Vittorio Fiorucci, the man behind the Just for Laughs mascot

Remembering Vittorio Lodovico Fiorucci, the Montreal artist who created that iconic little devil — Victor.

Vittorio Fiorucci circa 1960 Michael Flomen
Vittorio Fiorucci circa 1960. Photo courtesy of Michael Flomen

A vast array of work by Vittorio Lodovico Fiorucci (1932–2008), the artist responsible for designing the mischievous green mascot for the Just for Laughs festival (“Victor”) is currently on exhibit as part of Montreal Through the Eyes of Vittorio: 50 Years of City Life and Graphic Design at the McCord Museum. Through the exhibit, the public has a chance to get a glimpse of the incredible work that Vittorio Fiorucci created in Montreal for various films, operas, dance companies, rock bands, and posters for his closest friends, with over 125 posters, comic strips, illustrations, photos and other works on view. The show is a great collection and serves to show the diversity of work created by the master poster-maker who loved Montreal and called it his home for over a half-century.

Vittorio Fiorucci was born in Zadar (Zara in Italian), a small city that is now part of Croatia, located on the Dalmatian coast between Dubrovnik and Trieste. As a teenager, Vittorio was witness to roughly 40 aerial bombings on Zadar by the Allies during the Second World War, something that marked him for the rest of his life. His family, like many others, fled the region and came to settle in Venice, where his paternal grandfather was born. In 1951, following a brief stint in college, Vittorio decided to emigrate to Australia, but because of a mix-up with his immigration papers, he ended up coming to Canada instead. It was also by chance that Vittorio came to Montreal after arriving in Halifax, since he originally planned to go to Toronto, but was instead held for four months in Saint-Paul-l’Ermite (now part of Repentigny) due to his displaced person status.

In the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s Vittorio lived a bohemian lifestyle in Montreal, surrounded by beautiful women and creative artist-types at local European-style cafés, restaurants and discothèques. He was part of the social and political changes of this great city. He loved jazz, luxury cars and collecting vintage toys, especially robots, some of which you can see on display at the McCord. In his lifetime, Vittorio Fiorucci created hundreds of posters, cartoons, photographs, collages, sculptures and other graphic designs that had a lasting influence on numerous artists and designers of his generation in Montreal and internationally.

Michael Flomen, my uncle through marriage to my mother’s sister Trudi Yorgan (an ex-girlfriend of Vittorio’s!) became very close friends with Vittorio when he was introduced through William Ewing, the founder of Galeries photographiques du Centaur (later known as Optica Centre for Contemporary Art) and the filmmaker-photographer Guy Borremans. I decided to interview my Uncle Michael about Vittorio’s character, creative process, artistic impact, and their life-long friendship to revive memories of a man who helped inspire me to become an artist.

Poster for Salon des métiers d’art de Montréal (2000) courtesy McCord Museum
Poster for Salon des métiers d’art de Montréal (2000), Vittorio Fiorucci, courtesy McCord Museum

Megan Mericle: How would you describe Vittorio’s character? And what was his influence on your life and work?

Michael Flomen: Well, he swung life by the tail, that’s for sure! He lived every moment like it was his last. It’s in one of the cartoons — he’s actually describing himself. He was a great listener — he was very patient, especially with me because I was really young. He was very confident, but at the same time he was always questioning himself. I think every artist has to do that. You know you’re always questioning your art, so that you can push it further, otherwise you just make the same shit over and over again. He was a renaissance man: he was well-read, he was well-versed in cinema and he was well-versed in the arts in general. You had to have that quality to do the kind of work that he did. If he was asked to make a poster for an opera or a play, it had the essence of that book or play or piece of theatre. It had to be right there, in fine colour, in a one-shot deal, so he really had to get under the skin, to distill whatever subject matter he was trying to visually depict in a very clear and poignant way. He was able to do that. He was very passionate about pretty much everything he did: women, cars, collecting, art, living. He was very, very, very passionate.

There was a period of time that he was probably ranked as one of the top five poster-makers alive, at the height of his game, probably in the late ’70s/early ’80s. And that was quite evident in how he was received when he had shows in Europe, because I traveled a lot with him to those shows, so I am one of the rare local witnesses to all of that.

His impact on me was profound. I probably stayed in Montreal because of him. And Montreal was obviously a great place to live — why not hang out here, pay $100 a month in rent, be able do whatever you want, and not think about getting mugged, as opposed to living in New York.

And I had Vittorio, hanging out with him, which for me it was like hanging out with Picasso. Same type of character and same type of talent, on a certain level. Whatever interests he had, he was very passionate about them, so he could devote a week to looking at cars, he could devote a lot of time to looking at cinema, and doing other things like that. In the end, all of this was part of what made him an interesting artist and an interesting man. I’m not a graphic designer, but I’m a visual artist, so certainly there’s some kind of an effect that he had on what it is that I do or how I trained, because I’m self-taught, so for me it was like a mentorship hanging out with him, watching him work.

In the old days, you’d go on press, and you had to make separation films, and all this took days to do. And sometimes he didn’t like where the type was — it would be off by one eighth of an inch, and all the press guys, the manager of the floor, were like “You wanna move that an 1/8th of an inch?” And he said, “Yeah, I have to do that.” And so they would have to re-make films, and start all over again practically. But when you saw what had changed by moving the type, it was like night and day.

Visitez le Nouveau Québec (1967) Vittorio Fiorucci McCord Museum
Visitez le Nouveau Québec (1967), Vittorio Fiorucci, courtesy McCord Museum

MM: He made photographs too. Not just graphic designs and cartoons.

MF: And he made sculptures, too. There’s a sculpture in entrance of the Frontenac library by him that’s pretty good. He had a great eye, and he had more talent in his pinky finger than most people I know. And he only used so much of it — he wasn’t driven. It’s not like today where artists are really driven to make art all the time. He really took time to live, and for the type of art that he made, or maybe for all artists, you need to do that. And he was great at it, and in terms of the Québécois and Canadian generation of his fellow artists, he is the most well-known and celebrated in the world. Even though the fancy painters, the Molinaris, the Gagnons, they were revered because they were painters, it was really Vittorio who was the dark horse who came up from behind, and was shown all over the world and really became the public’s favourite artist. In the graphics world, he was as good as it gets. It was a question of whether you liked his style or not. There’s the Matisse connection.

MM: You don’t really see people with that kind of sense of being their own authentic person with no regrets in the way they live.

MF: No they don’t make them like that anymore. The world is too fast-food, we’re too Instagram-y, so with most things — and he agreed with this — we are sliding down this mediocrity slide almost across the board in terms of the arts. What’s revered and what’s really considered great in the last few years, it’s like the emperor’s new clothes, there’s nothing there. It’s not interesting, but because five people say this is great, it floats around the world, and it’s “easy.”

MM: He didn’t seem to be that person who followed trends. How would you say he influenced other artists?

MF: He had to have an effect on graphic designers and poster-makers, certainly locally, but also in cities where he had his big shows. Obviously you are talking about a time that was pre-Internet, so access is not like today, where people can Google you up from anywhere on the planet and start copying you, so he didn’t really benefit from that until now I guess. I think his work is good enough and solid enough that he will continue to have an effect on people.

It’s not rocket-science. His art was basically in the publicity game — that was the bulk of what he did. So if you are going to put a poster up in the street, it was his intention that you saw it from five blocks away. He didn’t make wussy graphics. They were very, very strong. And he knew how to design type. It’s a very complicated process that he was involved in, and he was one of the best at it. And when you look at posters in the street, the few that you can see today, you can see which ones work and which ones don’t. There was a period of time where everything got very wishy-washy, little scribbly handwriting that you had to actually be a foot away from to read. If you are going to decide to be a poster-maker, not that he decided that — he didn’t calculate that — I think that there’s certain parameters to what makes that art form great: the composition, the colours, the graphics, the dynamism of those graphics. He learned what to do over time. He streams out of the European lineage of graphic designers — it was in his blood.

Just for Laughs Victor
Just for Laughs logo (Vittorio Fiorucci, the man behind the Just for Laughs mascot)

MM: Given that he was a commercial artist for the most part, was Vittorio picky about what contracts he accepted? Was money his main concern when it came to this kind of work?

MF: Vittorio did not give a shit. I’ve had lunches with clients of his where he didn’t like the guy and he would say no to huge contracts where big companies wanted to hire him and pay him a couple hundred grand. And he was like, “No.” He had his rule: if he didn’t have full control over his work, and he had to bend over backwards for advertisers and all the labels that would go at the bottom and all the sponsorships for all the festivals that would ruin the graphics of the poster — he would find ways to get around all of that. But he was his own man in terms of having free range on what it is that he created for the client, and if he didn’t have that and he didn’t like you, he didn’t do the work.

Once he had the idea, he would just get down to work, and sometimes making the real maquettes would take him days, and he would sweat it out. In the end he would nail it. I was privileged to see a lot of his work process. Seeing him creating on a napkin, and he would be like, “Oh I got the idea!” When we would be having lunch together and he would doodle up what he wanted.

He was great, there’s no question about it. He spoiled me rotten, so every time I see a graphic designer, I’m kinda rolling my eyeballs, like ok, let me see what you got because I’ve been around the best, or one of the best. So knock me out, but you’re going to have to hit the ball really hard because I’ve seen some really good shit. He was humble — I call it humility. He could have been a prick, ya know, “I’m the greatest!” But instead he never played that card. ■

The exhibition Montreal Through the Eyes of Vittorio: 50 Years of City Life and Graphic Design is on display now at the McCord Museum, until April 10, 2016.

A special McCord After Hours 5à9 will take place Thursday, Oct. 15, 5–9 p.m., $20/$16 in advance (free for members), with cocktails, prizes, performances and workshops. Regular admission rates $20/$14 students and $7.50 Wednesday evenings after 5 p.m.

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