Summary of Nouveau Réalisme
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 & Accomplishments
- 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.
Artworks and Artists of Nouveau Réalisme
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."
Dry pigment in synthetic polymer medium on cotton over plywood - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
In 1961, Niki de Saint Phalle (one of the few female artists associated with Nouveau Réalisme) held an exhibition at Galerie J entitled Fire at Will. On show were several of her "Shooting Pictures" from her series Tirs, which means gunshot or fire in French. In these pieces, polythene bags of paint were fixed to a board and covered with thick plaster. Viewers were then invited to shoot a rifle at the surface, popping the bags and causing the paint to run down the textured white surface. This particular work was shot at by a number of people, including American artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg.
The process of creating the artwork within the public eye, and asking others to join in, became a collaborative performance, which dissolved traditional stereotypes of the artist as a solitary hermit-like figure and opened up art's reach toward the populous. This mirrored the Nouveau Réaliste mission of staying loyal to reality rather than designating it with construed hierarchical values. It also allowed for the final product to become one of chance, proving that art could be as spontaneous as it can be strategic.
Critic Craig Staff interprets the aggressive nature of these shooting pictures as representing the death of traditional painting as a medium. He claims "it is difficult not to interpret Saint Phalle's 'shooting paintings' iconoclastically and within a set of terms that unequivocally sought to negate, if not entirely bring down, the medium." After a couple of years, Saint Phalle stopped making these works, claiming she had become "addicted to shooting, like one becomes addicted to a drug."
Plaster, paint, string, polythene and wire on wood - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
Tinguely's Baluba series, executed from 1961-1963, were wildly provocative odes to the detritus of consumer culture. The sculptures were created from a variety of found objects in compositions that radiate disharmony while also promoting the beauty of fragility. Most of the objects are scruffy and old, and are used as a pointed comment on society's promotion of brand new objects. Tinguely considered each piece a living entity and was pleased at his ability to present dark commentary on mass production and the industrialization of society through such humorous means.
This piece exists as a parody of traditional sculpture, composed with an industrial oil drum as a plinth, rising to a collection of objects delicately balanced at the top. This work is also kinetic, following in the tradition of Naum Gabo and Alexander Calder. The viewer can press a pedal beside the work to activate a motor, which causes the sculpture to move and shake. The Centre Georges Pompidou describes the effect: "what seemed incomplete and unsatisfying when motionless, when animated becomes a bizarre enchantment of sorts."
It is interesting to note that the Baluba pieces oftentimes contained colorful feathers, inspired by his relationship with fellow Nouveau Réaliste Niki de Saint Phalle, who he would later marry.
Metal, wire, plastic objects, feather duster, barrel, motor - Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
This work was created for an exhibition in 1962 entitled "Musical Rage." It is one of a collection of pieces/happenings known as Rages in which Arman carried out acts of vandalism in public. At the opening, he used a sledgehammer to smash up a piano, before affixing the pieces in an abstract organization onto panel. The character of the finished piece was determined by the unique forms, created by the destroyed instrument, giving the piece a decidedly Cubist or Baroque bent. This process of destruction and transformation became a performance in itself. However, as critic Jan van der Marck points out, "the action was secondary, and what interested Arman was the result." Critic Alfred Pacquement further argues that "Arman's ill-treatment of objects [...] was due less to a systematically destructive will than to a desire to provoke new aesthetic effects." The final piece presents a record of an experience and also proffers a new approach to making. It is an assemblage piece in the spirit of Dadaist techniques as well as typical of Nouveau Réalisme.
Pieces of a piano attached to a wooden panel - Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
Ricard demonstrates César pushing the boundaries of assemblage and using a destructive process to create an artwork. It is one of a series of similar works, in which he used a scrap metal press to compress retired cars into shapes that predated Minimalist sculpture by a few years. He was interested in compression as a concept, and in the relationship between an object's proportions and its outward appearance. He came up with the idea of "manipulated compression" in 1961, and used it to explore how viewer's assumptions about an object could be challenged through changing its proportions and the appearance of its external skin.
Through a series of experiments, César discovered how to crush the metal in order to get the dimensions, form and color he wanted. Through this ability to predict what his sculptures would look like, he added a personal dimension to an impersonal industrial process. These works furthered the Nouveau Réaliste dialogue on commodity by not only appropriating real discarded automobiles but also, by literally appropriating the technological process used to destruct them.
The mastery of this compression process led César to create a small parallelepiped sculpture that remains the César Award, or the highest film honor trophy in France.
Compressed car - Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
Repas Hongrois, Tableau-Piege
This work resulted from an exhibition called 723 Kitchen Utensils, which took place in Paris in 1963. Spoerri transformed Galerie J into a restaurant and cooked food to be served by art critics to visitors - creating an innovative demonstration of the relationship between artist, critic, and consumer. Once they had finished, visitors were encouraged to create "snare pictures," meant to depict a singular moment in time, which a viewer might stumble upon in all its disordered reality. Spoerri would then present the board on the wall, pushing the boundaries between pictorial and sculptural art in a way that jostled one's perception and normal mode of seeing.
Art historian Manfred Schneckenburger claims that these works demonstrate a "strong touch of post-Surrealist unreality", and describes them as "an equation of our sensual, vital, untidy, dirty world, and [...] a quest for evidence of what Spoerri had described as 'one split second in an entire cycle of life and death, decay and rebirth'." In fact, the "snare pictures" can be seen as physical Polaroids of actual existential moments, absent of sentimentality.
Metal, glass, porcelain, fabric on painted chipboard
Taking his cue from Dadaist and surrealist collage works, Rotella created images in the important technique developed by the Nouveaux Réalistes called "décollage". His art was inspired by the shredded or peeling movie posters spotted on the streets of Rome. He later said, "I was literally spellbound, and even more so because at that time I was convinced that painting was finished, that something new had to be unearthed, something alive and modern. So in the evenings I began to tear the posters, ripping them from the walls, and take them back to my studio, creating compositions."
Marilyn was created by gluing together several layers of posters and advertising images before Rotella tore strips away to reveal the different layers beneath. A powerful visual effect is thus created by the juxtaposition of the famous and iconic actress, who was the subject of so many Pop artworks, with the casual brutality of the ripped surfaces. John-Paul Stodart describes this work as summing up a "conflict between the old and new worlds" of post-War Europe, and as "revealing quite literally the underside of consumer dreams."
Torn posters on board - Private Collection
Beginnings of Nouveau Réalisme
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."
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."
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
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.
Nouveau Réalisme: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 Jean-Claude were beginning to wrap buildings and large areas of topography with interventions of fabric and material.
Later Developments - After Nouveau Réalisme
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.