Banknotes have matrices designed by artists, they are pulled by master craftsmen, and the prints vary in value, just like fine art prints. But you don’t need an understanding of Modern Money Theory to grasp the difference: just use your fingers. Unlike most printed artworks, each bill in your wallet has two sides. This is a story of the other side, so to speak, of the banknote—not so much the back as perhaps the underside or left side.
The portfolio L’Envers du Billet was created by a group of young French artists in 1970. They met as members of La Jeune Peinture, a loosely structured association that in the 1950s gathered energy under the leadership of painter Paul Rebeyrolle and others close to France’s then powerful Communist party, the PCF. La Jeune Peinture organized an annual Salon at the Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris, and by the time of the évènements of May 1968, the group had become a forum for those who sought to reconfigure the role of art in society. Changing the socioeconomic status of the artist was inevitably a prime topic, but other propositions were fielded as well, notably that undermining market-driven art or the institutional mediation of art would change artists and society.
In 1969 six painters—Henri Cueco, Lucien Fleury, Jean-Claude Latil, Michel Parré, Gerard Tisserand and Christian Zeimert—founded the Coopérative des Malassis. They outlined their intent to develop new ways of distributing pointedly partisan art in the sixth issue of the Bulletin de la Jeune Peinture:
We have been driven by today’s stultifying cultural policy and the indifferent silent majority to find new ways to exercise our profession. The cooperative lets us share the means of production and our technical knowledge; it should enable us to circulate our production quickly, often and widely. Functioning as a group makes it possible to expand upon the work we began these past years in the Salon de la Jeune Peinture. Our collective practice and our first creation—Qui Tue? Ou Vérités sur un fait divers—allowed us to better understand our shared ideals, our contradictions and our limitations. By creating in common, we engage in political action that is widely aimed but sharply targeted.1
Although the group as a whole refused to endorse any specific political affiliation, individually the Malassis were card-carrying supporters of organizations (Cueco, Latil, Parré and Tisserand all belonged to the PCF) that might be hospitable to collaborative creative labor. The name “Coopérative des Malassis” sidesteps contemporary politics, instead suggesting that they modelled themselves on the agricultural and worker cooperatives of the 19th century; “Malassis” is the name of the neighborhood they worked in, but the word also means uncomfortably or inappropriately seated. Legally the Malassis were structured as an Association 1901, a nonprofit organization. This enabled its members to promote their work outside of the gallery system through an ingenious noncommercial rental contract. They proposed wall-ready exhibitions for a monthly fee, eyeing venues such as union halls, party headquarters and social centers. Their advertising flyer concluded:
If the rental of artwork that has no commercial vocation strikes you as a legitimate way to reconstitute our working capital, you may further contribute by becoming a passive member of the Coopérative des Malassis for 50 francs a year. This fee implies certain duties on our part (make new work, offer you a print) but does not endow you with any rights.2 The first project available for rent, and thus the group’s foundational action, was L’Envers du Billet, a portfolio of six large screenprints (102 x 57 cm each) to be shown with some related paintings. The title concerns the back of the banknote, or as the Malassis explained it: Each of us saw this project as treating the bill’s true image, the face it doesn’t show, its other side. We decided to make apparent what is concealed by the decor. Decor is the academic allegory that attempts, through vague cultural symbols, to acquire dignity by using the force of its neutrality to conceal all that is disgraceful and ignominious. The banknote, which everyone dreams of possessing in as many copies as possible, is the quintessential mass image. It is both fascinating and repulsive, a veritable bourgeois museum in your pocket. We preserved the traditional disposition of allegories and symbols associated with this mass-produced image, but we charged them with their real meaning, showing neutrality to be the veil of violence, misery and alienation.3
As the most common vehicle for the state’s circulation of symbols, familiar to all members of society, paper money was ideally suited for the Malassis’ program of cultural critique. For the portfolio, they chose as their subject the 100 franc note, which at the time carried the portrait of the 17th-century playwright Pierre Corneille. Each of the six artists created his own alterations of the design, displacing the portrait and attempting to reveal the hypocrisies of national mythology transmitted through changing hands at every cash transaction.
Money is the subject of the portfolio, but not monetary issues or the economy. None of the prints explored the potential of the bill as an emblem of the societal changes induced by the 1960 revaluation of France’s currency. Circulated as of 1963, the “Corneille” was the first 100 franc note to dispense with the clarification “nouveaux francs,” bringing the hundredfold devaluation process to completion. To overcome antipathy to the new currency (paychecks divided by 100 caused more grumbling than proportionately slashed price tags gave joy), the government communicated extensively about the new “franc lourd,” or heavyweight franc, meant to compete in same class as the Swiss franc or German mark.
However weighty the banknote was in financial terms, its rather limited iconography, focused on one of France’s “great men,” was perhaps too slight to carry the Malassis’ social commentary. Zeimert treated the bill’s backside literally: he depicted Corneille from the back, gazing over what appears to be the trenches of a World War I battlefield rather than the playwright’s native Rouen regularly represented. Latil upgraded Corneille’s portrait as it normally appears on the back of the bill, in left profile, by having him lean out of the cartouche, perhaps waving at the strippers prancing in the background. The other Malassis subverted the Banque de France’s evocation of national achievement by choosing great men of their own as centerpieces. For Tisserand, this is the artist himself, sardonically looking the viewer in the eye while knitting red, white and blue stockings and no doubt waiting, like a tricoteuse, for the guillotine to fall. Fleury supplanted the author of Le Cid with a smiling portrait of the monster from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Parré took up the challenge by substituting for Corneille an anamorphosis similar to the skull depicted in Holbein’s Ambassadors. Cueco’s treatment is the least ambiguous revelation of the problems lurking beneath the banknote’s celebration of French cultural achievement. He replaced Corneille with Maréchal Pétain, whose reputation for stopping the Germans at the Battle of Verdun in World War I remains overshadowed by his collaboration with Germany during World War II.
L’Envers du Billet was self-published in 1970, announced in an edition of 300. No chronology indicates whether any social center or other space ever rented the set as a stand-alone exhibition. The portfolio does, however, feature in several catalogues of group shows by the Malassis.4 Judging from the rarity of these prints in the secondary market, few appear to have been sold. Their funny money was not easy to disburse even in alternative outlets as the Journée de la vente du livre marxiste, the Marxist book fair. It is possible that the planned edition was never printed in its entirety, since Tisserand was reputed to have pulled the prints on demand.5 Fleury recounts that when he tried to persuade the owner of the La Hune bookstore and print gallery to carry the portfolio, he was rebuffed because the price was so low it was a threat to the market.6 It does seem that they were distributed through institutions such as France’s network of “artothèques”—art lending services attached to public libraries—where several complete sets can still be borrowed.
Today credit cards have largely displaced the bourgeois museum in your pocket, and the prints in L’Envers du Billet, with their bright colors and cartoony draftsmanship, look more groovy than seditious. The Malassis sought to sabotage the bills’ stately authority, allegories and symbols, exposing their presumptive neutrality as a “veil of violence, misery and alienation.” But while they succeeded in creating images that parody banknotes, they did not question money as a representation of value, or as an emblem of wealth and status. The artists were not finished with this issue, however, and the portfolio contained the promise of a more determined effort. In 1974 the Malassis—minus Zeimart, who withdrew in 1971—reached the acme of their collective career when they signed their first and last contract for a public commission. The city of Grenoble allocated the decoration budget of a new shopping center to a set of large mural paintings. Now destroyed, Onze variations sur le Radeau de la Méduse ou la dérive de la société was an allegory describing a shipwrecked society, alienated by working conditions, adrift on its own waste. Composed of 11 panels, each a satiric variation on Géricault’s maritime tragedy, The Raft of the Medusa (1818–19), it was a visionary work. Long before the existence of any image of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the Malassis depicted a sea of floating plastic water bottles. Ghoulish sailors are shown stranded on the Lit conjugal (matrimonial bed) without knowledge of online dating apps. They also revisited the banknote.
This time, instead of trying to correct a semiotic proposition by altering its imagery as they did in L’Envers du Billet, the artists put a banknote of their own into pictured circulation in order to interrogate its place in society. In the panel titled Le billet qui coule (the sinking banknote), a fluttering bill is sucked into the sea like a ship going down. If the 100-franc note was a “Corneille,” this drowning bill must be a “Géricault:” the image between the two watermarks is a sepia-toned reproduction of the celebrated painting, with its unmistakable billowing sail and figures slipping overboard. The wreckage of consumerism is announced by the sinking of its very means—money. The choice of Géricault’s Raft as their vehicle to belittle the state’s enlisting of an artistic masterpiece to affirm the value of money, is doubly ironic: that particularly masterpiece has long been identified as an allegory of the sinking ship of state.
The Malassis group was active for almost ten years, producing works that succeeded in provoking responses as damning as the social critique they meted out. In 2014, when the last men standing (Cueco, Latil and Tisserand) gave a statement for one of those museum retrospectives come too late, they explained how they dealt with the destruction of Le billet qui coule and the other components of their most important work. They saw it as a kind of glory. “Even covered over,” they affirmed, “our work will continue its ravages”—and proclaimed their pride in being noxious, toxic artists.7
- Bulletin de la Jeune Peinture #6 (November 1970): 8. This and all subsequent translations by the author.
- Flyer reproduced in Les Malassis, une coopérative de peintres toxiques (1968–1981), (Musée des Beaux-Arts Dole, 2014), 14.
- Bulletin de la Jeune Peinture #6, 8.
- To cite two: Antonio Del Guercio et al, Les Malassis (Rome: Galleria Ciak, 1973); and Jean-Louis Pradel, La Coopérative des Malassis (Montreuil: Centre des Expositions de la Ville and Honfleur: PJ Oswald, 1977).
- Recounted by David Cueco in email to author.
- Les Malassis, une coopérative de peintres toxiques, 171.
- Document reproduced in Les Malassis, une coopérative de peintres toxiques, 156.