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Isidore Isou

Centre Pompidou (Level 4)


March 6 - May 20, 2019

Published at Hyperallergic as Isidore Isou’s Radical Quest to Reinvent Language


https://hyperallergic.com/499123/isidore-isous-radical-quest-to-reinvent-language/

Isidore Isou installation photograph by Philippe Migeat

Indefatigable theorist, poet, painter, film-maker, playwright, well-read megalomaniac


intellectual, and avant-gardist of avant-gardists; Isidore Isou (né Ioan-Isidor Goldstein) never
fails to flummox the senses with cumulative complexity. Isou’s theoretical hypergraphics project
(writ large) was to merge poetry (text) with sound and visual-graphic ways of communicating
and his current Pompidou Center retrospective, built around an archival treasure trove recently
acquired by the museum, presents an opulent and conceptually challenging body of paintings,
films, objects, sounds, drawings and publications that encompass all means of ideographic,
lexical and phonetic notation.

Born Jewish in Botoșani, Romania in 1925, Isou eluded perishing in the war and the holocaust
and, after reading Baudelaire, Balzac, Mallarmé and Flaubert, arrived in 1945 at age 20 to
Saint-Germain-des-Prés where he encountered numerous members of the French
intelligentsia, including André Breton, André Gide, Tristan Tzara, and most importantly, the
young poet/artist Gabriel Pomerand. Together with Pomerand, Isou sparked the creation of
the Lettrism movement (a term Isou coined in 1942) that had theoretical roots in the avant-
garde phonetism of Dada (the phonetic sound poems of Tzara, Raoul Hausmann, Richard
Huelsenbeck and Kurt Schwitters, for example, whose nihilistic goal was to assure the collapse
of national communication, as it was precisely what led to the very destruction of the societal
world during WWI) and vis-à-vis the Surrealist literary tradition. The difference being that the
Lettrists centered their attention on blocks of rhythmically organized letters, symbols and
sounds. As such, I find it has a visionary dimension relevant as a predecessor to the Gothic
Futurism word theory put forth by Rammellzee.

For Isou, Letterist poems are akin to composed atonal rhythmic music, so Letterism is a positive
and optimistic endeavor: an innovative process by which humankind can develop new means
of communicating not necessarily based on the structure of linguistic signs. Simultaneously
theoretical and practical, aesthetic and political; Isou’s was a gesamtkunstwerk (total-art)
speculative endeavor based in the plasticity of asemantic constructs aimed at the formulaic.
Through poetry he desired to modify established linguistic frames of common communication
so to invent new ways by which human communication can go beyond words. Through
Letterist poetry he strove to move art (and society) beyond established conventional signs by
constructing highly creative interpersonal understandings based on the de-semantization of
human language. His goal was the formal revitalization of art (and life) through refiguring the
power of the letter; a revitalization so vast as to cover the land: a point cheekily concocted by
Isou’s “Sculpture Hypergraphique (Polylogue)” (1964) pair of shoes.

Isidore Isou, “Sculpture Hypergraphique (Polylogue)” (1964), photo by the author

But usually Isou focused on poetic schemes of sound poems based on rhythmic and tonic
systems of combining phonemes, represented by a transcription of vanguard Letterist graphics.
These graphic writings-symbols are not to be seen as carrying a useful message, but solely as
the object of semi-abstract art: creating a third visual way after the figurative and the abstract.
This is nicely illustrated with the inclusion of an Orson Welles interview that was excerpted
from Welles’s 1955 documentary film Around the World with Orson Welles.

Still from Orson Welles’s 1955 documentary film Around the World with Orson Welles, photo by the author

On January 21, 1946, Isou attended the première of fellow Romanian Tzara’s play La Fuite
(The Escape) at the Vieux-Colombier theater and in the tradition of Dadaist provocation,
began bellowing, “Dada is dead! Letterism lives!” At the end of the play, Isou jumped up on
stage and after spouting his Letterist ideas, read a few of his early poems.

Even given Letterism’s relentless criticism of the mediocrity of the other radical French
intellectuals, in 1947, with the support of Jean Cocteau and Jean Paulhan, Isou published in La
Nouvelle Revue française his grand theoretical proposition, Introduction à une nouvelle poésie et à une
nouvelle musique (Introduction to a New Poetry and a New Music) in which he laid the
groundwork for Letterism (lettrisme) and metagraphy (métagraphie). In these literary innovative
approaches that use graphic compounds not recognized by any given dictionary, Isou described
what he saw as the golden path of decomposition which French poetry had traveled starting with
Charles Baudelaire. Isou declared that ‘the letter’ be the final stage of this process of
decomposition-refinement — and more generally that ‘signs’ represent the possible foundation
for a total renewal of the arts.

In the late 1940s, inspired by such elaborate grandiose ideals, Isou’s group expanded, attracting
numerous creative people like Maurice Lemaître, Gabriel Pomerand, and Gil J Wolman. Over
the years, others joined in for limited periods or specific contributions, such as Roberto
Altmann, Jean-Louis Brau, Roland Sabatiero, Paul-Armand Gette, François Dufrêne (sound
poetry pioneer known for his use of décollage within the Nouveaux Réalistes group) and Guy
Debord, author of The Society of the Spectacle and founder of the Situationist International: a spin-
off of an anti-Isou spin-off Lettrist group Letterist International. The social-economic activism
of the Situationnist International is widely credited as the intellectual force that sparked the
radical social upheaval of the student movement of May 68 in France.

In 1976, after Lettrism went in and out of vogue, the sum of Isou’s reflections on creation were
compiled in an enormous 1,390page theoretical book called La Créatique ou la Novatique (Creatics)
in which he put forth his model of human understanding (his ‘kladological’ doctrine; akin to
deconstructive-reconstruction) in contrast to what Isou saw as a banal world of mere copyists
caught in a state of general vulgarization.

It is interesting that certain of Isou’s Letterist poems achieved recognized notoriety not for their
performed vocal dexterity-creativity, but because of the quality of their graphic design, as seen
in the hybrid photo-paintings series he did called “Amos ou Introduction a la metagrapholgie”
(1952). Indeed, his rhythmic linguistic-conceptual approach to painting often yields satisfying
results, such as with the “Numbers” series from 1952, “Incrustations dans le Brouillard” (Inlays
in the Fog, 1961), “Réseau centré M67” (M67 Centered Network, 1961) and the conceptually
challenging “Telescripto-Peinture” (Telescripto-Painting, 1963-1987). These visionary-
conceptual paintings, based on paradigmatic repetitive patterns and highly constructed
phonetic combinatorics, show Isou to be still contemporary.

“Amos ou Introduction a la metagrapholgie” (1952), EAM collection Berlin, photo by the author
“Amos ou Introduction a la metagrapholgie” (1952) installation photo by Philippe Migeat

“Numbers XXI” (1952) oil on canvas, photo by the author

“Incrustations dans le Brouillard” (Inlays in the Fog, 1961), photo by the author
“Réseau centré M67” (1961) oil on canvas,73 x 60 cm, Collection Centre Pompidou, Paris Musée national d’art
moderne - Centre de création industrielle Copyright de l’oeuvre : © Adagp, Paris, Crédit photo / Photo credit :
(c) Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI/Georges Meguerditchian/Dist. RMN-GP

“Telescripto-Peinture” (1963-1987), photo by the author


“Traité de bave et d’éternité” (Treatise on Venom and Eternity, 1951) Film cinématographique 35 mm noir et
blanc, sonore, 123’25 durée: 123’25” Collection Centre Pompidou, Paris Musée national d’art moderne -
Centre de création industrielle Copyright de l’oeuvre: © Adagp, Paris, Crédit photo / Photo credit : (c) Centre
Pompidou, MNAM-CCI/Service de la documentation photographique du MNAM/Dist. RMN-GP

“Traité de bave et d’éternité” (Treatise on Venom and Eternity, 1951) installation photo by Philippe Migeat

Besides the paintings, the other highlight of the show is a large projection of Isou’s 35mm 1951
experimental-revolutionary film Traité de bave et d'éternité (Treatise on Venom and Eternity) that
caused a scandal at the 1951 Cannes Film Festival. A virtual Lettrist film manifesto, it is so
compelling that it greatly influenced American avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage. As can
be seen in this snippet, and in the original trailer, the film savagely attacks film conventions by
creating what Isou calls a form of ‘discrepancy cinema’ — where the sound track has little (or
nothing) to do with the accompanying images.

The film begins with the camera following Isou wandering about the Saint-Germain-des-Prés
(the Left Bank area where the two main cafés Le Flore and Les Deux Magots served as key
public gathering places during the Occupation) while Isou’s disembodied voice combatively
asserts his Lettrist theory. Later, in an act of détournement, found footage newsreel celluloid
showing factory workers and the French occupation of Indochina are spliced in and crazily
attacked with the creative-destructive technique of painting out and scratching out faces.

I think it appropriate to admit that Isou’s theoretical-based artworks offer propositions that are
in line with current art reflections on the contemporary situation in which image technology
multiplies our sense of excess and visual noise — where a flux of identifiable images is the ever
present representational surroundings of our everyday lives. Time has proven Isou’s idea of
poetic graphic plasticity, with its urge for decomposing fixed forms, insightful and highly
relevant.

Joseph Nechvatal