How Lettrism Gave a New Definition of Visual Language

December 23, 2018

Lettrism was one of the most radical movements in the early post-war period. It practically extended the experimentation which started with Dadaism and slightly later with Surrealism, yet it introduced a new kind of approach in the social and political sense.

The movement was established in 1946 by Isidore Isou and Gabriel Pomerand. Coming from his native Romania, Isou arrived in 1945 in Paris with the aim of imposing his own doctrine to the world by introducing the conception of a new poetry or Lettrism. The very term is based on the French word for letter, which has to do with the letters and other visual or spoken symbols being the focal point of the Lettrist explorations. The artists belonging to the movement used it to describe an array of their activities which were not even based on letters. There were also other terms used to describe the activities of the group like hypergraphics, the Isouian movement or youth uprising.

Television coverage on the Lettrist phenomenon

The Historical Context of Lettrism

Shortly after the Alies freed the majority of the European cities from the Nazis, intellectuals and artists started articulating the aftermaths of WWII. On one hand, the prevailing abstraction was reasonable since it poetically encapsulated the destruction and human despair. On the other hand, the circumstances were so absurd that only parody, onomatopoeia, and radical tactics made sense.

The Lettrists expressed their theoretical standpoints through all fields of arts and culture; poetry, film, painting and political theory were of special interest. Such an agenda is similar to the one practiced by the Dadaists and has to do with Isou’s belief that his fellow countryman Tristan Tzara was the greatest creator and rightful leader of the Dada movement. On the other hand, the influence of the Surrealists is notable although Isou saw the movement declining in the 1940s.

By basing the whole theory of the movement on letters as the most important elements of the creative process, Isou posed the parameters for constructing a completely new aesthetic which will transform the society. The letters were not symbols made to transmit some kind of message according to Lettrists - they are art objects aimed to transcend both the figurative and the abstract.

In an attempt to summarize the complexity of the movement's practice, we can underline its three characteristics: its extensive theory, its longevity, and the mentioned multimedia approach. Lettrism is often perceived as a predecessor to Situationism due to the particular political and social articulation.

Left Isidore Isou - Twenty-Five to Six Right Gil J. Wolman - Appel A Tous Les Francais
Left: Isidore Isou - Twenty-Five to Six, Feb 13, 1973. Pencils on photograph. Image courtesy of La Plaque Tournante / Right: Gil J. Wolman - Appel A Tous Les Francais, 1973. 27 x 21 cm. Image courtesy of Natalie Seroussi gallery

The Lettrist Methods

Isidore Isou firmly believed that the poem of the future should be purely formal, and quite emptied of all semantic content. This particular approach was reminiscent of the ones used by the Russian Futurists, Italian Futurists, and Dadaist poets; exploring the other layers of meaning through phonetics and artificial voices. Looking from a visual perspective, the Letterists were interested in producing hybrid forms based on the combination of writing and visual art which they called hypergraphics.

They found their theoretical base in the work of German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, especially the infinitesimals, a mathematical term signifying things so small that it is impossible to measure them. The Lettrists used this concept in order to introduce the notion of a work of art which could never be possibly created in reality, but which could be consumed and debated intellectually.

In 1950, Isou decided to start working with film. The innovative approach to moving images was the ultimate disruption or the carving of the image, a process of scratching and painting on an actual film. The Lettrists even used the term discrepant cinema (le cinéma discrépant), to describe the autonomous function of the music e.g. a soundtrack and the footage so that each recording tells a different narrative. Authors like Gil J. Wolman and Guy Debord went even further with experimentation and they completely abandoned images altogether (which are specificities of the American and European experimental film production during that time). Such creations were often centered on, for example, a fluctuating ball of light projected onto a large balloon, or alternated on a blank white screen and a totally black screen.

The Letterists also appropriated footage from other films, while the projections were sort of a moving site specifics or even performances during which the audience debated what they saw being projected. Isou explains the process by saying:

I believe firstly that the cinema is too rich. It is obese. It has reached its limits, its maximum. With the first movement of widening which it will outline, the cinema will burst! Under the blow of a congestion, this greased pig will tear into a thousand pieces. I announce the destruction of the cinema, the first apocalyptic sign of disjunction, of rupture, of this corpulent and bloated organization which calls itself the film.

The Lettre Rock by Maurice Lemaitre

The Cultural And Political Legacy of Letrrism

Isidore Isou perceived economy and political theory in such a particular manner that he coined a term nuclear economics in his manifestos called Traité d’Economie Nucléaire (Treatise on Nuclear Economics), and a bit later Le soulèvement de la Jeunesse (Youth Uprising) published in 1949. That is when Isou met Maurice Lemaître, a renowned French Lettrist painter, and they became really good friends.

The political articulation especially came later, so in 1952 Guy Debord, Gil J. Wolman, Jean-Louis Brau, and Serge Berna established the First Letterist International, a Paris-based collective of radical artists and theorists. Five years later they were conjoined by the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus and the London Psychogeographical Association to create the Situationist International. On the other hand, in 1958 the Lettrists François Dufrêne, Robert Estivals, and Jacques Villeglé made a manifesto they called Ultra-Lettrism. All of them practiced hypergraphics and were interested in tape-recording, an innovation in regards to Isou’s initial steps in experimenting with sound poetry. There was even the Second Letterist International founded by Wolman, Dufrêne, and Brau in 1964 as an ephemeral group.

Later, Situationism was practically foundedon the basis of the Lettrist movement, so those demands largely influenced and empowered young intellectuals back in the 1960s. It can be said that their radical ideas resonate in the 1968 student movement. Such a conclusion is confirmed by the fact that during the late 1990s the group called the New Lettrist International was founded and, although it is not a direct continuation of the previous Lettrists practices,  it was influenced by them nevertheless.

In the context of visual art, the Lettrists practically anticipated conceptual art and an array of neo-avantgarde multimedia practices. Some of the Fluxus artists claim that they were rather fascinated by the Lettrists and the way they demanded for every aspect of society to be rearranged.

However we turn, this movement was crucial for the radical and experimental artistic practices, as well as for the philosophical articulation of the post-war period. The domains of Isidore Isou, Gabriel Pomerand, and others are yet to be discovered since their legacy is grand and extremely important for better understanding of the cultural, social and political climate of the times.

Editors’ Tip: Off-Screen Cinema: Isidore Isou and the Lettrist Avant-Garde

One of the most important avant-garde movements of postwar Paris was Lettrism, which crucially built an interest in the relationship between writing and image into projects in poetry, painting, and especially cinema. Highly influential, the Lettrists served as a bridge of sorts between the earlier works of the Dadaists and Surrealists and the later Conceptual artists. Off-Screen Cinema is the first monograph in English of the Lettrists. Offering a full portrait of the avant-garde scene of 1950s Paris, it focuses on the film works of key Lettrist figures like Gil J Wolman, Maurice Lemaître, François Dufrêne, and especially the movement's founder, Isidore Isou, a Romanian immigrant whose “discrepant editing” deliberately uncoupled image and sound.

Featured image: Isidore Isou - Polylogue Hypergraph, 1964 (1988). Graphic material, printed ink on canvas, 108 x 150 x 3 cm. MACBA Collection. MACBA Consortium.