Jacques Villeglé died in June of this year, six weeks after celebrating his 96th birthday. He was not born in Paris, but he lived there for the past 74 years, spanning a time when that city went from being the illuminated capital of the early 20th century to the ghost-haunted relic it would become. In 1949, Villeglé appointed himself as chief spirit catcher for the Lacéré Anonyme, functioning as an “archivist using anonymous crowdsourcing to create his art.” In other words, he cut out layers of billboard and poster advertisements that had accrued like barnacles on the public walls of that city’s streets, fashioning them into colorful and perplexing works of art. In this new and informative book, Barnaby Conrad goes to impressive lengths to capture Villeglé’s career as a visual archeologist digging into the fractured foundations of the prison house of inscriptions. At the same time, the book also provides a richly flavored tour of the streets, histories, quartiers and prominent persons caught up amid the wide nets that Villeglé cast during the past seven decades.
Conrad approaches his subject from several vantages, one being that he has lived in Paris for many years. This means that, to some extent, Villeglé’s Paris is also Barnaby’s Paris, their interactions being something akin to those of two persons who share the same enigmatic muse. The book synthesizes many hours of their conversations in 2015, covering Villeglé’s early years growing up in a well-to-do family in Brittany, his minor role in the French resistance and his later move to Paris at the end of the German occupation. Eventually, he took a government job as a building inspector, giving him special access to his chosen art materials: billboards and street posters.
In 1949, Villeglé noticed a dilapidated billboard near a forlorn Parisian side street whose tattered surface revealed layers of prior billboards covered over and later exposed by the elements. With a sharp knife and close collaborator Raymond Hains, he cut those sandwiched layers loose and absconded with them back to his apartment. Those layers revealed typographical fragments of defunct advertisements, which,
when exposed, formed nonsensical word poems, accidental abstract paintings, or both. They remind us that those days were a golden age for fanciful typography and powerfully organized brightly colored graphics. Some anonymous Surrealist had already coined the term décollage in the 1930s, but Villeglé invigorated it by capturing the way that apparently random shapes could both mimic and mock the kinds of abstract painting that were practiced in Paris during the 1950s. Those styles ranged from Art Brut to lyrical abstraction (a dainty francoscopic counterpart to American Abstract Expressionism), with a hat tip to the work of Kurt Schwitters. Over the next quarter century, Villeglé created well over 4,000 such works, eventually landing him a retrospective at Centre Pompidou in 2008.
Conrad does a great job guiding us through the webs of history surrounding Villeglé’s developing career, emphasizing the flamboyant characters lurking at famed galleries and cafes. When he settled in Paris, the city was still home to several Dadaist and Surrealist holdovers from the pre-war years, including the Romanian émigré Tristan Tzara, whose work anticipated the strategies Villeglé later employed. Two decades after his arrival, the city became the intellectual ground zero for such thinkers as Roland Barthes, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Luce Irigaray, Héléne Cixous and Jean Baudrillard, all of whom interrogated the potential of symbolic anarchy operating as a disruptive antidote to the propagandistic tyranny of the hegemonic order. The linkages between Dadaism, Surrealism and Post Modernism have never been so succinctly mapped before their articulation in Conrad’s book.
In Paris, the arc that ran from Surrealism to Postmodernist truth-seeking procedures had multiple waypoints that Conrad details in several chapters. One of those is a movement called Lettrism, founded by the Romanian émigré filmmaker Isadore Isou in 1946, well before the time that Villeglé “liberated” his first décollage. Lettrist poetry emphasized what Isou called the “metagraphic” aspects of poetry by radically deemphasizing its connotative and syntactical aspects to create forms that we might now liken to concrete poetry. A decade later, Guy Debord seized Lettrism’s baton to carry its subversive principles forward under the banner of Situationism, translating metagraphical language models into disruptive social psychogeographies. This effort had a significant impact because it was inspirational for the student revolts of 1968. And it was Villeglé whose décollages were included in the Museum of Modern Art’s The Art of Assemblage exhibition of 1961.
These movements came to bear on Villeglé’s work by setting the stage for his involvement with another movement called Nouveau Réalisme. Officially founded in 1960, it included Yves Klein, Jean Tinguely, Niki de St. Phalle, Christo, Daniel Spoerri, Arman, César and critic Pierre Restany. It aspired to see “reality with new eyes,” recognizing that reality had become more surreal than Surrealism itself. Almost all artists associated with the group worked with assemblage and found objects, but Villeglé’s use of décollage processes set his work apart. Conrad maintains that Villeglé was a central figure in the Nouveau Réalismegroup, having exhibited with some or all of them on several early occasions. But his contributions are not prominently featured in other accounts of the movement (Villeglé and Restany didn’t get along), making claims of Villeglé’s centrality suspect. On the other hand, since Villegle outlived all of them, the last laugh and the most recent reminiscence were his.
Nineteen sixty-four was a pivotal year for Villeglé and the Parisian art world. Robert Rauschenberg had been awarded the Golden Lion award at the Venice Biennial, cementing the international ascendency of post-war American art while implicitly downgrading the resurgent school of Paris. At the same time, the widespread use of photo offset printing had made it possible to print photographic images at a large scale, giving Villeglé something new to work with. The works he did after that time incorporated such images giving them a distinct Pop Art resonance. They also grew more complex in terms of their differing layers of words and images. At this juncture, Villeglé entered his most productive period, with exhibition opportunities expanding exponentially year after year.
Conrad’s book concludes with an account of the 1968 Paris riots and the related political posters that found their way into Villeglé’s work. There is some useful history here, ranging from the important role André Malraux played to the conciliatory cultural policies forwarded by the French government under Georges Pompidou. In the end, both Paris and Villeglé emerge from the rubble of political contest, intact and optimistic, mindful of their respective pasts without being buried by them.
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About the author: Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries emphasize the tragic consequences of blind faith in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak’s interview on Broke-Ass Stuart’s website.