Thierry Noir: From the Berlin Wall to New Bond Street

Thierry Noir: From the Berlin Wall to New Bond Street

From transforming the Berlin Wall in the 1980s to creating U2's infamous 'Achtung Baby' Trabants, Berlin-based artist Thierry Noir's monumental heads are instantly recognisable worldwide. This November the one-time denizen of the Berlin underground is presenting a fresh selection of new works for sale at Sotheby's New Bond Street, that pay colourful homage to a lost era of underground resistance, street art, punk energy and the Iron Curtain.
From transforming the Berlin Wall in the 1980s to creating U2's infamous 'Achtung Baby' Trabants, Berlin-based artist Thierry Noir's monumental heads are instantly recognisable worldwide. This November the one-time denizen of the Berlin underground is presenting a fresh selection of new works for sale at Sotheby's New Bond Street, that pay colourful homage to a lost era of underground resistance, street art, punk energy and the Iron Curtain.
Thierry Noir in front of his artworks on the Berlin Wall, 1986 (Thierry Noir Studio)

T he cartoon-like figures for which Thierry Noir is best-known are, in a sense, his trademark design: heads in profile view, like human submarine periscopes, with eyes and lips, large and colourful. At least as characteristic and instantly recognisable as Giacometti's skinny existentialists or Niki de Saint Phalle's voluminous ballerinas.
But the fact that Noir's frescoes became world-famous almost 40 years ago also has something to do with the very special canvas he used for them. In 1984, the then 25-year-old Frenchman began painting the west side of the Berlin Wall, square metre by square metre.

The colourful heads, originally created on a rather impulsive whim, made him an unlikely political artist and one of the founding fathers of European street art. When the German Democratic Republic opened its borders at the end of 1989, around five kilometres of the Wall were covered with art by Noir and his artist friends. Today, Thierry Noir is preparing to revisit those iconic heads in with a new body of work on show at Sotheby's, New Bond Street.

To fill us in on his back story and the inspiration for the new paintings, Sotheby's met Thierry Noir in Einstein, a traditional 1920s-style Berlin coffee house in the Schöneberg district, just a few streets away from his home. Noir, now 64, is dressed, in typical Berlin style all in black, drinks a latte and talks in German with a soft French accent about his beginnings in the West Berlin art scene, the upheavals of the early 1990s and his new selling exhibition at Sotheby's, which runs from 11 to 15 November.

When your name comes up, the first thing most people think of are your old Wall paintings. Does that bother you?
No, not at all. It's like with the Rolling Stones, they will keep singing “I can’t get no satisfaction” till the end, even though that song is from 1965. Memories are precious, they cannot be manipulated.

You still live in Berlin, where you arrived from Lyon in 1982, mainly out of a sense of adventure. What were you looking for back then?
In the early 1980s, I was terribly bored with French culture. While punk and New Wave were exploding in other places, conservatism and bad music continued to rule in my home town of Lyon. I had no job, but heard great stories from Berlin about David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Nina Hagen. Then an old friend came back from a visit to Berlin. He suddenly looked like a really cool punk and told crazy stories. Half of them were lies, but I didn't know that when I bought my one-way ticket to Bahnhof Zoo station in January 1982.

© Marcus Peel
'From my bathroom window, you had a direct view of the Berlin Wall and the death strip. It was a bizarre, exciting world'

How big was the culture shock for you when you arrived?
As I said before, I was a little naïve. I was supposed to stay with a friend of a friend from Lyon, but his Kreuzberg flat turned out to be an unheated, damp hole. After three days he threw me out. Luckily, I found accommodation in the Georg-von-Rauch-Haus, a former squat that was now a sub-cultural youth centre. Fifty to sixty people lived there – creative types, soldiers of fortune and drifters. I got a small room on the ground floor and picked up furniture from the street. From the bathroom window, you had a direct view of the Berlin Wall and the death strip. It was a bizarre, exciting world.

Did you ever regret the move to Berlin?
Not for a second. One week after my arrival, the legendary New Wave duo DAF played at the Metropol club. The show was sold out, but again I was lucky. A guy from my house had swallowed an LSD trip that night and was too high to go to the show. He asked me, "Do you want my DAF ticket?" It turned out to be a phenomenal evening.

© Marcus Peel

How should one imagine the West Berlin art scene of the early 80s?
In my environment, practically everyone claimed to be an artist. When I was asked, "And you, do you also make art?", I simply answered "Yes, of course!" Only then, around 1983, did I really start painting.

And you could make a living from it?
I went around the bars and restaurants in the evenings and offered my small early paintings, for example at Paris Bar or the famous Greek Restaurant Fofi's. I was part of an underground artistic clique, sitting in Café M or in the discotheque Dschungel, in bars like Ex'n'Pop or Risiko. There, Blixa Bargeld from Einstürzende Neubauten stood behind the bar and Nick Cave sat in the back corner.

View of the Berlin Wall from Thierry Noir's squat window, 1980s (Thierry Noir Studio)

In 1984 you painted the first murals on the Berlin Wall. How did that happen?
I had toyed with the idea of painting the Wall that I looked at every day for two years. It was considered a no-go among artists, but in April 1984, I made my first painting on the Wall at Bethaniendamm in Kreuzberg: two sitting dogs. In the days after, alongside my artist friend Christophe Bouchet, we continued to paint it from top to bottom. Some passers-by called us capitalist pigs, and there were often lengthy discussions. But we got used to it and soon we were working every day.

'A few times we got into trouble with the GDR border guards on the other side. Once they even threatened us with machine guns...'

Where did the idea for the characteristic heads come from?
The large frescoes became too complex and dangerous to paint in the long run. A few times we got into trouble with the GDR border guards on the other side. Once they even threatened us with machine guns. To continue, I needed an uncomplicated motif reduced to simple and faster-to-paint forms. I was forced to tap into my personal resources to find this unique style, seemingly childish and easy to reproduce, but which hides a universal energy that can be found scattered in various cultures around the world. The heads were not overtly political – the very act of painting the Wall was political enough. And soon people started reading their own meanings into them. 

© Marcus Peel

You famously 'had words' with Keith Haring when he painted over some of your work on the wall in 1986. What happened there?
In October 1986, a new building of the Wall Museum near Checkpoint Charlie opened, and Keith was flown in to celebrate. He was supposed to paint a piece of the Wall right near the Checkpoint and press and television were invited. The problem was that three months earlier, Christophe and I had spray-painted a series of Statue of Liberty images on the Wall right there. When I heard about it on the radio, I went there immediately to prevent the worst. But Haring had already painted over everything. We argued briefly, but I realised it wasn't his fault.

Confronting Keith Haring after the American artist had obscured some of Thierry's work on the Berlin Wall, October 1986
Confronting Keith Haring after the American artist had obscured some of Thierry's work on the Berlin Wall, October 1986 (Vladimir Sichov)

How important was street art in Berlin back then?
Not very much. From 1987 on, we kept hearing that young people in the Märkisches Viertel district were spraying their graffiti on the wall, lettering like in New York. It was the next generation, the hip-hoppers. But I had no points of contact with them.

In 1989 the GDR opened its borders. How did you experience that?
As long as the largest parts of the Wall were still standing, I continued painting as before. The best thing was that in many places, people had hewn such big holes in it that I could slip through and finally embellish the other side as well. It was my revenge, after all these years.

'In the 1980s we had painted the Wall to destroy it, [in 1990] we did it to preserve a piece of it...'

What did it mean to you when the Wall disappeared completely?
My career as an artist had already picked up so much speed by then that I could get over it. I had worked on Wim Wenders' film Wings Of Desire, was commissioned by U2 to paint East German Trabant cars for their album Achtung Baby, and so on. When the East Side Gallery was opened in 1990, a leftover strip of the Wall was designed by 118 artists, I was one of them. In the 1980s we had painted the wall to destroy it, now we did it to preserve a piece of it. As a memorial to remind future generations that this must never happen again.

How much of the spirit of your 1980s wall art is in the current series of images on display at Sotheby's?
Very much. I still use the same technique, the same stylistic devices. However, I’m taking my time now. Whereas back then I needed four to five hours for a head, today it's two to three days. The new paintings are a homage to the earlier years. To me, they are still very much alive.

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