Lettrism is a French avant-garde movement established in Paris in the mid-1940s, named for the French word for letter (lettrisme), since their early work centered around parsing the visual and spoken symbols of language. The members of the group produced sound poetry, film, painting, and political treatises.
Lettrism holdings at the Beinecke
Centre de la recherche lettriste, 1965-73
La lettre, 1962-91
Poésie nouvelle, 1957-62
In November 1945, the young, charismatic Romanian artist and poet Isidore Isou settled in Paris and founded a movement called Lettrisme, or Lettrism, so called after the French word for “letter.” By 1950, he had been joined by other French artists and poets, including, most famously, Gabriel Pomerand, who was involved from the group’s inception, as well as Maurice Lemaître and Gil J Wolman. Drawing on the legacy of Dada and Surrealism, the Lettrists sought to rejuvenate previous avant-garde tactics, but to push even farther their predecessors’ experiments in splintering sense and juxtaposing “art” and “life.” In his early manifesto of Lettrist poetry, drafted in 1942, Isou rejected the efficaciousness of language and the word as a unit of communication. “Words already have been mended so much they are in stitches,” he declared. Isou’s impulse to destroy linguistic order may be viewed not a negative theory of communication, as it has sometimes been cast, but may signal a desire to create anew, rather than striving to repatriate, an approach that makes sense when considered within the historical context, directly after the close of the Second World War.
Isou positioned himself as the progenitor of this new aesthetic project, and declared that he would atomize language, excavating the meaningful potential of letters, sounds, and signs from the leveling hegemony of words. Members of the group experimented with merging textual elements (letters, punctuation) with graphic modes of communication (symbols, drawing), a practice they referred to as hypergraphique. In dismantling words and using graphics in lieu of alphabetic text, the Lettrists privileged a kind of affective nonsense over and above explicit connotation. While they are best known for their textual and aural poetry, the Lettrists worked in a variety of other media, including painting, dance, philosophy, architecture, and film. The process in any format was for the Lettrists either in phase amplique—the period in which a form develops and adheres meaning and a stylistic structure (which is the mode of production of most artists)—or phase ciselante—the disintegration and implosion of this established format (namely the innovations of experimental figures such as the Lettrists themselves). They sought to chisel away accrued, ossified meanings and modes of communication.
It is up to the Lettrist to develop Letterism. Lettrism is offering a DIFFERENT poetry. LETTRISM imposes a NEW POETRY.
THE LETTRIC AVALANCHE IS ANNOUNCED.
ISIDORE ISOU, "Manifesto of Lettrist Poetry," 1942
During the early summer months of 1952, Gil J Wolman and Guy Debord were both in Belgium, during which time they decided surreptitiously to break off from the Lettrism of Isou and Lemaître, and to create their own group: the Lettrist International. This rupture within the Lettrist circle did not become formalized until the end of October, following the incident often referred to as “the Chaplin affair.” Charlie Chaplin was in Paris on a promotional tour for his latest film, Limelight; Wolman and Jean-Louis Brau managed to force their way into the press conference at the Ritz Hotel to toss hundreds of tracts into the assembled crowd. This tract, titled “No More Flat Feet,” leveled a scathing critique of Chaplin as worn-out and complicit in the spectacularization of culture. Isou and his circle publicly condemned this action, and Wolman, Debord, Brau, and Serge Berna officially formed the Lettrist International.
Four issues of their eponymous magazine were published between 1952 and 1954. Internationale Lettriste was then overtaken by Potlatch, produced in more informal newsletter format, which ran through 1957. The Lettrist International collaborated with other groups at different times. For example, in 1955-56, they published texts in three consecutive issues of the Belgian Surrealist magazine Les Lèvres nues, including the important essay "Mode d'emploi du détournement," coauthored by Debord and Wolman. In 1956, Wolman was the sole representative of the Lettrist International at the First World Congress of Free Artists held in Alba, Italy. He made an impression on Asger Jorn and Giuseppe Pinot Gallizio, with whom he painted and made slogans on canvas during that visit.
It was just a few months later, in the 28th issue of Potlatch published January 1957, that Debord published his official exclusion of Wolman from the Lettrist International. While both Debord and Wolman had stood at the helm of the group, and shared a desire to depart from the more narrowly aesthetic concerns of the Lettrist circle around Isou, their different orientations remained clearly distinct: Debord considered himself a theoretician of the political, while Wolman sought to bring art and social life to bear on one another, for he saw art as a matter of everyday practice, which could take visual, aural, or textual form. Following Wolman's exclusion, the two men never met again. In July, Debord would found the Situationist International, marking the official end to the Lettrist International. Wolman, meanwhile, focused his attention on different modes of visual art-making that incorporated language, text, and appropriation.
"Cinema Sans Sense," article by Guy L. Coté, published in Quarterly of Film Radio and Television (Summer 1953) (pdf).
Kaldron Lettriste Pages, history and texts related to Lettrism (in English).
Lettrism?, short essay by Johanna Drucker (pdf).
Lettrist International Texts, translated into English, on Situationist International Online.
NOT BORED!, a pro-situationist digital 'zine run by Bill Brown, featuring chronology, texts, correspondence, and images related to Lettrism and other avant-garde movements.
Ubuweb, extensive digital educational resource for avant-garde material, including texts but largely film, video, and sound, including work by Guy Debord, François Dufrêne, Isidore Isou, Maurice Lemaître, Gil J Wolman, and others.
Orson Welles interviews Maurice Lemaître, Isidore Isou, and Jacques Spacagna in Paris, 1955.