Lettrism (or Lettrisme or Letterism) is a French film and visual poetry movement that enjoyed a brief heyday as the avant-garde du jour in 1950s Paris, and is often associated with the French Revolutionary Student Movement of 1968. Founded by Elvis lookalike Isidore Isou (born Ioan-Isidor Goldstein, 1925-2007), Lettrism influenced other forms of art and poetry in Europe and Latin America up to the present and likely into the future, even as most Viners and Snapchatters remain unaware of this strange fold in the space-time continuum of art.
From the Wikipedia article on Lettrism:
Lettrism is a French avant-garde movement, established in Paris in the mid-1940s by Romanian immigrant Isidore Isou. In a body of work totaling hundreds of volumes, Isou and the Lettrists have applied their theories to all areas of art and culture, most notably in poetry, film, painting and political theory. The movement has its theoretical roots in Dada and Surrealism. Isou viewed his fellow countryman, Tristan Tzara, as the greatest creator and rightful leader of the Dada movement, and dismissed most of the others as plagiarists and falsifiers. Among the Surrealists, André Breton was a significant influence, but Isou was dissatisfied by what he saw as the stagnation and theoretical bankruptcy of the movement as it stood in the 1940s.
In French, the movement is called Lettrisme, from the French word for letter, arising from the fact that many of their early works centred around letters and other visual or spoken symbols. The Lettristes themselves prefer the spelling ‘Letterism’ for the Anglicised term, and this is the form that is used on those rare occasions when they produce or supervise English translations of their writings: however, ‘Lettrism’ is at least as common in English usage. The term, having been the original name that was first given to the group, has lingered as a blanket term to cover all of their activities, even as many of these have moved away from any connection to letters. But other names have also been introduced, either for the group as a whole or for its activities in specific domains, such as ‘the Isouian movement’, ‘youth uprising’, ‘hypergraphics’, ‘creatics’, ‘infinitesimal art’ and ‘excoördism’.
Vertigo Magazine has an excellent article about Lettrism, The Negation of Cinema: Some Brief Notes on Letterist Cinema 1950 – 1952, by Louis Benassi; here are some excerpts to further elucidate the story of Lettrism:
The mythology surrounding the Lettrists brings up ‘doubts’, ‘partial certainties’, ‘perplexities’, ‘disenchantments’, ‘discoveries’ and ‘assurances’: it truly was a unique moment in the radical counter-culture, somewhat overlooked in the larger context of the historical Avant-Garde. More than a gang of marginalized Neo-Dada, proto Punk drunks with an axe to grind, these individuals hot-wired a brilliant flash which has illuminated and influenced countless artists ever since, including Guy Debord, Jean-Luc Godard, Ken Jacobs, Stan Brakhage, David Larcher, Jonas Mekas and Frederique Devaux, to name just a few.
Lettrism begins with Jean-Isidore Isou (Samuel Goldstein) born in Romania in 1925. A dandy with an uncanny resemblance to Elvis, arriving in Paris in 1945, aged twenty, armed with a classical education and a head full of Lautreamont, Rimbaud, Ungaretti and Dada, Isou promised to lead the way to the ‘centre of creation’ where every person is sovereign and holds the means of production. Isou believed that art had two phases: a period of amplitude, when formal experimentation was taken to the limit, followed by a period of auto-destruction.
… The ranks grew with Gabriel Pomerand, Gil Wolman, Marc O, Maurice Lemaitre and Guy Debord joining the cause, drinking at every opportunity in dive bars around Saint-Germain-des-Pres, talking loudly of revolutionary art, philosophy, and politics, composing polemical tracts amid metaphorical and literal violence. The Lettrists were the youngest agitators of the Parisian avant-garde, ‘the milieu of demolition experts,’ disenfranchised young radicals with plenty to say and hate, who took on Andre Breton and other respected figures. They were conducting an offensive against an obsolete, derelict state and a cultural establishment which propagated boredom and refused to relinquish power. They placed poetry over politics, and above all, they believed that art should never be separated from life.
… Like most Avant-Garde movements the Lettrists were born from a literary pre-occupation like their predecessors Dada and Surrealism. They venerated the likes of Lautreamont, Rimbaud and other poets of negation. Isou’s poetic experimentations originated from – as pointed out by literary scholars – Baudelaire’s reduction of narrative to anecdote, Rimbaud’s disregarding of anecdote for lines and words, Mallarme’s reducing of words to sound and spaces and finally Dada’s destroying of the word altogether. Isou’s Dada sensibilities had clear affinities with the early Cabaret Voltaire and the ‘simultaneist’ experiments of Raoul Hausman, as well as the methods of Giuseppe Ungaretti of the Italian ‘Ermetismo’ group – their central tenet being, ironically, that only Language stood between mankind and chaos.
Destroyed words would become the basis of a new experimental language. Their Lexique des Lettres Nouvelles was an alphabet of 130 symbols and sounds, a sonic paralanguage Hyperphony. Isou, along with his chief lieutenant Maurice Lemaitre, worked out a notational style that resembled sheet music – with staffs, bar lines, dynamic marks etc – often performed by choral groups at Lettrist events, incorporated into poetic compositions or used as incidental sound to their films.
Yes, more than (your average) gang of marginalized Neo-Dada, proto Punk drunks with an axe to grind. Most interesting, perhaps, is the core Lettrist belief that art should never be separated from life, which is similar — though counter — to what Robert Rauschenberg was espousing at pretty much the same time in New York: “Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. (I try to act in the gap between the two.)” The Lettrists erased Rauchenberg’s gap (much as Rauchenberg himself literally erased a de Kooning drawing), and turned their lives into art and made art from their lives in a way that has repercussions to this day.
“I’d rather give you a migraine than nothing at all.”
- Check out the Kaldron Lettriste Pages, a site with links to all things Lettrism
- Vertigo Magazine article by Louis Benassi: The Negation of Cinema: Some Brief Notes on Letterist Cinema 1950 – 1952
- Film / Sound works on Ubuweb: Lettrisme | Lettrism | Letterism | Isidore Isou (Ubuweb has the complete film of Isou’s masterpiece, Traité de Bave et d’Éternité (Venom and Eternity), 1950) | Maurice Lemaitre
- Wikipedia: Lettrism | Isidore Isou | Maurice Lemaitre