement of matire this becomes an imagined place for cathexis and hence, subjectivity.
Sotos imaginary universal space seemed strongly identified with the French Republic, or at
least, what he recognised as such. (Fig. 46 Jess Soto, Halle de la Rgie Renault Boulogne
Billancourt, 1975) Between 1950 and 1970 Soto turned into a fully integrated Frenchman, more
French in fact, than most of his French compatriots. More importantly, since the early fifties the
meaning and the terms of universalism and of the French Republic had changed dramatically. They
would continue to transform in tandem with the consensus achieved in French society. Sotos
insistence over the course of his long career on the superior values of pure abstraction, which he
understood as part of the large Enlightenment project,
has today a decidedly political meaning.
Deferment of judgement and rationalistic indifference were safeguarding precisely, the politically
neutral high-ground Soto claimed for himself and for his artistic project. This bourgeois non-place
is in direct opposition to a process described at the outset of the seventies by Jean-Paul Sartre. He
described individuation as a process of engagement with a given material world when he wrote,
Furthermore, the process of integration is permanent only because it is led into permanence by the
external stimuli that are internalized as experienced determinations. Consequently, we have no
difficulty comprehending that this perpetuum mobile is kept in motion by a relation to the world
that is constantly varying in intensity and quality to the degree that the cosmic individual
internalizes the cosmos and is reexternalized in it, finding himself sooner or later compelled to
reinternalize the objective consequences of that externalization (in other words, its
In short, the subject is also object of historical change and it is this exchange

He shared this quasi teleological belief in the possibility of human progress with a fellow Venezuelan artist
Carlos Cruz-Dez, although his arcadia was physical science and technology, while Soto remained within the
formal constraints imposed by geometry and mathematics.
Jean-Paul Sartre, The Family Idiot, Vol. 2, translation Carol Cosman, University of Chicago Press,
Chicago and London, 1987, p. 4. Dautre part, le processus dintgration nest permanente que parce quil est
and in the subjects response to an external material world that we find the very motor of society.
The difference between Sotos ideal of an immaterial universal space-time and Sartres analysis of a
highly individualistic subject, turned object, in the internalisation of objectivity, is crucial for an
understanding of my thesis. It exemplifies the difference that I wish to identify also in the
comparison between Sotos and Gegos oeuvres and their respective use of and relation to

During the course of the sixties, many French citizens felt that the French Republic had lost its
grounding in history and for this reason increasingly depended on symbolic forms of representation.
It was the point at which ambivalence became a symptom of the social and ideological split that ran
right through French society. More specific to the artistic context were psychological developments
within European post-war societies. Clearly, the relation of the post-war generation toward father
and mother figures, having being part of the detested pre-war years, was problematic. The post-war
generation as a whole had to negotiate the difficult separation from their fathers and mothers around
the catastrophic event of the Second World War which often made it a very painful process. As we
have seen earlier, these manifested itself simultaneously with the reaction against the newly
established consumer culture. Artists coming to prominence in the early sixties, for instance Jean
Tinguely or Yves Klein, expressed their negativity as a critique of the aesthetic and humanistic
ideals of early twentieth-century modernism as well as in relation to the new aesthetic of pop.
Others, staged regressive performances of blasphemous irreverence for instance, the German and

induit en permanence par les stimulis extrieurs qui se font intrioris comme dtermination vcue. Par suite
nous comprenons sans peine que se perpetuum mobile soit maintenu en acte par un rapport dintensit et de
qualit constamment variables avec le monde, la fois dans la mesure o lindividu cosmique intriorise le
cosmos et dans celle o il sy rextriorise et se trouve dans lobligation de rintrioriser tt ou tard les
consquences objectives de cette extriorisation (cest--dire son objectivation). Jean-Paul Sartre, lIdiot de
la famille, ditions Gallimard, Paris, 1988, p. 654. First published, ditions Gallimard, Paris, 1971.
Austrian performance artists Otto Mhl (b. 1925) and Herman Nitsch (b. 1938). Crushed by a sense
of guilt they reverted to the sacrilegious, the perverted and the violent.
This tremendous political
and social crisis, a conflict the philosopher Emmanuel Lvinas (1906-1995) defined in 1972 as a
metaphysical crisis
, influenced the production of most writers, artists and filmmakers active in
Europe during the sixties and seventies. In contrast to critically engaged art, Geometric Abstraction
and Cintisme promoted political neutrality which enabled Soto, in the seventies, to assume the role
of artist representing the French Republic. From this point onwards, Soto was able to extend his
field of activity beyond the gallery space, into the prestigious area of public sculpture. In addition to
large projects commissioned by the private industry Soto and Cruz-Dez were now able to show
their monumental installations at Universal exhibitions, international art fairs and Biennales. In
France, the seventies brought a marked shift in the field of public sculpture. While in the fifties it
had been dominated by modernist subjectivity, it was now replaced with the symbols of anonymous
industrial reproduction.
What Sartre had defined as the motor and life-force of a society, the
engagement with objects, was replaced by a social vision in which the immaterial, promoted by
political super-structures, provide social meanings. The claim to innocence and genderless
neutrality was defining for the officially promoted aesthetic of France, Germany and Switzerland.
By designing monumental installations in banks and headquarters of large industrial corporations
Soto was uncritically subscribing to this cultural politics. His abstract art became representative of

This period and the problematic relation to the sacred are discussed in the book by Laurence Betrand
Dorlac, Lordre Sauvage, Gallimard, Paris, 2004.
Lvinas had revived the question of the ethical and the notion of alterity, the infinitely other, within
French post-war philosophy also in response to Martin Heideggers (1889-1976) and Jean-Paul Sartres
ontology. In 1972, only four years after the violent events of the late sixties and at the time of German
terrorism, Lvinas published a collection of essays entitled lHumanisme de lautre home in which he sought
to describe the eruption of violence as a crisis of metaphysics. Emmanuel Lvians, Humanisme de lautre
homme, Fata Morgana, Paris, 1972.
the ideology of a strong state and, to respond just once more to Sotos claim to neutrality, to
support the values of French republicanism under Charles De Gaulle, Georges Pompidou and
Giscard DEstaing was decidedly political.
I have referred earlier to Abigail Solomon-Godeaus analysis of homoeroticism in the art of
the French Revolution.
In the French revolutionary context, representations of masculinity often
placed at the side of an aggressive and muscular conqueror type (Fig. 47 Jean-Baptiste Giraud,
Achilles, 1789) a highly sophisticated urban man, clearly effeminate in his self-conscious
appearance and overt care for his own body. (Fig. 48 Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson, The Sleep of
Endymion, 1791) Solomon-Godeau argued that French painting, at the time, represented scenes
encompassing active and passive erotic drives by using these two types of masculinity. She argued
that these scenario effectively, rendered women redundant. French culture also influenced
Venezuela and the paternalistic values promoted during the seventies directly affected Gegos
position as a woman artist in Caracas. The question of how Gego negotiated her position within this
context I will ask in the following chapter.

Museo Soto in Ciudad Bolvar
Post-colonial theory has highlighted Western cultures hypocrisy in its simultaneous embrace of a
purist aesthetic and the cruel exploitation of a sexualised exotic other. On this basis it could be
argued that architectural modernism did encourage its own mystification in places such as Brasilia
and Caracas. Le Corbusiers classicist aesthetic represented the taming force in a drama in which
masculine discipline overcomes unpredictable feminine nature, a drama that was projected onto a

See also the work of Franois Morellet (b. 1926) for instance in the exhibition catalogue, Morellet,
Franois, Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume, Paris, 2000 ; or Serge Lemoine, Franois Morellet, Flammarion,
Paris, 1996.
Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Male Trouble: a crisis in representation, Thames and Hudson, London, 1997.
Latin American screen. The post-modern turn in this narrative of European empowerment, its
memorialisation in a museum, seems nowhere better illustrated than in the creation of the Museo
Jess Soto in Ciudad Bolvar. The stark modernist building was Sotos gift to the place where he
had been born. It is one aspect of the life of exiled artists that they become foreigners in their own
country and the Museo Jess Soto clearly was his attempt to bridge this painful gap and reconnect
with his origins. At this point he had acquired considerable riches and status in Europe and the
museum houses his personal collection of works of art but also many of his own pieces from the
fifties. These first gentle experimentations are the best proof that even the coolest Cinetismo
developed, ultimately, from an engagement with materials. These ephemeral objects served as the
medium for the artist to be transported, as if magically, onto a parallel plane and to be, in the truest
sense of the word, abstracted. This is particularly poignant because the collection provides also a
rare chance to see his early paintings and objects in direct comparison to the works of artists of the
pre-war period, Kazimir Malevich, Jean Arp, Lszl Moholy-Nagy, from which he had developed
his art. Further, the display demonstrates that Venezuelan Cinetismo was not limited to the
production of the two major figures, Jess Soto and Carlos Cruz-Dez, but was animated also by
unknown and still entirely neglected artists. Significantly, Gego is not part of the collection.
Soto is represented by large-scale murals and monumental kinetic installations, some of
which have a decidedly industrial feel by way of his choice of material and the brutality of a
mechanistic concept. His presence is set in relief by the works of a European sixties avant-garde.
Sotos collection includes works by Yves Klein, Jean Tinguely, Nicolas Schffer, Pol Bury, Daniel
Spoerri, Arman but also pieces from the radically abstract oeuvre of Max Bill. Within these pristine
white spaces Cinetismos vibrancy, the purity and severity of Geometric Abstraction converses here
with the rawness that characterises many of the Nouveau Ralisme pieces. Thus the specific history
of Venezuelan Abstraction and Cinetismo begins to cohere, in a rare moment of synthesis, within
the wider panorama of post-war internationalism.
Sadly, nobody seems interested in these works collected in a place that lies ten hours bus
journey away from the capital Caracas. Certainly, the local population is not interested in art, even
less in Geometric Abstraction, European materialist works and not even their own Venezuelan
Cinetismo. Since 1974, when the museum was opened to the public Ciudad Bolvar has developed
into a stronghold of Venezuelan nationalism, Chvista populism, and most people who live here are
extremely hostile to European high culture. Only few tourists undertake the dangerous trip from
Caracas and on most days this exemplary collection of European and Venezuelan art of the fifties
and sixties is absolutely empty, except for the security staff. Nonetheless, it is the most impressive
testimony to a specific time and the dialogue between a particular group of artists, who sought a
sense of community that went for brief moment beyond the identification with a specific nation