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Forerunner of street art movement, Thierry Noir, launches solo Shoreditch exhibition

PUBLISHED: 17:00 03 April 2014 | UPDATED: 17:00 03 April 2014

Thierry Noir next to his wall in Shoreditch, photo Mitchell McLennan

Thierry Noir next to his wall in Shoreditch, photo Mitchell McLennan

Archant

A forerunner of the modern street art movement who illegally painted his bright images onto miles of the Berlin wall under hostile conditions launches his first ever solo exhibition in Shoreditch tonight.

Thierry Noir's work in the 80s film xxxThierry Noir's work in the 80s film xxx

In 1984 Thierry Noir began painting his iconic images as an act of rebellion against the repression of the Iron Curtain which the border symbolised.

His work is found in public collections all over the world, but this landmark exhibition in the Howard Griffin gallery represents a retrospective of his past 30 years, and will feature a concrete wall bisecting the space as well as photographs, interviews and films.

Noir was already leading a rebellious lifestyle in Lyon, France, before he moved to Berlin in 1984.

Aged 23 he had already been fired four times and been told he would never again work at the post office after accidentally destroying his boss’ glasses with a heavy parcel.

Waldemar NoirWaldemar Noir

“I couldn’t find my own way in France, I thought to myself I have to change something in my life because if I continue like that I will be in trouble in a couple of years,” Noir confided in his thick French accent, as he poured eight sachets of sugar into his coffee.

“I don’t do that normally,” he added as he dropped all the rubbish on the floor with a cheeky grin.

“Emotional intelligence I think it’s called, your body tell you, you need to change otherwise you are in trouble, I could feel it.”

West Berlin - a political enclave surrounded by East Berlin and East Germany which was created in 1949 - was in the news at the time for its new wave of music.

Thierry Noir's paintings on the Berlin WallThierry Noir's paintings on the Berlin Wall

Many philosophers, artists and musicians like Depeche Mode, Iggy Pop and David Bowie settled there in the 80s, and Noir decided to join them.

He bought a one-way ticket and totally reinvented himself.

“I was always in trouble, it disappeared immediately when I went to Berlin, I think it was the language,” he explained.

“The language and culture in France automatically made me angry, in Germany it was different, I could understand nothing.”

He settled in a squat overlooking the Berlin wall - a symbol of the divisions between East and West Europe, and the very real threat of nuclear war between superpowers.

Although he had no artistic background, in 1984 Noir spontaneously started to paint the four-metre high wall with whatever paint he could scavenge, selling small paintings in restaurants to survive.

“In Berlin everybody I met was an artist, a little bit like here in Shoreditch,” he said.

“Everybody was an artist so I thought I don’t want to be the idiot of the village.”

“I wanted to do something against the wall, the wall was not healthy, that artificial life surrounded by a wall was like a daily tristesse.”

Noir is featured painting the wall in director Wim Wenders’ cult 80s movie, The Wings of Desire, waving to the angel who comes to earth and sees colour for the first time, and his paintings were also immortalised on the cover of U2’s album Acthung Baby

His work came to assume an iconic importance as a symbol of freedom in the lead up to the fall of Communism.

Stunts like trying to drill a heavy door onto the wall at dawn nearly got him into trouble with the soldiers armed with Kalashnikovs on the other side, and he even tried to install a urinal on top of it, as homage to French artist Duchamp.

Noir spent five years painting the wall until it came down in 1989.

“It was a euphoric time, we were thinking freedom was coming from the sky to us,” he said.

However he laments that since that time dozens more separation barriers have been built like the one in Israel’s West Bank, the wall separating Turks from Greeks in Cyprus, or the one separating the US from Mexico.

“That one wall came down and more than 20 came up since,” said Noir.

“Nothing changed really, it’s a repetition of the old story, that there are rich and poor people, the rich people want to have security so they make walls.”

The exhibition will be on show at the Howard Griffin Gallery, 189 Shoreditch High Street, until May 9.


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