BY Neal Brown in Reviews | 06 JUN 99
Featured in
Issue 47

Henri Michaux

BY Neal Brown in Reviews | 06 JUN 99

Contemporary interest in Henri Michaux (1899-1984) tends to concentrate on the works he made while under the influence of mescaline. The deliberate self-derangement of his practice has conferred upon the artist the privileged status accorded to mythologised artistic behaviour. The relationship between artistic sensibility and drug use is different from that of artistic creativity and drug use. Ingesting an esoteric vegetable toxin does not appear to have been an aid to creativity for Michaux, but certainly functioned as a short cut to low-level mysticism and guaranteed notoriety.

It is difficult to decide whether or not Michaux is one of those who successfully widened the doors of perception, or just another stoned hysteric like Timothy Leary et al; whether his descriptions are those of a rapt visionary, or of a shrill, over-excited proselytiser. It is possible to see his work as that of a fearlessly able and intelligently sincere enquirer, but also as the dim, burnt out psycho-doodles of a sadly diminished intelligence.

Regarded as a witness to the existential crisis of the 20th century, Michaux continues to be assessed in a somewhat overblown manner. In the exhibition catalogue to this show, for example, the caption for Untitled (1968) reads 'Finally liberated from language, Michaux would throw, blow and drag ink around the paper, releasing his inner turmoil'. Such groaning descriptions of artistic 'turmoil', along with Eric Duvivier's excruciatingly bad film about Michaux's hallucinations, Visions of a Visionary World (1963), played to repellently fascinating, kitsch effect in this show, conspire to weaken Michaux's case still further. The fact that his euphoric art writings, when translated from their original French art-babble into English art-babble, become painfully over-florid does not help matters either.

'Liberated from language' refers to Michaux's ambivalent straddling of two artistic disciplines: writing and drawing. The artist regarded spoken or written language as somehow disfiguring - an unwelcome compromise of the originating creative impulse, devised without consultation with Michaux and therefore the 'words of others'. Drawing comprises spontaneous correspondence with feeling, without such regimented precedent. For these reasons, Michaux devised his own gesturally drawn alphabets, such as Alphabet (1927), which recall ancient, indecipherable texts.

At heart it appears that Michaux was an extreme egoist, reluctant to co-operate even with fundamental social constructs except strictly on his own terms. His splendid isolation is not indifferent towards his audience however - every sentence the artist wrote strained for effect. Michaux's famous reticence and enigmatic outsider status are belied by his strident self-obsession and over-use of the first-person pronoun in his 30 or so volumes of writing. His artistic stance parallels the anorexia he suffered (unusually for a male), in his youth. If the inverse law of anorexia dictates that less is more, Michaux's apparent self-effacement becomes a desperate, shrill scream for attention.

Michaux's texts, and their crossover into ideograms, hieroglyphs and gestural calligraphy, reach their apotheosis with the mescaline works - ink or coloured pencil on paper drawings executed either under the influence of mescaline or during later recollections of its effects. Works such as Mescaline Drawing (c.1956-58), unlike the earlier watercolours, are at once sincere, enjoyable and artless, and, in a self-damaged way, heart-stoppingly scary, comprising obsessive replications of vacillating viral forms. Cumulatively, the shifting cellular patterns become organically symmetrical, like a cerebral cortex, or cross-sections of other natural phenomena.

With his mescaline works, the liberation Michaux craved from language became, through drugs and automated drawing, ironically subsumed into a totally unliberated slavery to the nervous-tic-like repetitions and slowed-down macro/micro cosmos of the stoned person. The sadly perishing paper of the drawings recalls the cheap material of a child's old scrapbook that has acidified and yellowed, the fugitive colours of which are now dull or subdued. The effect is of an old person reminiscing about their youth, a youth now identifiably dated by its long-gone fashion statements.

Neal Brown is an artist and writer based in London, UK.