Featured Artist: Thierry Noir

Thierry NoirOn 9 November 2014 the world looked back to the momentous day, 25 years earlier, when the Wall came down.

French street artist Thierry Noir is credited as the first person to paint on the Berlin Wall, in April 1984. Noir had moved to the west side of the city two years earlier and was living in a squat that overlooked the infamous crossing. Saddened by the sight, one day he spontaneously decided to begin his illegal artwork in an act of defiance. Instead of intending to make the wall beautiful or joyful, Noir painted to highlight its strangeness, to “transform it, make it ridiculous, and help destroy it.”

Noir had to paint quickly to avoid arrest by East German guards, developing a ‘Fast Form’ style by simplifying the figures into a continuous line formed of one or two bright colours. Over the next five years Noir painted on the wall daily, with his colourful cartoon animals and human faces eventually covering an entire kilometre of its surface.

Many artists followed Thierry Noir’s lead in painting on the Berlin Wall, from Keith Haring’s stick men to Dmitri Vrubel’s cheeky picture of Brezhnev and Honecker in a clinch. Yet despite these years of work, Noir was relieved to see the wall destroyed: “It was not an art project, it was a deadly border. One hundred and thirty six people were killed because of the wall – everyone was just happy that it went away.”

Thierry Noir continues to live in the German capital and to produce work in his signature style, which since the end of the Cold War has became an iconic symbol of freedom. Noir’s Berlin Wall paintings remain on the portions of the wall held in the East Side Gallery and in New York City, and in 2009 the artist was invited to contribute to the restoration of what is now a historic monument by repainting several sections of his work.

Images: Top – Thierry Noir painting on the Berlin Wall, 1989; Bottom – View from Thierry Noir’s bathroom, Berlin, 1989.

11 thoughts on “Featured Artist: Thierry Noir

  1. You know what also happened that year and then like now, is overshadowed by this wall’s coming down? Nelson Mandela walked out of prison, FOUR walls, and was finally free!

  2. Thanks for the post on Noir, who, until now, I’d never heard of. I read the post you sent me and the author, Sue O., left out two very important pieces of this whole, “Down with apartheid” movement. I hope the upcoming article you mentioned will be broader in its scope. First, there was the role of the Cuban fighters in Angola and other African nations. One of Mandela’s first trips abroad upon his release, was to Cuba, where he personally thanked Fidel Castro and the Cuban people for their role in the struggle to end white supremacy in Africa. Second, there was the role of boycotting South Africa — check your history on the role of Jamaica’s Michael Manley and his appeal to the United Nations to ban South Africa from the Olympics. Check too, the role of Randall Robinson and his TransAfrica organization that opened our eyes in the United States so that we ended up picketing against the diamond and moning trades in an effort to squeeze the South African economy. No, that Berlin wall has a much smaller role in the end of apartheid than you realize.

    1. Hi Kay. Thanks for the interesting information. In February I aim to publish an art-related story that may deal with some of the issues you’ve mentioned, but I’m afraid you will have to look elsewhere for a more detailed historical analysis. I was not claiming that the Berlin Wall played a particularly significant role in the end of apartheid. But as this is a blog focusing on visual art that engages with the politics and ideology of the Cold War the story of Noir’s paintings on the Berlin Wall is incredibly relevant and should be considered in its own right, without suggestion that its coverage somehow diminishes the importance of Mandela’s release.

      1. No, you are right about your blog and its subject matter. My comments come from a different perspective than merely the Cold War and art. Hope to see you cover Cuban Art in relation to the cold war. I have heard from Cuban friends that trying to get materials for painting was an art in and of itself!

      2. I’ve already done a few posts relating to Cuba but I’d like to do more – it’s a fascinating subject. Maybe that will give me some inspiration for tomorrow’s offering!

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