Mémorial de Caen, Caen (FR)   14 July 2020 - 31 January 2021

La Libération de la peinture

The exhibition, La Libération de la peinture, 1945-1962* opens its doors on 14 July at the Mémorial de Caen (France). Through a selection of seventy-five works taken from its collection, the Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, in association with the Mémorial de Caen, invites visitors to discover how the traumas of the Second World War had a long-term effect on the course of art, leading many European artists to invent a new pictorial language, capable of expressing the personal and social torments of their generation. This major exhibition is curated by the Foundation’s curatorial team, who are also responsible for the richly illustrated accompanying catalogue.

CURATORS : Bertrand Dumas et Yan Schubert

The Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, in association with the Mémorial de Caen, present an ambitious exhibition dedicated to abstract painting in Europe between 1945 and 1962. During the period between the return of peace in Europe and the end of the Algerian War, art in France underwent a number of profound upheavals. As the country struggled to recover from the war, artistic life awakened after four years of Occupation. After the Liberation, Paris quickly regained its status as the world capital of art, which it had held prior to the war. The City of Light attracted artists from all around the world.

Jean-Michel ATLAN, Sans titre, 1945

The selection of 75 paintings, drawings and sculptures, all from the collection of the Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, intends to provide an overview of the artistic vitality of this era, while showing how the war, with its share of atrocities, had a lasting influence on the course of art. Faced with the difficulty, even the inability for some, to continue to represent the world using the traditional means of painting, artists had no other alternative than to create new forms of expression that were more spontaneous and intuitive, finding a fertile ground in abstract art. To achieve this, they also made use of an entire range of new tools and materials, diverted from their primary function.

Guillaume CORNEILLE, Homme et bêtes, 1951-1952

The confrontation that developed, in 1945, between the perpetuators of geometric abstraction inherited from Piet Mondrian and Kasimir Malevitch on the one hand, and the young generation of abstract painters ready to experiment with all of the possibilities of Art Informel on the other, was the sign of new and changing times. The painting collection of the Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, which was originally built around this non-geometric trend in abstract art, illustrates its diversity with several prominent works. Each in their own way, they bear witness to the crisis of representation that raged after the war and affected artists seeking, whether consciously or unconsciously, to paint the reality of their time without necessarily resorting to figuration.

Esplanade Général Eisenhower, 14050 Caen, France
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Exhibition entrance : 10€
Free admission for kids under 10

The museum is open everyday from 10am to 5pm

Press realease

Press kit



The exhibition La Libération de la peinture, 1945-1962 provides an overview of the main trends in informal art that emerged in the post-war climate and developed until the early 1960s in the heart of Europe under reconstruction, with Paris as the epicenter of creation and diffusion.

The curators of this exhibition draft a thematic and chronological guideline to tell this pictorial adventure of a rare intensity and of an astonishing diversity of approaches and styles.

The proposed itinerary is organized around eight autonomous and complementary sections, each illustrated with a dozen works chosen for their ability to reflect the main pictorial upheavals that will help revolutionize abstract art.

Jean FAUTRIER, Sarah, 1943


WOLS, Composition, vers 1948

The exhibition opens on the immediate post-war period with Sarah by Jean Fautrier, a work anticipating change, painted in 1943.

The Second World War left a battered, ruined Europe. The multiple traumas of war, the continual fear of bombing, German Occupation, collaboration, rationing and deportation pushed artists to radically rethink man’s relationship to the world and the way of representing it. Was it possible to express the inexpressible; paint the unrepresentable?

The violence of man was reflected in the violence of painting. While voicing nightmares, many artists also believed that the representation of war required a tabula rasa, the only possible response to the traumas of destruction and mass murder.

Marked by the experience of war, artists reconsidered the representation of the world and the traditional tools of painting.  This experimental form of painting was born from the new manipulations of materials, where accident and chance played an essential role.



This section traces the brief history of this rebel movement.

In total disagreement with their French counterparts during the Second Conference of Revolutionary Surrealism, a number of dissenting foreign artists stormed out of the meeting to found their own movement, which they called CoBrA, an acronym composed of the first letters of the capital cities of their native lands: Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam.

In coherence with its rejection of dogmatism, the Danish painter Asger Jorn, Dutchman Karel Appel and Belgian painter Corneille, followed by french artists Roger Bissière and Jean-Michel Atlan, drew their inspiration from the primitive arts, oriental calligraphy, prehistoric and medieval art, and all forms of naïve art. They believed that in these elementary and instinctive forms of expression lay the path to a “universal primitivity” with which CoBrA sought to reconnect following the disaster of the war.

CoBrA was the promise of a better society founded on another way of living and creating. They advocated an experimental, free and spontaneous art, like the paintings presented in this room, where the colour was directly applied to the canvas, without any prior or preparatory drawing. Their compositions combined, in an indescribable chaos, fabulous creatures that were part man, animal and plant.


Karel APPEL, Deux têtes de bêtes – Big Bird, 1954


Nicolas DE STAËL, Fleurs blanches et jaunes, 1953

With the return of peace, another battle began with the questioning of the traditional canons of painting

This avant-garde struggle was spearheaded by the artistic youth, who no longer recognized themselves in Post-Impressionism, Cubism, or even in Surrealism, which was still very active at that time. The new generation turned instead to abstraction, a field of experimentation that was in theory more promising.

Nevertheless, doubt persisted amongst certain actors of non-figuration who wondered if painting could be entirely abstract.

By refusing to choose between figuration and abstraction, de Staël and Debré settled on a middle ground where they focused on the quest for a balance between gesture, matter and colour. This tempered approach was the opposite to that of Jean Dubuffet or the artists of the CoBrA group who used figuration with the sole aim of destroying it.


Once the war was over, everything had to be rebuilt and reinvented. In this field, artists had a head start.

Amongst them, painter Jean Fautrier was a kind of pioneer. Tackling such timely and controversial topics challenged the artist to represent the unbearable. This obliged him to rid his painting of any references to the past. Starting from scratch, Fautrier stopped painting in oils and introduced new materials and techniques into his paintings that would radically change the course of abstract art.

Directly influenced by him, Jean Dubuffet painted his Portrait Cambouis in December 1945, result of his early experimentation with new materials. Oil, sand, gravel and bits of string, smeared with tar, soot or shoe polish, were the ingredients of this “high paste” that covered Dubuffet’s contemporary paintings, providing them with an unprecedented relief. The natural resistance of the materials fired the imagination of the father of Art Brut, leading him to invent a new pictorial language oscillating between figuration and abstraction.

In the wake of Fautrier and Dubuffet, other artists did not completely reject the representation of reality. This was the case with Henri Michaux whose watercolour presented here shows a human face emerging from the coloured iridescence. The same can be said about the heart-wrenching Crucifixion by Spanish artist Antonio Saura and more suggestively, about the “carnage” painted by Belgian artist Pierre Alechinsky. These two works can be said to challenge the meaning of religion in the face of the atrocities committed during the war.

Jean DUBUFFET, Portrait Cambouis, décembre 1945


Georges MATHIEU, Hommage à la mort, 1950

The remainder of this section adresses the theme of gesture common to many artists of this period

Non-figurative artists wanted to free the gesture so that it did not respond to any need, other than being the product of their emotions. The violence of painting at this time reflects a feeling of insecurity, associated with the urgent need for self-expression. The speed, spontaneity, unpredictability and energy of the gesture is central to the work of the artists presented in this chapter, reflecting their need for absolute freedom.

For artists like Simon Hantaï and Jean Degottex, the gesture was no longer a mark of artistic subjectivity. Instead, they sought to develop a language using new signs.

For Georges Mathieu, art was a language and the sign, the key element of its vocabulary. He even claimed that the effectiveness of his gestural painting was born of the sign and not of the signified. This revolutionary premise removed any last barriers hindering the gestural Art Informel in its quest for solutions to paint reality, without having recourse to traditional codes of representation.


Furious brushstrokes, nervous and instinctive writing, the impression of speed and spontaneity...

Such were the shared features of this Abstract Expressionism developped, just after the war, by painters Hans Hartung, Gérard Schneider and Pierre Soulages.

In their own ways, each of these artist sought to remove any distance between the gesture and its trace, between the painter’s intentions and the raw emotions conveyed. Expressing the widening the gap between the perpetuators of geometric abstraction and its reformers, supporters of gestural and Art Informel painting, the painter Georges Mathieu coined the unifying term “lyrical abstraction”.The apparent unity of style in the initial stages fell apart in the mid-1950s, as may be seen in the works of Pierre Soulages in this room. Their large “slowed-down” gestures, held back by the thick matter, are the first signs of a less tumultuous relationship between gesture, matter and colour.

Deprived of the support from the community mobilized to rebuild themselves, artists organize to show their works in salons and new art galleries. One of these, founded by Lydia Conti, successively exhibited, between 1947 and 1949, the painters Hans Hartung, Gérard Schneider and Pierre Soulages, who were immediately spotted by art critics for their individual talents and the revolutionary scope of their way of painting.



Pierre SOULAGES, Peinture 130 x 89 cm, 24 août 1958, 24 août 1958


After the Second World War, many artists rethought their practice by redefining the space and format of their paintings.

Some reconsidered their very manner of painting, by reducing the means used. Martin Barré for example favoured the reduction of materials, colour and form.

The penchant for the construction of the pictorial space may also be found in the work of
Maria Helena Vieira da Silva while Jean Degottex chose to privilege the gesture and its force, while considering its relationship to writing and space.

Others, on the contrary, such as Emilio Vedova, rethought the format of their works, which underwent a new expansion.

Emilio VEDOVA, Scontro di Situazioni, 1959


Closing the exhibition, the last section addresses the diversification of materials and supports used by artists.

This desire to find another way of representing the world, after the disaster of the Second World War, saw the traditional canvas being replaced by materials coming primarily from everyday use: the burlap in Alberto Burri’s work, wire for Manuel Rivera, fabric for Salvatore Scarpitta, wooden slats for César and nylon threads for Pol Bury. Marked by the shortages experienced during the war years, artists recycled what they could find and invented new tools. Both ingenious and crafty, they were quick to use “poor” materials and left an important place to chance, as evident in the first sculpture by Jacques Villeglé, made from steel wires found amongst the ruins of Saint-Malo.

They also sought to go beyond the frame of the painting with three-dimensional, mobile and mechanical works, like those of Jean Tinguely.

It is not so much the question of the opposition between abstraction and figuration that is at stake here but rather the questioning of the very foundations of painting. Painting no longer has to confront the real world because it is intrinsically part of the work through the materials used, such as posters torn from the walls by Raymond Hains or Jacques Villeglé which recalls the reality of the Algerian War and the confrontation of two irreconcilable factions in Rue au Maire.

Jean TINGUELY, Relief SYN n° VII, 1956