Who is Antonin Artaud? Watch a mixtape of his drawings, film acting and radio recordings staging his life as art in the subliminal Theatre of Cruelty.
A certain state of Fury
During a meeting led by Antonin Artaud in 1925, the Research Office of the Surrealist group adopted the following statement:
“Before any surrealist or revolutionary consideration, what dominates in their mind is a certain state of fury.”
This statement reflects Artaud’s mindset and exposes his difference vis-à-vis the rest of the surrealists. For him, absurdity and irrationality are a way of life, not just figures of style and mannerism. Not surprisingly, the movement excludes him in November 1926.
During all his life, Artaud used multiple forms of expression. He is alternately essayist, poet, actor, director, public speaker, illustrator, etc. All genres are put to work as desperate attempts to exorcise himself, identify his own image, and create self-portraits.
What is reality for Antonin Artaud?
Artaud had a beautiful face, enhanced by an intense stare. He modelled for Max Ernst, Balthus, Dubuffet or Man Ray. On screen, he specialized in supporting roles of roaring madmen for famous film directors. In “Napoleon” (Abel Gance, 1927), he plays a convulsive Marat. He is a mystic monk in “Joan of Arc” (Carl Dreyer, 1928). In the “Croix de Bois” (R. Bernard, 1932), he runs out of the trenches, screaming, before collapsing, ghastly, his eyes fixed and possessed.
In real life, Artaud is unpredictable, with sudden and dreaded mood swings. But more than anything else, his tragic brawls make people uncomfortable not knowing which part is comedy and which part is genuine. This is as if he is living his roles and acting his life. He refuses to distinguish between reality and fiction.
For him, consensus defines reality. The same consensus the audience accepts when they enter a theatre and pretend that what they are seeing is real.
The Tormented Folly of Artaud and Van Gogh
For Artaud, self-imposed suffering is necessary to create art, the same way suffering defines the human existence. His essay “Van Gogh, the Man Suicided by Society” (1947) is critical to understand Artaud’s work. He wrote this text after his own release from a 9-year internment in a psychiatric hospital.
This is a Van Gogh biography from the inside. This is a formidable thesis against psychiatric persecution and against the society:
“because this is not the man but the world that became abnormal.”
While the essay is a true poetic interpretation of the famous painter’s esthetic, it is, above all, a very personal work. In truth, Artaud identifies himself with Van Gogh, as he would have done on screen, and tells about his own experiences.
Van Gogh fascinates Artaud because he was not painting
“lines and forms, but parts of still nature as if in full convulsions.”
Artaud was himself an illustrator, and he practiced his art with the same fury and violence that he did everything else. Doctor Dequeker reported the genesis of one of his creation, transposing with mastery the style of the artist:
“on a large sheet of white paper he had drawn the abstract outline of a face and in this space (…), without any mirror, I saw him create his double, as if in a cauldron, in burning torture and absolute cruelty. He was in rage, breaking pencils after pencils, suffering internal pain from his own exorcism. Through the screams and the most feverish poems ever spewed from his tormented guts, he was beating and casting spells on a nation of rebel larvae, when all of a sudden, with striking resemblance, his face appeared.”
Existential Fear of fixity, order and cohesion
His fight against the real and the matter, against the physical imprisonment of his mind, is permanent. His writing style also reflects the same existential battle against fixity, order and cohesion. To create an outlet for his natural fury, Artaud frequently uses the narrative form of badgering, sometime calling himself, sometime an unsuspecting correspondent, but more generally the entire world.
To master and corral his creativity, he hits a piece of wood with a knife or a hammer, while chanting and punctuating the diatribes forming under his hand. You can easily read his writings aloud, as they match the rhythm of life, with their screams of love and hate.
The form of his writings is also deconstructed. He sends words or groups of words back to the next line, bolded, centered or aligned to the right. Many of his essays are collections of articles, conferences, letters, manifests, etc. Still, from the disparate juxtaposition, from the chaos, superior meaning springs, almost unreachable, sometime elusive, but always within the romantic tradition of the visionary poet.
Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty
Artaud is best known for his essay on the “theatre and its double” published in 1938. As often with Artaud, the text is not just a critic. It is a true foundation for an innovative theory of total showmanship. He complains that theatre in western countries is constrained by sequential narratives anchored in social and psychological conflicts. In the end, there is too much dialogue written for books and not for the stage.
By replacing spoken language with music, dance, mime, ritual, mystic chants, lighting etc., a supernatural language of senses can better communicate ideas and feelings. To shock the audience out of its complacency, he proposes:
“a theatre in which violent physical images crush and hypnotize the sensibility of the spectator seized by the theatre as by a whirlwind of higher forces.”
Art for life – Life as Art – Art like Artaud
Throughout his life, Antonin Artaud embodied art in all its forms, mixing madness to supernatural, anarchy to creation, poetry to reality to form a total showmanship. He corralled his internal fury to seed his creativity and reach new emotions and meanings for art. At the same time, art provided a critical outlet for Antonin Artaud’s anxiety and delirium and became a true philosophy of life. In a full circle effect, Antonin Artaud became its own mysterious piece of art.
Antonin Artaud (September 1896 – 4 March 1948) was was a French writer, poet, dramatist, visual artist, essayist, actor and theatre director.