Thierry Noir, the man of the wall.
Translated by Virginie Desforges
La Presse (Montreal).
Saturday March 09th, 2002.
The day the Berlin Wall fell, Thierry Noir lost his artwork. All his artwork. Within the space of a few hours, his immense concrete mural of more than one kilometer length, collapsed into a great crash. However nobody saw the author of the longest concrete canvas in the world crying. The day he lost the work he had spent five years to paint, Thierry Noir was perhaps an orphan painter, but a happy orphan painter.
"I started to paint the wall not to become insane" he told me. "It was a kind of physical and impulsive reaction against what was nothing more for me than a killing machine. When this machine broke down, I was really happy. What about my painting? It wasn't so much important after all."
With his carrot colored hair, Noir looks vaguely somnolent, his ear perpetually screwed to his cellular phone. Thierry Noir is 44 years old, he was born in Lyon and arrived in Berlin at the beginning of the eighties, with two small bags and the insane desire to live in the same town as Lou Reed and David Bowie, who a few years earlier had a passion for this new capital of the underground life.
Noir could neither paint nor draw a cat. He believed he would stay in Berlin only a few months, but twenty years later, he is still there. He has now one apartment and a gallery with his name - the Galerie Noir - in the Berlin district of Schöneberg where he sells his paintings as well as posters and postcards, pointing out the time when he was an artist of the wall with Christophe Bouchet and Kiddy Citny.
He lived a long time without a penny. Everything changed in December 1999, after a decade spent in front of the German courts claiming his rights to get paid for the sections of the Berlin wall that had been sold a full price and with his signature, during the special Monaco auction in June 1990.
The German Federal Court of Karlsruhe finally recognized his rights to a reasonable part of the money made in Monaco. The auction had brought several millions and the amount Noir got, 115 000 Euro. Was but a negligible part of it, the equivalent of 160 000 $.
did the wall became his canvas?
In a way, one could say that Thierry Noir was one of the wall’s fall craftsmen. Before he started to splash it with his colors, the wall was just one long gray concrete motorway, a sad and military area, struck here and there with political slogans or solitary graffiti. Until 1984, the Berliners had never dared transgressing the taboo of the wall. Rather than to paint it, they furiously sought to avoid it.
"In fact," explains Noir, "it is the perfection of the wall which precipitated its fall. From 1961 until the late seventies, the wall had been made of a porous concrete which absorbed paintings. After 1976, they developed a kind of giant Lego system, made with a reinforced concrete composed of silicate granulate. This new material was ideal to paint."
The wall was technically transformed into a big canvas and Thierry Noir into a sort of kamikaze, clandestine painter. Because of the cold weather and the East German sentinels armed with machine guns it was necessary to paint quick. The sentinels guarded the wall night and day, standing inside watchtowers placed all around West-Berlin. Instinctively Noir chose simple figures, fast of execution.
If Necessity is mother of all inventions, it produced in Berlin a neo-naive painter, obsessed by a single character, the shape of a ground worm endowed with immense lips, which became his trademark and gave him the title of "Picasso on the street". "My receipt was simple: two ideas, three colors, you stir the whole up and the picture is done", says Noir ironical.
The Berliners were initially surprised, then annoyed by this guy -after all a foreigner- who dared defying the interdicts and enter in direct relation with the killing machine. Then, quickly, they started to insult him, treat him as an abductor of the wall, a capitalist paid by the Government.
"In vain I repeated that I was paid by no one, that I did not seek to embellish the killing machine, that I did nothing but react to its sadness, they would not understand. It is important to say too that much emotion was in the air surrounding the wall. "
More that an hundred people had already died while trying to go over the wall. The atmosphere was violent, very heavy. In spite of the screams and insults, Noir went to the head of the painting, every day without respite, covering with his friends a distance of more than 4000 meters in five years.
One day, four East-German soldiers with machine-guns jumped over the wall in order to arrest Noir. Terrorized, he was nevertheless able to escape in time. But on the following day, he radically changed his technique, and started painting with one eye while supervising the surroundings with the other.
wings of desire
Perhaps the inhabitants of Berlin looked badly at Noir, but it was another story with the tourists. More and more passers-by came to take photographs of Thierry Noir huge canvas. Others bought postcards, posters, tee-shirts that he had started to produce in small quantities in order to ensure his survival. One day, an exiled German came into town.
He was a scenario writer, his name was Wim Wenders and he wanted to make a film about Berlin. He did not know exactly what would be said in this film, he only knew that it would be about a love story between an angel and a woman and that there would be a camera traveling along the wall and ending with a painter standing on a ladder and painting like crazy.
Obviously this man was Thierry Noir. As for the film, you will have guessed, it was "The Wings of Desire" which, for many people, remains Wim Wenders most beautiful work. The radiation of the film into the capitals of the world had the effect of a balsam on the still open wounds of the Berliners and on their perception of their own wall.
Understanding finally that to paint the over it was not necessarily a sin against humanity, they ceased submerging Noir with insults and sarcastic remarks. As for the tourists, who flowed in greater number to the open workshop of the artists of the wall. But Noir is not nostalgic of this insane and feverish time.
Even if in the eighties, Berlin had become the capital of the avant-garde, the life there, according to him, remained difficult. "There was so much sadness and blackness in the air. There were also many lost people, with very little money, who woke up daily at 7 p.m., spending their life, night after night, through bars and discotheques, in order to be warmed up by the heat of the night.
It is true that the underground was flourishing, that a lot of new artistic waves were in emergence, but they had nothing to do with merryness or happiness. Everything seemed without future, heavy and completely desperate. And that's why those people were so creative. Creation for them was the only way not to become insane or sink into depression."
The fall of the wall in 1989 was not only symbolic. It cleaned the Berlin atmosphere, released the sky and drove out town several phantoms of the past: not all of them but several. Except that its fall, sounded as well for Thierry Noir as the beginning of a long juristic battle. In January 1990, a quite well disposed lady, called "The Huguenot" by Noir, decided to collect money for the "Charité Hospital", East Berlin biggest hospital which was in great need of renovations.
She convinced the authorities to let her organize an auction sale in June 1990 in Monaco, with the most beautiful sections of the Berlin Wall that had been save from the demolition contractors peaks. A splendid catalogue was printed at the cost of 50000 $. One found in there, photographs of 33 segments painted by Noir and identified as such, as well as 12 others, painted by Kiddy Citny.
When Noir asked the lady if an amount had been designed to compensate the artists, she answered him: We make you famous, what more could you want?
10 years battle
A handfull of millionaires, of whom the Hennessy family, became purchasers of the killing machine’s vestiges. The sale obtained a real success and generated profits of several millions. In spite of that, the Huguenot declared bankruptcy a few months after the event. The collected money disappeared, without even passing through the doors of Charité hospital.
Revolted by this business and also by the fact that in the suburbs of Berlin the Huguenot was living in a sumptuous villa (obviously not registered at her name), Noir went to Court, claiming to the German Government that a reasonable amount of the sale’s money should be refunded to him.
The battle lasted 10 years, but taught Noir a lesson which is most invaluable. " I believe that in the end" he said as a joke "I knew more about the case than every lawyer against whom I was fighting."
However, during this long interim, the artist did not remain inactive. He set up a center for young people in a former squat, he painted some huge murals in night clubs, others in factories. He was even asked by the Irish Band U2 to paint on ten typical GDR cars -the Trabant, ancestor of the ladybird- which were used for the cover of their album "Achtung Baby".
Twenty years after landing in Berlin with his two bags, Noir has not been seen living anywhere else. The new town of polished glass, which emerged on the immense waste ground of the wall, enchants him. Moreover, the last vestige of his artwork will soon be embedded in the pavement at the foot of a new complex.
Perhaps there will remain nothing of the Berlin Wall any more in 100 years, but in the concrete will be this spot of color, this indelible trace signed Thierry Noir.