La Rentrée Littéraire Redux

This appeared in Guardian Books on 9 October 2012:

La Rentrée Littéraire Redux

The French books world’s demented annual commercial knockout context shows little sign of going away


[Eternal return… Parisian book buyers. Photograph: Alamy]

Much ink was expended, earlier this year, on the subject of parenting in France. For better or worse — usually the former — it was deemed far less “child-centric” than across the Channel. There is, however, at least one area where French kids set the agenda: the agenda (French for “diary”) itself.

Although nominally in December, the end of the year really occurs in early summer, when schools break up for a two-month hiatus. By August, Paris feels eerily empty, in a way that London, for instance, never does. At times, it almost looks like the local population has been wiped out by a neutron bomb, leaving hordes of tourists roaming around a ghost town. Most of those who cannot afford to go away are relegated — out of sight, out of mind and out of work — to the infamous banlieues, which, owing to some strange optical illusion, only become visible when they disappear in flames.

By the same token, it is September, and not January, which marks the true beginning of the year; a beginning that spells eternal recurrence rather than renaissance. “La rentrée” — the back-to-school season extended to the entire populace — never fails to remind me of Joey Kowalski, the narrator of Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke, who, despite being 30 years old, is marched off to school as though he had been caught playing truant. “La rentrée” is the bell that signals the end of playtime; the restoration that follows revolution. In an annual re-enactment of the “retour à la normale” after the carnival of May 1968, everybody returns to the old “train-train quotidien”: the daily grind of “métro, boulot, dodo” (commute, work, bed — an expression derived from a poem by Pierre Béarn). A vague sense that real life is elsewhere (as Rimbaud never quite put it) lingers a while, before fading like suntans and memories of holiday romances.

The start of the new school year (“la rentrée scolaire”) coincides, give or take a few weeks, with the opening of the publishing season (“la rentrée littéraire”). In fact, both rentrées go together like cheese and wine, Alsace and Lorraine, or Deleuze and Guattari. This is not purely coincidental, since publishers are largely dependent upon education for the grooming of future generations of book buyers. The “rentrée littéraire” is the equivalent of cramming for your finals — a tome-intensive blitzkrieg geared towards the autumn literary prizes and subsequent Christmas sales. The season kicks off mid-August, really kicks in mid-October, and climaxes in November, when most book prizes are awarded: the illustrious Prix Goncourt (hot on the heels of the Grand Prix de l’Académie française in October) but also the Prix Décembre, Femina, Flore, Interallié, Médicis, Renaudot, and a few others besides. The major publishing houses tend to carpet bomb, chucking as many titles at these awards as they can, while the indies have no other choice but to go for surgical hits, on a wing and a press release.

So far, this year’s vintage has been pretty much business as usual, apart from the growing popularity of ebooks. At season’s close, 646 novels will have been released (compared with 654 in 2011 and 701 in 2010). If French fiction is down a little, the number of foreign titles remains constant (220 against 219 last year). As a result of the uncertain economic climate, there are fewer debuts (69 against 74) and more mass-market print runs (including Fifty Shades of Grey and the new JK Rowling). Pursuing a trend observed over the past few years, many of the heavyweights (Jean Echenoz, Patrick Modiano, Philippe Sollers et al.) have been held over until mid-October in order to heighten anticipation and maximize impact upon November’s book prizes.

Some of this season’s most hotly touted titles have a distinct whiff of déjà vu. There’s the new Houellebecq (Aurélien Bellenger, whose first book was an essay on the old Houellebecq). There’s the presidential campaign, which is fast becoming a sub-genre, with no less than seven books devoted to the latest instalment (including a non-fiction novelisation by HHhH author Laurent Binet). And then there’s the obligatory scandal which, this year, comes courtesy of Richard Millet (“l’affaire Millet”!) and his “literary praise” of mass murderer Anders Breivik.

The best take on the “rentrée littéraire” appears in Ecclesiastes: “of making many books there is no end”. In no other country is so much fiction published in such a short period of time. With hundreds of novels competing for a dozen prizes or so, most are destined to sink without trace — unsold and unread. Industry observers claim that if a debut novel has not caused a buzz by mid-September, it’s (French) toast. The result is a book glut comparable to Europe’s wine lakes and butter mountains.

David Meulemans, who heads indie press Aux Forges de Vulcain, made a few waves recently by announcing that he would not be taking part in this year’s rentrée. He described the publishing season as “mass commercial suicide”: a launch pad for prizes virtually no one stands a chance of ever winning. Sylvain Bourmeau — who praises the extraordinary diversity of publications on offer (belying, in his view, the French literati’s reputation for navel-gazing) — acknowledges, in Libération, that the rentrée is indeed a “weird national lottery”. For the past decade, Pierre Astier has been one of its most vocal critics. This former indie publisher, who went on to launch one of France’s first literary agencies, highlights the hypocrisy of a system — controlled by an old boys’ network — that fosters cut-throat competition without establishing a level playing field. Conflicts of interest abound; nepotism is rife. Being life members, the Goncourt judges are endowed with godly powers. Four of them even have books in the running for this year’s awards, which are usually carved up among the major publishing houses anyway. Astier also criticises the lack of openness to francophone writers, which he interprets as a sign that decolonisation has not gone far enough.

Although its quaint customs are often parodied (as in Patrick Besson’s Ma rentrée littéraire), the publishing season, is still widely seen as an instance of France’s cultural exceptionalism; its “droit à la différence” — or even différance.

 

Blood Rites in Paris

On this occasion I read an extract from the French edition of Stewart Home‘s Blood Rites of the Bourgeoisie before translating the author’s answers to questions from the audience.

From left to right: Emilie Notéris (éditions ère), Stewart Home and me at Galerie Martine Aboucaya, Paris, 19 March 2011.

A History of Pie Activism

This appeared in The Guardian’s Comment is Free section on 20 July 2011:

From Jonnie Marbles to the Yippies: A History of Pie Activism
The attack on Rupert Murdoch is part of a tradition of patisserie activism — but shaving foam is no substitute for the real thing
Noel Godin, political custard pie thrower
[Nöel Godin, political custard pie thrower. Photograph: Van Parys/Corbis]

Jonathan May-Bowles (aka Jonnie Marbles), who attacked Rupert Murdoch during yesterday’s phone-hacking hearing, has all the makings of a formidable flan flinger. In his capacity as comedian-cum-activist, he embodies a kind of Platonic ideal of patisserie terrorism – that strange interface between slapstick and protest.

Pie-throwing as a political gesture has its roots in the Groucho-Marxism of the 1960s student uprisings and, more specifically, in the prankish happenings of the Yippies. Tom Forçade, the founder of High Times magazine, is usually considered to have perpetrated the very first political pie crime in 1970. Aron Kay, who came to be known as “The Yippie Pie Man”, followed suit, covering countless politicians and celebrities (including the mayor of New York City and Andy Warhol) in cream, between the late 1970s and early 1990s. Yesterday, he allegedly posted a message on a website giving his full support to May-Bowles: “Murdoch definitely needed a pie, for sure.” However, it was a Belgian anarchist who really put “patisserie guerrilla” on the map. One could argue that he even managed to turn it into an art form.

In the late 60s, Nöel Godin was, among other things, a film critic who amused himself by reviewing movies he hadn’t seen or that didn’t even exist. Georges Le Gloupier, a fictitious film director (invented by his partner in crime Jean-Pierre Bouyxou), made regular appearances in these reviews.

In 1969, Godin wrote that Le Gloupier had been so outraged by Robert Bresson‘s latest film that he had felt compelled to chuck a “Mack Sennett-style” pie smack in the director’s face. In a sequel, he went on to describe how the French novelist Marguerite Duras had avenged the initial “creamy affront” by giving Le Gloupier an impromptu pastry pasting while he was dining out in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. “Madame,” said the biter bit after licking his frothy chops, “I prefer your patisserie to your novels.”

Through some quirk of fate, the publication of the second article coincided with Madame Duras’s arrival in Belgium on a promotional tour. This proved a godsend to Godin, who decided to give a final twist to this burlesque saga. He ambushed the prime exponent of the “empty novel” and treated her to a real custard pie this time round. A visiting card was nestling in the incredible, edible weapon. It read: “With the compliments of Le Gloupier.”

The seminal Duras drubbing provided a blueprint for all the subsequent pie attacks. A few months later, it was choreographer Maurice Béjart‘s turn to fall victim to a Chantilly crime. By that time, Le Gloupier had acquired all his distinctive features: the refined dinner jacket and bow tie of gentleman-burglar Arsène Lupin, the false beard and spectacles of a cartoon, bomb-throwing anarchist and, last but not least, the absurd “gloup! gloup!” mantra. In the time-honoured tradition of Galatea, Pinocchio and sundry gingerbread men legging it after rising from the pastry board, Le Gloupier took on a life of his own: he started popping up all over the place, unbeknown to his creator, who was often associated with attacks he had taken no part in, but was only too willing to take credit for.

According to Godin, a well-aimed pie can break through the victim’s public image and lay bare his true character. New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard, for instance, reacted in good-humoured fashion and refused to press charges. By contrast, Bernard-Henri Lévy reacted violently and was flanned on at least five occasions as a result. The vendetta against the pop philosopher turned into a running gag in France.

The movement probably peaked in 1998, with the pieing of Bill Gates. Godin had now become a celebrity in his own right, and was frequently invited on live TV shows to be pied by presenters he had himself pied. The whole thing was descending into farce. However, the website of Godin’s “Internationale pâtissière” continues to advertise the latest pie attacks on a monthly, and sometimes even weekly, basis. The pieing of Murdoch could well be the sign of a revival.

Jonathan May-Bowles still has a thing or two to learn, though. A plateful of shaving foam is no substitute for the real thing. Godin once told the Observer: “We only use the finest patisserie ordered at the last minute from small local bakers. Quality is everything. If things go wrong, we eat them.”

****

Here is a longer (unpublished) version of the same piece:

Jonathan May-Bowles, who attacked Rupert Murdoch during yesterday’s phone-hacking hearing, has all the makings of a formidable flan flinger. In his capacity as comedian-cum-activist, he embodies a kind of Platonic ideal of patisserie terrorism — that strange interface between slapstick and protest. Pity, then, that he didn’t take a leaf out of Mack Sennett‘s book: “A mother never gets hit with a custard pie,” warned the Hollywood director, who knew a thing or two about the use of confectionery as weaponry, “Mothers-in-law, yes. But mothers? Never”. Old men are also a no-no, even if they happen to be at the head of an evil international media conglomerate. Pieing is always a difficult balancing act, a subtle blend of humour and anger, and in this case the first, vital ingredient was sorely lacking. Like the pie itself — a plateful of shaving foam — it wasn’t the real thing. Instead of shattering the spectacle (in Situationist parlance), May-Bowles has simply provided a perfect photo opportunity illustrating the metaphorical humble pie that Murdoch was already eating. Worse still, the media mogul may come out of this looking like the victim.

Pie-throwing as a political gesture has its roots in the Groucho-Marxism of the 60s student uprisings and, more specifically, in the prankish happenings of the Yippies in the United States. Tom Forçade, the founder of High Times magazine, is usually considered to have perpetrated the very first political pie crime in 1970. Aron Kay, who came to be known as “The Yippie Pie Man”, followed suit, covering countless politicians and celebrities (including the mayor of New York City and Andy Warhol) in cream, between the late 70s and early 90s. Yesterday, he allegedly posted a message on a website giving his full support to May-Bowles: “Murdoch definitely needed a pie, for sure!” However, it was Belgian anarchist Noël Godin who really put “patisserie guerrilla” on the map. One could argue that he even managed to turn it into an art form.

Like Aron Kay, Godin was influenced by the slapstick of the Three Stoges and the political ferment of 1968, but he also drew inspiration from the insurrectionary humour of late nineteenth-century French anarcho-pranksters like the Hydropathes or the Zutistes, to whom he paid homage in his anthology of radical subversion (Anthologie de la subversion carabinée, 1988).

In the late 60s, Godin was, among other things, a film critic who amused himself by reviewing movies he hadn’t seen or that didn’t even exist. Georges Le Gloupier, a fictitious film director (invented by his partner in crime Jean-Pierre Bouyxou), made regular appearances in these reviews. In1969, Godin wrote that Le Gloupier had been so outraged by Robert Bresson’s latest film, that he had felt compelled to chuck a “Mack Sennett-style” pie smack in the director’s face. In a sequel worthy of one of Joe Orton’s classic epistolary pranks, he went on to describe how the French novelist Marguerite Duras had avenged the initial “creamy affront” by giving Le Gloupier an impromptu pastry pasting while he was dining out in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. “Madame,” said the biter bit after licking his frothy chops, “I prefer your patisserie to your novels”. Through some quirk of fate, the publication of the second article coincided with Mme Duras’s arrival in Belgium on a promotional tour. This proved a godsend to Godin. The affair was causing so much fuss that the novelist was immediately forced to hold a press conference during which she repeatedly denied all prior knowledge of “Le Gloutier” (sic). Godin decided to give a final twist to this burlesque saga, thus illustrating Wilde’s dictum that life imitates art. He ambushed the prime exponent of the “empty novel,” and treated her to a real custard pie this time round. A visiting card was nestling in the incredible, edible weapon. It read: “With the compliments of Le Gloupier”.

The seminal Duras drubbing provided a blueprint for all the subsequent pie attacks. Le Gloupier’s metamorphosis into a latter-day noble bandit figure had occured overnight. A few months later, it was choreographer Maurice Béjart’s turn to fall victim to a chantilly crime. By that time, Le Gloupier had acquired all his distinctive features: the refined dinner jacket and bow tie of gentleman-cambrioleur Arsène Lupin, the false beard and spectacles of a cartoon, bomb-throwing anarchist and, last but not least, the absurd “gloup! gloup!” slogan. In the time-honoured tradition of Galatea, Pinocchio and sundry gingerbread men legging it after rising from the pastry board, Le Gloupier took on a life of his own, popping up all over the place, unbeknown to his creator, who was sometimes associated with attacks he had taken no part in, but was only too willing to take credit for.

According to Godin, custard pies are the weapons of “the weak and powerless” (L.A. Times). A well-aimed pie can shatter the pompous and vacuous public image of a celebrity in a matter of seconds. Le Gloupier’s targets (politicians, journalists, actors, pop stars, writers) are never selected at random (“Every victim has to be thoroughly justified,” The Observer) and his weapons are chosen with the same meticulous care (“We only use the finest patisserie ordered at the last minute from small local bakers. Quality is everything. If things go wrong, we eat them”). Pseudo-philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy was flanned on five different occasions because he was “totally in love with himself” and epitomized “empty, vanity-filled literature”.

According to Godin, a well-aimed pie can break through the victim’s public image and lay bare his true character. New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard, for instance, reacted in good-humoured fashion and refused to press charges. By contrast, Bernard-Henri Lévy reacted violently and was flanned on at least five occasions as a result. The vendetta against the pop philosopher turned into a running gag in France.

The movement probably peaked in 1998, with the pieing of Bill Gates. Godin had now become a celebrity in his own right, and was frequently invited on live TV shows to be pied by presenters he had himself pied. The whole thing was descending into farce. However, the website of Godin’s “Internationale pâtissière” continues to advertise the latest pie attacks on a monthly, and sometimes even weekly, basis. The pieing of Murdoch could well be the sign of a revival.

Jonathan May-Bowles still has a thing or two to learn, though. A plateful of shaving foam is no substitute for the real thing. Godin once told the Observer: “We only use the finest patisserie ordered at the last minute from small local bakers. Quality is everything. If things go wrong, we eat them.”

Journal

I spent half the night tossing and turning, fending off panic attack upon panic attack, fretting over everything in general; in particular, a few sentences I’d spent ages trying — and failing — to write. To think that, on a good day, Michael Moorcock can toss off some 50,000 words — or so I read in Hari Kunzru’s fascinating interview in The Guardian yesterday.

Naturally, today was a bit of a blur. I met one of my three half-sisters at Anvers. As I was early, I had a coffee at Les Oiseaux, a café across the road from La Cigale, the famous concert hall. I remember going there after an Interpol gig, in 2003, with a group of friends that included the young lady who would become my wife: that’s obviously one of the reasons why I’m fond of that café. It’s also slightly secluded and a good spot for people-watching — the prerequisites for any good Parisian café. It was mild and sunny, so I sat outside. It almost felt as though spring had arrived. It felt good, or as good as could be in my present state. It felt almost good. It almost felt good.

The restaurant experience was slightly surreal. For starters, the owner, who I had down as a typically Gallic character, was entertaining a young English guy in perfect English. He may well have been bilingual; I couldn’t hear him well enough to make sure. Then another English guy came in and they all started talking about Zadie Smith. (I almost expected her to walk in at this juncture.) Was he a literary agent or a translator? He was accompanied by a young woman — probably a writer — who was all dressed in black. The gaffer remarked that she looked scary. I glanced over at her. She was staring blankly at the menu. I felt I knew how she felt. Of course, it may just have been the effect produced by the menu.

On my way home, I walked past another restaurant. In fact, I walked past many other restaurants, but in this particular one I spotted an old mate of mine. He had already spotted me, but pretended he hadn’t. I followed suit.

Switched on the telly this evening, and my friend Tom McCarthy, was being interviewed about Tristram Shandy. As usual, he was spot-on. “A novel,” he said, “is something that contains its own negation, right?” Right.

I have always been very ambivalent about journals. I’m wary of the idea of writing as self-expression. I’ve always found it very difficult to talk about myself, as I fail to understand how anyone could be interested. People are attracted to journals in order to discover other people’s secret, private lives but I would never record anything that could embarrass anyone or hurt anyone’s feelings. Simon Critchley writes — and I was re-reading this yesterday — that “In the journal, the writer desires to remember himself as the person he is when he is not writing. …” Perhaps I don’t want to remember. Or can’t. I’m not even sure such a person really exists anyway.

The Expatriate Literary Scene in Paris

Anthony Cuthbertson, “From the Lost to the Beat to Now,” Notes From the Underground 19 November 2010

The expatriate literary scene in Paris

What Allen Ginsberg called, ‘The bewildering beauty of Paris’ has attracted writers and artists for centuries. It has been the setting of great novels and the home of great writers, and in the last hundred years has briefly been the stage for two waves of expatriate writers that changed the face of modern literature: the Lost Generation and the Beat Generation. Fifty years have passed since the latter faded away, and though the expatriate literary scene has remained vibrant, no significant movement has since emerged. However, with the arrival of new soirées, literary journals, writers’ workshops and readings, as well as a fresh generation of writers flocking to Paris, a new wave may well be rolling in.

Historically, Paris has been a place of refuge for artists and writers. It has attracted political and cultural exiles fleeing the injustice and intolerance of their homelands, offering them a liberal safe haven and allowing them artistic freedom. In the 1920’s and 1950’s it became a place of escape for those left disenfranchised by the World Wars. The Génération perdue, as Gertrude Stein named them, included writers like Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot, and later James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. They were a generation disillusioned by the horrors they had witnessed in the First World War, and who felt disaffected and betrayed by their governments back home. Pound wrote of his contemporaries, ‘(they) walked eye-deep in hell believing in old men’s lies, then unbelieving came home, home to a lie’. They gathered in cafés and hung about Stein’s salon to share ideas, bottles of absinthe and write, together forming a movement that still resonates strongly today.

By the time the Second World War and the occupation of Paris came about, these writers had for the most part moved on. Although some later returned after the war (Hemingway famously ‘liberated’ rue de l’Odéon, the then site of the bookshop Shakespeare and Company), a new literary movement in the form of the Beat Generation arrived. Leading figures of the Beats, including William Burroughs, Gregory Corso and Ginsberg, came to Paris for much the same reasons as their predecessors. They sought refuge from the strict conformist confines of McCarthy-era America and found it in Paris. In the years that have followed the departure of the Beats, Paris has remained a centre for culture and art. It continues to attract writers and artists with its history and beauty and the lively literary scene is a reflection of its magnetism.

The first stop for any would-be writer or literary pilgrim should be Shakespeare & Company. Its location may have moved over the years but the spirit and the name have remained. The current owner, George Whitman, has described it as ‘a den of poets and anarchists disguised as a bookshop’, having been sanctuary to writers of both the Lost and Beat Generations. The writers, whom George refers to as ‘tumbleweeds’, drift through the doors and find community and lodging in the poky upstairs rooms in exchange for helping out in the shop below. Supporting young writers continues to be one of the cornerstones of S&C. As well as providing a place to stay, they hold workshops, readings and even organize a literary festival every other year. They have also recently relaunched their literary magazine (The Paris Magazine), and announced the Paris Literary Prize (10,000€) for unpublished writers. In its current location on the banks of the Seine it is as much a tourist attraction as it is a bookshop, but between the piles of books still remain bunks for the next hopeful Hemingway to stay.

Beyond this pillar of the past not much remains of the old haunts of writers beyond landmarks and tourist traps. It is easy to get lost wallowing in the myth of Paris but for new writers it is essential to escape the seductive expatriate past, away from the romance of the Latin quarter and the ghosts that wander the left bank, and over to the other side of the river to where the literary scene is shifting.
Boulevard Saint Germain and its surrounds have developed from bohemian havens to bourgeois hangouts popular with tourists. The cafés once frequented by the likes of Hemingway and Joyce, such as Café de Flore, Les Deux Magots and Le Dôme, now sell souvenir memorabilia and a cup of coffee can set you back six euros.

Nowadays it is areas like Belleville and the 19th and 20th arrondissements in the east of Paris where the cost of living is the cheapest that have become the new centres of the literary scene. These parts of Paris continue to provide a conducive environment for young and aspiring writers.

Paris-based writers have often remarked that unlike other big city literary communities, Paris has an open-minded and accepting scene that encourages experimental forms and welcomes outsiders. David Barnes, the founder and compère of a spoken word poetry night in Belleville at Culture Rapide, describes Paris as “a beautiful backwater where life is slower than New York or London. It gives breathing space, distance from the anglo-metropoles that supports writing”.

He argues that the English speaking community in Paris is just the right size “to come together and do something, to provide a home and platform for, to nurture and be nourished by.” The spoken word nights that take place every week welcome anyone and everyone up on stage to read a poem, tell a story or perform a play — the only rule being ‘make the words come alive’. A collective has formed around this café with regulars comprising English speakers from around the world.

In an age where literary scenes and movements are becoming more international by way of the internet, less centred around a location and more around uniting notions and ideals, Paris has managed to retain its place as one of the world’s literary hubs. Since the turn of this century, a movement referred to as the Offbeat Generation has partly formed in Paris. They comprise of a loose collection of like-minded writers, including Lee Rourke and Booker prize nominee Tom McCarthy, who feel alienated by a mainstream publishing industry dominated by marketing. Paris is home to the founder of this movement, Andrew Gallix, whose Paris-based literary magazine 3:AM has provided the main platform for the Offbeats.

Other English language literary magazines that have formed in Paris in recent years include Double Change, Upstairs at Duroc and Platform. The most recent of these, Platform, formed around the spoken word night at Culture Rapide.

As fate would have it, this new scene that is emerging is forming beside where many of their predecessors have found their final resting place: the Père-Lachaise cemetery. It is behind these gates that you can find the graves of such literary icons as Gertrude Stein and Oscar Wilde.

Its legacy may be one of the great appeals of Paris, though it is the smallness and accessibility of the anglophone writing communities, combined with their supportive and inclusive atmospheres, that is currently causing such a surge in the scene. It seems now that the stories shape the city as much as the city once shaped the stories and for any aspiring writer coming to Paris it would be easy to feel intimidated by the past. For them it is perhaps best to consider again the words of Allen Ginsberg: “You can’t escape the past in Paris, and yet what’s so wonderful about it is that the past and present intermingle so intangibly that it doesn’t seem a burden”. The scenes may be as transient as the writers, but the essence of Paris endures.

France’s Pre-Banksy Art Provocateurs

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

Bazooka
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.

Jeunes Gens Modernes in Paris

This was published by Dazed Digital (Dazed & Confused‘s website) on 24 April 2008:

Jeunes Gens Modernes in Paris

The opening of the Jeunes Gens Mödernes exhibition offered a whole generation a sense of closure. Quite literally, in the case of the hundreds of people who, unable to get in, transformed Rue Quincampoix into an impromptu al fresco carnival — a gathering of the tribes. Once-dodgy skinheads rubbed shoulders with effete dandies under the eyes of mohicaned whippersnappers who could have been (and indeed often were) their offspring.

At times, it felt a bit like having a chinwag with a grizzled Dorian Gray in front of his youthful likeness. Most of the faces on the Parisian post-punk scene were out in force, simultaneously plastered on the walls of the labyrinthine gallery and getting plastered in the cobbled courtyard. Weather-beaten but unbowed. Still high from 1001 nights at Le Palace or Le Rose Bonbon. Happy to have lived to tell the tale.

The “Jeunes Gens Mödernes” (“Mödern Young Things”) tag first cropped up in an issue of Actuel back in 1980. It referred specifically to a small coterie of hipsters revolving around rarefied bands like Artefact, Modern Guy or Suicide Romeo and nightclubs with the strictest of door policies. Here, curator Jean-François Sanz has given the expression a more comprehensive definition to include most aspects of Gallic post-punk culture between 1978 and 1983.

Like Spain’s La Movida or New York’s No Wave (largely inspired by Frenchman Michel Esteban), this was indeed far more than just a musical movement. It was a fully-fledged cultural revolution bent — sometimes outrageously so — on redefining fin-de-siècle modernity.

“Modern” (or “novö” to use Yves Adrien’s coinage with its trademark umlaut) was a ubiquitous buzzword in the wake of punk’s year zero. With hindsight, however, it is quite obvious that this phenomenon bears all the hallmarks of postmodernism — from its recycling of the major 20th century avant-gardes to its space-age retro-futurism.

Philippe Morillon, one of the emblematic artists of that era, explains that “it is at the very point when things disappear that we cling on to them”. He belongs to a generation which jettisoned the traditional highbrow/lowbrow dichotomy and shunned museums altogether. Newspapers, T-shirts or record sleeves were the Bazooka collective’s media of choice; the Musulmans Fumants showcased their works in nightclubs while the Frères Ripoulin turned to billboards. As for Morillon, he worked for advertising agencies.

The exhibition’s achronological bric-à-brac organisation is in keeping with the eclectic, iconoclastic spirit of the Jeunes Gens Mödernes themselves. Paintings, badges, films, fanzines, photographs, installations and videos all take pride of place in deliberately haphazard-fashion: this, after all, was the first truly multimedia movement.

If Jean-François Sanz eschews value judgements, his is not a hands-off approach — much to the chagrin of those who feel excluded. Former Guilty Razors frontman Tristam Dequatremare is perplexed at the absence of the Musulmans Fumants — the group he co-founded — despite being instrumental in reviving figurative painting and launching the international careers of Robert Combas and Hervé Di Rosa. Dominique Fury, who lobbied for their inclusion, believes the curator assembled works which all express a certain “existential frailty” she associates with the essence of adolescence. This is why he opted for the tortured genius of Bazooka, say, over the joie de vivre of the Musulmans Fumants for whom the 80s were one big party.

Fury herself is omnipresent, both as a muse and an artist in her own right. She is an Ariadne’s thread weaving her magic between past and present — the glamorous embodiment of this scene’s enduring legacy. No wonder some 3,000 punters attended the opening which offered a whole generation — and us — a sense of closure.

Des Jeunes Gens Mödernes runs until 17 May at the Galerie du Jour agnès b, 44 Rue Quincampoix, 75004 Paris