For Dali he was “a pioneer of cybernetic art and electronic writing”, for Restany, “a beacon of post-modern universality of tomorrow”. Bernard Quentin speaks to everyone. He reminds us of the Artist’s spiritual mission. He brings people together. He transforms the world. And it works.
“An artist’s importance will be judged by the number of new symbols invented for the visual language which will be universal”. Henri Matisse said it and Bernard Quentin replied. In symbols.
Babelweb is an ‘art language’. Timeless. Three thousand signs, symbols and icons that Bernard Quentin invented to “unite people”: a universal writing language. Everything can be said, everything told and everybody can understand. This language transformed by the artist into works which are as much quotations, captions and stories.
“(…) I was looking for a universal language. When I created this at Olivetti in 1962, I called it Babel62. At that time there was no fax, no internet, everybody found this utopian. Then my workshop at Quai de la Gare burned down, the firemen flooded everything and I found the alphabet in a box. I thought that, with the web, it could be interesting and so I called it Babelweb. Everyone can use it. It is free.” explains Quentin.
Bernard Quentin’s semiotic art is made up of graffiti, steno-graffiti, hieroglyphics, pictograms, fibre optics and electronic letters. Across all medias and all contexts, he has never stopped exploring the reality of possibilities imbued in every word, every sign, every graphic.
“(…) a symbol’s meaning can differ from one continent to another. That is why I imposed symbols that can be taken up by everybody. That’s the universal side of the work. I used Kufic and Zen calligraphy as a base in the sense that each calligrapher adds something above and beyond the sense. That’s the identity, the colour.” He says.
Bernard Quentin was born in 1923. Having graduated from the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris, he became involved in the Resistance movement. He was 19 years old and remained in the Airforce until the end of the war.
It was in 1945 that he met Picasso at the Maison de la Pensée and discovered Guernica. This influenced the expressionist and abstract writing of his unique book on the horrors of the war and in the death camps; a work which he went on to exhibit at the Under 30s Salon.
Sartre, Artaud, Eluard, Ernst, Giacometti, Vian, Tzara, Merleau-Ponty and Prévert all formed part of his social circle. He exhibited his first ideograms and writing at the rue Gay-Lussac. His exhibition at the Maison de l'Université in Paris was shown in Zurich, Geneva and Bern. It was here that he discovered the poetic primitivism and the Oriental and African influences in the writing of certain works by Paul Klee.
He was driven to travel by his research into the origins of language, notably to the Midi in France and Italy. In 1947 he met Aimé Maeght in Cannes and delayed his departure in order to re-transcribe the cave inscriptions of the Valley of Marvels, in the Alps. Continuing his study of runes, he roamed across Scandinavia, Lapland, Switzerland and Germany before heading back to Cannes via Italy where he came across the futuristic works of the monumental ‘automatic writing’ movement.
In 1951, alongside Le Corbusier, he studied the creation of an artists’ residence in Sainte-Baume. The concept involved the artists themselves designing the space taking inspiration from the Animal Kingdom and incorporating a variety of different architectural works in order to integrate poetry and colour into the scriptural environment. Mosaics, stained glass windows, tapestries and green spaces all contributed to the urban polychrome.
After a number of trips to Brazil, Bernard Quentin returned to Paris to exhibit in the Stadler, Craven and Iris Clert galleries. In 1957, it was a simultaneous homage to Monet presented at both the André Schoeller and Saint-Germain galleries which provoked Pierre Restany to say: “This is the moment that Quentin’s writing has attained its greatest dilution in the the cosmic space: air, water, light.” The end of the 1950s saw a progressive discarding of miniscule signs in favour of a more ample and structured form of writing. Gestural and epic, it found its way into the buildings of the cities of Niamey and Bamako.
The 1960s marked a turning point. Bustling crowds invade blurred spaces and it is a giant writing style and graffiti which emerged. The words held the power, they became the subjects of the paintings from which they would soon free themselves. Bernard Quentin then moved to Milan where he joined with Fontana, a great advocate of Spatialsim, art on a greater scale, freed from the manacles of the canvas. He met with Yves Klein, Spoerri and Arman again and began his first experimentations with oscilloscopes and computers at Olivetti.
A true trailblazer, Quentin began using the Bic pen in his automatic writing and began experimenting with electronic writing. He believed that the advances in visual communication signalled the end of painting as a medium. He developed a passion for air and pneumatic sculpture creating his first pneumatic sculpture at Pirelli named Cybule I. At the 1963 World Fair in New York, he exhibited a giant inflatable sculpture named Cybule III, which moved thanks to its programmed breathing mechanism. During this time, he became friends with Warhol and Lichtenstein. He then created a blow up chain for Printemps before returning to Italy. Here, he made new, metallic structures combined with welded PVC which he exhibited in 1966 at the ‘Ballroom’ in New York’s Warldorf Astoria as well as in Central Park, Paris, Gunther Sach’s studio in Neuilly and at Blow-Up in Milan.
“For centuries, according to the myth, it is the soul which, upon entering the body, gives it life and, it is through the inflation of his lungs that man acquired this soul, it is breath which gives life to the spirit.” Explains Quentin.
It was changing the scale of his work which provoked Bernard Quentin to adopt a position against ‘art as merchandise’ and consecrate himself to the transformation of the environment through architectural sculpture, monuments, design and public participation.
“This expanding and interactive art remodelled the profile of the individual and collective environment.” Pierre Restany explained.
Christmas, 1976: 3000 light sources, spelling out the word PEACE, set alight the Saint-Merri square. And since then, this young man of over 90 years old, has never stopped creating.