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  • Classical Violence:Thierry Maulnier, French Fascist Aesthetics and the 1937 Paris World’s Fair
  • Mark Antliff (bio)

The relation of classicism to fascist ideology and visual culture in Mussolini's Italy and Nazi Germany is well studied in the field of art history, but the existence of a similar convergence in France during the 1930s has yet to be examined. To date, study of French fascist aesthetics in art history has largely focused on the art criticism of fascist apologists such as Waldemar George and Lucien Rebatet, neither of whom developed a theory of classicism (Affron, 171–204 and Cone, French Modernisms, 63–80). Moreover interwar classicism in the visual arts in France is commonly divorced from any native form of fascism, with assertions that classicists like sculptors Charles Despiau (1874–1946) and Aristide Maillol (1861–1944) were only sympathetic to fascism by virtue of their friendship with such prominent Nazis as the sculptor Arno Breker, who promoted their work during the Nazi occupation of France (1940–44) (Cone, Artists under Vichy, 154–169).

I will counter these received assumptions by examining the role played by the prominent French literary critic Thierry Maulnier (1909–1988) in formulating what I would call a Nietzschean notion of fascist visual culture for a French audience. Maulnier argued that Friedrich Nietzsche's pronouncements in The Birth of Tragedy (1872) concerning the salutary union of Apollonian and Dionysian impulses in art would lead to the establishment of a fascist new order, based on classical precepts native to France (Carroll 222–247). To date, art historians have associated such Nietzschean classicism with the feeling of pathos, eroticism, melancholy, and nostalgia evoked by the art of [End Page 45] such avant-gardists as Giorgio de Chirico, André Masson, and Pablo Picasso (Cowling, "Introduction," 26–28). Maulnier and his colleagues radically redefined Nietzschean classicism to promote an alternative aesthetic, exemplified by the art of sculptors Despiau and Maillol, and the architect Auguste Perret (1874–1954). Maulnier's complex integration of the work of these native-born artists into his theory of French fascism will be the subject of this essay.

Shortly after founding the journal Combat in January, 1936, Maulnier made a radical claim: the origins of European fascism resided in the alliance, in Paris before the First World War, between the followers of Charles Maurras and Georges Sorel. Maurras was the founder of the Royalist movement Action française; Sorel, by contrast, was a self-proclaimed leftist who had called for the violent overthrow of the French Republic by radical syndicalists. In late 1911, their followers had joined forces in founding the Cercle Proudhon (1912–1914), which Maulnier praised as the first movement in Europe to espouse an anti-parliamentary version of national socialism. Maulnier bestowed a fascist pedigree on the Cercle in a February 1936 essay, titled "Les Deux violences" (Two Violences), in which he referred Combat's readers to a contiguous article by the Sorelian Pierre Andreu as proof. Andreu's text, titled "Fascisme 1913," described the Cercle Proudhon's founders—syndicalist Edouard Berth, and Sorelian Royalists Henri Lagrange and Georges Valois—as having combined "nationalism and socialism [into] the nebula of a kind of Fascism."2 Andreu then outlined the aesthetic implications of his thesis. Drawing on Edouard Berth's national socialist treatise of 1914, Les Méfaits des Intellectuels (The Misdeeds of Intellectuals), he argued that this pre-war movement successfully melded the classical "beauty" and Apollonian spirit promoted by Charles Maurras with the Dionysian notion of the revolutionary "sublime" as defined by Georges Sorel. In this way, Sorelian violence took on "a spirit of order and discipline." Andreu lamented that the Cercle Proudhon's regenerative merger between the radical left and right was artificially cut short by World War I, and Maulnier in "Two Violences" upheld that view. In response, Maulnier called for the resuscitation of the spirit of the Cercle Proudhon, in hopes that the alliance between bourgeois and proletarian revolutionaries could be turned against an emerging enemy: the anti-fascist Popular Front, established in 1934 by French Socialists, Communists, Radical Republicans, and their allies in the syndicalist labor movement. Headed by the socialist Léon Blum, this coalition would govern...


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