By Martin Smith | 13 November 2014
It’s not very often I get a formal invite to attend an event at an embassy. In fact I think it’s fair to say I’ve never received such an invite before.
But the other day a letter from German Embassy landed on my doormat.
I had been cordially invited to attend an event hosted by the German Ambassador at his residency in London to mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
This was no champagne and canapés affair. The street artist Thierry Noir had been invited to paint the exterior murals on the German Embassy and interior murals at the former East German Embassy on Belgrave Square.
I packed my camera – my phone actually – and headed off to one London’s richest neighbourhoods.
As I walked into Belgrave Square, a wall of Thierry Noir’s paintings on display on large hoardings greet me. They are versions of the ones he painted on the Berlin Wall in the 1980s and later in many other European cities.
The Berlin Wall was built in 1961 at the height of the Cold War by the German Democratic Republic (GDR). It cut West Berlin off from the rest of East Germany. In fact two parallel walls were built with guard towers, and were patrolled by armed soldiers. The gap between the two walls was known as the “death strip”.
The Wall came to symbolise the Iron Curtain, the political divide between the West and the Eastern Bloc. Berlin found itself at the fulcrum of Cold War antagonisms.
Thierry Noir was born in Lyon, France, in 1958, but he moved to Berlin in April 1982 and set up his artist’s studio just metres from the Berlin Wall.
The wall, and the physical separation of the city, repulsed Noir. As an act of protest and defiance Noir began in 1984 to paint sections of the wall – he was the first artist to do this.
He painted stunning, beautiful and simplistic works. They were illegal and dangerous this was an act of artistic revolution. It was an individual act of defiance and a lone voice of freedom.
Thierry Noir famously painted five miles of the Berlin Wall between 1984 and 1989. Some of his works can still be seen today on the fragments of the wall that still survive.
By painting these massive colourful faces and figures on the Wall, Noir hoped to make it look ridiculous, transform it and hopefully help destroy it.
The very first mural Thierry Noir put on the Berlin Wall was of a brightly coloured elephant. For the artist the elephant was a metaphor for the wall. The bright colours are his attempt to subvert this Cold War monolith and the key represented his desire to open up society. It’s a figure Noir has constantly returned to, and one of his interpretations of the elephant was on display in the embassy.
Thierry Noir’s murals were both a personal response and a poignant political statement. Noir’s graphic style and use of vivid colour evoked a youthful naïveté and innocence that responded to the bleakness of the Wall and subverted a monumental symbol of war into a symbol of hope. As Noir says:
My paintings are a symbol of a freedom that does not come from the sky, a freedom that is not given to you, but a freedom that you have to fight for.
Inside the embassy, signs painted by Thierry Noir direct you to the second floor. There you find three rooms given over to his works and in a fourth room films about him are showing.
Yes, there are some canvases on display, but the beauty of this exhibition is that Thierry Noir’s wall art has been transferred onto the walls of each room and the corridor. It is here that the artist’s colourful characters come to life.
Each of Noir’s paintings tell a story. The faces are highly stylised. He has created a cast of characters that aim to undermine the inhuman nature of the Wall. Alongside the more human figures are elephants, crocodiles and monsters.
Thierry Noir says he saw the Wall as a mutation of nature, a dangerous monsters swallowing up Berlin in concrete.
I wanted to make my own monsters that could mock the wall and undermine the fear the Wall instilled in the people of Berlin.
His styles draw inspiration from artists including Picasso, Miro, Monet, Basquiat and Haring.
In one TV interview, the artist said he was often confronted by people saying their children paint like him. His reply was sublime: “Make sure you let them carry on painting.”
The exhibition was only on for one day, although one embassy official assured me that the wall paintings would remain.
In some ways this is very sad – more people should be given the chance to see this exhibition. But in some ways it is like street art itself, always temporary and eventually ripped down.
Don’t despair, Thierry’s work can be found dotted on walls around east London free and for all to see.
If you would like details of Thierry Noir’s wall art in London, please drop me a line and I will send you their locations.