Spectator, Spectre, Sitter
The Art of Antonin Artaud

Antonin Artaud’s final period (1945-1948), which involved a complex interpenetration of drawing and writing, may be viewed as a successful culmination of his 1930s concept of a Theater of Cruelty. This evolution had three crucial stages. The first project failed to materialize because Artaud was dependent upon the financial support of others for a spectacle that remained sketchy even for him. In the second stage, this theater abandoned its projected space in outer ceremony and took up residence in Artaud’sown mind and body, becoming a psychotic shadow drama he could neither control nor share. The third and final stage began in the Rodez asylum in 1945 when, after more than a year and a half of electro-shock sessions, Artaud began to draw in a way that completely engaged him—which probably saved him from future shock treatments. His Theater of Cruelty was then realized in the one-on-one exchanges between Artaud and his sitters for the post-Rodez portraits. Artaud’s commentary and incantations often scattered through such portraits link them to the daily notebook entries in which writing and drawing vie for space, and to those texts with incantational blocks unpredictably inserted in veering, witty tirades. 1

Eliminating playwright and script, the original Theatre of Cruelty was to be directed “by a kind of unique Creator to whom will fall the double responsibility of the spectacle and the action.” It was to be immediate (no spectacle was to be staged twice), gestural (physically articulated signs; actors as hieroglyphs), and dangerous—threatening the identities and bodies of both participants and spectators. Defining cruelty as a kind of charged rigour (“Everything arranged to a hair in a fulminating order”),Artaud proposed that the barrier between stage and performer should be obliterated, with the spectators placed at the center in a bare, undecorated building. Language, including screams, was to be used as percussive marking. This Theater of Cruelty was to evoke the plague, and be up to the forces of life at large, with the actor “an inspired ghost radiating affective powers.”

This theatrical potential included Balinese dance, Marx Brothers films, Lucas van Leyden’s painting The Daughters of Lot, the Conquest of Mexico, as well as Artaud’s psychic deadend, exacerbated by drug addiction, which he described throughout the 1920s and early-to-mid 1930s as one of total exhaustion, “acidic burning in the limbs, muscles twisted and as cut through to ribbons,” an inability to think, and a paralyzing sense of non-existence. As an organism in a constant state of self-destruction and self-reconstruction, the Theater of Cruelty was a phantasmagoric elaboration of Artaud’s own life. In spite of being, as he put it, “not dead, but separated,” produced during this period nearly two dozen film scenarios and books which masterfully charted his predicament. 2

Artaud completely cracked in the fall of 1937, becoming his own deliriously-paranoid double, Antonéo Arlaud. He spent the next eight years and eight months in five insane asylums. At Ville Evrard, the interns recorded their amazement at the ferocious energy with which he would fight the demons he claimed surrounded him day and night. He believed that the interns as well as his friends in Paris were infested with Doubles, who were Initiates. They invaded him at night attempting to steal his semen and excrement, dictated letters in his hand, and spied on him, possessing his thoughts before he could make them conscious.

This last complaint evokes Artaud’s 1923 correspondence with Jacques Riviére in which he protested against someone or something intercepting his thoughts. What had been invisible forces in 1923 had, by 1939, take on identities in a Theater of Cruelty conceived and performed by and in the body and mind ofArtaud/Arlaud. The beginning of Artaud’s regeneration seemed to take place at this time. Although he still believed his thought was being robbed, he was identifying the robbers as fantasy formations and assigning them names—Astral, Flat-nosed Pliers, Those Born of Sweat, Cigul the Incarnation of Evil—and strategies. At this time, Artaud was a savage parody of a creator/director/dancer, a one-man gesturaltheater, whirling about his intern-spectators, screaming, “an inspired ghost radiating affective powers.”

After Artaud’s 1943 transfer to the Rodez asylum, much of his demon-fighting energy was channeled into sound experiments:  condensing syllables, grunting, humming, praying out loud while eating, and declaiming in a range of sonorous, monotonous, and full tones. In hindsight, one can see that these eruptions were leading to the vocal writing of 1946 and 1947. However, Gaston Ferdière detested his patient’s “happenings” and in a cruel attempt to redirect Artaud’s energy, put him through 51 electro-shock sessions.

In January 1945, Artaud began to draw on large sheets of paper, using pencils, crayons, and colored chalks. He also funneled his Ville Evrard cast of Doubles into a multi-prismed Catholic drama in the notebooks he began keeping. Near the end of 1945, he began to draw as well as to write in the notebooks, initially depicting bulbous, rigid, naked human figures tattooed with spots.3

The drawings on large sheets between January and September 1945 are tentative and tensionless, with human bodies, protozoa, and tubular sponges putting forth pseudopods, adrift like loose molecules in an unstable, psychic fluid. The first of the hermaphroditic totem poles and wheeled cannons appear, along with thin columns of syllables.

Over the next several months, Artaud experimented with various layouts and ways of constructing figures. The drawings become playful at times, and include tiny figures strapped to tables, wheeled penis-cannons, cartoonish women holding huge scythes whose handles are penises, free-floating spread-eagled imps, envelopes turning into torso-like machines, and tubes, cylinders, and bubbles.Artaud’s first fully-articulated drawing, “The Totem” (December 1945), is an assertively-reworked, smudged, mutilated, faceless, spindle-shaped female who will reappear in later writings as the “strangled totem” and “the innate totem.”

From February 1946 on, until his release from Rodez the following May, Artaud’s drawings become increasingly bold and slashing. His first self-portrait (the last drawing to be completed before his release) scathingly captures the asylums’ assault in a face cut through with sores and scars, and measled with black spots. One eye is glazed, dead; the other starkly watchful, and aware. This is probably the drawing that Artaud’s one doctor friend, Jean Dequeker, watched him rework for several days,”shattering pencil after pencil, suffering the internal throes of his own exorcism.”

Once free of Rodez, and based in a clinic outside of Paris, Artaud turned a derelict pavilion into his workshop. By the end of his life (less than two years later, from intestinal cancer and possibly an overdose of choral hydrate), the damp, dirty walls of this last “theater” were smeared with blood; his work table, his pounding stump, and the head of his bed were gouged with knife holes.4

Artaud would draw standing before a table, making noises, and often pressing his pencil point into the part of his head that corresponded to the part of the sitter’s head that he was depicting. The sitter was forbidden to move, but allowed to talk. Artaud made dots by crushing his pencil lead into the paper; his strokes were so violent that he sometimes tore the paper, at others so insistent that the drawing took on an anthracitic gleam. Paule Thévenin—Artaud’s dearest friend, sitter, and editor—told Stephen Barber that sitting for Artaud was like being flayed alive.

Glancing back to the original Theater of Cruelty, we can see how faithful Artaud was to his all-embracing project. He compressed its grandiosity into a one-on-one face to face combat: the creator-director become a creator-drawer, the spectators a single, targeted sitter. Identities and bodies were still threatened; no performance was restaged; doubles were everywhere—in Artaud’s sense of himself as a demonized, electro-shock punctured body and its idealized opposite, a virginal, organlessbody always in the process of being achieved. The paper on which he drew was at once a receptive support and a betraying subjectile he was forever harrowing. The completed portraits—dappled with moldy and vital flesh, crawling with wiry agitations on the verge of becoming writing, and animated with inner forces that appeared to be redefining the skull—were the sitters’ doubles. Or if, as Artaud believed, his friends had been replaced by Doubles, these portraits could be thought of as Artaud’s capturing of the sitters’ real face marked by the counterfeiting phantom. If portrait drawing enabled him to engage the spectator in a full nelson of psychic impingement, his texts and the thousands of notebook pages served to redouble the sitter/spectator into an audience of reader/viewers.

In Artaud’s last period, every position taken to attack its opposite must, in turn, be rejected and attacked. Writing at once protects yet attacks the drawing as drawing attacks yet projects the writing. In the texts the same ambivalence occurs between the incantations and the tirades. Based on nothing, a vertiginous, revolving movement cuts like a band-saw through the paper as well as through Artaud’s maternal language. The containing wall for these anti-positions is that they are at the mercy of a no longer repressed but still infantile unconscious. At the same time that Artaud sends out volleys of sparks, he regrinds his obsessions.

It had taken nearly two decades of rejection, abuse, and internal mayhem for Artaud to grasp that the only site at which he could exercise his faculties at large was one where he could completely control the unfolding of an event.5   His Stages of the Cross, as it were, now look satanically and meaningfully planned. He had tried to project an unrealizable Theater of Cruelty onto a new stage, but it boomeranged back at him and imploded. Rather than silencing or totally destroying him, the implosion populated his inner wasteland with saint-quality demons and willy-nilly placed him in the hands of that doctor who fried him alive for twenty months.  Artaud’s saga evokes Kenneth Rexroth’s stanza about the knobconepine, “whose cones / Endure unopened on the branches, at last / To grow imbedded in the wood, waiting for fire / To open them and reseed the burned forest.” Opened by fire, Artaud revealed “being’s disease, the syphilis of its infinity.”
1 For the portraits: see Antonin Artaud:  Dessins et portraits, with essays by Paule Thevenin and Jacques Derrida, Gallimard, Paris, 1986; much more available is Antonin Artaud:  Works on Paper, edited byMargit Rowell.  The Museum of Modern Art, NYC, 1996, with useful supplementary material on the drawings.  Some of the notebook pages with drawings are reproduced in Dessins et portraits; there are eight pages from such notebooks reproduced in Sulfur #9 (1984).  Many of Artaud’s post-Rodez texts are to be found in the Gallimard Oeuvres completes, Volumes XII-XIV.  Translations of some of these texts are in Watchfiends and Rack Screams, tr. by Clayton Eshleman, with Bernard Bador, Exact Change,Boston, 1995.

2 For Artaud’s writings from the 1920s and 30s, see Antonin Artaud / Selected Writings, tr. by Helen Weaver, with a substantial introduction by Susan Sontag, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, NYC, 1976.  For some of Artaud’s film scenarios in English, see Tulane Drama Review (TDR) #33 (Fall 1966).   Another scenario, “The Sput of Blood,” appeared in the TDR #22 (Winter 1963), “The Philosopher’s Stone, a mime play,” is presented in TDR #27 (Spring 1965).

3 Previous to the 1945 Rodez drawings, Artaud produced two series of sorts (“spells”) in 1937 and 1939. The first ones, sent from Dublin, retain the appearance of letters, with diagrams, marks, and holes burned through the paper, transforming the message—generally a curse on the recipient—into a visual hex. The second cries, sent from the Ville Evrard asylum, is more elaborate: torn into burned shield-like shapes, the sheets are heavily marked with crayons and colored inks, clearly visual works rather than decorated letters. Paule Thévenin has catalogued seven, but there were undoubtedly more. Such “spells” wereArtaud’s first attempts to antiphonally charge writing visually. In a 1947 text, “Ten years that the language is gone, states that since 1939 he has not written without drawing, thus indicating that the second series of “spells” marks the beginning of his extraordinary final period.

4 For Artaud’s life in and outside Paris after his release from Rodez, see Paule Thevenin’s “Letter onArtaud,” TDR #27, and two recent books by Stephen Barber:  Antonin Artaud / Blows and Bombs, Faber and Faber, London, 1993, and Weapons of Liberation, Faber and Faber, 1996.  There is also a fine essay by Barber in Art in America (February 1995) which is a chapter from a book on Artaud’s drawings to be published in 1997.

5 Artaud also gave three public performances in Paris in 1947. On January 13th at the Vieux-Colombier, as a declaration to Paris that he, as “Artaud the Mômo,” had indeed returned, the poet faced a packed audience of 900 people, some of whom were audibly hostile. During the first part of his program,Artaud’s voice repeatedly broke, and he kept misplacing his papers. Unnerved by the antagonistic atmosphere, he then abandoned his prepared text, and for the next two hours, between screams and gaps of silence, dramatically described his asylum incarceration and electro-shock torture (the closest thing in American lettcrs to Artaud’s Vieux-Colombier performance is probably Charles Olson’s four hour improvised reading at Berkeley in 1965). Artaud considered the evening a failure, and in a heated exchange with André Breton stated that for the kind of language he was trying to create, a theatrical medium was inadequate.

When the Galerie Pierre offered to exhibit his drawings in July of the same year, Artaud seized upon the occasion to do performances over which he could exert a greater degree of control at the opening and the closing of the show: the events would be by invitation only, and to avoid the isolation and physical pressure at the Vieux Columbier, he invited two young friends (who had assisted in his release fromRodez) to read texts he would select for them. The opening event was marred by nervousness on the part of the readers, so Artaud aimed at even greater control over the closing event. He chose to read one text himself, and exhaustively rehearsed Roger Blin and Colette Thomas who read with him. Surrounded byArtaud’s drawings and a small, enthusiastic audience, the closing event was by far the most successful of these Paris performances. Yet Artaud left the Gallery Pierre that night exasperated, and told his friend Jacques Prevel:  “For me, it was a disappointment. To have made all those people understand what I was doing, I would have had to have killed them. I had the feeling that each one of them had something to reproach themselves about.”

In effect, any audience beyond a single, accepted individual was impossible for Artaud, in part because of his fury over his nearly nine year incarceration (behind which was the total rejection of his Theater of Cruelty project in Paris in the 1930s), and in part because verbal performance per se had become suspect—anything short of a transcendental physical manifestation, of, as he puts it, “shitting blood through my navel,” was hopelessly inadequate. It is under these circumstances that I have proposed that the only realization of the Theater of Cruelty project was in the one-on-one portrait drawing context, whereArtaud was able to “perform” in a way that made him eager to invite the new sitters for sessions up to the end of 1947 (after which he was too weak to take on any artwork other than several drawings which did not involve sitters).

This paper was originally presented as part of a panel discussion on Artaud’s writing and drawing at theDrawing Center in New York City, October 11, 1996.  Organized by Sylvere Lotringer, the panel also included Jacques Derrida, Margit Rowell, Nancy Spero, and Gayatri Spivak.