Obituaries: Gil J. Wolman

Those who live by obscurity die by it also, so the minimal response to the disappearance of Gil J. Wolman is hardly surprising. Wolman led a brave, ferociously independent existence at war with the forces of contemporary conformity, the celebrity machine of the mass media being high amongst the accused.

Born Gil Joseph in Paris in 1929, Wolman was an active agent provocateur from an early age. At 24 he published a brief summary of his activities: member of the Young Communists, journalist for the magazine Combat, drug trafficker in the Algiers Casbah, long-distance lorry driver from Greenland to Pompeii, merchant marine captain, published poet and accomplished knitter. But Wolman's anti-career really commenced after meeting Isidor Isou in 1950, when together they developed the principles of Lettrisme, a radioactively nihilistic form of late Dada in opposition to everything that might be termed Culture (capital C representing Class interests) and status quo.

In February 1952 Wolman was part of a major scandal, mounting a screening of five films, including his L'Anticoncept, the first of his experiments in "Cinematochrone", abolishing images altogether, a violent flurry of black and white strobes projected on a balloon accompanied by a very loud soundtrack of assorted noises. This was nothing compared to the film of his best friend, the agitator Guy Debord, whose Hurlement en faveur de Sade was dedicated to Wolman and resulted in police intervention.

In April the same year Wolman led a systematic disruption of the Cannes Film Festival and was only saved by a police escort. Most importantly, in May, he founded the Internationale Lettriste with Debord in Belgium. At the end of 1952 he was under arrest again, this time for breaking through a police cordon to shower Charlie Chaplin with insulting pamphlets declaring, "Go home Chaplin."

From their Cafe Bonaparte HQ Wolman planned other Lettriste attacks, including a rescue mission to liberate a reform school for young girls. Such attacks extended to Andre Breton, whose Surrealism they particularly disdained. Wolman's published letter to Breton ended: "You should shut it down and let your daughter look after her old dad. The Surrealist movement is composed of imbeciles or FORGERS."

Wolman's aesthetic innovations, films like Atochrone, which reversed the cinematic process by breaking up a second into 24 parts, or "Megapneumie", a sort of organic noise music, and his researches into new forms of painting such as the canvas HHHHHH, were part of a radical change in the arts, which, if dated and tamed by half a century, were vital to the spirit of post-war Europe.

More important were Wolman's collaborations with Debord, including the seminal "derives" throughout Paris, walks that laid bare the "psycho-geographic" structure of the city. The Lettristes were much concerned with the nature of urban life, especially the detrimental effects of town planning, which they saw as an assault on the erotic and criminal vitality of the metropolis. At a time when progressive artists were supposedly committed to the "modern", Wolman published open attacks on Corbusier and his "Unite" housing.

In 1955, responding to an article on the planned demolition of Limehouse, the Times published this manifesto-letter from Wolman and Debord:

We protest against such moral ideas in town planning, ideas which must obviously make England more boring than it has in recent years already become. We hold that the so-called modern town planning which you recommend is fatuously idealistic and reactionary. The sole end of architecture is to serve the passions of men. If modernisation appears to you to be historically necessary we would counsel you to carry your enthusiasms into areas more urgently in need of it, that is to say, to your political and moral institutions.

Lettristes were ahead of their time in this critique of Modernist planning and their approach to the city, as a site of negotiable personal experience with unclassified pockets of resistance, has had a permanent influence on architectural theory and teaching. Likewise, the radical ideas of the Lettristes and their descendants the Situationists came to fruition in May 1968, as well as in the graphics, tactics and f-you aesthetics of UK punk, not to mention a horde of anarcho-squatter-travellers who live out the ideals of Wolman and his collaborators without having heard of him or his demise.

Adrian Dannatt

Gil Joseph (Gil J. Wolman), film-maker, writer, political activist: born Paris 7 September 1929; died Paris 3 July 1995.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Geography Teacher

£24000 - £33600 per annum + pre 12 week AWR : Randstad Education Manchester Se...

E150/2014 - English Language Checker (Grade B3)

On Application: Council of Europe: The European Court of Human Rights’s judgme...

Marketing Executive

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Charter Selection: A professional services company ...

Project Manager - Bristol South West

£400 - £450 per day: Orgtel: Project Manager (PM), Key Banking Client, Retail ...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice