The French playwright, critic and artist Antonin Artaud (1896-1948) is a difficult figure to classify. An arsonist and self-proclaimed “crazyhe helped usher in a new era of experimental theater in the early 20th century, calling for shocking appeals to the senses to reawaken critical audience engagement. While his name may not be a touchstone for mainstream audiences, he did manage to cast a shadow over theatre, criticism and the arts, laying the groundwork for the unnerving violence of films like mother! and the baroque brutality of television series such as The Handmaid’s Tale. Whenever a body is degraded on screen, you can be sure that Artaud is there.
While his critical writings form the backbone of his reputation, most notably his collection of essays from 1938 The theater and its double, Artaud’s activities were many and varied. Collecting works of art last exhibited in 1996, Antonin Artaud: Drawings and Portraits (The MIT Press), by Jacques Derrida and Paule Thévenin and translated by Mary Ann Caws, is an opportunity to take stock of Artaud’s little-known production: the drawings he made in the last years of his life, after nearly a decade in various mental asylums, where he underwent electroconvulsive therapy. Spanning a period of more than 20 years, the works – both terrifying and beautiful – are a devastating record of a soul clinging to the page and an artist nearing the end of his life trying to bind himself to himself and the tortured ramblings. which constituted his theories.
Artaud spent much of his adult life shuttling from asylum to asylum, with intense bouts of writing in between and lectures culminating in screaming. Her friend Paule Thévenin manages, with her introduction to the book, to restore order in the chaos. Thévenin lucidly traces the development of Artaud’s interest in the graphic arts, as well as artistic movements such as Impressionism and Fauvism, and the evocative, sometimes moody, landscapes of Edvard Munch. In the early 1920s, Artaud designed costumes and stage sets for Charles Dullin’s studio company in Paris, but he eventually ceased his graphic work. When he returned to drawing nearly 20 years later, his work had a startlingly different character.
The visceral act of expression itself was paramount to Artaud; the technical execution was secondary in communicating the profound and vital character of the artist. In his later work this philosophy would become complicated as he would sometimes produce works that were deliberately raw, testing the force of expression by subjecting it to the brutal blows of a broken craft. This method found its best expression in his so-called “spells”, mixtures of text and image that Artaud began producing after suffering a nervous breakdown on a trip to Ireland in 1937. These frantic epistolary outbursts testify to his attempt to heighten the physicality of his writing. When Artaud was later institutionalized, his doctor cited the “spells” as evidence of mental illness. Burned with matches and cigarettes and branded with crosses, infinity signs, and other abstruse symbols, these brutalized scraps of paper were, at bottom, garish pretensions to existence.
After the spells came a series of portraits of Artaud’s acquaintances, as well as enigmatic mixtures of symbols and bodies in which a maniacal graphic design invades the page. In 1945’s “Being and Its Fetus”, we see bones, intestines and a woman exploded into geometric shapes, while in 1947’s “Portrait of Colette Thomas”, we witness the beginning of the decomposition of the face. human at Artaud. It is difficult to escape the impression that these images are not an appendix to Artaud’s work. artwork as much as the consumption of it. His lifelong thematic obsessions – the flagellation of the body, the amalgamation of the scatological and the divine – express themselves on the page with all the rancor and destructive force that eluded him in his theatrical productions. Artaud’s last works, a series of distorted self-portraits, see him turning these themes to a new end. These self-portraits seem to be an attempt to recompose his broken sense of self after the violence of his therapy; characteristically, his self-proclaimed cure was more violent. In a self-portrait of December 17, 1946, Artaud’s head hovers in the center of the page, as if decapitated. Another self-portrait, from May 11, shows his face seemingly stricken with rot; sharp holes from pencil strokes pierce the image.
If the book as a whole has a weakness, it is that the clinical background of these images—Artaud’s famous stay in the Rodez psychiatric hospital, for example—is only touched upon, which leaves important questions unanswered. To what extent should our interpretation of artworks be grounded in Artaud’s aesthetic philosophy and to what extent should it take into account his bouts of mental illness? Thévenin, whose introduction was certainly written in 1986 as part of a collection of critical essays on Artaud, seems to prefer the first. Similarly, the volume’s concluding essay, written in 1986 by Jacques Derrida at the suggestion of Thévenin, in whose apartment he first saw some of Artaud’s drawings, renounces a discussion of details in favor of further digging into the theory. Admittedly, separating the man from the madman is particularly difficult with Artaud, his feverish writings often being directly born of his illness. The question of whether we should regard spells as art at all, whether his self-portraits are an embodiment of his theory or proof of illness, remains, unfortunately, elusive. And what would that say about his theory anyway, if its faithful execution required a descent into madness?
In the end, perhaps the most touching image in the whole book is not a drawing by Artaud, but a set of two photos showing him sitting with his friend Minouche Pastier at a bus stop. Artaud folds his right hand, holding a pencil, behind his back and presses the pencil against his back. Apparently, this was a common pose for Artaud, who battled pain in his “stick” body.[ing] inside the point of his pencil or his knife, pressing continuously for several minutes”, according to Thévenin. In these photos, we seem to grasp all of Artaud’s late art: the violence of the pen both marking and alleviating the pain of the body.