122 Rue du temple, 1968
torn-and-pasted printed paper on canvas
62 5/8 x 82 3/4″ (159.2 x 210.3 cm)
Museum of Modern Art
The words of French crime novelist Leo Malet comes to mind every time I encounter a work by Jacques Villegle: “The collage of the future will be done without scissors, knives or glue. It will leave the artist’s work table and the surfaces of cardboard paper and take over the walls of the big city, the unlimited field of poetic deeds.” It was originally a response to the work of Kurt Schwitters as he had seen them in 1930 but the prophecy had to wait out the rise of National Socialism and World War II or until the avant-garde could fully hijack and take over the city with their artistic practice. In 1949, a 23-year old Breton named Jacques de la Villeglé arrived in Paris and started creating frieze-like collages which would evolve into the kind of work that I saw at the Museum of Modern Art last Tuesday.
Made in 1968, the novelty of the advertising images have relented to a vintage patina over the years. The torn-off advertisements, movie posters, and propaganda material, which the French call “affiches” were glued together on cardboard roughly the size of a queen bed. 112 rue de temple is the Paris address from which Villeglé detached many of these affiches he used to make this work. It belongs to a series of other paintings made in that locale but what sets this particular work apart from other collages of the period is that many of the materials used here announced the city’s May 1968 student and worker demonstrations. The artist considered the people who had made and posted them to be his collaborators, and their use of advertising billboards as a precursor for his process.
The work is a thunderstorm of black and red scraps of words and letters, sometimes wild and condensed in overlapping layers, sometimes calmly stacked horizontally, over yellowed paper and blue streaks. Interspersed with the pouting face of Claudia Cardinale, and the jawline of what I assume to be a smiling image of Audrey Hepburn are fragmented messages of the street, mimetic only insofar as the artistic order rearranges the arbitrariness of reality and transfers it into the context of art.
The obra marks an important node in a determined quest out of the stupor of the post-war years; a self-confident document of a carefree appropriation and translation of a grim metropolitan reality. The painting brings to the fore an artistic practice that is only noticed in the slipstream of the stronger current of “Nouveau réalisme”, which undermines the appearance of the city through unmanipulated, “décollage” (from the French word décoller, to unglue or take off), where only the choice of found object and its composition are determined by the artist. My attention wanders from the sensual crop of faces to the background made of monochrome vertical stripes that create a tremulous cloud of ambiguous figure and word fragments. Some parts of the work are loose and brittle, but the halftone color dots have preserved their intensity.
Villegle was a trained photographer who briefly enrolled in architecture in Nantes. In addition to his fascination with the pictographs of the big city, he pursued a joint film project called “Pénélope” with fellow artist Raymond Hains until 1954. The film was doomed to failure due to their different work ethics. In another exhibition I have seen in Switzerland, I found a cabinet of documents with countless, pedantically created animation drawings, which, if strewn together as moving images, were supposed to approximate the overstimulation of the city after Hain’s psychedelic black and white photographs, called “hypnographs.” It was not until 1957 that the friends succeeded under the title “Le lyrisme à la sauvette” to mount their first gallery exhibition of their decollage, which they dubbed “affiches lacérées” or “lacéré anonyme”. With the newly introduced medium of decollage, Villegle wrote the manifesto “Des réalités collectives” (Collective realities) with François Dufrêne and Pierre Restany. Years after, it was found out that at the back of his poster fragments, there were palimpsest-like libretti of a meaningless and ideology-free poetry. A finer example can be found in “bleu O noir” (1955) which is also held by MoMA, resulting from peeling accretions of fliers, scattered layers of torn and shredded paper. The poem is a result of the material being subjected to anonymous defacement by city dwellers and Villegle’s collaboration with Hains, whose strips of groove glass are the only means by which the demolished verses can be decoded.
In 1959, Villegle and Dufrene entered the first biennial for young artists in the Musée d`Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. In the Art Informel section, the two caused some controversy by flexing their street credentials: Dufrêne hung his work under the covers due to lack of space and Villeglé constructed a fence made with 27 wooden placards.