in Interviews | 06 MAR 13
Featured in
Issue 153

Whoever Wants It

Jean-François Chevrier talks to Mark Sadler about his new book on artistic hallucination

in Interviews | 06 MAR 13

Bruce Conner, Psychedelicatessen Owner, 1990, collage on paper, 21 × 18 cm

The art historian and curator Jean-François Chevrier rose to prominence in France in 1982, aged 28, with his book Proust et la photographie. Written in response to his friend Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida (1980), it offered an antidote to Barthes’ definition of photography as ‘a fascinating and funereal enigma of mourning and melancholy’; while Barthes wrote from the passive position of the viewer, Chevrier wrote (via Proust) about the activity of making photographs. Chevrier’s approach to critical writing is characterized by clarity and an avoidance of stylistic mannerisms; he makes associations between art and literature that challenge our preconceptions. His landmark exhibitions – ‘Another Objectivity’ (Paris, France, and Prato, Italy, 1989) and ‘Photo-Kunst’ (Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, 1989) – reinvigorated the understanding of photography as an art form; he also acted as advisor for the historical content of documenta X in 1997.

Engaging with Chevrier requires us to question established intellectual and artistic hierarchies. He believes the true history of modern art has yet to be told and, in an attempt to rectify this situation, curated two large-scale historical exhibitions considering the legacy of the poet Stéphane Mallarmé in modern art (macba, Barcelona, Spain, 2004; Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, France, 2005). In November, he will return to Spain with the exhibition ‘Biographical Forms’ at the Reina Sofía, Madrid.

In September 2012, Chevrier published the yet-to-be-translated L’Hallucination artistique. De William Blake à Sigmar Polke (Artistic Hallucination: From William Blake to Sigmar Polke, Éditions L’Arachnéen), the sixth in a series of seven books of his collected writings. Œuvre et activité (Art Work and Activity), the seventh book in the series, is scheduled for publication at the end of this year. Since 1988, he has been professor of the History of Contemporary Art at L’École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts, Paris.

Mark Sadler Let’s begin by discussing your new book, Artistic Hallucination from William Blake to Sigmar Polke – who did you write it for?

Jean-François Chevrier The answer is simple: the book is à qui veut – for whoever. I used this expression, which was one of Mallarmé’s, as the title of my introduction to the catalogue which accompanied the exhibition of his work that I curated in 2004–05, about the impact of his poetics on modern art. ‘For whoever’ means the book was written without a target audience in mind, which is the opposite of how the mass media works.

MS At 670 pages, it’s a hefty publication. How do you envisage readers tackling it?

JC To cite Mallarmé again, I have no wish to pander to a reader’s need for simplification. I’ve written a book that doesn’t allow you to be a neutral bystander. You have to dive in, to become ‘hooked’, as Gustave Flaubert would say. The book is written for anyone who wants to learn; it’s written against the effects of neo-pop, which has created an amnesia with regard to the history of art before the 1960s; and, finally, I have written it for people who don’t want to choose between art and literature.

MS People like you?

JC Yes, I’ve always been interested in the relationship between art and literature and, although I ended up in art history, I would rather not have had to make that choice, and to have operated instead between art and literature. In this book, I treat the two as equals: I don’t want to write nice literature about art. I want to stay close to the artistic activity itself.

Marguerite Burnat-Provins, Ma Ville. Friloute le Peureux (My Town. Friloute the Fearful), 1915, pencil and watercolour on paper, 37 × 33 cm

MS It might be useful for the purposes of this discussion to define ‘hallucination’ and, more specifically, ‘artistic hallucination’.

JC Hallucination is a critique of reality, whereby the mind produces the effects of actual perception: your field of vision is replaced by another that appears as real as the reality it stands in for. The term ‘hallucination’ was first used at the start of the 19th century to denote the main area of study of a new branch of medicine then known as ‘alienism’ – due to its concerns with alienated madness and its sufferers – and later referred to as psychiatry. Hallucination was the core around which this discipline was constructed since, in the early 1800s, anyone who suffered from hallucinations was considered mad. Once the adjective ‘artistic’ is added, you leave the psychiatric register and move into another institutional structure: art. But I’m not the first to make that shift – that was Flaubert, in a letter to the philosopher and physiologist Hippolyte Taine, who had questioned him on the link between the hallucinations he was subject to and the artistic imagination that was at work when he wrote his novels. Flaubert answered by making a clear distinction between pathological and artistic hallucination, although that doesn’t erase the ambiguity: the latter is still related to the former.

The notion of ‘artistic hallucination’ has already been elaborated upon by the British literary historian Tony James [Dream, Creativity and Madness in 19th-Century France, 1995]. He was the first to point it out and to reposition Flaubert’s invention within the history of the relationship between psychiatry and literature. I’ve simply expanded upon James’s argument and extended it into the visual arts.

MS There seem to be two possible outcomes of hallucination: ecstasy or suffering.

JC Here we come back to Flaubert, who distinguishes between joy and terror. This is fundamental for him since it allows him to separate pathological hallucination, which operates on the side of terror, from artistic hallucination, which is joyful.

MS What are the mechanics of hallucination?

JC The basis of the psychiatric definition is that hallucination substitutes the perceptual field with another that is utterly hallucinatory: it is, in the words of the French psychiatrist Henri Ey, ‘perception without an object to be perceived’ [Traité des Hallucinations, Treatise on Hallucinations, 1973]. However, this substitution implies the negation of the here and now, of the events one is actually perceiving. In my book, I devote a number of pages to this fundamental negativity of hallucination. It is important to add that hallucination is not purely visual, of course, but auditory and verbal: the latter of which the Russian writer Nadezhda Mandelstam, wife of the poet Osip Mandelstam, claimed was the ‘professional malady of poets’ [Hope Against Hope, 1970].

MS Is hallucination dependent on language?

JC This is a question that I answer only tangentially in the book. Sigmund Freud defines infancy as being the period before the acquisition of language – the Latin infans meaning ‘without speech’ – yet it is at this stage that hallucinatory experience can be at its strongest. There are, of course, cases in which adults have no recourse to language; for instance, if they suffer from one of the many language-related pathological conditions, the most extreme of which is autism. In my opinion, however, the notion of hallucination in adults who have no access to language is irrelevant, since they have no possibility of putting into words their hallucinatory experience and may subsequently be living in a perpetual state of hallucination. Psychiatry has already identified the phenomenon of people existing in a kind of permanent oeneiric state, but this is not the same thing as dreaming, since when we refer to dreams in the history of the human psyche we mean the spoken or written accounts of dreams. Like the psychiatrists of the 19th century, the Surrealists were very interested in the hypnagogic state, as this place between sleep and wakefulness is an intermediate zone where consciousness and inner vision occur at the same moment, and the temporal fissure between a dream dreamt and a dream recounted no longer exists. There is no gap, just the intermediate space.

MS Was one of the deciding factors for which artists to profile in your book whether they were considered to be mad?

JC I believe that hallucination is a common occurrence, one not limited by definitions of mental illness. There is a sizeable part of my book which deals with the art of the insane, but that’s not what the book is about. Surrealism naturally has a strong presence in the book as well, since it is one of the key moments in history when poets and artists became deeply interested in hallucination. I also touch on the history of Art Brut as put forward by Jean Dubuffet in the wake of Surrealism, but I rather ignore the questions it raises since they are peripheral to my argument. My scope is broader; the narrative starts with William Blake.

William Blake, The Man Who Taught Blake Painting in His Dreams, 1819, pencil on paper, 30 × 25 cm

MS Why begin with Blake and end with Polke?

JC I could have started with Francisco Goya, who was Blake’s contemporary, and who is also a key figure in the book. Ultimately, however, I decided to start with Blake because I felt I had more original things to say about him, and because he is inextricably both a poet and an artist, which I find very interesting. Although Goya is a great Enlightenment figure, he is not a poet. With Blake, not only are we right on the threshold of the institutionalization of alienism but the question of whether he was actually insane is a matter of continual debate, so I try to respond to this question by building up a profile of Blake.

I decided to end with Polke since – either through allusion or reminiscence – he references all those who punctuate the history of artistic hallucination. Polke claimed to be in telepathic communication both with Blake and with Max Klinger; he was also inspired by Goya, whose works he repeatedly re-interpreted, and he revived and expanded on the spirit of Surrealist collage invented by Max Ernst, as well as being greatly influenced by Joan Miró. In Polke, it’s possible to find a synthesis of the works of most of the artists studied in this book, which made it particularly appropriate to conclude with him.

MS There is a thread running through the book that considers mysticism and mystical visions as counterbalancing institutionalized religion and the sciences (especially Positivism), all the way from Blake to the psychedelic era of the 1960s, with artists like Bruce Conner and Öyvind Fahlström.

JC French psychiatrists were very anti-clerical at the start of the 19th century, as were their hypotheses on hallucination. They were interested in historical figures, such as Joan of Arc or Socrates, who they studied closely with a view to drawing up a psychological portrait. One figure that particularly fascinated them was Saint Teresa of Ávila: they interpreted the written accounts of her visionary activity in terms of hallucination, they could even go as far as depleting her experiences of all religious content and examining them solely on psychophysiological terms. At the same time, many writers – such as the French poet Gérard de Nerval – were championing the visionary. A further level of complication was added by the fact that the visionaries themselves were often reticent about discussing their experiences, in case they were interpreted to be not divine interventions but the work of the devil.

MS You use engravings as illustrations throughout the book.

JC The 19th century saw the invention of photography but engraving was the medium that originally enabled books to accompany text with images. Engraving allows a visionary activity to enter the realm of illustration.

MS Of the images used in your book, which ones for you are indispensable?

JC The first that springs to mind is Nerval’s La généalogie fantastique [Fantastical Genealogy, 1841].

MS It’s a hallucinatory interpretation of a family tree.

JC Yes. I’m fascinated by the idea that such a vast imaginary field can be contained within such a small surface area.

MS Odilon Redon is also a paradigmatic artist for you. He began his career in Bordeaux, working as a printmaker and illustrator, and went on to become an incredible colourist. You have continually drawn attention to him as an alternative starting point for, and a major influence on, what subsequently developed in 20th-century art.

JC Redon’s legacy in terms of 20th-century art is considerable – he was very important for both Henri Matisse and Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp declared several times that he was more interested in Redon than in Cézanne as a means of distancing himself from Cézannian Cubism.
MS You revisit the art history of the 19th and 20th centuries to break up the logic of ‘isms’.

JC I think we should get rid of overly schematic categories in order to return to the art works themselves. This is something I learned from my teacher, Jurgis Baltrušaitis, the art historian and son of the eponymous Lithuanian Symbolist poet. Terms such as Fauvism and Cubism came from the press and from critics; although, of course, there are also terms such as Surrealism that would be difficult to dispense with, since they were coined by artists themselves. When I was curating the Mallarmé exhibition, it became clear to me that those two weighty terms of recent historiography, ‘Modernism’ and ‘Postmodernism’, are essentially useless. You can do away with them entirely and still envisage the history of modern art as a continuum – albeit with interruptions and displacements, gaps and anachronisms. The Postmodern rupture simply didn’t take place. Postmodernism as a concept really only has meaning in relation to architecture, and the term Modernism either refers in a socioeconomic context to an overall trend of modernization or to the very particular and plainly volatile definition put forward by Clement Greenberg.

MS Is there ever a political dimension to hallucination?

JC Do you mean in terms of the voluntary hallucinations of Arthur Rimbaud and, before him, Charles Baudelaire? From Rimbaud, you can trace a direct line of articulation all the way to the Surrealists. Rimbaud’s key phrase is: ‘The Poet makes himself a seer by a long, immense and reasoned unsettling of all the senses.’ Every word – long, immense, reasoned – counts; ‘reasoned’ is fundamental. ‘Voluntary hallucination’ is a notion of Baudelaire’s that Rimbaud took up.
MS What about Antonin Artaud?

JC The problem with Artaud is that his experience is far more violent than that of the other Surrealists. He suffered from a malaise deep within himself and, for him, voluntary hallucination was, above all, the search for a radical alternative to the state of the world at that time. He had intense feelings about how things should be and he suffered because he was disconnected from himself and from the world in a very severe way. Artaud coined the phrase mensonge de l’être – the lie of being – which touches on the raw nerve of hallucination as protest. Protest is a word often used by Artaud and he even went so far as to say that he was born to protest against the ‘lie of being’, by inventing another biography for himself, which brings us back to Nerval’s La généalogie fantastique.

MS You read Artaud at a very young age and you have written widely on him. Is there a period in his life that most interests you?

JC Yes: his later years. In my opinion, he is the greatest postwar artist – on a par with Jackson Pollock, but more interesting. This postwar Artaud re-enacts Nerval’s invented family tree, creating a new personal mythology for himself. This whole field is something I’m going to be exploring as part of the exhibition ‘Artistic Biography’, which I am co-curating with Elia Pijollet at the Reina Sofía. Artaud’s form of protest within hallucination is something you also find in Blake.

MS You claim that you wrote this book because you didn’t want to have to choose between art and literature, but given the number of pages dedicated to Artaud and to James Joyce, is it possible that literature actually wins out? That art rides on the back of literature and that the images are at the service of the texts? Do you favour literature over art?

JC For me, it’s not just about placing artists in relation to writers. It’s about identifying the artists for whom literature is actually important, how an artist might also have been a poet or a writer and, beyond that, how the relationship between art and literature should be seen as a structural one. Hallucination allows one to see precisely how, in Edvard Munch’s work for example, a pictorial structure corresponds to a narrative one. When I draw comparisons between Rimbaud and William Turner they are structural ones; it’s not simply about comparing surface effects. Again, this is something I learned from Baltrušaitis.

Dorothea Tanning, Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202 (Poppy Hotel, Room 202) (detail), 1970–03, installation, 3.4 × 3.1 × 4.7 m

MS In the book, there are many pairings of artists and writers: Franz Kafka with Alfred Kubin, Victor Hugo with Charles Méryon. The comparison between Turner and Rimbaud is especially interesting: Rimbaud tips a flow of words on a page, chasing them around until he finds his form, as though he is working fast to shape hot magma before it cools; similarly, Turner pours paint onto the surface of his watercolour paper and pulls the image out from within this amorphous beginning. Space seems to play a similar role for each.

JC I’m not favouring literature over art, but what I do privilege is the narrative as a dimension of the artistic activity, or description. Within the realm of individual mythology, descriptive accounts are spatialized, and this spatialization means that we are no longer within the linear schema associated with literature. Since Mallarmé, there has been a spatialization of writing and, for me, the art of the 20th century largely participates in it, most notably by the gesture traced in space.  So, if you like, it’s this narrative dimension, but a spatialized one, that I favour.

MS Your book, The Year 1967: From Art Objects to Public Things – Or, Variations on the Conquest of Space [1997], which is due to be republished this year, also deals with this concept.

JC I would say it’s not literature that I favour, but something between literature and visual art and also the art of performance. Performance is not covered in Artistic Hallucination, but it will form a major part of the next book in the series, Œuvre et activité. You could say that there is a tension within 20th-century art between the constructive dimension and the performative dimension. This tension is really fundamental and to properly perceive it you most likely have to go by way of hallucination.

MS The images in Artistic Hallucination occur in series, uninterrupted by text, at the beginning of each chapter.

JC In my book Walker Evans dans le temps et dans l’histoire [Walker Evans in Time and History, 2010], I have studied in detail how the images are distributed in his 1938 book American Photographs: they are placed in concentrated sequences – it’s practically a palimpsest. You can see a similar approach in the pictorial field of Polke. This play of images – extending the plane, producing a volume – is very important for me.

In Artistic Hallucination, you can see the relationships between the images as working to create a serious debate, but they also operate in a freer way, whereby they could exist without the discourse. When you curate an exhibition, you establish relationships between art works to develop an argument, but these relationships should also develop for themselves, beyond the intentions of the curator. If the audience remains imprisoned by the curator’s thesis, its experience will be diminished.

MS Your Artistic Hallucination project was originally meant to be an exhibition at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis but, in the wake of the financial crisis, the project was shelved. Has this perhaps pushed you to make the experience of the book as close as possible to the exhibition that you still hope to organize in the future?

JC Yes, the images in this book are not there to illustrate a discourse but should be capable of generating their own discourse, like in an exhibition – all the while acknowledging that the book is not an exhibition.

MS One little-known artist who struck me as remarkable was Marguerite Burnat-Provins. In response to her hallucinations she created a sophisticated pictorial language that has a compelling trippiness to it, oscillating between an Art Nouveau graphic style and qualities that, although she was working around 1915, feel akin to artists of the psychedelic era of the 1960s, like Bruce Conner.

JC Women have been consistently underrated in art history and I am very much a feminist in this regard. The fact that women are not properly represented distorts everything! Dorothea Tanning was a wonderful artist but she has always been underrated because she had the misfortune – and also good fortune, since they were apparently happy together – to live with Max Ernst. Being Ernst’s partner caused her reputation as an artist to suffer. Her installation Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202 [Poppy Hotel, Room 202, 1970–3], is a masterpiece of the genre. You can even relate it to Marcel Broodthaers’s idea of décor. Whether it be Kubin or Tanning, the descriptions artists give of their hallucinatory or visionary experiences constitute a kind of matrix or mould out of which they can later produce an art work.

MS This brings us to the question of subject matter.

JC In the 19th century, fine art underwent a huge crisis due to a new push towards realism brought about by the invention of photography, and the rise in the power of the media. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, artists were faced with an unprecedented freedom: they had to invent new subjects for themselves. This is marvellously apparent in the work of Matisse. Artists searched for inspiration in numerous fields, most notably in so-called primitive art: tribal art forms and the art of children. Subject matter was no longer derived from a repertoire: each artist had to find his own and, through this, a new biographical dimension evolved. This doesn’t mean, of course, that before the 19th century artists only worked outside of their biographies, but from the end of the 19th century they saw the possibility of transforming their own biographies in order to find new subjects.

MS Does this tie in with hallucination?

JC Well, hallucination is perceived to be a form of biographical transformation – Jacques Lacan defined hallucination as a biographical event. However, here again we must return to Nerval, since the notion of individual mythologies was first advanced by the critic Albert Béguin in reference to Nerval’s work, and was then later famously taken up by Harald Szeemann.

MS There is little about photography in this book but it occupies an important place in your own career and writing.

JC I have always been interested in photography because I felt it could cater to the demands of realism whilst unsettling a certain academization in the art of the late 1970s. At that time, I was fed up with some of the formalist debates surrounding painting, particularly in France, and so photography seemed to me to be a tool that allowed contact with the real world. But I never sided with an art form locked within current events or whose objective was focused on the here and now. Theories of Actualism didn’t suit me either, so Mallarmé’s phrase, ‘Ill-informed anyone who would announce himself his own contemporary,’ remains a defining one. You can’t be your own contemporary, and this is also why I challenge the term ‘contemporary art’.

MS How do you link hallucination to the experience of a work of art?

JC For me, the dynamic of what I call ‘modern art’ is made up largely of the tension generated by two contradictory orientations: the demands of the here and now – of reality – and a critical response towards that very here and now. Hallucination is a critique of reality, but one whereby the mind produces the effects of actual perception: your field of vision is replaced by another one that appears as real as the reality it stands in for. This can be interpreted through artistic forms – the ‘reality effect’ of hallucination is also the effect produced by a work of art. In French, in everyday speech, we say c’est hallucinant: it’s the effect that a work of art produces – different from, but as strong as, the experience of actual perception. In terms of my own work, this is the spur.