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.”
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.