The Launching of American Art in Postwar France: Jean Cassou and the Musée National d'Art Moderne

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Since the 1970s numerous scholars have focused on the role of the Museum of Modern Art in the international promotion of American art during the cold war. Many of these studies share the view that MoMA sought to elevate the American cultural reputation in Europe by sending abroad regular exhibitions of modern art; to advance the position of the United States relative to the Soviets; and to convince the Europeans of the legitimacy of the United States as the new leader of Western civilization in the postwar era. To date, however, there has been far less analysis of the stance of the French to the launching of American art in Europe. One prominent view holds that the Parisian art world war weakened and divided culturally prompted only a response of passive, disdainful resistance. By contrast, this paper reexamines the dynamic of cultural exchange between Paris and New York during the early 1950s. It focuses on the central role played by the Musée National d'Art Moderne in launching American art, and, in particular, the museum’s director, Jean Cassou, who initiated the relationship with MoMA, and figured prominently in MoMA’s presentation of modern American art to French audiences. I argue that a window of opportunity opened for the Americans to exhibit in Paris as a result of the French director’s complementary aesthetic, political, and institutional agendas, which were driven by Cassou’s belief in the benefits of cultural hybridity. Using as a case study 12 Modern American Painters and Sculptors, the first of a series of exhibitions that would change the way in which Europeans viewed American art, this essay addresses Cassou’s motives for pursuing the relationship with MoMA, and the ramifications of this association for the emerging American cultural image in Paris.
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McDonald, Gay
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