Of course, permanent wall works continued to be created in Europe during the period under examination, especially at the Palais de Chaillot (built across from the Eiffel Tower for the 1937 Expo and today housing several museums) and in countless Italian public buildings under Mussolini. Luigi Fillia and Enrico Prampolini’s 1933 ceramic mural on the theme of transportation, sited in the spiraling stairwell of the main post office in La Spezia, is an example handsomely illustrated in Golan’s book, though it fits uneasily with her thesis. In another photograph, a freestanding wall, erected in 1955 and adorned with a ceramic design by Miró, looks pretty permanently installed in front of the UNESCO headquarters in Paris.
The question posed by Golan is not so much whether photomurals and related forms were on their first or last legs in 1937, but rather what happened after World War II to the Corbusier-inspired synthesis of the arts. She takes the position that Muralnomads were kept relevant for a few years after the war by what she calls “a series of inversions and transvaluations of signs.” The artists who participated with architects in the reconstruction of Europe, Golan writes, substituted the sign of “humanism” for the sign of “populism”—displacing, as they saw it, an art conveying often conflicting or discredited sociopolitical messages with an art expressing a single, apolitical universalist message.
However, to this reviewer, the hyper-stylized or abstract look of postwar murals, especially when displayed in the era’s sleek new architecture, is a weak riposte to the monumental figuration associated with fascism in its various guises. Rather than coming to terms with the recent past, as Picasso did in his two War and Peace murals (1952) for the Vallauris chapel, the postwar muralists discussed in Golan’s text covered up the recent past with a variety of abstract decorative motifs. The colorful 1946 ceramic work by Léger enlivening the facade of the church of Notre-Dame de Toute Grâce at Assy in France; the immense 1947 Aubusson tapestry inside the same church by Jean Lurçat; the 1952 hanging ceiling of the FAO (World Forestry) Congress Hall in Rome, painted by Mirko Basaldella—such examples, though said to humanize the architecture, actually return murals to the traditional functions of decorating buildings and, if necessary, concealing their bad proportions.
For Golan, muralnomadism accords not only with historical precedent but also with population displacement in the postwar era in Europe. “During the Middle Ages, tapestry had been inextricably linked not only to thermal conditions but also to conditions of impermanence and uncertainty,” she writes. “Ultimately, its transportability, the fact that it could be folded and hidden away in a large coffer, is the alleged reason for the survival of the Angers Apocalypse—the largest and earliest surviving of France’s ‘woven monuments’—from [sic] the vicissitudes of history.” In her view, many post-WWII artists and architects similarly turned necessity into advantage: “Nomadism became a compelling concept in the aftermath of the war. Via an inversion of signs, what had stood in the 1930s for anomie, exile, and diaspora in modern life and modern art had become a symbol of human survival.”
Whether conditions of impermanence and uncertainty are irrevocably linked to tapestries and their formal kin, not only in France but elsewhere in the world, is not an issue raised by Golan. How wall paintings, reliefs, hangings, screens and so on functioned in Egypt, Greece, Rome and Renaissance principalities, to say nothing of their use in tribal and non-Western cultures, is beyond her purview. So too, even more troublingly, are the many famous 20th-century Mexican and U.S. wall works—which, she writes, “play no role in the discursive crisis of the European mural.”
What, then, are we to make of the claim that Le Corbusier’s muralnomadism is an appropriate metaphor for the displacement of millions of people across Europe after the war? To me, it seems an unlikely and unconvincing vehicle for such meaning, then or now, intentional or unintentional. Certainly, there is no evidence of a conscious effort by post-WWII tapestry-makers, photomuralists or large-scale painters to adopt such a symbolic strategy. And since the world has been full of movable art even in the most stable times and places, any subliminal link seems likewise tenuous at best.
Golan ends her survey, somewhat surprisingly, with a thorough analysis of the floor-to-ceiling wool tapestries with geometric and symbolic designs on a red ground that Le Corbusier created for the High Court and Parliament buildings in the city of Chandigarh, India, around 1955. The “Europe” of the book’s title is, apparently, wherever an important European figure worked—except the U.S. or Mexico. In any case, ignoring the mass migrations and bloody Hindu-Muslim factionalism that had accompanied the subcontinent’s independence movements and the India-Pakistan partition in 1947, Golan simply takes at face value Corbu’s anodyne assessment, so congenial to European political taste at the time: “For Le Corbusier, . . . no project could be more attractive than this one,” which endorsed “Nehru’s policy of ‘nonalignment’ in a Cold War torn between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R.” In fact, the nine massively heavy wool works, measuring a total of some 7,000 square feet, answered to a criterion neither of nomadism nor of displacement. It is small wonder that the portable-mural movement which culminated at Chandigarh, beset by self-contradiction and surpassed by technological change (the triumph of the glass wall, for example), did not flourish elsewhere.
MICHELE C. CONE teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York.
1 This association was based in part on the mistaken idea—then prevalent in many circles, particularly in places where nonrepresentational work had been subordinated before the war—that abstraction is a sign for freedom of expression. See “Abstract Art as A Veil,” in Michèle C. Cone, French Modernisms: Perspectives on Art Before, During and After Vichy, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2001, pp. 81-99.