The historical conditions pertaining after World War II allowed social and literary contexts for art practice in France radically different from increasingly dominant American paradigms. Memories of the Occupation, collaborationist guilt and, later, difficulties with decolonization in Algeria and then Vietnam all acted as contexts for a specific kind of cultural production. The parallel paths traced by Sartre, Genet and Giacometti typify the association of art practice with the literary and the philosophical which has characterized the French cultural scene since the war.
This difference of approach, which from the 1960s became entrenched through an increasing insistence upon 'theory as model' in art practice, has led to difficulties in assimilating French contemporary art practice into the dominant 'Modernist' aesthetic canon, which may be characterized as both apolitical and predominantly abstract. This modernist canon was, after the war, largely American, and to a certain extent this justifies French fears of 'Anglo-Saxon' cultural and economic colonization.
It should be noted that there is a certain difficulty in discussing contemporary French art practice under the heading 'painting', as from about 1960 it becomes almost impossible to distinguish between painting, sculpture and installation, these boundaries being first attacked and then effaced. Any selection of 'significant' artists is therefore subjective; it is dependent upon the critical paradigms used to establish criteria for judgement and as such is ultimately arbitrary.
Much of the art production in the immediate postwar period has the war as its referent, if not its subject. Anti-humanist views became plausible in a world which had demonstrated the smallness of human life. The need to renegotiate the position of mankind in relation to the new world order, and the moral duty of témoignage (bearing witness), encouraged an initial return to figuration.
The association of Alberto Giacometti's postwar work with existentialism is unavoidable. The most direct links are demonstrated by his portrait of Jean Genet, and by Genet's references to Jean-Paul Sartre in his text L'Atelier de Giacometti (Giacometti's Workshop), which describes the process of making the portrait. Genet's text insists upon the fragility, isolation and desperation implicit in Giacometti's practice as well as its legibility in the resultant oeuvre.
Wols is also often associated with Sartre, who defended his late paintings as 'inhuman' in their refusal of all organic or geometric forms. His evocative but non-figurative paintings were considered in the light of 'automatism'. That the artist had been incarcerated during the Occupation was seen as deepening his alienation. The late works have also been claimed as precursors for art informel.
Jean Fautrier (1898-1964) is perhaps best remembered for his Otages series of 1945. He had been staying at the Châtenay-Malabry