With the passing of Jacques Villeglé, aged 96, during the night of June 6 to June 7, 2022 in Paris, we remember the life of this diminutive Frenchman who was a legendary figure celebrated for his torn poster compositions and socio-political alphabets exploring the ever-changing history of our contemporary cities, which captured our imaginations for over seven decades. Born in 1926 in Quimper, France, his final moments were in the image of a quotation by Winston Churchill, an avid painter, which Villeglé had chosen for his next exhibition in St. Malo in Brittany: “Happy are the painters, for they shall not be lonely. Light and color, peace and hope, will keep them company to the end, or almost to the end, of the day.” Jacques Villeglé: La Mémoire Composite will run from July 9 to September 18, 2022 at Chapelle Saint-Sauveur in St. Malo as part of the city’s programming that welcomes a major exhibition honoring a great artist each summer, while Jean Dubuffet, Jacques Villeglé: A Poster in the City will open in September at SOMA (Seoul Olympic Museum of Art) in South Korea. Two tributes to this icon of contemporary art whom we already miss dearly and who continues to exhibit worldwide, even after his death. Here I share with you one of the last interviews that he had given, during which he shared with me his artistic process and motivations.
Your creations bear the names of the streets from which they were taken, making your work a poetic but also social and political testimony of our time. While strolling alone in the streets or working on construction sites as a public works inspector, how did you decide which posters to collect?
The lacerator of posters is not an artist. Why does he rip posters? Sometimes it is to oppose their political or commercial subject, sometimes out of idleness, but never for an artistic aim. I transformed these lacerated posters into works of art – that was my goal. I called them “the anonymous tear”. I chose posters for the interest of their composition, then for the interest of a word, a fragment of a sentence and, in the 1960s, for their colors.
How do you choose new signs or letters to include in your socio-political alphabets?
I don’t choose; I accept to integrate them into the alphabet.
What is your relationship to writing, typography and cryptography?
Typography is a set of characters allowing the printing of a text for disclosure. Cryptography has a secret character for insiders; it is an element of esthetics. The typographic character was highlighted by Braque. Cubism was an important style for me, so with the non-illustrated poster, I became its heir. Cryptography is a detour from Cubism. I have always had a good relationship with Guy Debord, a master of repurposing, for, without a doubt, he appreciated this repurposing, while reproaching it for not escaping sufficiently from the pictorial tradition.
Take me through your creative process. What is the most important consideration when you start creating a work?
Creation is an act that cannot be explained – it is a vocation. I briefly attended art schools simply to be with young people of my age who wanted to create. It was certainly not in a school, in the 1940s, that I could have learned how to choose and frame a lacerated poster. When you start to create a work of art, you don’t always know how you will finish it because during the execution, you can more or less modify the original project.
You have been called one of the pioneers of street art, and the street has always been your studio. You borrow and give back to the city. Do you consider yourself a street artist since you remove instead of adding to the street?
I share with street artists an interest in the culture of the city. We work with motifs that the Impressionists didn’t have. I’ve spent time with them because of our mutual interest in present-day life. Additionally, they are much younger than me, so it’s flattering and I take great pleasure in meeting them. I have only good memories with them. I am not attracted to teamwork at all, but I like artistic society and I feel an interest in my work among street artists. It is more a mentorship than a collaboration. I get along well with them; they save me from my loneliness. I was reproached for this relationship. An artist who works in the street is, for some, a vandal. But things are evolving faster in our time than in my youth.
How has your art evolved over time? What have been the greatest challenges of your more than 70-year career?
At the beginning, there was a lack of understanding on the part of French cultural personnel. Perhaps because I had heard someone at Kahnweiler gallery say, “When Paris despises you, go abroad,” I rushed to Cologne, my first home base, with the first gallery that opened the day after the Liberation. I then frequented Belgians, Germans, Swiss, Canadians, North and South Americans and gallerists from all these countries. I was much better received there than in France. Raymond Cogniat, co-founder and first director of the Paris Biennale, was one of the few who trusted me. I was therefore very surprised that when he died, there was no sign of recognition. I learned this perhaps six months later when I tried to contact him for an answer to a question.
At 96 years old, you are still active in your studio. What motivates you and keeps you going?
My vocation was born in 1943, when I saw a reproduction of a Miró that I didn’t understand. Inwardly, I told myself that it was in this milieu that I wanted to live. Nearly 80 years later, I have not changed vocation. Creation is stimulated by art market relationships. They prevent you from falling asleep and, more ambitiously, push you to do something new. I think that an artist cannot be confused with laymen who yearn for retirement.
What is the role of the artist in society? What legacy would you like to leave to the art world?
Artistic works will testify to a bygone era. Artists work to create these testimonies. The spirit of New Realism was partly only a conversation with society. It is a group of friends of the same generation, each having a different and perhaps even contradictory viewpoint. The artist hopes that his work will give his successors the desire for dialog.