One of the main subjects of Folon’s work is the wind, a vector of flight and freedom. It’s the wind that propels birds to other horizons, it’s the wind that caresses the face of the man in the hat as he sits all alone on the seashore, and it’s also the wind that carries off the man when, lost in a strange dream, he leaves gravity behind. But in addition to the wind, air is also present, as a source of balance and lightness. Many of Folon’s works feature bubbles that hang in the air or fly away creating a sense of weightlessness (Ouverture, 1989; L’Oiseau bleu, 2002; etc.). It is again in the air that a tightrope walker sometimes balances, as he walks across a rope which is often not attached to anything (L’artiste, 1982; Le funambule, 2002, etc.). And, finally, with his robot (Equilibre, 2000), Folon asserts this concept of lightness and freedom of action.
An omnipresent sign in Folon’s work, the arrow was the focus of his first major exhibition in Paris in 1968 (Folon, Galerie de France, 1968). The alienation of the modern world is encapsulated in this single sign which represents the sense of disorientation caused by the profusion of signs, roundabouts, road signs, etc. In his works, arrows become insane and fly off in all directions (Un cri, 1970). Worse still, they are devious and coil themselves around cities like snakes around their prey (La Jungle des villes, 1971). Finally, the arrow has conquered the world, even invading its inhabitants’ heads, until it erupts from them in all directions, indicating that Man has reached saturation point; he can no longer process the signs he is bombarded with or the deluge of information that comes his way every day (Le Quotidien, 1978). At other times, the arrow takes the form of a one-way street that Man is forced to go down and in which he becomes trapped (Le Chemin, 1985). Folon said that the theme came to him when he was trying to pass the time during journeys between Paris and Brussels – he counted all the signs with arrows on them and ended up with a total of 1,268!
The bird is one of Folon’s favourite animals. A universal symbol, it is immediately perceived as a messenger, a reference to the peace and freedom conveyed by the Biblical dove. Drawing on his analogical ability, Folon coloured them like flags for the cover of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1988), making them standard-bearers for the values enshrined in this legal text. For the Bicentenary of the French Revolution (1989), he painted them in the colours of the French flag and grouped them in threes, as an obvious nod to the French motto (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity). Folon used birds again, this time still managing to fly despite having broken wings, to illustrate the poster for the 5th Winter Paralympic Games in 1992. But when not being used to illustrate a worthy cause, the bird often appears as a sign in its intrinsic sense: lightness, the relationship between the sky and the earth, an opportunity to travel, freedom… And when it flies into the man’s head, should we see this as the purity of the soul, or a man dreaming of travelling? Maybe it represents Icarus’s crazy dream, or a prisoner who wants to escape… Everyone will interpret it in their own way, based on their own experience. But what we can certainly see in it is Folon himself, who always wanted to “talk to the wind” and had birdlike ideas fluttering around in his head (L’oiseau dans la tête, 1999).
Blue Shadow represented a double reality in Folon’s life. Firstly, it was the name of his partner Paola Ghiringhelli’s publishing company, for whom Folon created posters and other works. But it was also a barge, on which Folon and Paola lived at times during the 1980s, and on which Paola ran her business as a gallery owner and publisher. The barge was moored at Bir Hakeim, beneath the Eiffel Tower. For this traditional barge, Folon designed a superstructure in the form of a house with a large number of windows, like a kind of Noah’s Ark. In reference to its name, it was painted in different shades of blue. The barge’s lower deck, which was reached by a curving staircase, was converted into a living area.
In 1968, Jean-Michel and Colette Folon decided to leave Paris and their apartment in the Rue de l’Echaudé, which was now too small for the whole family. An ad for a country house with “a breathtaking view” won their hearts. So the family moved into an old farmhouse in the village of Burcy (Seine-et-Marne département), on the edge of the agricultural region of Beauce. The panoramic view over the undulating plain played an important role in the development of Folon’s work. The light, the wind, the skyline and the endless expanse of the sky featured prominently. Restored and extended over time, the house in Burcy served as Folon’s artistic laboratory for the rest of his life, even when he moved permanently to Cap d’Ail and Monaco. In 1996-1997, Folon designed stained glass windows featuring Saint Amand for the little village church.
For more information see
Soavi, Giorgio, Vue imprenable. Essai sur le monde de Folon, Chêne, Paris, 1974.
Folon had a longstanding fascination with the moving image, and with the cinema in particular. In the 1970s, he thought seriously about getting into filmmaking.
“We were born with the cinema. It’s the newest of the arts. Music, dance, painting, sculpture and architecture are ancient arts. Cinema is an art which was born with the century, it’s the convergence of all its forms of expression. It’s an art which influences us all”, he said in an interview with Paul Augé in 1982. In 1975 and 1976, Folon tried his hand at acting in the films for which he created posters, including F comme Fairbanks, Lily aime-moi, Un type comme moi ne devrait jamais mourir. Although he was not a natural actor, he forged some strong friendships during this time, with people such as Miou-Miou, Marlène Jobert, Chris Marker, and especially with Patrick Dewaere. He gradually abandoned traditional cinema and turned his attention to animation. However, he continued creating cinema posters and was the first European artist to design posters for Woody Allen films.
It may seem obvious that an artist, particularly a poster artist, should be interested in the city. The reason why Folon was always obsessed by it was probably because, when studying architecture, he had been taught a laborious and methodical drawing technique, in which each brick had to be identical to the one before. The city is a super-sign, one that encompasses everything. The modern city, reduced to blocks of indiscriminate, dark and cold high-rise buildings, amazed and frightened the artist in equal measure. Folon’s cities are menacing. Everything is made of brick. Man seems totally lost, trapped as though in a cul-de-sac, suffocated by the profusion of arrows and signposts. We can see a scream, a criticism of society, but also a warning about the madness of those who are destroying nature with total impunity.
From the early 1960s onwards, Folon became acutely aware of the environment and foresaw the situation we face today.
Although this awareness first materialised in the form of black and white drawings, his environmental vision was also expressed in colour, in watercolours and in silkscreen prints after he bought an old farm in the village of Burcy. It was there, surrounded by fields, that he realised the absurdity of cities and the ever-increasing distance between modern Man and nature.
In 1988, he committed himself fully to the cause, lending his services to Greenpeace for its campaign against nuclear bases and testing at sea (Deep deep trouble). In addition to the assistance he provided for environmental campaigners by giving them visibility, his love and respect for nature is evident in most of his works.
Like anything round, the eye was a shape that Folon liked. It often took the place of the sun, like an unknown creator observing the world (Partir, 1977; L’Aube, 1984, etc.). Sometimes, the eye drawn by Folon reflects another image (Exposition J.M. Serreau, 1974; Europalia France 75, 1975), a landscape behind the viewer… The artist delighted in creating a dialogue between the image and the person looking at it. But the eye in the image is also the viewer’s eye, a kind of mise en abime of the gaze, a mirror effect. And if Folon attached so much importance to the gaze, it is because, as a poster artist, he knew that it was firstly through the gaze that he had to engage the public and make them stop, look and enter into the image. Having done this, he could then achieve his objective of raising their awareness.
Family in spirit
A humanist and a man who enjoyed meeting people, Folon derived a great deal of energy from his contact with others. Over the course of his life, he created what he referred to as a “family in spirit”, made up of friends, idols, artists and leading figures from the world of culture and the arts, who were all from different backgrounds and of all ages. Folon tirelessly took photos, capturing the wonderful friendships he made, the camaraderie, the collaborations. These friends included:
- The writers Giorgio Soavi, Jorge Semprun, Ray Bradbury, Georges Simenon…
- The photographers Fulvio Roiter, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Jacques Henri Lartigue…
- The filmmakers Alain Resnais, Roman Polanski, Chris Marker, Yannick Bellon, Federico Fellini, Woody Allen…
- The actors and actresses Yves Montand, Rufus and Patrick Dewaere, Miou-Miou, Marlène Jobert, Marthe Keller…
- The musicians Michel Colombier, Michel Legrand, Steve Khan…
- The painters and illustrators Saul Steinberg, Milton Glaser, Roland Topor, Bosc and Chaval, Pierre Alechinsky, Balthus…
- The sculptors César, Pol Bury…
Folon’s work also reflects the influence of artists he never had the chance to meet. The influence of René Magritte and Paul Klee is clear to see. He had a more subtle admiration for Giorgio Morandi, whom he never knew in person, but whose studio he photographed with sensitivity.
Folon had a wonderful ability to express freedom through shapes and colours. Whether he was demanding it in his support for a worthy cause or simply suggesting it, freedom was always there in the background. All his themes, all his signs express it to different degrees. Freedom, for Folon, is what a bird achieves when it is released from its cage, but it is also the infinite grandeur of open horizons, a boat sailing out to sea, men trying to “talk to the wind” as they take flight… Each of his works is an appeal for personal freedom, freedom of thought and physical freedom.
Although the hand is sometimes threatening, such as the huge one that points at a man lost in the city (Quelque part quelqu’un, 1972), it more often appears as a benevolent force, protecting a country in its palm (Unicef – Les 1000 jardins du désert, 1989) or holding out the sun in the other hand (La Toscane, 1980), and sometimes even as a liberating force, as on the cover of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1988), where it is releasing birds carrying messages of peace. This big hand, which is completely disembodied, also often takes the form of a display stand, supporting a tree (Aujourd’hui, 1979), a bird (Dialogue, 1979), etc. It is reminiscent of the hand of a demiurge, of a creator in the broad sense.
Although the man in the hat features frequently in his work, Folon often reduces him to his head alone, in a masterful demonstration of the art of metonymy. All our attention is, therefore, focused on what this part of the body contains – thoughts. Because in Folon’s work, the head is often depicted open, as though being x-rayed to discover what is hidden under the hat: a bird taking to the air, a man passing by, an eye observing… Always a simple sign that in itself summarises an infinity of ideas by opening up scope for interpretation. Other heads also appear on a regular basis, in the form of open cylinders which almost always rest on the character’s left hand, for example in Le monde (1984), where the head serves as a star-studded receptacle for the earth. Sometimes, the ideas even spill out of the head, particularly in the watercolour entitled Les amis (1989), where a succession of multicoloured hands shake one another as they fly off in all directions, taking with them a message of peace. We can also see a representation of Folon’s state of mind at the moment he picks up his paintbrush, for example in Autoportrait (1987), where eight birds fly into a head shown in profile. But the interpretation does not stop there. It is, above all, an invitation to think about the creative process or a means of encouraging people to think, and to dream.
In his desire to convey the idea of travel and freedom, Folon depicted distant horizons. These began to appear in his work in the second half of the 1980s, following his move to the Côte d’Azur, when he increasingly swapped hilly backgrounds for a marine horizon. This is particularly evident in the “Voyages” series.
Folon’s work reflects a strong sense of ethics. With the softness of his colours, he seeks to guide us towards tolerance and peace. Because, for him, “if Man spent more time admiring the beauty of the world, or of an artwork, he‘d have less time to spend on war and would forget the often gratuitous violence that causes it.” Folon does not depict the world in a tragic way. His works are enriched with humour and poetry because beauty, in addition to its aesthetic value, has a moral connotation in his work. Folon speaks out about the death penalty, appeals for equality among human beings regardless of colour, religion or culture, and champions minorities. To do this, he uses language which is accessible to everyone: images and signs which are universal and clear to all. That is why organisations such as Amnesty International called on him to illustrate not only their posters (1977, 1986), but also the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1988), as part of their efforts to restore people’s faith in humanity. Folon also committed himself to the fight against racism, for which there is no justification, because for him, “colours are made to be mixed and get along together.” He also carried out other projects including a poster entitled Contre la peine de mort (1978), another for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (1991), one for UNESCO (1988), and one for the 5th Winter Paralympic Games in 1992, which featured a bird flying in spite of its broken wings.
From his early drawings, Folon developed a language all of his own, made up of a grammar and a vocabulary that spanned all his work and lent it a rare consistency. His grammar is underpinned by a radical economy of means, based on the rudimentary use of line and the emotional charge of colour. His vocabulary was essentially made up of a few signs, which were almost archetypes: arrows, human forms, masks, eyes, hands, birds, etc. He combined them through a modern take on the lessons of the surrealists and expressionists: metamorphoses, metonymy, contamination, playing with proportional relationships, etc.
The main character in Folon’s work, the man in the hat is a universal (anti-)hero. This little man is reduced to his most simple expression: two dots for the eyes, a line for his mouth, a hat which saves the artist from having to draw hair and, finally, a long coat which avoids the need to create clothes for him. He is not a stranger to us, because he reminds us of other men in hats, such as the one created by Magritte and the tramp played in films by Charlie Chaplin. He is universal, like Everyman, a person everyone can identify with. In Folon’s work, as in that of his predecessors, he is usually characterised by a deep sense of loneliness, lost in the meandering streets of big cities, or sitting gazing out to sea. However, he sometimes gets lost in the crowd or multiplies to the point of Foultitude (1969), because he represents humanity as a whole. There’s no one more ordinary than him, yet he is capable of anything, especially flying.
Folon drew inspiration for his works from many found objects. Some of these were repurposed and turned into icons, idols or masks, for example a lock or octopus bait. Folon was a hoarder. Like a “conductor of destiny”, he combined his finds and gave them a new life. It is no surprise, then, that this Belgian artist inherited a certain vision of the Surrealist world which consisted of separating the object from its primary identity or, at any rate, from its commonly accepted one. In Folon’s case, this did not involve playing with words or names, but with the objects’ form and function. Folon invites the viewer to rekindle their childhood imagination and transcend reality by looking at the most insignificant objects in a different way.
In addition to the theme of travel and freedom suggested by the infinite expanse of the sea, Folon literally incorporated the sea into his work in his 1997 sculpture La mer, ce grand sculpteur. By creating a man sitting among the waves, he involves him in the creation process, allowing the movements of the tides to continue his sculpture work indefinitely. So the statue is constantly evolving, with one patina after another, and experiences the effects of time first hand. It was also a way of restoring the supremacy of nature over human creation.
Like air, silence is a difficult concept to convey. However, it is certainly there in Folon’s work, underlying it and implicit within it. As we view the representation of birds and flying men, we hear only the wind whistling in our ears. As we contemplate the man sitting gazing out to sea, all we imagine is the sound of the waves lapping at our feet. And in the case of the little man, lost in the vastness of modern cities, a very heavy silence exacerbates the malaise. Some works, however, are extremely noisy, such as the La jungle des villes series (1971) in which the madness of the arrows reverberates around our heads. Finally, silence appears in its own right in one of Folon’s illustrations for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1988), where a soldier, with a simple sign and a menacing look, orders a gagged man to be quiet.
The suitcase is a recurrent motif in Folon’s work, because it offered him an original way of illustrating the subjects he held dear: departures, travel, freedom. With great ingenuity, he often used the space created by the shape of the piece of luggage as a frame for his design. He literally filled the suitcase from the trip he had been on (Lointains, 1986-87; La route, 1988, etc.) with the places he visited and the souvenirs he brought back with him (Landscape Memory, 1982; Une ville, 1986, etc.). We also find one in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1988), where it takes the form of a prison window with sawn off bars and a view out on to a sunny horizon. It represents the hopes of freedom cherished by prisoners or anyone seeking asylum in another country.
Travel is a major theme in Folon’s work. He illustrates it through a series of recurrent signs, such as the suitcase, road or boat. Some of his images depict travel in a literal way, like the series of collages made from pieces of orange crates and all kinds of other bits of cardboard, whose shape is reminiscent of boats sailing on the open sea, but most of his works are a metaphor for departure, for escape in general, like the birds that are always flying off somewhere, the car on the road (On the road, 1983), or the suitcases which are used as a frame for another image (Lointains, 1986-87; La route, 1988, etc.). More than simply showing travel, the artist really incorporated it into his work, particularly in Je vous écris (1988), a series of silkscreen prints in which a postcard from the USA, China, Japan or Greece is the starting point for the painting. Correspondence – postcards, envelopes – gave Folon an extra opportunity to express himself in the way he liked best, through drawings. Ultimately, what Folon invites the viewer to do while contemplating each of his works, is to embark upon an inner journey filled with poetry, a spiritual journey to their own memories and their own dreams.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
On 10 December 1948, at the Palais Chaillot in Paris, the 58 Member States which made up the General Assembly of the United Nations at that time adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It has since been translated into more than 500 languages. It includes 30 fundamental, inherent, inalienable, indivisible, interdependent and universal rights. As a declaration, it does not have the force of law. It is a consensus on an ethical ideal which signatories should strive to achieve.
In 1988, Amnesty International asked Folon, then at the height of his fame, to illustrate the Declaration. For this project, Folon chose watercolours, his favourite medium, and one in which he went on to become one of the most accomplished practitioners. As a counterpoint to this light and delicate technique, Folon’s pictorial maxims are disturbing. With the exception of articles 2, 14, 26 and 30 and the cover, which each, in their own way, convey a little hope, the illustrations depict only pain, terror, intimidation, inequality and inhumanity. He is drawing attention to the absence of these rights, showing the unbearable burden of existence when this fundamental charter is not respected. Folon makes full use of the graphic resources at his disposal, including distorting proportions to express oppression – the victim reduced to a wisp of straw – or through metamorphoses, such as his half-pen half-human figures. Stylisation and economy of means – the drawing is reduced to just a few essential lines – are taken to the limit.
Folon illustrated 19 of the Declaration’s 30 articles and added a composition for the preamble. A collage made from corrugated cardboard and hammered aluminium, it depicts a kind of scarecrow which is both terrifying and hollow. In addition to the original watercolours, the Fondation Folon possesses dozens of sketches which provide a fascinating insight into the development of the artist’s visual thinking.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights with illustrations by Folon was republished by the Fondation Folon in 2018. It is available for purchase from the Fondation Folon Artshop.