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Lettrism is a French avant-garde movement, established in Paris in the mid-1940s by Romanian immigrant Isidore Isou. [1] In a body of work totaling hundreds of volumes, Isou and the Lettrists have applied their theories to all areas of art and culture, most notably in poetry, film, painting and political theory. The movement has its theoretical roots in Dada and Surrealism. Isou viewed his fellow countryman Tristan Tzara as the greatest creator and rightful leader of the Dada movement, and dismissed most of the others as plagiarists and falsifiers. [2] Among the Surrealists, André Breton was a significant influence, but Isou was dissatisfied by what he saw as the stagnation and theoretical bankruptcy of the movement as it stood in the 1940s. [3]


In French, the movement is called Lettrisme, from the French word for letter, arising from the fact that many of their early works centred on letters and other visual or spoken symbols. The Lettristes themselves prefer the spelling 'Letterism' for the Anglicised term, and this is the form that is used on those rare occasions when they produce or supervise English translations of their writings: however, 'Lettrism' is at least as common in English usage. The term, having been the original name that was first given to the group, has lingered as a blanket term to cover all of their activities, even as many of these have moved away from any connection to letters. But other names have also been introduced, either for the group as a whole or for its activities in specific domains, such as 'the Isouian movement', 'youth uprising', 'hypergraphics', 'creatics', 'infinitesimal art' and 'excoördism'.


1925. [4] Isidore Goldstein was born at Botoșani, Romania, on 31 January, to an Ashkenazi Jewish family. During the early 1950s, Goldstein would be signing himself 'Jean-Isidore Isou'; otherwise, it was always 'Isidore Isou'. 'Isou' was normally taken to be a pseudonym, but Isou/Goldstein himself resisted this interpretation.

My name is Isou. My mother called me Isou, only it's written differently in Romanian. And Goldstein: I'm not ashamed of my name. At Gallimard, I was known as Isidore Isou Goldstein. Isou, it's my name! Only in Romanian it's written Izu, but in French it's Isou. [5]




1970s and 1980s

General continuation of existing currents, together with new research into psychiatry, mathematics, physics, and chemistry.

Other members to join the lettrism during the seventies : Woody Roehmer, Anne-Catherine Caron, and during the eighties : Frédérique Devaux, Michel Amarger ...


Development of excoordism. Uncomfortable with the direction the group is going in, Lemaître—Isou's right-hand man for nearly half a century—begins to distance himself from it. [7] He still continues to pursue traditional Letterist techniques, but now in relative isolation from the main group.


Key concepts

The Amplic (amplique) and the Chiselling (ciselante) phases

Isou first invented these phases through an examination of the history of poetry, but the conceptual apparatus he developed could very easily be applied to most other branches of art and culture. In poetry, he felt that the first amplic phase had been initiated by Homer. In effect, Homer set out a blueprint for what a poem ought to be like. Subsequent poets then developed this blueprint, investigating by means of their work all of the different things that could be done within the Homeric parameters. Eventually, however, everything that could be done within that approach had been done. In poetry, Isou felt that this point was reached with Victor Hugo (and in painting with Eugène Delacroix, in music with Richard Wagner.). When amplic poetry had been completed, there was simply nothing to be gained by continuing to produce works constructed according to the old model. There would no longer be any genuine creativity or innovation involved, and hence no aesthetic value. This then inaugurated a chiselling phase in the art. Whereas the form had formerly been used as a tool to express things outside its own domain—events, feelings, etc.--it would then turn in on itself and become, perhaps only implicitly, its own subject matter. From Charles Baudelaire to Tristan Tzara (as, in painting, from Manet to Kandinsky; or, in music, from Debussy to Luigi Russolo), subsequent poets would deconstruct the grand edifice of poetry that had been developed over the centuries according to the Homeric model. Finally, when this process of deconstruction had been completed, it would then be time for a new amplic phase to commence. Isou saw himself as the man to show the way. He would take the rubble that remained after the old forms had been shattered, and lay out a new blueprint for reutilising these most basic elements in a radically new way, utterly unlike the poetry of the preceding amplic phase. Isou identified the most basic elements of poetic creation as letters—i.e. uninterpreted visual symbols and acoustic sounds—and he set out the parameters for new ways of recombining these ingredients in the name of new aesthetic goals.

The Lettrie

Isou's idea for the poem of the future was that it should be purely formal, devoid of all semantic content. The Letterist poem, or lettrie, in many ways resembles what certain Italian Futurists (such as Filippo Tommaso Marinetti), Russian Futurists (such as Velemir Chlebnikov, Iliazd, or Alexej Kručenych—cf. Zaum), and Dada poets (such as Raoul Hausmann or Kurt Schwitters) had already been doing, and what subsequent sound poets and concrete poets (such as Bob Cobbing, Eduard Ovčáček or Henri Chopin) would later be doing. However, the Letterists were always keen to insist on their own radical originality and to distinguish their work from other ostensibly similar currents.


On the visual side, the Letterists first gave the name 'metagraphics' (metagraphie) and then 'hypergraphics' (hypergraphie) to their new synthesis of writing and visual art. Some precedents may be seen in Cubist, Dada and Futurist (both Italian and Russian) painting and typographical works, such as Marinetti's Zang Tumb Tuum, or in poems such as Apollinaire's Calligrammes but none of them were a full system like hypergraphy.

Letterist film

Notwithstanding the considerably more recent origins of film-making, compared to poetry, painting or music, Isou felt in 1950 that its own first amplic phase had already been completed. He therefore set about inaugurating a chiselling phase for the cinema. As he explained in the voiceover to his first film, Treatise of Slime and Eternity:

I believe firstly that the cinema is too rich. It is obese. It has reached its limits, its maximum. With the first movement of widening which it will outline, the cinema will burst! Under the blow of a congestion, this greased pig will tear into a thousand pieces. I announce the destruction of the cinema, the first apocalyptic sign of disjunction, of rupture, of this corpulent and bloated organization which calls itself film.

The two central innovations of Letterist film were: (i) the carving of the image (la ciselure d'image), where the film-maker would deliberately scratch or paint onto the actual film stock itself. Similar techniques are also employed in Letterist still photography. (ii) Discrepant cinema (le cinéma discrépant), where the soundtrack and the image-track would be separated, each one telling a different story or pursuing its own more abstract path. The most radical of the Letterist films, Wolman's The Anticoncept and Debord's Howls for Sade, went even further, and abandoned images altogether. From a visual point of view, the former consisted simply of a fluctuating ball of light, projected onto a large balloon, while the latter alternated a blank white screen (when there was speech in the soundtrack) and a totally black screen (accompanying ever-increasing periods of total silence). In addition, the Letterists utilised material appropriated from other films, a technique which would subsequently be developed (under the title of 'détournement') in Situationist film. They would also often supplement the film with live performance, or, through the 'film-debate', directly involve the audience itself in the total experience.

Supertemporal art (L'art supertemporel)

The supertemporal frame was a device for inviting and enabling an audience to participate in the creation of a work of art. In its simplest form, this might involve nothing more than the inclusion of several blank pages in a book, for the reader to add his or her own contributions.

Infinitesimal art (Art infinitesimal)

Recalling the infinitesimals of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, quantities which could not actually exist except conceptually, the Letterists developed the notion of a work of art which, by its very nature, could never be created in reality, but which could nevertheless provide aesthetic rewards by being contemplated intellectually. Also called Art esthapériste ('infinite-aesthetics'). Cf. Conceptual Art. Related to this, and arising out of it, is excoördism, the current incarnation of the Isouian movement, defined as the art of the infinitely large and the infinitely small.

Youth uprising (Le soulèvement de la jeunesse)

Isou identified the amplic phase of political theory and economics as that of Adam Smith and free trade; its chiselling phase was that of Karl Marx and socialism. Isou termed these 'atomic economics' and 'molecular economics' respectively: he launched 'nuclear economics' as a corrective to both of them. Both currents, he felt, had simply failed to take into account a large part of the population, namely those young people and other 'externs' who neither produced nor exchanged goods or capital in any significant way. He felt that the creative urge was an integral part of human nature, but that, unless it was properly guided, it could be diverted into crime and anti-social behaviour. The Letterists sought to restructure every aspect of society in such a way as to enable these externs to channel their creativity in more positive ways.

Major developments of Lettrism

Key members


Sources and further reading

English translations of Letterist works

Although the Letterists have published hundreds of books, journals and substantial articles in French, virtually none of these have been translated into English. One recent exception is:

Maurice Lemaître has privately published translations of a few of his own works, though these are not at all easy to find:

Black Scat Books: 2012 (http://www.blackscatbooks.com)

Secondary works in English

General introductions and surveys in French


See also


  1. Walker, John. (1992) "Lettrism". Glossary of Art, Architecture & Design since 1945, 3rd. ed.
  2. See Isou, Les véritables créateurs et les falsificateurs de dada, du surréalisme et du lettrisme (1973), and Maurice Lemaître, Le lettrisme devant dada et les nécrophages de dada (1967).
  3. See Isou, Réflexions sur André Breton (1948).
  4. For fuller chronological details, see Curtay, La poésie lettriste; Foster, Lettrisme: Into the Present; Sabatier, Le lettrisme.
  5. Interview with Roland Sabatier, 15 November 1999, in La Termitière, no. 8.
  6. Andrew Hussey, The Game of War (London: Jonathan Cape, 2001), p. 37.
  7. See Satié, Le lettrisme, la creation ininterrompue (Paris: Jean-Paul Rocher, 2003), 56n34.
  8. See Patrick Straram, La veuve blanche et noire un peu détournée (Paris Sens & Tonka, 2006), 21–22, 81–82; Figures de la négation (Saint-Etienne Métropole: Musée d'Art Moderne, 2004), 78–80.
  9. Figures de la négation, 118; Henri Chopin, Poésie sonore (Paris: Jean-Michel Place, 1979), 88-93.
  10. Figures de la négation, 76; Gil J. Wolman, Défense de mourir (Paris: Editions Allia, 2001), 144–45.
  11. Quoted in Art Tribes, ed. Achille Bonito Oliva (Milan: Skira, 2002), 274n2.
  12. http://www.arkepix.com/kinok/DVD/ASSAYAS_Olivier/dvd_noise.html (French site)

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