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Repositories of Black Magic: the Humour and the Horror of Antonin Artaud’s Asylum Notebooks

A show at London’s Cabinet Gallery gives insight into the great writer’s most troubled period

In his 1947 book Artaud le Mômo, Antonin Artaud called insane asylums ‘repositories of black magic’. He was referring, in part, to the electroshock treatment that Dr. Gaston Ferdière administered to him (with permission) 58 times over 19 months at an asylum in Rodez, southern France. The treatment, Artaud wrote, ‘plunges the shocked person into that death rattle with which one leaves life’. Only by leaving life was he able to re-enter it, if not ‘sane’, then at least productive. Between his arrival in Rodez in 1943 and his death at a psychiatric clinic in Ivry-sur-Seine five years later, Artaud filled some 20,000 notebook pages. Existing somewhere between art and literature, private confessions and public screeds, a magnum opus and preparatory sketches, these notebooks challenge any attempt at rational categorization – much as Artaud, self-described ‘edgy and irrepressible asshole’, did his whole life.

Antonin Artaud, Portrait de Lily Dubuffet, 1947, chalk and coloured pencil on paper, 67 × 49 cm. Courtesy: Bibliothèque nationale de France and Cabinet, London

Eighty of these notebooks are displayed in vitrines in a clinical, museum-like arrangement in Cabinet’s downstairs gallery: the product of extensive negotiations with the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BNF), to whom they were bequeathed by Artaud’s close friend Paule Thévenin, who died in 1993. Alongside the notebooks are a handful of archival materials, such as photographs and books (including a first edition of Artaud le Mômo), as well as four works by Richard Hawkins, Jim Nutt, Henrik Olesen and Jean-Luc Parant. The spotless white vitrines sharply contrast with the wretched materiality of Artaud’s notebooks. By far the most fascinating aspect of the exhibition, these pages erupt with fragments of poetry, shards of sentences, rants, lists, spells, drawings of totemic structures and coffin-like boxes, portraits of friends and glossolalia: blizzards of mark-making in which image and text fuse into scratchy, hieroglyphic amalgams. Printed on A4 paper and pinned to wall-mounted boards are Paul Buck and Catherine Petit’s English translations of the displayed pages. These are dense with flashes of astonishing lucidity (‘His whole soul is in his body but his whole body is not his soul’) and incantatory nonsense (‘lober / tletchtah / latrah’).

Grubby with smudges, stains and erasures, the yellowed pages evidence the fury with which Artaud worked, pushing pencils so hard he often pierced the page. These emphatic scars and mutilations manifest his desire, stated in ‘The Theatre of Cruelty: First Manifesto’ (1932), to develop a mode of expression ‘halfway between gesture and thought’ – as he did in his rippling, hallucinatory 1947 portrait of Lily Dubuffet, a highlight of this exhibition. The notebooks’ fragility also reflects the physical toll of treatment. During his first rounds of electroshocks at Rodez, Artaud fractured a vertebra; by the end of treatment, his teeth had fallen out. In Georges Pastier’s 1948 black and white photograph, displayed in a corner alcove, Artaud is skeletal and clad in shabby black. But he is writing in a notebook, gripping it so tightly the pages buckle and bend.

Antonin Artaud, Cahier 310, undatedCourtesy: Bibliothèque nationale de France and Cabinet, London

Mounted to a wall on metal brackets is Olesen’s Untitled I (2019): a small, sealed glass box whose airless transparency hints at the suffocation Artaud endured at the hands of society. Presenting the notebooks in a chilly white room further mimics the institutional confinement against which Artaud raged. In his 1947 essay ‘Van Gogh, the man Suicided by Society’, he described confinement as ‘a weapon’: ‘society has strangled in its asylums all those it wanted to get rid of or protect itself from’. The vitrines, which are a legal prerequisite of the BNF loan, are there to protect the notebooks, rather than society, from damage. But the staging feels excessively austere: Artaud, who rebelled against convention, is here presented in the most stringently conventional manner imaginable. He has traded the asylum for the white cube.

Antonin Artaud, 'Drawings and Writings, Cahiers de Rodez et d’Ivry' runs at Cabinet Gallery, London, until 6 April 2019.

Main image: Antonin Artaud, 'Drawings and Writings, Cahiers de Rodez et d’Ivry', 2019, installation view. Courtesy: Cabinet Gallery, London

Patrick Langley is a writer and critic based in London, UK. He is a contributing editor of The White Review.

Issue 203

First published in Issue 203

May 2019
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