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)