How Graffiti Influenced These 5 Famous 20th Century Artists

Top Lists, Exhibition Announcements

May 14, 2019

Ever since the dawn of time, humans had an accentuated urge to communicate in public space, and the the decision to express certain thoughts was best transferred through simple and short textual messages on walls. These gestures were often reflecting the creativity of the anonymous writer and were not considered art at all until perhaps now, despite the fact some other artists found them quite inspiring.

The upcoming exhibition at the London-based Waddington Custot titled Writings on the Wall will explore how both ancient and contemporary examples of graffiti found their way in the works of 20th-Century artists who carefully observed and articulated this specific way of public communication. Namely, by looking closely at the art made by Jean Dubuffet, Brassaï, Antoni Tàpies, Cy Twombly, Vlassis Caniaris, and Manolo Millares, the audience will have a unique chance to understand the importance of graffiti and public space serving artistic, social, and even political articulation.

All of the selected artists share the same interest in marginalized art forms released outside the institutional context. The specific approach to textual writing is expressed by the use of various characters, signs, and symbols and is aimed to establish a unique graphic language suitable for expressing the human condition. Furthermore, the exhibition will mark the significance of the written gesture as a method of communication from ancient to modern times.

Except for several early photographs of Brassaï and Dubuffet’s drawings, as well as Tàpies's paintings from the 1990s, the curiosity is that majority of the artworks were made during the 1950s and 1960s, suggesting that the artists need to find a different source of inspiration in desolate circumstances after the great atrocities of World War II.

Writings on The Wall will be on display at Waddington Custot in London from 17 May until 30 June 2019. In the spotlight below are five artists from the show.

Featured image: Jean Dubuffet - Fantasme bleu 8 mai 1984, 1984. Acrylic on paper mounted on canvas, 30 x 40 in, 76.2 x 101.6 cm © Fondation Dubuffet/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London, 2019. All images courtesy Waddington Custot.


French-Hungarian photographer Brassaï is best known for his captivating photographs of Paris. This highly acclaimed artist captured various marks or proto-graffiti made by the strangers on the walls of the French capital during from the 1930s up to the 1960s. Brassaï acted like a devoted urban ethnologist capturing modern-day graffiti; he used to classify signs and symbols and made parallels with ancient Roman graffiti and prehistoric cave petroglyphs.

Featured image: Brassaï - Graffiti de la série II, Le langage du mur, 1940. Silver gelatine print (c.1950), 40.2 x 49.6 cm © Estate Brassaï Succession; Brassaï - Graffiti de la série VIII, La magie, 1950. Copy number 7 from an edition of 12. Silver gelatine print, 15 x 11 in, 38.2 x 28 cm © Estate Brassaï Succession.

Jean Dubuffet

The following artist is no other than Jean Dubuffet, the father of Art Brut. Around 1944, he saw Brassaï’s work and felt deeply inspired so he produced a series of lithographs the following year produced titled Les Murs (The Walls) which accompanied a poetry book by Eugène Guillevic. The lithographs were actual visual embodiments of urban textual expressions of hate, humor, and love, and were associated with Dubuffet’s increasing interest in the works of marginalized social groups making art.

Featured image: Jean Dubuffet in front of a graffiti wall, Vence, 1959 © Archives Fondation Dubuffet, Paris (Photo: John Craven); Jean Dubuffet - La chasse au biscorne (EG 77) 19 août 1963, 1963, 57.7 x 75.2 cm. Courtesy Waddington Custot © Fondation Dubuffet/ADAGP, Paris.

Antoni Tapies

The aforementioned photographs of Brassaï were reevaluated and highly regarded by the existentialists during the 1950s, so they also influenced other artists such as Antoni Tàpies, who explored the textures reminiscent of city walls through his thick and raw paintings. Namely, this renowned figure perceived walls as witnesses of martyrdoms of the political and social dismay caused by the civil war and Franco’s military dictatorship, meaning that for Tàpies the urban surrounding was a vehicle for social and political struggle.

Featured image: Antoni Tàpies - Duat, 1994, 250 x 600 cm © Antoni Tàpies. Courtesy Waddington Custot; Antoni Tàpies - Petjada sobre vermell / Footprint on Red, 2000, 38 x 46 cm © Antoni Tàpies. Courtesy Waddington Custot.

Vlassis Caniaris

The fourth artist on our list whose works are also included in the exhibition is the Greek artist Vlassis Caniaris. His 1959 series called Homage to the Walls of Athens 1941–19 functions similarly to the works of Tàpies; these canvases reflect the artist's experience of the occupation of Greece during the Second World War so they can be treated as manifestations of his resistance and political freedom. Caniaris explained that this body of work is aimed to re-create the image of the walls of occupied Athens.

Featured image: Vlassis Caniaris - Hommage aux murs d’Athènes, 1959. Oil and mixed media on canvas, 59 7/8 x 52 x 1 15/16 in, 152 x 132 x 5 cm. © Vlassis Caniaris

Cy Twombly

The last, but not least artist on our list is the American Cy Twombly. During the 1950s, he traveled across Europe and North Africa and was enchanted with the ancient graffiti he encountered throughout the voyage. Those images influenced his further artistic development, as mark-making became a sort of a Twombly signature. A wide range of references from Roman classical mythology and poetry is combined with different signs, crosses, and letters, reduced geometric shapes, and lines. Twombly was very interested in the notion of language, and so he experimented with the formal aspects of text and the performative act of writing.

Featured image: Cy Twombly - Untitled, 1969, 58.4 x 78.1 cm © Cy Twombly. Courtesy Helly Nahmad.

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