Romy Golan contends that European murals have not received due critical attention for the important part they played in the international “synthesis of the arts” movement that arose in the years straddling World War II. That esthetic campaign, based on the belief that hybridism and flux are essential components of modernity, urged artists to eschew immovable works in favor of portable large-scale paintings, photo panels and tapestries. The goal was to animate architectural spaces and thus—in the words of the movement’s principal advocate, Le Corbusier—“blow up the walls that bother us.” The results were often visually arresting, as evidenced by the 212 handsome illustrations in Golan’s book—particularly those showing works displayed in and around the temporary structures of the 1937 Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne in Paris. Golan’s text, written in a refreshingly informal style, is an eminently readable combination of theory and detailed historical analysis, with a viewpoint that is consistently perceptive and frequently provocative.
A professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center and the author of Modernity and Nostalgia: Art and Politics in France Between the Wars (1995), Golan borrows the neologism in her title, Muralnomad: The Paradox of Wall Painting, Europe 1927–1957, from a 1952 Le Corbusier essay on tapestry, a medium that he contended should now be “a functional and not a decorative element”:
We have become “nomads,” living in apartments equipped with common services; we move. We cannot have murals painted on the walls of our apartments. This “woolen wall” will be detached, rolled, carried under one’s arm, travel to be hung elsewhere. This is why I have decided to call it Muralnomad.
The term “mural,” Golan notes, had begun to mutate decades earlier, after Monet’s Water Lilies, in all their “implicit instability,” were mounted at the Orangerie in 1927. The old association with fixed wall painting progressively faltered as new materials and new installation techniques came into play. So tricky did this category become that the author resorts to a bit of poeticization in introducing her subject:
This book is about mural paintings that are not really convinced that they belong on walls and about photomurals, large paintings, and tapestries that are constantly trying to find their way back to the wall. It is about such strange objects as a mosaic designed to be assembled and disassembled; [and] a canvas painted to resemble a large-scale photograph, or photomural.
The word “paradox,” in Golan’s subtitle, refers not just to this movable-wall conundrum but to the seeming contradiction in the political status of these works, a result of the drastically different purposes to which they were put by the competing socioeconomic systems of the time. Under the Fascist, Nazi and Communist regimes, wall-borne propaganda served authoritarian state goals, and murals proliferated mostly through government commissions. In capitalist countries, “wall paintings”—now detachable from the wall—became free-floating commodities that could be bought and sold like ordinary canvases or panels. Governments might sponsor a number of visually rhetorical public works, but the most creative action—particularly during the postwar upsurge of abstraction—was in Europe’s new residential and commercial developments.  (In this regard, it is surprising that Golan makes only passing reference to advertising billboards and movie screens.)
Commissioned by various ministries, many of the photomurals at the multinational 1937 Expo celebrated work, health and education. Combining abstract floating forms with enormously enlarged, easily readable images of workers, farmers and happy, well-fed children, the French and Spanish wall collages conveyed a kind of bright populist modernity, in contrast to the grim authoritarianism of the purely figurative Soviet and Nazi photomurals. In the latter, a high horizon line dwarfs the viewer, and the head of state (Stalin or Hitler) is shown much larger than life. Despite these differences, the French and Spanish murals reveal that dictatorial regimes were not alone in using the newly discovered photomontage and photomural methods to transmit socially didactic messages.
Golan takes special note of Mario Sironi’s roughly 26-by-40-foot mosaic mural Fascist Labor, which the Italian architect Giuseppe Pagano hung in cantilevered suspension in the middle of the great hall (Salon d’honneur) of the Italian pavilion. Golan suggests that this off-the-wall presentation, by showing the rough backside of the Sironi structure, allowed the ideologically wavering Pagano to “expose, both de facto and metaphorically, the dark underside of Mussolini’s regime.” Pagano eventually turned against Mussolini and died in the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria.
Golan also examines the rarely discussed Spanish pavilion photomurals by Josep Renau, whose relatively conventional compositions on themes like “pedagogical missions” were overwhelmed by Picasso’s nearby Guernica. The innovative Pavillon des Temps Nouveaux, designed by Le Corbusier, was a large tentlike building of canvas, wood and steel, inspired by earlier experiments by his cousin Pierre Jeanneret. Meant to be transported to other locales after the Expo, it featured canvas walls in various monochrome hues and large photomurals by artists such as Fernand Léger, Lucien Mazenod and Léon Gischia (or perhaps Corbu himself; the attribution is not settled). With titles in the infinitive— Travailler (To Work), Recréer (To Recreate), Habiter (To Inhabit), etc.—the French photomurals bespoke optimism and strength without resorting to the imperative voice of totalitarian propaganda.
Though impressive, such photomurals were scarcely new in 1937. In Red Star Over Russia: A Visual History of the Soviet Union from 1917 to the Death of Stalin (2009), David King, a collector of Soviet memorabilia and the author of several books on revolutionary Russia, illustrates the monumental photomurals that El Lissitzky designed for the Soviet pavilion at Pressa, the international press exhibition held in Cologne in 1928. Mentioned only briefly by Golan, these works—with their ambitious scale, their weaving of multiple narratives about social progress in the new Soviet Union and their scattered use of bold red lettering—make the 1937 Paris International Expo murals look timid. In fact, in the Paris Expo’s 1987 Cinquantenaire catalogue, photo historian Christian Bouqueret argues that El Lissitzky was the true inventor of the monumental photomural, and cites French architect Roger Ginsburger as a highly imaginative developer of the form several years prior to the Paris event. Far from presenting the image-wall method in “full bloom,” Bouqueret argues, the Expo merely provided, in terms of compositional creativity, its “last gasp.”