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.
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.
Malcolm de Chazal 1947