The Renault Collection: how the French car manufacturer became a driving force in art

In the late 1960s, Renault began to invite the likes of Arman, Jean Dubuffet and Victor Vasarely to create art in response to time spent on its premises. The resulting collection grew to encompass some 550 works, 33 of which will be offered in Paris in June

Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985), Lice tapisse, 1972. Acrylic on Klegecell. 115⅜ x 153½ in (288 x 386 cm). Estimate: €1,000,000-1,500,000. Offered in Collection Renault, Un temps d’avance on 6 June 2024 at Christie’s in Paris

In 1967, an executive at Renault presented the company’s chairman and CEO, Pierre Dreyfus, with an intriguing question: could the business benefit from forging a link between car production and contemporary art?

In America, where Renault had recently been promoting its latest model, the Dauphine, there had emerged a new branch of business strategy: corporate art collecting. It had begun in 1959, when David Rockefeller commissioned Alexander Calder to make a mobile for Chase Manhattan Bank’s new Park Avenue branch.

The idea taking shape at Renault was more novel, however. The company wouldn’t just acquire works of art for investment or branding purposes. Instead, it would invite trailblazing artists into Renault’s offices and studios, to spend time with its engineers and mechanics, then make work in response to their experience. This, it was hoped, would make Renault fertile ground for innovation.

On 6 June 2024 at Christie’s in Paris, Collection Renault, Un temps d’avance will offer works from the carmaker’s corporate archive, alongside an online sale, Henri Michaux dans la Collection Renault, from 30 May until 7 June.

The artist Arman with Renault executives in the carmaker’s studio, 1967

The artist Arman with Renault executives in the carmaker’s studio, 1967. Photo: © Georges Poncet. Artwork: © Arman, DACS 2024

A new department, christened Recherches, art et industrie, was created — originally just as a short-term experiment, with no fixed parameters or objectives. The first artist to be invited to participate was Arman (1928-2005).

The French artist was a founding member of the Nouveau Réalisme group, who took aim at the lyricism of Abstract Expressionism through collage and assemblage, often working with everyday, found objects. ‘Renault was like a place where I could help myself,’ he said.

Headlights, batteries and brake pads from Renault’s assembly line were integrated into more than 100 of Arman’s Accumulation sculptures. Two dozen were acquired for the carmaker’s permanent collection, going on display around its various buildings. The rest Arman kept.

Arman (1928-2005), Archets, 1970. Oil and silkscreen ink on canvas. 81½ x 60⅝ in (207 x 154 cm). Estimate: €15,000-20,000. Offered in Collection Renault, Un temps d’avance on 6 June 2024 at Christie’s in Paris

Another early participant was Victor Vasarely (1906-1997), the Hungarian-French graphic designer who spearheaded the Op Art movement in the 1950s. Vasarely was described as a mathematical pattern-maker, and his interest in mass production, industrial technologies and futuristic design seemed perfectly in tune with Renault’s spirit. More than 40 works resulted from the dialogue between artist and manufacturer.

Perhaps the largest was a huge, monochrome, V-shaped sculpture that stood alongside a French motorway — somewhere Vasarely described as ‘a happy marriage of natural and artificial landscapes’. At the suggestion of Renault’s paint laboratory, he constructed the pieces from enamelled sheet metal — ideal because of the material’s weather-resistant properties.

In 1972, Dreyfus also asked Vasarely to redesign the company’s logo. With the assistance of his son, Yvaral (Jean-Pierre Vasarely, also an artist), he imagined the now-iconic lozenge, using lines of varying thickness to give it the appearance of being modelled in relief.

Victor Vasarely (1906-1997), Re-Na, 1968-74. Acrylic on canvas. 71 x 71 in (180.5 x 180.5 cm). Estimate: €80,000-120,000. Offered in Collection Renault, Un temps d’avance on 6 June 2024 at Christie’s in Paris

Arguably the most famous artist to visit Renault was Jean Dubuffet. A pioneer of Art Brut, which championed ‘instinct, passion, mood, violence and madness’ over academicism, the French artist had already made a name for himself with his Hourloupe works — the series that began as doodles made with a ballpoint pen while on the telephone and went on to become the most recognisable of his oeuvre.

In a letter to the company, Dubuffet wrote: ‘I am delighted to be able to show you soon a series of 47 paintings on canvas which are the swansong of my Hourloupe cycle…’ At Renault, the factory floor became Dubuffet’s field of exploration. His intricate swirls in red, blue and black quickly evolved from paper to canvas, then into monumental sculptures.

Renault’s collection of works by Jean Dubuffet, photographed in 1997 at its headquarters in Boulogne-Billancourt, Paris. Part of Le Mur Bleu can be seen on the right. Photo: © Georges Poncet. Artwork: © Jean Dubuffet, DACS 2024

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Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985), Fiston la Filoche, 1967. Transfer on polyester. 60¼ x 23⅝ x 11¾ in (153 x 60 x 30 cm). Estimate: €400,000-600,000. Offered in Collection Renault, Un temps d’avance on 6 June 2024 at Christie’s in Paris

In 1967 he created Le Mur Bleu, a wall assembled from 19 polystyrene Hourloupe modules; then, in 1973, the company commissioned Salon d’été, an entire Hourloupe sculptural environment covering 2,000 square metres, complete with chairs, benches and trees placed around a swimming pool, intended as a relaxation area in the grounds of Renault’s headquarters.

Following the oil crisis, a change in Renault’s management, ongoing technical problems and a bill already three times the budget, Salon d’été stalled in 1975, and a decade later the Recherches, art et industrie department was wound up.

In 1996, however, the programme was relaunched and the art historian Ann Hindry was appointed curator of the collection, which at the time contained around 350 works by 35 artists.

Jesús Rafael Soto (1923-2005), Gran amarillo, 1974. Steel rods, aluminium, nylon wire and oil on wood. 79⅜ x 56¼ x 16¾ in (201.5 x 143 x 42.5 cm). Estimate: €180,000-250,000. Offered in Collection Renault, Un temps d’avance on 6 June 2024 at Christie’s in Paris

Alongside works by Dubuffet, Vasarely and Arman were pieces by the Venezuelan kinetic artist Jesús Rafael Soto, who redesigned Renault’s lobbies; the Spanish painter Antoni Tàpies, a champion of Art Informel whose 1983 exhibition at Sénanque Abbey was sponsored by Renault; the American artist Robert Rauschenberg, who in 1984 created the silkscreen series Renault Paper Works with photographs from the company’s archive; and Jean Tinguely, the Swiss sculptor with a passion for motor racing, who in 1984 collaborated on the sculpture Pit-Stop, made from parts of cars driven in Renault’s 1983 Formula One campaign.

Jean Fautrier (1898-1964), Brisures, 1960. Mixed media on paper laid on canvas. 35 x 51¼ in (89 x 130.3 cm). Estimate: €180,000-250,000. Offered in Collection Renault, Un temps d’avance on 6 June 2024 at Christie’s in Paris

There were also works by artists who didn’t necessarily participate in the project, but who shared its avant-garde vision, such as Joan Miró, Jean Fautrier, Niki de Saint Phalle and Henri Michaux. (Works by the latter will be offered online in Henri Michaux dans la Collection Renault, from 30 May to 7 June.)

‘The task that was entrusted to me was broad: it was to bring the collection up to standard,’ Hindry reflected in a 2019 interview. ‘It was kept in perfect lighting, and perfect hydrometric and safety conditions, but was invisible to the public and staff. The memory was lost.’

After years spent reassembling what was left of the archive — as well as Dubuffet’s Le Mur Bleu — she published Renault and Art: A Modern Adventure, then toured highlights from Japan to Mexico, Romania, Martinique, Brazil and Israel.

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Hindry has also started commissioning contemporary artists again to create works for Renault’s collection. ‘I approach artists likely to be interested in the industrial universe; I present to them the works of the collection, as well as the materials and know-how of the company, which they can have access to; and I invite them to create a work according to their own practice.’ Today, the Renault Collection holds more than 550 pieces.

Under the guidance of current Renault CEO Luca de Meo, the proceeds from the Christie’s sale will be used to create a new endowment fund with a focus on arts, culture and heritage, and street art in particular — honouring the company’s long-held passion for democratising art.

Collection Renault, Un temps d’avance will be on view at Christie’s in Paris from 30 May 2024, ahead of the live sale on 6 June. Henri Michaux dans la Collection Renault will take place online from 30 May until 7 June

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