in Frieze | 05 MAY 04
Featured in
Issue 83

In the Realm of the Senses

Revisiting the work of author, artist and translator Pierre Klossowski

in Frieze | 05 MAY 04

The writer and artist Pierre Klossowski had the sort of upbringing guaranteed to foster an icon or a transgressor - or, in his case (and that of his younger brother Balthus), both. Born in 1905 to a mother who had been a student of Pierre Bonnard and a father who was a painter and an art historian, he was practically raised to take a crucial, if cunningly peripheral, role in European cultural life. In 1917 his parents separated and his mother became the lover of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who introduced the family to the novelist André Gide. Young Pierre - who had at last, he later recalled, found an adult who took an interest in his collection of photographs of Moroccan boys - amused Gide by writing homoerotic fantasies. Gide, in turn, paid for Klossowski's education.

Klossowski's long life (he died in 2001) would read like an improbably Zelig-style comedy, were it not for the evidence of his intimacy with several generations of artistic endeavour. In the mid-1930s he befriended Georges Bataille and joined the Surrealist group Contre-Attaque (Counter-Attack) which included Maurice Heine, Paul Eluard and André Breton. He embarked on a prestigious career as a translator, rendering key works by Franz Kafka, Friedrich Nietzsche and Ludwig Wittgenstein. He prepared the first French edition of an essay on art and technology by his friend, the little-known exiled German critic Walter Benjamin. At the outbreak of the World War II he fled Paris for Lyon, where he had a religious crisis, and spent most of the war in a Dominican seminary. He left before being ordained. On returning to the capital, and having been banished from the Surrealist coterie for his excessively theological reading of the Marquis de Sade, he quickly took up with the Existentialists, as if his place in the latest Parisian intellectual movement was more or less a birthright.

But this biographical précis gives little sense of where this almost caricatured mid-century intellectual journey had brought him: to a very peculiar admixture of Surrealist sensibility, Christian piety and Sadean strangeness. Breton had baulked at his version of Sade - a writer, Klossowski claimed, whose apparently monstrous universe was actually a paradoxical proof of the existence of a divine goodness. He borrowed something else from the devious marquis: a growing interest in erotic theatrics, first fully expressed in his novel Roberte ce soir (1954).1 'Novel' is perhaps too feeble a word; his book turns the vicious repetitions of the Sadean vision into an oddly cheerful procession of philosophical and carnal episodes. An ageing cleric, Octave, institutes an eccentric law in his household: the 'rule of hospitality' invites any guest to take advantage of his wife, Roberte. Their nephew Antoine looks on, bemused by but attracted to this odd arrangement, and to the scurrilous dialogues and couplings to which it gives rise.

Fearful of censorship, Klossowski's publisher Jérôme Lindon decided that the book should appear as a deluxe limited edition, illustrated by Balthus. When his drawings failed to meet Klossowski's requirements, Balthus suggested that Pierre provide his own drawings. The result is a series of images that replicate the novel's key carnal moments: the long-suffering, though apparently serene Roberte, her skirt unaccountably ablaze, is swiftly un-dressed by a mysterious male figure. Octave encourages the subsequent attacks on his wife, somehow convinced that these dramatic interludes will reveal to him her spiritual essence.

Klossowski once finished a series of drawings with the signature Pierre, le maladroit (Pierre the clumsy). In an artistic career that spanned half a century he could not really be said to have honed his technique. Rather, he worked tirelessly on the elaboration of certain obsessions, notably the insertion of the face and body of his wife, Denise - the model for the extravagantly ravished Roberte - into an apparently unending succession of erotic tableaux. The drawings are resolutely awkward. Their solecisms of scale and proportion are not so much evidence of formal naivety as invitations to address something that is, for Klossowski, far more pressing: the realm of gesture.

Time and again, whatever the prodigiously imagined scenario into which the artist has thrust her, Roberte adopts the same pose. Everything in these drawings, which expose her to grips and gazes, either malign or merely curious (as in the many images where she is seized by small boys), is actually in the arrangement of her hands. Whether beset by the sinister guardsman in Roberte ce soir, pawed and pored over by adolescents or cast in further fictionalized settings (the classical rape of Lucretia by Tarquin, the strange arrival of Jonathan Swift's diminutive Gulliver at the end of her bed), Roberte holds one hand close and closed, the other raised and open. Often her raised hand shields the eyes of her attacker while the other is thrust between her legs (the cue for questionable conjectures by Klossowski's narrators as to whether she is protecting herself or guiding her assailant). But the pose is not always a response to violence; it is to be seen too in the drawings of Roberte (or Denise) alone. One hand curled, the other splayed, Roberte, as the title of one drawing has it, is 'mad about her body'.

This pose has venerable antecedents. It is there, for example, in Raphael's The School of Athens (1510-11), in which Aristotle appears with one hand open to the world and the other on his Ethics. In the 'pantomime of spirits' performed across the ceaselessly replicated stage of Klossowski's art these twin gestures denote nothing less than the theatricalization of thought. Roberte, it turns out, is the true philosopher, not the desiccated Octave. Her limbs mime the attitude of a body and mind suspended between the spiritual and the carnal: 'the gesture of a silent physiognomy frozen in its expression: of denial? Confession? Or both at the same time?'2 Consistently, too, her face seems utterly detached from the fate of her body, casting slyly amused and sidelong glances out of the frame. In the end, says Klossowski, Roberte triumphs: in contrast to the Sadean extremes of torture visited on the adolescent female form, Roberte's body is transformed into a kind of pure spiritual drama whose final act is the assertion of her philosophical, moral and physical maturity.

1. Pierre Klossowski, Roberte ce soir and The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, trans. Austryn Wainhouse, Dalkey Archive, Chicago, 2002.
2. Pierre Klossowski and Maurice Blanchot, Decadence of the Nude, trans. Paul Buck and Catherine Petit, Black Dog, London, 2002, p. 127.