Franck Prazan: The Nouvelle École de Paris and market resilience

 Paris  |  29 September 2016  |  AMA  |  Tweet  |  LinkedIn

Since 2004, Franck Prazan has succeeded his father Bernard at the helm of the gallery Applicat-Prazan, located on Rue de Seine in Paris and specialising in the Nouvelle École de Paris (“New School of Paris”, 1945-1965). In 2010, he opened a second space on Paris’ Right Bank, on Avenue Matignon. Franck Prazan was formerly managing director at Christie’s France and steered the auction house’s opening on Avenue Matignon in Paris. The gallery Applicat-Prazan is represented by a stand at the Biennale des Antiquaires.

Your gallery specialises in the Nouvelle École de Paris. The concept of a “school” conjures up the idea of curricula, teaching. Is this the case of the Nouvelle École de Paris – a concept which critic Lydia Harambourg has already undermined?

This question comes up often. The Nouvelle École de Paris encompasses a number of varied and profuse artistic approaches. It is a brand, a marketing element used by postwar galleries rather than the description of a well-identified artistic movement. The “Nouvelle École de Paris” can best be likened to a label identifying a geographical space, which, following WWII and until the 1960s, was favoured by artists, collectors, dealers and critics. Until the start of the 1960s, Paris was considered as representing nearly half of the art transactions in the Western world. The Nouvelle École de Paris includes painters hailing from the French tradition such as Roger Bissière, Alfred Manessier and Jean René Bazaine; painters shifting towards lyrical abstraction, pioneered by Wols and theorised by Georges Mathieu; purely abstract painters such as Pierre Soulages, Hans Hartung and Gérard Schneider; surrealist artists, etc. In the 1950s in Paris, 350 artists earned their living by painting. The gallery’s long list comprises some thirty artists. Our shortlist – the one commonly represented on our picture rails and in international fairs – includes about ten artists.

The starting point of the Nouvelle École de Paris is often said to be the exhibition “Vingt peintres de tradition française” (Twenty French-Tradition Painters, 1941, Galerie Braun) organised by Jean René Bazaine. Which tradition is referred to here? Wasn’t this just a means to avoid Vichy censorship?

The French Occupation and the role of French culture – and tradition – in a restricted world was a weighty issue. The exhibiting artists broke off with an era that failed to accord them the role which they deserved. Semantic importance turned around the word “tradition”. At that time, abstraction was on the brink of occupying the whole of pictorial space. But the artists participating this exhibition never fully entered the field of abstraction. While they were no longer figurative artists, their approach remained representative. The real formal rupture occurred after the war by separating French-tradition artists who continued to describe subjects, taking formal distance from the field of reality without passing into pure abstraction, and other artists who truly reshuffled the cards. French-tradition painters never deliberately made a break themselves: their work continued to be based on formal study of a subject. A zero point was truly reached in 1946, when artists had a greater opportunity to express themselves. This was the era when Pierre Soulages, Hans Hartung, Gérard Schneider, supported by young dealers such as Lydia Conti or Colette Allendy, broke off completely from the subject, but also from all the elements acquired by the pictorial tradition.

Wasn’t this also a way tfor them to free themselves from the shadows of giants such as Picasso, Matisse or Bonnard, whose presence was still very strong after the war?

Not exclusively. The goal was to start from scratch, leaving behind the acquisitions of artistic expression, political issues, the country’s history. The rupture occurring after the war was far more than an interartistic dialogue. It was part of the total remaking of a society. In addition, there was intermingling and dialogue between all forms of thought and expression. Georges Mathieu drew to Paris those painters set to become American abstract expressionists from the end of the 1940s, and French painters were exhibited in the United States as of 1949. Society was rebuilding its models, whether economic or social, and painting was no exception.

These artists emerged in a strong market context – we can mention the galleries of Lydia Conti, Denise René, the Salon Réalités Nouvelles, the Salon d’Octobre… Did French institutions support these artists when they made their rupture?

French institutions certainly didn’t play the role played by American museums in relation to the abstract expressionists, for whom a genuine artistic ecosystem was created, made up of institutions, dealers, critics, etc. In that case, all players in the art market – because this was what it was about – clustered together so that there was no marked difference between the fields of culture and the market. This didn’t happen in France, even if André Malraux played a core role in the emergence of culture after the war. There was always a clear distinction between the role of the State, notably in culture, and the market. Institutions played their role by acquiring works and organising exhibitions, showing strong wariness of the private sector and its mechanisms – a tendency that can still be seen today. This, in my opinion, explains the decline of Paris in relation to New York. In the United States, artists, collectors, dealers, institutions and critics made up a whole to project American culture overseas, jut as a social model was projected by the implementation of the Marshall Plan.

Dialogue existed between the Paris and the New York Schools, as in the “Young Painters in U.S. & France” exhibition at Sidney Janis Gallery in 1950. Were the bridges between these two centres significant or did the two cities represent two different poles?

Before Sidney Janis and other exhibitions, we need to bear in mind the core dialogue between the United States and France throughout WWII. Most surrealist artists, prompted by their political stance and their love for creation, left Marseille for New York, namely thanks to Varian Fry. French artists who took refuge in the United States during the war wielded considerable influence in New York – and over what, after the war, would become abstract expressionism. Without André Masson’s presence in the United States, what would Pollock have become, for example? After the war, artists returned to Europe and exchange naturally continued. Take Soulages, Zao Wou-ki, Georges Mathieu or Schneider, whose main dealer was Samuel Kootz (New York) in the 1950s, who sold to American collectors. At the start of the 1960s, this collaboration, these fruitful exchanges, reached a point when the United States, thanks to its dynamism and hegemonic positioning, overtook French and European creation.

There was a global movement towards the redefinition of painting at this time; far from being confined to France and the United States, it also encompassed neo-concretism in Brazil or Gutai in Japan. Was this due to porosity between different artistic scenes, or a remaking of thought systems that you mentioned previously?

I believe this to be a consequence of the outbreak of war, of reconstruction and of the search for new foundations, new paths. After the atomic bomb, artists couldn’t think in the same way. How was this idea of absolute disaster to be translated? How could it be formally transcribed? Artists translate, they even anticipate, the happenings of their times. For every artist – whatever their culture or country –, it was no longer possible to return to tradition. This, incidentally, was a reproach made against artists from the French tradition who sought to remould painting, but without distancing themselves from its codes; what could be lauded was that the shift introduced a debate, but it was nevertheless swallowed up by the movement of clearing the decks.

Pierre Restany was a great promoter of the Nouvelle École de Paris, before founding Nouveau Réalisme at the start of 1960s. What does this change in position indicate?

Painters from the École de Paris perpetuated a modus operandi, that of painting. Gradually, at the start of the 1960s, with the arrival of pop movements in the broad sense of the term – including Nouveau Réalisme in France –, painting as an end lost its supremacy to other more conceptual means. Implementation became subsidiary to the idea itself. Certain representatives of the avant-garde observed this shift, formulated theories on it, and noted new anchorage points. This was the case of Pierre Restany. Michel Ragon, for example, chose to support painting. Our gallery’s programme stops at this point of rupture coinciding with the emergence of Yves Klein – one of the first “contemporary artists”.

How has the art market evolved since you took over the gallery twelve years ago?

If there’s one domain in which globalisation is working, it’s the art market. While some specificities remain, the market has become very wide, very open – and also very complex. This is why all means allowing collectors and players to focus on key moments are favoured, hence the supremacy of auctions and international faris.

So in a complex market, events are becoming major anchorage points?

Absolutely, outside of these two major types of events, auctions and fairs – which also often pick their dates in relation to one another –, the market is too fragmented. As far as we’re concerned, a very great majority of our activity occurs during fairs – at least 80 %, even if it’s always very hard to give a precise figure on this. Internet plays an important role, but only as a diffuser of information. The art market is a very resilient market. Today, in terms of transactions, Internet represents 5 to 7 % of sales – a figure that remains relatively stable, unlike the case in other economic sectors in which areas of progression are such that traditional businesses are destined to vanish. This isn’t the case of the art world – all the more because Internet sales focus more on objects edited in several copies: bibliophilia, collector’s objets, prints, etc. As far as single pieces go, the matching of works with necessity remains – and will remain – marginal. However, platform-based communication has become a key element.

Despite this, galleries should remain the key chain in the art market…

A distinction should be made between the primary and secondary market. On the primary market, the gallery remains the main tool, an agenting tool. On the secondary market, we could say that the gallery loses its raison d’être if not for the fact that participation in major fairs is not possible without a gallery. The gallery has become an important chain in the upstream and downstream of fair activity.

To go back to something mentioned on your blog, you stress that one of the difficulties for European dealers is the inadequacy of their capital stock…

Art dealing is a very capitalistic field – both on the primary and secondary markets. We play two roles: that of the intermediary and that of the buyer. We build up stock and we support sellers. A gallery’s capacity to project into the future depends on this fundamental element – stock – even on the primary market. Financial bodies which enable galleries to build up stock by offering long-term banking support would be one way to meet this need. However, the “artwork”, as an asset, is poorly understood by financial institutions. Along with the Comité des Galeries d’Art (French Art Galleries Committee) and the Syndicat des Antiquaires (French Syndicate of Antique Dealers), we presented a measure last year during the French Budgetary Conference. It was addressed by an amendment to France’s 2016 Finance Draft Bill, which did not meet fruition, but the issue will be debated again this year. The idea is to offer an option for art dealers to amortise their stock by way of funds (the notion of amortisation is not compatible with an artwork, which does not depreciate), by granting them a tax break, available exclusively to galleries that make profits and pay tax. For instance: you buy 120 in stock and at the end of the year, you receive 40 in funds over three years on condition that the following year you reuse at least 40 to buy stock. This is a long-term strategy that sets up a virtuous cycle; the model already exists in other countries. Stock is the prime guarantee of future profit.

What are you showing at the Biennale des Antiquaires?

We are showing quite a wide selection including our greatest artists such as Pierre Soulages and Nicolas de Staël, but also Camille Bryen’s finest work (which I’ve never set my hands on) and an Alberto Magnelli from the 1940s. The idea is to offer a wide range of prices for collectors – from 100,000 euros (which, unfortunately, is considered a very low threshold price today) up to 3 to 4 million euros.



Galerie Applicat-Prazan. 16 rue de Seine. 75006 Paris. And 14 avenue Matignon. 75008 Paris. Tél.: 01 43 25 39 24.

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