Thierry Noir, Street Artist
When I arrived to interview the celebrated street artist Thierry Noir, who won international fame and a place in history for his paintings on the Berlin Wall, I encountered an empty gallery apart from a man in construction worker’s clothing who answered the door. When I enquired if he knew where everyone was, he answered simply, “Hello, I am the artist.” Such is the unassuming nature of Monsieur Noir.
Within the gallery, several dozen canvasses were scattered, each painted in rich vibrant hues worthy of Matisse yet with sharp black lines defining the forms, which in some cases displayed an angular Cubist quality reminiscent of Braque at his most playful. These the were fruits of Noir’s labour over the past few weeks and the substance of his forthcoming exhibition that opens on April 4th at Howard Griffin Gallery in Shoreditch High St. Noir’s vivid palette contradicts his name which I wrongly assumed to be an adopted one. “I had a lot of trouble at school because of that,” he admitted to me with a blush.
Noir’s gentle manner is unexpected in an artist who famously used art with such bold liberationist intent, defying the might of the Soviet Union with his childlike images in fairground colours. Yet when he told me his story – as he continued his work placidly – I discovered it was a joyful emotional impulse which motivated him to create and that evidently sustains him to this day.
“I am from Lyon and, when I left college in 1984, I couldn’t find my way so I decided to go to West Berlin where Nina Hagen, Iggy Pop and David Bowie were. I had no idea where West Berlin was because it was the end of the world at that time. It took me twenty-one hours to get there by train and I arrived on 22nd January, 1982. Everybody I met was an artist, whereas in France I never met any artists, so when people asked me if I was an artist I said, ‘Yes.’ Then I had to prove I was an artist.
Two years later, I was living very close to the Wall – there were two walls with fifty metres between known as the ‘death strip’ and border guards patrolling on either side. I was living in a squat in a abandoned hospital at the end of a dead end street with no traffic. Nothing happened. It was a black and white world. I was going crazy, there was no colour or life, so I painted on the Wall. It was a physical reaction, it wasn’t political at the beginning. But it became political really quickly because everyone asked, ‘Who’s paying you?’ Was I a spy from France or the CIA?
It was taboo for the Berliners but, as a foreigner, it was not a taboo for me. I got a lot of questions and I had to develop a painting style so I could talk as I worked. Then I found could sell my paintings and make murals under commission, and I was able to make a living. Wim Wenders came along, he was researching his film ‘Wings of Desire,’ and we decided to work together and I painted a section of the Wall for him. After that, Berliners came to think in a different way about the Wall. It was another time, and the world was no longer black and white.”
Thierry painting on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall in the eighties
Thierry’s paintings featured in Wim Wenders’ ‘Wings of Desire’
Thierry works on his exhibition
Thierry Noir & Keith Haring at the Berlin Wall
“This photo was taken in 1986 along Bethaniendamm in Berlin-Kreuzberg. It was taken by my first wife Gabi Noir. I was wearing a suit that day that I had found in a bag of old clothes on the street. At that time West Berliners often left furnishings and clothes on the streets. It was a recycling process. During this period, I would paint the Wall all day and then travel to the centre of West Berlin to sell canvases in restaurants. That is how I survived back then.”
New photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien
Thierry Noir’s retrospective is at Howard Griffin Gallery, Shoreditch High St, 4th April – 5th May
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