- From a Nation Torn: Decolonizing Art and Representation in France, 1945–1962 by Hannah Feldman
Hannah Feldman’s illuminating study takes as its point of departure a gaping anomaly in French history: the use of the term ‘post-war’, applied freely and, in hindsight, largely uncritically, from 1945 onwards. In so doing, our historicization of this period is, as the author carefully argues, fundamentally problematic and inaccurate. Calling into question the common misapplication of this term, Feldman sheds light on the obvious — yet worryingly overlooked — fact that France remained very much at war in this so-called post-war period. Beginning with the Algerian uprising that took place on 8 May 1945, also remembered as VE Day in Europe, and the subsequent massacre that took place in and around Sétif, France was in fact embroiled in wars where its colonies sought to be liberated, namely, the First Indochinese War (1946–1954) and the Algerian War of [End Page 273] Independence (1954–1962). Feldman’s study therefore serves as a vital and timely means of inscribing into critical thinking the impact of decolonization on cultural production during this era. The author aims primarily to ‘understand France through the fundamental tears and contradictions at the heart of empire’, viewing culture as ‘always subject to the transnational conditions of the subjects who produce it and those who are produced by it’ (p. 8). Her work also holds up for scrutiny ‘the model of culture that has been used to buttress the very model of the nation-state’s representation of itself that has allowed us to imagine something like a hexagonal France in the first place’ (p. 8). Feldman’s revisiting of art history is built on inclusivity, so that she concentrates on the ‘processes by which debates about belonging and the nation have been — and continue to be — represented, especially insofar as these representations turn on nonrepresentation or invisibility’ (p. 10). Previously elided subaltern voices are then as much a focus of the study as those of metropolitan France, in order to provide a more rigorous analysis of the visual output of this period. A particularly incisive reading of André Malraux’s ‘amnesiac aesthetics’ (p. 11) — understood as being in line with the selective amnesia of the nation-state as it attempts to reconstruct itself in the wake of war — paves the way for an exploration of the key contributions of the Lettrists (most especially Isidore Isou), the Décollagistes (Raymond Hains and Jacques Villeglé), and various photographers. Our understanding of Paris as the centre of this falling empire is rightly expanded so that we might view the capital not only as a space in which political powers attempted to render anti-imperial movements invisible, but as one accommodating an artistic scene that often struggled to facilitate the representation of this (trans)national ‘tearing’. Feldman’s book serves as a lens to correct our myopia regarding this period, allowing us to retrain our eyes to contextualize and analyse contemporaneous visual production and the public that created or participated in it in a more comprehensive way. For that substantial achievement alone, it deserves to be read widely by scholars of French and francophone studies, as much as by art historians.