As a member of the French Communist Party, Boris Taslitzky was one of the leading proponents of socialist realism in France, creating numerous works addressing contemporary political events from a leftist perspective. Riposte (1949) was created as a direct response to the violent breakup by French police of a 1949 dockworkers’ strike. Attempting to suppress independence efforts in its colonies in Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia), the French government sent troops and supplies from its ports; workers at Port-de-Bouc, near Marseilles, staged a strike in protest, refusing to load the ships.
Based on journalistic accounts of the conflict, Riposte portrays a violent scrum against the backdrop of the anchored ship, in which the workers heroically defend themselves against police aggression. At the center of the composition is a vicious police dog lunging at a woman, biting her arm as she falls helplessly to the ground. All around her, policemen and strikers vigorously fight, depicting a tangle of clashing bodies and outstretched limbs. While the workers, who fight back with cobblestones and wood planks against the armed police, are rendered as individuals, the police are largely faceless, depicted in identical dark uniforms. Symbolically illustrating the ideological chasm between the two groups, Taslitzky portrays one woman at the back seizing a French tricolor flag—an allusion to Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830), an iconic image of French popular resistance – while the policeman being strangled at the center foreground is given the face of Adolf Hitler.
Boris Taslitzky was a Socialist Realist painter who depicted scenes of suffering and death in war and revolution. His family had fled Russia to France in 1905, where Taslitzky studied at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts (National School of Fine Arts) in the 1930s. He joined the Association of Revolutionary Writers and Artists in 1933, and two years later joined the Communist Party. His father had died in World War I and his mother died at Auschwitz during World War II; thus his paintings often reference the two wars. Taslitzky first supported the French Front populaire (People’s Front), making placards for political demonstrations. In 1940, while fighting against the Germans, he was arrested but later escaped. In late 1941 he was recaptured and served two years imprisonment. In 1944 Taslitzky was sent to Buchenwald concentration camp, where he secretly made drawings of the atrocities and inhuman conditions there. After the war he returned to Paris, where his drawings were published as 111 dessins faits à Buchenwald (111 Drawings Made at Buchenwald; 1946). Continuing the heroic and figurative traditions of nineteenth-century painting, he painted politically charged scenes (Riposte, 1949), genre scenes, and landscapes. Taslitzky taught at the École nationale supérieure des Arts Décoratifs (National School of Decorative Arts) and worked as an illustrator for the Communist press.