The zoo paintings of Gilles Aillaud
: art engagé and camouflage in France, 1950-1980

  • Claire Lemesle-Joly

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis (PhD)


This thesis explores the corpus of zoo paintings by French artist Gilles Aillaud (1928-2005). It focuses on the 1960s and 1970s, a period of intense activity for Aillaud, whose political influence expanded beyond his Salon de la Jeune Peinture leadership. This thesis demonstrates how Aillaud fostered the dissemination of Maoist ideas through his paintings and renowned collaborative works. It argues that to divert censorship, Aillaud developed an art camouflaging his political stances through the naturalistic depiction of animals in zoo enclosures, combining literality with carefully elaborated connotations for the receptive viewer. From youth, Aillaud showed a precocity in drawing animals alongside an early interest in Greek and Latin literature, and his large circle of acquaintances, including Maurice Merleau-Ponty, brought the young artist first-hand education in philosophy and politics. However, during the three decades of the Cold War and Wars of Independence (1946-1975), censorship hindered intellectual and artistic expression in France. Aillaud criticised both the French Communist Party's politics and attempts to impose 'Humanism' in art while also rejecting institutionalised, state-approved art. Deeply influenced by Mao Zedong's Revolutionary War accounts, Aillaud infused its spirit into his collaborative participations, and adapted key statements of ‘Mao Zedong Thought’ – enhancing contradictions, reversing hierarchies, and ‘serving the people’ – to his works. Aillaud purposely utilised modern techniques like the opaque projector to reproduce ‘the real’ with scientific accuracy on the canvas and to seize the ‘truth’ of his times as he perceived it. In showing how wild animals experience spectatorship in zoos, Aillaud instilled a subtle but revolutionary critique of the concepts and practice of freedom and humanism in both capitalist and bureaucratic societies.
Date of Award12 Jun 2024
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of St Andrews
SupervisorNatalie Adamson (Supervisor)


  • Animal painting
  • Aillaud (Gilles)
  • Zoos
  • Camouflage
  • Maoism
  • Censorship
  • Anti-humanism
  • Figuration narrative
  • Opaque projector (use of)
  • France (1960s and 1970s)

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