The Revolution of Everyday Life

Jacques Villeglé  became known in the mid-1950s in Paris when he took street posters as material, tore them from the walls or peeled them off, and exposed them in art galleries as artifacts of urban life. He was an original member of the Nouveau Réalisme movement. While the group fused only in 1961, in a meeting at the apartment of Yves Klein (they signed their manifesto in Klein Blue), most of their significant works were created a decade earlier. Ever since, they were not concerned with a realistic depiction of the natural world but with the material fabric of the world.
For Villegle, the new reality was expressed by collage and decollage, processes which channelled a post-war urbanism into a creative energy, and specifically by recomposing letters and words from found signage. New realities were expressed differently by others in the group: by the exploration of a pure pigment in monochromes for Yves Klein, or the use of old car scraps in the “compressions” by César, the content of garbage cans in the “Poubelles” by Arman, the remains of food in the “trap pictures” by Daniel Spoerri. Pierre Restany, who had a penchant for christening new aesthetic phenomena for press releases, coined the paradox “collective uniqueness” to describe the group and create a roof under which the artists could come together. While nouveaux realistes today are labelled according to very specific genres of art marking, most of them primarily saw themselves as painters. They “painted” and designed with clothes and shoes, dolls and cutlery, plastic bottles and other bits. They smashed up pianos and cuckoo clocks and arranged the remains into picture objects, but it was still all about painting. It is as if they brought Roland Barthes’ thoughts from his “Mythologies” to life with their art. The French thinker sees in the car of the present “the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals of the past.”
This confidence bordering on naivete is the trademark of the life and times of  Jacques Villegle, who came from a generation who witnessed extreme violence and destruction during the war.
Villegle and the everyday revolution of Noveaux Realistes can be understood by revisiting the decades prior to their first notable artistic creations. Villegle didn’t grow up in an artistic household. In an interview with Le Monde for a retrospective at the Pompidou, he confesses that he “didn’t know painting.” The closest to an artwork he had was “just a little book on Picasso and the black and white photo of a Miro,” which he said “disturbed” him. Other than that, Villegle claims total ignorance of art. But there were posters, which he says he knew better than painting, and France was the country where there was an abundance of posters on the street and “there were walls everywhere.” From 1949, he said he worked on posters and stopped painting with brush and paint. It was an attack on traditional painting, albeit ignorant of his ideas implications in the nascent practices of contemporary art. Under Nazi Occupation, it was impossible to have an art historical education and all he was able to consume were “diatribes of Camille Mauclair against the Jewish artists.” In Villegle’s words, it was an era of an “absence of culture.” He marks the end of that era in 1947, when he saw the name of Sigmund Freud appear again in the newspapers (Freud died in 1939).
In Villegle’s 122 Rue de Temple, his image subjects were the pure visual material of the city, and it releases meaning through arrangement and repetition. It followed a great wave of politically charged works from the movement. Among them, Christo’s oil barrels wrapped in fabric later became the material for his first intervention in a public space: the road barrier in rue Visconti on June 27, 1962. His separation of two main arteries in the French metropolis was a comment on the construction of the Berlin Wall. Another is Niki de Saint-Phalle’s Shooting pictures (1961), in which she takes the rifles out of men’s hands and turns them into an instrument to liberate women from the patriarchy.
With a general mood of being cut off from the rest of art history, the noveaux realistes attacked the postwar art scene as pioneers. Jacques Villegle: “Soon after the dust of the war had settled, I learned that the avant-garde had ended in 1924, after the Manifesto of Surrealism, and that the typography of the posters had inspired Mallarmé for his poem ‘A Throw of Dice will never abolish chance.’ And that Braque had already introduced letters in 1912 in his painting, The Portuguese.” Villegle placed himself in the spirit of these earlier avant-garde poets and painters but differentiated himself as a painter without paint. And without paint, Villegle turned to words, and found them everywhere on the streets.  “Because of their presence in Cubism and my interest in typography. I was convinced that letters gave structure—and then, quite simply, it was my taste.”
Then he said, he started to choose things that attacked him: “I realized that the artist could find inspiration in what seemed ugly to others. I remember a poster where there was a lot of orange. When I took it, I told myself that it was horrible and that I could not do anything about it.” Back in his workshop he realized that his instincts were in tune with his larger body of work: “You know, these are very quick decisions. Like writing while sleepwalking.” He was attracted by the transparency in the paper and how the soaked papers tear when it rains. “The layers become very thin, you can see underneath. This is what is most pictorial in non-painting.”
Villegle’s 122 Rue du Temple was made at a time when discussions about politics were demanded from artists who worked with “realism”. Villegle had often wondered how an artist like him could avoid politics. Politics has long been a matter of posters.  While he claims to be a “political apathetic,” have been born in a right-wing family and living in a left-wing milieu, his sentiments in May 1968 showed through some cracks in 122 Rue du Temple,. Sixty years ago, French students in neckties and bobby socks threw cobblestones at the police and demanded that the sclerotic postwar system must change. May 1968 was a watershed in French life, a holy moment of liberation for many, when youth coalesced, the workers listened and the semi-royal French government of de Gaulle took fright.
The Noveau Realistes are marked by their veneration of Marcel Duchamp, which is based on a terrific misunderstanding. For them, the creator of the Readymade is the early figure of legitimacy for the introduction of the everyday objects in art. They celebrate it with their own works. Spoerri expresses this most succinctly with a series of photographs of toilets from museums and artist apartments in New York and Philadelphia. Arman honors the chess player Duchamp with a chess game he has designed himself, and Tinguely dedicates a “Frigo Duchamp” to the “cool” thinker, an icebox that sets off a deafening alarm siren as soon as you open your door. But Duchamp did not want to have anything to do with what Restany calls an “aesthetic baptism of everyday objects” that Villegle and his ilk espoused. In a conversation in the 1950s with the director of the New York Museum of Modern Art about the creation of the Readymades, Duchamp said he was looking for objects at the time that had no effect on him. In other words: Duchamp could have blindly chosen his readymades. His sole concern was to illustrate the thesis that a new context creates a new meaning for the object. In other words, a garbage heap in front of the museum is trash while a garbage heap inside the museum is art. The director was surprised: “But how come, Marcel, that these things are so beautiful today?” Duchamp replied with the famous sentence: “Well, you know, nobody is perfect.”

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