Writings on the Wall @ Waddington Custot

While graffiti seems like a modern art form, in reality, it could be argued to be one of the oldest. The first cave paintings – found both in France and Indonesia – are believed to be over 40,000 years old, and men and women have been making their marks on walls, buildings and public spaces ever since. A form of communication, this very public art can also be subversive, making anonymous comments and drawing attention to the barriers walls can provide. In Writings on the Wall at Waddington Custot, the work of six artists has been brought together, which reflects on the communication made through markings on walls.

The street is a place to play and learn. The street is disorder… This disorder is alive. It informs. It surprises… The urban space of the street is a place for talk…a place where speech can become ‘savage’ and, by escaping rules and institutions, inscribe itself on walls – Henri Lefebvre[1]

The most direct reference to “street art” within the exhibition is a set of photographs taken by Brassaï (b. 1899, Hungary; d. 1984, France) between 1935 and 1950. The images of marks made on Parisian walls were some of the first artworks to draw attention to public scribbles. Recordings of history and communication, as well as works of art in their own right, Brassaï would sometimes wait for a particular hour of the day to make sure he had the correct light for his photographs. The images show both drawings on top of walls, and incisions made into their surfaces, illustrating a varied account of a form of communication that was understood to be “primitive” and low culture.

Adjacent to Brassaï’s photographs, a series of lithographs by Jean Dubuffet are displayed. Les murs (The Walls) (1945) were made one year after Brassaï and Dubuffet met and were accompanied by a set of poems about walls by Eugène Guillevic. Within Dubuffet’s black and white lithographs, men can be seen urinating on walls covered in text and symbols, which include initials and hearts. An additional series of works made by Dubuffet displayed in another gallery includes paintings and collages constructed some twenty and forty years after the lithographs, illustrating the artist’s continued interest in graffiti.

Antoni Tàpies, Duat, 1994, 250 x 600 cm

What riches can be found in the image of the wall and all its possible derivations! Separating, cloistering, wailing walls, prison walls, witness of the passage of time; smooth, serene, white surfaces; old, tortured, decrepit surfaces; signs of the imprint of men – Antoni Tàpies’[2]

Addressing the physicality of writing on walls. Antoni Tàpies’ (b. 1923, Spain; d. 2012, Spain) Duat (1994), Aixeta (2003), and Signes sobre material (2006) are multilayered, with the addition of shutters, soil, taps and deep incisions made into the works’ highly textured surfaces. “Tàpies” in Catalan, means “walls” and the artist was very much influenced by the walls of the city in grew up in – Barcelona – and the sufferings they witnessed during years of Spanish oppression. Tàpies’ works therefore, remind us that walls are not only surfaces on which to provide a means of communication, but also witnesses to other forms of human exchange, as well as barriers that can keep people away from each other.

Cy Twombly, Untitled, 1969, 58.4 x 78.1 cm
Cy Twombly, Untitled, 1969, 58.4 x 78.1 cm © Cy Twombly. Courtesy Helly Nahmad.

Tàpies’ images also comment on mythology, and many liken wall painting – particularly in caves – to primitivism. His works draw attention to the past, referencing ancient cultures and history. Duat is the name of the underworld in Egyptian mythology, with the work including shutters and a gate. Tàpies has also written the name Orpheus on the painting and, in Greek mythology, Orpheus’ lover Eurydice, was trapped in the underworld and shut off from him. This reference to mythology is also referenced in the inclusion of Cy Twombly’s work (b. 1928, USA; d. 2011, Italy), with the written out names of a number of Roman myths. Sometimes the words are crossed out, a form of self-censorship and correction that also occurs in Tàpies’ oeuvre.

Vlassis Caniaris, Hommage aux murs d’Athènes, 1959
Vlassis Caniaris, Hommage aux murs d’Athènes, 1959, oil and mixed media on canvas 59 7/8 x 62 x 1 15/16 in, 152 x 132 x 5 cm © Vlassis Caniaris.

This deconstruction of text – found in Tàpies’ and Twombly’s work – is mirrored by Vlassis Caniaris (b .1928, Greece; d. 2011, Greece), with the letter “E” emerging in the centre of two works entitled Homage to the Walls of Athens (1959). Working in Italy at the time, the works have an Arte Povera feel to them, with thick layering of newspaper to make collage-like work. Red paint has been allowed to drip down the work’s surface, with the mixed-media images having a bloody, political feel to them, with the images communicating Caniaris’ concern for political freedom, resistance and social welfare, predating the Greek military dictatorship of the 1960s.

Manolo Millares’ work looks to his homeland too (b. 1926, Canary Islands; d. 1972, Madrid, Spain). Interested in the aboriginals who lived on the Canary Islands, his work reclaimed ownership over forgotten and suppressed symbolic inscriptions, something that is replicated in etchings made by Tàpies of eyes, crosses and the letter “A”.

Carving one’s name/one’s love/a date/on the wall of a building/such vandalism cannot be explained solely by destructive impulses./I see in it rather the survival instinct of all those who cannot erect/pyramids or cathedrals/to perpetuate their name. – Brassaï[3]

Writings on the Wall the works reminds us of an ancient form of communication, touching on mythology, language and symbols. Through works that construct and deconstruct text, as well as others that address the very physicality of a wall as a place for social exchange, the exhibition studies the way in which ideas and speech have been recorded through inscriptions on communal walls, drawing attention to a public calligraphic heritage that was born thousands of years in the past, and is likely to continue to exist thousands of years into the future.

Writings on the Wall is on display at Waddington Custot, 11 Cork Street, London, W1S 3LT until 30 June 2019

[1] Henri Lefebvre, The Urban Revolution, trans. Robert Bononno, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2003, p. 19.

[2] Written in 1969 at the request of the review Essais, for a number devoted to themes on the idea of the wall as a form of expression in contemporary art.

[3] Poem on graffiti by Brassaï © Estate Brassaï Succession. Translated from the original French text by David Radzinowicz © Flammarion, Paris, 2002.

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Lizzy Vartanian Collier is a London-based writer and curator. She is the founder of Gallery Girl - a London-based curatorial platform and website dedicated to modern and contemporary art from across the globe. Her work is primarily focused on supporting emerging female artists from the Middle East and the Caucasus. She has written for Canvas Magazine, Harper's Bazaar Arabia, Ibraaz, Jdeed Magazine, Suitcase and Vice Arabia among other publications. Her exhibitions in London and Armenia have been featured in Vogue Arabia, The Art Newspaper, The Art Gorgeous and numerous other news outlets. Gallery Girl has also spoken in the UK, UAE and Belgium about the contemporary art scene in the MENA region, and is planning further events in London and Amman.

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