Scholars interested in visual culture generally and modernism, colonial resistance, and subaltern art production in particular will benefit greatly from a close reading of From a Nation Torn: Decolonizing Art and Representation in France, 1945–1962. As scholars take note of the stakes masterfully outlined by Hannah Feldman and bring them out of France and into former colonies, including Algeria, hopefully the nuance and theoretical rigor applied in this book will also find application in future acts of decolonial looking. It is worth taking stock of the ways we continue to see and not see in the age of neocolonization and the “War on Terror.”
In the years after World War II, France engaged in wars of independence, first in Indochina (1946–1954) and then in Algeria (1954–1962). Feldman focuses upon the wartime context of art production in France from the 1940s through the 1960s, powerfully recasting French modernism. To open her provocation to decolonize art and representation, she argues that works dating from these decades were produced during-war, not post-war; the change in temporal attribution attests to the ways in which realities during wars of independence, in addition to the legacy of World War II, infused and rationalized cultural production and spatial practice in France.
Feldman exposes the ways in which artistic practices affected the formation and experience of culture during war. In so doing, she challenges the ways in which certain histories are visualized and others are concealed or forgotten, naturalizing their absence from modernist histories. Feldman's careful choice of words and keen attention to the invisibility of peoples and spaces denied representation cause us to pause and contemplate the silence surrounding subaltern populations. Indeed, her careful analysis of a range of visual practices allows formerly obscured histories and relationships to come to light, but more importantly for the author, lays bare strategies of obfuscation which contributed to debates about the nation, national belonging, citizenship, and representational democracy.
Grounded in art history but engaging a number of disciplines, this rich and dense work convincingly presents and contests the intersection of theories of political representation and theories of aesthetic representation. The three parts and brief concluding section of From a Nation Torn are largely chronological, with each part emphasizing a different representational modality—space, language, and image.
Part I begins with a critique of the decontextualized theory behind André Malraux's Les voix du silence (The Voices of Silence, 1951), including his musée imaginaire (museum without walls), in what Feldman calls his “amnesiac aesthetics,” before examining how his theories were put in practice during his tenure as Minister of Cultural Affairs (1959–1969). Malraux's aesthetic model was enacted in France to clean the blackened façades of historic buildings. The restoration initiative was intended to create universal spaces that could serve as the public face of the Republic and underscored the relationship between access to public space and feelings of national belonging.
Such preservation policies resulted in the removal of French citizens of Algerian heritage from the center of Paris during the restoration of their neighborhood with no guarantee residents could return to their homes. The “whitening” practices in Paris also drew upon urban experiments in the colonies, particularly the dual-city strategy used in Morocco and other territories. The depopulation of the Marais's Algerian residents also echoed the eviction of Jews by the Vichy regime and, in effect, whitened the demographics of Paris just as the restored façades were also whitened, their appearance rewound to a precolonial era without the imprint of France's colonial experiments. Many of the displaced residents would resettle in bidonvilles, or shantytowns, on the outskirts of Paris, in areas that would become associated with residents of Maghrebi descent in the decades of decolonization. This episode should give scholars of heritage preservation pause, as the tendency to restore buildings to a particular city's “golden age” is never neutral and continues to marginalize populations.
Part II examines linguistic battlegrounds in the avant-garde practices of Isodore Isou and the décollages (subtractive artworks created by tearing pieces away) of Raymond Hains and Jacques Villeglé, opening up the use of tactics (following Michel de Certeau's definition of tactic as a counterhegemonic practice of everyday life). Feldman discusses Isou's intent to de-territorialize language within his Lettrist poems in order to produce a new form of universal language. Isou harnessed his subaltern experiences as a Romanian-born Jew and was able to chisel out a space for his avant-garde practices precisely in the urban areas denied to others.
Hains's and Villeglé's décollages as well as a photographic series of Hains by Harry Skunk and János Kender contest erasures occurring elsewhere in the city due to manifestations of political divisions exacerbated by the wars of independence in Indochina and Algeria. Feldman connects these works to the défense d'afficher legislation the 1881 that regulated the placement of political propaganda in public spaces as well as to the subaltern tactics of graffiti and vandalism.
In the early 1960s, just as residents of Algerian descent were seen less in the center of Paris, the war in Algeria became less visible in the press. The spectral presence of populations and agitators barred from urban space appear protected within the walls of the gallery in Hains's and Villeglé's 1961 exhibition “La France déchirée” (France Torn Apart). Feldman persuasively interrogates critiques of the décollages that do not move beyond aesthetic or contextual analysis and probes the uncertainty surrounding the audience's ability to see the objects exhibited. The lacerated posters in the exhibition marked interventions in the public space, illuminating the issues taking place in the streets of Paris and provoking a rethinking and reactivating of those spaces.
The agency of subjects with Algerian heritage becomes apparent in Part III when the FF-FLN (Comité fédéral de la fédération de France du Front de libération nationale) ordered a demonstration against a curfew, whereas it was absent in Malraux's whitewashing of the Marais (Part I). Examination of the protest of October 17, 1961, the violent police response to the demonstration, and images documenting both, counters the misperception that this event has disappeared from public discourse. The play between being seen and remaining unseen, recognizing that visibility changes with the particular audience viewing an object or spectacle. Feldman brings her arguments to the current decade in her Coda, where she continues to probe modes of representation, especially in cinema and in response to the riots of October and November 2005.
One of the book's great strengths, the diversity of materials investigated, also serves as a call for future research. Feldman's cogent use of philosophy and theory asserts the interconnections of aesthetics and spatial and visual cultures. Photographic documentation, relevant theories and, often, juridical frameworks help to link many of the disparate episodes Feldman investigates. In addition to decolonizing modern art, the book also expands the discourses on colonial and postcolonial architecture and urbanism. Feldman's consideration of recent events in her Introduction and Coda, clearly reminds readers that the legacies of the practices and experiences investigated in this book continue to impinge upon contemporary realities.