Tag Archives: German occupation of France

To Dance in France

Arriving in Strasbourg, France on a Sunday evening, I came upon a group of people gathered to dance in the moonlight in the plaza between the cathedral and the palace of the bishops.  It looked like a weekly gathering of friends, mostly young but some old. The setting could not have been more elegant.

The magnificent Gothic cathedral took about 400 years to build.  It was completed in 1439. During the French Revolution, it became a Temple of Reason.  HItler visited in 1940, after his armies steamrollered across the French border. He wanted the landmark cathedral to become a “refuge for the German peoples.” The city of Strasbourg was only returned to France after Germany’s defeat.


The Baroque Palais Rohan was built between 1731-1742.  It was once occupied by Hapsburg bishops under the Holy Roman Empire.  At one time Napoleon Bonaparte took over and remodeled parts of it to his own taste.  Actually, it is hard to find a corner in Europe where Napoleon did not make some kind of mark.


Through centuries of political changes, the local people have carried on their own cherished traditions no matter who ruled them.  Dancing is one such tradition.  Before each dance that I watched, a pair of young women conferred with a flutist and a violinist.  Then they all began a tune, blending in sweet harmony.  Couples stepped, promenaded and twirled around the musicians.  The dances were graceful, but fairly simple and repetitive.  I imagine they’ve been performed at weddings and village festivals for generations.

Maybe because dancing was so important Strasbourg, it once got out of hand.  In 1518, there was a Dancing Plague.  Several hundred people were victims of a kind of mass hysteria which caused them to dance nonstop for weeks.  Most if not all of them finally died of heart attacks or exhaustion.

The dancers I watched on a clear fall evening looked happy and healthy.  Long may they dance!

Picasso’s Lady in a Fish Hat

Fish Hat

At the very end of two days of looking at great art in Amsterdam, I came across a Pablo Picasso painting that made me laugh: “Seated Woman Wearing a Hat in the Shape of a Fish.”  The painting is in Amsterdam’s modern art museum, the Stedelijk. The date is 1942, midway through the Second World War.  I had to look up the artist’s whereabouts during this time.  As it happened, he stayed in Paris during the entire Nazi occupation.  Naturally, the Gestapo regarded him as subversive–and he certainly was, though not in any way the Nazis could understand. He did not bother to exhibit his work at this time, but he never stopped creating.

According to one account, one day Gestapo officers were in his studio harassing him, as they often did.  They spotted his great antiwar painting, “Guernica,”  which depicts the terrible suffering inflicted by German bombers on a town full of innocent victims during the Spanish Civil War.  A Gestapo officer pointed at the painting, which was not yet acknowledged as one of the most powerful antiwar images ever made, and asked Picasso, “Did you do this?”  “No,” Picasso reportedly replied. “You did.”

So what about this woman with a fish on her head? Could it be a spoof on military headgear?  Or a joke about pompous officials in general? Was Picasso poking fun at some acquaintance?  Was he making fun of women’s frivolous fashions during wartime?  I don’t know. Maybe the painting  means nothing at all–maybe that is the point. Maybe it is just meant to provoke a smile. In even the darkest times, we need artists who are able to show us that there is more to life than the grim reality that sometimes surrounds us.