Nouveau Réalisme: the masters of décollage who critiqued modern consumer society


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Paris, 1960: French art critic Pierre Restany formed a contemporary European counterpart to the US-based Neo-Dada movement, calling it Nouveau Réalisme (new realism).

The group’s artists were united by the use of everyday objects, scraps, trash, posters taken from walls, and similar materials in their work. These “readymades” were never presented whole or as they were found, but instead were usually altered in some way, whether crumpled up, ripped, cut, re-assembled or even destroyed entirely.

The goal of the nouveaux réalistes was in fact to critique mass society and the myth of consumer goods, presenting us with discarded, misshapen objects as if they were “relics” of a world in decline.

Among the many categories of artists that belonged to Nouveau Réalisme, the figure that most interests us here is the affichiste (from the French affiche, “poster”), who used advertising posters ripped off the walls of the city as material for their work (which led to them ironically calling themselves “street thieves”).

The movement’s most famous affichistes were Italy’s Mimmo Rotella and France’s Raymond Hains, Francois Dufrene and Jacques Villeglé. The favorite technique of these artists was décollage, which can be described as the opposite of collage in that, instead of creating an image via the subsequent layering of materials (thus starting from scratch and adding to the image gradually), the image is created by removing layers of materials, thus working via subtraction.

It is likely that Mimmo Rotella invented décollage in 1953. His modus operandi was as follows: after having removed posters that had been wheat-pasted one atop another from a wall, he would tear them with his hands or with a scraper to bring out the words and figures of the older posters underneath. Then, with a bit of craft glue diluted in water, he would attach the final piece to a base such as paperboard, high-density fiberboard, wood, jute canvas or sheet metal.

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