The Ciphers of Chantal: Corinne Rondeau Plunges into the “Akermanian Night,” now at the Cinematheque

chantal dis moi smallChantal Akerman, “Dis Moi.” Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2018 Paul Ben-Itzak
(Except translated citation, copyright Editions de l’éclat)

For Nancy Kanach, M., and Katharine, teachers unafraid to call me on myself.

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While my main subject here is Corinne Rondeau’s new book “Chantal Akerman passer la nuit,” through March 2 Chantal Akerman is also the subject of a retrospective at the Cinematheque Française in Paris.

As an American who has always looked upon France as the Valhalla of Intellect and Reason, of Art and Culture, it’s been painful to hear the clarion call of Camus and Godard, of Dutronc and Brassens, of Pissarro and Cocteau, of Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril, of Claude Cahun and Man Ray, of Renoir and Renoir, of Voltaire and Misia Sert almost entirely drowned out by the obsession with terrorism, Islam, and immigration which has dominated the public airwaves since the criminal massacre of 130 innocents on the café terraces and in the concert halls and stadiums of Paris and Saint-Denis of November 13, 2015. It’s as if, like their New York colleagues (Susan Sontag was a brave exception) after September 11, 2001 — witness the New York Times’s supine readiness to enable the Bush-Cheney chicaneries whenever the pendulum of “national security” was dangled before its eyes — French radio journalists have been infected with a kind of survivor’s syndrome which prevents them from analyzing events, be they cultural or civic, political or societal, outside of these paradigms. (Living in the East of Paris when and where the terrorists struck on November 13, I haven’t been immune to this syndrome, since that day often interpreting events through the prism of my own fears.) On Radio France’s putatively high-brow chain, France Culture, it’s gotten to the point where one is cumulatively more likely to hear the words Islam, immigration, terrorism, jihad, and their various derivatives than the words France and Culture, particularly on the news programs. The exceptions have been the world affairs program Culture Monde and Arnaud Laporte’s panel discussion “La Dispute,” which considers a different art form every evening. (Theater and dance Monday, music Tuesday, the plastic arts Wednesday, literature including comics Thursday, and film and t.v. series Friday, should you want to check it out, at 1 p.m. EST. Link below.) If all the knights and ladies of renaissance man Laporte’s critical round-table are informed, literate, engaged, and engaging — the best curating may be Laporte’s in choosing his team, over whose language he presides with the vigilance of a high school French teacher, making for a minimum of “voila”s — the intellectually exhilarating rhetorical perambulations, pirouettes, and sautées I look forward to following the most are Corinne Rondeau’s.

Droll, colorful, imaginative, incisive, complex without being complicated, erudite without being aloof, humble before the oeuvre and authoritative in the aesthetic background she applies to analyzing it, curious, exuding panache — in effect, the art professor of your dreams, and who confirms, in the best tradition of Clement Greenberg, Edwin Denby, Michel Ragon, Jean-Luc Godard, and Phillip Larkin, that criticism can be its own art form — Rondeau not only knows her material but knows how to sell her arguments. So when I heard that Editions de l’éclat had just published a 125-page essay by my critical chou-chou (whose previous book took on Sontag) on one of my cinematic cheries, the late Chantal Akerman, I couldn’t wait to turn off my radio and sink my mandibles into something that instead of feeding my anxieties promised to stimulate my intellect and my appetite for art.

As brain food, “Chantal Akerman passer la nuit” exceeds my expectations. Whether the author succeeds in fulfilling her announced intention, heralded in a cover citation from the filmmaker*, to analyze Akerman’s achievement not through the prism of biography but on its own merits, is another question.

Chantal portrait small                                           Chantal Akerman. Courtesy Cinémathèque Française.

Since her October 5, 2015 suicide in a lonely Paris hotel room at the age of 65, which capped a 47-year career of creating films and installations that traverse fiction and documentary and transgress many other frontiers of form, sexuality, sentiment, genre, religion, race, nationality, economics, and cartography, Chantal Akerman seems to have become a cipher, with many of those who survived her (acolytes, colleagues, critics) seeing in her work and/or life (and chosen manner of dying) the manifestation of our own predicament or station (relative to  mainstream society and its mores) or proof of our own theorems. In my own case, I decided that Akerman’s suicide was a response to an indifferent mainstream media, welding her desperate act to that particular chip on my own shoulder; and/or the pained reaction of the reflective child of a Holocaust survivor to seeing Jewish schools in her Belleville neighborhood (once predominantly Jewish) in 2015, 70 years after the Deportation of 74,000 French and foreign Jews including 11,000 children, a scant 3,000 of whom returned from the camps, guarded by armed soldiers. An emerging female filmmaker who wrote to me after my first piece appeared on the Arts Voyager (reprised here,) seemed to identify with what she perceived as Akerman’s outsider alienation. A short movie the young woman made inspired by the Belgian-born director even aped Akerman’s sensibility and included a reference to the exploding oven of Akerman’s first film. For a while, images of the filmmaker took over the top of my correspondent’s Facebook page. Another young female cineaste I met at the after-party for a performance at the Theatre de la Ville – Sarah Bernhardt shortly after the 13 November massacres wondered whether Akerman’s suicide was prompted by a premonition of the attacks; she didn’t want to be around to witness them. More broadly, some journalists mused that it was not uncommon for either children of Holocaust survivors or a child whose parent had just died, both facts true for Akerman, to choose to end their lives.  (When they speculated on Akerman’s suicide at all; ingrained French respect for the privacy of this choice — not atypical in a country without a right-to-die law — often trumped instinctive journalistic rapacity in the limited coverage of her death.) And of course the theme had popped up in her films, from the endearingly cloying debut short “Saute ma Ville,” produced in 1968, not long after seeing Godard’s “Pierrot le fou” (which ends with Jean-Paul Belmondo lighting the fuse of a head-dress of dynamite, a conclusion echoed in Akerman’s film, starring her), to “Letters Home,” the staged recitation of an exchange of letters between Sylvia Plath and her mother.

chantal saute smallChantal Akerman in her 1968 directorial debut, “Saute ma Ville.” All rights reserved and courtesy Cinematheque Française, where the film screens February 17 at 5 p.m., on a program with “Le Déménagement” and “La Chambre.”

Without questioning her sincere, considered, and critically informed admiration for the work itself, after having attempted (the adjective is as much a comment on my own limits when it comes to digesting aesthetic theory – in French or English —  as on the complexity of her analysis) to masticate “Chantal Akerman passer la nuit,” I can’t help but observe that in at least one minor and one major way, Rondeau seems to have followed the same tendency as the rest of  us. Her vision of the work often seems to be guided by her own theories and pre-occupations, and not vice-versa — at least as far as I can see from the paucity (or opacity) of some of the celluloid evidence cited to support her arguments. As opposed to her radio adventures, in which she tries to find out what an artist is about and explain how well an exhibition does or doesn’t reveal the artist’s modus vivendi, here she sometimes seems to be trying to accommodate Akerman’s films to a theme of her own predilection: Night. (Or at least doesn’t always clearly explain  how it’s a central subject for Akerman.) And whereas in her aural expositories I feel like I’m standing next to Rondeau and riveted to an oeuvre I’m seeing through her eyes, here she sometimes leaves me idling at the entrance without the door code.

First, let’s get to the Jewish thing.

After announcing — with that citation* from the artist on the front cover — that it would be a mistake to  look for clues to understanding Akerman in her biography and that one should “look elsewhere,” Rondeau appears to ignore her own counsel in exploring the most obvious aspect of Akerman’s personal story: That she’s Jewish and the child of a Holocaust survivor. Thus she sprinkles a very short book with more tantalizing citations from Jewish philosophers than I’ve come across in France in two decades:  Vladimir Jankélévitch, Walter Benjamin, Gershom Scholem, Maurice Blanchot…. Not that I’m kvetching about discovering or re-discovering them! In a French societal context in which Jews are usually defined in relation to negatives (victims of anti-Semitism, the Shoah/Holocaust/Deportation, presumed loyalty to Israel no matter what its actions, controlling all the banks, Christ killers) or constrained stereotypes (if I hear France Culture refer once more to the particular vision of “Jewish American” writers, I’m going to choke on my Gefilte Fish) and which is so profuse it’s even diminished my own once hardy pride in this chunk of my DNA —  in this general ambiance which confines “Jewish identity” to these limited dimensions, it’s restorative to be reminded of a legacy which, immersed in Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen” and “The Promise” on a cross-country family trip in high school, once prompted me to ask my grandpa to arrange a belated bris (the non-medical, Jewish name-bestowing  part) and Cliff’s Notes bar-mitzvah once we reached Miami: The value Jews have always placed on scholarship and books, with an intellectual firmament delineated not by blind doctrinal adherence to the Word but by the spirit of Talmudic debate, not reserved to discussions of Halacha but extended to lay subjects. (Not a value exclusive to Jews; in Emile Ajar/Romain Gary’s “All of life before you,” an elderly French-Arab Belleville resident befriended by the pre-adolescent narrator clings to the Koran with one hand, Hugo with the other, as the last ramparts against encroaching senility.) So I thank Rondeau for reminding me that this is also part of my inheritance; if I can’t defend Israel, I can still take pride in Scholem’s comment, cited by Rondeau, about the importance of “transmitting the things which are without name.”  (A precept which certainly drove Akerman.) If Benjamin and Jankélévitch have been cited in other discourses here, even on France Culture (notably by the philosopher Michel Onfray), it has rarely been in a Jewish context. (And with Jewish delis, bookstores, and bakeries being supplanted by national clothing chains on the rue des Rosiers in the  heart of the Marais — Goldberg’s is gone, so forget about finding kischka in Paris — there’s no longer even a local equivalent of Williamsburg to remind me of these positive aspects of my roots.)

So I don’t begrudge Rondeau the references. It just seems that she wants to have it both ways:  to be able to claim that unlike the rest of us, she’ll be the one to finally analyze Akerman on the basis of her work and not her identify, and then to be able to freely cull from Jewish philosophers whose thinking illuminates Akerman’s.

Chantal Jeanne Dielman smallDelphine Seyrig in “Jeanne Dielman, 23, rue de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” 1975. Chantal Akerman. Copyright Janus Films and  courtesy Cinematheque Française, where the film screens February 18 at 2:30 p.m., with Sami Frey’s ‘Making of” documentary screening February 25 at 5:45 p.m..

More problematic than this contradiction is that elsewhere in the book, the film excerpts that Rondeau cites to support her thesis are often fleeting, ephemeral, gossamer images devoid of any narrative framework or references. It’s as if she’s writing for a narrow coterie of colleagues who have already seen all the films in question, so that she feels she can dispense with plot description. (The book is dedicated to Akerman’s longtime collaborator Claire Atherton.) And yet even the most worldly of critics usually doesn’t assume his readers have already seen the work he’s writing about. When I discovered Denby, it didn’t matter that I hadn’t  yet seen most of the performances he was describing; I was enraptured —  he and other critics I read at the time helped me fall in love with dance and determined me to write about it. Rondeau’s radio commentaries (for example, during this episode of “La Dispute”)  have a similar effect on me. It doesn’t matter if I haven’t seen the exhibitions she’s discussing; her vision is so brilliant that it’s almost better seeing them through her eyes. If a written commentary can certainly be more sophisticated, even philosophical, than radio chatter, it shouldn’t be at the expense of clarity, which is often the case here. I sometimes feel like I’m lost in the middle of a rhetorical swamp with no sense of where it is on the map. (Even Godard, who doesn’t always deign to include even a summary plot description in his Cahiers du Cinema critiques, because his concerns are more profound and technical, still leaves  me  with a clear sense of where both he and the  film are going, even if I haven’t seen the work; in fact he makes me want to.**) And I’m no piker when it comes to Akermania. What Rondeau may not realize is that outside of Paris and New York, the films of Chantal Akerman are so rarely projected that more narrative context would have been in order. (Most of the friends I’ve told about her, including culturally literate intellectuals, even in France, have never heard of Chantal Akerman.  When “Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” was broadcast on TCM, it was from midnight to four in the morning. I found Akerman’s chef d’oeuvre in a library in East Fort Worth, Texas with a particularly curious librarian. But if I knew to look for her, it was because I’d been able to catch the 2004 Akerman retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.***)

chantal almayer small“Almayer’s Folly,” 2011. Chantal Akerman, all rights reserved.  Courtesy Cinematheque Française, screening the film February 12 at 9 p.m. and 22 at 9:30.

I’ve considered whether it might be my perception and not Rondeau’s logic which is too dense; whether her thinking might just be too complex for me to follow. Because translating an author usually forces me to probe her meaning in French so that I can do justice to it in English, I decided to try this for the section of “Chantal Akerman passer la nuit”  in which Rondeau zooms in on her uber-theme — “the night Akermanian” —  as she believes it to be manifest in “Almayer’s Folly,” a 2011 adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novel.  (I’ve respected the original’s structure in not breaking one long paragraph.)

“But confronted with ‘Almayer’s Folly,'” Rondeau begins on page 96, “it’s the spectator who must let go of everything he knows about [Akerman]. She forces him to not recognize her. It’s the climactic moment of her own treason, which is the absolute love for a body of work that we think we know by heart, of which we’ve already made the tour of the grounds, guided by its residents. But Akerman goes further. With the night of  ‘Almayer’s Folly,’ she doesn’t stop saying, without saying: take it to the limit like one lives, nothing less — let yourself be carried away. Then we enter into the night as in a film where we don’t understand anything, which mixes up time, putting the befores after the afters, not by disorder intended to destroy any and all continuity, but to thwart the slightest hope of putting any order in the grand upheaval of the night, of a life which offers moments of a crazy beauty. A beauty we don’t recognize, because beauty is recognizable by that which we don’t recognize in ourselves, the great stranger who sweeps up everything, to whom we grant for no reason, without reticence, all our care to abandon. There’s no beauty without hearing the call: abandon yourself. Yes it’s folly, but ‘folly’ is also love’s other name. Abandon all causalities, chronological order, and assure the disorder — in other words, [engage in] hospitality: Make space for that which doesn’t have space, for that which we don’t recognize. Make space even when one doesn’t have space oneself; learn to displace oneself in the interior of one’s home, in the interior of one’s solitude as well, because the solitude is not solitude, it’s the power of the many. Open oneself to a film where it’s useless to try to resolve the leaps in time, the chiasms. Ever since ‘Saute ma ville,’ we know that the story happens also in the ellipses, but we never know what remains in the ellipsis.  It depends at times on the silence of an explanation, not to hide it, but because that’s how it is and that’s all. To love in order to welcome the disorder of life as it is; why put it all in order at the end, why do we all give ourselves the illusion of order at the end? Yet we don’t know the end until the end of the story, at the moment when we’ve already departed. This is why we have passeurs [those who transmit us from one bank to the other, like the ferryman], rather than connoisseurs, not to restore order in the space of those who have departed, but rather to accept that which we don’t understand about their departure, to make a place for that which remains without response — the reason that it’s useful to make, to create space rather than a space. What we find is right there before our eyes, and what we sense is that it’s futile to exceed what’s given: beauty and strangeness, such  is ‘Almayer’s Folly.’ It’s no longer a visage nor a landscape with which we’re confronted. We find ourselves in front of a night equal to those rivers which flow down to the sea: the intensities of the night, tempest, storm,  wind, the reflection of the moon — what remains of the day when the Sun is behind us, when the soil displays our shadow, disrupting the course of the water, the course of time which a violent flurry can reverse.  Night creates its place out of that which we discard, if only we let ourselves be swept away by its currents. Grand nocturne of relentless sonic sensations:  the buzz of flies, the chirping of crickets, the diluvium rain which batters the water’s surface, the tremor of the rivulets in the wake of an embarkation, Dean Martin’s ‘Sway,’ Mozart’s ‘Ave Verum,’ the prelude to ‘Tristan and Iseault’ in constant replay. Relentless visual sensations as well: the blue and pink aurora of the morning and the black eyes of a disturbing, immobile, statuesque woman of a  melancholy beauty, the trace of the moon’s reflection which in the storm scrambles sight, the colored reflections from the lights of a ship which sails past without stopping, the reeds which bend in passing bodies in the jungle, stirred up by the wind which carries away all reason, screams, and the branch which shoots up from the water like the arm of a drowning man that one catches sight of twice, and that continues to float for how much time afterwards.

“Grand nocturne which only displaces that which we leave behind, which we must also refuse in order not to be enchained, ‘Almayer’s Folly’ is an immense film about the unbridled nature of night.”

And a bit later:

“Because memory can’t exist unless it follows forgetting. ‘Almayer’s Folly’ creates a space for forgetting so that memory can emerge from that which forgetting takes from disappearance. There’s the memory impossible to forget; now comes the forgetting impossible not to leave, because without forgetting, there’s no memory. And if we forget the Night Akermanian, all memory is sacrificed, as well as its call: Let go. One also needs time, a relatively long time, to let go.”

After translating this elegiac rhapsody, and then reading the translation several times, it’s not only clear to me that Rondeau loves Akerman, but that the critic has a visceral attachment to the filmmaker that few of us can aspire to. And which has helped her to find in “Almayer’s Folly” a key to understanding the role of cinema itself as preservational amber. “Grand nocturne which only displaces that which we leave behind, which we must also refuse in order not to be enchained” might apply to the art form more broadly and its relation to memory. (I even find a cautionary alert about my own nostalgic rapture for the past, often addled by a cinematic past I never had.) If it’s clear how the details cited in the passage above might lead to this conclusion, it’s less clear how Akerman uses them to illuminate the plot of “Almayer’s Folly.”  “Yet we don’t know the end until the end of the story,” Rondeau writes; after reading her lengthy discourse on the film, we don’t even know the story. It’s only after an expedition into the novel itself (being unable to see the movie) that I’m able to place some of the elements described by Rondeau – notably the uprooted tree branch which weaves in and out of Almayer’s view as it recedes down the river – in the scheme of the story itself. If I’m able to accord “the grand nocturne” a pass in this regard because of the powerful epiphany that comes with it, I’m less forgiving with more banal generalizations. For the little that Rondeau produces by way of examples from the work itself that prove this, general statements like “Yes it’s folly, but ‘folly’ is also love’s other name” might just as well apply to my last love affair as to Akerman’s film.

chantal autre smallDe l’autre côté,” Chantal Akerman, copyright 2001. Courtesy Cinematheque française, where the documentary screens March 1 at 7:30 p.m., on a mixed program with “Les années ‘80” and “Histoires d’Amérique.”

As if to confirm my impression that Rondeau loses something, clarity-wise, when she passes from spoken word to the printed page, the clearest section of the book is the one based on a previous discourse, perhaps initially delivered out loud in English, as it was Rondeau’s contribution to Westminster University’s November 2016 colloquium “After Chantal” (note the exclusive employment of the first name — another indication of cipherdom).  Here her theme relies on another film I’ve not seen, the 2000 “De l’autre côté,” but unlike with “Almayer’s Folly,” this time Rondeau’s theme — riffing on the film’s subject of frontiers and border crossings, here between Mexico and  the United States — doesn’t elude me. It’s as though the prospect of delivering her thesis directly to an audience (and an Anglophone audience at that) forced the author to be more lucid, as in her radio commentaries. Even in the part of her analyses focusing on a more ephemeral installation which complemented the film, “Une voix dans le dessert,” and which involved “putting a screen on the frontier between the United States and Mexico.” This time Rondeau does a better job of connecting the scenarios of the oeuvres in question with her theme of night, the night which can cloak the passage of the clandestine, the night in which a woman can get lost without leaving a trace, the night which frightens with its opacity, the night whose monochromatic canvas can also be evoked by the vast white sands of the dunes, the frontier between night and day evoked by the border and its barriers, the night which confounds nationalities, the night in which different nationals can exist simultaneously in multiple dimensions and articulated in different fashions (Rondeau refers to narrations delivered in different languages by Akerman) and through different mediums. And thus has better narrative footing for discussing Akerman, who constantly crossed and transgressed frontiers and borders in a multitude of manners.

When it comes to Akerman films I actually have seen that she discusses, Rondeau bats about .333. (In baseball terms, this is nothing to be ashamed of; Ted Williams territory, if you’ll forgive the side tribute to Jonathan Schwartz, the NYC institution who is Williams’s most consistent fan and another of my radio heroes.) She backs up her observation about the 1999 “Sud”‘s concern with traces (of the past and future) by describing Akerman shooting, from the back of a pick-up truck, the asphalt trajectory of and markings left by James Byrd, Jr. as he was dragged to death from the back of another truck. (What I remember most about catching the film at the 2004 Akerman retrospective at the Centre Georges Pompidou is my American date’s observation, on seeing one of the young white trash subjects: “I know that guy,” meaning she recognized the type.)

chantal divan smallJuliette Binoche in “Un divan a New York,” 1995. Chantal Akerman, all rights reserved.  Courtesy Cinematheque Française, where the film screens February 16 at 7:30 p.m. and February 19 at 5 p.m..

At the Centre Pompidou’s 2004 Akerman retrospective, I had the opportunity to exchange with the filmmaker following a screening of the French-language version of the romantic comedy “Un divan a New York,” in which Park Avenue psychiatrist William Hurt exchanges apartments with Belleville dancer Juliette Binoche, with both hilarity and havoc ensuing, as Hurt’s patients find Binoche a much more effective shrink while Hurt’s Paris adventure is sabotaged by ongoing construction on Binoche’s digs. (I could relate.) Having also seen the English language version of the film at Jonas Mekas’s Anthology Film Archives (where Akerman had her big bang upon seeing Godard’s “Pierrot le fou”), I just couldn’t wait to have her thank me when I stood up during the Q&A to declare how much I loved her movie. “I hated it,” she essentially responded; as I recall, mainly because it was a (rare) commercial commission.

So when Rondeau chides fellow Akerman acolytes who dismiss “Un divan a New York” for not being consistent with the rest of Akerman’s oeuvre, she’s ignoring that the filmmaker herself considered it the black sheep of her family of films.

As Akerman herself is no longer around to dialogue with, it would have been nice if for its retrospective on her running through March 2,  the Cinematheque Française would have invited someone who relates to her work on a deeper level than any other critic: Corinne Rondeau. Astoundingly, Rondeau was not among the speakers invited to introduce or debate Akerman’s oeuvre during the retrospective. When asked why Rondeau had not been invited, a Cinematheque spokesperson told me, incredibly, “her very fine book came out last October.” In other words, never mind the level of scholarship, authority, expertise, and erudition — in the limited scope of those running the Cinematheque these days, if it came out earlier than tomorrow it’s suddenly irrelevant. This from a *cinematheque*, where archival interests should prime.

Oh look! It’s Wednesday evening — when La Dispute focuses on the plastic arts, Corinne Rondeau’s fiefdom. At least I can look forward to my radio day terminating with more original stimulation than that with which it began (when a France Culture morning program theme announced as “a look at changing jurisprudence” fatally degenerated into yet another discussion of terrorism and jihadists). For this intellectual stimulation — justement for giving me matter to chew on that I don’t always understand — I thank the gods of cinema for Chantal Akerman, and even France Culture for exposing me to the exalting perspective and way of thinking of Corinne Rondeau.

*”No, no, certainly not…. I don’t believe one should look to autobiography [for clues], it puts you in a box,” a manner to say [Rondeau adds in the cover citation]: perhaps look elsewhere.

** “Jean-Luc Godard par Jean-Luc Godard,” Collection Cahiers du Cinema, Editions Pierre Belfond, 1968.

***If you don’t want to wait until the next time TCM broadcasts “Jeanne Dielman” at an hour you won’t be able to stay up to see it, Criterion has bundled its DVD package of the film with both Godard veteran Sami Frey’s “Making of” documentary and Akerman’s debut short “Saute ma ville.”

 

“Wols,” by Michel Ragon, Jardin des Arts, May 1963

wols small threeWols before Wols: Otto Wols, “Matériaux Rares,” 1939. Watercolor and ink on paper, signed at lower-right “Wols.” Featured during Artcurial’s June 2, 2015 Impressionist and Modern sale. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial.

Translation of Michel Ragon article by Paul Ben-Itzak:  (Version originale follows translation and afterward)

In the years 1947 – 1948, in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, I sometimes came across an old man who walked heavily, supported by a cane, his head garnished only by a wreath of hair over a balding forehead. He lived with his wife in a small hotel room, enjoyed playing the banjo, and did his drinking straight up. He was said to be protected by Sartre and de Beauvoir. Then two events in quick succession drew the public’s attention to this extraordinary personage: an exposition at the Drouin gallery on the place Vendôme — at the time the most avant-garde gallery in Paris — and a large, unusual painting displayed at the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles which resembled nothing ever seen before. This Bohemian individual, who called himself Wols, died three years later — when I learned with stupor that he was only 37 years old.

Cursed

It’s become popular for certain journalists to declare, with an air of condescension, that there’s no such thing these days as cursed painters. Wols was just as cursed as Van Gogh, and the parallel between the two equally possessed artists doesn’t stop there. Just as Van Gogh realized his most personal work in the last two years of his life and also died at 37, Wols only began work on his “informal” paintings six years before his death. And just as Van Gogh’s final two years both summed up his whole life and constituted the explosion, the last six years of Wols’s life threw all modern art into question and opened up a new, unexpected path for him. In very little time Wols, just like Van Gogh, altered the rules of the game. Wols signifies a turning point as important to the history of painting as were his compatriot Einstein’s advances in the domain of science. Moreover, the disintegration of forms to which the painter devoted himself corresponds with the disintegration of the atom that followed from Einstein’s research. A parallel that came to light, obviously, after the fact. It would have been hard to imagine in 1947, when Wols couldn’t even manage to pay the rent for his seedy furnished hotel room, that this starving artist would one day elicit comparisons with the scientific events which, since Hiroshima, haunt our collective consciousness.

Who was Wols? Where did this outsider, this vagabond, this prematurely eviscerated simile of an old man come from? Bryen and Mathieu were his friends and surrounded him with an unflagging admiration. Henri-Pierre Roché, himself a singular personage, grand art collector and (posthumously) acclaimed writer from the moment Truffaut turned his novel “Jules and Jim” into the celebrated film of the same name, Henri-Pierre Roché, who met Wols in the south of France during the war and bought 60 gouaches from him in three years, describes him for us playing Bach on his banjo, with his dog at his feet, his bottle ready, and his pipe in hand, venerating Lao-Tseu, detesting Confucius, and “dousing himself like a lighter’s wick.”

The art historian Werner Haftman next shows Wols to us in Paris, in his tiny hotel room, “stretched out on his bed, often with the eyes closed — in order to see better — recording on tiny scraps of paper the continuous flow of images springing from a powerful and hidden well. All this amidst the turbulent discussions of his friends or often tumultuous passage of foreign visitors.”

An education à la le Petit Prince

Wols was born Otto Alfred Schulze Battmann on May 27, 1913, in Berlin. If he hadn’t died prematurely, we’d be celebrating his 50th birthday this month — and he’d no doubt be as famous as he already is, and also rich. Because for painters, being cursed goes hand in hand with dying young. Had they lived as long as Picasso, Van Gogh and Modigliani would have been just as rich and celebrated.

(Here Ragon recounts how, born to a Saxon family that regularly furnished high officials to the State, his parents grand readers passionate about botanics and geology, Wols was educated in the manner of a “petit prince.” He studied music and seemed destined to direct an orchestra. But he also displayed exceptional talent for photography, mechanics, and anthropology. A pupil of Frobenius at the Institute of African Studies in Frankfurt, then of Gropius at the Dessau Bauhaus — where he also frequented Moholy-Nagy — Wols fled the Nazis in 1932 for Paris. There he painted his first watercolors, under the influence of Paul Klee, and also encountered Miro, Ernst, Tzara, Léger, Arp, Giacometti and Calder, to whom he gave German lessons. The next year he met Grety, 15 years his senior, who became his wife. They travelled to Barcelona and Ibiza, where Wols earned a living photographing babies and luxury dogs. In 1934, at the behest of the German consulate, he was arrested for refusing military service and expelled from Spain three months later, making his way across the Pyrenees by foot and through snow back to France. Ragon continues:)

In 1937, he adopted the pseudonym Wols for an exposition of his photographs at a Parisian gallery. His life became easier, the International Exposition of Paris having accorded him, in his role as a photographer, exclusivity for the Pavilion de l’Élégance. But the war didn’t tarry to arrive. A German citizen, Wols was interned in the concentration camps of Montargis, Neuilly, Nimes, and Aix-en-Provence. He found consolation in alcohol, on whose powers he’d henceforth call to stimulate his dreams.

Boats of Dreams

Liberated in 1940, he moved to Cassis, a half hour from Marseille, then to Dieulefit in the Drôme. He was able to sell several gouaches and drawings, notably to Henri-Pierre Roché. The years 1941-1942 were crucial for Wols. Misery, the Spanish prison, the French concentration camps — all these had taken their toll and arduously ripened him. He’d not yet attained 30, and his life was already overloaded with trials and tribulations. It was without doubt this heavy charge which compelled him to write: “The first thing that I’ll chase from my life will be memory.” His gouaches and watercolors form a sort of diary that he kept, simultaneously with the poems he wrote. “With minute slips of paper, one is able to tell little earth-bound fairy-tales,” he noted with a painful irony. Wols was, in effect, first and foremost a poet, nurtured on Baudelaire, Poe, Rimbaud, Lautréamont, Novalis, Shelley, Artaud, Kafka, Faulkner, and Morgenstern. A poet embarked on a one-way trip on what he called his “boats of dreams” (his dream was to build and live on a bark). These boats, which peopled his watercolors, evidently evoked images of Rimbaud’s “Drunken Boat,” as well as Dante’s Bark. At times they accosted towns, towns that Wols meticulously drew, as miniatures, with their individual perspectives, and that he’d then depict being delivered to monsters. Imaginary vegetation, comical personages, phallic images: the world of Wols’s gouaches was situated somewhere between surrealism and expressionism. As strange as they were — and as perfect as they were in their acute detail — these gouaches did not do justice to Wols’s genius. If he’d died five years earlier, Wols would have been considered no more than a minor master living in Klee’s shadow. His initial watercolors from 1932-33 reveal scenes of dream cities, mirages, elfs…. Soon, though, Klee’s fantastic garden would be trampled by monsters. We know little of the watercolors Wols produced from 1934 to 1936 in Spain, lost when the artist was thrown in prison, then expelled. But they’d without doubt trace the line between Klee and Bosch. Thus, Wols passed from surrealism-light to a form of expressionism which approached that of Grosz, Kokoschka, Ensor, or even Otto Dix.

As these watercolors and gouaches make up the most abundant part of his oeuvre, it’s above all this aspect of Wols that one finds in the galleries. This is also the most palatable aspect, the most decipherable, of his work. But it doesn’t allow us to appreciate the importance of the artist’s accomplishment. It would be like perpetually trotting out Van Gogh’s “Potato Eaters” and concealing his landscapes of Arles and Auvers-Sur-Oise from the public.

It cannot be over-emphasized that these gouaches and watercolors are merely Wols before Wols, the minor works of a man who’d not yet discovered if he was a poet or a painter, a photographer or a philosopher. Because Wols’s evolution into a painter was unconscious. He did not call himself a painter, obstinately refused to make a career of it, and even went so far as ask the police to prevent an exhibition of his work organized by his wife and René Drouin in 1947. He’d first visit the exhibitions with his dog, to whom he’d seriously mount each painting ahead of precipitously taking off before the opening in the company of his best friend.

Wols’s genuinely personal and exceptional oeuvre only began in January 1946 when, after much hesitation, he decided to start working with oil on canvas. “Already, the movements of the forearms and the arms necessary to paint a canvas depend on ambition and gymnastics,” he’d say. “Not for me.”

It was as if he had a vague presentiment that in committing himself to painting in oil on canvas and in large formats, he’d be sacrificing poetry and diary writing for a life in the limelight.

The Birth of the Informal

The rupture was complete between Wols’s gouaches and his oil paintings. First he abandoned the anecdotal image (for even if it was a dream image, it was still an anecdote) and replaced it with chaos. This new abstract painter who emerged abruptly for the first time at the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles in 1947 resembled no one ever seen before. The work he exposed was both a slap in the face and a spit in the eye, like entrails rooted out by a python. Those who discovered it remained surprised, shocked, and disturbed. At the same time, and by a curious accident, Pollock was launching himself in the frenzy of ‘dripping,’ and it was from these two simultaneous deliriums that the Informal School would be born.

Oeuvres of art are certainly destined for a strange fate! Wols and Pollock, both cursed, both alcoholic, both particular, both objectors, both “against,” both prey to dark thoughts, both self-destructive, both dead tragically at the dawn of their real careers, created a new current of art which made those who came after them rich. And this current which, with them, became a furious torrent, bathed with incandescence, spurting blood, rapidly devolved into conformity, the formulaic, and commerce.

In 1949, Wols exposed at the Milione Gallery in Milan, then the following year at the Hugo Gallery in New York. And then it was over. On September 1, 1951, at a quarter before noon, Wols died a sudden death.

He’d only just begun to find peace in his petite house in Champigny outside Paris, to which the initial sales of his work had allowed him to retire. Eight months earlier, after undergoing 65 days of treatment, he’d left the Saint-Antoine Hospital, disintoxicated and happy to be so. He was leading a healthy life, hopping out of bed at 6 every morning so that he could go down to his garden and watch the sunrise. He could walk his dog, and had more or less quit smoking. His death remains shrouded by mystery. Some attribute it to the disintoxicaiton cure. Grety Wols, for her part, blames herself, exaltedly, of having inadvertently poisoned him.

“In the middle of the night, he suddenly got hungry. I scoured the pantry. I found some ground horse-meat left over from two days earlier and cooked it up. He instantly ate it. The next day, he was siezed with pains. We took him to the hospital. It was still vacation. The doctors were out. There was a string of bad luck. I didn’t think to tell them about the ground horse-meat. His state worsened. He died. It might have been me who killed him.”

In 1959, a major retrospective of Wols’s oeuvre took place at the Venice biennale. Posthumous glory had begun.

Wols’s informalism is, if you like, a sort of automatic writing. In this sense, he links himself to the surrealist spirit which animated his first works. But Wols far surpasses the surrealist aesthetic. His automatic-ness is moreover “psychological” rather than pictorial. He surpasses surrealism like he surpassed expressionism. He was one of the first abstract expressionists and, long before Zen Buddhism became à la mode, was deeply marked by Chinese mysticism.

It is superfluous
to name God
or to learn something by heart.

When one has seen a path
towards the heavens
the details lose their importance
but remain charming.

A prayer of less than two words
can hold the universe.

The imperceptible penetrates all.

No, these concise poems are not by Lao Tseu, but by Wols.

Concise, meticulous, precise, penetrating — the same adjectives apply to Wols’s engravings as to his poetry. As brief as his “career” may have been, he still found the time to illustrate Kafka (“The Guest of the Dead,” 1948), Antonin Artaud (“Le Théâtre de Séraphin”), Jean Paulhan (“The Scottish Shepherd,” 1948, and “Chinese Poems,” translated by Paulhan), Jean-Paul Sartre (“Visages,” 1948, and “Nourishment,” 1949), Camille Bryen (“City Whale,” 1949), René de Solier (“Naturals,” 1948).

As we can see, this major illustration portfolio was pursued in the two most fertile years for his work, 1948-1949, during which he also accomplished some of his most beautiful paintings.

Wols has already been reunited in the pantheon with Nicolas de Staël, Atlan, and Franz Kline, like him struck down just when their talent was flowering.

Afterward by Paul Ben-Itzak

As the Impressionists, Symbolists, Fauves, Cubists, Nabis, Surrealists, Abstractionists, and even some Abstract Expressionists have become preserved in amber, and contemporary critics tend to focus on their living contemporaries, a whole — and, as Ragon might argue, nuclear (or pivotal) — generation of painters and sculptors from the ’40s through ’50s risks falling into oblivion. Dubuffet’s place in the collective artistic memory is still assured, and the COBRA group for whom Ragon organized the first Paris exhibition in 1951 has not yet been forgotten, but try finding Wols or Atlan in the major museums. (In Paris, the Pompidou Center’s tendency is to overdo it on the epoch’s most famous exponents — as in the monographic 400+ oeuvre-strong Dubuffet exhibition in the early 2000s, in which the museum seemed to be making up for its earlier exclusion of the artist, or the 2015 Wilfredo Lam show which, far from elaborating our understanding of the artist, revealed his limitations — and ignore their contemporaries. (And forget about it if you’re a woman or an American, Stuart Davis for one being conspicuous by his absence.)

Ragon’s journalistic-critical chronicles — with his long view and profound mine of references, Romanesque eye for detail and drama, critical aptitude and clarity, and a style and vocabulary that are erudite without being exclusive — restore, preserve, and revivify a vibrant and animated archive of this history.

Original article by Michel Ragon:

Dans les années 1947-1948, il m’arrivait fréquemment de rencontrer à Saint-Germain-des-Prés un vieil homme qui marchait pesamment en s’appuyant sur une canne, la tête nue avec des cheveux en couronne au-dessus d’un front très dégarni. Il vivait dans une petite chambre d’hôtel avec sa femme, jouait du banjo, buvait sec. On le disait protégé par Sartre et Simone de Beauvoir. Coup sur coup, deux événements avaient attiré l’attention sur cet étrange personnage : une exposition à la galerie Drouin, place Vendôme, qui était alors la galerie la plus à l’avant-garde de Paris, et une grande peinture insolite au Salon des Réalités Nouvelles, qui ne ressemblait à rien de connu. Ce bohème, qui se nommait Wols, mourut trois ans plus tard, et j’appris alors avec stupeur qu’il n’avait que trente-sept ans.

Un Maudit

On peut lire couramment les déclarations allègres de certains journalistes qui avancent, avec une nuance d’ailleurs condescendante, qu’il n’existe plus aujourd’hui de peintres maudits. Wols fut aussi maudit que Van Gogh, et le parallèle entre ces deux artistes également hallucinés ne s’arrête pas là. Tout comme Van Gogh a réalisé son œuvre personnelle dans les deux dernières années de sa vie et est mort lui aussi à trente-sept ans, Wols n’a commencé son œuvre de peintre « informel » que six ans avant sa mort. Mais tout comme les deux dernières années de Van Gogh résument toute sa vie et en constituent l’explosion, les six dernières années de la vie de Wols remettent tout l’art moderne en question et lui ouvrent une nouvelle voie inattendue. En si peu de temps, Wols, tout comme Van Gogh, aura tout bouleversé. Wols restera une date aussi importante dans l’histoire de la peinture que son compatriote Einstein dans l’histoire de la science. La désintégration des formes à laquelle se livre le peintre correspond d’ailleurs à la désintégration de l’atome, conséquence des recherches de Einstein. Parallèle, évidement, que l’on établit après coup. On était bien loin de croire, en 1947, lorsque Wols n’arrivait pas à payer son terme à l’hôtel meublé minable où il logeait, que cet artiste famélique susciterait un jour des comparaisons avec les événements scientifiques qui, depuis Hiroshima, hantaient les esprits.

Qui était Wols? D’où venait cet étranger, ce vagabond, ce faux vieillard usé prématurément? Bryen et Mathieu étaient ses amis et l’entouraient d’une admiration qui ne s’est jamais démentie. Henri-Pierre Roché, singulier personnage lui aussi, grand collectionneur et écrivain à succès (posthume) depuis que Truffaut a tiré de son roman “Jules et Jim” le film que l’on sait, Henri-Pierre Roché, qui le rencontra dans le sud de la France pendant la guerre et lui acheta cinquante gouaches en trois ans, nous le décrit jouant du Bach sur son banjo, avec son chien, sa bouteille et sa pipe, vénérant Lao-Tseu, détestant Confucius, et « s’humectant comme un coton de briquet ».

L’historien d’art Werner Haftman nous le montre ensuite à Paris, dans sa petite chambre d’hôtel, « allongé sur son lit, souvent les yeux fermés — fermés pour voir mieux — enregistrant sur de petits bouts de papier le fleuve continu des images qui surgissent d’une source puissante et secrète. Tout cela au milieu de discussions turbulentes de ses amis ou du passage souvent tumultueux de visiteurs étrangers ».

Une Éducation de Petit Prince

Wols s’appelait de son vrai nom Otto Alfred Schulze Battmann. Né le 27 mai 1913 à Berlin, s’il n’était pas mort prématurément, nous fêterons aujourd’hui son cinquantenaire, et il serait sans aucun doute aussi célèbre qu’il l’est, et riche. Car il n’y a plus de peintres maudits dans la mesure ou ceux-ci ne meurent pas jeunes. Van Gogh ou Modigliani, vivant aussi longtemps que Picasso, seraient devenus, eux aussi, riches et considérés.

Wols était d’une famille saxonne qui, traditionnellement, fournissait de hauts fonctionnaires à l’État. De 1919 à sa mort, en 1929, son père fut même chef de chancellerie de l’État de Saxe, ce qui lui valait le surnom de « roi non courronné de Saxe ». Mélomanes, grands lecteurs, passionnés de botanique et de géologie, les parents de Wols lui donnèrent une éducation de petit prince. Il étudia la musique très jeune et semblait, à dix-sept ans, en raison de ses dons, être voué à la direction d’orchestre. Mais en même temps il montrait des qualités exceptionnelles pour la photographie, la mécanique et l’anthropologie. Élève de Frobenius, à l’Institut des Études Africaines de Francfort, puis de Gropius, au Bauhaus de Dessau (où il eut également des conversations avec Mies van der Rohe et Moholy-Nagy), il fuit le nazisme en 1932 et arrive à Paris.

Ce jeune homme de dix-neuf ans peint ses premières aquarelles sous l’influence de Klee et rencontre dans la capitale française Miro, Ernst, Tzara, Léger, Arp, Giacometti et Calder, à qui il donne des leçons d’allemand.

L’année suivante, en février, il rencontre Grety, son aînée de quinze ans, qui deviendra sa femme. Tous deux partent pour l’Espagne, pour Barcelone et Ibiza, où Wols gagne sa vie en photographiant des chiens de luxe et des bébés. Mais deux ans plus tard, le consulat d’Allemagne le fait arrêter comme réfractaire au service militaire. Après trois mois de prison, il est expulsé d’Espagne et passe les Pyrénées à pied, sous la neige.

En 1937, il prend le pseudonyme de Wols pour une exposition une exposition de ses photos dans une galerie parisienne. Sa vie devient plus facile, l’Exposition Internationale de Paris lui ayant accordé en tant que photographe l’exclusivité du Pavillon de l’Élégance. Mais la guerre ne tarde pas à arriver. Sujet allemand, Wols est interné dans les camps de concentration de Montargis, de Neuilly, de Nimes, d’Aix-en-Provence. Il y découvre le refuge de l’alcool, auquel il fera appel désormais pour stimuler ses rêves.

Les Bateaux-Rêves

Libéré en 1940, il s’installe à Cassis, puis à Dieulefit in the Drôme. Il réussit à vendre quelques gouaches et dessins, notamment à Henri-Pierre Roché. Les années 1941-1942 sont cruciales pour Wols. La misère, la prison en Espagne, les camps de concentration en France l’ont terriblement mûri. Il n’a pas encore trente ans, et sa vie est déjà encombrée d’epreuves, de tribulations. Sans doute est-ce cela qui lui fait écrire : « La première chose que je chasse de ma vie, c’est la mémoire. » Ses gouaches et aquarelles sont un journal intime qu’il tient parallèlement aux poèmes qu’il écrit. « On raconte ses petits contes terrestres à travers de petits bouts de papier », dit-il avec une ironie douloureuse. Il est en effet, avant tout, poète, nourri de la lecture de Baudelaire, de Poe, de Rimbaud, de Lautréamont, de Novalis, de Shelley, d’Artaud, de Kafka, de Faulkner et de Morgenstern. Un poète parti pour un voyage sans retour avec ce qu’il appelle ses “bateaux-rêves” (il rêvait de construire une barque et d’y vivre). Ces bateaux, qui peuplent ses aquarelles, font surgir évidemment les images du “Bateau Ivre” de Rimbaud et de la Barque du Dante. Ils accostent parfois à des villes, ces villes que Wols dessine méticuleusement, en miniaturiste, avec leurs perspectives, et qu’il livre ensuite à des monstres. Végétations imaginaires, personnages farfelus, phallisme : le monde des gouaches de Wols se situe entre le surréalisme et l’expressionnisme. Pour étranges qu’elles soient et parfaites dans leur dessin aigu, ces gouaches n’étaient pas à la hauteur du génie de Wols. Mort cinq ans plus tôt, Wols n’aurait été qu’un petit maître se plaçant à l’ombre de Klee. Ses premières aquarelles de 1932-33 nous montrent, en effet, des scènes aériennes, des villes rêvées, des mirages, des elfes. Bientôt, néanmoins, le jardin fabuleux de Klee devait être piétiné par des monstres. On ne sait rien des aquarelles que Wols fit en 1934-36 en Espagne, puisqu’elles ont été perdues lorsque l’artiste a été jeté en prison, puis expulsé. Mais elles devaient sans doute faire le lien entre Klee et Bosch. Ainsi, Wols passait-il d’un surréalisme tendre à un expressionisme qui le rapprochait de Grosz, de Kokoschka, de Ensor et même de Otto Dix.

Comme ces aquarelles et gouaches sont la partie la plus abondante de son œuvre, c’est surtout cet aspect de Wols que l’on voit dans les galeries. C’est aussi l’aspect le plus agréable, le plus facile. Il ne permit malheureusement pas de se rendre compte de l’importance de l’œuvre de l’artiste. C’est comme si l’on montrait perpétuellement “Les Mangeurs de pommes de terre” de Van Gogh en tenant les paysages d’Arles et d’Auvers-sur-Oise hors du regard du public.

On ne répétera jamais assez que ces gouaches et aquarelles ne sont que du Wols avant Wols, les œuvrettes d’un homme qui ne savait pas encore s’il était poète ou peintre, photographe ou philosophe. Car Wols n’a réalisé une œuvre de peintre qu’à son insu. Il ne se disait pas peintre, refusant obstinément de faire carrière e tallant jusqu’à tenter de faire interdire par le commissaire de Police l’exposition que sa femme et René Drouin avaient organisée en 1947 ; visitant d’abord les expositions avec son chien, auquel il montrait sérieusement chaque tableau, puis partant précipitamment en compagnie de son plus cher copain avant le vernissage.

L’œuvre vraiment personnelle, exceptionnelle de Wols, ne commence qu’en janvier 1946, lorsque, après beaucoup d’hésitations, il se décida à aborder la peinture à l’huile sur toile. « Les mouvements des avants-bras et des bras pour peindre une toile, c’est déjà de l’ambition et de la gymnastique, disait-il. Je ne veux pas. »

Confusément, il pressentait sans doute qu’en abordant la peinture à l’huile sur toile et le grand format il abandonnait le poème et le journal intime pour la vie publique.

Naissance de l’Informel

Entre ses gouaches et ses peintures à l’huile, la rupture est absolue. D’abord, il abandonne l’image anecdotique (même s’il s’agit d’une image rêvée, c’est néanmoins une anecdote) pour le chaos. Ce nouveau peintre abstrait qui apparaît brutalement pour la première fois au Salon des Réalités Nouvelles de 1947 ne ressemble à personne. Ce qu’il expose, c’est à la fois une gifle et un crachat, une explosion et les entrailles fouillées par la pythonisse. On en demeurait surpris, choqué et inquiet. Au même moment, par quel curieux hasard, Pollock se livrait au ‘dripping’ le plus déliriant à New York, et c’est de ces deux délires que devait naître l’Ecole informelle.

Étrange destin que celui des œuvres d’art ! Wols et Pollock, tous deux maudits, tous deux alcooliques, tous deux hors série, tous deux objecteurs, tous deux « contre », tous deux mal pensants, tous deux destructeurs, tous deux morts tragiquement à l’aube de leur vraie carrière, auront suscité un courant nouveau qui a fait la fortune de leurs suiveurs. Et ce courant qui, avec eux, était torrent furieux, lave incandescente, giclée de sang, est devenu rapidement conformisme, formules, et commerce.

En 1949, Wols expose à la galerie del Milione à Milan, puis l’année suivante à la Hugo Gallery de New York. Et c’est fini. Le 1er septembre 1951, à midi moins le quart, Wols meurt soudainement.

Il venait juste de commencer à trouver la paix dans sa petite maison de Champigny, où les premières ventes de ses œuvres lui avaient permis de se retirer. Huit mois auparavant, après soixante-cinq jours de traitement, il était sorti de l’hôpital Saint-Antoine, désintoxiqué et heureux de l’être. Il menait une vie saine, sautant du lit à six heures du matin pour descendre dans son jardin voir se lever le jour. Il pouvait se promener avec son chien, ne fumait presque plus. Sa mort demeure mystérieuse. Certains l’attribuent à la cure de désintoxication. Grety Wols, elle, s’accuse avec exaltation de l’avoir empoisonné par mégarde.

« Il eut une faim subite au milieu de la nuit. Je fouillai le garde-manger. Je trouvai du cheval haché de l’avant-veille, je le fis cuire. Il l’avala à l’instant. Le lendemain, il fut pris de douleurs. On l’emmena à l’hôpital. C’étaient encore les vacances. On manquait de médecin. Il y eu des malchances. Je ne songeai pas à parler du cheval haché. Son état empira. Il mourut. Je l’ai tué peut-être. »

En 1958, une grande rétrospective de l’œuvre de Wols eut lieu à la biennale de Venise. La gloire posthume commençait.

L’informel de Wols est, si l’on veut, une sorte d’écriture automatique. Dans ce sens, il se rattache à l’esprit surréaliste qui avait animé ses premières œuvres. Mais il dépasse de beaucoup l’esthétique surréaliste. Son automatisme est d’ailleurs plus « psychologique » que pictural. Il dépasse le surréalisme, comme il dépasse l’expressionisme. Il est un des premiers expressionnistes abstraits et, avant que la mode soit au Zen, profondément marqué par la mystique chinoise.

Il est superflu
de nommer Dieu
ou d’apprendre quelque chose par cœur.

Quand on a en vue un chemin
vers le ciel
les détails perdent leur importance
mais restent charmants.

Une prière de moins de deux mots
peut tenir l’univers.

L’insaisissable pénètre tout.

Non, ces poèmes si concis ne sont pas de Lao Tseu, mais de Wols.

Concis, minutieux, précis, aigu, Wols l’était aussi dans ses gravures. Aussi brève qu’ait été sa « carrière », il eut le temps néanmoins d’illustrer Kafka (“L’invitè des Morts,” 1948), Antonin Artaud (“Le Théatre de Séraphin”), Jean Paulhan (“La Bergère d’Écosse,” 1948, et des “Poèmes Chinois” traduits par Paulhan), Jean-Paul Sartre (“Visages,” 1948, et “Nourritures,” 1949), Camille Bryen (“Baleine-Ville,” 1949), René de Solier (“Naturelles,” 1948).

Comme on le voit, ce grand travail d’illustrateur se situe dans deux des années les plus fécondes pour son œuvre : 1948-49, pendant lesquelles il réalisera également quelques-unes de ses plus belles peintures.

Wols rejoint déjà dans la légende Nicolas de Staël, Atlan, et Franz Kline, foudroyés comme lui dans la pleine maturité de leur talent.

Michel Ragon, “Wols,” Jardin des Arts, May 1963. Copyright Michel Ragon.

From “Journal d’un critique d’art désabusé” (2009 – 2011) by Michel Ragon, published by Éditions Albin Michel, Paris, 2013 (version originale followed by translation)

ragonView of the room dedicated to the tastes of Michel Ragon as part of the “Passeurs” raccrochage  of the Centre Pompidou’s permanent collection in 2015. In the front plan: “Nuit ouvrante, 1945-55,” sculpture, Etienne-Martin. Tilleul wood, oak, and pine. Purchased by the State, 1961. Photo: Philippe Migeat, Centre Pompidou. Courtesy Service Presse / Centre Pompidou. From article first published on the Arts Voyager.

6 novembre, 2010

J’ai mis du temps pour aller visiter la rétrospective Arman à Beaubourg. Mais je sors peu et les musées me fatiguent vite. Pas les musées, en réalité, mais la gesticulation des visiteurs, leur va-et-vient qui risquent de me faire tomber, malgré ma canne que peu de gens semblent remarquer.

Cette petite rétrospective Arman est impeccable. L’anecdote des «accumulations» s’estompe derrière la rigueur de la démarche et l’esthétique parfait. Oui, bien sur, certaines accumulations sont plus  humoristiques que plastiques (les masques à gaz), mais même en accumulant des pièces d’automobile Renault, Arman réussit à produire une sorte de sculpture minimaliste parfaite.

On n’a pas assez insisté sur la dimension picturale des œuvres d’Arman, que l’artiste souligne dans ses dernières créations qui donnent une alternative au dripping de Pollack. Les petits tubes de peinture, écrasés, avec de subtiles couleurs, ont une dimension picturale évidente.

Une longue interview d’Arman diffusée dans les salles. Intelligence et précision dans les propos qui me font penser au discours de Soulages. Même l’accent du Sud amplifie la ressemblance. Sûreté de soi, certitude de l’originalité de son œuvre, précisions historiques incontestables. (Les anecdotes sur la fondation du Nouveau Réalisme et quelques coups de patte tendres à Pierre Restany.)

Translation by  Paul Ben-Itzak:

November 6, 2010

It took me some time to get around to visiting the Arman retrospective at Beaubourg. But I venture out so rarely, and museums quickly tire me out. Not the museums in and of themselves, in reality, but the gesticulating of the visitors, the hurly-burly of their comings and goings which risks to send me tumbling down, despite my cane, which few people seem to notice.

This little Arman retrospective is impeccable. The anecdotal quality of the “accumulations” fades in the face of the rigor of his process and his pure aesthetic. Yes of course, some of the accumulations are more humorous than plastic (the gas masks), but even in accumulating pieces of Renault automobiles, Arman has succeeded in producing a sort of perfect minimalist sculpture.

What’s often been under-rated in Arman’s work is its pictorial dimension, which the artist underlines in his latest work, which presents an alternative to dripping à la Pollack. The small crushed paint tubes, with their subtle colors, have an obvious pictorial dimension.

A recording of a long interview with Arman plays in the exhibition halls. There’s an intelligence and precision in his observations which reminds me of the discourses of Soulages. Even his Southern accent amplifies this resemblance. Self-confidence, a conviction in the originality of his oeuvre, the incontestability of his precise historic references.  (The anecdotes on the founding of the New Realism and some tender kicks towards Pierre Restany.)