Les Sables d’Olonne

Roland Barthes

Musee de l’Abbaye Saint-Croix

In January 1981, the graphic exercises of Roland Barthes were shown at Nancy. Now, the Musée des Sables d’Olonne presents about a hundred “drawings,” executed between 1971 and 1976. The title, “Roland Barthes, 1915–1980: Drawings,” is, above all, a proper name. It denotes less the semiologist, essayist, critic, and director of studies at the Collège de France, than the writer. The word “drawings” is there to simplify things. “Semiography” would have been better; unlike “drawing,” or “painting,” semiography does not denote a body of work. Tracing and graphic writing to no purpose, for the sheer pleasure of it—this material is clearly that of an amateur.

There are, in all, about 700 works in watercolor, gouache, and pen and ink (or all three together), and in pastel and felt-tip pen. The surface is randomly chosen—drawing paper or letterhead stationery. The drawings are characterized by three sorts of writing. There are “pictorial” improvisations (which Barthes called “tachist scribblings”) where lines and daubs mingle randomly with the margins over the entire surface of a sort of text. The impression of fluidity and rapidity here makes one think of “fingering” a piano; though generally abstract, they occasionally give way to (annotated) sketches of flowers or people. There are illegible writings, similar to Chinese caligraphy. And there are obscure alphabets whose ornamental letters float in the interior of the page, suspended and scattered. One could suppose the latter are homages to the medieval letter.

Many of these “writings,” which are in no way automatic, involve lines and touches of color that, even down to the accidents of the pen, are savored for themselves, leaving the white of the paper in reserve. The pleasure of tracing, scribbling, “dabbing,” or “coating,” or simply of forming letters without forcing anything—without altering the feeling that all this, in the end, is nothing but an “intertwining of caresses”—derives from the (structural) taste for disassembling. A (hedonistic) principle of the division and variation of “pleasure” guides the fluttering gesture.

If this work is indeed frivolous (as Barthes indicates in the margin of one of his pieces), it is yet the result of an effort that is no less concerted for being futile and indecisive. One thinks, of course, of Japanese cooking (evoked in L’Empire des Signes), the appearance of whose dishes fascinated him. Comparing it to painting, he said of the tray of a meal that it is “the space, not of a view, but of an action or a game; painting being, in the end, nothing but a palette (a work surface).” Painting is in fact described in the schedule of the “writer on vacation” (a figure in the Mythologies) as the transition from one working surface to another. It’s nothing other than a “hobby,” comparable to the piano or puttering around, but it’s also something more—a sort of work in the void (the nothingness). It is quite different from the writer’s painful laziness (the migraines with which Jules Michelet was afflicted, and which laid Gustave Flaubert out on his sofa); it is a happy, jubilant laziness, whose slight retreat (toward dabbling, the little things) effects “the eruption of another signifier” and makes it possible to take up work once again. If Barthes believed it to be in some ways a fake hobby (and bourgeois to boot) it is also, in its “corporeal truth,” inseparable from the “pleasure of the text.”

Xavier Girard

Translated from the French by Jamey Gambrell.