Summary of Louis Aragon
Emerging as a major figure in the avant-garde movements that defined France's early 20th century cultural identity, Aragon's long career as a poet, novelist, communist polemicist and bona-fide war hero, secured him his place in the pantheon of French literary greats. With André Breton and Phillipe Soupault, Aragon launched the Surrealist movement and through his 1926 novel, Paysan de Paris (Paris Peasant), produced what is considered by most to be the movement's defining literary text. Having parted company with the movement in the early 1930s, Aragon devoted his energies to the French Communist Party and went on to produce a vast body of literature that combined elements of the avant-garde and social realism. Following the death of his beloved wife, Elsa Triolet, Aragon emerged as a public figure who positively flaunted his new identity as a dandyish homosexual around Paris.
- Bonded (and scarred) by their experiences of war Aragon, André Breton and Phillipe Soupault returned to Paris where they announced their affiliation with the Dadaists by jointly launching the magazine Littérature. Aragon confirmed his own Dada credentials through poems and novels that satirized bourgeois morality. These works, including the novel Anicet ou le panorama, contained an ethereal quality that anticipated the transition from Dada to Surrealism.
- As author of Paysan de Paris (Paris Peasant), Aragon had produced a city dreamscape that would become the archetype of Surrealist literature. Based on the idea, borrowed from Freudian psychoanalysis, that the unconscious mind was the repository of human truth, Aragon combined elements of autobiography and dream logic in a novel that put Paris's more obscure bohemian locations on the city's Surrealist map.
- Helped by his substantial reputation within the artists' community, Aragon was - first as writer for the socialist journal L'Humanité, and then as co-editor of the newsletter for the Association of Revolutionary Writers and Artists - instrumental in the ideological fight against fascism. Indeed, Aragon's reputation was such that, at the behest of the French Communist Party (PCF), he drew together a cadre of esteemed writers for the evening newspaper Ce-Soir that was at the forefront of raising awareness of the rise in Fascism across Europe.
- Aragon's place withing the pantheon of the French avant-garde was only strengthened by his fierce patriotism and commitment to the French war effort. Having won medals for heroism in both world wars, he, and his wife Elsa Triolet (to whom he dedicated a series of tender love poems) joined the French Resistance and became its most important anti-Nazi propagandists. Through his poem collection, "Musée Grévin", he was the first to write about the Auschwitz concentration camp and the existence of gas chambers.
The Life of Louis Aragon
As a founder of the Surrealist movement, Aragon was committed to the principle of automatism: "What I am thinking naturally expresses itself", he wrote, "I do not think without writing, which is to say that writing is my method of thinking".
Louis Aragon and Important Artists and Artworks
A Friends' Reunion (1922)
This group portrait - front row from left to right: René Crevel, Max Ernst (sitting on Dostoyevsky's knee), Theodor Fraenkel, Jean Paulhan, Benjamin Péret, Johannes Th. Baargeld, Robert Desnos. Back row: Philippe Soupault, Hans Arp, Max Morise, Raffaele Sanzio, Paul Eluard, Louis Aragon (with Laurel wreath around his hips), André Breton, Giorgio de Chirico, Gala Eluard - depicts members of an early iteration of the Surrealist group.
The sitters are placed in a surrealistic glacial environment with enchanting circular motifs in the background. Each member of the group has a number hovering close to their face which corresponds with their name written on two floating scrolls in the bottom corners of the picture. Baargeld, Breton and Desnos are sweeping in with forward moving steps from the right. They are met with a directional counterbalance in the hands of Ernst, Paulhan and Péret (seated in the centre). At their feet is a cubist-like chopping board-cum-boardgame with a knife and cut apple. Crevel sits behind the board with his back to us while he interacts with a stage maquette. Aragon is depicted with a laurel round his waist and stands just behind a gestural Breton. Their gray faces are mirrored in the face of de Chirico who is represented in the form of a marble bust (much like the marble sculptures he would paint).
Writer and politician Pierre Juquin picked up on the awkward positioning of Aragon and Breton: "they're there together obviously, but seized by an almost forced relationship", he argued. At this stage of their friendship (1922) Breton was like a mentor to Aragon. But following the publication of Paysan de Paris (Paris Peasant) in 1926, Aragon threatened to eclipse Breton as the most influential member of the group. An unspoken, but palpable, rivalry developed between the two men before they finally went their separate ways in the early 1930s.
Oil on canvas - Museum Ludwig, Cologne
Portrait of Louis Aragon (1923)
This discombobulated portrait stretches Aragon's image across the picture plane. The mark-making is highly gestural but Masson has given us a point of detail in the center where some of the "airborne" lines appear to collect. The head of Aragon is constructed with loose marks so that it is like he's barely present - about to disappear in a "puff of smoke". Around this centre point the other outlines and flying marks seem to orbit, giving a circular emphasis to the drawing. The application of ink on the paper is suggestive, we can spot ambiguous forms - a foot, a button perhaps, all of which then come out of focus and disintegrates once again into lines that send our gaze off in all directions. The name "Louis Aragon" is written into the drawing, incorporated into the image and even mimicked by some dense illegible scribbles higher up in the picture plane. This, and the use of black ink on plain white paper, is evocative of the practice of writing, which alludes to Aragon's career as well as the mutability of Surrealism: from poetry and prose to the pictorial arts.
This piece is quite typical of Masson's surrealist drawings. The two struck up a close friendship in the early twenties and collaborated many times artistically. Indeed, Masson was the dedicatee on Aragon's most famous surrealist book Paysan de Paris and provided erotic illustrations for Le Con d'Irène, Aragon's salacious novella. Later on in his career in 1977, Aragon wrote Masson a cantata (choral composition) which was accompanied by earlier drawings by the artist along with the caption: "In homage to André Masson and to mark here precisely what he was, what he is for me, throughout our lives: the great mental forest of our dreams".
Chinese ink and graphite on paper - Pompidou Centre, Paris
Portrait of Louis Aragon (1942)
Matisse's Portrait of Louis Aragon reflects the men's close friendship that lasted close to thirty years. Indeed, Aragon's last important work was the two-volume novel/memoir he published in 1971. Matisse produced a series of portrait drawings - four charcoal sketches and thirty-four pen and black ink drawings - of his friend during the height of the war and repeated the sequecing method he had used in his celebrated Thèmes et Variations compilation (for which Aragon had supplied the introductory essay). Matisse focused on the idea of capturing a single subject from multiple perspectives and using charcoal sketches and pure line drawings as a means of emphasizing those variations.
Katharine Arnold, Head of Sales at Christies New York, wrote that Matisse had presented "an almost cinematic sequence of views, moving from front to three-quarter and profile views of the sitter" through which the artist "eloquently capture[d] Aragon's likeness through the briefest outlines of his form". She adds that following the completion of the series, "Aragon found it difficult to identify himself in the images [...] Suffering both physically and mentally as a result of the deprivations of life in war-torn France, and filled with an all-consuming anxiety regarding the safety of his friends and family, Aragon failed to see himself in the confident, fresh-faced debonair that populated Matisse's drawings. It took him a long time to realize the accuracy of Matisse's portrayal, acknowledging that the artist had managed to capture not one, 'but thirty of my different selves'".
Pen and black ink
Joseph Stalin (1953)
This portrait is of a young Joseph Stalin despite being painted in the year of his death. The mark-making is very bold as was typical of Picasso's later career period. The severity of the line is in fact made more pronounced by the fact that the portrait is in black and white. Stalin looks at us with eyes of alternating shades - his right fixes us decidedly and unambiguously, whereas his left is darker and less distinct. The former dictator is shown with his trademark slicked back hair and bushy moustache and the downward curvature of his full eyebrows.
Aragon and Picasso were fellow members (comrades) of the PCF and the portrait was made, at Aragon's request, on news of Stalin's death in 1953. The portrait was published in Les Lettres Francaises, a literary publication for which Aragon was editor-in-chief. Stalin had died shortly after 11 victims of the so-called Slánsky trial (a show trial in which 14 members of the Communist Part of Czechoslovakia were accused of high treason against the Czechoslovak state) were executed with Stalin's approval. It was rumored that Picasso was acquainted with some of the victims through their earlier involvement in the Spanish Civil War.
Aragon claimed that he wanted a portrait that honored Stalin as an approachable young man of the people and without the distraction of his usual militaristic regalia. It was instead taken as a slanderous portrait. The Party was infuriated by Picasso and demanded that Aragon publish a criticism of the portrait in the following issue of Les Lettres Francaises. However, even though Picasso firmly refuted the claim that his portrait was intended as a mockery, the scandal was such that Aragon even threatened suicide while Picasso referred to 1953 as his "saison en enfer" ("season in hell").
Charcoal on paper
Atlantic Civilisation (1953)
Fougeron's bright and busy painting is undercut with a series of poignant political contrasts based around the idea of the oppressors and the oppressed. To the left of the frame, for instance, we see a family living in a makeshift tent while a well-fed, well-dressed, businessman occupying the painting's centre lifts his hat in a gesture, perhaps, of self-satisfaction. The composition is dominated by a large blue American car which projects diagonally and functions as a symbol of cultural colonialism. There is also a strongly implied critique of French colonialism as we see both Algerians seeking shelter beneath corrugated iron in the bottom left of the frame, and a small black African boy shining shoes in the near foreground as a man behinds him reclines with a girly magazine. The title itself refers to the rise of the "cult of Americana" which was sweeping across French cultural life at the time.
During the scandal of Picasso's Stalin portrait, Aragon received criticism from several comrades in the PCF - including Fougeron. Aragon had, hitherto, been a great supporter of Fougeron's paintings which had also received official approval from the PCF who fully endorsed his Socialist Realist style. Art Historian Sarah Wilson suggests that this painting is likely to be inspired by a text by Aragon published a year earlier titled "The Atlantic Totem" which attacked the Ford automobile as a symbol of soft American imperialism. Unfortunately for the artist, however, his painting was not at all received well by Aragon who criticised the "American cartoon style" and accused Fougeron subsequently of being a demagogue rather than a true artist.
Oil on canvas
Illustration for "One who says things without saying anything" (1976)
This night-time scene is divided halfway across the picture plane into the earth and the sky. Beneath the sky, people are congregating in and around the dense housing which extends into the distant horizon. Across the sky we see various faces and a goat encircled in a big airborne bubble. There is a person on a cross in the background which evokes Christianity and Chagall's tendency to depict folklore while the dark, undefined body shape implies an Icarus character taking flight. The lithograph is executed using engraved marks of alternating directions which obscures forms that were already ambiguous. Chagall's picture is monotone apart from splashes of yellow on the big crescent moon and the small horse in the foreground and the goat in the sky which are presented to us perhaps as points of focus. There is also a dash of blue in the very centre of the picture next to a happy looking face that is typical of Chagall's figurative, but notoriously perplexing, pictures that wrong-foot us with their dreamlike whimsy.
Aragon wrote a poem of 27 parts about Chagall in 1976 titled "One who says things without saying anything". This was one in a series of lithographs to accompany the poem. Although he was not part of the Surrealist movement, Chagall was one of the many painters that Aragon championed in his writings. His paintings were imbued with literature and mythology which were often the springboard for his artistic dreams and Aragon found himself in their narratives. The figurative nature of his paintings tell an unbound story that the viewer must piece together. In this instance, "the one who says things without saying anything" is Aragon.
Lithograph on paper
This infamous act of art vandalism is a defaced Mona Lisa postcard. Following Duchamp's intervention, Leonardo's mysterious and timeless beauty sports an eccentric upturned moustache and goatee beard with the provocative letters "L.H.O.O.Q." placed beneath her. The letters in French are pronounced as "Elle a chaud au cul" which roughly translates in English as "She has a hot ass". This audacious act was controversial, not just for the profanity, but also by virtue of the fact that Duchamp dared to mock a man who was perhaps (and, indeed, might still be) the most famous painter in the history of Western art. Duchamp was, moreover, playing with gender roles - as he did by dressing as a woman named "Rrose Selavy" (Eros, c'est la vie) - by inferring the widely accepted belief that Leonardo was himself homosexual.
The political historian Andrew Sobanet writes, "Even after public disputes with either the PCF or Soviet authorities, Aragon remained an important figure in the party and continued to be celebrated in the USSR. In 1977, on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of the October Revolution in Moscow, he was awarded the Order of Friendship of Peoples, his third decoration from the USSR. (Previously, he had received the Lenin Prize and the Order of the October Revolution.) In 1979 he gave to the party the famous image by Marcel Duchamp [and on] that occasion, Aragon stated to party chief Georges Marchais, 'This painting [sic] represents a significant period in my life. It is that which I wished to give you as a gift for the party'". It was an interesting (or perhaps provocative) artwork for a party member - described by writer Gilles Roger Nimier as "the only man able to attend a meeting of the Central Committee of the PCF in a pink tuxedo" - to bequeath an institution so steeped in the traditions of socialist realism. But, as Sobanet noted, whatever his true feelings about Aragon, "Marchais described him on his death as 'one of the best of us, in his steady loyalty to this party'".
Collotype, pencil and ink on paper - French Communist Party Headquarters, Paris (Donated by Aragon to the French Communist Party in 1977)
Biography of Louis Aragon
Despite there being no official record of his birth, it is known that Louis Marie Alfred Antoine Aragon was born in the Beaux Quartiers arrondissement of Paris in 1897. His father, Louis Andrieux, commanded a high standing within the community as a prefect of the French police. Andrieux was 57 when his 24 year-old mistress, Marguerite Toucas, gave birth to their son (the surname "Aragon" was suggested by Andrieux after a location in Spain where he had been a former ambassador). Because he was married, and because of his elevated public standing, Andrieux could/would not publicly acknowledge their relationship. Despite this, Marguerite remained devoted to Andrieux and raised their son jointly with her own mother while Andrieux adopted a supporting role in his son's life in the guise of a godfather. Louis's grandmother posed in fact as Louis's adopted mother while Marguerite took on the role of a (considerably older) second sister.
Marguerite Toucas, who helped run a woman's boarding house for migrant women, possessed a great passion for literature and the arts. Indeed, her biographer, Nathalie Piégay, explained how she supplemented her income from the boarding house by painting plates, which she sold at the local market, by translating English thrillers into French, and by writing romances for low-brow newspapers. Aragon was heir to his biological mother's passion for writing and had written his first poems and short stories even before he entered the prestigious (probably with the financial support of his father) public school Lycée Carnot from where he graduated with degrees in Latin and philosophy in 1916. In 1917 (and to please his grandmother/mother) he enrolled at the Faculté de Médecine de Paris where he trained as an auxiliary doctor. Aged nineteen, and preparing to assist the war effort as a medical orderly, Marguerite, fearing her son might never return from the trenches, revealed to Louis the truth about his parentage which he, though devasted, agreed to keep secret (he remained true to his promise until his mother's death).
Early Training and Work
In 1917 Aragon was introduced to André Breton at the Val-de-Grâce military hospital. The two men bonded through their shared experiences of war, and particularly through their first-hand experience of reconstructive surgery on bodies that had been maimed by the mechanical weapons of war. Breton made such an impression on the young medic that in a letter home Aragon described Breton as "more friend than all the colours of the rainbow". The pair soon made a companion of a third countryman, the poet Phillipe Soupault. Aragon too was writing poems at this time. His war poetry, which soon drew the attention of the poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire, conjured up terrifying mental images of life in the trenches. After the war - and having been awarded the Croix de Guerre medal for heroism - Aragon returned to Paris where he reunited with Breton and Soupault. Between them, the trio launched/edited the Dadaist magazine Littérature which published between March 1919 and August 1921. (Littérature was relaunched by Breton In March 1922 under the title Littérature: New Series before ceasing publication altogether in June 1924.)
Aragon, who had by now commenced his lifelong affiliation with the French Communist Party (PCF) (though yet to be welcomed as a full member), participated in several Dada events during the early 1920s. He published Dadaist poems, including "Feu de joie" ("Bonfire") in 1920, and the novels Anicet ou le panorama in 1921 and Les Aventures de télémaque in 1922. The former was both a roman à clef (where recognizable people, such as Breton, Picasso, Charlie Chaplin are given fictional titles), and a fantasy drama in which the book's protagonist (Anicet) descends into a "parallel" modern world full of bourgeois society scandals. The latter was an undisguised parody of Finelon's seventeenth-century didactic (in the moralistic sense) novel of the same name. These novels announced Aragon's arrival as a Dadaist but by now the Paris Dada group was coming to an end; an expiration that was accelerated when Breton and Tristan Tzara clashed in a physical fight at an event at the Theatre Michel. Witnessed by Aragon and Paul Eluard, the fracas even resulted with writer Pierre Massot having his arm broken by Breton's flailing walking stick!
In 1924 Breton's Manifeste du surréalisme formally announced the birth of Surrealism. For his part, Aragon's Le Mouvement perpétuel, poèmes (1920-1924) (Perpetual Motion: Poems 1920-1924) offered a literary contribution in support of the nascent movement. Poet Jean Ristat suggested that Aragon was seen as "second in command" to Breton; that Breton was to Aragon like a guide and mentor. But there would soon be a strong, but friendly, rivalry between the two men.
Soupault and Breton had published "Les Champs magnétiques" ("Magnetic Fields") as early as 1920 and this is often cited as the first example of the surrealist technique of automatic writing. Based on Sigmund Freud's writings on the unconscious mind, and Freud's idea that dreams were the "royal road" to the unconscious, spontaneous automatism (which supposedly sprung from the unconscious) became perhaps the defining feature of Surrealism. But, in 1926 Aragon, who had already translated several of his beloved (surrealistic) Louis Carroll books from English into French, published what was destined to become a masterwork of the Surrealist Movement: Paysan de Paris (Paris Peasant).
Dedicated to painter André Masson, the book, which was serialized in Soupault's magazine, Revue européenne, amounted to a dreamlike amble through the back streets of Paris. Aragon described his Parisian locations as "the true sanctuaries of a cult of the ephemeral, the ghostly landscape of damnable pleasures and professions. Places that yesterday were incomprehensible, and that tomorrow will never know". As the literary historian Johanna Malt put it, "Le Paysan de Paris is in many ways the archetypal surrealist text. Combining autobiography and polemic in the form of a sometimes fantastical stroll through Paris's more obscure and insalubrious locations, it is the literary record of surrealism as a lifestyle". The work drew praise from many influential names, most notably the German philosopher Walter Benjamin who cited it as the major inspiration for his career defining Arcades Project.
Aragon, and a four other Surrealists - Breton, Éluard, Pierre Unik and Benjamin Péret - were finally welcomed into the PCF during 1926-27. There had till now been a perceived disparity between PCF members and the "bourgeois" Parisian artists and poets community that seemed to rub against the Party's core socialist ideals. This objection dissipated as the PCF and the Surrealists found mutual ground in their profound concern for the rise of fascist ideology in Germany and across Europe. At this time, Aragon wrote Traité du style ("A Treatise On Style"), which was based on the execution in America of the anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. In this piece he argued that without a political impetus Surrealism was in fact the art of "tristes imbécillités" ("sad imbecilities"). Indeed, it marked the point when socialist politics would overtake surrealism as the dominant drive behind his writing.
Elsa Triolet (born Elsa Yureyevna Kagan in Moscow in 1896) was the second daughter of affluent Jewish professionals. Despite her comfortable upbringing, she (and her elder sister, Lili Kagan Brik) became active in revolutionary activities in Russia. She had arrived in Paris in 1919 having married the Frenchman, André Triolet. The couple separated in 1921 and she spent several years touring Europe, including extended stays London and Berlin, before settling in Paris. As a published novelist herself, she befriended several avant-gardists, including Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray. In 1928, having himself recently ended a two-year love affair with the flamboyant publisher and heiress to the Cunard shipping fortune, Nancy Cunard, Aragon was introduced to Triolet, the Russian Futurist Vladimir Mayakovsky, prominent author Ilya Ehrenburg and pioneering Constructivist filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, at a well-known bohemian café-cum-nightclub called La Couple.
Aragon and Triolet fell in love and would remain coupled for the rest of their lives. Although Aragon later cited Mayakovsky as the man who persuaded him that poetry could serve as a revolutionary "weapon", Triolet's commitment to communism merely strengthened Aragon's own political beliefs and, in addition to a series of erotic/love poems (referred to later by Albert Camus as "the best and most beautiful of erotic texts"), Aragon embarked on his four volume Le Monde reel (The Real World) (133-44) series. It became an epic political history that allowed for Surrealism and Social Realism to overlap in an attack on bourgeois literary and cultural conventions.
The late 1920s was a most turbulent period in Soviet communism with Stalin cracking down on dissenters, namely Leon Trotsky, who was forced into exile. Deep divisions emerged amongst the PCF. Aragon was loyal to Stalin which further strained his relationship with Breton (who was loyal to Trotsky). Aragon in fact visited the USSR in 1930 where he received the kind of reception reserved for VIPs. His visit inspired his 1931 poem, "La Front Rouge" ("Red Front") but Aragon, who in the poem had declared "kill the cops", "shoot Léon Blum" (the French Prime Minister), and implored the French military to "disobey orders", was promptly charged by the French authorities with "provocation to murder for the purpose of anarchist propaganda". Anarchism was a crime that carried a maximum sentence of five years imprisonment and, despite their disintegrating friendship, Breton wrote two poems in support of Aragon and circulated a petition demanding that all charges against his colleague be dropped. Although Stalinist/Trotskyist divisions polarized French intellectual life, most signed the petition on grounds of freedom of artistic expression and Aragon was duly exonerated at trial.
The rise of fascism across Europe was becoming a matter of pressing concern by the mid -1930s and Aragon joined the socialist newspaper L'Humanité, writing pieces against Mussolini (in Italy) and Franco (in Spain). In 1934 Aragon published the first of his Real World series of novels, Les Cloches de Bâle (The Bells of Basel). It marked a shift in style which he called "revolutionary romanticism"; a style whereby, in Aragon's words, "Zola's Germinal meets Hugo's Punishments". He also worked as co-editor for Commune, the newsletter of the Association des Écrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires (Association of Revolutionary Writers and Artists) and was invited by the PCF to create an evening newspaper, Ce-Soir (Tonight), in 1937. Aragon's reputation was such he was able to draw together a strong cadre of writers bringing Ce-Soir an annual readership in excess of 250,000 by the beginning of the war. In a biography of Triolet, Huguette Bouchardeau notes, however, that Aragon, whose new wife ( Aragon and Triolet married in 1939) was Jewish, had become "aware of the anti-Semitism of certain French Communists [...] and tried as much as possible to fight against it". This would become a cause of great internal struggle for the writer who at the same time "never wanted to be in direct conflict with the French Communist Party or the Soviet Union [which carried a strong strain of anti-Semitism under Stalin's rule]".
In 1939 Germany and the USSR signed a pact of non-aggression. This raised alarm bells within the French government that duly banned all affiliated PCF publications including Ce-Soir and L'Humanité (fear of personal persecution, exacerbated, no doubt, by his earlier brush with the authorities, saw Aragon take brief refuge in the Chilean Embassy in Paris). Once France and Britain had declared war on Germany (following its invasion of Poland), however, Aragon was drafted once more into the French medical corp. where he was attached to a tank regiment. Aragon was captured by the Germans in the 1940 "Battle of France" but in a remarkable act of daring, he managed to lead 36 countrymen in an escape back into French held territory. It was an act that would bring him a second Croix de Guerre medal for bravery.
Once France had surrendered, the Nazi's drew up a list of banned authors, and having been "listed", Aragon and Triolet joined the Resistance in southern France. Once there, the couple established a network of writers affiliated to the Comité national des Écrivains (National Committee of Writers). Aragon's mother died in 1942 in Cahors in the South of France. He was able to spend the last moments of her life with her and on her tombstone carved: "Here lies the one I loved so much".
Bouchardeau (in conversation with journalist Benjamin Ivry) states that there was an "idealized romantic mythology created by Aragon in his poems inspired by Elsa" and his mother's death was quickly followed with the publication of what was for many his most profound love poem, "Les Yeux d'Elsa" ("The Eyes of Elsa"). Of his wife he wrote:
"Your eyes are so deep that leaning down to drink
I saw all suns mirrored in them
All desperate souls hurled deathward from their brink
Your eyes are so deep my memory is lost there"
In 1943 Aragon published his poem collection, "Musée Grévin" (named after a Parisian waxworks) which is the first known example in French literature to mention the Auschwitz concentration camp. Bouchardeau explained that Aragon was also writing "articles for clandestine journals", one of which was the underground newspaper Les Etoiles ("The Stars"), "conveying information about the existence of the gas chambers". Maintaining his balance of political and romantic writing, Aragon published what would become perhaps his most famous novel, Aurélien, in 1944. The story, written in the mid-1920s while in his relationship with Nancy Cunard, concerns a poet in the interwar years who falls in love with a married woman who he sets his heart on winning.
Following its liberation in 1944, Aragon and Triolet returned to Paris as war heroes and national symbols of the spirit of the Resistance. Triolet's novel about the liberation, Le premier accroc coûte 200 francs (1944) won the Prix Goncourt, France's most prestigious literary prize. She became the first woman to win the award but, as Bouchardeau, pointed out, "The authority which she [Triolet] and Aragon wielded in the French Communist literary world created lots of bad feelings". Indeed, had both been killed during the war they would have lived on as martyrs and then "surely attitudes towards them [within the Party] would have differed greatly". For his part, Aragon was by now fully committed to social realism as was evidenced in his novel, Les Communistes (6 vol., 1949-51) which was a blunt chronicle of the French Communist Party in the years leading up to the Nazi occupation.
Aragon emerged in the post-war years as one of France's most important intellectuals. He worked prolifically as a translator, as the writer of monographs, historical studies and books on politics, art, and culture. He would in fact publish somewhere in the region of 100 books during his lifetime. He remained a prominent member of the PCF throughout the forties and, in 1950, was, as an "exemplary Stalinist", elected to its central committee. Ivry recounts (through Pierre Daix) that in 1952 Stalin was "preparing anti-Semitic purges" and that Triolet, following a trip to the USSR, said of the Soviet leaders: "They are Nazis" (Triolet put the fact that she was banned from attending a Soviet-backed peace conference in Vienna down to her Jewish heritage). Bouchardeau suggests that it was "curious that Aragon and Elsa kept secret the anti-Semitism that they saw in the Soviet Union in 1952-53 [at] a time when people in Hungary were executed because they were Jewish" and that when Stalin died in 1953, Aragon in fact "wrote an article full of extraordinary praise for him".
Aragon kept touch with the artistic avant-garde too and in 1953 became editor in chief of the journal Les Lettres Françaises, which published a portrait of Stalin by (fellow PCF member) Picasso in commemoration of the dictator's death. The publication of the portrait brought Aragon - still the committed Stalinist - widespread criticism since Picasso was effectively accused of treason for what was perceived by many in the Party to be an ironic and contemptuous portrait (a charge firmly refuted by the artist himself).
Alongside his political post and his journalistic writing, Aragon was also running a publishing house called Editeurs Français Réunis which printed and distributed many books in the social realist idiom. Published in 1955, and considered one of his career defining poems, "L'Affiche rouge" ("Red Poster") - named ironically after the Nazi propagandist Red Posters that sought to convince the French people that the Resistance was a foreign movement made up of hostile Jewish, British and Russian factions - honored all the non-nationals that fought in the fight for French liberation. A year later Aragon received the Vladimir Lenin Prize for his work as a communist and supporter of the USSR. After 1956, however, Aragon abandoned his support for social realism and petitioned the PCF not to interfere in acts of personal and creative freedom.
French poet Olivier Barbarant notes that as well as being a guiding hand in the political field, Aragon was also, in line with the writers-cum-filmmakers at the famous Cahiers du Cinéma, a great champion of the Nouvelle Vague which, through the work of writer/directors such as François Truffaut and Jean Luc Godard, placed France at the cutting edge of European avant garde film-making. In the vein of La Semaine sainte (Holy Week) 1958, he published two further novels - La Mise à mort (The Moment of Truth) in 1965, and Blanche ou l'oubli (Blanche, or Forgetfulness) in 1967 - which were part autobiography; part Communist propaganda. Meanwhile, the PCF was beginning to distance itself from Soviet Communism following international condemnation of its military intervention following the workers revolution in Hungary and its new government's attempts to gain neutrality from Moscow. Although he remained loyal to the ideals of the USSR, Aragon railed against the Soviet state's persecution of intellectuals and backed the political tumult in France that reached its climax in the famous Paris student riots of 1968.
In 1970, almost 40 years after they first fell in love, Elsa Triolet died suddenly from heart failure. It was the end of an era for Aragon who, after a period of mourning, resumed his life as a public figure and celebrity. He had grown his hair long and was easy to spot around Paris at Gay Pride events driving his pink convertible car. Indeed, he lived openly as a homosexual man with the poet Michel Larivière and was seen regularly in public with young men hanging on his arm. It is thought he had taken many clandestine male lovers during an open relationship with Triolet but writer Philippe Sollers remarked on the "novel air of cheek" that Aragon carried with him as he flaunted his homosexuality in public for the first time.
Following the publication of Collages (1965), a collection of essays on art and politics written between the 1920s and 1960s, Aragon published what is now considered his last important project, a comprehensive twin-volume novel/memoir of Henri Matisse: Henri Matisse, Roman (1971). Aragon had visited Matisse in his home in Nice during the 1950s and, from a series of lengthy conversations with an artist he had known for nearly 30 years, he constructed his "novel" around memories of their meetings. He presented the work in a manner that reflected the elliptical decoupage style of the artist and in so doing offered a series of meditations - accompanied by over 500 illustrations (155 color) of Matisse's work - on the relationship between painting and literature.
Hilary Spurling of the New York Review wrote: "This is an elaborate firsthand account in two volumes, published seventeen years after its subject's death in 1954 and described by its author as a work of imagination, 'not mine but the painter's'". Indeed, having now reversed his earlier socialist ideas that tied art to political propaganda, Aragon now proposed that it was "the duty of people like himself, who knew Matisse, to conceal or destroy anything that might cast light on the painter's private life". Spurling described how, in his postscript, Aragon expressed "his invincible contempt for the role of biographer: 'We didn't challenge him to say the unsayable, we didn't subject him to the sort of crude blackmail common to every sort of investigative inquiry today'".
Aragon continued to embrace Surrealism through his poetry and remained a member of the PCF, working as editor of the communist cultural weekly Les Lettres Françaises, until his death on Christmas eve in 1982. He was buried next to his beloved wife in the grounds of their home at Parc Moulin de Villeneuve.
The Legacy of Louis Aragon
Regarded now as a national treasure, Aragon is one of France's most important literary figures. Celebrated as a founder of the Surrealist movement, and best known for his books Paysan de Paris and Aurélien, he has been immortalized at a number of his books' Parisian locations, including the Place Louis Aragon, a small area in the fourth arrondissement overlooking the Seine. His Le Monde reel series is widely held up as the prototype for the radical nouveau roman (new novel, or, anti-novel) movement in French literature that emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s, while his name also lives on through the many reinterpretations of his poems, some of which have been put to music by the likes of French cultural icons Yves Montand and Jean Ferrat.
The biggest caretaker of Aragon's legacy is the Maison Elsa Triolet-Aragon which is now a public museum consisting of a sculpture garden, exhibition hall, conference and performance rooms and the restored Maison Villeneuve where Aragon and Triolet spent so much of their lives together. Fellow writer and member of PCF, Pierre Juquin, spoke on behalf of the French people when he said of Aragon "he belongs to all of us, from our heritage to all". But Aragon also left his mark on the wider gay community. The online publication Gay Influence included his name in their international list of all the "kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment world, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes" who have served as "role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation".
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Louis Aragon
- Une Femme Invisible, (About Louis Aragon's mother) (French edition)By Nathalie Piégay
- Five Nights in ParisBy John Baxter
- Elsa Triolet and Louis Aragon: An Introduction to Their Interwoven Lives and Works (Studies in French Literature)By Max Adereth
- Paris and the SurrealistsBy George Melly