Anatomies in Action: Artaud’s Self-Portraits

Anatomies in Action

Who am I?

Where do I come from?

I am Antonin Artaud

and if I say it

as I know how to say it


you will see my present body

fly into pieces

and under ten thousand

notorious aspects

a new body

will be assembled

in which you will never again be able

to forget me.

- Artaud, The Theater of Cruelty

My drawings are anatomies in action.

- Artaud, Letter to Marc Barbezat, 21 August 1947

How are we to see Antonin Artaud’s self-portraits? How do the drawings of this actor, director, poet, visionary function? Within what tradition should we locate these works? What images precede them in Artaud’s eyes – how did Artaud learn to see – what tradition(s) shaped his hand and vision? And what is their legacy? What is it to see after Artaud’s drawings?

None of these questions can be answered definitively; they each open onto a speculative field, the space of the visionary. To narrow this field, my own speculation will focus on Artaud’s self-portraits rather than on his graphic work as a totality. In a moment of impossible reciprocity, hopefully my gaze will begin to reflect his own.

Across the variety of graphic works he produced – a variety that challenges any developmental or evolutionary interpretive strategy – Artaud’s style and subject matter(s) remain consistently fluid. Though he concentrates on abstract or conceptual images while confined at the asylum at Rodez and on portraits while at Ivry – and while one must admit that the drawings from each of these periods are undoubtedly consistent in their general style and effect – Artaud never permitted his graphic work to settle into a consistent format.

This is particularly remarkable given the stylistics of Artaud’s later – Rodez and post-Rodez – prose. In that writing, whether it be labeled poetry or prose, whether it be a letter or an essay on theater, literature (like his “Lettre sur Lautréamont” (1946)) or on visual art (like his essay on Van Gogh), Artaud’s literary style and general method remained markedly consistent rather than inconsistent. The lines of his prose came to be punctuated, or not, for rhythmic, rather than grammatical, effect; his language, often interrupted with passages of necessarily idiosyncratic glossolalia and studded with neologistic barbs, adopted the form of pure rhythmic force: The ideational content of words was ground to elemental bits through Artaud’s incessant mastication of language. The style Artaud invented in these late writings permitted him the widest of latitudes in subject-matter and rhythmic effect. Perhaps this very freedom explains his adoption of a consistent style of writing.

His graphic works however fail to settle into any equivalent mode. Passing from image to image in a catalogue of Artaud’s drawings, one searches in vain for any trajectory of development within the various periods. General statements can be made, developmental trends loosely identified, but the overall impression remains one of radical heterogeneity, stylelessness, discomfort.

This interpretation however is not shared by everyone. In her introduction to the selection of Artaud’s portraits from Ivry gathered in the catalogue from the Museum of Modern Art show of Artaud’s work, Agnès de la Beaumelle notices a mastery of craft in these late drawings: “Artaud,” she observes, “possessed, after leaving Rodez, a total mastery of his means of expression, oral and graphic.” Following Artaud’s description of his work, she notes that this mastery expressed itself through a “pitiful awkwardness of forms” (Artaud’s words), which was nonetheless “effective” (her word) (Rowell 90). The paradox at the center of this reading is striking: How are “mastery” and “awkwardness” related? And how can “awkwardness” be effective?

Within the context of the museum, the discourse of mastery and the master-work has been well-established. De la Beaumelle supports her use of this discourse in this case by observing compelling details of skill apparent in Artaud’s drawings. And indeed, such details are there to be observed. Particularly in the portraits drawn at Ivry, Artaud’s handling of his materials can be highly proficient and professional. His use of shading and the careful yet assured articulation of his strokes do indicate something like a “mastery” of this medium.

Yet the drawings themselves remain inconsistent. The portraits drawn in late 1946 – those of Sima Feder, of Florence Loeb, and the self-portrait from December 17, 1946, in particular –  stand out as highly accomplished, realistically drawn portraits. They are signed and dated in keeping with the demands of the art establishment and present themselves as finished “works”. And yet, one hesitates over even these images: the faces are not centered on the page, the heads include no necks or necks that seem to drift off, or dangle as threads of viscera hanging from the seemingly severed objects.

Nor does the œuvre as a whole suggest a developmental trend based on an increasing mastery of means. The standard art historical model suggests a period of juvenilia, in which an artist has yet to master their medium, followed by a period of maturity, during which the artist has gained control or their medium to a degree which permits them to develop and deploy a unique or “signature” style. While Artaud’s early graphic works – from the 1910s and 1920s – certainly qualify as juvenilia, his later works, as I have suggested, hardly reveal themselves as characterized by anything like a consistent style or even range of aesthetic concerns. The drawings from Rodez share almost nothing with those from Ivry. And, significantly, those of Ivry, while obviously related to one another, and obviously born of similar aesthetic concerns, remain radically discontinuous. Artaud’s styles and devices multiply rather than becoming more refined as his work progresses. The later drawings from Ivry seem no more self-assured than the earlier drawings.

Many factors might explain this phenomenon. Most obviously, Artaud undoubtedly executed drawings, early and late, with greater and lesser degrees of attentiveness. The minimalist, sketch-like quality evidenced by the single lines that articulate the portrait of Rolande Prevel from August 20, 1946 might be compared to the single lines which constitute the self-portrait of December 1947. Similarly, the self-assured portraits of late 1946 might be compared with the rather accomplished portrait of Georges Pastier from December 1947. We might understand the sketch-like portraits as having been dashed off as it were, while the others benefited from a more extended attention to points of detail and nuances of shading. Yet, for all the obviousness of this observation, this too strikes me as unsatisfactory. The self-portrait of December 1947 includes non-realistic scratches and lines of force that are absent from the portrait of Rolande Prevel as well as from the other drawings of late 1946. These deep lines give this image a decidedly abstract, iconic power. This self-portrait is drawn from the front rather than the customary three-quarter view as is the case in the other portraits; and this full frontal view only adds to the flattened, abstract quality of the image. Here the minimalist power of the image follows not from its quality as a quick sketch, as is the case in the works of Constantin Guys so famously celebrated by Baudelaire, but rather from a kind of iconic reduction performed on the self here portrayed. This is not a timeless moment torn from the present, as in Guys, but rather the eradication of time from the sense of the image. But does the work depict an abstraction of the self or is something else at work in these images? And why does Artaud fail to settle into a consistent style?

Artaud is absolutely clear on this point. In the catalogue essay he wrote for his show at the Galerie Pierre he tells us: “I’ve deliberately broken with art, style or skill in the drawings that one will see here. I mean there’ll be trouble for those who consider them works of art, works of aesthetic simulation of reality. Not one properly speaking is a work, all are sketches, I mean soundings or gropes in all the directions of accident, of possibility, of chance or of destiny.”[i] Elsewhere he claims: “My drawings are not drawings but documents. You must look at them and understand what’s inside.”[ii]

One way to understand Artaud’s appeal to the practice of “soundings or grop[ings]” in his art is to remember that, for Artaud, – speaking in terms of theatrical language in Le Théâtre et son Double – “an expression does not have the same value twice […] all words once spoken are read and function only at the moment when they are uttered, that a form, once it has served, cannot be used again and ask only to be replaced by another” (75). In order to be effective, then, images, like words, and the stylistic gestures that create images, must be singular, they cannot be perfected through trial and error.

Extending this notion, one can say that Artaud goes so far as to deny himself the cultivation of mastery. The mastery of one’s means requires repetition, it requires the artist to practice a particular gesture or trope – the use of a word, the motion of the body, the fixity of an expression – over and over again until that gesture or trope has been solidified as in some ideal state. Think of a soldier: soldiers are trained so that they do not have to think, every action and expression has become “second nature.” For Artaud, this type of training toward mastery, this carefully cultivated repetition only illustrates the emptiness of this world: our bodies do not belong to us, but rather we are animated by images and ideas which seem to be beyond our control; we are motivated from without.

Leaving aside the above-mentioned notion of “what’s inside” a drawing for the moment: Note that Artaud, in his catalogue essay, claims to have “deliberately broken with art, style, or skill”. This is to say, once again, that his drawings respond, however negatively, to the tradition of Western art. Taking Artaud’s assertion that he has “broken with art, style, or skill” as a concept, one may posit the notion of a “breaking-with” (my phrase) traditional forms and styles of representation. This notion is significant, and can be extended beyond the problems of art history. In that same catalogue essay, Artaud claims: “In the portraits I have drawn I have above all avoided forgetting the nose the mouth the eyes the ears or the hair, but I’ve sought to force the face that was talking to me to reveal the secret.”[iii] In other words, “breaking-with”, for Artaud, means making art in response to the tradition, which is to say, against the tradition, and it also means making representations – what Artaud would call “doubles” –  in response to or against the actual physical body of his sitter. On this point Artaud claims: “I had made up my mind to coax out those forms, lines, outlines, shadows, colors, features that […] would represent nothing and would moreover not claim to be integrated in accordance with whatsoever visual and material law, but would create, as it were, above the paper a kind of counter-figure which would be an on-going protest against the laws of the created object”[iv] Artaud’s portraits should not be taken as mere images, or simulations of the reality of his sitters, but rather as counter-figures, doubles, of his sitters, images made against the image of the sitter.

In this way one can understand the tremendous violence of Artaud’s portrait art: Artaud’s portraits are portraits of violation as well as being the violation of portraits. His sitter’s images are crushed, the faces are flattened and bent, noses are extended and given lumps, heads are misshapen, features are under-emphasized or even erased, sometimes half of the head is missing, skins are scorched with cigarette burns, or with the graphite knots of plague buboes, cheeks are bloated, colors engulf the images in fire and the sky-blue of pure energy, setting them off against themselves and against the page. These are images of cruelty in the sense Artaud gives to this word because “it is cruelty that cements matter together, cruelty that molds the features of the created world. Good is always upon the outer face, but the face within is evil. Evil which will eventually be reduced, but at the supreme instant when everything that was form will be on the point of returning to chaos.”[v] Artaud’s drawings, both his drawings from Rodez and his portraits, require conflict for the articulation of their meanings.

Cruelty, for Artaud, is a function of the meeting place of meaning and form. It is the embodiment of sense as both idea and affect. Yet embodiment, or rather the body, is itself the problem. For Artaud, the body is always the body in pain. It is always already a body at odds with itself, seemingly occupied or animated from without. It is a mutilated body suffering incessantly from a certain lack, a lack caused the violent split between mind and body, between idea and affect. Salvation entails a making whole of this damaged body. For Artaud, “the mutilated body is this stomach of misery that is always seeking to reassemble itself.”[vi] The project of reassembling the human body is the project of remaking the human body. Artaud deploys his art, in all its manifestations, toward this singular purpose. “True theater,” he writes in his poem-essay Theater and Science, “has always seemed to me the exercise of a dangerous and terrible act. […] The act I’m talking about aims for a true organic and physical transformation of the human body. […] Theater is this crucible of fire and real meat where by an anatomical trampling of bone, limbs and syllables bodies are renewed and the mythical act of making a body presents itself physically and plainly.”[vii] Here again one can see the notion of cruelty at work: the “anatomical trampling of bone, limbs and syllables” which “makes the body” is a cruel act of embodiment, of giving form to matter. Note too that Artaud’s practice of cruelty incorporates images, sounds and the body, and that this body is, significantly, a shattered body of separated limbs, like the body of Osiris, torn to pieces and reassembled. Artaud’s art is an art of the body and of the voice: “There is in my drawings a sort of musical morality that I have made by living my strokes, not only with the hand but with the rasping of the breath of my trachea and the teeth of my mastication.”[viii] The images are chewed over, spit on the page. In a letter to Dr. Ferdière, Artaud described his process still more precisely: “The sentences I wrote on the drawing I gave you I sought out syllable by syllable, out loud while working, to see if the verbal sonorities capable of aiding the comprehension of the one looking at my drawing had been found.”[ix] Artaud had already expressed this notion and goal in another media altogether : theater. In Le Théâtre et son Double, he wrote: “The overlapping of images and movements will culminate, through the collision of objects, silences, shouts, and rhythms, or in a genuine physical language with signs, not words, as its root”( 124). The conflicts of text and image, of images and ideas, ultimately collapse in the realm of force. Images convey not form but force.

Artaud’s drawings, like his theater and his poetry, tend toward the eradication of aesthetic boundaries. His drawings include texts not in a supplementary fashion: the texts do not complete the drawing, they compete with it, they disrupt its sense: sounds and images collide, the meaning of the image cannot be confined to the page. “The drawings of which I am speaking to you are full of larval forms, in the stumbling itself of the pencil’s line, and I wanted them to work in concert with each other so that with the colors, the shadows, and their emphases the whole would become valid and singular.”[x] The singularity of Artaud’s images remains a consistent and constant goal.

Related to this one must understand Artaud’s drawings not as sketches made toward the later execution of some master-image or some final “complete” drawing of some subject. Artaud’s drawings are always sketches: not sketches like those made by Constantin Guys, but rather cruel gropings, gestures, or jabs at his subject. He says: “I haven’t sought to take great pains with my lines or their effects but rather to inventory the kinds of patent linear truths which are as valid through words, through written phrases, as through the graphism and perspective of lines. It is in this way that several drawings are a mixture of poems and portraits, of written interjections and plastic evocations of fundamental materials of human beings or animals.”[xi] The lines and points of the drawings do not converge but overlap, conflict. They remain “interstitial” and in the interstices the emotion that generated the drawing appears. This is what Artaud means by the “inside” of the drawing. The viewer “must superadd [surajouter] this primal emotion subordinated by nature on pain of becoming no more than an incompetent illiterate.”[xii] Artaud’s drawings draw their viewer in, they require the participation of the viewer, not merely through the viewer’s suspension of disbelief, as is required in tromp l’oeil imagery, but through the viewer’s bodily response to the material forces of the images, sounds, and ideas of the art. This is a question not only of imagination but of affect. It is a question of form, meaning the materiality of the images, sounds, and ideational content, as force.

This affective participation characterizes not only Artaud’s drawings but his theater of cruelty as well. In Le Théâtre et son Double, he writes: “The theater, far from copying life, puts itself whenever possible in communication with pure forces. And whether you accept or deny them, there is nevertheless a way of speaking which gives the name of ‘forces’ to whatever brings to birth images of energy in the unconscious, and gratuitous crime on the surface. […] A violent and concentrated action is a kind of lyricism: it summons up supernatural images, a bloodstream of images, a bleeding spurt of images in the poet’s head and in the spectator’s as well” (82). “A gesture,” he says, “carries its energy with it” (81).

Artaud’s art offers a study in conflicts and contradictions, the paper or page becomes a field for the infinite play of forces. The incompleteness of his images, the tears and ruptures on the surface of the sheets, the violence and defacement which characterizes these faces, all of these features open a space of testimony – meaning a space into which the viewer must insert themselves, as both affect and imagination – to the human condition.

The images and texts, the ideas and physical forms on the page, the sounds of the words and syllables conflict with and disrupt one another in an intertextual  delirium. Speaking of his drawing “La maladresse sexuelle de dieu” (The Sexual awkwardness of god), Artaud says: “This drawing is intentionally spoiled, thrown on the page in contempt of forms and lines, in order to show contempt for the original idea and to succeed in neutralizing it.”[xiii] The awkwardness of the drawing, its stylessness – whether conceived as a refusal of or revolt against style – does mirror the subject-matter of the drawing as this subject is stated in the title the sexual awkwardness of god. But this modernist mimetic doubling – in which the form of the work repeats the content of the work – opens onto an even more troubling agon. Here, and in Artaud’s art in general, text and image at once cohere and do not cohere, the heterogeneity of the word and the image remains irreducible. The caption at once extends and undermines the sense of the image. Meaning, as idea, collapses into meaning as infinite struggle.

The cruelty of Artaud’s art consists in its relentless reduction of consciousness as idea to consciousness as force. Speaking of Lucas van den Leyden’s “The Daughter’s of Lot” in Le Théâtre et son Double, Artaud tells us how a painting should work: “It seems as if the painter possessed certain secrets of linear harmony, certain means of making that harmony affect the brain directly, like a physical agent” (35). One is reminded of Francis Bacon’s famous question as to why “some paint comes across directly onto the nervous system and other paint tells you the story in a long diatribe with the brain.”[xiv] Artaud’s art represents a search for an answer to that same question. His art making is a search for texts and images, for sounds and ideas that work directly on the nervous system, and through this direct intervention in forms and forces of the human body, to reassemble or heal the shattered or broken body – the body broken by spirits, by ideas – that characterizes the human condition. “The goal of all these drawn and colored figures was to exorcise the curse, to vituperate bodily against the exigencies of spatial form, of perspective, of measure, of equilibrium, of dimension and, via this vituperative act of protest, to condemn, the psychic world which, like a crab louse, digs its way into the physical, and, like an incubus or succubus, claims to have formed it.”[xv]

How is this strategy visible in his self-portraits?

Controversy surrounds Artaud’s turn to self-portraiture. Following Thévenin’s catalogue raisonnée in his article “The Art of the Crack-Up”, Sylvère Lotringer observes that “Artaud’s portraits started with his self-portrait, but it is significant that other faces or bodies are present as well at the bottom of his, poked by the same marks, repulsive and deadly like his own with one eye looking blankly and the other wide open in the direction of the viewer.”[xvi] Lotringer is referring to Artaud’s composite portrait of May 11, 1946 (Thévenin cat. no. 69, Rowell cat. no. 32). The image presents an uneven triangular grouping of heads: Artaud’s self-portrait, seen directly from the front, occupies the high center of the paper while four smaller heads are grouped below. To the left on this lower rank an older woman or man’s face is presented in three-quarter view. Two smaller, almost comically abstract faces occupy the center, while a smaller version of what may be Artaud’s face, again seen from the front, is placed on the right. All of the faces on this page are covered in circular “knots” of concentrated graphite, as though Artaud were trying to rub his way through the image. These “knots”, already present in other drawings, may represent the famous buboes which characterize the flesh of the plague victim, celebrated by Artaud in his Sorbonne lecture, “Le Théâtre et la peste” (1933). The features of the two self-portraits here demarcated by forcefully dark lines, cross-hatched and re-drawn in over-emphasis. Drawn in this way the facial features – the lines of the forehead, of the brow, the bridge of the nose – appear as wounds or scars, as openings in the skin rather than as finely sculpted features. Yet other features, and the entire portrait at the bottom left, are left as only light sketches, barely articulated. The self-portrait on the bottom right includes what appear to be two large pins or needles like those used in acupuncture, one inserted in the nose from below the face to our left, the other into the chin from directly below. The eyes of each of the five images are over-emphasized, the pupils ringed in black.

In the catalogue, this image appears between “Les Corps de terre” (Earth’s bodies) dated may 3, 1946, and the portrait now widely known as “La Tête bleue” (The Blue Head) dated with only the month of May, 1946. “Les Corps de terre” continues many of the motifs common in the drawings from Rodez: stick figures or merely crooked lines are set-off among anatomical features – in this case more or less realistically drawn hands, feet and a skull – vague symbols, and a short dedicatory text. “La Tête bleue” presents a highly abstract female face in three-quarter view. The elongated face seems drawn on the brink of dissolution: the left side of the image includes shadings and lines of shadow drawn to such an excess that, along with the other elements of motion characterizing the drawing, the face seems as though it were drawn in sand, hovering on the edge of the wind, waiting to be torn away from itself into the collapse of all form. The images prior to “Les Corps de terre” include no portraits, only drawings done in the style Artaud developed at Rodez. After “La Tête bleue”, Artaud, released to Ivry, would concentrate his graphic work on portraiture almost entirely.

In light of these remarks, the composite self-portrait of 11 May 1946 does seem to mark a significant turning point in Artaud’s graphic oeuvre, as Lotringer suggests. Leaving aside the possibility, indeed the high likelihood, that this drawing represents the only surviving drawing from that moment rather than the singular product of that moment – I have already discussed reasons why we should believe this to be the case –, several observations may nonetheless be made. One may note the continuity of this image with Artaud’s other drawings: the “knots” studding the faces were present in previous drawings of human anatomical parts, the composite nature of this image anticipates the composite images that Artaud would execute in the final months of his life, etc. Thus while the image fits neatly into the continuum of Artaud’s graphic works, it also marks a turning point between the earlier abstract studies and the later portraits. For Lotringer, as noted, it is highly significant that this drawing be a self-portrait. It is as though, in his reading, the step or turn between the abstract drawings and the later portraits of himself and others, could only be made by means of this moment of self-appraisal. This reading tempts one to interpret the abstractions from Rodez as representing some form of “inner” realm, while the later portraits clearly refer to the world around him in highly specific ways. It is as though the abstractions represent some inner “self” constituted through the imaging of some ideational content, however idiosyncratic, while the later portraits shift the focus from images of this “self” to images of others. This interpretation is of course satisfied with the knowledge that Artaud rejoined society, as it were, through his release from Rodez during the very month of May 1946 when he executed this drawing.

Yet this interpretation remains unsatisfying to some. While the features of the principle figure and of the smaller image on the bottom right strongly resemble Artaud’s features, it has been suggested that only convention determines this portrait as a self-portrait. Now in a private collection, Dr. Gaston Ferdière reportedly obtained this image directly from Artaud’s hands immediately following its execution by the artist at Rodez. Dr. Ferdière, the story goes, asked Artaud to sign and date this self-portrait in keeping with the practices of the art market, and Artaud did so. Significantly however, Artaud did not title the image himself. It is only the strong resemblance of the principle figures features to Artaud’s features and Dr. Ferdière’s word that designate this image as a self-portrait.

The curator Florence de Mérédieu, for her part, in Portraits et gris-gris, writes of this portrait: “Always designated until now as a self-portrait of Antonin Artaud, the drawing seems to us rather to represent Dr. Ferdière surrounded by his medical team. Questioned exactly on this point, Gaston Ferdière does not entirely rule out this possibility, even specifying that the person on the bottom left is no other than Madame Rouquette in charge of the pharmacy at Rodez.”[xvii] Paule Thévenin, for her part, denies this possibility in “The Search for a Lost World.” In support of her view, Thévenin appeals to the testimony of Dr. Jean Dequeker as well as Dr. Ferdière’s previous testimony and, further, to the clear resemblance of these features of these faces not only to Artaud’s actual features, as she remembers them, as they may be seen in photographs, and as they are depicted by Artaud in other images that are clearly and distinctly self-portraits (51).

Yet another dissenting view can be found in Stephen Barber’s Artaud: The Screaming Body. For Barber “it becomes evident from viewing photographs taken in the same month of Artaud and Ferdière sitting together in the asylum grounds that the drawing is a vehement struggle of the identities of Artaud and Ferdière within the image. The face in the drawing distinctly resembles both that of Artaud and of his psychiatrist. […] Artaud compacts his identity and that of Ferdière together, in order to dissolve and finally negate the noxious presence of Ferdière and his power over Artaud’s life. Through the drawing, Artaud’s own identity visually and materially resurges.”[xviii] Barber cites the same text by Jean Dequeker that Thévenin cites, this time in support of the argument that the portrait represents neither only Dr. Ferdière, as Florence de Mérédieu suggests, nor only Artaud, as Thévenin suggests, but rather both of them. In Barber’s view, the execution of the drawing itself stages a conflict of identities from which, again in Barber’s view, Artaud’s identity “resurges”. This compromise position is compelling. But it remains unclear. How does such a struggle take place? And why should we assume that Artaud’s identity “resurges”, whatever that means, when the only evidence we have in support of such a notion is the fact that Dr. Ferdière claims this drawing represents a self-portrait of Artaud? In other words, if our interpretation of the drawing was initially complicated by the notion that this was not a portrait of Artaud at all, how can we simply correct this view by claiming that the drawing is a conflict of identities from which Artaud’s identity ultimately “resurges” victorious? The only evidence we have for such a claim is that the portrait has been labeled a self-portrait.

Without rejecting Barber’s reading tout court, it would seem that another, very similar, compromise position is possible. Sylvère Lotringer observes, speaking of Artaud’s portraits in general rather than of the particular portrait now under consideration: “Virtually all the portraits Artaud made, those of people he knew well or loved, those he hardly knew, are as much his own doubles as those of the people themselves. […] Artaud had become aware that the Other of the self is his worst enemy because it imposes a mask of sociality over the face. Artaud’s portraits are an attempt to tear down the mask”(199). In this reading, applied to the portrait currently under consideration, Artaud’s drawings are structured as doubles of both self and other, in which the image is deployed in such a way as to disrupt any pre-existing, stable image of self as well as any stable image of the other. The portrait represents an image – a double – sent out from self so as to occupy and transform, or rather collapse, one may even say crucify, the image of other. Artaud’s portraits, including his self-portraits can be understood, according to this view, as enacting Rimbaud’s famous dictum “I is an other.” Identification ultimately becomes impossible. In such images one is always and necessarily a stranger to oneself. These ideas can be developed more precisely through reference to Artaud’s own comments on the visual arts.

Artaud himself advances a similar interpretation in regard to a painting by Balthus of the actress Iya Abdy: “This is Iya Abdy’s face,” he writes, “these are her hands that the light devours, but another being, who is Balthus, seems to be behind this face, and in this body, like a sorcerer who seduces a woman with his soul.” This is not strange he claims because : “All painters bring their anatomy, their physiology, their saliva, their flesh, their blood, their sperm, their vices, their sexual diseases, their pathology, their prudishness, their health, their character, their personality or their madness into their works.”[xix] The painter takes their body with them into the world; the painter sees with the entirety of their body. The image is a meeting point, a point of reversibility, between the painter’s own body of affects and the senses and sensations provoked by the reality of the image in question. [xx] For Artaud, this is not a question of spiritual disembodiment, but rather of a war on the possibility of disembodiment. Artaud does not seek to formulate images or ideas of the world; his art is not a “simulation of reality”. Rather, it is a quest for an impossible embodiment: the meeting, via an image or combination of image and text, of at least two material bodies, those of Artaud and of the spectator. Here again the notion of cruelty returns. It should be remembered that the practice of cruelty, for Artaud, leaves no one on the side of innocence: “In the practice of cruelty there is a kind of higher determinism, to which the executioner-tormenter himself is subjected and which he must be determined to endure when the time comes. Cruelty is above all lucid, a kind of rigid control and submission to necessity. There is no cruelty without consciousness and without the application of consciousness.”[xxi]

Artaud outlines the portraitist’s task in “Le Visage humain…” : “The human face in effect carries a kind of perpetual death with it from which it’s really up to the painter to save it by giving it back its [ses] own particular features.”[xxii] Later in the same text, Artaud shifts his emphasis slightly but significantly: “Only Van Gogh was able to draw out of a human head a portrait which was the explosive rocket of the beating of a buried heart. / His own.” A confirmation of this interpretation, if such confirmation is needed, may be found in a statement Artaud wrote on one of his portraits. He wrote: “I am still terribly romantic like this drawing which represents me, in fact, too well, and I am weak, a weakness”. What is interesting about this statement is that it appears not on a self-portrait, as would seem to be indicated, but on Artaud’s Portrait of Jany de Ruy (See Rowell cat. no. 56[xxiii]).[xxiv] Whether or not one reads the first quote as referring to the artist’s own self-portrait, the second quote obviously places the burden of proof and the power of the image on a self-portrait. This is not to prioritize the self-portrait within Artaud’s oeuvre or thought – given the relative lack of attention Artaud showed this type of portraiture such an assertion would be absurd[xxv] – but it does shift our vision slightly in regard to all of Artaud’s other drawings. Every drawing must be seen as retaining or maintaining the trace of the artist’s hand and body, the artist’s vision.

But where should this assertion stop? If all painters bring their anatomy into their work, where does this anatomy end? Artaud himself speaks to his problem. He claims to have included inanimate objects, trees and animals in his drawings as a limit point for human projection and identification. Such things are necessary for him because, as he says, “I’m still not sure of the limits at which the body of the human self can stop”[xxvi] At stake here is the risk of total identification with the world, a risk entailing the collapse of the autonomous ego and a schizophrenic breakdown of delirious misrecognition. As one descends into madness, and identification through (mis)recognition increases the material horizon expands, the very horizon of our landscape becomes infinitely meaningful.

Of his portraits, and as we have already seen, Artaud wrote: “I had made up my mind to coax out those forms, lines, outlines, shadows, colors, features that […] would represent nothing and would moreover not claim to be integrated in accordance with whatsoever visual and material law, but would create, as it were, above the paper a kind of counter-figure which would be an on-going protest against the laws of the created object”[xxvii] Artaud’s portraits should not be taken as mere images, or simulations of the reality of his sitters, but rather as counter-figures, doubles, of his sitters, images made against the image of the sitter. In reading this quote now, at the end of my attempt to understand these drawings, I am struck by his insistence that these drawings represent “nothing”. These doubles ultimately seem to dissolve on the page before us.

Artaud’s goal is to remake the human body. His drawings are weapons in that task. He says: “I have the idea of putting into operation a new gathering together of the activity of the human world: the idea of a new anatomy./ My drawings are anatomies in action.”[xxviii] Anatomies here must be understood in the plural. At least three figures are at stake: Artaud himself, extending his consciousness as material force into the space of his sitter, the material force of the sitter, whether that sitter is Artaud or someone else, and our own material affect as viewers encountering the work. Anatomies here includes Artaud and us, forceful connected by means of an image.

Yet this structure itself betrays its own premises. The world still remains at one remove from us, the direct contact with our nerves Artaud sought remains confounded in an image. Our life is still not lived directly. The human face still has not found its form.


[i] Jack Hirschman, ed Artaud Anthology, op. cited, pg. 233.

[ii] Antonin Artaud “Mes dessins ne sont pas des dessins…” (1946) in Antonin Artaud Oeuvres complètes vol. XXI, op. cited, pg. 266.

[iii] Jack Hirschman, ed Artaud Anthology, op. cited, pg. 232.

[iv] Antonin Artaud “Les Figures sur la page inerte” in Rowell, ed. Antonin Artaud: Works on Paper, op. cited, pg. 42.

[v] Antonin Artaud The Theater and Its Double trans. Mary Caroline Richards (New York: Grove Press, 1958) pg. 104.

[vi] Antonin Artaud Oeuvres complètes vol. XIV *, op. cited, pg. 26.

[vii] Jack Hirschman, ed. Artaud Anthology, op. cited, pg. 169.

[viii] Antonin Artaud “Mes Dessins ne sont pas des dessins…” op. cited, pg. 266.

[ix] Letter to Dr. Ferdière, 28 February 1946. Antonin Artaud Oeuvres complètes vol. XI, op. cited.

[x] Antonin Artaud Oeuvres complètes vol. XIV *, op. cited, pg. 77.

[xi] Jack Hirschman, ed. Artaud Anthology, op. cited, pg. 233.

[xii] Antonin Artaud “Mes Dessins ne sont pas des dessins…” op. cited.

[xiii] Antonin Artaud Oeuvres complètes vol. XX, op. cited, pg. 173.

[xiv] David Sylvester The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon (London: Thames and Hudson, 1995) pg. 18.

[xv] Antonin Artaud “Les Figures sur la page inerte …” in Rowell, ed. Antonin Artaud: Works on Paper, op. cited., pg. 42.

[xvi] Sylvère Lotringer “The Art of the Crack-Up” in Edward Scheer, ed. 100 Years of Cruelty: Essays on Artaud (Sydney: Power Publications and Artspace, 2000) pg. 198.

[xvii] Florence de Mérédieu Portraits et gris-gris (Paris: Editions Blusson, 1984) pg 69. Quoted in Paule Thévenin “The Search for a Lost World” in Derrida and Thévenin The Secret Art of Antonin Artaud, op. cited., pg 50.

[xviii] Stephen Barber Artaud: The Screaming Body (London: Creation Books, 1999) pgs. 57-59.

[xix] Antonin Artaud Oeuvres complètes vol. V, op. cited, pgs. 43-44.

[xx] These sentences rely on language and ideas developed by Maurice Merleau-Ponty in his essay “Eye and Mind”. See Maurice Merleau-Ponty The Primacy of Perception ed and trans. James M. Edie et alia (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964) pgs. 159-190.

[xxi] Antonin Artaud The Theater and Its Double, op. cited, pg. 102.

[xxii] This text has been translated three times by three different people. The full passage in French reads: “Le visage humain porte en effet une espèce de mort perpétuelle sur son visage dont c’est au peintre justement à la sauver en lui rendant ses propres traits” (in Rowell, op. cited, pg 95). Jack Hirschman renders the final phrase of this passage “It’s up to the painter to save it by giving it back his own peculiar features” (Artaud Anthology, op. cited, pg. 230), while Clayton Eshleman renders the conclusion of that phrase “to save it in giving its own features back to it” (Watchfiends and Rack Screams pg. 277). Roger McKeon, for his part, renders the phrase “to save it from by restoring its own features” (in Rowell pg. 95). Each version of the phrase includes significant errors and awkwardnesses, yet Eshleman and McKeon agree, against Hirschman, that “ses” should be rendered as “its” rather than “his”. In their versions, the face is rendered with “its features” rather than with the features of the artist. This confusion is possible through the ambiguity of the French original. For this reason I have confined these remarks to a note rather than including them in the body of my text.

[xxiii] Agnès de la Beaumelle discusses this image on page 92.

[xxiv] An alternate reading of this same text and image combination might suggest that Artaud is merely recognizing himself or identifying with Jany de Ruy’s “weakness” as represented in the image. The structure of the sentence and the rest of his aesthetic philosophy, as I have attempted to reconstruct it here, hopefully place a stronger burden on the interpretation I advance in the body of my text.

[xxv] Of the 116 drawings include in Antonin Artaud: Dessins et Portraits, ten self-portraits may be classed as juvenilia while nine may be classed as mature drawings, which is to say these nine have come down to us from the work produced between 1946 and 1948.

[xxvi] Jack Hirschman, ed. Artaud Anthology, op. cited, pg. 232.

[xxvii] Antonin Artaud “Les Figures sur la page inerte” in Rowell, ed. Antonin Artaud: Works on Paper, op. cited, pg. 42.

[xxviii] Antonin Artaud, L’Arve et L’Aume Suivi de 24 Lettres à Marc Barbezat (letter of 21 August 1947) (Décines: L’Arbalète Éditeur, 1989) pg. 82.

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