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Nouveau Réalisme

Nouveau Réalisme Collage

Started: 1960

Ended: 1970

"A new world calls for a new man."

Yves Klein Signature

Summary of Nouveau Réalisme

A group of French artists in the early 1960s set out to prove the death of art's preciousness by considering reality their primary medium. Through a phenomenological reflection about the world around them, they would create works and happenings under the banner of Nouveau Réalisme, or New Realism. Although it was not the first "realism" movement, it was coined "new" as the third component to the Nouveau Roman (fiction) and New Wave (film) genres that were also progressive arrivals of culture in France at the time. With Nouveau Réalisme, artists questioned the idea that art had to elevate, politicize, or idealize any subject. This questioning led to an intersection between art and life, narrowing the gap between artists and the public, allowing everyone to participate in and easily relate to a rich multiplicity of media, forms, and styles. Although it was relatively short-lived, the movement's influence is still widely seen today, perhaps because it offered such myriad possibilities within the ever-existing fodder of the present environment for any given artist.

Key Ideas

Nouveau Réalisme's presentation of reality was a decidedly new one. Its artists were responding to their environment in post-war Europe amidst a society wetting its teeth on cultural production and consumption. This was articulated through a direct appropriation of, and dialogue with, parts of their world, or as founder Pierre Restany would say, "a poetic recycling of urban, industrial and advertising reality." They advocated this return to reality (the items they saw around themselves) in opposition to the lyricism of abstract painting or the petty bourgeois of figuration.
Through presenting what was real rather than what was appropriated or conjured, the Nouveaux Réalistes stripped art of a dogma that insisted it had to mean something. On the heels of Dada, they took the readymade object beyond negativity, banality, or polemics to become an active participant in a work of art or performance in its simple, unadorned form. An accumulation of trash became a picture. A crushed car informed a sculpture. A block of color could dwell on a wall, unapologetically itself.
Destruction was a common mode of creation. Some artists destroyed or vandalized objects, transforming their parts into new assemblages. Others used machinery, fire, and even guns to interact with objects and material in compelling new ways. The decollagists pirated. This violence became a metaphor for destroying traditional attitudes on what constituted art in order to aggressively define new ones.
The movement worked to deconstruct the glamorization of artists as solitary people working alone in the studio, producing valuable objects for the privileged confines of the gallery wall or museum space. It became common for artists to collaborate on projects and to create or show their work in public spaces. Oftentimes the audience was invited to participate in the art making, thus stimulating a new level of spectacle and viewer engagement. These activities were seen as both Institutional Critique and a liberation of the pigeonholed creative spirit.
Nouveau Réalisme Image


In 1955, French art critic Pierre Restany met Yves Klein at his first solo show in Paris. At the time Klein had been making a name for himself as an artist whose work challenged the illusions of art. In this exhibition he was showing the first series of what would later become his famous monochrome works - paintings made of simple squares of one uniform color. There was no relation of color to anything but itself, a blasphemous notion at the time. Klein introduced Restany to a large group of artists including Jean Tinguely and Arman whose work, like much of his own, meant to show ordinary reality without idealization. Unlike the European Realists or the Social Realists before them, who were known to present reality through a darker lens, Klein and his peers were simply acting as mirrors to explore their everyday urban, consumer society.

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