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The French dramatist, critic, and artist Antonin Artaud (1896-1948) is a difficult figure to pigeonhole. A firebrand and self-professed “madman,” he helped to usher in a new age of experimental theater in the early 20th century, calling for shocking appeals to the senses to reawaken the audience’s critical engagement. Though his name is not a touchstone for the general public, he’s managed to cast a long shadow over theater, criticism, and the arts, laying the groundwork for the bewildering violence of films like mother! and the baroque brutality of such television series as The Handmaid’s Tale. Whenever a body is debased on screen, you can be sure Artaud is there.
While his critical writings form the backbone of his reputation, most notably his 1938 essay collection The Theatre and Its Double, Artaud’s pursuits were many and varied. Collecting artworks last exhibited in 1996, Antonin Artaud: Drawings and Portraits (The MIT Press), by Jacques Derrida and Paule Thévenin and translated by Mary Ann Caws, is an opportunity to take stock of Artaud’s lesser-known output: the drawings he made in the final years of his life, after nearly a decade in various mental asylums, where he underwent electroshock therapy. Spanning a period of more than 20 years, the works — simultaneously terrifying and beautiful — are a devastating record of a soul lashing out and grasping at the page and of an artist approaching the end of his life attempting to cohere both himself and the tortured ramblings that constituted his theories.
Artaud spent much of his adult life shuttling from one asylum to the next, with intense bouts of writing in between and lectures that culminated in screams. His close friend Paule Thévenin manages, with her introduction to the book, to inject some order in the chaos. Thévenin lucidly traces the development of Artaud’s interest in the graphic arts, as well as such art movements as Impressionism and Fauvism, and the evocative, at times morose, landscapes of Edvard Munch. In the early 1920s, Artaud designed costumes and stage sets for the atelier company of Charles Dullin in Paris, but he eventually ceased his graphic works. When he took up drawing again nearly 20 years later, his work had a startlingly different character.
The visceral act of expression itself was primary for Artaud; technical execution was secondary to communicating the deep, vital character of the artist. In his later work, this philosophy would be complicated as he sometimes produced deliberately crude works, testing the strength of the expression by submitting it to the the brutal blows of an unhinged craft. This method found its best expression in his so-called “spells,” interminglings of text and image that Artaud began to produce after suffering a nervous breakdown during a trip to Ireland in 1937. These frantic epistolary outbursts showcase his attempt to increase the physicality of his writing. When Artaud was later institutionalized, his doctor cited the “spells” as evidence of mental illness. Burnt with matches and cigarettes and marked over with crosses, infinity signs, and other abstruse symbols, these brutalized scraps of paper were, at heart, stark, shrieking claims to existence.
After the spells came a series of portraits of Artaud’s acquaintances, as well as cryptic mélanges of symbols and body parts in which a manic graphism overtakes the page. In “Being and Its Fetuses,” from 1945, we see bones, intestines, and a woman split up into geometric shapes, while in “Portrait of Colette Thomas,” from 1947, we witness the beginning of Artaud’s breakdown of the human face. It’s hard to escape the impression that these images are not an appendix to Artaud’s oeuvre so much as the consummation of it. His lifelong thematic obsessions — the flagellation of the body, the conflation of the scatological and the divine — are expressed on the page with all the rancor and destructive force that eluded him in his theatrical productions. Artaud’s final works, a series of deformed self-portraits, see him turning these themes to a new end. These self-portraits seem to be an attempt to recompose his shattered sense of self after the violence of his therapy; characteristically, his self-styled cure was more violence. In a self-portrait from December 17, 1946, Artaud’s head hovers in the center of the page, seemingly decapitated. Another self-portrait, from May 11, portrays his face seemingly struck with rot; sharp holes from pencil-jabs pierce the image.
If the book as a whole has a weakness, it’s that the clinical background of these images — Artaud’s famous stay in the psychiatric hospital in Rodez, for instance — is only glanced at, which leaves significant questions unanswered. How much of our interpretation of the artworks should be grounded in Artaud’s aesthetic philosophy, and how much should it consider his bouts of mental illness? Thévenin, whose introduction admittedly was written in 1986 as part of a collection of critical essays on Artaud, would seem to prefer the former. Likewise, the volume’s concluding essay, written in 1986 by Jacques Derrida at the suggestion of Thévenin, in whose apartment he first saw some of Artaud’s drawings, forgoes a discussion of particulars in favor of a deeper excavation of theory. Granted, separating the man from the madman is particularly difficult with Artaud, as his feverish writings often sprang directly from his illness. The question of whether we should view the spells as objets d’art at all, of whether his self-portraits are an embodiment of his theory or evidence of illness, remains, unfortunately, elusive. And what would that say about his theory anyway, if its faithful execution required a lapse into madness?
In the end, perhaps the most affecting image in the whole book isn’t one of Artaud’s drawings, but a set of two pictures showing him sitting with his friend Minouche Pastier at a bus stop. Artaud curls his right hand, holding a pencil, behind his back and presses the pencil against his back. Apparently, this was a common pose for Artaud, who would combat pain in his body by “stick[ing] into it the point of his pencil or his knife, pressing continuously for several minutes,” according to Thévenin. In these photos, we seem to get the whole of Artaud’s late art: the violence of the pen at once marking and easing the pain of the body.
Antonin Artaud: Drawings and Portraits by Jacques Derrida and Paule Thévenin, translated by Mary Ann Caws, (2019) is published by The MIT Press and is available from Amazon and other online retailers.