The Nouveau Réalisme movement encompassed many different artists and works. Paintings, posters, junk, leftovers, mass-produced commercial items, as well as self-destroying machines were all part of the art that was made by the movement’s members. The artists associated with it include Yves Klein, Arman, Niki de Saint Phalle, and Jean Tinguely. Here is a quick introduction to the fascinating French movement called Nouveau Réalisme.
What was the Nouveau Réalisme Movement?
The Nouveau Réalisme movement emerged in France in the 1960s. The name goes back to a manifesto written by the French critic Pierre Restany. In a text from the year 1960 titled The Nouveaux Réalistes’ Declaration of Intention, Restany stated that the time of easel painting was over and something else was going to take its place. That something else was something real. This real thing that he spoke of could be found in posters, everyday objects, or garbage.
In 1961, Pierre Restany organized an exhibition in Paris that included works made by the members of the movement. Translated into English, the exhibition’s title was 40 Degrees Above Dada. In a text by the same name, Restany wrote that the meaning of the ready-made Marcel Duchamp was known for was now being renewed. While Restany still considered the artistic baptism of the ordinary object found in the art of the Nouveau Réalisme movement a Dadaist practice, he saw the movement as going even further, or as he said it, going forty degrees above Dada. He claimed that the art of the movement could lead to an expression of real emotion, sentiment, and poetry.
What Are the Characteristics of the Movement?
As Pierre Restany suggested in his text 40 Degrees above Dada, the whole world can become a painting in the eyes of a Neo-Realist. The movement’s goal was to showcase a new kind of reality. To do so, the artists associated with Nouveau Réalisme used ordinary objects found in everyday life and turned them into art. This also included waste. Various materials and techniques were harnessed to make pieces like collages, assemblages, sculptures, and paintings.
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The movement is often compared to Pop Art and Neo-Dada because it addresses everyday life and consumer culture. Since Nouveau Réalisme encompasses so many different approaches, it’s helpful to look at specific works and the artists that created them. Here are seven artists associated with Nouveau Réalisme.
1. Yves Klein
Yves Klein is probably the best-known member of the Nouveau Réalisme movement. He was born in 1928 in Nice, France. He died of a heart attack in 1962 when he was only 34 years old. His parents were painters, but he never received any formal training. Klein became interested in the esoteric teachings of Rosicrucianism during his early 20s. While living in Japan in 1952, he studied judo and received a black belt. After this, he also worked as a judo instructor.
During the 1950s Klein started exhibiting his monochrome paintings which consisted of canvases that were painted with only one color. His blue monochrome paintings are especially famous. In 1960 he patented a specific shade of blue that he called the International Klein Blue. To him, the color represented space and monochrome painting represented a way of being immersed in the immeasurable existence of color. Since Dadaism didn’t align with the spiritual element of his works, he disagreed with Pierre Restany’s reference to it in 40 Degrees Above Dada.
2. Daniel Spoerri
Turning your leftovers into art might sound unusual, but that’s exactly what the Swiss artist Daniel Spoerri did. He was born in Romania in 1930 and fled to Switzerland together with his family after his father died in 1942. There, his uncle Théophile Spoerri adopted him. From 1950 to 1954, he studied ballet in Zurich and Paris and later worked as a professional dancer, composer, stage designer, and choreographer.
After settling in Paris, Spoerri met Yves Klein in 1960 through an artist he knew from Basel called Jean Tinguely, who was another figure associated with the Nouveau Réalisme movement. Spoerri became a founding member of the movement. It was also in 1960 that he created the first piece of his tableaux pièges, which can be translated as trap pictures. For these works, Spoerri fixed found objects to a surface. The pieces would later be hung on a wall like a regular painting.
Spoerri’s work Prose Poems shows leftovers, used dishes, and a book. With his tableaux pièges, Spoerri intended to connect art with life, but he also aimed to make the viewer uncomfortable by freezing objects in certain constellations that are usually subjected to constant change.
3. Niki de Saint Phalle
Niki de Saint Phalle was born in Neuilly-sur-Seine near Paris in 1930, but she grew up in New York. She moved back to France with her husband in 1951 and started painting a year later despite the fact that she never received any training as an artist. In 1960, she became known for making paintings by shooting rifles. It was also in 1960 that Niki de Saint Phalle and her husband separated. She moved in with the artist Jean Tinguely, who was also part of the Nouveau Réalisme movement and whom she later married. The couple also collaborated on various works of art.
Niki de Saint Phalle’s work called Monstre Crocodile ou le Monster is an example of how the Nouveaux Réalistes used everyday objects in their work. The piece is an assemblage of toys and plastic plants. The artist transformed items from mass culture associated with consumerism into monstrous sculptures. The work’s title can be translated as Crocodile Monster or the Monster. Niki talked about how her grandmother used to read her stories in New York and said that monsters have always fascinated her, so the piece might have been inspired by her childhood as well.
4. Jean Tinguely
The Swiss sculptor and Kinetic artist Jean Tinguely was born in 1925 in Fribourg, Switzerland. He studied painting and sculpture at the Basel School of Fine Arts. He later lived in Paris, Düsseldorf, and New York.
His interest in movement manifested itself in his works. His sculptures were often made with ordinary objects like junk and electric motors. Tinguely created machines that were able to paint abstract artworks for example. The Swiss artist also made machines that were self-destructive. His first attempt to showcase a large sculpture that would destroy itself in 1960 was unsuccessful. The 27-foot-high work called Homage to New York at the Museum of Modern Art in New York didn’t destroy itself according to plan, but it started a fire instead. Two other attempts called Study for an End of the World ended in more successful self-destruction.
Arman, also known as Armand Fernandez, was born in 1928 in Nice, France. He started to only go by Armand, but after a printing error occurred on a cover of a catalog, he used the name Arman instead. He was friends with Yves Klein with whom he shared an interest in judo.
He is known for his accumulation works, in which he exhibited a large number of similar items or things of the same model. These were ordinary objects like teapots, clocks, shoes or cars. His work called The Bluebeard’s Wife from 1969 consists of a large number of shaving brushes accumulated inside a female torso made of polyester. The artistic use of common objects corresponds with the ideas of the Nouveau Réalisme movement. Arman also made some works belonging to a group he called poubelle or dustbins. These works feature litter and waste inside a transparent box.
6. Jacques Mahé de la Villeglé
The French artist Jacques Mahé de la Villeglé is known for his torn-out posters. The technique he used is called décollage. Instead of assembling materials as one would do in a collage, posters were torn so that one could see what was underneath. In Jacques Mahé de la Villeglé’s case, there were even more posters underneath. His décollage pieces look like torn-out advertisement posters on the streets in everyday life. Villeglé would take these torn posters he found on the street and sometimes ruin them a bit more himself. His work Jazzmen is an example of this technique. He called it Jazzmen because of the guitar player that is visible on the left. To Jacques Villeglé, the spontaneous and anonymous tearing of posters that was done by random people on the street was a form of art.
7. César: A Founding Member of the Nouveau Réalisme Movement
César Baldaccini was born in 1921 in Marseille, France as the son of two Italians. César studied in art academies in Marseilles and Paris. He also used junk that he sourced from waste disposal sites to create his works. His use of found objects, often commercial in nature and usually considered trash, made him a characteristic member of the Nouveau Réalisme movement. He was one of the founding members of the movement. César is known for sculptures that he called Compressions. These consist of materials that were compressed into a smaller and denser forms. He also had quite a sense of humor. His work Portrait of Patrick Waldberg is a reference to the art critic Patrick Waldberg who made negative remarks about César’s compression works.