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Movements Nouveau Réalisme

Nouveau Réalisme

Started: 1960

Ended: 1970

Quotes

"To me art is a form of manifest revolt, total and complete."
Jean Tinguely
"I maintain that the expression of junk and objects has an intrinsic value, and I see no need to look for aesthetic forms in them and to adapt them to the colors of the palette."
Arman
"We should not be afraid to say it, Nouveau Réalisme was on many levels in advance compared to Pop Art, less entrenched in style disputes, less attached to the notion of authorship, sometimes more audacious in the composition, but most of all it carried a less ambiguous political project."
Nicolas Bourriard
"For me, the real world involves everything: risk, danger, beauty, energy."
Christo
"Art is the distortion of an unendurable reality... Art is correction, modification of a situation; art is communication, connection... Art is social, self-sufficient, and total."
Jean Tinguely
"Nouveau Réalisme gathered together artists who first perceived, problems posed by the relationship with the object, the object that is produced, mechanical, rejected, mass produced, posters. They tried to understand the civilization in the material it has, the problem of flooding slogans, advertising, machine supermarkets, the urban world and the object factory."
Arman
"Nouveau Réalisme has never been a movement unified in style. For some, it is just a circumstantial grouping of artists whose existence was infinitely short. For others, there was not even a group but a sort of philosophy about art and its legacy still carries on today."
Historian Catherine Francblin
"These objects, these works, these images do not fall under any global definition, and are not imprisoned in any dogma."
Historian Catherine Francblin

KEY ARTISTS

ArmanArman
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Cesar BaldacciniCesar Baldaccini
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ChristoChristo
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François DufrêneFrançois Dufrêne
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Raymond HainsRaymond Hains
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Yves KleinYves Klein
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"A new world calls for a new man."

Synopsis

A group of French artists in the early 1960s set out to prove the death of art's preciousness by considering reality their primary medium. Through a phenomenological reflection about the world around them, they would create works and happenings under the banner of Nouveau Réalisme, or New Realism. Although it was not the first "realism" movement, it was coined "new" as the third component to the Nouveau Roman (fiction) and New Wave (film) genres that were also progressive arrivals of culture in France at the time. With Nouveau Réalisme, artists questioned the idea that art had to elevate, politicize, or idealize any subject. This questioning led to an intersection between art and life, narrowing the gap between artists and the public, allowing everyone to participate in and easily relate to a rich multiplicity of media, forms, and styles. Although it was relatively short-lived, the movement's influence is still widely seen today, perhaps because it offered such myriad possibilities within the ever-existing fodder of the present environment for any given artist.

Key Ideas

Nouveau Réalisme's presentation of reality was a decidedly new one. Its artists were responding to their environment in post-war Europe amidst a society wetting its teeth on cultural production and consumption. This was articulated through a direct appropriation of, and dialogue with, parts of their world, or as founder Pierre Restany would say, "a poetic recycling of urban, industrial and advertising reality." They advocated this return to reality (the items they saw around themselves) in opposition to the lyricism of abstract painting or the petty bourgeois of figuration.
Through presenting what was real rather than what was appropriated or conjured, the Nouveaux Réalistes stripped art of a dogma that insisted it had to mean something. On the heels of Dada, they took the readymade object beyond negativity, banality, or polemics to become an active participant in a work of art or performance in its simple, unadorned form. An accumulation of trash became a picture. A crushed car informed a sculpture. A block of color could dwell on a wall, unapologetically itself.
Destruction was a common mode of creation. Some artists destroyed or vandalized objects, transforming their parts into new assemblages. Others used machinery, fire, and even guns to interact with objects and material in compelling new ways. The decollagists pirated. This violence became a metaphor for destroying traditional attitudes on what constituted art in order to aggressively define new ones.
The movement worked to deconstruct the glamorization of artists as solitary people working alone in the studio, producing valuable objects for the privileged confines of the gallery wall or museum space. It became common for artists to collaborate on projects and to create or show their work in public spaces. Oftentimes the audience was invited to participate in the art making, thus stimulating a new level of spectacle and viewer engagement. These activities were seen as both institutional critique and a liberation of the pigeonholed creative spirit.

Most Important Art

Monochrome Blue (1960)
Artist: Yves Klein
Between 1955 and his death in 1962, Yves Klein produced 194 "monochromes," or canvases painted with a single color. The technique of painting the entire canvas with a block of color challenged expectations of what the content of a painting should be. His literal depiction of colors as their real selves with unadorned simplicity, lacking of line, image or intention, was his way of opening art to extended possibilities. It also acted as an antidote to the dominant style of Abstract Expressionism, which championed the lyrical expression of paint as being conjured through an artist's pure emotion. Instead, paint could be used as a tool to invest a space with sensibility, rather than meaning.

In the beginning, Klein's monochromes came in multi-colors, but at one particular show he was disheartened by the audience's propensity to try, and divine relationships between the paintings of different color so he eventually settled on a specific hue of blue to convey his point. He said of his choice of color, "blue has no dimension, it is outside dimension, while the other colors do have one. [...] All the colors bring associations of concrete ideas [...] while blue at the most brings to mind the sea and the sky, already the most abstract things in tangible and visible nature." In order to create this distinctive color, Klein worked with a chemist to create a precise, patented, signature hue; it was named, and is still recognized worldwide today, as International Klein Blue. His blue paintings became invitations to infinity; in fact, he compared one of them to an "open window to freedom."
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Nouveau Réalisme Artworks in Focus:

Beginnings

Recycling Reality

Jean Tinguely (far left) Niki de Saint Phalle, and unidentified man, shooting paint at a nearly finished work (1961). Photo by Shunk-Kender
Jean Tinguely (far left) Niki de Saint Phalle, and unidentified man, shooting paint at a nearly finished work (1961). Photo by Shunk-Kender

In 1955, French art critic Pierre Restany met Yves Klein at his first solo show in Paris. At the time Klein had been making a name for himself as an artist whose work challenged the illusions of art. In this exhibition he was showing the first series of what would later become his famous monochrome works - paintings made of simple squares of one uniform color. There was no relation of color to anything but itself, a blasphemous notion at the time. Klein introduced Restany to a large group of artists including Jean Tinguely and Arman whose work, like much of his own, meant to show ordinary reality without idealization. Unlike the European Realists or the Social Realists before them, who were known to present reality through a darker lens, Klein and his peers were simply acting as mirrors to explore their everyday urban, consumer society.

Restany became highly interested in the group and began attending their shows. These exhibitions marked a new direction for art in Paris, drawing on human experience and utilizing materials that were not usually considered appropriate for fine art such as trash, advertisements and common household items. The movement had echoes of the emerging Pop art movement in the UK, in its borrowing from popular culture and everyday life, as well as of the work of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg in the US, which featured found materials in assemblages.

In 1958, Restany wrote the catalog notes for Klein's Le Vide (or "Void,") a famous exhibition in which no work was shown. Instead, the walls of the gallery were left blank and viewers were invited to consider "the spatialization of sensibility." The conceptual nature of the show prompted a response from a fellow artist Arman, who filled the windows of the Galerie Iris Clert with rubbish and named the work Le Plein (or "Full Up") in 1960.

The First Exhibition and Manifesto

In 1960, Yves Klein and several of the artists Pierre Restany had gotten to know in Paris, exhibited together at the Apollinaire Gallery in Milan. Restany wrote the catalog essay for the show, which he titled "Les Nouveaux Réalistes." In it he characterized the art as "The passionate adventure of the real perceived in itself and not through the prism of conceptual or imaginative transcription."

The first, signed manifesto of Nouveau Réalisme (1960)
The first, signed manifesto of Nouveau Réalisme (1960)

In October of the same year, Restany encouraged the artists involved to put their signatures to his essay, transforming it into the first manifesto of Nouveau Réalisme. The artists included Yves Klein, Arman, François Dufrene, Raymond Hains, Daniel Spoerri, Jean Tinguely and Jacques de la Villegle. They used the manifesto to affirm their "collective singularity" as a group and their dedication to appropriating reality in their art, cementing the style as a movement. The single-statement manifesto read: "The Nouveaux Réalistes have become conscious of their collective identity; Nouveau Réalisme = new perceptions of the real."

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Nouveau Réalisme Overview Continues

Descended from Dada

In 1961, Restany and his wife opened Galerie J in Paris, which would become the main exhibition space for the Nouveaux Réalistes. Their first exhibition was entitled "40° Above Dada." It both paid homage to and explored the influence of Dada and Marcel Duchamp on the group. Restany again wrote the catalog notes for this show and the text is usually seen as the second manifesto of the movement. Four more artists joined the movement and signed this second manifesto: Niki de Saint Phalle, César, Mimmo Rotella, and Gérard Deschamps.

The influence of Dada is particularly evident in Nouveau Réalisme's espousal of "non-art" and in the use of assemblage and surreal juxtapositions. Both movements also made extensive use of found objects, such as Arman's "trash" works made using rubbish. As the curators of Luxembourg and Dayan Gallery suggest, "the use of new or used objects by the Nouveau Réaliste sculptors, often in excess or repetition, brought a new way of looking at the notion of the readymade, an artistic concept introduced by Marcel Duchamp nearly half a century earlier."

Klein Distances Himself

Yves Klein with a model performing/creating a work from his <i>Anthropométries</i> series (1960)
Yves Klein with a model performing/creating a work from his Anthropométries series (1960)

Restany's 1961 manifesto placed a strong emphasis on the movement's Dadaist heritage and privileged Nouveau Réaliste artworks that followed the principles of Dada. Yves Klein, however, disagreed with this formulation, believing that Nouveau Réalisme was more forward-looking and innovative than this retrospective emphasis implied. His own work was more wide-ranging in terms of style, media, and technique than some of his peers and was oftentimes meant to provoke certain considerations. For example, his monochromes challenged the contemporary status of painting and poked fun at Abstract Expressionism. His concept pieces and performances were important building blocks toward what would later become known as Conceptual art such as his piece Zone de Sensibilité Picturale Immatérielle (or "Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility"), which carried on for years, in which documentation of ownership for a piece of empty space was sold for gold. His use of the nude female body as paintbrush spurred new ideas in collaboration and his Fire paintings made from gas powered flame borrowed from one of France's major destructive testing laboratories introduced exciting ways to view material and medium. He was the most famous of the group yet felt tethered by its narrow definition.

In 1961, Klein began to distance himself from the group, publishing his own artistic statement called the Chelsea Hotel Manifesto. The following year, he died suddenly of a heart attack, and his death marked the beginning of the end for Nouveau Réalisme.

The Final Manifesto

In 1962, there was an exhibition of Nouveau Réaliste work at the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York. The show posited the Nouveau Réalisme movement as an embryonic precursor to the emerging US Pop art movement, rather than giving it status as a movement in its own right. The following year, Christo joined the Nouveau Réalisme movement at the Second Festival of New Realism in Munich. Restany once again wrote the catalog essay for the exhibition entitled "New realism? What are we to make of it?" The text became the final manifesto, signifying the unified movement's dissolution.

After this, the group rarely showed their work together.

Concepts and Styles

The Nouveaux Réalistes ushered in a bold cacophony of styles. Even when borrowing from Dada or American Pop Art contemporaries, they managed to make several techniques their own with an inherent avant-garde flair.

Assemblage

Several of the Nouveaux Réalistes developed work via the technique of assemblage, a format that brings together disparate elements, often found items, to create a single sculptural work. It was famously adopted and explored by Arman, for his "poubelles" or trashcan compositions, in which he filled transparent cases with items of rubbish. Gérard Deschamps constructed lavish compilations of fabric, clothing, and rags. These presentations were often seen as critiques on society's newly accepted modes of mass production and product accumulation.

Décollage

Jacques Villegle tearing up a poster (1961). Photograph by Shunk-Kender
Jacques Villegle tearing up a poster (1961). Photograph by Shunk-Kender

Décollage is a two-dimensional technique that achieves a similar aesthetic to assemblage. The technique was inspired by the collage practices of Dada and was adopted by François Dufrene, Jacques Villegle, Mimmo Rotella and Raymond Hains who were inspired by the peeling billboards, decomposing posters, and tattered advertisements on the streets of Paris. They would pirate images directly from the walls and signs, sometimes taking a chunk of wall in its entirety -an act of vandalism justified by their self-labelled solidarity against the advertisement industry's co-opting of public space - and then create works with these images layered one atop the other. Once layered, they would strip sections away to reveal what lay beneath; this resulted in visually interesting and unexpected juxtapositions that were equal parts destructive and creative.

Performance

As an antidote to the stereotype that artists are isolated figures, eternally tucked away like hermits in the privacy of their studios, many of the Nouveaux Réalistes chose to produce their work in the public eye. They became widely known for their orchestration of participative events, which turned the process of making into a performance in its own right.

A gallery visitor becomes part of the interactive work by Nikki de Saint Phale (1961)
A gallery visitor becomes part of the interactive work by Nikki de Saint Phale (1961)

Key examples of this include Yves Klein's Anthropometry works in which naked women were used as "human paintbrushes" to smear paint onto prepared canvases. Arman staged public destructions of instruments and then rearranged their parts into distinctive abstract object paintings. For instance, in Chopin's Waterloo, he smashed up a piano in a gallery before fixing the pieces to a pre-prepared mount. In some performances an artist would direct the creative process, then encourage visitors to contribute; in Daniel Spoerri's EAT pieces, viewers were invited to eat food prepared by the artist before the leftovers were used to make art. For one serial work, Nikki de Saint Phalle shot a gun at her canvas, popping hidden bags of paint to ooze and reveal a colorful work of happenstance - then she asked the audience to take a shot as well.

This performative element of Nouveau Réalisme is significant because, as Meredith Malone points out in her dissertation "Nouveau Réalisme: Performative exhibition strategies and the everyday in post -WWII France," it "utilized transformative actions, the body, and the objects omnipresent in postwar daily life in order to question art world systems of valuation, while proposing new standards for what might constitute a significant event or aesthetic experience." In other words, by utilizing spectacle, the preciousness and intimacy of the pictoral or sculptural art object was being stripped in lieu of a new, publicly created art lexicon.

Painting

Although much Nouveau Réaliste work utilized experimental art forms, several members of the movement were also exploring new directions for painting. Yves Klein in particular spent much of his time creating paintings that challenged assumptions about the medium. He used unconventional tools to paint, such as naked human bodies. He also created an extensive series of monochromatic paintings, the highly reductive nature of which questioned the emotional depths supposedly visible in abstract art. Niki de Saint Phalle similarly pushed the boundaries the medium with her series Tirs, which consisted of paintings made by shooting at bags of paint with a rifle, parodying the approaches of Abstract Expressionism.

Sculpture and Installations

Sculptures and installations were freed of their normative boxes and given free reign in the absurd, experimental, and unconventional. Jean Tinguely used assemblage techniques to create wild kinetic sculptures out of household and industrial items. In 1960, one of his best-known works, Homage to New York was placed in the garden at New York City's MoMA where it was intended to self-destruct, but dramatically caught fire instead and was shut off by a fire warden. Daniel Spoerri made "snare pictures," which were affixed groups of objects from a real life experience, such as leftover food and crockery from a dinner on canvas. Arman crafted his abstract compilations of objects he had moments before destroyed. César Ricard compressed junk cars into exquisite blocks of metal, color, and form. On a much larger scale, Christo and Jeanne-Claude were beginning to wrap buildings and large areas of topography with interventions of fabric and material.

Later Developments

In 1970, the remaining artists who had been part of Nouveau Réalisme came together for a final farewell to the movement, an exhibition called The New Realists 1960/1970. It ended with a "funeral banquet" for which Daniel Spoerri created an edible representation of every artist's work from the show. Each of the artists went on to continue an artistic career in their own right, some more notable then others. Today, Niki de Saint Phalle's gargantuan sculptures of colorful women are universally known and Christo continues his massive-scale public interventions all over the world.

Influences on Future Movements

Many of the central tenets and techniques of Nouveau Réalisme were highly influential on a global scale. This can clearly be seen in the work of American Pop artists, such as Andy Warhol and Jim Dine, who borrowed directly from the materials of urban reality. Warhol, for example, managed an active "factory" of followers and collaborators, in which he manufactured a large portion of art inspired by real life products and the surrounding consumerist environment. Dine used assemblage techniques to incorporate real tools and hardware into his canvases, following in the tradition of artists such as Arman and Jean Tinguely.

Nouveau Réalisme was also important in prompting a similar but alternative movement in Germany called Capitalist Realism. Founded in 1963 by Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Wolf Vostell, and Konrad Lueg, the movement focused on Germany's growing consumer culture and media saturated society. It challenged consumerism and depictions of reality in a country split down the middle by Communism and struggling after the devastation of the Second World War.

Many artists borrowed ideas about the potential of vandalism, violence, and destruction to birth something new as well as the concepts of creation as performance from the Nouveaux Réalistes. In 1961 Zoe Leonard's Strange Fruit (for David) consisted of rinds from real fruit eaten by the artist and her friends and then sewn back together to decompose slowly within the museum setting. In the late 1970s, Warhol's Oxidation Paintings were literally pissed on by his friends and himself to create gorgeous chemical reactions that were ultimately similar to abstract paintings. In the 1980s American painter Julian Schnabel would rise to fame with his paintings on which were glued shards of plates that had been previously shattered.

The Dadaist element of the Nouveau Réalisme also had an influence on the post-modern and Neo-Pop movements, which came to the forefront of the 1980s and 90s. Works such as Jeff Koons' kitsch sculptures and Grayson Perry's collage-style tapestries owe much to the assemblages and popular culture references of the movement. Today, artists such as Mark Bradford, who scours the streets of Los Angeles for discarded signs, wrappers, magazines and other urban papers and then layers them up, only to be sanded off in chunks, is carrying on the early processes of décollage.


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Content compiled and written by Anna Souter

Edited and revised by Kimberly Nichols

" Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Anna Souter
Edited and revised by Kimberly Nichols
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Useful Resources on Nouveau Réalisme

Videos
Books
Websites
Articles
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
Antidiets of the Avant-Garde: From Futurist Cooking to Eat Art

By Cecilia Novero

Realism

By Kerstin Stremmel

The Myth of Nouveau Réalisme: Art and the Performative in Post-War France

By Kaira Cabanas

Nouveau Réalisme

By Matthias Koddenberg

More Interesting Books about Nouveau Réalisme
You Can Kiss a Lichtenstein, But You Can't Kiss Us

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May 13, 2013

New Realisms in the 1960s

By Jaimey Hamilton
Art Journal Open
November 1, 2012

Radio Waves: New York "Nouveau Réalisme" and Rauschenberg at Sperone Westwater

By Andrew Russeth
Observer Culture
October 8, 2013

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