France’s greatest living artist is an aristocratic street scavenger named Jacques Mahé de la Villeglé, a spry 93-year-old who harvested torn posters to capture the ephemeral DNA of the Paris Street. After five decades, the French art world has, finally, taken notice. In 2008, the Musée d’Art Moderne Centre Georges Pompidou honored Villeglé with an enormous retrospective, while in 2010 Sotheby’s Paris auctioned off one of his works for 312,000 Euros.
Yet except to rare trans-Atlantic cognescenti, Villeglé remains little known in the United States. I’d like to change that. Please look for my book Jacques Villegle and the Streets of Paris in December!
I struck up a friendship with Villeglé in 2003 at his first major art show at Modernism Gallery in San Francisco and we stayed in touch for a decade. A few years ago I was in Paris and we dined with his San Francisco-based art dealer Martin Muller at the Benoît before heading for a nightcap at Rosebud, a low-key literary watering hole in the rue Delambre, just off the Boulevard Montparnasse. As Jacques quietly sipped his habitual Calvados, various literati stopped by to shake his hand. During our rambling conversation, Villeglé casually mentioned the various Surrealist artists and poets he’d met in the 1950s, among them Man Ray, Tristan Tzara, and André Breton. "In fact, Man Ray had his photography studio right in this very street, the rue Delambre. His model, Kiki de Montparnasse, kisssed me on the cheek at the Cafee du Dôme."
The artist and I chatted until midnight. Outside it was raining. While trying to hail a taxi the artist stumbled on the wet cobblestones. As a bus bore down on him, I grabbed the belt of his trenchcoat and yanked him back to the curb.
“That was a close one,” said Villeglé. “Thanks for saving my life.”
And what a life it has been.
Born in Quimper in 1926, Villeglé is one of the last living members of Les Nouveaux Realistes, an artistic movement sparked in 1960 that included Raymond Hains, François Dufrêne, Daniel Spoerri, Martial Raysse, Jean Tinguely, Pierre Restany, Yves Klein, and Arman. (Klein covered naked women in blue paint and had them roll around on the canvas; Tinguely made kinetic sculpture out of scrap metal; Arman sliced up real violins into pieces and cast them in plastic resin.)
After art school, Villeglé decided that easel painting was dead; circa 1949, he began slicing damaged commercial posters off the walls of Paris and mounting them on canvas, carefully noting the street address of each heist. Shortly thereafter, Villeglé wrote a manifesto for les affichistes (literally, “the posterists”). Today, one could plot a map of Paris based on Villeglé’s exploits as a sort of avant-garde Kilroy Was Here.
“I wandered the streets, looking for images or abstract shapes or a series of words or lettering that interested me,” Villeglé told me. “The work had already been done by anonymous shredders. I was really just a collector.” In so doing, the artist tapped into the Dadaism of Kurt Schwitters, the Surrealism of Marcel Duchamp, the Abstraction of Willem de Kooning, and even the Pop extraction of Andy Warhol.
Today the torn fragments are time capsules that capture French culture, from politics, film and literature to music, fashion, and sexuality. As Villeglé told another interviewer, “I was drawn to the remnants of civilization, to the anonymous tears and lacerations caused by passersby who revealed poetically jumbled images, colors and words.”
In one Villeglé picture from 1963 a Brigitte Bardot film poster contrasts with the face of Auguste Delaune, a Communist resistance fighter murdered by the Nazis in World War Two; in another from 1965, we find the stern profile of Charles De Gaulle confronted by a strange clown figure; in 1981 an anonymous vandal disfigured the face of socialist President François Mitterand with a Hitlerian moustache; and in 1998 an Iggy Pop concert poster jockeys with ads for phone sex and movie posters. “I don’t have a big political conscience. I’ve never belonged to a party,” Villeglé told an interviewer several years ago. But he added slyly:
“The best time to gather posters is during the elections: Paris sleeps, everybody stays home in front of the television to watch the results. You’re all alone in Paris, and you can do anything you like. During the 1988 Presidential elections, I had a minivan with four or five assistants, and the police left us in peace as if we were workers doing a cleanup job. They really should have given me a medal for cleaning the streets.”
While Villeglé gave up tearing posters over a decade ago, he isn’t resting on his laurels. Beginning in 1969, he began making pictures and murals using a provocative alphabet that utilizes political, religious and monetary sympbols from around the world, such as the swastika, the Star of David,the Islamic crescent, and the dollar sign, etcetera. His most recent exhibition "Memoires" in St. Etienne, France, harkened back to his first major artwork from 1947, with a tip of the hat to Guy Ernest Debord, the tragic Lettrist philosopher who helped inspire the Paris student uprisings of 1968.
Over the last two years I followed the still-agile Villeglé by Métro, taxi, and on foot as he revealed his old haunts in Paris. In fact, I was fortunate enough to have lunch with Villeglé at Le Dôme in April 2016 to celebrate his 90th birthday. A couple of weeks agao he sent me a cool postcard---as he nears his 94th birthday on March 27, 2020. The book I’m writing is part art book, part narrative portrait of an inquisitve flaneur, and part chronicle of the ever-changing streets of Paris. Jacques Villeglé is a true original. As there are few writings in English about Villeglé, this book will be a major gateway for understanding this sui generis artist. I hope you enjoy it!