France, late 1960s. The charming bourgeois boy Pierre witnesses a night-time murder: a beautiful young woman is shot by bizarrely hooded figures and taken to a castle that, as Pierre discovers with horror, belongs to his father. Here Pierre observes strange rituals, the focus of which is the mysterious beauty, wrapped in an enchanting orange nothingness made of gauze – and now suddenly alive again: the unknown reveals herself to be undead, a vampire.
Because: Pierre’s father has teamed up with two unscrupulous scientists who want to snatch the secret of eternal youth from the beautiful out of sheer greed for money. At the end of the story, when Pierre follows the mysterious through a magical curtain into her realm, he realizes that this is by no means one of terror, but that peace, harmony and beauty reign here.
So much for the plot of the film The Naked Vampires (1969). If anything about this chilling flick, with its staging of generational conflict and its shy eroticism, was successful, it was its targeted attack on the taste buds of the bourgeoisie. The director of the trashy horror shocker, Jean Rollin: a stepson of the Parisian surrealist Georges Bataille, a theorist of the obscene.
The main actor Maurice Lemaître, on the other hand, is known to the audience – together with his colleague Isidore Isou – as the head of the rebellious artist group the Lettrists. In the epoch from 1945 to about 1970, their self-marketing included repeated provocative scandals against a degenerated bourgeoisie from which nobody could expect anything anymore.
War produces a denial of meaning
What happened? No sooner had the tank battles of a devastating world war ended, no sooner had the roar of the Stukas stopped, than the rulers of the world hastened to start new wars: Korea, Vietnam, Algeria. Proxy wars and postcolonial conflicts that made no sense to anyone except for the armaments industry – and whose meaninglessness is reflected in the Lettrists’ demonstrative denial of meaning.
In 1965, for example, Maurice Lemaître dedicated an artistically designed “funeral inscription” to the French President Charles de Gaulle, depicting him as the prince of death: liberté, fraternité, la mort can be read in the figure of the general, which is captioned with letters. A painting painted over with letters by Roland Sabatier, shown at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris in 1967, depicts Brigitte Bardot and Jean-Luc Godard and alludes to the film Le Mépris, which takes a critical look at the commercial film industry.
The Dadaists are precursors
Another painting shows the Pope as an exhibitionist. Revolutionary pamphlets and artistic manifestos, which await discourse analysis to this day, were equally part of the forms of expression of the Lettrists. However, the Paris Lettrists were not without predecessors: Kurt Schwitters Ursonate, first published exactly 100 years ago in 1923, can be seen as Lettrism avant la lettre: a poem composed exclusively of meaningless speech sounds.
In his Frankfurt poetry lecture, Durs Grünbein illustrates the difference between the use of language in poetry and that in everyday life: “The central experience of these poetic readings was the word set free by isolation, placed in a dream state, which received its echoes through times and spaces from everywhere. But this word seemed to be already deeply embedded in me, it was called up from the innermost memory, so to speak, and now functioned as a free radical that constantly formed new connections in the brain.”
Even more radical in post-war Paris was the group around Isidore Isou and Maurice Lemaître, who intended to paint neither figuratively nor abstractly, but placed the individual sign, the letter released from any context of meaning, at the center of their work. In doing so, they varied a theme that is fundamental to the modern avant-garde: the radical opposition to the language and imagery used in ideological propaganda battles.
With the takeover of the Archives d’Isidore Isou and a retrospective dedicated to the Lettrists in 2019 at the Center Pompidou in Paris, the Lettrists have arrived in the Olympus of French art history, while they can still be rediscovered in Germany.
During a visit to the Musée Rodin in 1962, the painter and actor Maurice Lemaitre met the young Elke Ploss from Essen, who was studying Romance studies. The love of one summer turned into a lifelong friendship, also with her future husband Arno Morenz. Together they built up what is now the world’s most important collection of the Lettrist movement: the Elke and Arno Morenz Collection (EAMC) includes more than 180 paintings, drawings, photographs, collages, sculptures and prints along with mountains of artistic manifestos and pamphlets.
Today, the daughter of the collector couple Elke and Arno Morenz, Swana Pilhatsch-Mohrenz, runs the collection under the name EAMC as a publicly accessible exhibition in Charlottenburg’s Sybelstraße and regularly invites visitors to art history evenings. There is a lot to discover: we just have to go there!
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