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Part Three


As my fateful link with Ian Hamilton Finlay via the French Ministry of Culture had made clear, there seemed to be something else at play beyond reactions to “American Cultural Imperialism.” It was quite an eye-opener to discover that I was not the only artist of foreign origins, let alone of Jewish heritage, to face the guillotine of artistic suppression, when France was in the throes of preparing for the big party of 1989 by commissioning public artworks coined, “Des Grands Travaux et du Bicentenaire” (The Great Works of the Bicentennial). Among them were also Chinese-American architect, I. M. Pei and Louis Mitelberg, who was born in Poland to a Jewish family.

I met Mitelberg’s wife, Zuka, a painter, who was born in Los Angeles, when she visited her native home in 1989. My lasting memory of her is in the form of a chilling message she left on my phone answering machine prior to returning to Paris following an exhibition of her paintings in LA:

“Forget the French,” she said. “You will only hurt yourself.”

Perhaps I should have listened to my French friend, Stephane, long ago, and plastered the map of the great city of Paris with banal pop symbols of “American Cultural Imperialism.”

In each instance of suppression, a justification was required in the form of trumped-up excuses related to historical embarrassments and sensitivities. Mitelberg’s tale of being commissioned by the French Ministry of Culture to execute a public statue is a perfect case in point. Oddly ironic given my strange destiny, in retrospect, he left Poland to live in Paris in 1938 to study architecture, which likely saved his life from the genocide taking place in his homeland. Half of a century later, he chose to make a statue of Alfred Dreyfus. On June 9, 1988, the Los Angeles Times published a story, “Paris Finally Finds a Place for Dreyfus Statue.” The article described troubles that ensued in placing the statue, making it clear that what is known as The Dreyfus Affair of a century earlier, remains a deep wound in French history:

The conservative strait-laced Dreyfus, an innocent victim, suddenly found himself a symbol of hate and injustice in 1894 when the army high command falsely accused and convicted him of passing military secrets to the Germans. The 35-year-old officer, was stripped of his rank and sent to a prison on Devil’s Island in French Guiana.

Originally the statue was to stand on the grounds of the Ecole Militaire, the military academy where Dreyfus was stripped of his rank after the court-martial. But the army rejected the monument. For some officers, the statue would have been too much of a reminder of old military shame. (click here for the entire story)

The Dreyfus Affair, which was perpetuated by the press, divided French society. The fact that Dreyfus was Jewish was at the heart of the controversy.

Whereas Mitelberg’s Dreyfus Statue was finally placed, but not where originally planned, I. M. Pei’s glass pyramid at The Louvre would have never been completed had President Mitterrand not waved his monarchial wand shortly after the end of cohabitation. From the September 1989 edition of Vanity Fair magazine:

Although the Louvre seemed initially like yet another of the prestige plums he has been so adept at pulling out through the years, it turned into a nightmare of undreamed-of-proportions. The French right-wing waged a nasty campaign to block the socialist president’s scheme to alter this central symbol of French culture [The Louvre], and I. M. Pei got caught in the crossfire. Friends and colleagues of the architect concur that this was the worst experience in Pei’s professional life…Mitterrand’s amazing political comeback in the 1988 election, finally turned the tide in the Battle for the Pyramid.

Finlay, who died in 2006, was surely rolling in his grave when New York artist, Jeff Koons, was given a retrospective exhibition at the Versailles Gardens two decades after Finlay’s Versailles garden project for the French Bicentennial had been censored. With respect to Jack Lang’s assault on “American Cultural Imperialism,” no living artist’s work better reflects the vacuousness of American pop culture than Koons, who has transformed chrome-plated bunny rabbit and doggie balloons into ostentatious children’s toys for wealthy adults’ playgrounds.

Perhaps I should have listened to my French friend, Stephane, long ago, and plastered the map of the great city of Paris with banal pop symbols of “American Cultural Imperialism.” In 1992, a decade after “Les routes de La Grande Odalisque (The Large Brain)” was first exhibited in my private studio in downtown, LA, British artist, Simon Patterson, did exactly that with a large lithograph depicting the London Underground. A copy of it is in the permanent collection of London’s Tate Gallery. 

Note: In the background is a small stained glass artwork I made in 1986, the black and white image a laminated photocopy on transparent acetate, which I surrounded by a graphic outline of the city of Paris. The image is of a board game made in 1898 that illustrates the anti-Semitic events and key players in the story of the Dreyfus Affair. The French text says, “The Rules of the Game of the Dreyfus Affair and of the Truth.” The Rules of the Game is also the title of Jean Francois Renoir’s classic 1939 film, which satirized the French aristocracy and was banned by the French government for fear of destabilizing the country during WWII. Renoir subsequently fled to Hollywood in 1940. His 1937 film, The Grand Illusion, that like The Rules of the Game is considered today to be one of the greatest films ever made, is paid homage in the title of my artwork that was also made in 1986, “The Routes of the Grand Illusion (Shooting Star Triptik.)

Click here for Part Four: Shipwrecked in Barcelona