This appeared in the Guardian (Art & Architecture blog) on 14 May 2008:
France’s Pre-Banksy Art Provocateurs
At the time of punk, a ‘commando’ unit of French creative guerrillas spearheaded a movement that was the forerunner of today’s spray-stencil street culture
Dominique Fury flanked by two of the Banshees wearing her T-shirts
Imagine Jamie Reid stealing the Sex Pistols’ thunder or Linder Sterling upstaging the Buzzcocks: this is pretty much what happened in France at the end of the 70s. The Jeunes Gens Mödernes (“Mödern Young Things”) exhibition, curated by Jean-François Sanz at the Galerie du Jour in Paris, showcases most aspects of local post-punk culture from badges to paintings through record sleeves, fanzines, photographs, videos and films. A totemic synthesizer, an old-school keyboard and a couple of guitars propped up against diminutive amps take pride of place at the centre of the main room. Cigarette butts have been studiously littered around the pretend stage for added authenticity. This installation of sorts embodies the ghost of gigs past, but it also draws attention to the deafening sound of silence. Visiting agnès b’s labyrinthine gallery is not dissimilar to attending a concert wearing earplugs or watching television on mute — and, frankly, it is all the better for it.
With a few notable exceptions, Gallic punk was derivative and devoid of any real social resonance. Singing about anarchy in front of a handful of socialites on loan from the neighbouring gay clubs was unlikely to threaten the status quo. This is probably why the extraordinary creative energies unleashed in New York and London were channelled, most effectively, into the edgiest fringes of the French art world.
Bazooka, who appeared in 1975, were arguably the greatest punk artists this side of Jamie Reid (Malcolm McLaren once described them as “influential”). They are mainly known in Britain for designing the cover of Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces, but they first shot to infamy during the summer of 1977 when they were invited to (dis)grace the pages of Libération. This led to a series of nocturnal art attacks which consisted in adding increasingly provocative artwork and comments on every inch of space available. Sometimes they even went as far as doctoring the content of articles or changing the layout. They always did this at the 11th hour — just before the paper went to press — so that nobody could foil their subversive plans. “All hail the graphic dictatorship,” trumpeted one of Bazooka‘s most famous slogans, reflecting their fascination with Suprematism (Lissitzky), Constructivism (Rodchenko) and totalitarian propaganda. The aim was to wind up the leftist “war veterans” of May 1968 and their hippie fellow-travellers who made up the bulk of Libé‘s staff and readership. In this they succeeded only too well. Lawsuits were filed and tempers flared. Olivia Clavel was soundly slapped by a female photographer whose work she had butchered; Kiki Picasso (Christian Chapiron) and Loulou Picasso (Jean-Louis Dupré) were both beaten up for their provocative flirtations with fascist iconography. Tensions ran so high that the editor eventually gave Bazooka their own monthly magazine (1978) to avoid a full-blown rebellion within his daily.
At the time, the members of this “graphic commando” were all living together in a large flat which was part Warholian Factory, part Bauhaus-style powerhouse. Fuelled by drugs, they worked day and night while musicians drifted in and out. There is a famous picture showing Dominique Fury flanked by a pair of Banshees sporting T-shirts she had just produced (pictured above). Speed and (especially) acid led to a Stakhanovist output ranging from countless record sleeves to the credits of TV programmes via an issue of NME. The switch to heroin soon slowed them down and heralded the group’s demise in 1980.
In many ways Bazooka provided a blueprint for the post-punk art collectives which followed in their wake. They celebrated everything modern in a knowing retro-futurist manner that was, in fact, typically postmodern; they rejected the traditional highbrow-lowbrow dichotomy, shunned museums and attacked the cultural establishment.
The Musulmans Fumants (a reference to Chester Himes), co-founded in 1980 by Tristam Dequatremare (former lead singer with punk combo Guilty Razors), preferred to exhibit their works in nightclubs rather than traditional galleries. They were instrumental in reviving figurative painting and launching the international careers of Robert Combas and Hervé Di Rosa who spearheaded the successful Figuration Libre movement (1981).
The Frères Ripoulin (1984) were the Musulmans Fumants’ partners in artistic crimes. They included Nina Childress, who graduated from art-punk band Lucrate Milk, as well as Claude Closky and Pierre Huyghe who went on to find fame and fortune.
Jean Faucheur, their theoretician, believed that the streets were the new art schools at a time when graffiti art had hardly reared its head. The Ripoulins were “affichistes”: they painted their works on posters which were then pasted on strategically-placed advertising hoardings. All these groups were linked to Basquiat, Haring and the whole Lower East Side scene across the Atlantic, but they are also very much the forefathers of the current Street Art movement.