Henri Michaux

Galerie Lelong | Zurich

Under the title “Peinture–Ecriture” (Painting–Writing) this exhibition brought together 100 works by Henri Michaux, a French artist of Belgian origin who died in 1984. It documented the last thirty years of his artistic career. Michaux belongs to that illustrious group, the poet-painters and painter-poets, but his visual work is hardly ever an illustration of his poetic work. Similarly, his writing can hardly ever be seen as a description or a reflexion of his paintings—that is, when the essence of painting does not itself become the theme of his reflections. His paintings remain independent from his poetry, without, however, forming a completely separate body of work, for there are certainly affinities between both realms of expression. Indeed, in a certain way, one realm is the opposite of the other, like the two sides of a medal. But perhaps it would be more accurate to say that one “displaces” the other, because the act of painting for Michaux is at the same time the transposition of the creative act from the realm of language into the realm of the picture. The artist undertakes an imaginary trip from one system of signs into another; he transcends the boundaries of a more abstract, more bound language in order to find new freedom in a more concrete and more open world of the picture—and with this he also finds new knowledge. While the strictness of language requires the artist to capture the found “image” in more and more essential abstractions in order to “define” it, painting allows him to create an image that is changeable in the process of creation and can be transformed into something else at the moment it is transferred onto paper.

This phenomenon can be observed in his many watercolors, in which the lines of the drawing or the planes of color dissolve in an auratic metamorphosis that makes the initial image more potent or propels it onto yet a further level of meaning. And the principle of this constant transformability is also manifested in the repeated series of horizontally segmented lines and the overlapping sequences of vertical and diagonal lines, which come together sometimes in explosive bundles. Each new line is an answer to the already existing ones and develops an intense relationship to the lines close to it. The idea of syntax is suggested not only by the layered structure and calligraphic look of the marks in each work but also by the relationships between and among the various pictures, which one can “read” as a sequence of signs. In this type of “image reading,” however, syntax is broken up and liberated from the corset of linguistic linearity: the story that is told here consists of many stories. Syntax has less an ordering function than the function of constructing a complete frame or background on which the many autonomous aspects of the image can appear as a cognitive unity.

But Michaux’s images bespeak an emotional intuitive spontaneity, and are never bound to a single “reading” or interpretation. The viewers’ fascination with his images lies in the fact that he continuously strives for images of the unconscious—not the realm of the psychologically burdened subconscious but unknown representations of an inner world, which cannot be defined as image but can be formulated visually and cognitively. These images are concerned with the paradoxical attempt to translate the unconscious into consciousness, but it is lost again immediately in its concrete notation. If one looks at these images this way, they seem like manifestations of the pulsing inner world of a single moment and lead us to a state of heightened consciousness verging on delirium.

Max Wechsler

Translated from the German by Charles V. Miller.