Twenty-one years after Picasso created his iconic contemporary history painting, Guernica – to memorialise the obliteration of the small Basque town by united Fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War – a similar event in the midst of the Algerian War of Independence inspired two French-born artists to express their outrage at their country’s actions.
The little town of Sakiet Sidi Youssef in northern Tunisia is situated just a few kilometres from the country’s border with Algeria. Since the start of the War of Independence in 1954, aimed at freeing the country from its French colonial masters, guerrilla fighters had been operating out of border towns including Sakiet. Even after France constructed a 2.5-metre high electric fence between the neighbouring countries, its generals still suspected that Sakiet was harbouring a large number of Algerian revolutionaries (who were at the time designated terrorists). On 8 February 1958, during a crowded market day, the French air force unleashed a sustained bombing campaign against Sakiet’s 3,300-strong population. The bombardment left over 148 civilians injured and some 70 dead, including a dozen children when a primary school was hit.
The event was a defining moment in the war, leading to international outcry and hastening Algerian independence. Yet though the bombing of Sakiet is jointly commemorated each year in Tunisia and Algeria, this “colonial Guernica” is now largely overlooked in the West. However, thanks to two heart-wrenching paintings held in London’s Tate Modern, the events in Sakiet have been immortalised.
Despite the establishment of the Cold War, the French artist André Fougeron remained a committed Communist and continued to create socialist realist paintings throughout the latter half of the 20th century. He often used his work to criticise Western imperialism and the injustices of capitalism, and the bombing of Sakiet inspired him to create one of his most well-known paintings. Massacre at Sakiet III (Massacre à Sakiet III) shows the piled corpses of men, women and children, swathed in dark blankets and appearing as disembodied heads. The pale blue ribbon in the hair of a little girl at the centre of the painting draws the eyes of the viewer and delivers a powerful shock with its simple message of childhood innocence, snatched away. The half-closed, clouded eyes of the man below her give a nauseating view of death, while the naked body of a young woman, with her dead child still clinging to her, heightens the sense of violation. In stark contrast, the row of army boots and rifle stocks that are glimpsed towering over the pitiful scene indicates where the viewer should direct their anger. When the painting went on public display in a Parisian salon just two months after the attack on Sakiet, Fougeron was criticised for clearly assigning blame to the French military, which had yet to accept responsibility for the bombardment of the Tunisian town.
The following year, Fougeron’s compatriot Peter de Francia, now living in London, used a very different artistic style to depict the despair and suffering in Sakiet. In contrast to Fougeron’s austere palette and sombre, reflective tone, The Bombing of Sakiet by de Francia mixes vibrant colours to give a sense of the noise that ripped through the bombed town, filled with the screams of survivors. While Fougeron’s painting is formed from soft curves and strong, clear lines, de Francia’s expressionist vision of the dead and the injured, thrown together among the twisted ruins of smashed buildings, uses sharp, jutting angles and colours bleeding into one another to convey the terror and confusion. At the centre of this sea of muddled limbs and detritus, three anguished survivors take in the catastrophic scene, seemingly oblivious to each other: while one surveys a lifeless body next to her, another weeps with eyes closed and a pained expression, and a third reaches out, perhaps searching for a missing friend or her stolen child.
In 2005, the James Hyman Gallery in London chronicled the development of this epic painting in the exhibition Peter de Francia: After the Bombing. The large number of pencil and charcoal sketches and studies in oil show how the artist was absorbed with the subject and painstakingly created the monumental testament to a country torn apart by the aggression of a dying colonial power. De Francia’s painting is on long term loan to Tate from the Tunisian Embassy, ensuring that Sakiet will be remembered for many years to come.
Images: André Fougeron, Massacre à Sakiet III (Massacre at Sakiet III), 1958. Oil on canvas, 97 x 19.5 cm; Peter de Francia, The Bombing of Sakiet, 1959. Oil on canvas, 189.8 x 365.3 cm; courtesy Tate. Peter de Francia, Woman with Dead Child (study for the Bombing of Sakiet), c.1959. Charcoal on paper, 35.7 x 25.5 cm. Private Collection.