The Importance of Being Earnest: Ernest Pignon-Ernest at the Venice Biennale

Written By J. Scott Orr
Photography by Elizabeth Freeman

VENICE – When it comes to graffiti and street art, the Venice Biennale is pretty much all wet.

But there is at least one nod to the genre in a collateral event on the margins of the big show, a solo exhibition of new work and iconic images by French street art progenitor Ernest Pignon-Ernest, who inspired next-generation street art virtuosos like his countrymen JR and Blek le Rat, the British Banksy, Americans Shepard Fairey, Swoon and many others.

Here, in this timeless city of canals and bridges, the art world’s elite has gathered for the 60th time to see and be seen as participants in the world’s longest-running contemporary art exhibition. There are the official pavilions sanctioned by government authorities from 55 nations that showcase some 331 select artists. Add to that dozens of independent collateral events scattered about the city.

The theme of the Biennale, Stranieri Ovunque — Foreigners Everywhere, is meant to prompt consideration of the absurd predicament faced by 8 billion individuals of diverse backgrounds and beliefs sharing a single, fragile, blue marble. That we’re all foreigners of one kind or another seems a theme that would certainly lend itself to the inclusive ethos of graffiti and street art.

But no. Street art – fine art’s ever-evolving, often overlooked proletariat stepchild, and the largest, most democratic and vital art movement of our time – is largely ignored in the Biennale celebration. Except at Espace Louis Vuitton, where Pignon-Ernest is being feted with a solo show as part of the ‘Hors-les murs’ program, a series of initiatives conducted by the Fondation Louis Vuitton across its diverse spaces in Tokyo, Munich, Beijing, Seoul, and Osaka.

Renowned for his iconic wheatpaste murals and other ephemeral installations, Pignon-Ernest is a street art pioneer who created a polished and provocative oeuvre over more than six decades. His process blends social commentary, political activism, and artistic dexterity to create wheatpaste marvels – largely hyperrealistic charcoal in situ portraits – that are equally evocative on streets and in galleries.

The show is a keen take on the Biennial theme Foreigners Everywhere that at once celebrates the work of Pignon-Ernest along with that of iconic and contemporary poets. “In this interpretation of the theme, the poet is held up as the figure of the idealized foreigner – sometimes even foreign to himself,” said Suzanne Pagé, the artistic director of the Fondation Louis Vuitton.

“Pignon-Ernest was the first artist in France to have appropriated city walls as canvases and to have mixed drawing and photography, 30 years before street art began to spread.” – Suzanne Pagé

“Pignon-Ernest was the first artist in France to have appropriated city walls as canvases and to have mixed drawing and photography, 30 years before street art began to spread,” said Pagé, who curated the event with Hans Ulrich Obrist, the Swiss art curator and artistic director at London’s Serpentine Galleries,

Pignon-Ernest said he hoped to capture poets “who sought to inhabit the world poetically, whatever the cost. Many of their portraits show how often they embodied the aspirations, dramas, and tensions that they experienced, how much they bore the stigmata of their time.”

“Many of their portraits show how often they embodied the aspirations, dramas, and tensions that they experienced.” – Pignon-Ernest

Some of the portraits on display were specifically created for the Biennale, including those of two exceptionally committed contemporary women poets: Russian Anna Akhmatova and Iranian Forough Farrokhzad. These are accompanied by renderings of French poet Arthur Rimbaud; Italian poet, director, actor and playwright Pier Paolo Pasolini; French novelist, playwright, poet and political activist Jean Genet; French writer, poet, philosopher and literary critic Édouard Glissant; French poet and playwright Antonin Artaud and Chilean poet and diplomat Pablo Neruda.

The works are rendered in Pignon-Ernest’s signature style, life-sized, black-and-white portraits wheatpasted onto the gallery walls. They are accompanied by quotations from the poets handwritten by the artist below each work. To accompany the Rimbaud portrait, for example, Pignon-Ernest chose a quote that captures the poet’s vagabond later-life as a foreigner: “For my part I intend to leave this city soon to go and trade in the unknown.”

Pignon-Ernest’s iconic portrait of Rimbaud has become the best known likeness of the young poet. Rimbaud, whose few years as a poet had an outsized influence on modern literature and the arts, led a brief, nomadic lifestyle that jibes nicely with the Biennale’s theme. For the show’s title, Pignon-Ernest chose Rimbaud’s famous declaration from a letter he wrote at 16: “Je Est Un Autre ” (“I is another,” or “I is someone else”).

Rimbaud, Pignon-Ernest said, is indeed a foreigner, one who “understood how to be both ‘other’ and ‘all others’ at the same time. Other, foreign, and yet intimately familiar.”

While he acknowledges his influence on generations of street artists, Pignon-Ernest says he does not identify with many. During a discussion with curators Pagé and Obrist, he said he does not consider locations as destinations for his work, but rather as places from which his work arises.

“My approach has nothing to do with the conception of the street as the world’s largest gallery.” – Pignon-Ernest

“My approach has nothing to do with the conception of the street as the world’s largest gallery,” Pignon-Ernest said. “My images have a different relationship with a place than as a simple exhibition space….It is the street itself that I propose, or even expose: the street and its history. For the moment, even if unique approaches such as the interventions of JR or a few other means of expression truly arising from the streets are emerging, they sometimes lack a consideration of the urban world and what it means to intervene in the public space,” he said.

Pignon-Ernest became an artist rather haphazardly in 1954 at the age of 12 when he discovered some of Picasso’s portraits of Sylvette in Paris. “That was a revelation, a liberation… I bought my first book of art, and seeing Guernica was a sudden awakening, a turning point for the rest of my life,” he said.

“Seeing Guernica was a sudden awakening, a turning point for the rest of my life.” – Pignon-Ernest

A second critical encounter happened in 1966 when he met René Char, the French poet and former member of the French Resistance, who was at the time leading a movement to protest a plan to station nuclear weapons in Provence. His first works in the street were in protest of the French nuclear deployment and evoked the victims of the U.S. nuclear strikes on Japan at the end of World War II.

“All that, combined with a keen awareness of living through a turning point in the history of humanity heralded by nuclear weapons – the knowledge that man now had the power to annihilate all life – it all naturally pointed to my decision to directly intervene on this land, mark it, brand it with stigmata.”

At 82, Pignon-Ernest remains the provocateur, choosing as the subjects of his latest shows poets whose work had a sense of destiny that transcended their lifetimes.

“I seek to capture that deep, tragic harmony, often forged between a poet’s work and their destiny.” – Pignon-Ernest

“In my quest for symbols and allegories, I seek to capture that deep, tragic harmony, often forged between a poet’s work and their destiny, that brings them to represent more than a country, but to also express their century, their time, the hopes and traumas that they have experienced,” he said.

Je Est Un Autre runs through Nov. 24 at Espace Louis Vuitton, Calle del Ridotto, 1353, 30124 Venice, Italy.

J. Scott Orr is a career writer, editor and a recovering political journalist. He is publisher of the East Village art magazine B Scene Zine.

Instagram: @bscenezine

Website: bscenezine.com