Leonor Fini, "Portrait de Jean Genet I" (1950). Oil on canvas. (click to enlarge)

Leonor Fini, “Portrait de Jean Genet I” (1950). Oil on canvas. (portraits via leonor-fini.com) (click to enlarge)

Stendhal on Correggio, Baudelaire on Guys, Zola on Manet, Proust on Moreau. It’s a long-standing practice, French poets and novelists taking up art criticism. In the 20th century, the roster continues: Apollinaire,Breton, Leiris, Malraux, Sartre, Bataille, Bonnefoy, and there’s the French poet-painters: Picabia, Cocteau, Nouet, Jacob.

When I sought an explanation for this very close association between art and writing, far more pronounced than in British or American culture, Mary Ann Caws, author of studies of Picasso and Dalí, who recently completed catalogues on Andre Masson and Hans Arp for the Blain/DiDonna gallery, reminded me that, “France was the center of world art, or found itself so … and so the visual and the verbal were tightly and happily interconnected. Thus Diderot’s writing on the Salons, Baudelaire’s on ‘les phares’ or the lighthouse beams, and the connections between Mallarmé and Manet, Whistler, Vuillard, and on and on.”

The socio-cultural explanation of this interplay, then, comes down to geography. Besides admiration, perhaps an unacknowledged competition with the visual arts also motivated French writers, as if contending with its expressive possibilities might invigorate writing itself.

Poet, novelist and playwright, Jean Genet (1910–1986) recuperated his literary enthusiasms through writing about the visual arts. Genet has been more recently read in the academy for his groundbreaking treatments of the politics of race, gay sexuality, and the sadism of state power and imperialism. Yet his repeated ventures into the tradition of art criticism are more central to understanding Genet than they may seem, and they are not surprising given the iconographic imagery that proliferates across his entire body of work.

In his early poems like “La galère” (1948) and “Le Pecheur du Suquet,” (1953) arresting visual images produce narratives that lend a Rimbaud-like synesthetic tumult to the poetic formalism of that much earlier French criminal-turned-literary prodigy, Francois Villon. His novels — Our Lady of the Flowers (1942), Miracle of the Rose (1946), Funeral Rites (1947), and Querelle of Brest (1947) — give free rein to their respective narrators’ voyeuristic mania and pursuit of tactile sensations.

In explaining how he came to be a writer, Genet tells Hubert Fichte that his enthrallment before the materiality of the writing medium induced him to want to write full-time, an attraction to the tangible and to the allure of surfaces that we might expect from a painter or sculptor. As he tells it, he was in prison and writing a Christmas postcard during wartime to a German friend in Czechoslovakia. He found himself mesmerized by the snowiness and grainy texture of the card’s paper and what it evoked in him. He began writing about that in his note rather than the holiday salutations he had planned (Declared Enemy,141).

The story is less eccentric than it seems. Reading Genet’s novels from cover to cover can be a difficult task for readers who are trained to trust the referential power of words and to find a practicable sequence from a plot. Instead Genet abandons chronology and makes his lived past immediate, unpredictable and cinematic. He foregrounds everything that enters the novel’s field of vision. He digresses frequently to discuss the process of writing. The reader encounters extended sequences around the struggles involved in choosing words, or far-flung, intricate metaphors about how writing is akin to sculpting.

In The Thief’s Journal, he confesses that he is overpowered and then sidetracked by the viscous properties of words and names — “diamonds, purple, blood, sperm, flowers, oriflammes, eyes, fingernails, gold, crowns, necklaces, weapons, tears, autumn, wind, chimeras, seamen, rain, crape” (168). The unpredictable associations of such words, what he calls their “carnal sumptuousness,” the malleability of language and of meaning, subverts and then diverts his responsibilities to the reader. In his final memoir, Prisoner of Love (1986), he compares writing to the situation of the Japanese potter who discovers a crack in the initial stage of the vase-making and then remakes the rest of it around that flaw. No coincidence, then, that within his fiction, countless actions — the audacious sex with strangers, the capricious voyeurism of violent criminals, the calculated heists, and the machinations of soldiers and paramilitaries — are all depicted as careful, trance-inducing circumstances that resemble the concentrated mental and physical labors of the painter or the sculptor.


Genet’s moral universe interprets reality and human actions as inherently, if subconsciously, purely performances. To him, the failure to understand the preordained aesthetic motivation within every act is the basic source of our misunderstandings about how the world works.  And it is our moral failure. Art may not be redemptive, he suggests, but its primacy should be our main priority. He interpreted his whole life, even the most mundane or vile experiences, as high art.

The Thief’s Journal (1949) begins with a long, vacillating ekiphrasis around the attire of his fellow convicts, one that sets in motion the memoir’s pattern of sublime disturbances followed by poetic and philosophical resonances based on those instabilities:

Convicts grab is striped pink and white. Though it was at my heart’s bidding that I chose the universe wherein I delight, I at least have the power of finding therein the many meanings I wish to find: there is a close relationship between flowers and convicts (9).

The stimulation and perplexity caused by the gaze and the myriad associations it causes in the viewer are where meaning is.  Surfaces are depths, Genet believes, as long as their magnitudes and effects within us are amplified outwardly rather than subsumed in a conventional writing predicated on obtaining knowledge through contemplation and introspection. The “oscillations,” exampled by his bizarre co-identification of convicts and flowers, produce a “Jean Genet” who amounts to a steady stream of idiosyncratic desires and contradictory responses.

Sensuous apprehensions and their disorientations are prerequisites for individuation, sexual exploration and literary expression. Perception is above all else biological and libidinous. The Genet anti-hero is, to paraphrase Wallace Stevens, a connoisseur of his own perceptual chaos. The refined and fanatical articulation of all of that chaos is why he writes:

I understand what binds the sculptor to his clay, the painter to his paints, each workman to the matter he works with, and the docility and acquiescence of the matter to the movements of the one who animates it; I know the love that passes from the fingers into the folds, the holes, the swellings (The Thief’s Journal, 124).

As labyrinthine and shocking as his novels are, they made immediate devotees of many readers — including artists — in postwar Paris. They also impressed the French criminal court, which was prepared to sentence Genet, a repeat offender, to life in prison after yet another theft. The intervention on the court by French writers and artists, spearheaded by Jean Cocteau, persuaded the judge and he never went back to prison.

Yet Genet’s sudden postwar fame stifled his pen. By the time Jean-Paul Sartre canonized him in Saint Genet (1952)the relatively young writer was convinced his career as a prose writer was over. “By my inner void [I am] condemned to silence,” he writes in 1954, “sculpting a stone in the form of a stone the same as being silent” (Fragments 23). To break through the impasse, he mostly stopped writing prose altogether, and gravitated toward performance and spectacle, choosing to write, with massive success, for the stage and for the screen. However it was Genet’s occasional and complex writings on the visual arts that initiated his resurgence, in the later phase of his career, as a writer of prose.

His first published foray into art writing was about the work of the Argentinean-born Surrealist painter Leonor Fini, whose etchings illustrated a 1947 edition of Genet’s collection of poems. Around 1950, Fini completed two portrait heads of Genet. In one, a younger Genet gazes skyward like a medieval saint, and in the other, a slightly graying Genet gazes lovingly and directly at the viewer, a painting of the infamous author as a seductive, if reluctant, secular mystic, complete with Fini’s slightly surreal exaggerations of facial features and her Perugino-like intensities of line, temperature and mass.

Fini’s drawings and paintings, filled with foliage, swamps, animals, stage props, histrionic figures, hybrid beasts and ragtag convicts, appealed deeply to Genet’s metamorphic disposition. In his “Letter to Leonor Fini” (1950), he takes the full measure of the painter’s “aquatic feverish world” with its “vegetable-animal conspiracy,” the shaved “skulls” of prisoners, the holly trees and the luminous rags, the swimming chignons and the “draperies powdered with arsenic” (Fragments 10).

Leonor Fini, "Portrait de Jean Genet II" (1950). Oil on canvas.

Leonor Fini, “Portrait de Jean Genet II” (1950). Oil on canvas.

The limitations that he critiques — that her stage is set but the play has not yet commenced — his demand that she break the silence of her pictures and “stop the game of appearances: appear” — can best be read as Genet’s frustrations with his own writing. Writing to Fini, he prescribes a radical stance toward art built on an absolute solitude and a “sanctity,” art as a place for creating images that push further into volatile representation, rejecting the demands for a cultural approachability.

By 1957, when Genet sat for another famous portrait by his friend Alberto Giacometti, he had spent extensive time in Giacometti’ studio, ruminating on the possibilities for literary expression that might be learned from the artist, one who was already a muse to many a Paris-based writer in those postwar years. In writing on what he sees, Genet arrives at insights that are frequently beyond words, a quality that makes the essay, “In the Studio of Alberto Giacometti” (1957) such a beguiling document of modern art, blending prose poetry, aphorisms, dream logic, and anecdotes into an aggressive and participatory stance toward viewing art.

Giacometti, by laboring through the early hours of the “immemorial night,” becomes the writer’s avatar, the resourceful maker as a martyr to an uncompromising figuration of the human form, one who “is slowly dying, is wasting away …being metamorphosed into goddesses” (Fragments 66).  As he runs his hands over Giacometti’s funerary statues, he notes how “sensations flow into my fingertips.” He learns of the reversibility of the toucher and the touched, realizing that Giacometti’s isolated and attenuated figures succeed because each decontextualizes itself from their given ground and space and thus stands outside of history. In gazing upon and touching the statues, Genet records an evaporation of the normal categories of past, present and future, an ecstasy that, as his novels had demonstrated, is the dynamic side effect of purposive perception and absolute observation.

Giacometti’s art re-educates him about the “capacity to isolate an object and make its own unique significations flow into it” which “results in the historical abolition” of the viewer and the art object. To the writer’s delight, Giacometti’s artwork releases the object from “the rest of the world” so that normal time dissolves into “a vertiginous… uninterrupted passage from a past to a future, an oscillation of one extreme to another” (Fragments 55). An erotic diction frequently blends into the references to oblivion as Genet finds Giacometti’s sculptures to be durable beyond death yet porous and available right now. The artworks are able to produce the sensation of the viewer’s body “flowing into them,” as time becomes a “sweet and hard feeling of an eternity that passes” (55).

The oceanic feelings elicited inside Giacometti’s studio leads Genet to recall a life-altering incident in which he was once accidentally staring at an ugly man who was staring back at him in a dirty, third-class train car. Giacometti’s statues remind him of how that fellow passenger’s gaze mirrored his own such that, “I flowed out of my body, through my eyes, into the traveler’s at the same time that the traveler flowed into my own” (italics Genet’s) (Fragments 49). The utter solitude of the observed man in the squalid train car reflectively observing Genet mirrors the writer’s own sense of his separateness from history, and this insight of solidarity with the random man erases artificial hierarchies of value and worth. Giacometti rescues that ideal state — aesthetic privacy over social commitment — to reach “that precious point at which the human being is brought back to the most irreducible part of him” and thus to his “being exactly equivalent to every other human being” (53). Understanding this accessibility and universal equivalency of all subjects and all objects invigorates Genet.

Alongside his studies of Giacometti, Genet reached back into Western art for inspiration. According to biographer Edmund White, Genet travelled to London and to Amsterdam in 1952 and 1953 to visit Rembrandt exhibitions, and his favorite Rembrandts seem to be “Saskia as Flora,” “His Mother Reading,” “The Jewish Bride,” and the portraits of the painter’s son, Titus. The visual epiphany of the train car is retold in the two articles that survive from his destroyed book on the Dutch painter, one entitled “Rembrandt’s Secret” and the other, “What Remains of a Rembrandt Torn into Squares All the Same Size and Shot Down the Toilet.”

In these experiments in art criticism, Genet observes how, like Giacometti, Rembrandt focuses his portraits on the subject’s decaying, vulnerable flesh — what Genet calls the “wound” or “bruise” or “scab” through which the unredeemable isolation of the individual palpates on the canvas and is made unnervingly visible to the viewer, much like the gaze of the man in the train car both exhilarates and then annihilates Genet’s sense of his worthiness and difference.  This visible and universal erasure, that wound, leaves no person unmarked: it is wholly unique and entirely common. Rembrandt’s portraits both particularize while they universalize their given subjects.

What Genet resolves about Rembrandt’s lavish renditions of impermanence is really his own determination in writing, that is, to “rid himself [the artist] of all that could lead him back to a differentiated, discontinuous hierarchic vision of the world: a hand has the same value as a face, a face as the corner of a table, a table corner as a stick, a stick as a hand…what painter has made something lose its identity in order to exalt it more? ….first the hand, the sleeve, then to painting, in a dizzying pursuit, toward nothing” (Fragments 89).

Because Genet believes Rembrandt to have been so secure in this outlook, every portrait of others is inherently Rembrandt’s portrait of himself, a theory of the artist as an indefatigable narcissist that gave Genet renewed license to find new subjects for a final prose work, Prisoner of Love, that was ultimately his own self-portrait in a thousand literary images, an autobiography constructed around the models of arabesques and collages.

At first glance, the material that Genet chose as subject for this final work seems worlds apart from the interests of the visual artists whom he admired. In storing up the material for his final work, he lived with people on the losing sides of European and American Cold War realpolitik. He writes on the French-Algerian conflict, the plight of Arab immigrants and workers in France, the explosive 1968 Democratic Convention in the US, the Black Panther Party and radical thinkers like Angela Davis and George Jackson, as well as on the PLO, and the 1982 Shatila massacre of Palestinians in Beirut (the aftermath of which Genet was the first Western witness), and daily struggles in camps on the West Bank and Gaza. What subjects could be less aesthetically oriented than these?

But Genet was no third-world tourist or pornographer of human suffering.  Nor was he a journalist with progressive ideals about the remedial power of truth telling. Though his writings steadfastly support the causes and goals of those on the margins against what he calls the violent centers of power (America, Paris, London, Israel, the UN), his prose of this period, such as his 1971 writings about Bruno Barbey’s photographs of Palestinians published in Look magazine, show the influence that his studies of the visual arts has had on how he represents these subjects. Echoing what he sees in Rembrandt’s compositions, he notes in painstaking detail how the argot, paraphernalia and regalia of both the Black Panthers and the Palestinian soldiers — their spectacular “pomp” — provide a counterpoint to the equally visible evanescence and deterioration that Genet correctly foresees as already happening to those individual political bodies. Though the topics and places he covers in Prisoner of Love seem so apparently anchored to immediate geo-political narrative, Genet uncovers and paints in words the secret timelessness that makes the subjects so meaningful and pathetic to him.

Prisoner of Love is the literary self-portrait as an orgy of sight and touch and a eulogy to flesh that has not yet wholly disappeared, though it is always, as Genet learns from Rembrandt, in the process of vanishing. The memoir contemplates and voraciously catalogs all the apparent particulars he encounters without abstracting them into a larger story. He describes the rites, the rituals, the hairstyles, the weaponry, and, always, the unintentional yet pitiable theatricality of a wide range of displaced individuals. The memoir advances the aging Genet’s moral belief that action is mostly botched art and that even the most saintly gesture or sadistic evil has its roots in performance executed for its own sake. The beauty of these various failures, as recorded in his writing, is his legacy to the 20th century. While eulogizing himself  — Genet was already dying of inoperable throat cancer as he finished Prisoner of Love — he listens to Mozart’s Requiem on his Walkman and the music becomes the writers’ concretizing of his death, that inevitable erasure of I that Freud declared humans could never imagine because, when we try to, we survive our own passing away as spectators of it. But Genet had already learned how to render the colors, shapes and forms of life and of death from the painters. In his final self-portrait, he dissolves the spectator into the image of death that Mozart provoked:

The troglodytes came dancing out of their caves to welcome the dead woman, not in the light of the sun or moon but in pearly mist that generated its own light. The caves looked like holes in a huge Swiss cheese, and the cavemen, phantoms without your human dimensions, cheerful and even laughing, swarmed around greeting the newcomer (Prisoner of Love 61).

Works cited:

  • The Declared Enemy: Texts and Interviews translated by Jeff Fort, edited by Albert Dichy. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004
  • Fragments of the Artwork. trans. Charlotte Mandell Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008
  • Prisoner of Love. translated by Barbara Bray. New York: nyrb classics, 2003
  • The Thief’s Journal. translated by Bernard Frechtman New York: Grove Press, 1964
  • Sigmund Freud Reflections on War and Death (1918)
  • White, Edmund. Genet: A Biography (Vintage: New York, 1994), with chronology by Albert Dichy.

Tim Keane's writing on poetry and visual art has appeared in Modern Painters, The London Magazine, Utne Reader, The Brooklyn Rail, Vision China, and in Joe Brainard's Art (University of Edinburgh...