Tom McDonough

French crime novelist Didier Daeninckx’s most famous book, Murder in Memoriam, opens in the early 1960s at a printing plant located in one of the industrial suburbs just north of Paris. There employees print the posters that line the walls of the capital’s boulevards, advertising the latest consumer goods and movies. Of course we are meant to contrast the abundance and wealth promised by such posters with the reality of life in the bidonvilles, the slums where the factory’s Algerian workers reside; however Daeninckx also takes great pains to describe how they subversively appropriate these images and texts that otherwise might be said to occlude their daily reality – its violence and desperation – from the eyes of the general French public. One of the Algerian employees at the plant leaves work early in order to participate in the great demonstration of October 17, 1961 – when some twenty to thirty thousand Algerians protested on the streets of Paris at the behest of the FLN (the National Liberation Front) in response to a discriminatory curfew, only to be met with merciless opposition by forces of the French state, which killed at least 200 of them and detained 15,000 others. On his way out the worker takes one of the posters he has been printing; riding the Métro into Paris, he shows it to a friend: it advertises the new film by Jacques Rivette, Paris Belongs to Us, a title that assumes a very different meaning for this North African worker about to participate in one of the largest acts of civil disobedience to occur in the city during the Algerian War. It is a short passage that nevertheless signals the degree to which the poster served as an all-important site for the production and contestation of meaning and as a support that simultaneously declaimed and dissembled its intentions in the Paris of the ‘60s.

Raymond Hains. Comité pour la paix en Algérie, 1961. Collection Eric Fabre Brussels

Raymond Hains. O.A.S. fusillez les plastiquers. c. 1961

During the summer previous to this infamous demonstration two French artists, Raymond Hains and his colleague Jacques Villeglé, exhibited a selection of torn posters, collected between 1949 and 1961, which were exclusively concerned with political questions. The show was titled “France in Shreds,” a reference simultaneously to the state of the posters displayed and to the ideological divisions to which they testified – posters that effectively constituted a historical snapshot of France’s politics of the previous decade. Unsurprisingly, the single issue dominating these placards was the anti-colonial insurgency in Algeria. The Algerian War was, in a sense, everywhere and nowhere, present daily in Parisians’ newspapers as bulletins from the recently convened Évian peace conference and stories of nighttime bombings against supporters of independence, but largely absent from their everyday lives. These contradictory developments – the opening of negotiations and a heightened, secretive violence at home – were the immediate political context in which Hains and Villeglé would exhibit their work.

Raymond Hains. Paix en Algérie. 1956

We might say that the very form of the torn poster inscribed its profound imbrication in the wider political history of France in these years: their lacerations were made, after all, with intentional violence by those who upheld the principle of Algérie française or, alternately, of Paix en Algérie. The works of “France in Shreds” ruptured the polite discourse of French politics and its sanguine repressions that masked the murderous counter-insurgency in Algeria. Significantly that rupture took the form of a negation of meaning, whereby the clear message of the political poster – its propagandistic tone of assured positivity – was voided of sense through the vandalism of anonymous passersby.

Jacques Villeglé. 14 juillet. December 1960. Private collection

Tearing rendered their messages unreadable, unable to be distinguished clearly the one from the next; but the exhibition itself, in grouping together the most disparate political agendas – from Left and Right, Communist and Gaullist, pro-FLN and pro-OAS, the French paramilitary Secret Army Organization – on the two-dimensional plane of the gallery wall, appeared to propose its own variety of indistinguishability. The title for the show in fact echoed that of a book published only four years earlier, France in Shreds, by a centrist political journalist who diagnosed the ailing nation’s condition. By removing responsibility for France’s polarization from its ruling elite and the latter’s disastrous colonial policies – where responsibility truly lay – and placing it instead with a deterministic view of a national “fate,” he emptied the rhetoric of both ends of the ideological spectrum of any substance, reducing them to indistinguishable noise. While the coincidence of titles should not lead us to an over-simple alignment of their agendas, nevertheless we may locate a shared set of principles at work behind both: the artists and Fauvet were operating within the same terrain of centrifugal political tendencies and, more importantly, both operated from the assumption of the bankruptcy of radical programs of social transformation. The result was a spirit of disillusionment and skepticism linked with a program of aesthetic transgression. Hains and Villeglé could, in other words, appear above the fray, implicated by neither side in these debates; they were merely the melancholic collectors of the evidence of “France in Shreds,” documenting the violence done to the symbolic body of the Republic.

Jacques Villeglé. Carrefour Algérie-Évian. 26 April 1961. Private collection, Belgium

That such a studied neutrality implied its own politics was noted by one reviewer of the 1961 exhibition, who wrote: “since it is often a question of the Algerian war and of the regime that it has entailed, I would prefer that the artist express more clearly his way of ‘seeing things.’ This is completely natural amidst such confusion.” Instead, however, the artists chose to remain within the prevailing social confusion of the moment, focusing on the material aspects of their procedure and delighting in the plays of words and phrases that resulted. “In which case,” the reviewer concluded, “to speak politely, it amounts to indecency.” The works of “France in Shreds” did indeed speak of what the country had wished to keep silent in the midst of the Algerian War, but they did so with a vocabulary destined to return their subjects to quiescence. As Daeninckx insightfully revealed a generation later, the poster’s mode of display could be equally a means of concealment, and this ambivalence extended to the significations of Hains’s torn-poster work.

Jacques Villeglé. Rue au Maire (cette propagande infâme). 4 January 1961. Private collection.

Tom McDonough is Associate Professor and Chair of Art History at Binghamton University, State University of New York, where he teaches the history and theory of contemporary art. His most recent book is the anthology The Situationists and the City (Verso, 2009); other publications include “The Beautiful Language of My Century”: Reinventing the Language of Contestation in Postwar France, 1945-1968 (MIT Press, “OCTOBER Books,” 2007), and the anthology Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents (MIT Press, “OCTOBER Books,” 2002). He has published regularly in journals such as Art in America, Artforum, Documents, Grey Room, OCTOBER, and Texte zur Kunst. McDonough has been a visiting scholar at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, a Getty Postdoctoral Fellow, and a recipient of an Arts Writers Grant from Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation. He is an editor at Grey Room.

Reproduction, including downloading of Hains or Villegle works is prohibited by copyright laws and international conventions without the express written permission of Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.