The term “Nouveau Réalisme”, or New Realism, was coined by the French critic Pierre Restany, and it was indicating with it a group of French artists who wanted to present reality, not to re-present it.
The image above is a piece of paper signed by all the realists, saying “On Thursday October 27, 1960 the new realists became aware of their collective singularity. Nouveau Réalism = a new perception of reality”. It is a very precise statement, a manifesto that summarizes all the main points that we are going to explain later.
Historical and artistic background
The historical and artistic background is very similar to the Pop Art‘s context, but with a different output. The mass consumption of objects of any sort was inspiring the artists in many different ways, and the Nouveau Réalistes were using already existing objects to create their art. Does it remind you of someone? Yes, it’s Duchamp! In fact, the Dada movement of the beginning of the century was the main source of these artists. But the main difference from the Dadaists was that the New Realists were using objects coming from trash, ignored by the rest of the people, thrown away, while the Dadaists were using new objects coming directly from the shops, never used before. The concept behind this difference is a little bit complex, but we will go in detail in the next section.
Another movement that was going parallel to the Nouveau Réalism was the New Dada in the USA. Some artists we spoke about were part of this group, such as Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg, but there are many others we will speak about in the next posts. The New Dada movement takes some principles from the Dadaists, but readapting them to their new era. The main difference between the Nouveau Réalistes and the New Dada was the location of the artists.
- The mass consumption that was inspiring the Pop Artists who were celebrating every popular object, was inspiring the realists too, but they had a a different view on it: they wanted to concentrated on the objects that were ignored by the people, the result of the mass consumption that no one wanted: the trash, the quantity, the ugly.
- In opposition to the Abstract Expressionism and it bright colors, the New Realists wanted to return to the reality linked to the phisicality of objects, “a poetic recycling of urban, industrial and advertising reality“, as Pierre Restany said.
- The artworks of this group didn’t want to carry a specific meaning, apart from what is the manifesto shown above. The objects were put together and arranged just to create a beautiful image (then anyone can decide if they are beautiful or not depending on their taste… we will show some of them speaking about each artist). The works have to be looked just as they are, without adding any meaning. To see other examples of beautiful works of contemporary art, we invite you too see our Instagram!)
- Recycling was a big part of the art of the New Realists, and it was seen as something magical: the most researched alchemic transformation, from poor metals to gold, was now possible by transforming poor objects into artworks. An example was Merda d’artista by Piero Manzoni, who put his actual sheet in cans and sold it for the price of gold.
- “The movement worked to deconstruct the glamorization of artists as solitary people working alone in the studio, producing valuable objects for the privileged confines of the gallery wall or museum space. It became common for artists to collaborate on projects and to create or show their work in public spaces.” (source: theartstory.org).
Arman was a skilled painter, but was not agreeing with the conservatorism of the art society at his time. When he met Yves Klein all changed, and he began to produce a completely different kind of art with two series called Accumulations and Colères. The Accumulations are based on quantity and on how he displayed the objects, putting together many identical items (that brings us again to the mass consumption) in an elegant way. The Colères, on the other hand, are destructions of noble objects, musical instruments, bronze statues. The only thing to do with the works of Arman is to admire the composition and to reflect on how we throw away so many (beautiful) things.
One of the most important works of Spoerri is called Tableau-piège, and is the result of an event: he invited the audience in a gallery and cooked for them, and asked some art critics to serve the food. This was a metaphor of the relationships in the art world, and the event had a big success. The empty plates, glasses, and everything else that remained on the table were kept and glued to a canvas by the artist, and the work of art was done. The final image is beautiful, nothing was thrown away and we can think of it as a re-interpretation of a classical still-life, but with a physical approach.
Mimmo Rotella is an Italian artist, but he worked with the French artists at that time. He worked with a specific technique that he invented: the de-collage. It was done by taking advertising posters around the city and ripping off some layers of them, revealing pieces of the previous ones lying underneath. The technique is called “de-collage” because it’s imagined as the exact opposite of the cubist collage, taking off layers instead of adding them. The result of this operation was an almost abstract work of art, many times beautiful to see. Again, it does not have any specific meaning, it is just like a photograph of the contemporary society.
César was making many sculptures with a similar concept to Arman: the accumulation, but with a switch: the compression factor. In fact, one of his most famous series is called Compressions and the work I will show you here is an example from it. The main medium of César in the compressions were cars, because he was fascinated by the industrial process of compressing old, broken cars. One day he was observing it and decided to stop the machines before they were done compressing, and the result amazed him, who decided that it was already a work of art. The artist didn’t fabricate the car, the press or the process to crash cars, but he just took it as it was (Duchamp is always in the shadow). It is a sculpture, an object obtained through the process on an exhisting thing (what is the difference from a piece of marble?), each side is very different, and like with a sculpture, you need to go around the object to appreciate it.
Moreover, a car is a symbol of individual freedom, because you can go by yourself wherever you can. It is also erotic, as contemporary society reminds us constantly, but it’s also linked to death — many people die on the streets everyday.
Other artists and contributors
There were many other important artists who were part of the movement, but here I wanted to keep it simple. It is worth it to at least mentioned them though: Yves Klein, Christo (you can find a little bit about him here), Jean Tinguely.
In Italy at the same time other artists were contributing to the art scene in a similar way, but they were identifying themselves as New Dada, like the American artists. I am talking about Alberto Burri, Piero Manzoni, Lucio Fontana. They were using poor materials (metal, a simple canvas or the artist’s own shit) transforming them in new powerful objects. They have more precise meanings behind their works though, and you can find out more clicking on the respective link.
Nowadays the work of the Nouveau Réalistes is still very important, and brought to the birth of many different movements later on, like the Arte Povera. The concept of recycling broken, unwanted objects is crucial now more than ever, and we shoul all think about it more deeply.