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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Art Brut

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Augustin Lesage
In his artistic statement of intent, the prose poem What I Believe by J.G Ballard, Ballard lists some of the things he believes in, which notably include a number of Surrealist artists and ‘The Facteur Cheval, the Watts Tower…and all the invisible artists within the psychiatric institutions of the planet.’  Ballard also writes in his annotations to The Atrocity Exhibition that the dedication for the book should have been, ‘To the Insane, I owe them everything.’  

It was a feature of Modern Art to seek inspiration outside of the recognised Western Canon. The Cubists expressed admiration for African sculpture and incorporated elements within their art. Members of The Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) Group, including Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Franz Marc and Auguste Macke were interested in the art produced by the mentally ill and children alike. However it was with the publication of Dr Hans Prinzhorn’s study Bildnerei der Geisteskranken (Artistry of the Mentally Ill) in 1921 that really captured the avant garde imagination and was to influence the nascent Surrealist movement. One of the artists featured was Adolf Wolfli, whose work with its obsessive detailing, elaborate fantasy worlds and horror vacui encapsulates Art Brut (raw art) as the French artist and collector Jean Dubuffet later termed art produced by the mentally ill.

In 1948 Dubuffet, along with Andre Breton, The Pope of Surrealism, formed the Compaigne de l’Art Brut. He collected thousand of works which forms the Collection de l’Art Brut, located in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Below are examples of Art Brut artists work. Art Brut is also referred to as Outsider Art, Folk Art, Naive Art and Visionary Art, all terms that are problematic for various reasons. Several for the artists are mediumistic artists who were never diagnosed with mental illness. Formally trained artists who were later institutionalised such as Van Gogh and Richard Dadd (A Fevered Mind’s Master Stroke) are by and large excluded.

Adolf Wolfli

A violent psychotic who experienced intense hallucinations, the Swiss artist Wolfli spent the majority of his life in prison or the Waldau Clinic, a psychiatric hospital in Bern. He started drawing at the age of 40 and in the remaining 26 years produced a vast body of work, including a semi-autobiographical epic with fantasy elements that stretched to 25,000 pages and 1,600 illustrations, which often feature his own idiosyncratic invented musical notation.

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Adolf Wolfli

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Adolf Wolfli
Augustin Lesage

A coal miner by profession, Augustin Lesage spent his life in Lille, France. He was 35 when he heard a voice tell him he was going to be a painter. After further communications with the spirit, whom Lesage believed to be his little sister who had died at the age of three, he received detailed instructions as what materials to buy and what to paint. He developed a uniquely detailed and symmetrical style incorporating motifs from Egyptian and Indian art.

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Augustin Lesage
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Augustin Lesage
Madge Gill

In 1919 the English artist Madge Gill gave birth to a stillborn baby girl and almost died herself. She was left bedridden for several months and blind in one eye. Upon recovering the 38 year old Gill developed a sudden and intense  interest in drawing and over the next forty years produced thousands of works in various media, mainly black and white ink drawings signed by her guiding spirit, ‘Myrninerest” (my inner rest)’. Female figures in intricate dress proliferate among the geometric designs.

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Madge Gill
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Madge Gill
Martin Ramirez

Martin Ramirez left Mexico in 1925 to find work in America. In 1931 he was attested for vagrancy which led to Ramirez being diagnosed as a catatonic schizophrenic. He would spend the rest of his life in Californian psychiatric institutions. His work frequently feature trains and repeated arches.

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Martin Ramirez
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Martin Ramirez