Mad as Hell

Antonin Artaud’s pictures from a psychiatric institution.

Antonin Artaud: Works on Paper
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Oct. 5, 1996–Jan. 7, 1997

Antonin Artaud suffered his first depressive breakdown at 16; at 21, he was diagnosed with hereditary syphilis (his parents, in addition, were first cousins). He was treated with laudanum, which initiated a lifelong drug addiction. Although in nearly constant physical pain–he had contracted meningitis when he was five, and the headaches continued for the rest of his life–and mental anguish, he functioned reasonably well until the age of 41, when a number of psychotic incidents caused him to be confined in a psychiatric hospital. He suffered from what was described as “incurable paranoid delirium,” and left that asylum only to enter another. In all, he spent roughly 15 of his 52 years in institutions of one sort or another.

For all that, he was extraordinarily productive. His collected writings fill 26 volumes in the French edition. He was trained as an actor, and went on to direct, found his own theater, and write a set of visionary theoretical essays, collected as The Theater of Cruelty, that have continued to influence theatrical practitioners to this day. He also acted in films; his performances are few but indelible, from his matinee-idol turn as the empathetic monk in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) to his part as Marat in Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927), in which, at one point, he breaks off a discussion by getting down on all fours and barking like a dog. He was an early member of the surrealists and director of the group’s Central Research Bureau. He was drummed out by André Breton after two years–nearly all members were expelled sooner or later–but Breton eventually repented, calling him a “man of prodigies” and perhaps the truest surrealist of all.

Artaud’s work in his many fields is consistent and interwoven, but it is not easy to define. It is, above all, a monument to frustration, one long scream of protest at the inadequacy of language, of human society, of the body and the mind. Artaud was a revolutionary who was fighting for the overthrow of the constraints that define consciousness. It is as if he could just make out the penumbra of some spiritual essence on the far edge of his perception, and was maddened by his inability to seize it. He described all his work as “documents”–that is, not the poems, essays, polemics they seem to be, and certainly not “art,” but mere records of his flailing attempts to reach the elusive substance of Truth.

The drawings currently on exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art he likewise qualified as “documents.” These drawings–there are roughly 70 items–are products of the last decade or so of his life (he died in 1948), are not well known, and have never before been shown in this country. They are singular and powerful works; gathered together, they possess a clobbering force. They seem to come out of nowhere while prefiguring all sorts of later tendencies in art. It seems absurd to think that the evolution they present covers only 10 or 11 years, rather than an entire career, but then, Artaud hardly thought in terms of a “career.”

The earliest works are described as “spells.” These are blessings and curses he wrote on charred or otherwise manipulated bits of paper and sent to friends, enemies, and a few public figures (Hitler, for one) in the late 1930s, in the wake of a disastrous trip he took to Ireland, wielding a cane that he believed was the staff of Saint Patrick, from which he returned in a straitjacket. (These spells are nowhere translated or transcribed, and the handwriting is often indecipherable. One of the few I could make out, addressed to the actor Roger Blin, reads, in part: “All those who have acted to prevent me from taking HEROIN all those who have laid a finger on Anne Manson [a friend] on account of that Sunday [illegible] May 1939, I will [illegible] them alive on a square in PARIS and I will cause them to be perforated and burn their marrow.”)

A rtaud began drawing in earnest around 1944. By 1945, he was making large tableaux of what he called hieroglyphics: fields of human figures, symbolic objects, and words, many of them in invented languages. Some of these drawings, in precise pencil with hints of color, have a diagrammatic quality that seems oddly evocative of Saul Steinberg’s work; indeed, divorced from context, some might at first be mistaken as whimsical. There are multiple breasts, various penile objects, including cousins of Dalí’s penis-on-crutch, and details that might derive from alchemical symbology.

In 1946, the pencil work became heavier and more insistent, the colors more assertive, the nightmare aspects harder to miss. A work entitled The Theater of Cruelty, for example, shows a number of women apparently encased in glass coffins; an exceedingly cryptic stew of geometric and biomorphic elements is called The Sexual Awkwardness of God. In May 1946, he produced his first self-portrait. It is so heavily scored that it looks nearly sculptural, and it is covered with dots that look like smallpox–an essay in the catalogue cites Freud, by way of Gilles Deleuze, on the “schizophrenic aptitude for perceiving the surface and skin as if it were pierced with an infinite number of little holes.” A Blue Head made around the same time is even scarier, caught in midscream, all covered with those diseased dots, with occluded eyes and a banana neck. It is, convincingly, a face from hell.

In 1947, Artaud moved from the psychiatric hospital at Rodez to a sort of halfway house at Ivry-sur-Seine, where he had more mobility and was able to receive visitors. These he drew, in a series of penetrating and quite varied portraits. Rolande Prevel, for example, is given almost a Matisse treatment, Colette Thomas is rendered with a delicacy that amounts to tenderness, while Jacques Prevel seems to have been sawn in two and restitched any old way, Mania Oïfer turned into an owl, Arthur Adamov fashioned from flung mud, with a penis for a nose. (Adamov was the author of PingPong and other plays; the other portrait subjects are mostly unknown to me.) Artaud was clearly an excellent draftsman but, as he notes, “you must look at [the drawings] and see what’s inside.” He also writes that “the human face is an empty force, a field of death,” and that the alignment of form and content has never been farther off than in the contrast between facial features and what lies beneath them. His portraits are so uncompromising they make Picasso’s or Giacometti’s look polite.

By the end, just before his death from rectal cancer (a grimly appropriate fate for the author of “The Search for Fecality,” in which he asks: “Is god a being? If he is he is one of shit”–shit being, in Artaud’s view, of human essence and the sole alternative to the void), he was beginning to draw complex, heavily laden constructions that look like architecture made from heads–in the very last drawing they are stacked, as in so many totem poles. They are anything but morbid, though; they possess a vivid, throbbing life. These drawings appear to synthesize all the preoccupations of the phases of his previous three years; they fluidly combine the diagrammatic, the near-lyrical, and the excruciating. Here again, Artaud’s ferocity, anguish, and hallucinatory paranoia are matched and joined by his intelligence and paradoxical control.

Artaud may have been mad, but his art is hardly confined to madness. The portraits, in which he used calm observation and academic skill to depict external reality while representing the interior through distortion and paper-tearing physical force, are more troubling than many of the interestingly science-fictional renderings of his visions, for example. His work can no more be dispatched into some rubric like “outsider art” than that of Blake or Hölderlin. Artaud’s art is insidious; its penetration of what we know is so acute, its lucidity so much the equal of its delusion, that deciding where the one leaves off and the other begins can seem merely a measure of our own delusions.