For a half-century, French artist Jacques Villegle wandered the urban landscapes in search of anonymous, torn and deteriorated posters to turn into paintings with a strong visual impact that told the story of his generation and documented the ever-changing history of our contemporary cities.

Jacques prepping an artwork for the Alphabet(s) exhibition. 

“I did not try to criticise society. I just wanted to illustrate it in an original way,” he says. An insatiable collector and historian, he retrieved fragments from the life of the streets, shreds of barely visible letters and figures from advertising posters pasted on public billboards lacerated by the elements or ripped by anonymous hands, which he saved from obscurity, assembled and mounted on canvas.

“I did not try to criticise society. I just wanted to illustrate it in an original way.”

Everything had already been done for him by the poster designers, passers-by who tore or traced graffiti onto the advertisements and the weather. He just had to conceive the composition. Instead of an idea, it was about a gesture because he had read a philosopher’s reflection saying that there is an evolution in art when there is economy of labour.

“I transformed lacerated posters into works of art – that was my goal,” he states. “I chose the posters for the interest of their composition, then for the interest of a word, a fragment of a phrase and, in the 1960s, for their colours.” For him, laceration wasn’t a destructive act; it was a way to build a new type of beauty while recording traces of civilisation.

New Frontier

Jacques was one of the founders of New Realism, an art movement established in 1960 and based on a term coined by French art critic Pierre Restany.

Members included Yves Klein, Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle. Although they worked in varied visual art disciplines – compressions (Cesar), accumulations (Arman), assemblages (Martial Raysse) and packaging (Christo) – there was a commonality to their work that involved a method of direct appropriation of reality.

Jacques in his studio.

They recovered discarded items, using trash, cars, concrete, posters and sheet metal as new mediums, thereby transforming everyday objects into symbols of the revival of post-war consumption and deliberately excluded “noble” materials such as bronze or stone.

Pierre Restany called Jacques a recycler of others’ work and a proponent of urban, industrial and advertising reality. Also a recycler of himself, his creations constantly needed moulding and reformulating.

The Upstart

Born in Quimper in 1926, Jacques studied painting and then switched to architecture at the Regional School of Fine Arts of Rennes before moving to Nantes to continue his architectural studies. In the wake of WWII, he began salvaging junk on the Atlantic beaches of St. Malo. Reconstituting them as sculptures, his first artwork was the steel wire Fils d’Acier – Chaussee des Corsaires.

In 1949, he dropped out of school and settled in Paris, where he debuted his signature technique of lacerated posters with the colossal 6m by 25m, black and red Ach Alma Manetro artwork extracted from a hoarding between Le Dome and La Coupole restaurants in Montparnasse together with fellow French artist Raymond Hains, whom he had met at university.

“Creation is stimulated by art market relationships. They prevent you from falling asleep and, more ambitiously, push you to do something new. An artist cannot be confused with laymen who yearn for retirement.”

“My vocation was born in 1943 when I saw the reproduction of a Miro I didn’t understand,” he remarks. “Inwardly, I told myself that it was in this milieu that I wanted to live. Nearly 80 years later, I haven’t changed that vocation. Creation is stimulated by art market relationships. They prevent you from falling asleep and, more ambitiously, push you to do something new. An artist cannot be confused with laymen who yearn for retirement.”

The entrance to the 2021 Alphabet(s) exhibition at Gallerie Georges-Philippe & Nathalie Vallois in Paris. 

Constant Struggle

Faced with the difficulty of making a living as an artist, Jacques pursued a career in architecture simultaneously. For three decades, he was a public works inspector for the French Civil Service. It allowed him plenty of freedom, as he could complete the day’s work in less than two hours, leaving him time for his artistic projects in the evenings.

Rue Reaumur – Rue des Vertus, a 1984 artwork. 

“I knew how to work very quickly and to have brief conversations with contractors,” he recalls. “I supervised the construction of schools in Paris and some in the Seine department. Once a week, I was able to drive around the capital with a chauffeur, which helped me greatly to keep an eye on worksite hoardings that weren’t under my supervision. This allowed me to assess whether or not they were usable for my artwork.”

Jacques Villegle in his atelier in 2003. 

Towards the end of the 1990s, he gradually stopped his lacerated posters due to the increasing scarcity of the source material with the disappearance of unauthorised billposting because of the growing popularity of television advertising.

“Artistic works will be a testimony of a bygone era,” he notes. “The artist works to create these testimonies. The spirit of New Realism has only been partly 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 dialogue.” 

Fils d’acier – Chaussée des Corsaires, Jacques’ first sculpture made from steel wire found amongst the ruins of Saint-Malo in 1947.3. 

Evolving Artform

Today, Jacques focuses on his graphic socio-political alphabets, a series he has been working on since 1969 after stumbling upon an anonymous piece of graffiti on a Paris metro wall bearing the name of then- US President Nixon visiting de Gaulle in France.

There were the three arrows of the former Socialist party for the N, the Cross of Lorraine for the I, a Nazi swastika for the X and a Celtic cross inside the circle of the Jeune Nation movement for the O. Modifying Roman letters, Jacques turned them into a mix of lines, circles, curves and crosses, and gave symbols of political parties, religions, ideologies, movements and currencies new meanings.

Rue Lauzin, 1964. 

He could combine the Euro, British pound, yen, Star of David and hammer and sickle. His alphabets comprised heterogeneous signs and symbols became a painting. Borrowing sayings or phrases from others and transposing them onto paper, canvas or wall, he invites the viewer to decipher his words and codes and to become a cryptographer of the everyday remnants of urban life.

Alphabet(s), his 11th and penultimate exhibition at the Georges-Philippe & Nathalie Vallois Gallery in Paris held last April, also his first major gallery show based on this series, had quotes by the likes of Marcel Duchamp, Jack Kerouac or Camille Corot painted on the walls.

Bas-Meudon, torn posters mounted on canvas, 1991. 

These were accompanied by “Let’s be realistic, demand the impossible” by Che Guevara; “What matters in a technique is not to master it” by Jean Dubuffet; and “Don’t be afraid of the past” by John Lennon, “If people tell you that it is irrevocable, do not believe them” by Oscar Wilde; and “It is not enough to have beautiful letters to write a real alphabet” by Jacques Prevert.

As the father of street art, Jacques almost always takes inspiration from the streets rather than leaving his mark on them, bringing art from the street to the gallery.

99 Rue de Temple poster, created in 1974. 

In addition, his alphabets sometimes make their way back to the walls and asphalt from which they began, revealing this lone figure who not only borrows from but also gives back to the city.

Consider, for instance, the day he inscribed the words “To be astonished is a pleasure” by Edgar Allan Poe as a large graphic stencil installation on a wall in Paris’ Tuileries Garden in 2009 or the statement “Art is what helps draw us out of inertia” by Belgian writer Henri Michaux on the ground in front of the Grand Palais in 2016 during the FIAC international art fair in the French capital.

An outdoor installation featuring a quote by Edgar Allan Poe in 2009 at FIAC Hors les Murs exhibition space. 

It just goes to show that the acuteness of Jacques’ eye remains just as extraordinary as when he first began, proving he’s still as contemporary and daring as ever – even at the age of 95.