Henri Michaux (1899-1984) enjoys the best kind of posterity. On a small street in Paris – all of one block long – crowded with handsome galleries showing the fearsome, minutely crafted totems of Africa and Oceania, his paintings draw a steady stream of people who look at them not because they want to buy an object for their living room but to enter the reality they capture. Michaux – “hardly a painter, hardly even a writer,” according to John Ashbery – is also the man whose work is “without equal in the literature of our time” – according to Jorge Luis Borges.
“Painting is different―there is no question of truth.”
Henri Michaux, Untitled, 1984. Oil on canvas, 19 x 27 cm. Courtesy of Galerie Patrice Trigano, Paris.
A Shiver in the Workshop of the Brain
“I was born full of holes.” – Ecuador (1929)
Henri Michaux (1899-1984) enjoys the best kind of posterity. On a small street in Paris – all of one block long – crowded with handsome galleries showing the fearsome, minutely crafted totems of Africa and Oceania, his paintings draw a steady stream of people who look at them not because they want to buy an object for their living room but to enter the reality they capture.
Michaux – “hardly a painter, hardly even a writer,” according to John Ashbery – is also the man whose work is “without equal in the literature of our time” – according to Jorge Luis Borges. Michaux obviously exists outside neatly defined career categories and yet, both his writing and painting continue to compel interest and even admiration here in France. Why?
Michaux was born in Namur, Belgium in 1899. He was an unusual child, anemic, otherworldly, hated food and was prone to “motionless dreams.” He is instead obsessed by language, art, religion and insects – all of which provide a way out of ‘the misery of daily life.’ As a teenager he briefly considers the priesthood. A Barbarian in Asia, probably his best known work in English, has more than one aside about his country’s stifling confines and after quitting medical school he escapes: before turning thirty he has traveled to North and South America, North Africa, Turkey, Italy.
“I always wanted to be a sailor when I was young,” he writes, “And I tried it for a while, but I simply didn’t have the necessary physical strength. I had always thought I didn’t want to write, either. C’est excellent, il faut se tromper un peu.” (You really do have to go the wrong way sometimes.)
Laid up in the hospital with a heart condition in the early 20s, he reads Lautremont and realizes with language, anything is possible – he doesn’t have to depict the external world at all. He moves to Paris and makes contact with writers and publishing houses.
He continues to write and travel, and from the late 20s through the 30s publishes a number of books: My Properties, Darkness Moves and Plume among them (in the first he has sex with a fly) – which make his reputation. From the outset Michaux’s writing focuses on what might be called the trials of consciousness – or as he titles a later book The Major Ordeals of the Mind and the Countless Minor Ones. All of it “invented from my nerves.”
“Under the low ceiling of my little bedroom is my night, a deep abyss. Constantly hurled down to a depth of thousands of feet, with a gulf several times that big below me, I hang on by the rough spots with the greatest difficulty, dead tired, mechanically, helplessly, between disgust and perseverance…”
(Darkness Moves, 1935)
And he starts painting or rather he begins painting incessantly, an activity which would consume more and more of his time. “I began painting in the mid-1930s partly as a result of a Klee show I saw, partly because of my trip to the Orient. I once asked a prostitute for directions in Osaka and she did a lovely drawing to show me.” He is tempted by music as well.
Whereas poetry attempts “to express some non-logical truth,” he says, “Painting is different―there is no question of truth. I make rhythms in paintings just as I would dance. This is not a verity.” He is just getting started.
In 1954, after initially hesitating, Michaux accepts the invitation of friends, a neurologist among them, to experiment with mescaline. Seeking to isolate himself and minimize random interference, Michaux checks into a hospital for the duration – a practice he would maintain for many years. One is tempted to say that this moment is when before meets after but in fact mescaline simply provides a direct route to the source of his lifelong preoccupations, as well as the real test of his psyche.
Henri Michaux, Untitled, 1974-75. Oil and ink, 24 x 32.8 cm. Courtesy of Galerie Patrice Trigano, Paris.
“I had come in full of confidence. That day, my nerves were churned, shaken, sabotaged, thrown into convulsions. They were caressed, then in the next second, ripped out. Mescaline wanted my total compliance.”
He writes and draws throughout the long trips, producing manuscripts where the writing is drawing and the drawing a kind of asemic script. Words seemed to bash him over the head. “’Martyrsingably’ for example would come in again and again, full of meaning for me and I couldn’t get rid of it.”
The texts were “quickly thrown out in jerks, in and across the page, interrupted sentences – their syllables flying, shredded, torn apart – would go charging, diving, flying…Their letters ended in smoke or disappeared in zigzags.
“Since I could not present the manuscript itself, which directly translated the subject, rhythms, shapes and chaos all together…Everything had to be rewritten. The original text (was) easier to feel than to read.” So he hesitated, paused, waited- but the mescaline stayed with him.
“As for the drawings I began immediately after the third experiment, they were done with a vibratory movement that stays in you for days and days – automatic, blind you might say, but thus precisely reproducing the visions I had undergone, going through them yet again.”
Three pastels in the Trigano exhibition were drawn immediately after a 1969 mescaline voyage. They are vivid, intense, hard to decipher. They seem the work of a lucid madman, you feel you might go insane if you look too closely. Mayan heads, animals, miniscule portraits that seem to both exist and not exist at the same time – is your eye being tricked? Are you seeing something that isn’t there? You bend over to get a little closer. Everything in the pastels is bleeding red in the primal surge which embodies Michaux’s insistence on a non-stop flow. You feel as if you are being sucked into a labyrinth.
Most of the work in the Trigano show dates from the 70s and 80s, after Michaux had renounced drugs, saying, “Let’s say I’m not very gifted for addiction.” Whether he did in fact give it up or not, the tremors stayed with him. The emphasis in this show is on somewhat more serene images – none of his terrifying half-human, half-demon portraits are included here. These are landscapes with blurry, dancing figures, strange rituals – reminiscent of Goya – and proto-vocabularies. The mescaline is never far off.
Henri Michaux’s work is indelibly marked by the Christian tradition – hard to imagine it not being so. My King in Darkness Moves is a good example as Michaux’s shambling narrator tries desperately to get God to move out of his small room, picks a fight with him, gives up and eventually ignores his holy presence. Inevitable too is the influence of mystics both East and West, St. John of the Cross, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy…
“Hardly a painter, hardly even a writer,” says Ashbery, “But a conscience – the most sensitive subject yet discovered for registering the fluctuating anguish of day-to-day, minute-to-minute living.”
The comment goes to the crux of Michaux’s importance as a writer, the quality that makes him vital and not just another well-regarded professional entity on the market. The eternal amateur, perhaps the amateur – everything he does, painting and writing, is motivated by a boundless curiosity and the desire to find out what will happen if he tries this. He is tempted by music but put off by the rigorous requirements for mastering an instrument; he might just as easily have turned out to be an inconsequential flop. But he listens, is attuned to his instrument and records his experience simply, as if his terrors mattered. A kind of secular saint in a world denuded of belief – in itself. Everything he wrote functions as an act of conscience whose terms are not sin and redemption but awareness and movement.
Michaux lived near the Sorbonne during the May 1968 uprising. The Situationists knew and valued his work, and in the jetstream of the internet I saw – or think I saw – lines from his poem Counter! turned into grafitti during those feverish, hopeful weeks:
Je vous construirai une ville avec des loques, moi!
Je vous construirai sans plan et sans ciment
Un édifice que vous ne détruirez pas
I will build you a city out of rags, I tell you!
I will build you, without plan or cement
An edifice you will not destroy
*** I’m indebted to David Ball’s excellent Henri Michaux anthology, Darkness Moves (University of California Press, 1997) for many of the translations in this essay.
*** This article was published by NY Arts Magazine, 2011. NY Arts Magazine is published by Abraham Lubelski. Sponsored by Broadway Gallery, NYC and World Art Media.