The Spell of Artaud

The entire text of the spell dedicated to Roger Blin (recto and verso) reads;tumblr_lo6x592APT1qhwx0o[1] ‘All those who have gotten together to keep me from taking HEROIN all those who have touched Anne Manson because of that Sunday May 1939 I will have them pierced alive in a Paris square and I will have them perforated and their intestines burned. I am in a Mental Asylum but this dream of a Madness will be enacted and enacted by ME-Antonin Artaud.’

In 1937 the French writer, actor and dramatist Antonin Artaud landed in Cobh, Ireland with a letter of introduction from the French Embassy. Without that letter the Irish officials would have denied Artaud admittance. From Cobh he travelled to Galway where he holed up in a hotel room he couldn’t pay for. The purpose of this strange odyssey was to return a walking stick he had acquired which he believed was the staff of St Patrick, as well as being previously owed by both Jesus Christ and Lucifer. After a brief stint in Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison Artaud was deported as a ‘destitute and undesirable alien’. On the return ship voyage he attacked two crew members and had to be restrained and put in a straitjacket.

The previous decade Artaud had been one of the leading lights of the first phrase of Surrealism, writing addresses to the Pope, Chancellors of the European Universities, the Dalai Lama and the Buddhist Schools. In January 1925 Andre Breton announced that Artaud was assuming direction of the Bureau of Surrealist Enquiries, cryptically commenting that ‘The Central  Bureau, more alive than ever, is henceforth behind closed doors, but the world must know that it exists.’  However after the bitter criticisms Breton levelled against Artaud (along with many, many others) in the Second Manifesto Artaud left the movement, aligning himself somewhat with the renegade Surrealists who published in Georges Bataille’s Documents.

The return from Ireland brought about for Artaud a period of confinement in different asylums which ended only with his death in 1948 from an overdose of choral hydrate. 1938 saw the publication of his most famous work The Theatre and Its Double where he outlined his vision for the Theatre of Cruelty but he wrote little again until 1946, instead concentrating on writing up spells, casting horoscopes and drawing disturbing pictures.

But then Artaud would have doubtless have approved of Mick Jagger’s character Turner’s paraphrase of the central tenets of the Theatre of Cruelty in the 1970 movie Performance, ‘The only performance that makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness. Am I right?’ Judging by those lights Artaud made it all the way.

 

 

Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion

Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion c.1944 by Francis Bacon 1909-1992
Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion c.1944 Francis Bacon 

In 1936 the painter and art dealer Roland Penrose (also later the husband of Lee Miller) and the art critic Herbert Read, who were organising the International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries, decided to pay a visit to the studios of the Irish born painter Francis Bacon in Chelsea. Bacon showed them four large canvases but the visitors were underwhelmed, to say the least. Penrose declared that they were insufficiently surreal to be included and is reported to have told Francis, “Mr. Bacon, don’t you realise a lot has happened in painting since the Impressionists?”.

However much this must have stung, Francis Bacon apparently agreed with Penrose’s assessment as he would later, when very famous, ruthlessly suppress any pieces that pre-dated his breakthrough painting Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion of 1944; that is to say, that any painting produced before he had engaged, assimilated and felt in a position to response in a highly personal way to the great Continental European avant-garde currents (including, naturally enough, Surrealism), were to be excluded from his oeuvre. Quite rightly so, as the critic John Russell noted, “there was painting in England before the Three Studies, and painting after them, and no one…can confuse the two,” which of course extended to Bacon’s own work.

Painted on Sundeala boards, a cheap alternative to canvas, used frequently by Bacon as he was often short of money due to his heavy drinking and lifelong gambling habit, Three Studies presents three nightmarish figures, Bacon’s horror take on Picasso’s biomorphs, with elongated necks and distended mouths, against a lurid, harsh, burnt orange background. Christ and the two thieves crucified have been transformed into the Furies. Bacon admitted to having been obsessed by the phrase in Aeschylus, “the reek of human blood smiles out at me”, and in a sense Three Studies is a raw, visceral, pictorial actualisation of such a striking and terrifying line. After all, Bacon was the best exemplifier of the Bataillean aesthetic in the visual arts; the body as meat, the world as an abattoir, the endless scream of being.

After Bataille

Illustration for Madame Edwarda by Georges Bataille-Kuniyoshi Kaneko-1976
Illustration for Madame Edwarda by Georges Bataille-Kuniyoshi Kaneko-1976

As the tiger is to space,
So sex is to time,
Apparition of savage grace,
The prelude to crime,
A loss of all face,
A rending tear in the fabric
Stitched together by some joking maverick

Demented demiurge blind
And paralytic:
The only thing on your ravaged mind
Syphilitic,
Is where to find
The pot to piss and shit in
Which is, all things considered, rather fitting.

We’re near the limits of the I,
But I is another,
A discontinuity of cries,
All passion is other,
Into the emptiness we sigh,
Signs descend into parody,
Eggs eyes and testicles a chain of analogy.

I meet God, a lazy whore
Lolling on a bed,
Don’t you want some more?
As she opened her legs she said:
I needed her tender and raw
So I could penetrate the mystery,
Plumb the void of the coruscating divinity.

Sens-Plastique

Malcolm de Chazal
Malcolm de Chazal

Born into a wealthy colonial  family with roots in the French aristocracy and which included several Rosicrucians and Swedenborgians, the writer, painter and visionary Malcolm De Chazal (1902-1981) spent his whole life on the island of Mauritius, with the exception of six years in Baton Rouge, where he completed his secondary education before attending Louisiana State University as an engineering student. Upon his return to the island he worked as an agronomist in the sugar plantations before quitting the field after he published a scathing critique on the methods and economy of the industry. He then worked as a civil servant before retiring at the age of 55. From 1940 however he increasingly dedicated himself to writing and later painting.

His most famous work is Sens-Plastique, a collection of thousands of aphorisms. The work was suggested after a visionary encounter with an azalea. While out for a walk, de Chazal observed the flower and then realised that the azalea was looking at him. He was then struck with the revelation that: “I became a flower while being myself all the time“, and that everything in the universe, be it animal, vegetable, mineral or human, was analogous. The aphorisms is Sens-Plastique are a riot of poetic analogy and concrete, visual metaphor.  It was hailed by the Surrealists; Andre Breton, Jean Paulhan, Georges Bataille and the originator of the term Art Brut, Jean Dubuffet all lauded de Chazal as a genius. Outside of French artistic circles the poet W.H Auden also championed Sens-Plastique.

In the 1950’s De Chazal took up painting at the suggestion of Georges Braque. His paintings are charmingly emblematic images of the landscape, flora and fauna of his beloved island home, the bold colours blazing with a visionary intensity.

An early supporter of Mauritian independence and the dismantling of a racial caste system that allowed vast inequalities to exist, de Chazal also wrote a ‘spiritual history’ of the rocks and mountains of the island. He became increasingly reclusive in his later years

Below are a selection of aphorisms from Sens-Plastique and a slideshow of his fauvist flavoured paintings.

Sens-Plastique

A fish in fear of its life turns into water. In the mutual pursuit of sexual pleasure—the fear of joy and the joy of fear—our bodies liquefy each other in the waters of the soul, becoming so spiritual that hardly any corporal self is left. When we wake up after love, we look around desperately for our lost body.

If our five senses didn’t serve as brakes to slow us down and filter our sensations, sexual pleasure would strike us like lightning and electrocute our souls.

We see a friend’s eye as one and indivisible. A stranger’s eye we take in part by part: the white, the iris, and the pupil.

Silence is a lawyer who pleads with his eyes.

A flowing river is an infinity of superimposed production belts.

The sunflower keeps its eye on the sun with its back turned to the shade. We die facing life with our backs to death, as if we were walking out of a room backwards.

Petals are a plant’s eardrum. Distant sounds make them quiver like the needle of a seismograph.

The kiss ends at the point of a needle. Sex ends fanning out. The kiss is an arrow. Sex is a fountain.

All the colours ‘rot’ in maroon, the rust of all rusts, the putrefying corpse of all dead colours, the sun’s humus, earth-color, resurrection’s winding-sheet, the shroud of life itself, the mound of eternity, the tomb of Light, Eternity’s burial vault.

Look too intensely at blue and your eye sees indigo. Look too intensely at red and you see garnet. If you look too intensely at yellow it turns green. A hypnotic stare injects blue into everything.

Water meanders on a completely smooth surface and toboggans down the glossiness of leaves.

The idealist walks on tiptoe, the materialist on his heels.

Ah is the shortest of human cries, Oh the longest. Man is born in an Ah and dies in an Oh, for birth is immediate and death is like an airplane taking off.

I am the owner of my shoulders, the tenant of my hips.

No matter how much leaves are fixed face to face they always look at each other aslant, whereas all fruits end up head-on however carelessly jumbled. A bunch of flowers is a house of coloured cards. A heap of fruit is a hive of coloured bees.

The flower has no weekday self, dressed as it always is in Sunday clothes.

The light would reach us more quickly in the morning and fade more slowly at night if the whole earth were divided into vast flower beds that called forth the light at dawn and clutched it longer at nightfall. Nature instituted summer for flowers long before man took summer over for his own uses.

To ‘hang on every word’ means to suck the eyes of the speaker.

The diamond scintillates less brilliantly when the fingers move rapidly than when they undulate and pivot. Glossy leaves throw off less light in a high wind than under the calm wavering of a breeze. Brusque movements of the eye cast a single gleam, and slow movements add a thousand others.

from Sens-Plastique

Malcolm de Chazal 1947

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The Birth of Art

Horses and Rhinoceros- Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave circa 30,000-32,000BP
Horses and Rhinoceros- Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave circa 30,000-32,000BP

We do not know exactly when the first work of art was created by human hands and we will probably never for certain, as the very question is vexatiously hedged with other questions (such as, what constitutes art?), and that is before we factor in our uncertain knowledge of unconscionably remote periods, new discoveries that shatter accepted wisdom and most pertinently, all that will remain undiscovered as it has vanished from the face of the earth forever.

Georges Bataille who wrote extensively on the subject of prehistoric art for over three decades published  Prehistoric Painting: Lascaux or the Birth of Art in 1955, a monograph on the famous Lascaux Caves, known as the Sistine Chapel of Prehistoric Art, with paintings dating from around 17,000 BP.  Bataille’s theory that Lascaux represented the birth of art  would have been uncontroversial at the time, but new paintings have since come to light in Indonesia and France, especially the magnificent Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave that pushes back the birth of figurative art another 15,000 years.

One of the most remarkable features of prehistoric art (and there are many) is that it upends our idea of the constant evolutionary progress of humanity. Automatically we think that art created by sophisticated civilisations is going to be superior to art from pre-literate cultures and the further back you go the cruder the paintings. We presume that the art in Chauvet would only hint at the glories of Lascaux and Altamira, bearing the same relation to a child’s daubs to Leonardo Da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks. Yet the excellence of composition and technical expertise, which includes prior etchings of the stone that is then painting over shows that these were artists were no mere initiators, they already possessed a full command of the medium.

There are many more mysteries surrounding cave art. Why were they painted in the recesses of the caves which would have created many difficulties in execution and viewing? Some of the paintings in Lascaux would by necessity have involved the construction of scaffolding. Why is the human figure so rarely represented and in such a crude and always masked fashion in comparison to the numerous and lovingly rendered animal figures? And most pointedly, why did our ancestors feel compelled to create images in the first place and did this compulsion somehow change our relationship to nature?

Below are images from Chauvet, Lascaux, Altamira and others caves from the Franco-Cantabrian region. Obviously a two-dimensional image can never do justice to art which was meant to been seen in situ, but as a majority of caves are either closed or severely restrict access for imperative preservation reasons this is simply not feasible. But even from a cursory glance we can see why Picasso exclaimed to his fellow modern artists, ‘We’ve invented nothing’ after a trip to Lascaux.

Lions-Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave circa 30,000 to 32,000BP
Lions-Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave circa 30,000 to 32,000BP
Rhinoceros & Lions-Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave 30,000BP to 32,000BP
Rhinoceros & Lions-Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave 30,000BP to 32,000BP
Venus and the sorcerer-Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave 30,000 to 32,000BP
Venus and the sorcerer-Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave 30,000 to 32,000BP
Dun Horse-Lascaux circa 17,000BP
Dun Horse-Lascaux circa 17,000BP
Horses, Bison and Reindeer-Lascaux circa 17,000BP
Horses, Auroch and Reindeer-Lascaux circa 17,000BP
Bison-Horses-Lascaux circa 17,000BP
Auroch-Horses-Lascaux circa 17,000BP
Wounded Bison-Bird Headed Man-Lascaux Shaft-circa 17,000BP
Wounded Bison-Bird Headed Man-Lascaux Shaft-circa 17,000BP
Bison-Altamira circa 22,000BP ?
Bison-Altamira circa 22,000BP ?
Hall of Bison-Altamira circa 22,000BP?
Hall of Bison-Altamira circa 22,000BP?
Dappled Horse-Pech Merle  circa 25,000BP
Dappled Horse-Pech Merle circa 25,000BP