Last month I visited the Ben Uri exhibition on Smith Square,
Westminster. The exhibition was ‘Art Exit: 1939 A Very Different Europe’. The
aim of this exhibition was to shed a light on the experiences of those who were
vilified in Europe 80 years ago.Walking through this exhibition, one is able to
get a sense of the sheer fear and anguish that some of these artists, who were
fleeing oppression, felt at this time.
Whilst all of the pieces were both touching and
thought-provoking in their own right, the painting that intrigued me the most
was “Refugees” by Josef Herman.
Herman was born in Warsaw, Poland. He was forced to flee his native land in 1938 due to the rising Nazi oppression of Jews. After staying in France for two years he began his new life in the Welsh mining village of Ystradgynlais, whilst his hometown was being torn apart by the Nazis.
Back in his hometown, some of his family were not so lucky and did not escape as refugees, like Herman. It has been said, that the girl in this picture, may represent Herman’s sister. David Herman, Josef’s son, recently explained the resemblance between the woman painted and his aunt: “These people bare uncanny resemblance to my father’s sister, who he painted in a family portrait,” Herman said. “His family, including his sister were not refugees, they were left behind in Poland to be killed by the Nazis.”
The painting that David Herman is referring to is titled, “My
Family and I”, also done in 1941.
Perhaps this painting expressed Josef Herman’s wish for his
sister to have emigrated to Britain with him.
Herman’s own experience of fleeing the ever-growing threats
of anti-Semitism in Poland and Belgium, enabled him to perfectly paint the
scene of horror and potential bloodshed seen in this painting.
The theme of terror is amplified by the dark and dreary navy
backdrop. Snow covers the streets. The refugees in this painting were in dark,
cold place, literally too.
What’s more the child in the bottom left has a facial
expression reminiscent of “Saturn Devouring His Son” by Francisco Goya (as said
in the painting description). The allusion to the dark and gruesome artwork of
Goya, truly displays the horrific content and context in which this painting
was produced. The world of Goya’s paintings were laws and morals
are abandoned, as a father recklessly and barbarically tears the head of his
own son, is also etched into Herman’ painting. Similarly, here laws and morals
seem to have been abandoned, as people are no longer seen as such. Like Saturn,
the Nazis are seen to be barbaric and reckless.
Another important feature of this painting is the inclusion
of the black cat. It can be seen on a rooftop behind the refugees, with a dead
mouse held in its mouth, blood dripping ominously. Herman’s use of the cat
killing the mouse, precedes the death of million of Jews, like Herman’s sister,
at the hands of the Nazis.
Interestingly, Herman also chose to use a black cat in his portrait
“My Family and I”. This time the black cat lurks on the windowsill, but with no
dead mouse drooping from its clench. The consistent use of the black cat is strange
and would seem not to be a mere coincidence. So why would Herman paint a black
cat in two paintings, when they depict vastly different scenes.
Does the black cat demonstrate the effervescent Nazi menace,
which is always present, but which may at times slip into the background? Or
does the black cat simply meant to be a figure of luck and superstition.
Potentially pointing to how Herman was lucky to escape, and his sister not.
Whatever the answer, it sparks up a variety of questions.
The very first FIFA World Cup held in Uruguay, was opened by a match between France and Mexico on an icy winter’s day in Montevideo in front of 4,500 fans. France went on to win the game 4-1, making history as they became the first side to win a World Cup match. Right winger Lucien Laurent also placed himself in the record books by scoring the first World Cup goal in the 19th minute of the match. The French team that Laurent was a part of was captained by the talented centre-back, Alexandre Villaplane.
Although, Laurent and Villaplane shared a talent for football,
and the French national kit, that is where their similarities end. Laurent has
recently been labelled as a ‘pioneer’ by French newspaper Le Soir,
whilst Villaplane is largely seen as a national disgrace for his part in the
collaboration with the Nazis. How could two men who seemingly shared an
unquenchable love for football have ended up on such varying paths?
Lucien Laurent was born in the Parisian suburb of Saint-Maur-des-Foussés
in 1907. Between the age of 14 and 23 he played for the semi-professional club
Cercle Athlétique de Paris (CAP). It may seem surprising that a
semi-professional footballer was able to break into France’s World Cup squad
when the current team is made up of footballing superstars, but there was not
as much enthusiasm over football or the World Cup at that time. Laurent said it
himself in a 1998 interview with The Independent, claiming that, “soccer
was in its infancy.” Footballer’s were not even paid at the time in France, and
Laurent had to take two months leave from his job as a Peugeot factory worker
to participate in the World Cup.
If Laurent may be considered to not have the talent to
participate in the current French football team, the same cannot be said for
his teammate Alexandre Villaplane. He was born in the then French Algiers
(capital of Algeria) in 1905, and he eventually moved to France at 16. He was
first scouted by Scotsman, Victor Gibson who signed him for FC Sète. He excelled
and his career went from strength to strength, with a move to Nimes in the
French first division, as well as a selection in the North African XI to face
France’s B team in 1925. Just one year later he had won his first French cap.
Now, Villaplane was seen as one of the brightest prospects in French football,
he was renowned as one of the best headers of the ball in the country, and he
possessed intelligence on the ball and crisp passing out from the back. These
traits enticed Racing Club Paris president Jean-Bernard Levy to sign Villaplane
in an attempt to overpower their city rivals- Red Star. It was whilst he was
playing at Racing Club Paris that he was called up to the 1930 French World Cup
squad as captain of the side, it is here where he would meet Lucien Laurent.
Although France were knocked out of the group stages after losing
their final two group games, the French team had made history by representing
their country at the first ever World Cup, a day Vilaplane called “the happiest
of his life”. However, this happiness was to be short lived, with France soon
to be split apart by World War Two.
Two years after the 1930 World Cup, Laurent moved to Club
Francais, as he hopped around various French teams throughout the following
years. He went on to play once more for CAP, FC Mulhouse, Sochaux and Rennes
before the war. His performances earnt him another call up to the French squad
for the 1934 World Cup in Italy. Laurent was unfortunately not able to
experience the excitement and pride of another World Cup however, as he was
ruled out through injury. Laurent’s misfortune was soon to grow wider.
Nazi Germany invaded France through the Ardennes forest in
May 1940. France, in response offered a weak defence and the country fell to
the Germans in June 1940. Around 1.8 million French prisoners of war were
captured by the Germans, who were then transported to Stalag prison camps,
although most were soon sent to German labour camps to aid the Nazi war effort.
Laurent was one of those 1.8 million, and he was held in a camp in Saxony,
Germany, where he remained for three years. Eventually, Laurent was released on
medical grounds, but upon his return he discovered his possessions had been
stolen by the Germans, including his 1930 World Cup jersey. Ever the optimist
though, Laurent stated in 1998 that, “all my memories were there… established
in a corner of my old head. No one can steal those from me.’’
Like Laurent, Villaplane did not play at the 1934 World Cup.
This decision was not down to his misfortune however, but rather, the downwards
spiral that Villaplane’s career had taken after the turn of the decade.
The warning signs were already apparent prior to the 1930
World Cup. Although football in France was not to be made professional until
1932, clubs were able to take imaginative measures to pay their players well,
such as employing them for other jobs that they did not perform and paying them
handsomely for it. With his increased fame and money at Racing Club Paris. Villaplane
was often spotted at the casino, or the horseraces, as well as Parisian
cabarets and bars. It seemed that Villaplane had turned a corner at his new
club Antibes in 1932. They finished top of the Southern French division before
beating SC Fives Lille in the national final. However, it soon emerged that the
match was fixed. Antibes were stripped of their title and the team’s manager
was banned. Villaplane is believed to be involved, but he escaped the same fate
as Antibes’ manager. He was told though, to look elsewhere for a club.
This came in the form of Antibes’ southern neighbour, OGC
Nice, who were willing to take a gamble on a player who could propel the club
to the top of French football. The gamble did not pay off. Villaplane was
consistently late for training and paid little interest in the team, despite
being the captain. Unsurprisingly, Nice were relegated and Villaplane was
His final flicker of hope in football came through the man
who introduced the football world to Alexandre Villaplane- Victor Gibson, who was
now the manager of Bordeaux club, Hispano-Bastidienne. Even Gibson could not
get the best out of Villaplane who rarely turned up to training, he was once
more released, after just three months. His footballing career was over.
Villaplane’s unwavering relationship with controversy was
only beginning, however. In 1935 he was convicted for fixing horse races in
both Paris and the Cote d’Azur.
5 years later, Marshal Petain had signed an Armistice
agreement between France and Germany- giving way to a time of collaboration and
resistance in the country. Villaplane was firmly on the side of collaboration.
He aimed to profit from the war for his own self-gain. Villaplane quickly
became enwrapped in the Parisian black market and frequently attempted to
racketeer the increasingly threatened Parisian Jewish population. His second
conviction followed soon after, as he was imprisoned for possession of stolen
goods in 1940. French football journalist, Phillippe Auclair, has recently said
that it was in prison where notorious French collaborator, Henry Lafont first
approached Villaplane. Lafont, along with the former head of the French police,
Pierre Bonny, became a potent mix at the head of the French Gestapo. These men
made their way to the top through murder, deceit and coercion- a path that
Villaplane was soon to follow.
Villaplane started his journey in the French Gestapo as
Bonny’s personal chauffeur, but his role changed drastically in 1944. The
Brigade Nord-Africaine (BNA) was formed as a sister group to both the German
and French Gestapo, in areas where the Resistance was proving to be a stern
test for the Nazis. Villaplane was given the SS grade of Untersturmführer, and he wore
a Nazi uniform- it was only 15 years prior that he had worn the French national
jersey. Whilst it is impossible to find the number of people that Villaplane
killed himself, he still bears the responsibility for his part in the atrocious
Nazi war crimes. The most infamous incident that Villaplane was involved in
occurred at Oradour-sur-Glane, where he ordered the execution of 52 people.
The extremity of Villaplane and the BNA’s crime were stated
by Villaplane’s prosecutor at his trial, following the Liberation of France:
‘‘A witness told us how he saw with his own eyes these
mercenaries take jewels from the still-twitching and bloodstained bodies of
their victims. Villaplane was in the midst of all this, calm and smiling.’’
Even when the situation in France had altered and the French
Resistance and the Allies were on the cusp of victory over the Nazis and French
collaborators, Villaplane was still seeking to profit from the chaotic climate.
A witness at his trial described him arriving in a French village declaring:
‘‘They [the Germans] are going to kill you. But I will try to
save you at the risk of my own life. I’ve already saved many people.
Fifty-four, to be precise. You will be the 55th. If you give me
Villaplane’s greed and destruction knew no limits, it became
so inflated that it eventually led to his death. On December 26th,
1944, Villaplane, along with Lafont and Bonny were shot dead by firing squad.
In the midst of Villaplane’s collaboration, his former
teammate, Lucien Laurent had returned from his prisoner of war camp, and
discovered that his most prized possessions were stolen. However, it was
Laurent who was to have the last laugh. He attended the 1998 World Cup final in
Paris between France and Brazil, witnessing arguably the greatest ever performance
from the French national team, as they ran out 3-0 winners. In fact, Laurent
was the only member of the first French World Cup team who lived to see his
country lift the trophy.
The stories of Villaplane and Laurent tell us about French
football in its infancy and the birth of the World Cup. What is more important
to recognise though is their actions off the field. The greed and malevolence
that took hold of Villaplane’s life greatly outweighed his footballing ability,
no matter how talented he was. Whilst Laurent may not have possessed
Villaplane’s incisive passing or aerial ability, he is admired by French
football lovers even today. The status of becoming a footballing hero for years
to come rests on far more than just the footballing prowess of a player.