PRESERVING THE MEMORY OF STREET ART WITH ITS PIONEER BLEK LE RAT
Words by AICHA PILMEYER
When the rats took over Paris, BLEK LE RAT pioneered stencil art and became the godfather of his genre. Fast forward many years later, in the heart of London, WOODBURY HOUSE proudly presents the long-awaited return with the solo exhibition: “The return of the rat”. Showcasing 37 new works created exclusively for this occasion.
Numéro Netherlands had the unique opportunity to speak with the master himself. Join us on a fascinating journey through the life and work of Xavier Prou, the 72-year-old who grew up in an artistic family and who revolutionized the art world with his unique pieces on the street. This exhibition captures the essence of the streets on canvas, preserving the memories of what happened before, and inspiring the next generation of street artists to come.
Do you remember the moment that you realized you want to become an artist?
Yes, I do remember! When I was 14 years old, my aunt brought me to a museum and I saw a Huge Dali painting of a lady playing the piano. The impact that painting had on me was deep. It made me realize that art was such a powerful tool to make a lasting impact on people. I was really, really impressed by that painting.
It’s interesting that you’ve been moved by Dali’s surrealistic art, especially since your art leans more toward realism. So, I’m curious – what inspired your approach?
When I went to Beaux-Arts school in France, I was really influenced by the surrealism movement. I was studying the work of Andre Breton, reading all the books, but I saw at the same time that the surrealism movement was coming to an end. I felt that it was important to use my art to convey messages to people. I do not see this as a political activity, as I am not involved in politics. I’m more preoccupied with social statements and social problems in the world.
My work is very intuitive, as it aims to express and bring attention to the things I am seeing or feeling. Even though we live in wonderful cities and have comfortable lives, there are things that I want to make people aware of. I have always been like that, you know, I started to make stencil art in 1981. At that time nobody was even interested because it was too early to make those things. It took twenty, even thirty years, or actually, it took until Banksy started to make graffiti and stencils, for my work to be accepted and recognized.
How did you get hooked on Stencil Art?
Have you ever experienced something so new and different that it simply floored you? I have, and those moments will live in my memory forever. In 1971, for the first time in my life, I saw graffiti on the streets of New York. And, and I was really, really, really impressed. I clearly remember myself asking my friend Larry: “why are people doing this?!” “What does it mean?!” And Larry told me, “I don’t know” “It’s probably crazy people!”
At that time, nobody knew what graffiti meant – not even the people of New York. But for me, it was something that struck me deeply. Seeing this kind of street art was unheard of in France or Europe at that time, and I couldn’t figure out why. Today graffiti has certainly left its mark. I like to say that it’s the most important art movement of all time. Just think, there is no city in the world without graffiti.
Why did you start out painting rats?
After being blown away by what I saw on the streets in New York, I returned to France with a burning desire to create something out of this feeling. I knew I couldn’t just copy what I had seen, since the architecture of France was so different. I wanted to create street art that was relevant to France. So the first thing I did was paint rats on the streets of Paris, as they symbolize the only free animal in the city, and they spread like the plague, just like street art.
How did your work evolve from small rats to big works?
Walking the streets of Paris, I caught a glimpse of Richard Hambleton’s Shadowman looming in the darkness. The magnitude of its size and the impact of the artwork blew me away. So I figured, that’s what I need to do. I think everyone’s life is heavily influenced by others, and for me, it was always like that. The influence of my artistic family, the Dali painting, the mark that the streets of New York left on me, and Richard Hambleton’s work.
I draw inspiration from everything that I’ve seen and learned in my life. I don’t invent anything new, like the stencil technique, it was already there. Instead, I drew from my memory, mixed different elements, and presented a fresh perspective that changed the way people visualized things.
This exhibition takes your works from the street, inside the gallery at Woodbury house. How did you manage to capture that same feeling in your gallery works despite the differences in the medium?
I am fascinated by the textures and layers that graffiti leave on a wall. It’s almost like giving the world additional layers that reveal the stories of the people who have left their mark on it. When you look at a wall you can read it like a poem, carrying a unique history, each layer revealing a story of a different chapter. The texture changes as different layers build up over time, like layers of skin.
The walls here in London city have a very rich history, with marks that people left dating back to the 16th century. This makes a story unique to that part of the wall, recreating this on canvas is almost impossible, but I have tried this for every gallery piece I made. It’s fascinating to see how each layer can contribute to the overall beauty and complexity of the piece. It’s a technique that inspires me and allows me to create something truly unique.
Why would you take the work from the streets if recreating that essence on canvas is so hard?
The beauty of the streets lies in the layers that build up over time, but this also means that some memories inevitably fade away. Going from the street to the gallery may seem like a strange process, but I think the galleries are essential to preserving the memory of what happened in the streets before. We need to capture and preserve the works in a tangible way.
I think it is time for people to realize that we are living at a turning point in art. I believe that public and street art will be the big force in the art world of the 21st century. Art shouldn’t just be for the rich like it was in the past. Art is a pleasure, like music or movies, and everyone should be able to enjoy it. Making art for everyone is my first and forever duty. I don’t exactly know how this movement will progress but I am sure it will. I don’t think people will be going around the streets putting tags on the walls in 30 years. Instead, they’ll find new techniques and ways to express themselves.
How could the younger generation of artists push the boundaries of street art forward?
I would encourage to continue to work in public spaces, like the streets. Although it can be challenging to create something new in art, I believe there’s still plenty of room for amazing things to happen by experimenting with techniques and approaches.
I don’t know the secret of how to keep renewing, it’s something that other artists will undoubtedly continue to experiment with. I believe that the younger generation of artists will find a new way to push the boundaries of art and make a mark in the years to come.
The exhibition runs from Thursday 16th of March 2023 until Wednesday 12th of April, 2023 @ LONDON, 29 Sackville Street, Mayfair.
For more information visit the website of Woodbury house here