Was ‘pop art’ a term used by yourself or colleagues or was there a different terminology that referred to a new figurative art movement in the 1960s and early 1970s?

Pop art was generally used as a generic expression to identify recent art from abroad, with artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg and David Hockney. When we used to speak of French artists it would be rather ‘European pop’ – a broad term identifying contemporary figurative art. We remember discussions about pop with Pierre Gaudibert, Curator at the Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris, founder of ARC [Animation/Research/Confrontation – a research and exhibition area dedicated to contemporary artistic creation] in the same museum. ‘Pop’ was identified/translated as ‘popular’, meaning something ‘aimed at a large audience’, but with iconography derived from newspaper and consumer society images. Pop art was then considered with interest for the ‘return’ of ‘figurative concerns’ when, at that time, at least in France, abstraction was the dominant recognised contemporary art in the art market and in galleries. Nevertheless, there was some doubt about its ‘message’ and/or distance from consumer society and advertising stereotypes found in some works from the USA and UK. Meanwhile, the French scene was concerned with expressing political preoccupations, as some artist in the Jeune Peinture movement did. That group was conceived as a place where artists could discuss their own and each other’s works before and during every annual salon.

Did you ever consider yourself (now or in the past) a pop artist?

No. At its beginning, my work and that of my close friends, colleagues and artists was categorised as ‘nouvelle figuration’ (new figuration) or ‘figuration critique’ before being defined as ‘la figuration narrative’ (by Gérard Gassiot-Talabot, the French art critic) in 1967.

Did your work engage with current events in the 1960s and early 1970s?

Indeed, yes. Bearing in mind the recent memory of the Second World War, and the Cold War period, most young artists were involved in some political movement – Maoist, Trotskyite or some sort of anarchist group or the French Communist party – even if they criticised, as insiders, some of the positions of that system or party. For art creation, the collective phase of judgement of aesthetic and formalism in the Salon de la Jeune peinture was practically an annual event where discourses were elaborated and debates about art and political engagement held, including, specifically, the artist’s role and status in or toward society. For example in the Salle Rouge Pour le Vietnam (The Red Room for Vietnam) ‘the just war of the Vietnamese people’ was the theme of the Salon in 1968, and all works presented had to be related to this. Due to the political events in May, the ‘red room’ was finally presented in early 1969. The following Salon in 1969 was named Police and Culture, denouncing and ironically commenting on the moral and ideological behaviour of the ‘new society’, an expression coined by the French Prime Minister, Jacques Chaban-Delmas.

Amongst other themes, the works dealt with the content and format of ideological education and the repressive society. Of course, the series Les Hommes Rouges [Red Men] conceived in 1968-69 was intimately linked to the events of May 1968 and the revolutionary spirit.

During the so-called ‘events’ of May 1968, some politically militant artists, most of them linked to the Jeune Peinture group, protested by occupying studios in the École de Beaux-Art de Paris, which they renamed the ‘Atelier Populaire des Beaux Arts’. Individually and together they designed political posters, using serigraphy for production, just as some American pop artists were doing. These posters were then distributed and put up on walls in the streets of the Paris. I was among them.

The Cooperative des Malassis was a group of artists – including myself, Lucien Fleury, Jean Claude Latil, Gerald Tisserand and Michel Parré –who conceived, drafted and created works together. They conceived a cycle Qui Tue? (Who Kills?) about the case of Gabrielle Russier, a 27-year-old schoolteacher who was sentenced to jail for having a love affair with a 17-year-old pupil. She committed suicide after the sentence was passed. It was a major event in French and international media and the Prime Minister indirectly deplored the outcome.

The group Les Malassis went on to make works in subsequent years, such as The Other Side of Bank Notes, L’Appartemensonge, responding to the public statement by the Minister of Culture that there was no specific Fifth Republic style. For the 1972 exhibition prefiguring the foundation of Centre Georges Pompidou, they created the cycle of paintings Le Grand Méchoui or ‘12 years of French history. On the day of the grand opening, the Malassis removed the paintings and turned away the police supposedly protecting the gallery against other artists protesting against the show for being ‘too official’.

How did you choose the subject matter for your work included in The World Goes Pop?

Large Protest and The Red Men, bas-relief, the latter being the eponymous work of the series, were part of a ‘cycle’ presented in ARC in the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris in May 1970. Preliminary drawings and sketches were made in 1968 and 1969. Paintings and plywood painted figures were realised from the end of 1968 and into 1969. The topics and imagery derived from the idea of some revolutionary utopia, moral and sexual freedom and fantasy, the concern for working people (La Grève/The Strike) and their relationships with the intellectual world. These red men and women flying like rain over the city were protesting and the titles (Demonstration 1 and Demonstration 2, La Meute (The Pack), La Grève (The Strike) are sufficiently explicit when the images are not necessarily so. In another painting, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx and Mao Zedong appear ironically in the same bed, which at first glance could be seen as a monument honouring their revolutionary roles but could alternatively be understood as an insult, implying their free sexuality, or that they are in the same tomb, a monument made with paving stones removed from Paris streets in 1968.

All these juxtapositions are rather ambiguous and number of meanings can be read into the images. Some critics identified a return of socialist realism, but that was a narrow, limited view of these works. One of the ideas for this series was the lack of a single meaning, and that one single significance could not be drawn from these images. In a interview in July 1970, where I was asked to explain the meaning of such ‘aggressive’ paintings I answered that probably there was as many interpretations that could be developed from viewing my pictures as much as pairs of eyes that beheld them.

Where did you get your imagery from (what, if any, sources did you use)?

Some of the figures had already been designed for the earlier series Les Jeux d’adultes (Adult Games) 1966/1967), and a large version of this Adult Games series was displayed close to Great Protest in the ARC exhibition. These stylised figures referred at the same time to a natural world, called ‘lost paradises’ by one art critic, where relations between males and women figures had to do with socialising world, in a city or in a rich and luxuriant nature, with some sexual implicit or explicit content or fantasies. Most of the images were taken from newspapers, news magazines and some photography books, and were impregnated with my reading of anthropology books such as Tristes Tropiques by Claude Lévi-Strauss, those by Marxist theoreticians such as Antonio Gramsci, Louis Althusser and Herbert Marcuse, or those by philosophers, such as Jean-François Lyotard, Gilles Deleuze and Raymond Roussel.

Some of the figures and stylisation were influenced by my work in theatrical scenography and set design with the director Pierre Etienne Heymann for Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie [1967], Friedrich Schiller’s Marie Stuart [1967], and contemporary French plays such as Les Immortelles [by Pierre Bourgeade, 1968], La Carmagnole des Khongres and Argyne sur le Mont Uhuru [L. Foucher, 1969–1970]. Elements of painted scenery from La Carmagnole were shown as works in the exhibition at ARC, and the lighting system from the theatre was used in the gallery to light the work Great Protest.

Some journalists and critics compared the design of the Red Men to comic strips, but I never specifically used comic books as a reference.

Were you aware of pop art in other parts of the world?

Certainly, through newspapers, art magazines and exhibitions in [Paris] museums and art centres where contemporary works were exhibited. At that time, ARC, at the heart of the Musée d’Art Moderne, was almost the only place to see contemporary art in Paris – the Centre Pompidou was not even a project yet.

Was commercial art an influence on your work or the way in which it was made?

In the 1970s, I didn’t have an art gallery to exhibit my works, so I showed my paintings and sculptures in the Maisons de la Culture, in the equivalent of public art centres (such as ARC), or in salons like Jeune Peinture. Also, some art scene activists such as myself and Gaudibert participated in educational events and seminars through the Peuple et Culture network of organisations, to help people to understand and appreciate classic and contemporary art.

My production of lithographies, distributed through a system of public subscription at a low price, was directly aimed at having a relationship with an extensive audience. For example, a folio of ten images was sold for the equivalent of nowadays €15, or €1 to €1.5 each. These prints produced in large series (around 1,000) were sold as posters at the time of these exhibitions in art or cultural centres or theatres, but also in some supermarkets, such as ‘Prisunic’.

Was there a feeling at the time that you were doing something important and new, making a change…?

Difficult to say, but this idea of diffusing to a large audience paintings and posters (lithographies) and being able to show these works in good conditions in public venues, produced a proximity that changed the relationship between the artist and his public, especially at a period marked by the expanding ‘power of the mass media’ as it was called at that time.

I kept most of these large and monumental paintings in my studio.

Was there an audience for the work at the time – and if so what was their reaction to it?

Certainly, the visitors to museums, art centres and Maisons de la Culture were slightly different, but at that time in France, contestation through art, public cultural events, concerts, plays and exhibitions were very popular. Festivals and museum shows were widely publicised and visited. The internet didn’t exist and television didn’t have the power it has now. Some of these events were also produced within a political context, or with political background. Articles in regional newspapers, interviews and TV talk shows prove that this relatively accessible contemporary art generated great public interest, which in some way corresponds to one definition of pop art.

Looking back on these works, what you do think about them now?

Two years ago, when I was revisiting some of these paintings in storage in my studio in the countryside, I was very happy with their plastic qualities, their partially inexplicit or ambiguous content, and their colourful, energetic and expressive design. I was always attached to this series and was angry about the wooden figures [of Great Protest] being so damaged that they were impossible to show again before being conserved and restored. It is also interesting to note that some of the journalists and critics (in the 1970s), writing about the first show of the series Les Hommes Rouges (The Red Men), mentioned an aggressiveness in the drawing or in the colours. Pierre Gaudibert, in the catalogue, used the expression ‘cold expressionism’ about these works.

It is probably fair to think these works still express a positive energy, in their bright, polished and worked-out design. But my works seem to retain an open (albeit referenced) significance, representing an urban or natural way of thinking and living, fighting and protesting in a politicised society. Contemporary visitors, young and old, may still sense a feeling of hope.

September 2015