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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Van Gogh dans l’oeil d’Artaud

by Maurice Ulrich

Van Gogh in the Eye of Antonin Artaud

Translated Sunday 6 April 2014, by Henry Crapo

With more than fifty canvases, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris proposes the most important exposition since 1947 devoted to the work of Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890). It is accompanied by the thundering and flamboyant texts of the poet Antonin Artaud, author of "Le suicidé de la société".

Antonin Artaud was fifty years of age in 1946 when, attended by his friends Arthur Afamov, Jean Paulhan, he left the psychiatric hospital in Rodez, where he had been interned for three years, undergoing dozens of electro-shocks. The author of "Le théâtre et son double", the actor, his beautiful face ravaged, one who had played Napoleon for Abel Gance, had already spent nine years of his life in various establishments, living on the borderline of madness. But when he is delirious, he writes, he paints, and can say "My drawings are not drawings, but documents. You have look at them and understand what is in them." In 1947 he returned to a "normal life", and refused to be interned again, but he was no less subject to great mental suffering.

Doctor Pierre Loeb had already suggested to him that he write a book about Van Gogh. He had not followed up on this suggestion. Pierre Loeb did not give up, and proceeded a bit later to light the fuse for a veritable intellectual explosion, when he handed Van Gogh an extract of a book by a psychiatrist, François-Joachim Beer, which was supposed to be a portrait of the insanity of the painter. This was a direct hit. Artaud set out at once, doped up by anger, to write what would perhaps be his best-known text, "Van Gogh, le suicidé de la société"; his study is of a sabre-like lucidity. He writes, "It is in this fashion that society strangles, in its asylums, all those of whom it wishes to rid itself, or against whom it wants to defend itself, such as those who refuse to become complicit in certain high crimes." We understand clearly, from this point of view, to what degree Artaud could interest himself in philosophy (Deleuze, Foucault), as well as in the anti-psychiatry movements (Laing, Cooper, Basaglia) in the 1970’s, and that these questions remain alive. Artaud, himself, will find himself again in the starry skies of Van Gogh, and the heavy flight of the crows over the golden wheat.

A Burning Look

From this starting point, the beautiful idea by the Musée d’Orsay, in Paris, to present a new exposition of Van Gogh, with, upon the works presented, the burning look of Antonin Artaud.

At the same time, it is essential to say that this exposition is a very great exposition of Van Gogh, the largest in France since 1947, with 12 canvasses from the Orsay, to be sure, but 35 from other lands or private collections. It is a major event. The director of the Orsay, Guy Cogeval, summarises it simply. To bring together so many paintings by the most expensive artist, alongside Picasso — we remember that Van Gogh sold only one painting during his lifetime — is an achievement. For the public, it is clearly a unique opportunity to get involved in the substance of this work, in the "pâtes" of one who, with his torments, in alcohol, sometimes in delirium, as in a profound reflection and an extreme clarity concerning painting and colour, was, in the words of Artaud, "nothing but the painter Van Gogh, nothing more, no philosophy, no mysticism, no rite, no psychurgie or liturgy, no history of literature or of poetry, ..., but, ... in order to understand a thunder storm in nature, a stormy sky, a plain in nature, you can not help but go back to Van Gogh."

Until 6 July, 2014, at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, with catalog edited by Skira, and drawings by Antonin Artaud, 210 pages, 39€.

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