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  • La revue «L'Art sacré»: Le débat en France sur l'art et la religion (1945-1954)
  • Stephen Schloesser
La revue «L'Art sacré»: Le débat en France sur l'art et la religion (1945-1954). By Françoise Caussé. (Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf. 2010. Pp. 683. €58,00 paperback. ISBN 978-2-204-08891-6.)

This exhaustive work investigates the dominant personalities, artistic projects, and theological controversies surrounding the highly influential periodical L'Art sacré in the wake of World War II. As its subtitle indicates, the contentious debates were framed in terms of reconciling religion and art. Today, we can see the conflict as a flashpoint within larger battles over relationships between Catholicism and modernity, Christ and culture, grace and nature. L'Art sacré was of a piece with other postwar phenomena: biblical renewal, liturgical reforms, social engagement (e.g.,worker-priests), the nouvelle théologie. [End Page 846]

Françoise Caussé arranges her vast study under three large tents. Part I surveys L'Art sacré's inception and evolution. By starting out with late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century invented qualifiers of art—for example, "sacred,""religious,""Catholic,"and "Christian"—Caussé situates the "art versus religion" opposition within the broader context of European secularization and, more particularly, French anticlericalism. After noting earlier ventures such as sacred art ateliers, Caussé moves on to the launch of L'Art sacré in 1935. An ambitious project in the midst of the depression, it was soon suspended with the outbreak of world war in 1939.

Following the 1944 liberation, L'Art sacré resumed publication under the formidable directorship of Dominicans Marie-Alain Couturier and Pie-Raymond Régamey. By 1949, however, awareness dawned that the war had been a watershed. Old formulae would no longer suffice, and changed conditions required new perspectives. "The haunting problem was the divorce between the Church and living art: the works for the church needed to stop 'crying out mediocrity, timidity'"; the periodical needed to shed its "overly didactic" tone (pp. 141, 142). For the next five years, L'Art sacré engaged in daringly bold projects. In 1954 Couturier's untimely death at age fifty-sevent dealt this enterprise a critical blow.

Part II surveys "Protagonists, Places, and Highlights." After biographical overviews of the two main actors (Couturier and Régamey), Caussé considers their visionary projects in detail. Three especially stand out. Prominent modernists (including Pierre Bonnard, Marc Chagall, Fernand Léger, Jean Lurçat, Henri Matisse, Germaine Richier, and Georges Rouault) created pieces for the Alpine church of Notre-Dame-de-Toute-Grâce at the Plateau d'Assy. Matisse lovingly and lavishly adorned the Dominicans' convent chapel at Vence. Le Corbusier designed the Chapel of Notre-Dame-du-Haut at Ronchamp, dedicated a year after Couturier's death. These and other works actualized a prophetic vision of the Church in the modern world.

Predictably, others quickly and fiercely contested this vision, and part III provides an intellectual history of these "Debates and 'Disputes' [Querelles]." One chapter considers the theoretical positions staked out in L'Art sacré. Another surveys disputes arising out of specific projects: for example, whether a non-Christian or Marxist creator could produce "religious possibilities." A specifically twentieth-century problem arose at the Audincourt church of the Sacré-Coeur: Could "nonfigurative" (i.e., "abstract") art convey "religious" or "sacred" meanings? This question strikes a present-day reader as particularly curious—not only because such abstraction is so widespread in today's Catholic churches; but also because of ecumenical awareness of Jewish, Muslim, and certain Protestant practices avoiding all "figurative" representations in observance of the Decalogue's prohibition against "graven images" and of centuries of iconoclastic struggles between Latin and Eastern Christianity. However, as Caussé notes at the beginning of her study: [End Page 847] "Catholicism was the religion of images par excellence," making it the logical arena for this confrontation (p. 9).

It should also be remembered that these "disputes" of 1945-54 occurred contemporaneously with postwar shifts in the art world. Within the Church itself, these disputes were related to the nouvelle théologie crisis, the response of Humani Generis (August 1950), and consequent disciplinary actions...


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