Max Ernst, Jacqueline Lamba, Andre Masson, Andre Breton, Varian Fry.
After the fall of Paris in June 1940, thousands of artists and
intellectuals fled the city, most heading south. In this exodus the city
of Marseilles figured prominently. It was about as far south in France
as one could get, it was a port city, and it was at least reasonably
close to the Spanish border — all important considerations for those
who wished to elude the Nazis or possibly get out of the country. For
many, this was the second time they had fled fascist evil — having
originally come to France as a safe haven in the 1930s when the dark
shadow of Hitler began to rise, as well as some escaping the Stalinist
purges or Franco.
When Marshal Petain signed the armistice with Germany in July 1940
it included Article 19, in which the Vichy government agreed to the
detainment of any German expatriate, with the possibility of holding
them in interment camps in France or sending them back to Germany.
But its reach turned out to be much more broad than German citizens
or ex-citizens. It also effectively included Austrians, Hungarians,
Czechoslovakians, Russians and English, as well as outspoken communists,
anti-fascists or really anyone who the Third Reich — or the Vichy
government — wished to control. The language used by the governments
reflected their intent: nondesirables, degenerates. The die was cast.
And there was little recourse for thousands of refugees other than
to hide or try to escape the country. Some, such as Max Ernst, suffered
twofold — having been detained as a German in an internment camp by
France at the initial stages of the war, released, but now with Article 19
again in fear of ending up in another and possibly more sinister camp —
one of those in Germany or Poland.
But, in all of this, there was a breath of life. An old decrepit villa
became a haven.
"The Surrealists were perhaps the most visible group of artists in
Marseille, creating something of a world of their own in a crumbling
mansion called Villa Air-Bel, outside the city….With its eighteen
bedrooms, once elegant salons and big kitchen, Villa Air-Bel proved
ideal…In the months that followed [it] was turned into something of a
Surrealist commune, with Breton as the presiding guru." (Riding 2010)
It was Plato's Symposium come to life, almost a Who's Who of the
Surrealist movement. Visitors or residents to the Ville Air-Bel included
Wilfredo Lam, Andre Masson, Max Ernst, Jacques Lipchitz, Benjamin
Peret, Remedios Varo, Roberto Matta, Jean Arp, Marcel Duchamp,
Jacqueline Lamba, and numerous others.
"We cheated the anxieties of the hour as best we could" said Breton
much later. The artists continued to work on their own projects, or
sometimes on collaborative ones organized by Breton. These projects
included a set of playing cards now known as the Jeu de Marseilles.
In another project, Breton used a "collection of old magazines, colored
papers, pasted chalks, scissors and pastepots and everybody would make
montages…At the end of the evening Andre would decide who had done the
best work, crying formidable! sensationnel! or invraisemblable! at each
drawing or cut." (Riding 2010)
Help for these artists, as well as several thousand others, came from an
unexpected source. No sooner than Hitler had walked in front of the
Eiffel Tower a young American, Varian Fry, arrived in Marseilles and
set up what would eventually be known as the Centre American de Secours
or CAS. This was truly a heroic story. Within a year or so, with the help
of the CAS and a bit of luck, most all of the artists had escaped the country.
The drawings for the Jeu de Marseilles deck are currently displayed at
the Musee Cantini in Marseilles. Unfortunately, the Villa Air-Bel was
torn down in 1970, with only the front pillars and a guest house
2010 And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris. New
York: Random House.