PRINT March 2009


AT THE HEART OF JACQUES VILLEGLÉ’S EXHIBITION this past fall at the Centre Pompidou—the first major French retrospective devoted to this influential eighty-two-year-old artist—was a relatively small décollage called Carrefour Algérie-Evian, 1961. In it, we find the fortuitous juxtaposition of two posters: In the one on the left, the words ALGERIE and ASSASSINS! are barely visible, revealed only where subsequent layers of paper have been partially ripped away, while the one on the right is an advertisement for Evian mineral water. In the spring of 1961, when Villeglé tore these tattered broadsides from a wall somewhere in Paris, he must have been struck by the coincidence of the two toponyms, much in the newspapers of the time: Evian water bears the same name as the town where negotiations aimed at ending the Algerian War were about to begin.

Carrefour Algérie-Evian seems to confirm what has become the dominant reading of Villeglé’s signature strategy of décollage, his appropriation of lacerated posters—whether torn casually by anonymous passersby, defaced by vandals, or worn by the weather—found during his long perambulations through the streets of the French capital. In France he has come to be seen as a latter-day flaneur, a Baudelairean collector of the castoffs of modernity and a mordant observer of the public life of his time. The title of his retrospective, “Jacques Villeglé: La Comédie urbaine,” clearly signaled that lineage, echoing nineteenth-century novelist Honoré de Balzac’s epic “human comedy,” with its encyclopedic aim of cataloguing an epoch’s social types. Villeglé’s art is understood as something of a visual equivalent, a record of the period known in France as the Trente Glorieuses, the thirty years of prosperity and modernization that followed the end of World War II. In the half-torn-away names, in the evocation of places, in the chopped-up political slogans that are his leitmotifs, we are meant to find repositories of national memory; his lacerated posters are examples of what Pierre Restany, the critic who invented the rubric Nouveaux Réalistes for Villeglé, Raymond Hains, Yves Klein, et al, once called the “poetic recycling of urban, industrial, and advertising reality.”

A more rigorously political version of this reading has lately been developed, primarily by American academics working through the paradigms elaborated in the past two decades by Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, who might be said to have single-handedly placed Villeglé on the agenda for a younger generation of art historians. But whereas Buchloh, in his 1991 essay “From Detail to Fragment: Décollage Affichiste,” emphasized the dual aesthetic and political impasse faced by Villeglé (noting, for example, how “aspirations to intervene in public space have diminished drastically” from the utopian hopes of the historical avant-gardes), this generation of scholars has worked to redeem the role of the anonymous hands that have torn, written on, or otherwise marked the layered posters Villeglé collects. Such gestures are read as the motivated acts of political subjects, subjects whose intentionality has been most often excluded from the official realms of state representation; the posters thereby become something like records of the direct inscription of a political “real” in material form, hieroglyphs of an absent public along the streets of the late-capitalist city of spectacle. The massive Boulevard de la Chapelle—Pour le succès de la France, 1965, dominated by a defaced poster urging voters to reelect Charles de Gaulle “for France’s success,” lends itself to such a reading. Also included in the retrospective, just across from Carrefour Algérie-Evian, this Pop-influenced election poster—in nationalistic blue, white, and red—features the profile of the general, which has been torn away to reveal, among other things, a smiling mouth and a shapely nose (metonymic displacements of the politician’s characteristic traits), as well as a small, plaintive face (perhaps Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd?) whose deadpan stare seems to provide a locus of identification for a viewer overwhelmed by the aggressive solicitations of propagandistic advertising.

However, what was striking for the visitor to Villeglé’s retrospective, which spanned nine thematically arranged rooms, is how very little of his prolific output corresponds to such readings. In fact, a rather different vision of the artist emerges from the show, one that is less directly political, more elusive, even contradictory. The Villeglé of the political images, of the “anonymous lacerator,” only surfaced in the later 1950s, almost ten years after he had begun collecting torn posters, and largely disappeared in the wake of May ’68. Making sense of the trajectory of his entire career, and understanding something of its determining conditions and limits, was a task the Pompidou retrospective took up only fitfully, preferring instead to adopt Villeglé’s own homogenizing categorizations, from early “lacerated letters” and “images” to a series from the mid-’70s featuring posters for an exhibition of Jean Dubuffet paintings, to the more recent work appropriating advertisements for music groups.

VILLEGLÉ WAS BORN in Brittany in 1926 and entered art school in Rennes, the regional capital, in 1944. It was around this time that he met fellow student Raymond Hains, who would become his close friend and accomplice in the practice of décollage. The conservatively academic teaching of wartime Rennes appalled Villeglé, and he soon moved to Nantes, where he hoped to take up the study of architecture. Hains by this time had already abandoned his formal studies and moved to Paris, where he would become fascinated by the torn posters he found on the city’s walls and hoardings; he was at first content to photograph them, but eventually began to pull them down and mount them onto canvas as independent artworks. Back in Brittany, Villeglé was developing his own aesthetic of the found object: The earliest work in the retrospective was his Fils d’acier (Steel Wires)—Chaussée des Corsaires (Saint-Malo), 1947, a small sculpture composed of wire he found while walking along the Atlantic Wall, that system of coastal defenses built by the occupying Germans during World War II. In August 1944, recognizing imminent defeat, the German forces in Saint-Malo had sabotaged the port by setting off explosives; exactly three years later, Villeglé would scavenge metal cables from the wrecked reinforced concrete to make this unassuming work. A found object, then, but one that referred, simultaneously, to Surrealist automatic drawing and to the contemporary use of reinforced concrete (a material once thought entirely unaesthetic) by Auguste Perret in his postwar rebuilding of the bombed-out port of Le Havre. Already in this simple sculpture the two poles of Villeglé’s practice were evident: an often-ironic reference to the realm of modernist art on one hand, and an openness to a larger world of social and historical allusion on the other.

In 1949 Villeglé joined Hains in Paris, and the two worked together for the next five years, collaboratively scavenging torn posters until 1954. This early work was conditioned by two apparently unrelated paradigms: the experimental poetry of Lettrism and the growing awareness of the role of the photographic index within modernist creation. The first room of the retrospective, dedicated to the “lacerated letter”—that is, to works composed primarily of typographic posters whose tearing has rendered the text illegible—provides ample evidence of Villeglé’s debt to the sound poetry of Isidore Isou and his followers, who wished to void language of any semantic content. Ach Alma Manetro, 1949, an eight-foot-long frieze of posters advertising classical music concerts, represents an initial joint foray by Hains and Villeglé into décollage. (The two artists compared it to the Bayeux Tapestry, perhaps in homage to their own reverse Norman invasion of Paris, perhaps in order to signal a shared concern with documenting not only the heroic events of royalty but also the unrecorded everyday life of the times.) The title, with its pure Lettrist rhythmic sonority, derives from word fragments found within the visual field: ACH at bottom left, probably from Bach; and ALMA-MANETRO at bottom center, a splicing-together of bits of ALMA-MARCEAU and MÉTRO (likely an indication of the nearest subway stop to the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées) to produce just the sort of nonsensical, exotic sound favored by the Lettrists in their poems. Other torn-letter works by Villeglé, such as L’Humour jaune—Boulevard Pasteur, 1953, and Porte Maillot—Ranelagh, 1957, with their complex grounds of repetitions and telescoped letters, could almost be scripts for Isouian sound poetry.

But the impact of Lettrism alone cannot account for Hains and Villeglé’s surprising choice to collect, and ultimately to exhibit, these torn posters. As previously noted, Hains had begun by photographing and filming such objects as an extension of his experimental photography of this period, and Villeglé would join him, producing a short 16-mm film, Paris-Saint-Brieuc, 1950–52, which includes images of posters along with what look like American Indian pictographs, Chinese characters, and fragmented letters in a kaleidoscopic overview of the artist’s early interests. The practice of décollage is in fact inseparable from a concept of the photographic index, which writers such as André Bazin were exploring in the years immediately following World War II. Bazin’s 1945 essay on “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” is an extended discussion of the indexical capacity of photography, which is to say, its capacity to physically register and thereby amplify or extend the corporeality of its subject, rather than merely to represent it. More than simply the trace of an absent object, he suggests that the photograph “is the object itself. . . . [I]t shares, by virtue of the very process of its becoming, the being of the model of which it is the reproduction; it is the model.” The photographic image, in this reading, is nothing less than the equivalent of the object, the two sharing “a common being, after the fashion of a fingerprint.” This was, for Bazin, the great insight of Surrealist photography, in which, as he wrote, “every image is to be seen as an object and every object as an image” (a sentiment clearly echoed in Hains’s 1952 essay “When the Photograph Becomes Object”). What we need to understand, and what has yet to be conveyed either in the scholarly literature or in curatorial practice, is precisely this fluid interchange, in the years around 1950, between taking pictures of lacerated posters and tearing them off the walls as objects in their own right. Villeglé along with Hains realized that in fact it really made no difference whether one presented photographs of the posters or the posters themselves, because both had the same uncertain status, participating equally in this perpetual cycling between image and object. If Lettrism provided the impetus for noticing these “found poems,” the practice of photography as theorized by Bazin provided the justification for appropriating them as artworks.

Only in 1957, in the wake of the first public exhibition of these works in a joint exhibition by Hains and Villeglé at Colette Allendy’s gallery in Paris, would Villeglé introduce the concept of the “anonymous lacerator” as a collaborative figure in the production of these works. There is little reason to believe that the idea had occurred to him much prior to that point; he coined the phrase in an article titled “Collective Realities,” published in 1958 as a rejoinder to critical responses to his exhibition that saw his work as an extension of the principles of Cubist collage. In contrast, he insisted on the intervention of the faceless, distracted mass of passersby whose anger, frustration, or sheer annoyance resulted in the torn poster. But however much this essay announced itself as a reply to perplexed art critics, its real interlocutors were more likely Guy Debord and Gil J. Wolman, leading lights of the soon-to-be Situationist International, who had just published their manifesto “Détournement: Instructions for Use,” in which they called for a radical aesthetic of appropriation and cultural theft (“it is in fact necessary to eliminate all remnants of the notion of personal property in this area”). Villeglé was insisting, then, that the “anonymous laceration” should take its place beside détournement as a technique for collective cultural construction—although shorn of the propagandizing aims of the future Situationists. The recent publication of Roland Barthes’s Mythologies, 1957, with its careful attention to lower-middle-class “mass” culture, should also be triangulated within this nexus of responses to an ever-more pervasive spectacle culture.

What followed was Villeglé’s most fruitful period, as he left behind the primarily text-based posters collected in the ’50s and began gathering colorful, often large-scale torn posters in which images played a significant part. These include many of his most important “political” works, but what must be noted is that an equal or greater proportion of his output from this time is concerned with self-referential visual and verbal puns. The massive triptych Carrefour Sèvres-Montparnasse, 1961, for example, is an extended riff on his own practice: At the left we can read the short phrase OF THE PHOTO, recalling the work’s indexicality, while the center is dominated by a running masculine silhouette labeled TO GO!—a reference to Villeglé’s on-the-run aesthetic of appropriation. (Even the fragmentary poster just visible below this, for the 1960 film The Wolves in the Sheepfold, could point to his own status as a predatory bricoleur, helping himself to the city’s visual bounty.) Slightly later, La Moto—Avenue Ledru-Rollin, 1965, contains a similar self-image, the iconic figure on the motorcycle a clear reference to Villeglé himself and his distinctive hat (he was seldom seen on the streets of Paris without his fedora), now complemented by a punning reference to his onetime collaborator Hains—the cigarette ad at top left references the latter’s attribution of a recent body of work to an alter ego named SEITA, after the French national tobacco company.

The May ’68 uprising, with its explosion of activist flyposting, is often seen as a sort of vindication of Villeglé’s aesthetic and of his concept of the place of the “anonymous lacerator,” who now seemed to step directly onto the historical stage. Looking over the selection of posters from this era displayed at the Pompidou, one is struck by the repetition of the word parole—speech, as in the famous characterization of the revolt as a “taking back of speech,” a taking of the floor by populations (students, workers, women, immigrants) generally denied the right of public discourse. LA PAROLE AUX OUVRIERS (the workers speak), we read in a Communist Party poster referring to the 1973 legislative elections (Rue Tiquetonne, 1972); LA PAROLE EST À VOUS (your turn to speak) is the slogan beneath an image of a figure pulling a gag off its mouth in a Popular Studio poster from the fall of 1968 (118, rue du Temple—La parole est à vous, 1968). But, paradoxically, this reclaiming of speech also marked one of the limits of Villeglé’s practice, premised as it had been over the previous decade on the convenient fiction of the “anonymous lacerator”—convenient because it was precisely this figure’s anonymity that allowed the artist to claim its actions as his own, to create his “collaborative” art under his own unique signature. But now those unknown figures were refusing the inchoate protest of tearing or defacement and were instead openly resisting the propaganda of the spectacle-commodity economy: Inspired by the Situationist International, anti-advertising activists would paste subversive speech bubbles onto posters, an activity captured in Villeglé’s Bulles du Temple, 1969, in which an advertisement for Barbra Streisand’s movie Funny Girl is made to speak its own complicity with capitalist alienation. “I am a consumer product,” Streisand says in a dreamy photo; her lover, passionately kissing her neck, agrees, “You are a consumer product”; in a dance number, the star tells her audience, “We are consumer products.” This direct talking back to the monologue of the commodity, this détournement of product-propaganda, effectively short-circuited Villeglé’s own appropriative gesture and made him, to put it bluntly, obsolete.

He recognized this himself, if only obliquely. In the wake of ’68, he turned from his exclusive interest in lacerated posters to the invention of a “sociopolitical alphabet,” composed of hieroglyphic letters, borrowed political emblems, and other symbols. So A was transformed by a surrounding circle into a sign for anarchism, C was altered into the hammer and sickle of communism, L sprouted additional lines to become a swastika, and so on. For Villeglé, this project was meant to liberate writing from its strict adherence to the logic of signification; he also called it “the guerrilla’s alphabet.” But looking over the simple products of this technique in his retrospective, one saw its formal and conceptual poverty all too clearly; compared with the semantic richness of the actual graffiti visible along the RER suburban rail routes into Paris, Villeglé’s vocabulary looks awkward and reductive (almost all its letters resolve into the same three or four motifs). In any case, in having every invented letter correspond to a letter in the standard alphabet, the artist was pro- posing only the most elementary kind of cryptography, one that was easily legible once you recognized the conceit—and that as such failed to intervene in dominant constructions of meaning.

In fact, the problem was twofold: If Villeglé’s project was being pressured from the Left, as individuals and groups refused the silence and anonymity imposed upon them by spectacle culture, it was simultaneously being compelled to retreat by transformations within advertising protocols themselves. Beginning in the ’90s, Villeglé turned almost exclusively to posters produced by music groups—Les Wampas, NTM, the ONB (National Orchestra of Barbès), all hip-hop, punk, and ethnic bands from the multiracial banlieues surrounding Paris—as if the political no longer dared show itself publicly, having definitively abandoned the street for the television and, later, the computer screen. Most recently, Villeglé “decentralized” his production, as posters largely disappeared from the capital; in 1997 he created the Atelier d’Aquitaine in southwest France, to search out new work in the provinces, and in 2003, at the age of seventy-seven, he traveled to Buenos Aires, a trip that marked the self-proclaimed end of his poster collecting. The Pompidou show closed with a room devoted to these works, a rather unhappy denouement after some of the triumphant statements of the ’60s. But the failure here is by no means simply an aesthetic one (and indeed there are aesthetic criteria at work in the torn posters, with “success” being related to the relative abolition of figure/ground relations and the construction of an allover field), nor can it be solely attributed to larger transformations in the urban realm and the field of publicity; it resides rather in the internal limits of his project. For all the talk of its renunciation of the heroic position of the artist and the much-anticipated “death of the Author,” décollage was a halfway gesture, a stopgap allowing Villeglé to maintain a position within the conventions of the Parisian art world, even as a cultural revolution erupted around him. He was well aware of the alternatives proffered by the Lettrists and, later, the Situationists, but refused to throw in his lot with them.

This is not, however, to claim that Villeglé’s work has no purchase on the present. Even if his model of anonymous collaboration with what he called the “spontaneous, iconoclastic gestures of passersby” was inevitably compromised, it still provides significant precedent for artistic practices that are currently attempting to forge new links with the world outside the gallery. While critic Catherine Francblin, in her essay for the Pompidou retrospective catalogue, cites Daniel Buren, Sherrie Levine, and Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno’s Annlee project as inheritors of Villeglé’s anonymity, we might point to the work of a team such as the duo Claire Fontaine, which seems closer in spirit to the older artist’s fascination with street culture and illegality. More important, the two artists working together under this moniker have consistently endeavored to operate between what remains of the “public” space of the city and the private space of the artistic institution, while functioning under the category of a “ready-made” identity. Sometimes this has taken the form of producing and distributing political posters (such as Étrangers Partout [Foreigners Everywhere], 2005, a tract protesting the increasingly racist anti-immigrant policies of the French government); at other times it has consisted of bringing the events of the excluded banlieues into the gallery (e.g., the video A Fire Is a Fire Is Not a Fire, 2006, in which a car burns in an unnamed Parisian suburb, echoing the widespread rioting of the previous November). If Villeglé’s torn posters—his appropriation of the daily record of the city’s walls—form some distant precedent here, artists who deploy such strategies nevertheless may refuse, as Claire Fontaine has, his too-hasty alignment of artist and anonymous vandal, along with his political reticence. Anonymity is no longer in the street, with those others—the passerby, the crowd, the masses—but now is assumed by the artists themselves as a mantle under which various critical practices may be elaborated. From a tool developed as a response to aesthetic and political impasse, it becomes a tool for aesthetic and political agency.

Tom McDonough is a visiting professor of art history at the University of California, Berkeley.