New York

“Antonin Artaud: Works on Paper”

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art

“Few graphic expressions in the twentieth century show the power and authentic inner necessity seen in the drawings of Antonin Artaud . . . they show the heightened sensibility and critical lucidity of a mind at odds with society and unable to compromise with its conventions.” That is the standard Artaud defense, put forward by Margit Rowell, curator of the MoMA exhibition. The reason he needs defending is the stark diagnostic probability offered by Rowell: Artaud (1896–1948) “suffered from confabulatory paraphrenia, a delusional psychosis which is not accompanied by intellectual deterioration and in which some symptoms—hallucinations and confabulations—are close to those of schizophrenia.”

Rowell invites us to view Artaud as one of the great “spiritual revolutionaries” of modern art, as Wassily Kandinsky called them—“solitary visionaries” articulating “the internal truth which only art can divine . . . which only art can express by those means of expression which are hers alone.” Does Artaud belong among them? Or are his works on paper the visual ravings of the Artaud who “screamed deliriously as his argument disintegrated into crazy acting” during a lecture, and the Artaud who regarded “cruelty [as] a sort of rigorous discipline” that would be the basis for a new “physical and spatial poetry that has long been lacking in theater”?

Art and “aggressive cruelty,” to use Rowell’s phrase, were one and the same for Artaud. But the issue is whether Artaud was a prophet of social catastrophe, or whether it served his personal catastrophe, which had been in the making since the “nervous disorders” and “depression” of his adolescence, when he was diagnosed with hereditary syphilis and given the laudanum that began his lifelong drug addiction. (He eventually turned to heroin.) Apart from an early self-portrait (ca. 1915), the works in the exhibition were made immediately before, during, and after the Second World War, but it is equally important to note that they were made during Artaud’s confinement in mental hospitals, where he received fifty-one electric shocks over a nineteen-month period and was diagnosed as suffering from “incurable paranoid delirium.” The exhibition begins with the so-called “Spells,” 1937–39, which seem, in their violence and terror, to herald the trauma of war. They are angry letters to real and imaginary friends—Artaud tried to bewitch them with cryptic emblems as well as words—written on paper that has been all but destroyed: ripped, punctured, and burned; splotched and smeared with ink and gouache. The second group of works (1944–46) carries the destruction into the image, which becomes a nightmarish “bouillabaisse of forms in the tower of Babel,” to use the inscription on one of them. Finally, there are a number of portraits (1946–48), of varying degrees of expressive uniqueness, which seem to bespeak postwar—post-traumatic exhaustion, ruin, depression. The self-portrait of May 11, 1946, and La Tête bleue (The blue head), another self-portrait made about the same time, are particularly extraordinary: what Artaud did to the paper of the “Spells” he now does to himself. He in effect shows the death throes of his psyche.

The question, then, is whether these works are simply cultural and aesthetic curiosities—the symptomatic products of a delusional psychotic—or whether they have an important place in modern art, where they hold their own intellectually, morally, and stylistically. The relation of art to madness has been an issue since antiquity—Plato assumed their inner connection in the Lysis—and has become an open issue in modernity, where the art of the insane has been celebrated as, in the words of Bernard Dorival, “equal in dignity, in quality, even in financial value” to any “major art.” Are Artaud’s works on paper “major art” because they are insane and insanity is disturbing to the bourgeoisie, or because their quality resides in the uniqueness of the artistic methods with which they mediate insanity? It is this question that is at the core of an evaluation of Artaud’s visual art.

To an extent, Artaud’s visual work was an attempt to put into practice his theory of cruelty, which he was not able to do in the theater and cinema, despite the fame his portrayal of Marat in Abel Gance’s film Napoléon, 1927, brought him. The Cenci, 1935, a stage adaptation from Shelley, which he wrote and directed, and in which he acted, was his most ambitious effort to do so, but it was a financial and critical failure. (In 1927 he wrote “Manifesto for a Theater That Failed,” as if in anticipation of the event.) So he was reduced to drawing, all the more so because of the breakdown he suffered not long after his theatrical failure.

Artaud seems to have literalized Rimbaud’s “disordering of all the senses” (“Lettres du Voyant,” 1871), and indeed, Artaud’s Fragments of a Diary from Hell (1926) emulates Rimbaud’s Une Saison en enfer (A season in hell, 1873). Both—as well as Artaud’s works on paper—are examples of what Jean Dubuffet called “les oeuvres des irréguliers” or art brut. He contrasted its “instinct, passion, caprice, violence, insanity” (“primitive . . . values of the savage”) with “l’art culturel” or “official art”—the “art of museums, galleries, salons,” with its “vacuous” value of “beauty.” Dubuffet undoubtedly concurred with Artaud that “Culture isn’t in books, paintings, statues, dances: it’s in the nerves and the fluidity of the nerves.” For both Rimbaud and Artaud art was a record, or kind of trace, of the process of disordering and the final nervous state of disorder: the process of going insane, that is, going to the hell of instinct, passion, caprice, violence, where one could be unequivocally primitive or savage—“naked, natural, excessive,” as Artaud says.

After the “Spells,” the barely coherent bouillabaisse drawings are the most emotionally primitive of Artaud’s works on paper. “Composites” of imagistic fragments, mostly of parts of the body, they suggest that Artaud had reached the final stage of disorder. Throughout his life he was embarrassed by his body, and now he no longer had to be: he had shredded it—undermined the very idea of the integrity of the body, male or female. Ironically, this gives the drawings their artistic integrity and radical character: they carry Surrealist incongruity to its (il)logical conclusion. Where the Surrealists tried to hold on to unity, in whatever distorted form, Artaud abandoned corporeal continuity altogether, radicalizing the picture in the process. Instead of making a picture of the body—that basic subject matter of art—Artaud implies that it is impossible to picture it with any finality.

The body’s unity becomes unthinkable—just as it is for infants, who experience the body as a disordered sum of emotionally raw fragments. Thus, Artaud’s bouillabaisse drawings fulfill the project of his theater of cruelty (the title, in fact, of one of them). The process is painful, but, unexpectedly, the result is not particularly pleasurable and liberating: where the alchemy worked for Rimbaud, it unfortunately didn’t for Artaud. He never found paradise, for he had in effect drugged himself to death—the death he repeatedly talks about in his letters and manifestos.

In 1927, Artaud wrote that “what divides me from the Surrealists is that they love life as much as I despise it.” His portraits, of himself and others, do nothing to belie this statement. Artaud’s portraits are supposedly his most lucid, undeteriorated, intellectual works, as Rowell suggests, but they too have a disturbing symptomatic dimension. “In my unconscious it’s always other people that I hear,” Artaud wrote in 1946, and in his portraits they become the “inexplicable crimes inside [him]self,” incarnations of the “evil forces” of zeitgeist, as he wrote in 1933, that persecute him. To exorcise them by projection is not enough—he becomes the “torturer-executioner” that he conceived the director-author of the theater of cruelty to be. They are in effect effigies he cruelly abuses, explicitly, as the Portrait of Paule Thévenin or Paul with Irons, May 24, 1947, indicates, or implicitly, as the Portrait of Yves Thévenin, June 24, 1947, suggests. The more straightforward, dull faces—figures whose faces haven’t been cruelly treated (all but defaced) have the inert look of discarded masks. They remain intact, but their existence has been completely devalued.

In June 1947 Artaud wrote: “Not a single painter in the history of art, from Holbein to Ingres . . . has succeeded in making it talk, this face of man . . . Van Gogh only could make of the human head a portrait which has the bursting flare of a throbbing, exploded heart.” This can be regarded as a standard avant-garde repudiation of tradition and argument for modernism’s greater authenticity—the same made in favor of primitive art by Dubuffet, and Paul Gauguin before him. But Artaud’s portraits are nowhere as spontaneously expressive—authentically instinctive, passionate, primitive, irregular, nervy, unconventional—as those of Van Gogh. They lack not only the empirical power of those of Holbein and Ingres, but the emphatic insight of Van Gogh. Artaud identifies with him, as is clear from his essay Van Gogh, le suicidé de la societé (The man suicided by society, 1947) indicates, but his portraits are more belabored and above all much more theatrical than those of Van Gogh. Compared to the people in Van Gogh’s portraits, those in Artaud’s portraits appear to be acting—posturing, the way Artaud did on the stage and screen. They are like stone heads of medieval saints, and in fact form a theatrical tableau not unlike that of the saints at the portal of a medieval church. Only where they open the way to eternal life, Artaud’s portraits “provide,” as he said, “access to death.”

Artaud’s theater of cruelty is a posture meant to do away with all postures—a desperate attempt to escape from acting that becomes the ultimate act. It was an effort to elude what Lionel Trilling described as “the characteristic disease of the actor, the attenuation of selfhood that results from impersonation,” and arrive at authentic selfhood, but it was, after all, just more theater—impersonation. The heritage of Artaud, especially in his works on paper, is his pathetic self-deception and unremitting theatricality, which did exactly the opposite of what he intended it to do—break down the difference between art and life, or rather enlist art in the service of a more authentic self and intense life than seemed possible in modern society.

Artaud’s theatrical writings raise, however unwittingly, the question of whether art can really serve the self and life without falsifying them—the same modern question that, according to Clement Greenberg, Franz Kafka raised. The works on paper make the dark side of his theatrical ambition explicit: they leave us with a very modern sense of the angry futility of it all—no doubt a reflection of the angry futility of his effort to free himself from drugs—which turned into nihilistic hatred. Hatred ate him away from the inside: he, not other people, punched the holes in his face, and above all made them so theatrical. This, no doubt, is why his works on paper can be seen to have a peculiarly exemplary relevance in modern visual art.

Donald Kuspit’s most recent book is Idiosyncratic Identities: Artists at the End of the Avant-Garde, Cambridge University Press.