A counter-exhibition that changed Western understanding of colonial cultures
Stephen Fein and Krishnan Srinivasan Stephen Fein and Krishnan Srinivasan | 07 Sep, 2020
An image of Angkor Wat reconstruction at the International Colonial Exhibition in Paris, 1931
The Surrealist-curated art exhibition in Paris in 1931 was not in itself of noteworthy contemporary importance. Planned by the Soviet Union’s Communist International (Comintern) as a riposte to the French government’s colonial exhibition of the same year, it fulfilled few of its sponsors’ objectives. The French Communist Party (PCF), given the responsibility for the counter-exhibition by the Comintern in order to denounce the evils of colonialism, lacked finance, enthusiasm and expertise for mounting such an enterprise. The counter-exhibition had therefore first to be sub-contracted to the League against Imperialism (LAI) and finally to leading figures of the Surrealist art movement in Paris at the time.
The counter-exhibition, when it eventually took place, revealed huge inconsistencies; Surrealist art was simultaneously being denounced as bourgeois decadence by the Soviet Union, few Surrealists belonged to the Communist Party then or later, and while both French Communists and Surrealists demanded an immediate end to colonial rule, the Soviet Union only supported liberation movements with links to Moscow and acting under its directions.
Despite indications from the start that the Comintern-ordered exhibition faced severe obstacles, it could not be aborted due to instructions for it having emanated from high circles in the Soviet hierarchy, probably the Politburo itself. There are documentation gaps because not all Comintern’s archives, Agitprop in particular, are yet accessible. Agitprop chief Seraphima Gopner introduced the proposal in the Comintern executive committee but there is no indication who took the final decision. The exhibition started months late, on a modest scale, and ran for a shorter duration than the official French exhibition. It attracted only a fraction of the huge attendance enjoyed by the official exhibition and resulted neither in augmented membership nor publicity for the French Communist Party or the League against Imperialism. It also failed to provoke any mass movement against French colonialism.
Notwithstanding these drawbacks, the Surrealist anti-colonial exhibition had enduring benefits for the anti-colonial movement in France and among colonies generally. This was the first time that the official doctrine of colonial assimilation was openly challenged in a major colonial power and it showed the colonisers had no monopoly in promoting their position on colonial policy. The French authorities were alarmed by Communist agitation against colonisation and were ready with repressive measures, which helped the dynamic of the anti-colonial movement. The Surrealist exhibition inspired a pathway to new thinking on the value of art from the colonies and was the pioneer in including colonial art in major exhibitions and private collections across the world.
Colonial association replaces assimilation
The Surrealist-curated exhibition was a counter to the French Colonial Exhibition in 1931, the purpose of which was to project the ideal of the French colonial empire as an association which blended respect for indigenous cultures with the benefits of French civilisation. The scale of the exhibition was vast; by contrast, the Surrealist exhibition, in modest scale, aimed to expose what the Left saw as exploitation and hypocrisy in the empire project. This contrast reflected the attitudes to empire at that time; the Communists, then in a small minority, could not predict that in some thirty years, the French empire would collapse, because in 1931 it was at its apogee, the granting of mandates in the Cameroons in 1922 and Syria in 1923 completing its overseas conquests. French colonial doctrine was no longer to assimilate the conquered peoples; the new concept of association was intended to replace the arrogance and condescension of assimilation. The plan was to integrate France’s colonies into an association of 100 million people over five continents with the adhesive of Francophone civilisation that respected cultural plurality and benefited from mutual exchange of resources. France’s moral duty was to ensure protection, liberty, fraternity and equality, and help the colonies to modernise. The Colonial Exhibition was to display the benefits of association, but rather than a relationship between equals, the reality was similar to reciprocal rights and duties of a feudal bond between master and vassal.
The government-sponsored exhibition, covering 110 hectares, divided into five sections, was open for six months, May-November 1931, and attended by eight million visitors. The French showcased each of their colonies and protectorates, while other colonial powers had their sites; Belgium, Denmark, USA, Netherlands, Portugal and Italy—the British however declined to attend. Catholic and Protestant missions constituted a separate section. Another two sections were about metropolitan France and an amusement park that included a zoo.
Instructions from Moscow
In November 1930, Moscow decided to react, and the Comintern instructed the PCF and the LAI to set up a counter-exhibition nominally by the LAI, but fully under Comintern control. Funds were allocated and Gopner placed in charge. The PCF received instructions which stated: ‘The Party has the duty to remember the crimes of colonisation, to denounce the misery of oppressed people and direct workers to support colonial independence movements. It is essential to prepare a counter-exhibition whose aim will be to show up everything that the imperial exhibition carefully hides. It will be an opportunity to reveal the real situation in the colonies and to encourage the many that come to the exhibition to support the struggles in the colonies.’
There was a huge gap between intention and execution. The counter-exhibition revealed the tension between the Comintern and PCF, and the autocratic nature of Moscow’s demands by first ignoring, then reluctantly, because of the weakness of the PCF and LAI, accepting the local situation. The PCF’s tactic to use the LAI as a front never fooled the police. The Comintern’s embarrassing compromise was to ask the Surrealists, the group of avant-garde artists led by André Breton whose Manifesto proclaimed itself a revolutionary movement, to organise the exhibition at the same time as Moscow condemned Surrealist art as bourgeois decadence. The exhibition also exposed Moscow’s contradictory colonial policy, which called for liberation but only under Comintern control. Directions from Moscow were detailed, peremptory and mandatory, control was rigid, and Comintern officials were sent to Paris, some incognito, for monitoring.
The counter-exhibition exposed the contradictions of Soviet policy which warned Communist parties against allying with bourgeois revolutionary parties, although temporary cooperation was reluctantly permitted. It called for immediate independence for colonial people, and an anti-colonial programme specifically for France was promulgated in 1930. The PCF was to cooperate with nationalist movements that included class enemies such as socialists, bourgeoisie, religious groups and intellectuals at the same time as establishing Communist cells under Comintern hegemony composed of agricultural and industrial workers who would be the liberation vanguard. The PCF was not to create new national revolutionary parties in the colonies, but use existing ones while creating communist cells, initially as offshoots of the PCF and later as independent parties, but independence had to be on Comintern terms, and through the Comintern-controlled groups. The PCF was invariably criticised for failing to unite the working classes of France with the colonial oppressed.
Tasks which the PCF was more competent to execute included selecting cadres among colonial subjects resident in France and establishing communist schools to educate them, campaigns of anti-colonial agitation and propaganda among colonial workers, and politicising black workers, seamen and soldiers. The PCF, a frail organisation in those years, was required to organise an exhibition which it was in no position to do, especially as Comintern policy forbade cooperation with other left-wing groups. By branding Socialists as bourgeois social fascists, and various Communists as Trotskyites, it alienated its members, whom it either expelled or lost after internal disputes. Membership of the PCF, at 78,282 in 1922, sank to 28,248 in 1930 and 25,319 in 1932. In legislative elections in 1928 the Communists returned only 14 members to the Assembly compared with 26 in 1924. The PCF was legally recognised, but suffered from the repressive attention of the right-wing government and the police, and fear of arrest severely curtailed the Party’s ability. Internal problems with Stalinisation and preoccupation with domestic problems took time and energy from anti-colonial tasks. In reality therefore, the PCF took little interest in colonial matters.
The PCF’s anti-colonial performance was considered so poor that the Comintern contemplated taking responsibility for agitation and propaganda away from it. Eugen Fried, a Czech Stalinist dispatched by the Comintern to France, wrote ‘in regard to the Colonial Exhibition, despite the decision, despite the fact that Trotskyites are organising meetings against the Exhibition, we are doing nothing, nothing, and nothing.’ Unrelenting criticism from Moscow to Paris in July 1931 included only one postscript about colonial work, saying activity should be intensified amongst black dockers and merchant seamen. In November 1932, after the counter-exhibition, the PCF received another reprimand from the Comintern for displaying ‘an intolerable indifference to concrete colonial work, at times even sabotaging it.’
League against Imperialism (LAI)
Plans for the counter-exhibition were moved from the PCF to the LAI, which had no viable structure, to be the front organisation. The LAI established itself in Paris in 1927 as semi-autonomous from Berlin. Subjected to Stalinisation, it voted in 1929 to become part of the International LAI. At that time, the French LAI had only 200 members and not even sufficient funds to publish a bulletin. Comintern archives show a letter to the PCF in 1930 that said ‘there is no point in having an organisation which exists just on paper, and from an organisational viewpoint the League does not exist.’ To reorganise the LAI the Comintern sent Bohumil Smeral and later Mechnet Schafik alias Bekar Ferdi to Paris. Smeral reported that the LAI had found one room in the premises of the Internationale Arbeiterhilfe and had plans to issue membership cards and to publish Counter-Imperialism with an expected circulation of 30,000 copies. In practice, the LAI never managed to publish more than two numbers.
The Comintern suspected PCF resistance, and colonial questions were always last on the agenda by which time members were too tired to take any interest. Roger Gaillard, in charge of the LAI’s colonial department, was an ineffectual novice. There were strained relations even within the unit, with representatives from colonies distrusting white comrades because the PCF treated the colonials as second-class citizens only suitable for menial tasks.
The Comintern tried to enlist the PCF to strengthen the Paris LAI to organise the counter-exhibition and Gaillard agreed, but had no idea how to proceed, complaining that he lacked precise instructions and that the PCF was short of manpower. Concern was raised that the French authorities might confiscate material sent for the exhibition and a total ban was possible.
The PCF hoped to divert attention from itself by using the LAI. It believed that if it fronted the exhibition, a ban would result; to avoid this, the LAI should organise it with the PCF support though the Party would keep its distance. The PCF’s colonial department would organise articles in l’Humanité, factory and union newsletters, and enlist new members for the LAI. But the use of the LAI never hoodwinked the police; the exhibition was to be in the Soviet Pavilion belonging to the General Confederation of Trade Unions (CGTU): it had a bust of Lenin in the entrance and a room dedicated to Stalin and the Five Year Plan—there could hardly be any doubt it was PCF-inspired. Given that this ruse to avoid a ban and confiscation was so thin, the real reason for using the LAI were to comply with Comintern policy to activate other front organisations, and using LAI was a way to avoid the straightjacket of the class-against-class policy, the Comintern having given LAI some discretion in this regard. Other reasons related to foreign policy; the 1930 Franco-Soviet trade dispute strained bilateral relations, with France accusing the Soviet Union of dumping. Import restrictions on five Soviet products were imposed and the Soviets reduced their purchases from France. Nevertheless, putting aside France’s insistence that improvement in relations depended on the payment of Tsarist debts to France, negotiations started in March 1931 with a draft conciliation convention, which inter alia, forbade interference in domestic affairs by the other party, a condition that might have been breached if the PCF launched an anti-colonial exhibition to counter the official one lauding French overseas policies. Moreover, relations between the Soviet top brass and the Comintern were poor; Maxim Litvinov, Foreign Affairs Commissar, was disparaging and Stalin harboured a low opinion, calling it a lavochka or corner shop. It suited Moscow at the time to snub the Comintern at a distance by using the LAI. Another reason was that Fried, apprehending that the exhibition would be a failure, was happy to divert responsibly to the LAI. Several units of the PCF in the colonies objected to Comintern instructions, and using the LAI could circumvent these difficulties.
Responding to the Comintern’s instructions, PCF activity concentrated on two aspects. The first to mobilise dockers and seamen, navvies, restaurant workers and students to protest against harsh colonial treatment, deportations and executions, with demonstrations to stop the exploitation of ‘natives’ sent to France. The Indo-Chinese were the most committed in this cause but their numbers were small: in 1932, only 695 students and 870 seamen. The second aspect was the circulation of pamphlets to expose the iniquities inflicted by France on its colonies. Twenty thousand copies were printed and the PCF used these numbers as evidence of its hard work. While the demonstrations and anti-colonial literature had little impact on the public, it did on the police, who regarded them as subversive and potentially disruptive.
Although PCF agitation covered only a small number of persons from colonies living in France, the police regarded it a serious threat, overestimating its impact; to that extent, the agitation was successful. The volume of police reports is extensive: there are 81.8 metres of documents in the French archives on surveillance of Communist anti-colonial activities, and opposition to French involvement in the Moroccan Rif War and against punishment of the Yen Bay mutineers placed the Colonial Ministry on the defensive. Undercover agents reported on preparations for the counter-exhibition and a report of February 1931 gives an indication of police concern:
The Colonial Exhibition will be the pretext for the PCF and its subsidiary the CGTU to launch a vast campaign of agitation not only in the colonies but above all among colonials living in France and the mass of French workers. The colonial sections of the PCF and the CGTU are concentrating on bringing workers to Paris to protest at the opening of the Exhibition and whenever possible during the months while it is open. We know that a significant amount of propaganda material, posters, tracts and flyers is being prepared for circulation before and during the exhibition.
By over-reacting, the authorities did some of the PCF’s work for it and it suited the authorities, through ignorance or design, to conflate nationalist movements in the colonies with Communism and criminality. In short, the Comintern issued directives; the PCF was weak and distracted, the LAI hardly existed, while the police took a serious interest in the anti-colonial activities.
The Surrealists: Politically but not culturally attached to the Communist Party
Surrealist anti-colonial credentials were impeccable, despite accusations that they were publicity-seeking agitators and opportunists; their various tracts such as Don’t Visit the Colonial Exhibition railed against deportation of the Vietnamese, exploitation of colonies to fill the vaults of the French Central Bank, and the complicity of administrators, politicians, churchmen and industry in the repugnant idea of a Greater France. The empire’s colonial subjects were the allies of the world proletariat; it was pointless to distinguish between good and bad colonialism. Another pamphlet First Account of the Colonial Exhibition was published after a fire that destroyed the Dutch East Indies pavilion; the arrogance of the West considered its art superior to the native artefacts destroyed in that fire. The ‘savage’ was the justification for colonialism’s civilising mission, whereas for the Surrealists the savage was the superior civilisation.
The high point of Surrealist relationship with the PCF was in 1930. The Soviet Writers Union asked Surrealist poet André Breton what his position would be if imperialists declared war on the Soviet Union. Breton and fellow poet Louis Aragon replied that their skills were at the disposal of the Soviets. Aragon and journalist Georges Sadoul attended the Kharkov Congress of the Revolutionary Writers but relations then went downhill. In the Soviet Union, they undertook to submit all Surrealist writing for approval to the Party and uproar from fellow-Surrealists confronted them on return to France. By 1932, Surrealist relationships both with each other and the PCF had become so fractious that some resigned from the Party and others were expelled. The Surrealists were wary of exploitation of their art for the benefit of Communism, while the Communists were wary at being used by the Surrealists for publicity rather than submitting to the dogma. In truth, the Surrealists were less interested than the Communists in building a new world—Surrealism was a movement of protest and not millenarian. Surrealists considered themselves the sole arbiters of what constituted revolutionary art, rejecting dictates from Communist functionaries they deemed unqualified. By 1931, the Communist doctrine was that art had to be proletarian, expressed as social realism, and that Surrealism should conform to this line. This was anathema to the Surrealists who declared, ‘Art cannot express the aspirations of the working class.’
Underlying this friction was the Communist class mistrust of Surrealism which it denounced as self-indulgent bourgeois intellectuality. The PCF assigned Breton to a cell of gas workers to teach him a proletarian lesson, and Communist writer Ilya Ehrenberg writing in 1933 said, ‘Surrealists were bourgeois decadents, fanatics of idleness and advocates of onanism, pederasty, fetishism, exhibitionism, even sodomy.’ Despite these fundamental disagreements, the CPF asked the Surrealists to arrange the counter-exhibition. That they accepted to do so under the banner of the LAI, an organisation whose pacifism they despised, was purely opportunistic. The Comintern’s instructions for mounting it were ambitious; the counter-exhibition was to start in May 1931 and run concurrently with the official Colonial Exhibition. Jacques Doriot, head of the Colonial unit of the PCF, complained that he was burdened with dealing with strikes, unemployment and reorganising the LAI, so by the time the Colonial Exhibition opened, he had done nothing apart from appointing a management committee,. The LAI from Berlin was more active; it requested anti-imperialists for items to display at the counter-exhibition, and the Moscow Museum of the Revolution for advice on curating the exhibition. A letter from the LAI records ‘Energetic intervention is required in Paris so that work on the exhibition can really be started. We must send our representative to Paris to stay at least one month to get things going.’
A Comintern report of May 1931 entrusted the exhibition to three colleagues, identified as G, H and F, probably Gaillard, Herclet and Fontenay. They had no help, G was ill, there was no exhibition hall, insufficient funding and lack of exhibits. The Comintern finally recognised that its original plan could not work and the PCF decided on a small exhibition due to lack of staff and funds, though rebukes from Moscow continued; a letter to the LAI and PCF noted that the Comintern ‘is glad that finally you are concerning yourselves seriously with the preparation for the counter-exhibition. It must open on June 15 at the latest. The Secretariat agrees the choice of exhibition pavilion.’ It is unclear which pavilion is being referenced, because according to the police, the PCF had not found a site. It was impossible for the exhibition to be mounted by mid-June, and by July it was obvious that neither the PCF nor LAI could undertake the task. It would have been sensible then to abandon the project but this decision had to come from Moscow. Leon Werth, an LAI member appointed for the exhibition, questioned whether the public would regard the exhibition as ‘ridiculous given its smallness and poverty’ but there was still no move from Moscow to cancel it. With the PCF lacking enthusiasm, only the Surrealists were willing to take it on.
Amazingly, there is no reference to Surrealist involvement in the archives of either the PCF or the Comintern: the Communist Party did not want its records compromised by association with a group that the Party line denounced. Moscow was nevertheless aware through its delegates, some incognito, of Surrealist involvement. L’Humanité ignored the Surrealist participation while attacking them for supporting art for art’s sake. The only reference in Comintern archives is a note on Aragon’s personal file dated February 1932 in which Aragon lists among his responsibilities an exhibition titled The Truth about the Colonies. This file, unusually thin with only 20 documents, does not contain the customary autobiography required of all Party members.
The absence of archival evidence renders the record of Surrealist involvement reliant on the autobiographies of André Thirion and Louis Aragon. Thirion states that Alfred Kurella, head of Agitprop in Berlin, was troubled by the PCF’s absence of reaction to government propaganda about the official Colonial Exhibition:
The Surrealists were almost the only ones who had displayed an intelligent hostility to the exhibition and had registered their disgust through specific pamphlets, so why not do something more meaningful? What about a counter-exhibition? I will put the Soviet pavilion at your disposal and allocate some funds. I appoint you to manage the project, you will represent the LAI, and you sort it out with your friends.
Thirion says he accepted because it enhanced his standing as a militant with the Party. Not that it helped; the PCF expelled him later for indiscipline and calumny. The accounts submitted by Gaillard do not specify whether the Surrealists were paid, though there was a budget for salaries and materials. Thirion divided the work; Aragon for culture, Sadoul for proselytising and himself for Leninist ideology. Aragon provides a different version, claiming he agreed with CGTU to organise an anti-colonial exhibition, the core of which would be the largest display of African, Oceanic and native American sculpture ever seen in Paris, which he assembled with other Surrealists who, it seems, had put their differences aside during the exhibition. Sculptures were lent by Breton, poet Paul Éluard, author Tristan Tzara, Sadoul and art dealers, one of whom, Charles Ratton, also lent pieces to the Colonial Exhibition. It was incongruous that the Surrealists arranged the exhibition in the name of the LAI, when its members were targets of Surrealist scorn, denigrated as tame pacifists.
The Surrealists disagreed about the time needed to mount the exhibition. L’Humanité in July announced that the counter-exhibition was being organised at full speed, and the Anti-Imperialist Review that the PCF addressed itself energetically to the scheme, but Aragon claimed in L’International de l’Enseignement he had only ten days to organise the display. The exhibition finally opened on September 14th, four-and-a-half months after the inauguration of the official International Exhibition, and stayed open until February 1932.
The PCF and Surrealists had to be satisfied with only 325 square metres in the Soviet Pavilion, a prefabricated constructivist structure on two floors designed for the 1925 Exhibition of Decorative Art that had been shipped from Russia and installed at 12 Avenue Mathurin-Moreau. L’Humanité in October made an apology for the size of the exhibition and lack of pre-publicity. On the ground floor, posters and photographs displayed the cruelty of colonial war, forced labour, exploitation of natives and the famine and misery produced by colonialism. The second floor extolled the virtues of socialist polity enjoyed by the nationalities in the USSR and facts about the success of the Five Year Plan, while another room displayed native art alongside Christian ‘fétishes’ to show how missionaries were adulterating indigenous art.
Critics felt the exhibition amateurish; to forestall Comintern criticism, Aragon attributed this to lack of time and money. The political message of the exhibition reflected the confusion of Communist policy on colonial independence; apart from Lenin’s slogans, there was no appeal for colonial independence although this was the stated aim of the LAI. The title Truth About the Colonies did not clarify whether colonies should be given independence or whether colonialism’s abuses should be reformed, which was the line of the Socialists. The class-against-class doctrine required the Comintern to oppose Maghreb nationalist movements as bourgeois and pan-Islamist, and when the 1933 declaration by Étoile Nord Africaine called for Algerian independence, the PCF’s position was that Algeria was not ready for it. The PCF’s colonial manifesto had called for the immediate liberation of all French colonies, but the Comintern could not contemplate an independent Algeria under a party that did not obey Moscow.
The Comintern’s colonial policy was confused, its project for the counter-exhibition over-ambitious given the feeble state of the PCF and LAI, and local circumstances obliged it towards an uncomfortable compromise with the Surrealists. Moscow’s directives had to be scaled down; it was embarrassed that circumstances had brought in the Surrealists and later had to erase them from its records. The relationship between the Comintern and the PCF was fractious. Moscow was an adamant taskmaster and there was no consideration given to abandoning the project. The Comintern issued the PCF instructions which the latter had to obey despite apathy and incapacity. These instructions were inconsistent and confused and the PCF took the blame for their bad implementation; the messages from Moscow largely consisted of criticisms and demands, confirming the later description by two historians of the Comintern: ‘The words it chose and the terms used were so outrageous that they resembled directives to a district Party committee rather than friendly messages of advice.’ The PCF resorted to passive resistance, accepting instructions but performing half-heartedly, an indication that not all the Comintern’s partners were completely bolshevised. The autonomy of the PCF was more circumscribed than historians suggest, but greater than the totalitarian thesis; the Comintern’s dictatorial ambition never achieved control though it prevented the PCF from acting autonomously.
The second conclusion is that the counter-exhibition reveals the deceptions of the Communist movement. The Comintern censored its records because it considered the exhibition a failure. In a report of November 1931, a Parisian police undercover agent described the exhibition ‘a real fiasco.’ In quantitative terms, this was so. Gaillard’s letter to the LAI in December 1931 admitted that the exhibition attracted only 4,266 visitors and 176 new members joined the LAI and no mass movement of industrial workers and farm labourers was mobilised. The Comintern never admitted to mistakes, and blamed the PCF by issuing it with a different plan for anti-colonial activity in the following year. This plan, clearly alluding to the exhibition, accused the PCF and CGTU of ‘an intolerable indifference to the concrete tasks incumbent on them that at times even sabotage the colonial work. The LAI exists above all on paper.’ The deletion of references to Surrealist participation is a result of Comintern embarrassment and even Gaillard’s debriefing report does not mention it. By suppressing the truth, the Comintern prolonged its sterile policy of class-against-class.
The third conclusion is that the exhibition had indirect and longer-term successes. The counter-exhibition was the first open challenge that questioned the French colonial empire and exposed its atrocities. It countered the idea that exhibitions were the exclusive preserve of governments to propagate national achievements. An immediate successor was the Glasgow anti-imperial exhibition staged by the Independent Labour Party in 1938. The counter-exhibition became the forerunner of a series of exhibitions of opposition to oppression in which the State, previously silent, itself eventually participated. Moreover, while the Soviet Union excoriated its art, the Surrealist display at the counter-exhibition, despite some later criticism for being Eurocentric, affirmed that indigenous art of the colonies required appreciation. It changed Western understanding of colonial cultures to the extent that the Louvre, previously an exclusive shrine of Western art, opened a non-Western wing to exhibit indigenous art forms.
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