Letterism, Situationists, and French Cultural Generosity

Recently, while browsing at City Lights Books in San Francisco, I found a book I had designed for them offered at a large discount. The Consul, by Ralph Rumney, is the second volume in a series titled, Contributions to the History of the Situationist International and Its Times. The first volume, also published in the U.S. by City Lights, was The Tribe, by Jean-Michel Mension. These books sold terribly and it wasn’t surprising to see a garage sale of The Consul. Such an obscure series never would have been published at all without funding from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Editor James Brook and myself were probably the only people even mildly excited the day these books shipped from the printer, though they have found an audience among scholars of the Situationists. The French Ministry thought the books had enough merit that they footed some of the bill, which is sort of like the United States government partially bankrolling a book on the Beat poets in North Beach.

Letterism preceded Situationism, and its trickle-down effect on modern culture has been huge. Remember the great clothing covered in writing that Joe Strummer created for the Clash? He was inspired by the Lettristes. The image below is a detail from The Tribe showing Jean-Michel Mension’s pants, as photographed in Paris by Ed van der Elsken.

Letterism (and Dadaism) have certainly had a significant impact on graphic design and the books are full of collages, posters, manifestos and obscure ephemera (the Situationists were more influential on politics and activism). The amazing cast of passionate characters that populates these volumes, makes it clear that intellectual advances arise from tumult, dissension, and experimentation. These movements were disdainful of living only for love of money, and found their success in following a passion for life. They managed to leave a fascinating legacy (despite the over-consumption of red wine) and The Tribe and The Consul document it well.



clothing pre "the Clash"
clothing pre “the Clash”





2 thoughts on “Letterism, Situationists, and French Cultural Generosity”

  1. stefan,
    love this blog – it’s so eclectic and exciting –
    varied and always interesting.
    yes, france is, in general, more vigorously
    supportive of the arts – publishing, poetry,
    music – suppose that might be why
    miles davis went to france in the late 50’s.
    jazz musicians were/are paid better in france
    than the u.s.
    particularly odd since jazz is an american art form.
    this book looks very cool – thanks for sharing some
    of the images. keep it comin’.

  2. What a fine site/blog. Your graphics are so very artful. I bought Observation Deck years ago not so much for the writing tips (altho I could certainly benefit from them, procrastinator that i am) but for the art and layout. I only recently disovered your site. The histories and art you present here are intriguing. And THE WHOLE EARTH CATALOG! I’d not thought of that grand ole publication for decades.

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