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Thierry Noir: A Retrospective at The Howard Griffin Gallery

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Thierry Noir

From 3rd April, Howard Griffin Gallery presents a retrospective of the life and work of infamous artist Thierry Noir. In 1984, Noir was the first artist to illegally paint mile upon mile of the Berlin Wall. Noir wanted to perform one real revolutionary act: to paint the Wall, to transform it, to make it ridiculous, and ultimately to help destroy it.

Noir’s iconic, bright and seemingly innocent works painted on this deadly border symbolised a sole act of defiance and a lone voice of freedom. In this landmark exhibition at Howard Griffin Gallery in Shoreditch, the artist’s first solo show, original works will be exhibited on a concrete wall bisecting the space alongside rarely seen photographs, interviews and films, juxtaposing old and new to reassess Noir’s enduring legacy and contribution to society.

A number of artists, musicians and free thinkers settled in West Berlin during the 1980s despite the difficulties of the time. Within a group which included David Bowie and Iggy Pop, was a rebellious young French artist called Thierry Noir. Thierry Noir was born in 1958 in Lyon, France and moved to Berlin in 1982 with one suitcase.

By chance he settled in a squat overlooking the Wall at the border of East and West Berlin. One day in 1984 Noir spontaneously started to paint the Wall and continued to do so each day for five years with whatever paint he could scavenge from nearby construction sites. Noir’s aim was not to embellish the Wall but to demystify it. As Noir says, “I did nothing but react to its sadness.” During this time Noir would sell small paintings on cardboard at local restaurants to survive.

GDR soldiers partrolling the 'Death Strip.'
GDR soldiers partrolling the ‘Death Strip.’
GDR soldiers removing a heavy iron door from the Berlin Wall and taking back to East Berlin after Noir had stuck it to the Wall.
GDR soldiers removing a heavy iron door from the Berlin Wall and taking back to East Berlin after Noir had stuck it to the Wall.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Noir’s exploits and highly distinctive visual language have become world famous and immortalised in popular culture such as Wim Wenders’ 1987 film Wings of Desire and the cover of U2’s album Acthung Baby. It is remarkable, then, that ‘Thierry Noir: A Retrospective’, held in the 25th anniversary year of the fall of the Berlin Wall, is Noir’s first ever solo exhibition and also his retrospective.

Until comparatively recently Europe was totally divided – West and East – with a very real threat of nuclear war between superpowers. Since 1990 and the fall of Communism the era of two sole superpowers facing off against each other has ended. However, the world has faced mutlifarious security concerns of a different nature since and areas of Europe, particularly the previous Soviet States have witnessed bloody conflicts. The current situation in Ukraine points to a renewed destabilisation of Europe that could once again put Russia into conflict with Western Democracies and endanger the security and civil liberties of citizens of Europe. While painting on the Wall, Noir’s work gradually came to assume an iconic importance as a symbol of freedom in the lead up to the fall of Communism.

The symbolism of this work carries an enduring legacy that is still relevant today in a world where there are still divisive walls both physical and metaphorical.

Noir is today being increasingly recognised as a key forerunner of the modern street art movement and in 2013 worked outdoors in London alongside renowned international street artists of the current generation such as Phlegm and ROA. Noir is also compared with contemporaneous New York pop artist Keith Haring also born in 1958 and who likewise began his career on the streets.

Noir painting Berlin Wall - 1980s.
Noir painting Berlin Wall – 1980s.

Noir’s practice has a strong emphasis on line and aims to simplify forms to their most basic elements. This simplicity reflected the necessity of painting quickly outdoors in a hazardous environment with very real risks to his personal safety. Noir reacted to his environment and his monsters are a metaphor for the wall itself, each one relating to his experiences or feelings of what he calls a ‘killing machine’.

His enormous murals in vivid colours represented both a personal response to the oppressive environment he found himself in and a poignant political monument that is just as relevant in the 21st Century as it was at the height of the Cold War. Visually, his iconic style is the very embodiment of 1980s Berlin and conjures up a timeless nostalgia for this cultural era.

Thirty years later, Howard Griffin Gallery is bringing Noir to London, offering a unique opportunity to look back at the story of this unique outsider artist alongside new works.

2014 Noir canvas.
2014 Noir canvas.


3rd April – 9th May 2014
Howard Griffin Gallery
189 Shoreditch High Street, E1 6HU

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