14 January • 9 April 2023
From Concrete to Everyday
The Espace de l’Art Concret (eac.) permanently houses the Donation Albers-Honegger which belongs to the Centre national des arts plastiques (Cnap) and is kept in Mouans-Sartoux. Recently, Cnap acquired for its collection important bodies of work relating to graphic design, which include in particular Jean Widmer’s programme for tourism and culture signage on motorways, as well as the archives of the Association des Trois Ourses, a not-for-profit organization which promotes artistic books for children.
Building on the connections these two bodies of works have with concrete art, eac. took the obvious step of inviting Cnap to work with it and design two successive exhibitions, two special events based on graphic artwork and on Cnap’s design collection at the Espace de l’Art Concret.
Jean Widmer (1929, Switzerland), trained at the Zurich School of Applied Arts, headed by Johannes Itten, and has been strongly influenced by the legacy of the Bauhaus and “la Nouvelle Typographie”.1
Widmer came to France in the early 1950s where he shook up advertising images and then fashion photography by introducing humour, emotion and an almost Lettrist typographical treatment while working as artistic director for various companies between 1955 and 1969 (the textile group advertising agency SNIP, the department store Galeries Lafayette, and then the fashion magazine Jardin des modes).
After this period of visual invention which revolutionised the image of fashion and how it was advertised, he set up his own studio “Jean Widmer” with his wife Nicole Sauvage. This became the “Visuel Design Jean Widmer” agency and was responsible in particular for many visual identity projects for major French culture institutions (including the Centre de Création Industriel – CCI, the Centre Georges Pompidou, the Musée d’Orsay, the Institut du Monde Arabe, the Jeu de Paume gallery, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and the Théâtre de la Colline) as well as for the tourism and culture signage on motorways in France, for which Widmer became an emblematic figure in graphic design.
Since the Cnap collection acquired a body of Jean Widmer’s works chronicling how tourism and culture signage on motorways in France was produced and two more recent works, a painting and a model for a sculpture, Cnap and eac. decided to explore the relationship between Widmer’s work and concrete art, and more specifically his work on industrial design, a monument of graphic design visible across the country and which has left a permanent mark on France’s (visual) landscape.
Concrete art is the common theme linking the motorway commission – a work everyone knows but not necessarily identified as such by non-experts – to what directly preceded it: the posters created from 1969 for the graphic identity of the brand new CCI, which were intended to promote design within the Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs and before it was merged with the Centre Georges Pompidou when it opened.
These posters stay close to his drawings, then his paintings and sculptures, less well-known and which appeared from the 1990s onwards, in terms of the vibration of colour in solid blocks and the synthetic, controlled shapes with clean lines, without any hierarchy between form and content. A link with the aesthetics of Zurich concrete art which was never broken and which Jean Widmer has woven with the humility of the voice of graphic design, a path he helped build by striving to "create for everyday life" (JW).
After seeing in the press the posters Widmer created for the Centre de Création Industrielle (CCI), in 1972 the French motorway companies commissioned Visuel Design Jean Widmer to produce tourism and culture signage for the motorways in the south of France which would brighten up the monotony of car journeys while also arousing motorists’ curiosity about the regions they were driving through, their natural environment and artistic, architectural, industrial and urban heritage.
Widmer chose to create a universal language, a system of pictograms in solid white on a brown background, specially adapted as they had to be legible at 130km/h and distinct from the statutory signs on a blue background. This system was inspired by another monumental script: Egyptian hieroglyphs. Like a guessing game, these cartoon signs are dotted along the route in riddle/solution form whereby a pictogram asks a question and the answer is then provided by its caption, approximately 200 metres further on.
All the documents held in the Cnap collection which deal with the creation of these pictograms bear witness to how powerful was Widmer's graphic system for motorways. It was based on a process of formal simplification and synthesis of an area’s characteristic signs (fauna, flora, monuments, industries, etc.), but it also included a form of inventory for the landscape and for remembering it. This principle of simplification and evocation had been introduced in Widmer’s CCI posters with their range of elementary abstract forms in contrasting colours.
An exercise in purity and rigour, his pictograms developed these principles of synthesis while at the same time echoing Widmer's whimsical wit: the relaxed composure of the reclining figure, by a tree or parasol depending on the context, representing rest; the broken line detail of the slag heap on motorways in northern France; Aix-en-Provence and its unforgettable Cours Mirabeau symbolised by a row lined with plane trees, to which would finally be preferred a combination of pictograms showing the thermal baths, the Vasarely Foundation and the music festival; the impossible synthesis of the extraordinarily elaborate Palais du Facteur Cheval in Hauterives; the unusual pictogram for the Château de Grignan, seemingly truncated by the sweltering light of the south, etc.
From the mass of pictograms gathered together, it is possible to perceive the subtle inflections in this art of synthesis, but also the porosity operating between commissions as pictograms inspire other projects, such as the Centre Pompidou’s unalterable logo, a visual simplification of its building that could have been part of everything found on the motorways.
Widmer's paintings and sculptures, which inform the entire exhibition, reveal a little-known aspect of his work which is directly related to concrete art. They help to make perceptible both the way in which Jean Widmer's work is inhabited - regardless of the discipline from which each of his works is produced, whether graphic commission or artistic practice - and the way he moves from the concrete to the everyday.
Jean Widmer was born in 1929 in Frauenfeld in German-speaking Switzerland, and in 1953 at the age of twenty-four he arrived in France where he has had a lasting impact on graphic design. As Catherine de Smet puts it, through the visual identities Widmer created, he introduced "the regulated, objective and measured approach characteristic of Swiss creation, with which until then France had hardly been familiar". These visual identities include those of the CCI when it was founded (1969), the Centre Georges Pompidou (1976), the Musée d'Orsay (1983-1987) with Bruno Monguzzi, the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume (1991) and the BNF (1994). But also, with his agency, Widmer worked on a programme of tourism and culture signage for French motorways between 1972-2002.
A monument to graphic design, this project which covers the whole country has marked and continues to mark the French visual landscape, both literally and figuratively.
Known for proposing coherent systems, for using synthetic, controlled forms as well as reducing visual vocabulary to its essentials, Jean Widmer's work is most often characterised by the use of a rational vocabulary, clean lines, flat colour treatment and the absence of any prioritisation between figures and background.
These major principles, very much present in his work in the 1960s and 1970s, were directly inspired by the principles of concrete art, which had a profound effect on the training Widmer received in Zurich.
The exhibition devoted to Jean Widmer by the Espace de l'Art Concret and the Cnap at eac. decided to explore this relationship between his work and concrete art, given the Cnap's design and decorative arts collection’s recent acquisition of Widmer’s French motorways tourism signage programme along with two recent works, a model and a painting, which focus again on the obvious links to principles cherished by concrete art.