In Antonin Artaud, ce Desespere qui vous parle (Antonin Artaud, This Desperate One Who Speaks to You), Paule Thevenin's 1993 compilation of her untranslated essays, we find that Artaud confided to her that, while in the process of making his drawings, there was ". . . a state of dread, a latent pain suspended over them . . ." He further revealed, "I pose the question of the drawing, of art, of work, of my age, of my situation, of my life, of my situation in my life, and I say: I toiled, grieved, sweat, have I or have I not sweated over these drawings?" He then reassured her, "not much," casually insisting that in making these works he believed he "wasn't looking to find anything, or to put anything in them . . .", but that he wanted ". . . to put in them something else." That "something else", his cathartic and roiling energy, is revealed in all of its splendor and sadness in the Museum of Modern Art's current exhibition, Antonin Artaud — Works on Paper curated by Margit Rowell, MoMA's Curator of Drawings.
Go first to the freestanding exhibition wall in the entranceway. There, on both sides, you can read the chronology of this extraordinarily sensitive and gifted man, who, confined to psychiatric hospitals for most of his adult life after 1936, struggled to define, and come to terms with, the self-loathing that fueled his mental illness. This exhibition at MoMA reveals the story of an incalculably intelligent man who in his youth possessed an Alain Delon-like beauty, a physical grace, and dangerous sharp sexual vitality which is captured in an early photograph. Next to this photograph is an early self-portrait of 1915 displaying Artaud's confident mischievous eyes, dandified high collar and pompadour. It is an image exuding an optimistic sense of life as promise to be fulfilled.
On the wall's reverse, is Denise Colomb's 1946 gelatin silver print of Artaud: poet, writer, actor, artist. Taken two years before his death, this photograph depicts the image of a gaunt, nearly toothless man, his aquiline nose and intensely hurt, yet steadfast eyes, cast downward, but at a distance (an interior one), and his flowing hair askew above a large forehead. This photo is counter-poised by Artaud's 1946 pencil self-portrait.
Artaud's pencil lines unravel to depict an unkempt head that seems to have risen to the top of the large white-filled page, untethered and floating, its long fragile, tapered neck wrenched from the rest of the body. The eyes (as all of the eyes in Artaud's portraits and self-portraits act as funnels for pain, anguish, and sorrow) contain the dread of being alive. His urgent task in his drawings of himself, and those of his friends, is to convey the ferocity, the terroristic nature of the utter provisionality of his response to his yearnings for freedom, as well as the grim acceptance of his inner torments. He accomplished this without shirking from his responsibility to himself to record, in physical form, the rock-bottom nature of this death-defying experience. It is this honesty, this lack of shirking away, that we see in the eyes of all of his self-portraits.
On these pages we also see the physical act that drawing was for him through the scratchings, the tearings, the rips, the creases, his markings resembling, at times, barbed wire, thorns or pastoral execrences, infesting the surfaces of his tight-lipped subjects indicating a great, impenetrable, and magnificent malaise of body and soul. There is something majestically horrible and poignant in these works, an unspoken understanding is conveyed of Artaud's sensing his own mental frailty. This frailty of being is honestly revealed by the sheer aggressivity of these drawings.
This self-aggression vis-à-vis the uncontrolled parts of himself is documented in Self-Portrait, December 1947. Here, Artaud seems mesmerized by the gnarled spectral image of his own demonized hand which points to himself, as well as to the sky above. One of Artaud's eyes is blank and white, an eye of death. The marks in this work, as in many of the others, are an accumulation, a scaffolding of lines and forms that are replete with the idea that Artaud is building up these forms to record his incoherencies, before they flee from his consciousness. The drawing of wounds and sores on the depicted faces and hands of his subjects, these pustular notations, stabbings, and burns, scar the skin of the paper serving to suggest that Artaud picks on the paper in an execratory rage as he would pick a scab on own his body, using his pain as a focusing element.
In The Portrait of Henri Pichette or Gris- Gris, 1947 one sees a conflation of ocean boats and waves, inferences of barbed wire and thorns, forming part of this portrait, pushed into the top left edge of the paper. The Portrait of Roger Blin, 1946, with his commanding sneering lips, steely gaze, and parched thatches of brillo hair, has a totemic authority that turns it into a strong visual experience. The Blue Head (La Tete Bleue), 1946 is one of two portrait images with open mouths, all of the others (with the exception of Portrait of Alain Gheerbrunt, 1947 and that of Colette Allendy, 1947, whose lips have been erased) have grimly sealed mouths. The Blue Head is more abstracted than the other drawings in that recognizable facial features only come into focus as you step away from it, and view it from a few paces. Emerging from the drawing's radio-wave lines forming a long mask, like an apparition with saucer-shaped eyes, you see nothing less than a scream, a whisper, and a cry for help. The drawings are really the residue of his tireless battle with himself to convey his struggle to define himself as a man unraveling.
All of Artaud's works in this exhibition, the incantatory "sound-space" of his Spells and Gris-Gris drawings, 1937-44, the Rodez Drawings 1945-56, and, particularly, the Portraits at Ivry 1946-48, are painful to look at, and are as wrenchingly true as anything you might ever experience on paper. It is not surprising. He wrote from the hospital in Rodez in 1945 : "The soul is a dream that does not die. Concrete reality also is a dream that one ought not to have envisioned, that is to say, to put in a frame and to visualize. Painting entails throwing into the abyss the color and form that exists only as iniquitous eventuality, an eternal burning of those who could be, and will always be, forgotten. That's the secret of the sacrifice of the self. Passing one's time in destroying all form that one possibly can find, until you reach absolute non-form which always imposes itself on you. The secret is that there is but the secret of being precisely that which one is not, and this isn't a secret, but a soul."
Copyright ©1996 Dominique Nahas & REVIEW All Rights Reserved
Dominique Nahas is former chief curator of contemporary art at Everson Museum and former director of the
Neuberger Museum. He is now an independent curator, critic and art historian.