Thierry Noir: A Retrospective

March 2, 2014

Today, we regard the Berlin Wall as the symbol of oppression and the embodiment of the Iron Curtain. It is fairly easy to see it from a distance and to pretend to grasp the sheer sadness this huge construction emitted during the 28 years of its existence. However, for the Berliner people, this wall meant more than it could ever do to an outsider - it was a tangible boundary set around their freedom of movement and thought. A number of artists, musicians and free thinkers relocated to West Berlin during the difficult years, and in this group, which included David Bowie and Iggy Pop, there was a young, rebellious French enthusiast from Lyon, called Thierry Noir.

Howard Griffin Gallery
Berlin Wall, 1980

Thierry Noir moved to West Berlin attracted by the concentration of free and artistic thought in the enclosed area of the city. After two years of living close to the barrier, he felt he needed to do something to fight its offensive presence. As he was squatting in a house at Mariannenplatz, he encountered the big gray daily, before he started to treat it as a giant canvas.

Noir began performing an ultimate act of protest, through the artistic practice. He intended to transform the Wall, to emphasize the absurdity of it, and to finally aid its demolition. Over time, Noir succeeded in painting around 6 kilometers of the wall surface, as his simply lined, comic-like and colorful imagery was slowly assuming iconic importance. These amusing and seemingly innocent works became his sole revolutionary act, and stood as the voice of freedom.

Howard Griffin Gallery
Shoreditch -Thierry Noir, Steve, ESPO, Powers

Thierry Noir at Howard Griffin Gallery

Howard Griffin Gallery from London announced a retrospective exhibition of Thierry Noir the coming April. The Shoreditch space will host a monumental exhibit, featuring original works, rarely seen photographs, interviews and films, both old and new, examining the abiding legacy of the artist and the part it played in the society.

Thierry Noir: A Retrospective will be held in the year celebrating the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, being both the first solo exhibition of the artist in his career, and his retrospective as well.

The exhibition will open on April 3, 2014 at Howard Griffin Gallery, and it will run, quite symbolically, through Victory Day on May 9, 2014.

Howard Griffin Gallery tends to exhibit artists who aim to redefine public art, and make it independent from art institutions and the elitist circles created by the art market. The fact that Thierry Noir attracted the attention of the gallery’s owner Richard Howard-Griffin is therefore not surprising.

They started collaborating in 2012, after Howard-Griffin sought out Noir in Berlin. The gallerist was in the German capital working on a mural project when he saw Noir’s pieces on the East Side Gallery, the only part of the wall that remained grey until the 1990, because it was inaccessible to the westerners. They met, which resulted in an invitation addressed to Noir to paint walls in London, and consequently, in this retrospective exhibition.

I personally think that Noir's visual language is truly iconic and when put into context with the fact that he painted mile upon mile of the Berlin Wall illegally at great risks to his personal safety very significant. Of all the street artists I know Noir was by far the most dedicated and hardcore in the sense that he painted the walls of a deadly border every day without fail for five years. Looking back, his exploits on that Wall are astounding, Howard-Griffin says about Thierry Noir’s work, and announces - For the show itself, we are building a big concrete Berlin Wall throughout the centre of the gallery and then filling the whole space with gravel to make it feel like being in 1980s Berlin.

The recreated Berliner Mauer inside the gallery space will have new paintings by Noir hung on it, while photographs, films, and other artifacts will fill out the remaining exhibition area.

Howard Griffin Gallery
East Side Gallery

Thierry Noir

Thierry Noir was born in Lyon, France in 1958. Inspired with Bowie and Iggy Pop, he transferred to Berlin in 1982, and moved in a squat overlooking the Wall. The painting acts came spontaneously in 1984, and continued for the next five years. Noir was using the paint he found in the neighboring construction sites. He wanted not to decorate the wall, but to depict its tragic nature, to unmask it. He lived on the money he made by selling small paintings he executed on pieces of cardboard, offered around local restaurants.

The fall of the impermeable membrane to liberty literally marked the end of the Cold war. After the Wall was torn down in 1989, the East German Government sold-off pieces of the barrier containing Noir’s original work to Sotheby’s in Monte Carlo. These fragments of history were sold for millions and are now a part of important public and private collections globally. Thierry Noir never got any money from this sale at the time.  

Through time, the work of Thierry Noir rose to fame due to its singular visual language.It was featured in many segments of popular culture, from Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire from 1987, to the cover of Achtung Baby, the U2 album from 1991.

Howard Griffin Gallery
Frame from Wings of Desire, Win Wenders

Expression of Thierry Noir is characterized by simplification of forms to their basic components, with strong contour. The simplicity developed because he needed to paint quickly, in a hostile environment, where he could have been shot for meddling with the official state border. The funny characters - monsters - depicted describe his personal reaction to the restraining nature of the wall, to which he refers as the killing machine. His Berlin Wall murals stand for defiance to the repressive environment, and they are just as fresh today, and just as relevant and applicable now, in the 21st Century age of globalisation and domination of the money.

Today, Thierry Noir is celebrated as a pioneer of street art movement of the late 20th century. His mural painting activity never ended, and in 2013 he painted public walls in London apace with renowned street art contemporary stars, Phlegm and ROA.

Because of his simple, cartoonish, linear style, Thierry Noir is often compared to Keith Haring, coincidentally being the same age as the deceased American graffiti innovator.

Noir’s style is composed reflecting the best traits of the 80’s Berlin, as it takes the viewer back to the era of thriving reactionist culture.

This April, all the graffiti aficionados, Beliners, history freaks and free thinkers ought to flock to Howard Griffin Gallery in Shoreditch, as it will provide the unique travel back to the Wall era, as seen through the eyes and works of Thierry Noir, presented alongside his new artwork.

Howard Griffin Gallery
Thierry Noir and Stik, VU Wall, 2013

Howard Griffin Gallery
Blue Fast from Manifest, 2013

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Thierry Noir