Retrospective of Thierry Noir, Pioneer of the Berlin Wall Illegal Painting

Thierry Noir A RetrospectiveJust a few weeks after the closing of the epic show by artist Phlegm (The Bestiary), Howard Griffin Gallery in Shoreditch, London, has transformed in a gritty and raw space that in a way reflects the original work environment for Thierry Noir, whose works are shown at the gallery now. Thierry Noir: A Retrospective is his first ever solo show in his 30-year career. Noir is considered by many as the pioneer of the modern street art movement.

Overview of the gallery show Thierry Noir: A Retrospective

Thierry Noir was born in Lyon, France in 1958 and in 1982, inspired by the music of the New Wave, moved to Berlin where he, as so many young people at the time, lived in a squat. The 80s in Berlin were grim because of the Wall that divided the city, not only geographically but also socially and emotionally. To me it is still a difficult concept to grasp: a western European capital in modern times being divided by a wall in an area heavily patrolled by police. I had obviously learned about this phenomenon at school but realised that one cannot fully understand how the Wall affected everyday life of the citizens of Berlin when I first visited the city and the remains of the Wall just a few years ago. Try to imagine living on one side of a city and suddenly not being able to see your friends or loved ones anymore or to able to freely move from one side of the city to the other. If you tried to climb over the wall, you would risk being arrested or even shot. Still many artists risked their lives and painted on it, out of protest of this emotionally grotesque landmark.

This excerpt of the gallery text further illustrates the impact of the Wall:

Gallery text

From the building where Noir lived, a massive abandoned hospital, he would every day watch the border police patrol the so-called Death Strip on the border of East and West Berlin. After having lived in the shadow of the Wall for two years, he decided to start painting on it and thus to transform it and ridicule it. In 1984 Thierry Noir was the first artist to illegally paint miles on the Berlin Wall. As it was built just 3 metres beyond the official border, Noir took the risk of arrested (or even shot) by the east German police who were able to arrest anyone for just standing near the Wall. For five years he painted every day and covered over 5 kilometres of the Wall with his bright and colourful murals. He learned to paint as fast as possible using only three colours of paint. Noir named his distinctive painting style the Fast Form Manifest.

Elephant Key
Two versions of ‘Elephant Key’, top one is the original work as on the Berlin Wall (one of his first wall paintings) and the bottom one is the updated work on display in the current gallery show.

Noir’s murals are colourful and pleasing to the eye. I can only imagine what impact they must’ve had at the time when they were to be seen on the Wall and brought some colour to the grim area and into people’s hearts. “Noir’s innocent murals on this deadly border were both a personal response and a poignant political statement. […] After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, his paintings became a symbol of new found freedom after the reunification of Berlin and the end of the Cold War.” A quote from Noir on the meaning of his murals: “They are a symbol of a freedom that does not come from the sky, a freedom that is not given to you, but a freedom that you have to fight for.”

Thierry Noir’s works make you smile and at first sight they might simply come across as cute paintings of abstract human heads or animal-like creatures. But in fact, each of Noir’s paintings tell a story and it’s not necessarily a pretty story. As the gallery text explains, “the faces of his figures are highly individualized, creating a cast of characters that aim to undermine the inhuman nature of the Wall. These characters communicate with one another in a playful way, bringing a sense of dialogue to a symbol of silence and impasse. Alongside these more human characters, Noir has created a menagerie of fantastical creatures, including elephants, crocodiles, dinosaurs and fictional monsters. As Noir says, he saw the Wall as a mutation of nature, like a dangerous monster swallowing up kilometres of Berlin with stark concrete. By creating his own array of childlike monsters, Noir made the Wall ridiculous and undermined its ability to instil fear in the divided people of Berlin.”

Fifteen reasons to feel happy
Fifteen reasons to feel happy

Noir’s works are inspired by artists as Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró and Claude Monet, but also street artists as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. Also television and comic book imagery influenced his works as well as music by artists as David Bowie, Kraftwerk, Led Zeppelin and Nina Hagen.

On the left: Flower in the night.

The unique retrospective at Howard Griffin Gallery not only displays new works, but also interviews and films and rarely seen photographs.

TV installation showing old footage of Thierry Noir’s works and interviews with the artist.
Rarely seen photographs of Thierry Noir’s work in Berlin.

Visit Thierry Noir: A Retrospective at the Howard Griffin Gallery.
189 Shoreditch High Street, London, E1 6HU
Opening times: Wednesday – Sunday, 12pm – 8pm
The exhibition is on from 4 April till  5 May 2014.
FREE entrance

You can see bigger versions of most of the photos in this post on my Flickr page: Thierry Noir.
Please read my review of the marvellous previous show at Howard Griffin Gallery: A Modern Bestiary by street artist Phlegm.

*Unlike my other posts, I have made great use of the press release and gallery text for this article.

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