80 Years of France-Amérique

Calder, an Artist Fighting for Free France

In 1942, the American sculptor signed up for the Marine Corps, only to see his application rejected. Instead, he participated in World War II through his art, working for Free France in Connecticut, New York City, and Washington D.C. His creations included an impressive mobile adorned with three shapes sporting the colors of the French flag and a Cross of Lorraine – the symbol of General de Gaulle. This was just one of several acts of political activism undertaken by this “adopted Frenchman.”
Calder and his Cirque Calder (1926-1930), Paris, 1930. © 2023 Calder Foundation, New York/Artists Rights Society, New York; photo by George Hoyningen-Huene

At the Hôtel des Invalides in Paris, each visitor who steps into the Historial Charles de Gaulle seems to create a new work of art. The slightest breeze causes three wooden forms in red, white, and blue to flutter, their shadows dancing across the stone walls. A seven-foot mobile combines these three multicolored shapes with an immense, yellow Cross of Lorraine, all offset with five pieces of black metal – an allegory of totalitarianism. In this exhibition space dedicated to the founder of Free France, Alexander Calder’s France Forever welcomes curious passersby with a powerful symbol of resistance.

Produced in 1942, the sculpture was acquired two years later by Jean Davidson, the French correspondent for the Agence France-Presse in Washington D.C. It crossed the Atlantic for the first time in 1989 for the Calder intime exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, and was later recognized as a major heritage piece by the French government. Through the sponsorship of Daniel Cordier, a leading Resistance fighter turned gallerist, and thanks to the help of the CIC bank, the French capital’s Musée de l’Armée bought it in 2020 for six million euros. According to the museum, the mobile serves as “a testament to the commitment of a great American artist, a supporter of freedom and a lover of France, at the darkest moment of the war.”

Alexander Calder, France Forever, 1942. © Anne-Sylvaine Marre-Noël/Musée de l’Armée, Paris/Dist. RMN-Grand Palais © 2023 Calder Foundation, New York/Artists Rights Society, New York

Calder, an Adopted Parisian

The future artist was born in 1898 and grew up in Pennsylvania, Arizona, and California. His mother had trained as a painter at the Académie Julian and the Sorbonne, and passed down her love of France to him. From his sculptor father, he inherited a passion for three-dimensional art. Even as a little boy, Calder worked with wood, metal, and cardboard to make unusual, articulated objects. After completing an engineering degree in New Jersey, the young man studied drawing at the Art Students League in Manhattan, before setting off for Paris to attend the Académie de la Grande Chaumière.

In his first studio – a hotel room in Montparnasse, which he moved into in 1926 – the sculptor learned to master art in movement, a subject that fascinated him. While there, he made a wire figure inspired by dancer Josephine Baker. This connection to his native America and first “drawing in space” projected interplaying shadows and light onto the walls. Before long, Calder was rubbing shoulders with the avant-garde French art scene, including Fernand Léger, Piet Mondrian, and Marcel Duchamp. He eventually devoted himself entirely to a new project involving kinetic sculptures, combining his interest in salvaged objects, his passion for movement, and his talents as a sculptor. In his journal, the artist exclaimed in French: “Que ça bouge !” (It shall move!)

In 1931, Calder finished the first of his delicate works intertwining painted wood and metal, connected with wire and motorized. While visiting his new studio at 14 Rue de la Colonie, in the 13th arrondissement, Marcel Duchamp nicknamed them “mobiles” – a nod to the term’s dual meaning in French, referring to both “movement” and “motive” or “reason.” Calder exhibited them for the very first time at the Galerie Vignon in February 1932.

Artist, Antifascist

Horrified by the rise of fascism, Calder and his wife Louisa left Europe the following year. Accompanied by French painter Jean Hélion, the couple boarded the Manhattan liner and set sail for New York City. Upon arriving, they moved to Roxbury, Connecticut, and restored an 18th-century farmhouse to include a vast atelier. Calder adapted his work to this new scale and setting, and installed large-scale structures in Pierre Matisse’s New York gallery on Madison Avenue in April 1934. Almost ten years later, France-Amérique’s first issue praised the artist’s mobiles, describing them as “highly elegant and refined.”

On April 26, 1937, the German and Italian air forces bombed the city of Guernica. To condemn the fascist attack, the architect Josep Lluís Sert commissioned Calder to make a fountain for the Spanish pavilion at the Paris Exposition Internationale. Exhibited alongside Picasso’s renowned painting Guernica and an anti-war mural by Miró, Calder’s Mercury Fountain comprised a mobile balanced over a basin containing 40 gallons of liquid mercury – a tribute to the resistance effort of the miners of Almadén, who had fought against Franco’s troops.

When World War II broke out, the sculptor drew on his experience as an artist to develop new camouflage techniques, and even learned about art therapy to care for the wounded. After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Calder applied to join the Marine Corps but was rejected. Refusing to take no for an answer, he chose to contribute to the war effort through art. Calder also made use of his contacts to bring artists under threat in Europe to the United States, including Marc Chagall, Yves Tanguy, and Fernand Léger.

In Roxbury, the Calders’ farmhouse became a base for exiled artists, and the couple did everything to introduce them to and set them up in American art circles. But much like the wider French community in the United States, these new refugees clashed on ideology. Some figures, including André Breton, refused to engage in political squabbles, frightened by the nationalist stance of Gaullist groups in New York. There was no doubt in Calder’s mind, however. He wholeheartedly supported Free France, bringing Fernand Léger and André Masson with him into the “exiled Resistance.”

Calder with his Mercury Fountain at the Paris Exposition Internationale, 1937. © 2023 Calder Foundation, New York/Artists Rights Society, New York; photo by Hugo P. Herdeg © Christian Herdeg

Under the Banner of the Cross of Lorraine

Calder drew on his reputation to support the France Forever movement. Founded in the summer of 1940, and led by French-American industrialist Eugène Houdry, this Free French committee in the United States united all those who refused the armistice signed with Germany, most of whom were American Francophiles. By 1942, more than 50,000 members spanned 29 chapters and committees from New York City to California. Propaganda was the main objective of France Forever. The organization endeavored to convince U.S. public opinion, which was mostly in favor of the Vichy regime, to support General de Gaulle. France Forever also sought to persuade the American government to finance the Free French war effort.

Even before the United States entered the war, Calder started working for the Gaullist cause. He was brought on board by his friend Paul Nelson, a French-American architect, World War I veteran from the La Fayette Escadrille, and president of the Washington D.C. France Forever committee. In the fall of 1942, the Francophile sculptor was the only American artist to take part in an exhibition-auction in support of the Fighting French in the U.S. capital. As part of the event, he donated several pieces of his jewelry – the equivalent of 1,200 dollars – and his Cross of Lorraine mobile. This eclectic piece – made with wood, sheet metal, wire, and string – was an embodiment of France which, despite its limited resources, would do everything in its power to unite its troops and finally free the nation.

In the spring of 1944, France Forever hosted an exclusive exhibition for Calder in Washington D.C. On this occasion, France-Amérique was quick to remind the public of his early contributions to the Fighting French, who were still struggling to gain recognition in the United States. During the event, held to support the French Resistance a few weeks before the Normandy landings, the artist presented his Cirque Calder. Heading up a troupe of 200 characters and automatons made with wire and pieces of cloth, all set to music and sound effects, Calder gave two-hour “performances” similar to the ones that had built his reputation in Paris in the 1920s. He also exhibited a vast selection of jewelry which fascinated visitors, including his V for Victory brooch, a silver mobile just a few inches wide.

A Lifetime Commitment

After the war, Calder moved to Saché, in Touraine, and received the Légion d’Honneur in March 1968. His comrade-in-arms, Henri Hoppenot, the French ambassador to the United Nations and former delegate to de Gaulle in Washington D.C., awarded him the medal and spoke the following words: “Calder of Connecticut, Calder of Paris, dear Calder, with us always during our days of exile…” As chance would have it, on the day of his death, November 11, 1976, France-Amérique announced the opening of the Calder’s Universe retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York. “Undeniably,” concluded the article, “Calder is one of the great masters of contemporary fine art.”

“The watchmaker of the wind,” to borrow an expression from poet Jacques Prévert, is no longer with us, but his art lives on. There are almost 70 of Calder’s outdoor works on public view in the United States, and around 20 in France. Not to mention the France Forever mobile, which has found its rightful place at the Musée de l’Armée in Paris. Next year, it will be the centerpiece of an exhibition on the contributions of artists to Free France during World War II. A fitting tribute for this expression of American love for France.

The Symbolism of the Cross of Lorraine

In July 1940 in London, on the recommendation from Vice-Admiral Emile Muselier, the Cross of Lorraine became the official symbol of Free France – and by association, that of General de Gaulle and his supporters in occupied France. What better than the Cross of Lorraine to stand up to the Nazi swastika? Lorraine was the birthplace of Joan of Arc, a region annexed by Germany from 1871 to 1918, and again in 1940. The territory had long been synonymous with fighting invaders, taking revenge, and clinging to hope. In its first issue, published on May 23, 1943, France-Amérique made the following promise to its readers: “Frankly and proudly, we will continue to proclaim that our doctrine is that of the Cross of Lorraine, of the French Resistance, of the Resistance, always and forever.”

Marcel Vertès, Au drapeau ! (“To the Flag!”), 1943. © France-Amérique

France-Amérique, a Refuge for Artists in the Resistance

Throughout the war, activist creatives led the charge on the pages of France-Amérique. A caricature by Polish artist Arthur Szyk, who arrived in New York City in 1940, featured on the cover of the first issue on May 23, 1943. Latvian illustrator Ezekiel Schloss, another refugee, put the news into sketches. Week after week, he insulted the Vichy regime, condemned the crimes committed by the German army, and applauded Allied victories. American artist Jo Davidson, a supporter of Free France, created a sculpture in memory of destroyed European cities called Pour que nous n’oublions pas (“So We Won’t Forget”) and a bust of de Gaulle. Both works were printed in our newspaper. Painter Abraham Rattner, another Francophile American, produced a portrait of the General called Le choix de la nation (“The Choice of the Nation”). Last but not least, Hungarian illustrator Marcel Vertès, who worked with Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar in Paris before the war, drew a Marianne breaking her chains, adorned with the Cross of Lorraine. This powerful symbol was on the front page of the issue published on June 20, 1943, before decorating the France-Amérique offices on Fifth Avenue.

Article published in the June 2023 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.