With the disappearance of Jacques Villeglé, aged 96, on the night of June 6 to 7, 2022 in Paris, we remember the life of this little Frenchman who was a legendary figure celebrated for his compositions of torn posters and his alphabets socio-political stories exploring the ever-changing history of our contemporary cities, which has captured our imaginations for more than seven decades. Born in 1926 in Quimper, France, his last moments are like a quote from Winston Churchill, a passionate painter, whom Villeglé had chosen for his next exhibition in Saint-Malo in Brittany: “Happy the painters, because they don’t be alone. Light and color, peace and hope will keep them company until almost the end of the day. Jacques Villeglé: Composite Memory will take place from July 9 to September 18, 2022 at the Saint-Sauveur Chapel in Saint-Malo as part of the City’s program which hosts a major exhibition every summer paying tribute to a great artist, 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 who we already miss a lot and who continues to exhibit around the world, even after his death. I share here with you one of the last interviews he gave, during which he told me about his artistic approach and his motivations.
Your creations bear the names of the streets from which they come, making your work a poetic but also social and political testimony of our time. Strolling the streets alone or working on construction sites as a public works inspector, how did you choose the posters to collect?
The poster tearer is not an artist. Why is he tearing up the posters? Sometimes it is to oppose their political or commercial subject, sometimes out of idleness, but never for an artistic purpose. I turned these torn posters into works of art, that was my goal. I called them “the anonymous tear”. I chose the 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 do not choose; I agree 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 to be disclosed. Cryptography is secret for insiders; it is an aesthetic element. The typeface was highlighted by Braque. Cubism was an important style for me, so with the unillustrated poster, I became the heir to it. Cryptography is a detour from cubism. I have always had good relations with Guy Debord, a master of diversion, because, without a doubt, he appreciated this diversion, while reproaching him for not escaping sufficiently from the pictorial tradition.
Tell me about 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 went to art schools just to be with young people my age who wanted to create. It was certainly not in a school, in the 1940s, that I could have learned to choose and frame a torn poster. When you start creating a work of art, you don’t always know how you are going to finish it because during the execution you can more or less modify the initial 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 add to the street?
I share with street artists an interest in the culture of the city. We work with patterns that the Impressionists did not have. I spent time with them because of our mutual interest in present life. Plus, they’re much younger than me, so it’s flattering and I really enjoy meeting them. I have only good memories with them. I’m not at all attracted to teamwork, but I like artistic society and feel an interest in my work among street artists. It’s more of a mentorship than a collaboration. I get on well with them; they save me from my loneliness. I was blamed for this relationship. An artist who works in the street is, for some, a vandal. But things are changing faster in our time than in my youth.
How has your art evolved over time? What have been the biggest challenges in your career of more than 70 years?
At first, there was misunderstanding on the part of French cultural personnel. Perhaps because I had heard someone at the Kahnweiler gallery say: “When Paris despises you, go abroad”, I rush to Cologne, my first home base, with the first gallery open in day after the Liberation. I then frequented Belgians, Germans, Swiss, Canadians, North and South Americans and gallery owners from all these countries. I was much better received there than in France. Raymond Cogniat, co-founder and first director of the Biennale de Paris, was one of the few to trust me. So I was very surprised that when he died, there was no sign of recognition. I learned this maybe six months later when I tried to contact him to get a question answered.
At 96, you are still active in your studio. What motivates you and drives you forward?
My vocation was born in 1943, when I saw a reproduction of a Miró that I did not understand. Internally, I said to myself that it was in this environment that I wanted to live. Almost 80 years later, I haven’t changed my vocation. Creation is stimulated by relations with the art market. They keep you from falling asleep and, more ambitious, push you to do something new. I think an artist cannot be confused with lay people who aspire to retirement.
What is the role of the artist in society? What legacy would you like to leave to the art world?
Artistic works will bear witness to a bygone era. Artists work to create these testimonies. Part of the spirit of New Realism was just a conversation with society. It’s a group of friends from the same generation, each with a different and perhaps even contradictory point of view. The artist hopes that his work will give his successors the desire to dialogue.