From Letters to Lettrisme --
the ancient origins of an avant-garde movement

First Lettriste Exhibition
in the U.S. for this Millenium

February 4 - April 6, 2000
Georgia Southern Museum, Statesboro, Georgia
David W. Seaman, Curator


We generally read and write so quickly that we have no occasion to reflect on the fact that our written alphabets and systems of signs originated in drawings, graffiti, and doodles. It was only after a long process of refinement that these crude pictures later took on phonetic or semantic meanings.

Archeologists of writing have determined, for instance, that the letter A comes from a crudely drawn cow's head--now upside down, so the horns have become legs--and the letter B was a picture of a house--two rooms, apparently.

Today when we acknowledge this visual content of language, it is often in games, such as the rebus, where a picture replaces a word, sometimes with a different meaning: a picture of an eye, the letter C, a female sheep--that says "I see you."

More serious writers, like the monks copying medieval manuscripts, would sometimes decorate letters--we call these illuminated letters--in order to attract attention to their shape, so an S may become a serpent, and G a gargoyle. Even the novelist Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables, suggested that A looked like the gable of a house, and H like two medics carrying a stretcher.

Poets have often been aware of the visual power of letters and poems themselves. Ancient Greek poets would write a prayer in the shape of an altar, and in the Renaissance poets wrote drinking songs shaped like bottles and glasses. And who is not familiar with Lewis Carrol's story, "The Tale of a Rat," which is shaped like the tail of a rat?

Today, the world of advertising has absorbed all of these wonderful ideas and traditions and makes texts that are visually exciting, sometimes metamorphosing a letter into a picture, right before our eyes. That is a long way from a prehistoric cave painting of a cow. Or is it?

In 1945, a young poet in Paris--a refugee from Romania named Isidore Isou--had an idea for refreshing poetry and art after the terrors of World War II and after centuries of increasing boredom in literature. His idea was that painting and poetry could be renewed by using a new atom for their creation. That atom was the letter. Thus, Lettrisme--French meaning "letterism"--was born.

Soon Isou had friends and disciples who joined him in attacking the tedious post-war culture with paintings made up of letters, and poems made of letter sounds. The important thing was not to tell the same old stories over again, but to create beautiful and exciting new works of art. The boundaries between all the arts were broken down, and all sorts of subjects such as economics and science were given a Lettriste twist.

Before long the idea of Lettrisme was expanded with Hypergraphics, which invited artists to use not only Latin letters, but all alphabets and signs, even invented ones. This is all generally known as the Lettriste movement, one of the most vital avant-garde movements of the second half of the 20th century. The Lettristes have been presented in the Biennale de Paris, the Pompidou Center in Paris, and the Venice Biennale, as well as in shows across Europe and the United States.

Lettrisme is a cultural school, similar to Romanticism and Surrealism, seeking to bring about an evolution of universal values through its own characteristic creations. It continues even today, and has embraced artists in Europe and America, sometimes spawning spin-off movements.

The exhibition, "From Letters to Lettrisme," is designed to present this exciting movement to new audiences, and to highlight Lettrisme's relations to the ancient writing systems that form part of the background for the work of the Lettriste artists. It may seem that the process of creation for this avant- garde movement relates closely to the fundamental communication instincts of the earliest writers.

Egyptian hieroglyphics were a combination of picture writing and some phonetic symbols. Other writing systems became phonetic early on--where a symbol stopped being a picture, and only represented a sound--but they have wildly different designs, as in the Arabic and Hebrew scripts, as opposed to the Latin which we use.

On the other hand, writing systems based on Chinese ideograms still combine the phonetic with more pictorial figures, called ideograms, or pictograms. Some Western poets playing with this idea have created what they call calligrams-- pictures in calligraphy, like the heart-shaped poems we send on Valentineís day.

The large synoptic panel by Roland Sabatier, "The History of Writing," shows the Lettriste interpretation of how various writers through history have contributed to the deconstruction of literature, reducing the page to sentence fragments, the sentence to words, and finally reducing all to sounds and letters, which become the building blocks that Lettristes will rebuild from.

In the works of the Lettriste artists exhibited, one can see the traces of many different alphabets and writing systems. Isouís earliest works, represented by the large painting in this show, contain rebuses and cartoon-style drawings; Sabatier, on the other hand, paints with an invented series of figures that resemble petroglyphs or meso-American prints; Satiťís works take Latin letters as a point of departure, and metamorphose into elegant forms that suggest Arabic or Asian script; Broutin seems to create hieroglyphic cartouches; Poyet paints with expressive fluidity and word-play. Roehmer composes with signs and emblematic puzzle pieces, illustrated by her floating sculpture; Seaman pursues an archaeological search in letter systems.

The exhibition also presents Lettriste sound poetry, film, and hypergraphic novels.

Part of the pleasure and richness of these works is in sensing the ancient writing traditions that emerge in such modern works. We do not "read" these works in the literal sense, but we gather the diffuse meanings that are suggested by semantic elements such as letters, symbols, and icons. Specific interpretations are up to the viewer.

Lettriste art connects us to our deepest roots, and projects us into the future. It is an avant-garde for the new millenium.

-David W. Seaman, Curator

Click here to see work by Contributors to this show.

Go to Lettrist Home Page
Go to Light and Dust | Go to Kaldron

This show was supported by the Georgia Humanities Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities and through appropriations from the Georgia General Assembly.

This web site is a cooperative presentation of
Kaldron On-Line and
Light and Dust Mobile Anthology of Poetry.