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Published by Abdullah AlBayyari
The Body as a medium and a metaphor in arts
The Body as a medium and a metaphor in arts

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Published by: Abdullah AlBayyari on Feb 24, 2014
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The Body as Medium and Metaphor

Etudes de langue et littérature françaises publiées sous la direction de Keith Busby, M.J. Freeman, Sjef Houppermans et Paul Pelckmans

The Body as Medium and Metaphor

Hannah Westley


Illustration cover: Lucas Cranach, Lukrezia und Judith. © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (painting lost since WW II). Omslag ontwerper: Aart Jan Bergshoeff The paper on which this book is printed meets the requirements of ‘ISO 9706: 1994, Information and documentation - Paper for documents Requirements for permanence’. ISBN: 978-90-420-2398-7 © Editions Rodopi B.V., Amsterdam - New York, NY 2008 Printed in The Netherlands

Introduction 7

Imaging the Absent Subject: Marcel Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre The Autoportrait; Michel Leiris’s L’Âge d’Homme Mimicking Mimesis: Francis Bacon’s Portraits




Textual Imagery: Visualizing the self in the writing of Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos 113 From the informe to the abject: Shifting morphologies in the art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan 161 Conclusion Bibliography 201 205

To what extent do artists and writers still have recourse to the body to express their sense of self? In the wake of the postmodern dissolution and dispersal of the subject, we are witnessing a resurgence of interest in the re-presentation of the body. The body is the threshold of subjectivity, the point of intersection between the private and public, the personal and political, and the artist or writer attempting to represent themselves must negotiate the complex divide between subject and object roles. But the sphere of self-representation has evolved dramatically over the course of the twentieth century and traditional methods of self-expression would no longer appear to be applicable. The myth of an integral self that is identical with selfimage has been exploded, and we are left picking up the pieces. Today’s artists and writers must negotiate new means of expression. Focusing on the body in self-representation, this book demonstrates how, in an ongoing exploration, certain artists and writers have moved beyond a conception of the subject that is predicated solely on vision. Taking an interdisciplinary and cross-cultural approach, I have pursued the theme of the representability of the self through the body in contemporary visual arts and French autobiography. The structure of the text is therefore comparative, contrasting the representation of the body through sculpture and painting with its representation through literature. In concentrating upon writers who are also art critics (Leiris and Noël) or artists (Prassinos), my work has been orientated towards the visual arts and how writers attempt to reconcile a visual consciousness with the written word. From Marcel Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre, through Louise Bourgeois’s part-objects, to Orlan’s sculptural surgery, my research has led me from the complete break with figurative and mimetic representation, initiated by artists and writers at the beginning of the century, to my last chapter, which focuses upon an unexpected contemporary revival of interest in semi-figurative or representational self-expression.


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

Autobiography as a genre has received substantial critical attention over the last twenty years but the sphere of selfrepresentation in the arts has been relatively neglected. Critical work that has previously focused upon this crisis in representation has been confined to the study of various movements or has had a single thematic approach. Mary Ann Caws’1 and Whitney Chadwick’s2 volumes on women and Surrealism examine self-representation and identity but are devoted primarily to visual art and are obviously focused upon fluctuations within a single movement. More recently, studies of self-portraiture by women have spanned the period of the twentieth-century3 while Joanna Woodall’s Facing the Subject4 includes critical analysis of self-portraiture and the understanding of the human subject from the Italian Renaissance up to the present day. Michael Sheringham’s comprehensive volume on French autobiography5 comes up to date in its examination of recent innovations in self-writing but does not expand into the realms of auto-fiction. The body has been the subject of a recent volume by Amelia Jones6 in her study of body-art while Hal Foster7 looks at the 1990’s phenomena of abject art and the return of the real body. However, none of these texts allow for the broad reach and rich intertextual nature of selfrepresentation that spans the divide between literature and the visual arts. None of them have considered the way in which visual selfrepresentation interacts with autobiographical writing: an interaction that is central to my argument. This book seeks to redress this imbalance by negotiating precisely such an interface, locating the body and vision as sites of constructive interplay between literature

Caws, M. A. et al (eds.) Surrealism and Women Cambridge, Mass. MIT Press, 1991. Chadwick, W. (ed.) Mirror Images: Women, Surrealism and Self-Representation Cambridge, Mass. MIT Press, 1998. 3 For example, Borzello, F. Seeing Ourselves: Women’s Self-Portraits London, Thames and Hudson, 1998 and Meskimmon, M. The Art of Reflection: Women Artists’ Self-Portraiture in the Twentieth Century London, Scarlet Press, 1996. 4 Woodall, J. (ed.) Portraiture: Facing the Subject Manchester and New York, Manchester University Press, 1997. 5 Sheringham, M. French Autobiography: Devices and Desires Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1993. 6 Jones, A. Body Art; Performing the Subject University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1998. 7 Foster, H. The Return of the Real The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1996.




and visual art that share these preoccupations in the endeavour to destabilize and redirect the reader and the viewer’s gaze. The contradictions inherent in self-representation, between the self who is creating and the self-reflexive protagonist of the work, foreground the central issue of contemporary thought: the problematic status of the self. The theme of the body in self-representation involves a dual concept that has implications for the way in which autobiography or self-portraiture is interpreted. The body can be conceived in both a specular, imaginary synthesis and a dynamic, dispersed presence throughout a fragmented work. The particularly self-referential nature of modern autobiography and self-portraiture posits the self as constituted solely in the act of creation. Mimetic description of the body or the first-person voice of the autobiographical text is no longer a guarantee of the presence of the creator. In this study, I examine the repercussions of this notion in an autobiographical text that de-authorizes the first-person utterance, Michel Leiris’s L’Âge d’Homme and in the performative autobiographies of Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos. I bring the same examination to bear on the confrontation between the subject and object in Marcel Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre, Francis Bacon’s portraits and the art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan. I adopt a critical framework through which I explore the problematics and the boundaries of self-representation. Starting with Lejeune’s concept of the autobiographical pact, I navigate my way through critics of art and literature towards a new contractual genre: an intertextual practice of interpretation that arises from the interrelation between the reader/viewer and the text. Through readings of Barthes, Lacan, Bataille and Butler, I am interested in the nature of subjectivity and how this may be expressed through the functioning of art in society in ways that are not bound up in the artist’s intentions. Barthes’s reading of abstract painting is indebted to C. S. Peirce’s semiology in his fascination for the subjective traces of the artist in the work, although he also allows for a category of sensation that transcends the limits imposed by visible particularities. Lacan’s theory of le stade du miroir has been the foundation for a wealth of metaphor and criticism applied to self-representation while remaining the essential theory behind the acquisition of selfhood through the transition from the Imaginary to the Symbolic stages. Butler’s theories


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

about identity formation reflect the challenges to corporeal morphology expressed in the art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan. Bataille’s notions of the convulsion and breaching of the subject are recurrent in the writing of Leiris, while his thoughts upon l’informe allow me to connect Bourgeois’s work to the art of Orlan through Kristeva’s concept of the abject. Looking at the ways in which subjectivity finds expression in the work of my subjects, I explore the nature of aesthetic reception by investigating how works of art are intelligible to those who read or view them. The ideology of self-representation has traditionally assumed that there is a self to express and the means with which to express it. The writers and artists incorporated in this book do not start from this stable perspective. The possibility of performative self-representation does not allow for the premise of an originary self. The works I have chosen to comment upon neither express a subjectivity, nor seek to represent one, rather the writer’s/artist’s subjectivity evolves in and through their work and at the point of encounter with the reader/spectator. Thus the self becomes a process of invention, performance, reciprocity and intersubjectivity.8 The themes which recur and which connect these artists’ work are the themes that necessarily pervade autobiography and self-portraiture: time, memory, perception and expression. Visual art and art of the text are not reducible to one another and by adopting a structure that juxtaposes artists with writers, chapter by chapter, I hope to avoid any reductive comparisons. This juxtaposition will, however, allow me to bring to light the similar preoccupations, themes and concerns that the artist and the writer seek to express in their different media. It will become clear that these artists and writers, while straddling the historical or symbolic stretch of time that unites and divides modernism and postmodernism, are yet brought together by timeless concerns involving the nature of the self and are also progressively influenced by evolving theories of subjectivity. The work under consideration shows a tendency to concentrate on the performance of subjectivity, the way in which an identity is constructed over and in time, the way in which it depends upon intersubjective relations with a reader or


I define intersubjectivity as the contingency of the self of the writer/artist upon the self of the interpreter: an encounter between two or more subjects.



spectator. Such performances highlight the vulnerability and the constructed nature of the self. Left floundering in the wake of Dadaism, Surrealism, Freud and psychoanalysis, Michel Leiris and Marcel Duchamp attempt to come to terms with the shattering and irrevocable split of the illusion of a stable and centred self. Id versus ego, or post-Saussure, signifier versus signified, the fragmenting of the self is reflected in the division of the sign and vraisemblance is lost to literature, as figuration is lost to the visual arts. Francis Bacon, Gisèle Prassinos and Louise Bourgeois are still reeling under the consequences of this revolutionary wave fifty and sixty years later. Bacon treads the selfdissolving path between figuration and abstraction, while Prassinos creates anthropomorphic characters woven from fragments of subjectivity. Bourgeois moves into real space with objects at once symbolic and interactive, as Bernard Noël fabricates a fantasy body whose world is based on vision, presence and sensation. I have chosen writers who demonstrate through an emphasis on vision how the symbolic power of language does not exist separately or independently of experienced or perceived phenomena. Language does not reveal an interior life or self; it is only in the discovery of others and of the world that language is able to give rise to a subjectivity. Language is not at the origin but at an encounter between self and other, self and situation. The emphasis on the visual in the writing of Leiris, Noël and Prassinos paradoxically undermines the possibility of empirical knowledge. If for them, sight and experience are inextricably linked, in other words, that which is perceived is also experienced by and through the body, then the transcription of vision in their texts is necessarily fragmented and partial. As knowledge is predicated on experience, perfect selfknowledge is an unattainable goal. Knowledge of the self is continually deferred, contingent on intersubjective relations within the text and between the text and reader. The body, which is the writer’s point of view on the world, is also one of the objects in his/her world. Paradoxically, this book adopts the inverse form to the form of the work I examine. Temporality, as a common vein running throughout these multiple self-representations, is fragmented, reversed, anticipated and amalgamated. The importance of time in the structure and forms of memory and the vicissitudes of subjectivity is highlighted in each of my separate studies. The perception of time is


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

neither linear nor successive: the past becomes present in the process of remembering and the present reflects the future as intentions for the future influence and shape present behaviour. Therefore, time becomes a network and flux of desire. In order better to demonstrate the development of themes and ideas, this study has a chronological and linear structure, which will throw into further sharp relief, the tumultuous interventions into time that are present in these works. However, remaining faithful to my subjects, my text takes a peculiarly cyclical turn. Duchamp foreshadows in many ways the strategies of my last subject, Orlan. In the last chapter, I have chosen to juxtapose two contemporary female artists as they continue to make radical innovations in the sphere of self-representation. The work of Louise Bourgeois takes up where Duchamp left off, in the manipulation of the exhibition space, the confrontations between the self of the artist, embodied in the work, and the self of the spectator, and the insidious erosion of generic hierarchies. Framing, in all its various manifestations haunts the work of my subjects as the ontology of the work, its importance as an autonomous conveyor of meaning, comes to stand in for the self of the artist/writer that can only take shape through it. However, nowhere has the frame been put to more radical use than in the work of Orlan, who demonstrates how even art of the technological, internet age, an art that knows no physical or geographical boundaries, depends more than ever on Duchamp’s legacy of the manipulation, subversion and exploitation of the frame. Another aspect of Orlan’s work that exemplifies, perhaps, the most radical turn of contemporary art, is the return of the repressed, the return of the real body. If my investigation begins with the apparently definitive rupture with all forms of referential and mimetic art, it finishes with the return of the referential. However, this is not the static, stable sign that we once recognized, this is a referential vulnerable to change, process and self-division. To recall MerleauPonty, the body is both seeing and seen, touching and touched. The gaze unites the seer and the seen – the body by which the gaze passes therefore assumes object and subject positions. The body is the expressive space by which we experience the world. While artistic Modernism, after Cartesian philosophy, objectified the body while the “I” of the subject became the disembodied “eye,” distinct and transcendent of the body, the performative self, following the



postmodern dispersal of the subject, is no longer inherent or transcendent. The body has never disappeared entirely from the sphere of self-representation but the body became other bodies, bodies of the Other. Stripped of its mimetic signifying power, the body, as exemplified in the work of Duchamp, Noël and Prassinos, fragmented to return as an experiential void. Lacking physical substance, it became the receptacle for sensory encounters, a synaesthetic subjectivity that found its expression on the page or in images as moments of presence, reconstituted only in the imagination of the beholder. Bacon dissolved the physiognomy of his subjects and reconstituted them through the abstract folds and textures of oil paint. Bourgeois took fragments of the shattered body and remoulded them in ways to challenge the complacent self-presence of the spectator; Leiris projected an absent self onto a pre-existing image of mythical bodies. If memory is to be experienced, as Leiris demonstrates, it cannot remain an entirely visual process but it is through the visualization of the past that other sensory associations are evoked. Leiris’s memories have, as their catalyst, the external image of Cranach’s painting of Judith and Lucretia. Through his imaginary projection and identification with the figures in the painting, Leiris’s thoughts move from a perception of external phenomena to voyage inwards on sensual waves of remembered experience. In the work of these subjects, the challenge to the conventional division between subject and object is mirrored in the subversion of the traditional dichotomy of form and content. As subject and object find their union in the intersubjective encounters between reader/spectator and the body of the text, so form and content achieve a symbiotic relation and their inseparability allows the work to stand in for the absent body of the creator. At the start of the new century, Orlan presents us with the body of a survivor; a body prone to change, destruction and reconstruction but the body that demonstrates the shift from metaphor to medium, from continuum to contiguity; the body that grounds the artist’s attempts to express the multiplicity of her lived experience.

Imaging the Absent Subject: Marcel Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre
In this first chapter, I will be introducing the themes that permeate my study and the framework of critical methodology that guides my approach to self-representation. The selection of Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre as my first line of enquiry allows me to introduce both the historical genre of self-portraiture and theories of autobiography and to demonstrate how literary criticism can be applied to non-literary subject matter without reducing the visual to the verbal or vice versa. Duchamp’s approach to art and his own selfmythification are indicative and prophetic of the artists and writers whom I will discuss in later chapters. Self-representation is the documentation of a performance whereby the private becomes public and each of the following artists and writers deal with this transition in highly diverse and individual ways. I shall focus first and foremost on the work under discussion but in situations where the private and public personae are inextricably and often confusingly intertwined, as in the case of Duchamp and Bacon in particular, I shall also include biographical detail in order to situate the work within the necessary context. In this chapter, I shall demonstrate how Duchamp’s conceptual approach towards art involved a breakdown of generic hierarchies and traditional value judgements. In various ways, Duchamp’s attitude anticipated the work of many poststructuralist theorists in his assertion that subjectivity was the product of, and not the cause of, representation. Subjectivity is heralded as being constituted in systems of codification that structure representation. Art, as Le Grand Verre demonstrates, is always intertextual and does not refer to some transcendent model, as reality and experience exist in and through representation. Within an art-historical perspective, I


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

shall define this approach with reference to distinctions between modernism and postmodernism. Duchamp also anticipates the poststructuralist shift of emphasis away from the producer and text, and onto the reader and text (or, in this case, the viewer). I shall draw attention to this not only by looking at how the artwork signifies but also the way in which Duchamp creates a mise en abyme by incorporating the viewer’s gaze into the artwork and which operates simultaneously as both a modernist strategy of self-referentiality and a postmodernist subversion of the status of the artwork. I will demonstrate how the apparent hermetic autonomy of Le Grand Verre is dispersed and disseminated through its connection with Duchamp’s previous work and through the disruptive element of language, which erupts with subversive force in the visual plane. In introducing autobiographical theory, I shall open up perspectives upon the nature of the desire that propels an autobiographical text, Lejeune’s theory of le pacte autobiographique and the way in which all self-representation is an intersubjective encounter. I begin by situating the tradition of self-portraiture within a contemporary arthistorical perspective and expanding upon my methodology. Contextualizing Duchamp: Methodology and Definitions The historical construction of the artist as genius is perpetuated through the tradition of self-portraiture. The use of self-portraiture is a culturally defined and defining practice and artists have produced concepts of themselves as culturally dominant by employing certain visual tropes. These tropes have ranged from portraits of the artist as Christ to representations of the clothed male artist and his nude female model, composed so as to define the status of the male artist as a unique creative individual and to ensure the authenticity of his vision. The self-portrait is a mediation of the self in social signification. Like the tests of historical verisimilitude, which pervade readings of autobiography, self-portraits have been subject to “tests” of truth or accuracy. The “truth” of both self-portraiture and autobiography traditionally lies in the ability of the work to reveal the nature of the creative personality through the image. Psychobiographical readings of self-portraits, like psychoanalytic readings of autobiography, are intended to explain the psychology of the creative individual. However, in the modernist logic that subtends much recent art history, the object is now often seen to

Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre


stand in for the author in an exchange of identities. Art history discourse assumes a “Duchamp” as reflected through or represented in his works. In so far as the figure of the artist is condensed to an authorial label, the artist’s significance is often seen to be identical to the significance of his work. Duchamp’s significance is frequently conflated with the significance of his work, particularly the readymades, in relation to postmodernism. As mass-produced objects rendered art only by reference to their authorizing function, the readymades become Duchamp as he is recognized in contemporary culture – and come to signify postmodernism. I define postmodernism in this context as the radical other that distinguishes itself in opposition to the modernism of Greenberg: modernism that promoted an art that was formally pure and autonomous in relation to the degradation of popular culture and of antiformalist, explicitly political art, such as Dada. Greenberg’s essay of 1939, Avant-Garde and Kitsch, opposes mass culture to antibourgeois high art and calls for an art of increasing purity and flatness that would be ensured by the artist’s disinterest in political concerns. The rigidity of Greenberg’s modernism is affirmed in his infamous lecture of 1961, Modernist Painting: “The essence of Modernism lies, as I see it, in the use of the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself – not in order to subvert it, but to entrench it more fully in its area of competence” (Greenberg, 1992; 308). Through the voice of the critic, art thus searches for its origins, yet is fully evident to itself, existing in a self-conscious relation to its own past. Modernist art history institutionalized the author as the basis for aesthetic value. Such a discourse suppressed inconsistency and difference of meaning in the figure of the author in order to ensure interpretative closure. If objects can be identified with intentional subjects, they can be unified into a meaningful narrative that fits into a larger teleological history. Greenbergian modernism has now become the outmoded “other” against which postmodernism defines itself as “new” and Duchamp, inculpated by Greenberg, is championed by postmodernism in his perceived rejection of modernism. In discourses of postmodernism, art is seen to become postmodern precisely when it is argued to be destabilizing the definitions of artistic purity and authority associated with Greenbergian modernism. Postmodernist


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

discourse advocates an end to a belief in coherence and continuity and an end to the metaphysic of narrative closure. La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même or Le Grand Verre is a multimedia work that combines oil, varnish, lead foil, wire and dust on glass mounted between two glass panels. Divided into two regions and separated by three fins of glass that are perpendicular to the plane of the work, they are described by Duchamp as belonging respectively to the Bride and the Bachelors. This work has been subject to innumerable art historical and critical discourses: psychoanalytic readings by Arturo Schwarz, expository accounts by John Golding and Richard Hamilton, postmodern appropriation by Jean-François Lyotard and Dalia Judowitz and feminist interpretation by Amelia Jones. The uniformity of such critical analyses lies in their conflation of the work with the person of the artist, seeking to justify this interpretation within the life of the artist. I propose a critical methodology, which combines the semiotic theory of Roland Barthes with an awareness of recent autobiographical theory. I am interested in the interaction of this theory with Barthes’s inquiry into how art functions and communicates through its encounters with different spectators. As I have indicated in the introduction, Barthes’s reading of abstract art is Peircean in his fascination for the subjective traces of the artist in the work, although he also allows for a category of sensation that transcends the limits imposed by visible particularities. I wish to build upon the work of critics such as Bryson and Lyotard who have opened up a new approach to visual art that combines these semiotic theories and that explores the nature of aesthetic reception by investigating how works of art are intelligible to those who view them. Recent critics of autobiography have sought to locate autobiographical truth not in the product but in the process of writing. Philippe Lejeune observes “écrire son histoire, c’est essayer de se construire, bien plus qu’essayer de se connaître” (Lejeune, 1971; 84). Within the context of autobiography as activity and process, critics such as Lejeune and Sheringham refer to a quest for form, which acts as a structuring force in the elaboration of the autobiographical text. This form does not construct a stable mirror image of the self, which can be exported from text to life, but a profusion of signs and traces of selfhood, which are generated as the autobiographer “processes” memories. The autobiographical text is now seen not as the reflection

Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre


of existing images but for its capacity to dispel fixity as it engenders a sequence of provisional recognitions. Lejeune’s concept of the pacte autobiographique places the emphasis of autobiography upon the énonciation, the act of narration, to the interaction of the textual I and its extra-textual counterpart. Lejeune’s definition locates autobiography within textual reference rather than textual resemblance. In his critique of the authorial personality, Barthes draws upon Benveniste’s linguistics to illustrate how the self or subjectivity is held to be constituted in the exercise of language; outside language there is no self to express. Barthes notes that even autobiography cannot now assert a substantial identity between the je of the writer at the moment of utterance and the past self s/he claims to reveal to the reader. The autobiographical first-person pronoun, seeking to link past and present, can only refer to the speaker at the moment of énonciation and this founds his/her statement about the past on the present act of uttering. At the end of an article published two years after L’Autobiographie en France, Lejeune renounces his previous attempts to find a definition of autobiography that would be coherent and exhaustive. Having decided that autobiography is as much a mode of reading as a mode of writing, he looks instead to a history of autobiography that would be the history of the way in which autobiography is read. His notion of a contractual genre dependent upon codes of transmission and reception relocates the problematics of autobiography as genre as an interaction between reader and text. Self and self-image can never coincide in representation. Selfrepresentation is the effect of a constructed similarity between identity and language (or image), an attempt to fix the flux of experience and to ground it in a single subjectivity. But self-representation in art galvanizes an act of recognition that is a production, rather than a perception, of meaning. Viewing is an activity of transforming the material of paintings into meanings, and that transformation is perpetual: nothing can arrest it. The non-figurative nature of Le Grand Verre allows me to approach it through a poststructuralist informed perspective of autobiographical theory that allows for the production of subjective meaning within the work itself. In place of the closure of meaning, the polysemous nature of signs implies the free play of interpretation. However, as Barthes writes in La Sagesse de l’Art, meaning sticks to man:


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

Quand bien même veut-il créer du non-sens ou du hors-sens, il finit par produire le sens même du non-sens ou du hors-sens [...] Si tant d’hommes (à cause de différences de culture) ont l’impression de “ne rien comprendre” devant une toile, c’est qu’ils veulent du sens, et que la toile (pensent-ils) ne leur en donne pas (Barthes, 1982; 169).

Therefore the viewer continually looks for signs within the artwork that will refer to some external referent. As I will demonstrate, the autobiographical nature of Le Grand Verre can only be sought within the context of the work’s evolution and the way in which Duchamp uses the piece to confront and dissolve the hierarchic relations between object and subject, artist and viewer. Le Grand Verre Traditionally, portraiture assumes that identity is inseparable from the sense of presence achieved through mimesis; that is, the signifier (the portrait) is conflated both with the referent (the sitter) and the signified (the sitter’s identity). But if identity and body are opposed, because an external likeness no longer guarantees the expression of an originary identity, this problematizes the way in which the portrayed body can re-present the sitter’s identity, however this may be defined. In order to locate Le Grand Verre within the sphere of self-portraiture, according to Lejeune’s concept of autobiography as a contractual genre, a viewer must look for indications, explicit or implicit, that the author, narrator and protagonist are one and the same. Duchamp complicates the viewer’s desire to identify the authorial personality by subverting this traditional mimetic paradigm of self-portraiture. Duchamp’s life has, as far as possible, been well documented, most recently in a biography by Alice Goldfarb Marquis. Duchamp was an elusive personality who valued solitude and privacy and to confound the public’s appetite for personal detail, he often issued contradictory and confusing statements about his life and art. Through his work, his interventions into the public arena and the projection of an enigmatic personality, Duchamp constantly manipulated the authoritative role attributed to the creative artist. He subverted the certainty of his artistic status by posing as a feminine author (Rrose

Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre


Sélavy1) and by reconfiguring his authorship through various signatory pseudonyms. Le Grand Verre, upon which Duchamp worked between 1915 and 1923, when he declared it to be definitively unfinished, is widely acknowledged as his greatest work and furthermore as one of the most influential, yet most esoteric, works of the twentieth century. Arturo Schwarz has interpreted Le Grand Verre as the story of the incestuous love that Duchamp harboured for his sister Suzanne, while other psychoanalytic interpretations have indicated a fear of castration or a desire for androgyny. Duchamp acknowledged these readings but chose neither to confirm nor negate them, remarking astutely: “Chacun d’eux donne à son interprétation sa note particulière, qui n’est pas forcément fausse, ni vraie, qui est intéressante, mais seulement intéressant en considérant l’homme qui a écrit cette interprétation, comme toujours ailleurs” (Duchamp, 1967; 70). Duchamp remained a bachelor for most of his life, finally marrying at the age of sixty-three. Although he maintained close friendships with women all his life, notably with Katherine Dreier, Mary Reynolds and Peggy Guggenheim, according to the testimony of the women, these were not sexually motivated relationships. Mary Reynolds, his long-term “mistress” said, towards the end of her life: “Marcel is the only person I ever met who was not people. He could be in a room with me and I still felt alone” (Tomkins, 1997; 376). The longitude of their relationship came about through a mutual respect for each other’s solitude. Many of Duchamp’s contemporaries admired him for his embodiment of the Baudelairean ideal of the artist-flâneur, a dandy, an observer of, rather than a participant in society. Tomkins observes that, although Duchamp betrayed no homosexual inclinations: “There is much evidence to suggest, however, that his enormous personal charm derived in no small part from an ability to reconcile, without apparent conflict, the male and female aspects of his complex personality” (ibid; 13). The bride in Le Grand Verre is a forerunner of Duchamp’s female alias, Rrose Sélavy. Lyotard has identified both the figure of Duchamp and Rrose in the bride of Le Grand Verre, the bride being stripped bare, and in the naked figure of Etant Donnés (a late work I

This pseudonym was taken up by subsequent writers and artists, notably Robert Desnos, Corps et Biens.


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

shall refer to in a further section), the stripped bride. Duchamp’s adoption of a female identity was a radically subversive gesture in the 1920’s and one that he characteristically played down:
J’ai voulu [...] changer d’identité et la première idée qui m’est venue c’est de prendre un nom juif [...] Je n’ai pas trouvé de nom juif qui me plaise [...] et tout d’un coup j’ai eu une idée: pourquoi ne pas changer de sexe! (Duchamp, 1967; 111).

Duchamp’s adoption of this female identity indicates a desire to cross gender barriers, and, as we will see, it forms an important part of the complicated motifs of Le Grand Verre. The work’s narrative, as revealed by the notes of La Boîte Verte,2 is one of frustrated sexual longing that reveals the infinite interplay of eroticism and the elusive object of desire. Whether a viewer chooses to interpret this as revelatory of Duchamp’s own sexual identity, or as a metaphor for his continual artistic struggle, it forms an integral part of the intimate selfportrait that is Le Grand Verre. Le Grand Verre is self-representation in so far as it embodies and re-presents Duchamp’s artistic career up until the conception of the work and during the period he was working on it. The problem of the interpretation of self-presentation introduces a dichotomy: is the work autobiographical in so far as it represents lived experience, or in so far as it is the re-presentation of artistic personae? For Duchamp, there was no dichotomy between art and life. In proposing a conceptual, rather than a retinal art, he disrupted the conventional collaboration between the cause and effect in art: a re-presentation of an original experience. Duchamp strove for an art which should not only represent an object but be in itself, an idea, even as the object represented might not be actual in the phenomenal sense but rather as a mental image. Hence his insistence on La Boîte Verte as the necessary companion to Le Grand Verre; the ideas were as important, if not more important, than the visual realization. Duchamp was convinced that works of art are not imitations of the merely actual but are realities in themselves, and as realities, they are not only objects within the physical world but also objects in and of consciousness (cervellités, he termed them). Duchamp’s art abolished representational space and the concept of the picture as something remote from

The notes that accompanied the evolution and presentation of Le Grand Verre.

Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre


lived experience. For example, he renounces the sources of his pictorial constructions in Le Grand Verre and thereby neither represents, interprets nor transforms the objects – they become different objects, in kind as well as in intention. Duchamp’s position therefore undermines the dichotomy of the problem of self-presentation. He is not attempting to re-present lived experience but rather to construct it as a reality within his work. Duchamp’s subjective experience is constituted by the dynamic, dispersed and heterogeneous components of Le Grand Verre. The Role of the Spectator Central to postmodern constructions of Duchamp are his statements concerning the role of the viewer in establishing the meaning of the work of art, statements that perpetuate Duchamp’s role as radically subverting the modernist notion that the art object contains or transparently expresses the intentions of the maker. Duchamp said about interpretation:
Je crois beaucoup au côté “médium” de l’artiste. L’artiste fait quelque chose, un jour, il est reconnu par l’intervention du public, l’intervention du spectateur; il passe ainsi plus tard à la postérité. On ne peut pas supprimer cela puisqu’en somme c’est un produit à deux pôles; il y a le pôle de celui qui fait une oeuvre et le pôle de celui qui la regarde. Je donne à celui qui la regarde autant d’importance qu’à celui qui la fait (Duchamp, 1967; 122).

Paradoxically, the contemporary viewer depends upon Duchamp’s authority to confirm the notion that he criticizes authority, citing his own statements about the dependence of the artist on his audience and the way in which authorial identity is produced through the art-work as this work is interpreted by an audience: “Je considère que si un monsieur […] habitait au coeur de l’Afrique et qu’il fasse tous les jours des tableaux extraordinaires, sans que personne ne les voie, il n’existerait pas. Autrement dit, l’artiste n’existe que si on le connaît” (Duchamp, 1967; 122). Just as Duchamp subverted ideas of authorship, he also experimented with strategies designed to manipulate public perception. Despite its visual transparency, or perhaps because of it, Le Grand Verre continues to resist definitive critical appropriation. When


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

challenged by Pierre Cabanne to provide his own interpretation of Le Grand Verre, Duchamp replied:
Je n’en ai pas parce que je l’ai fait sans avoir d’idée. C’étaient des choses qui venaient, au fur et à mesure. L’idée d’ensemble, c’était purement et simplement l’exécution, plus des descriptions genre Catalogue des armes de Saint-Etienne sur chaque partie. C’était un renoncement à toute esthétique, dans le sens ordinaire du mot. Ne pas faire un manifeste de peinture nouvelle de plus (Duchamp, 1967; 70).

This statement demonstrates, to some extent, Duchamp’s selfmythification. In his reluctance to provide any explanation of his work lies a self-conscious awareness of the myth of the enigmatic Romantic artist. The legacy of Dada provided Duchamp with a subtext in the extent to which chance plays a role in the development or completion of a work of art; a phenomenon that Breton was soon to term “le hasard objectif.” In the case of Le Grand Verre, this was seen to occur as the glass was shattered in transit following its first public appearance at the International Exhibition of Modern Art at the Brooklyn Museum in 1926. Duchamp was later to say about the incident: “C’est beaucoup mieux avec les cassures, cent fois mieux. C’est le destin des choses” (Duchamp, 1967; 132). Duchamp’s reluctance to provide an interpretation of his own work should not be understood as a refusal or as a sign of the work’s intelligibility. Rather, Duchamp’s statement repositions the significance of this work as a process. As early as 1846, Eugène Chevreul mentioned the space for the spectator that was central to the nature of abstract art.3 Chevreul emphasizes the cultural position of the analyst within the analysis of an image that is part of the generation of meaning. The viewingsubject brings to the image his/her own cultural heritage thereby negating the possibility of any predetermined meaning. A sign-event, or the production of meaning, is not a one-sided structure. Address, the ways in which a viewer is invited to participate in the representation, is, perhaps, the most relevant aspect of a semiotics of subjectivity. Duchamp claimed: “le chef-d’oeuvre en question est déclaré en dernier ressort par le spectateur. C’est le regardeur qui fait

Chevreul, Théorie des effets optiques que présentent les étoffes de soie, Paris, Firmin Didot frères, 1846.

Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre


les musées” (Duchamp, 1967; 70). Barthes observes that: “l’esthétique, comme discipline, pourrait être cette science qui étudie, non l’oeuvre en soi, mais l’oeuvre telle que le spectateur, ou le lecteur, la fait parler en lui-même: une typologie des discours, en quelque sorte” (Barthes, 1982; 176). Semiology reveals that the picture is neither a real object nor an imaginary object. The identity of what is represented is ceaselessly deferred, the signified is always displaced and the analysis is endless but this infinity of language, or this “leakage,” as Barthes calls it, is precisely the picture’s system. The image is not the expression of a code but the variation of a work of codification: it is not the repository of a system but the generation of systems. In an analogous manner, autobiography, or autobiographical selfhood, might be envisaged as a leakage of subjectivity into art through the medium of style. The self disclosed in autobiography is not only that of the creator in the present act of creation but that which through the “intentional act” of autobiography involves a mode of consciousness which seeks to apprehend, in the moment of creation, the subjectivity of the creator. Mirroring Marcel The autobiographical intention (pace Lejeune) or the extent to which Le Grand Verre is self-representation is revealed in a preliminary drawing for the piece. This drawing labels the upper portion of Le Grand Verre as MARiée and the lower portion as CELibataires. The signature, evidence of the authorial body split in two, has the two senses, male and female. Duchamp’s presence in the work, promised to the viewer through the signature, is scattered and deferred. This difference or separation, in Lacanian terms, echoes the split that occurs when the symbolic ruptures the imaginary unity within the self – a separation that marks the repression of desire and the subject’s recognition of sexual otherness. By reactivating this split, Duchamp marks the moment of the determination of sexual difference as potentially reversible. Duchamp undermines the authority of the authorial signature by indicating the instability of a single coherent authorial identity. Duchamp’s masculine identity, like that of his female alias – Rrose – is continually marked by the artist as a construct.


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

Duchamp’s multiple authorial I’s indicate the continual shifting of identities in his oeuvre and in his self-presentation in the public arena, where he identifies not only with the imaged “woman” but with various other aliases, including Dee, Totor, Slim Pickens, Marcel Douxami, George W. Welch and R. Mutt. Marcel consequently becomes just another alias, marking identity itself as contingent. The absence of the “real” making subject represses the viewer’s desire to identify with the authorial I believed to exist in the work. When viewed along with his other authorial strategies, Duchamp’s adoption of femininity can be seen to be exposing the instability of gender as a continually shifting and socially constructed role. His selfconstruction as a feminine subject (an object of his own making) exposes the masquerade involved in every act of self-presentation. Le Grand Verre can be interpreted within a framework of interconnected traditions. Its primary encounter with traditional selfportraiture lies in the internal rules of that genre which require the use of the mirror. On this model, it is expected that artists will produce accurate renderings of their features based on their reflection in the mirror. The reflection itself represents a second stage in self-portrait production between the artist as the subject and the self-portrait as an objective imitation. Many of Duchamp’s notes refer to the function of Le Grand Verre as mirror: the mirror of a fourth dimension. He writes: “Le continu à 4 dim. est essentiellement le miroir du continu à 3 dim” (Duchamp, 1975; 130). However, reflected space is homogeneous to the space that it reflects; the specular operation is one that replicates and makes identical. Duchamp instead regards the mirror not as a duplicating machine but as a duplicitous machine. Lyotard observes how the mirror-like function of Le Grand Verre extends beyond the positioning of the viewer to the positioning of its own content. He suggests that Le Grand Verre is a mirror with two faces: “Les deux espaces virtuels se réfléchissent donc (mariés), mais leur incongruence est forte (célibataires) […]. Il y a entre eux la même paroi qui conjoint et disjoint les discours antithétiques” (Lyotard, 1977; 56). The mirror as a metaphor for painting is a significant one. Conventionally, mirror images are read as accurate visual reflections of real objects so the way that the mirror mimetically reproduces these images is a model for the rules of aesthetic naturalism. According to these rules, the painting should conform to the logic of the mirror and

Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre


it succeeds or fails in the extent to which it mirrors the likeness of the world. The power of painting to simulate reality is associated with the privilege of sight over the other senses in western philosophical discourses on knowledge. Representation is inextricably linked to the power of knowledge. In addition to the issue of likeness, the mirror also acts as a metaphor for framing images. In the aesthetic realm, as in the philosophical, the frame constructs the image or the knowledge. The frame places certain material into the centre of discourse and marginalizes others. Embedding the mirror within the text produces an effect of mise en abyme; a process of infinite regression that explodes the frame and decentres the text.4 The notion of the mirror furthermore pertains to the definition of the self. In psychoanalytic theory, it is through the Lacanian stade du miroir that the infant’s undifferentiated psyche becomes part of the social fabric and acquires its identity as an individual subject or self. The mirror stage is both an observed phenomenon of infantile development and, significantly, acts as a metaphor for the construction of the subject. The self is constituted as a whole in opposition to others in order to make sense of language and the society into which it is thrust. The privilege of sight, as an “objective” sense through which the world can be “objectively” understood, makes the logic of the mirror a cultural norm (see also chapter 3, page 81). Duchamp was fascinated with the technical breakthroughs in the visual sphere, such as the stereoscope and devices of threedimensional illusion. He mastered the techniques of anamorphic perspective (forgotten for three centuries) and drew upon, most notably in Nu Descendant l’Escalier, the chronophotographic experiments of Muybridge and Marey. In distancing his work from that of other artists, Duchamp rejected the “frisson rétinien” of conventional art and, in its place he put an art that self-consciously undermined the primacy of visual form itself. Duchamp’s critique of the fetishism of sight provides an important counter-example to the Greenbergian construction of modernism. He drew on many non-visual sources, which might be broadly divided into literary and psychological. The two writers whom he found inspirational, Jean-Pierre Brisset and

For further discussion, see L. Dällenbach, Le récit spéculaire: Essai sur la mise en abyme.


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

Raymond Roussel, worked with the power of puns and anagrams, games that undermined the purely communicative function of language. Le Grand Verre has sometimes been interpreted as a transposition of their method into a visual register. Stressing the complicated relation between titles and works and playing with the artist’s name and identity, Duchamp problematized not only the representations of sensations (retinal art) but also that of ideas. His disdain for pure opticality appeared not only in his introduction of linguistic frames and mediations but also in his preoccupation with the ways in which the desiring body enters the pictorial landscape. The concept of ocular desire as described by Bryson, “the life of vision is one of endless wanderlust, and in its carnal form the eye is nothing but desire” (Bryson, 1984; 209) is complicated in Duchamp’s work by unexpected contradictions. For example, in Nu Descendant, the idealized nude of tradition is forced from her pedestal and down the staircase where she could be expected to arouse more explicitly erotic responses. But her form, far from being an object of desire, is decomposed and androgynous; the painting mocks the viewer’s attempt to derive direct sensual pleasure from her contemplation. The ocular desire Duchamp introduced into his work was never that of an erotic stimulation that produced satisfaction; he was the master of the unfinished work, the masturbatory gesture of repetition or anticipation. In Nu Descendant, Duchamp wanted to create “une image statique du mouvement.” He acknowledged that “au fond, le mouvement c’est l’oeil du spectateur qui l’incorpore au tableau” (Duchamp, 1967; 51). Already, the spectator’s active participation in the generation of meaning is demanded. In Le Grand Verre, Duchamp seeks to incorporate both the viewer’s eye and the viewer’s intellect seemingly to complete another transition: the depiction of physical movement has become the depiction of movement from one psychological state to another, from bride to wife. Production of Le Grand Verre and the Deferral of Origin Duchamp resisted the formation of a single artistic persona by resisting any assimilation into groups or movements. He remained determinedly on the periphery of Cubism, Dadaism and Surrealism and his work, although revealing at times similar preoccupations to

Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre


those of his contemporaries is always marked by a difference both in style and conception. The activity celebrated in La Boîte Verte falls within the chronological limits of the Dada movement, which in New York was announced by Duchamp’s activities later than in Europe, in 1915, and can be thought to have ended when he left Le Grand Verre unfinished in 1923. Thematically, his work often anticipates that of the Surrealists in its concern with the desires and repressions of a divided self. For the Surrealists, the technique of écriture automatique was understood as revealing the irreducible heterogeneity within the self. This view was informed by their reading of psychoanalysis that claimed that otherness is inscribed within the self: the subject is not identical with itself but is the dialectic of self and Other (see also chapter 2, page 53). The Surrealist painters attempted to find a visual language for the fears and fantasies of the inner self, which was to work through the symbolism and association of dream imagery. Artists such as Ernst and Miró developed the method of frottage that was the plastic equivalent of écriture automatique. However, Duchamp sought to move beyond the notion of self-expression and stated his intention to begin by eliminating la patte of painting. Several critics, notably John Golding, have observed how the upper and lower regions of Le Grand Verre represent the summation of Duchamp’s two divergent artistic practises. The Bride region has its origins in Duchamp’s painting from his earliest sketches, to La Mariée of 1912. The Bachelor region has closer affinities with Duchamp’s production of readymades. Self-representation operates at the intersection of personal and collective experience. Autobiography suggests the idea of connections, the perception of patterns and linkages in the disparateness of past experience. There is an evident temptation to read a teleological pattern of causality into the evolution of Le Grand Verre yet the process by which the work came into being negates the very notion of origin. While Le Grand Verre radically breaks with previous pictorial traditions, the irony is that Duchamp reproduces previous works, thereby defining Le Grand Verre, as I have remarked, as a compendium of his past. Both the Bachelor and the Bride regions are generated as reflections and projections of his previous pictorial works. Le Grand Verre consequently emerges as a corpus whose identity is defined through reproduction. For Duchamp, the process by


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

which Le Grand Verre came into being was as significant as its iconographic content. The laborious manner in which he chose to reproduce his previous works emphasizes the uniqueness of the work in construction and problematizes the notion of a locatable origin. The work is formed through a constant interplay with its past and present environment. The Bride, as a pictorial referent, is undermined by her literal transposition onto the glass. La Mariée was Duchamp’s final painting in his Munich series (1911-1912) and still reveals Duchamp’s interest in Cubism. La Mariée of the painting has a semblance of anatomical legibility: shoulder, arm and breast fall into place and allow the viewer to reconstruct the empty armature of the head. Duchamp attempted to transfer the painted bride onto glass by projecting a negative onto the surface of the glass treated with a photosensitive emulsion. When this technique failed to develop, he used lead wire to draw the silhouette which he painted in by using gradations of black and white in order to simulate a photograph. The use of such strategies to reproduce the bride, not in her original colours but as a black and white photograph, suggests that the iconographic content of the image was less important to Duchamp than the projection of the material and technical conditions of its production as reproduction. So Duchamp deploys techniques of delay and reproduction not only to challenge the generic conventions of art but also in order to undermine the notion of origin. In the painting La Mariée, the sex cylinder dominates the centre of the composition, attached to the figure’s head (a device which foreshadows the displacement of the sexual organs in Surrealist art5). The implication that sexual fantasies are a form of intellectual as well as physical activity is explored in greater depth in Le Grand Verre. Here, the “sex” cylinder is replaced by a reservoir of love gasoline, which is distributed to the motor. According to La Boîte Verte, the motor emits artificial sparks which bring about the Bride’s threefold blossoming or stripping that is represented by the three draft pistons in the cinematic cloud. Duchamp’s literal reproduction of the pictorial Bride on glass reduces her to a readymade, one whose mechanical existence is simulated by her appearance as a photograph or engraving. The concept of pictorial

The theme of mechanized sexual organs was also pursued in the paintings of Picabia, whose anarchistic humour was a significant influence on Duchamp. See, for example, his painting Je Revois en Souvenir Ma Chère Udnie of 1914.

Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre


uniqueness is undermined as the reproduction of the Bride presents her not as a unique but as a multiple entity. Duchamp’s allusions to mechanical reproduction, including engraving, photography and cinema, constitute both the subject matter and metaphorical subtext of the notes in La Boîte Verte. He refers to the Bride’s cloud-like cinematic blossoming:
Se greffant sur l’arbre-type – l’épanouissement cinématique (commandé par la mise à nu électrique). Cet épanouissement cinématique est la partie la p. importante du tableau (graphiquement comme surface). Il est, en général, l’auréole de la mariée, l’ensemble de ses vibrations splendides: graphiquement, il n’est pas question de symboliser par une peinture exaltée ce terme bienheureux – désir de la mariée; seulement plus claire, dans tout cet épanouissement, la peinture sera un inventaire des éléments de cet épanouissement, éléments de la vie sexuelle imaginée par elle mariée-désirante (Duchamp, 1975; 63).

Duchamp’s graphic rendering of this épanouissement is literal to the extent that it is represented by the three draft pistons. The Piston de courant d’air of 1914 is a photograph of a plane of square gauze or netting material in front of an open window that assumes different shapes when moved about by draughts of air. Duchamp explained:
I wanted to register the changes in the surface of that square, and use in my Glass the curves of the lines distorted by the wind. So I used a gauze, which has natural straight lines. When at rest, the gauze was perfectly square – like a chessboard – and the lines perfectly straight – as in the case of graph paper.6

Embedding allusions both to chess and chance, Piston de courant d’air contextualizes chance events as a series of imprints that undermine pictorial modes of production. The notion of chance that subtends the mechanical operations of the Bride is further revealed by the Nine Shots, a group of nine holes drilled into the glass. Using a match dipped in paint and a toy cannon, Duchamp aimed shots at a target point that corresponded to the vanishing point (in perspective),


Letter of 21 May, 1915; reprinted in Gough-Cooper, Ephemerides on and about Marcel Duchamp and Rrose Selavy, 1887 – 1968.


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

leading each time (the process was repeated three times) to generating three points. The strategies of reproduction deployed in the Bride region are also pursued in the lower half of Le Grand Verre. Duchamp reproduces Broyeuse de chocolat, no.2, Témoins oculistes and Trois stoppages-étalon. The Tamis, or parasols, resemble cones used in seventeenth-century treatises on perspective and anamorphic imagery, where their function was either to construct or correct visual distortion. In La Boîte Verte, the Tamis are described as “une image renversée de la porosité” a pun on the dust that was allowed to accumulate on Le Grand Verre for a period of several months before being carefully graded in concentration and fixed with varnish. The usual purpose of a sieve (le tamis) is here inverted in shape and function, allowing the dust to settle. According to Duchamp, the dust was to be a kind of colour, suggesting that this miniature relief undermines the primacy of the colour of liquid paint. Colour in this context emerges as a projection of time or a temporal delay. The Témoins oculistes were created by multiplying three times a ready-made oculist chart and placing them one above the other. The rings were reproduced by working in the negative, on the reverse side of the glass, through a laborious process of scraping away excess silver. The transposition of the commercial eye charts emerge as mechanisms of projection, which instead of mirroring external reality, reflect the very mechanisms of projection that structure the glass, connecting, like a mirror, the upper and lower regions. Duchamp describes this section:
Sculpture de gouttes (points) que forme l’éclaboussure après avoir été éblouie à travers les tableaux oculistes, chaque goutte servant de point et renvoyée miroiriquement dans la partie haute du verre en rencontre avec les 9 tirés =/ Renvoi miroirique (Duchamp, 1975; 93).

Duchamp thus presents Le Grand Verre as a folding mirror that reflects back upon itself, a looking glass where the viewer’s gaze is already represented within the work. Duchamp’s naming of the témoins oculistes also exemplifies the way in which his punning use of language complicates the signifying process (does étalon refer to a measure or the reproductive fertility of a stallion?). The word témoin in this context signifies on different levels (evoking witnesses at a

Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre


wedding; the témoin oculaire who is an eye-witness, a realistic observer) and Duchamp multiplies possible meanings through the creation of a new term, témoin oculiste, to suggest, perhaps, the mechanization of sex and representation. Thierry de Duve interprets the role of the Témoins oculistes as a metaphor for the public reception of Le Grand Verre:
They are simultaneously metaphors of the bachelors and the physician of their gaze [...] the ocular witnesses focus the gaze of the bachelors and dazzle it into a sculpture of drops that will be projected via mirrorical return in the region of the nine shots where it will rejoin, in a necessarily missed encounter, the bride’s desire. Duchamp imagines the encounter of the object and the public in the manner of this missed encounter [...] The manner in which the ocular witnesses are depicted thus illustrates the manner in which the real encounter of work and viewers is represented according to Duchamp (de Duve, 1996; 402).

However, the Témoins oculistes represent not only the viewer’s selfreflective gaze but also that of the introspective creator. By strategically redeploying the notion of painting through reproduction, Duchamp redefines both the meaning of art as product, and the artist as a unique producer. The creative act is redefined as an act of dispossession, one that delivers the artist from the obligation of perpetuating the conventions of traditional painting, as well as perpetrating the myth of his or her own identity. Duchamp reproduces himself by producing replicas of his own oeuvre. Duchamp as author is distanced from the original Duchampian objects. Reproduction or Repetition? Barthes writes about repetition as a feature of culture with respect to the mechanical processes of reproduction exploited by the Pop Artists. Warhol’s images of Marilyn freeze the star in her image as star. This is an imaginary status as the star’s being is the icon: in this instance, repetition becomes depersonalization. In Pop Art, repetition intends the destruction of art but also proposes another conception of the human subject. Barthes concludes: “la répétition ouvre accès, en effet, à une temporalité différente” (Barthes, 1982; 182). For Duchamp, in the same way, repetition generates temporality rather than identity. Duration, in this sense, is not defined linearly,


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

since the past and future coexist. In La Boîte Verte, Duchamp refers to Nietzsche’s notion of the “eternal Return” to demonstrate that all appearance is re-presentation, that is, a return to appearance. Duchamp’s technique of reproduction may be considered as an instance of the “eternal Return” to the extent that his concept of art is that of a field of readymades. As a reassemblage that reproduces Duchamp’s previous pictorial works on glass, Le Grand Verre manifests the readymade character of pictorial representation. Seeking to distance himself from art as a form of expression and refusing the privileged role of the artist, Duchamp discovered through mechanical reproduction new ways of envisaging creativity. Mechanical reproduction involves forms of impression whose multiple character challenges both the uniqueness of the artist and the unity of the work of art. Walter Benjamin’s analysis of art in the age of mechanical reproduction argues that for the first time in history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitic dependence on ritual and allows it to be rooted in a democratic culture. Implicit in this argument is Benjamin’s concern about the dialectic inherent in art “for art’s sake”: art can be a resistance to political doctrine and the kitsch of the culture industry, or it can be a form of collusion with the forces of oppression and control. For Benjamin, mechanical reproducibility offers a democratic corrective to the unique value which bourgeois society accords to the “authentic” work of art. By appropriating the logic of the multiple, Duchamp valorized the notion of reproduction as a form of production, one that brings together the artistic, social and economic realms. Le Grand Verre has itself been reproduced, notably by Richard Hamilton in 1965, a copy that was supervised and approved by Duchamp. Ironically, the deliberate techniques of reproduction involved in such a reconstruction emphasize the unrepeatable gestures or the traces of chance that contributed to the realization of the “original.” Thus the reconstruction of Le Grand Verre also highlights the extent to which Duchamp employed the Surrealist concept of le hasard, and how this can be seen to engage with the artist’s unconscious, in contrast with the depersonalization of mechanical reproduction. For example, the random firing of matches from a toy cannon clashes with the choice of the analytic vanishing point as target; the use of the standard oculist’s chart with its connotations of

Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre


scientific precision is at odds with the fallibility of the art of hand engraving. The iconography of Le Grand Verre represents metaphors for the subject’s identity rather than its totality. The images never accede to autonomy as centres of interest before being assimilated by the over-arching narrative provided by La Boîte Verte. By superimposing a narrative upon his work, Duchamp reinforces rather than closes the divisions between the creating self and the past self. Rather than retrieving a past identity, he seeks to represent the differences, uncertainty and instability integral to the process of self-invention. Similarly, Le Grand Verre reflects neither the rejection nor the assimilation of artistic traditions, but rather, makes visible the conditions of the possibility of art through the redefinition of pictorial conditions. A Gendered Identity Duchamp’s identity, scattered and deferred in the hermetic symbolism of Le Grand Verre, loses its foundation in the heterogeneity of the work. Duchamp’s “autobiographical narrative” requires the sanction of the Other. All self-representation is ultimately dependent upon an intersubjective paradigm, a case of mutual recognition in which the self I proclaims already acknowledges the scrutiny of the Other. The memory inherent to autobiography is enacted in the visual sphere as a process of returning and searching. Written autobiography, as I will demonstrate in the following chapters, expresses memory as a temporal process, unfolding in present and past time. Duchamp’s interference between semiotic systems, the visual and the verbal, allows him to scatter subjectivity in a transit between word and image. Subjectivity is constituted not through a narrative re-enactment of the past but in a process which encompasses past moments of the subject’s history and his present being in order to accommodate the disparate nature of subjectivity. For Lyotard, the figure of Rrose is omnipresent throughout Duchamp’s work. He remarks:
Mais les femmes sont aussi du ‘sexe’ masculin. Et la terreur consiste entre autres, si toute la question passe par les femmes, à identifier le principe de disfonctionnement avec la différence des sexes. Contre cette terreur, Monsieur Marcel se


The Body as Medium and Metaphor
travestit en Mlle Rrose, et travaille les ’coupures.’ Passant outre à l’importance donnée à la différence des sexes, et donc à leur réconciliation, il va au-delà, beyond sex (Lyotard, 1977; 94).

In suggesting that Duchamp passes beyond sex, he implies that Duchamp is an androgynous creator, who remains, nevertheless, a coherent subject. However, Duchamp’s image is absent from Le Grand Verre precisely because his exploration of sexual identities leads to the decentring of a stable self. Subjectivity is disseminated through present, as well as absent, images. On the left-hand side of the lower region of Le Grand Verre are the 9 moules mâlic, whose position coincides with the Bride in the upper quadrant. Also entitled the Matrice d’Eros and forming the Cimetière des 8 uniformes ou livrées, the nine moulds look like dressmakers patterns that outline three-dimensional form on a twodimensional surface. They are gas castings, empty vessels that parody social positions: the priest, delivery boy, gendarme, cavalryman, policeman, undertaker, flunky, busboy and stationmaster. Absent from this group is the artist. The artist’s presence cannot be represented as a figurative mould as he embodies a plurality of social types and functions as a mirror to society. The artist’s presence is represented by the components of his creation. Duchamp’s work activates problems of authorship and interpretation partly through his manipulation of gendered imagery. His fascination with the permeability of the borders of sexual difference is demonstrated by his role-playing as Rrose Sélavy and also by his notion of inframince, which he insisted, cannot be defined but only exemplified. Inframince indicates sexual identity both as difference and sameness. He wrote: “séparation inframince – mieux que cloison, parce que indique intervalle (pris dans un sens) et cloison (pris dans un autre sens) – séparation a les 2 sens mâle et femelle” (Adcock, 1983; 56). The inframince separation exposes the constructed and oscillating nature of the barrier between self and other on which the subject depends to negotiate his/her own identity; the interdependence of self and other, masculine and feminine. In Le Grand Verre, the terms masculine and feminine become erotic functions, losing any but the most oblique and metaphorical connections to biologically gendered men and women. The bachelor masturbates while the bride hovers above. As I have noted, Duchamp’s theme for Le Grand Verre was that of sexual desire and

Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre


sexual frustration. Like the Retard of the subtitle (Le Grand Verre is subtitled Retard en Verre), the bachelors were intended never to achieve sexual fulfilment while the Bride was inspired to an autoerotic climax. The Bride hovers between innocence and experience, virginity and fecundity. Her role mirrors the element of reversibility in Duchamp’s terms: he imagined the Bride’s stripping both as an act of consummation and as the apotheosis of virginity. Bride and Bachelors are seemingly independent yet it is their suspension in the neverconsummated relationship that determines the identity of each in his and her state of frustrated desire. In La Boîte Verte, Duchamp notes:
Les moulages du gaz ainsi obtenus, entendraient les litanies que récite le chariot, refrain de toute la machinecélibataire, sans qu’ils pourront jamais dépasser le Masque = Ils auraient été comme enveloppés, le long de leurs regrets, d’un miroir qui leur aurait renvoyé leur propre complexité au point de les halluciner assez onaniquement (Adcock, 1983; 76).

The bachelors are therefore hallucinations of masculinity. Similarly, the female locus of the bachelor’s desire is an elaborate construct, rather than a representation of universal “woman.” In response to the idea that Le Grand Verre negated “woman,” Duchamp stated: “C’est surtout une négation de la femme au sens social du mot, c’est-à-dire la femme-épouse, la mère, les enfants, etc” (Duchamp, 1967; 133). A masturbating figure of fantasy, the bachelor, is contained in a subordinate position below the bar of Le Grand Verre, a barrier that signifies the vanishing point of the horizon as well as the Bride’s clothing. By enunciating both masculine and feminine positions of desiring subjectivity, Duchamp’s work demands the recognition of the eroticism of interpretation – the interdependence and interchange between object and subject of the interpretative gaze. Framing Le Grand Verre / Framing Duchamp Integral to Le Grand Verre and sharing its title (with the removal of one comma), the 1934 La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires même, generally called La Boîte Verte, is an elaborate case of torn papers covered with handwritten notes composed while Duchamp worked on the glass piece. As I have explained, these notes


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

expand upon, elaborate, or more often, obfuscate ideas that are visually played out in Le Grand Verre. Duchamp’s intention was to produce the box in an edition of three hundred, each of which would match the original as closely as possible. Duchamp’s handwriting was printed in facsimile onto the paper bits, which thus serve as fetishistic synecdoches of the artist himself. However, as mass-produced fragments authorized by the reproduced yet ostensibly unique handwriting of Duchamp, they act as self-authenticating objects which conflate the artist’s mark or signature with the author; a conflation that validates not only aesthetic attribution but judgement as well. Furthermore, like the readymades, the multiple examples of Duchamp’s boxed “ideas” operate to expose the cultural fetishization of authored objects as commodities. Duchamp produced the boxes with the intention of marketing them. La Boîte Verte in itself exemplifies Duchamp’s active representation of himself through his work in the public arena. Merging the archival marks of the artist with the artist’s artworks, La Boîte Verte asserts, and relies on for its commercial success, the economic value of Duchamp’s ideas. La Boîte Verte promotes these ideas beyond the esoteric Le Grand Verre, which is inaccessible to most of the public both conceptually, because of its signifying complexity, and literally, because of its physical immobility (fixed in place at the Philadelphia Museum of Art). The notes, which Duchamp described as operating like a “Sears Catalogue” in relation to the object, also corrupt the integrity of Le Grand Verre as a self-sufficient object by inserting a literary intertext that supplements the significatory lack of the visual object. The spectator’s experience of Le Grand Verre is intended to be mediated by the notes. Duchamp said:
Je voulais que cet album aille avec le Verre et qu’on puisse le consulter pour voir le Verre parce que, selon moi, il ne devait pas être regardé au sens esthétique du mot. Il fallait consulter le livre et les voir ensemble. La conjunction des deux choses enlevait tout le côté rétinien que je n’aime pas. C’était très logique (Duchamp, 1967; 71).

Therefore, interpreted from a Greenbergian perspective, the notes undermine the standards of modernist aesthetics by refusing the separation of media into pure categories of formalist specificity. The

Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre


conjunction of written and visual information disrupts the visual consumption of Le Grand Verre by interfering with its “retinal” character. The act of vision is contextualized, thereby redefining the aesthetic autonomy of Le Grand Verre. By designating the box as a kind of manual or catalogue, “une somme d’expériences,” Duchamp stresses the conditions of its production. He redefines Le Grand Verre, not as an object in its own right, but as a prototype whose function is to redefine through industry the very meaning of art. If Le Grand Verre expanded the notion of the frame conceptually, it also played with more traditional framing functions. When a frame performs a continuous isolating function around an image, creating a homogeneous enclosure, the frame sets the picture surface back into depth and helps to deepen the view; it is like a window frame through which we see a space behind the glass. The frame then belongs to the viewer’s space rather than the illusory, three-dimensional world disclosed within and behind. By contrast, the simple or unframed canvas enables the painting to stand out from the wall as an autonomous object, instead of receding into the framed space. Le Grand Verre may be seen as prefiguring the Surrealist preoccupation on the theme of the window as a transitional plane between reality and imagination, foreground and background, external and internal worlds. Often deploying it to suggest yearning for the beyond, the Surrealists also used the window as an aperture through which a face could look into the shadowy room of the unconscious.7 Le Grand Verre literally embodies the theme of the shattered window. It defies the high modernist ethic of pure opticality. Lyotard observes how the use of perspective in the lower half of Le Grand Verre produces the effect of a virtual three-dimensional space. However, as the support is made of transparent glass, the eye paradoxically cannot traverse it to explore this virtual space. The two sections of Le Grand Verre were rendered through two incommensurable spatial projections that refuse visual unity. As does the disparity between the perspectivalist or anamorphic lines etched on the glass and the “real” world visible through the work’s

Duchamp’s Fresh Widow (1920) anticipates many of the Surrealists’ visual puns. The work is a set of miniature French windows, painted black. The punning title highlights the notion of incommensurable spatial orders that are combined to challenge the viewer’s faith in his/her eyes.


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

transparent “canvas.” When the viewer’s eye traverses Le Grand Verre, it encounters the real objects that are behind it, for example, the window of the exhibition room of the Philadelphia Museum. The eye becomes aware of its own activity without being able to lose itself in virtual objects. A viewer also becomes aware of the refracted gazes of other viewers who are themselves framed by the work. The result is a denial of visual plenitude, which reinforces the pattern of endless sexual excitation and frustration explicit on a thematic level. Simultaneously, the work draws attention to its own constructed, artificial status by denying the viewer’s desire for escape into the imaginary reality potentially represented by the artwork. The Frame of Language Duchamp’s elaborate process of framing, mediating and controlling the viewer’s apprehension of his work lends prominence to his chosen title. As I have indicated, Duchamp, like the Surrealists, often chose titles with the goal of disrupting or contesting the apparent meaning of the image. In Duchamp’s case, the discursive was allowed to undermine the self-sufficiency of the figural in radical ways. The addition of même to the full title of Le Grand Verre disrupts the signifying process and prevents a narrative interpretation of the title. The disruption of the visual by the verbal subverts representation and thus exposes the arbitrary nature of the visual sign. Barthes refers to the title of a painting as “l’appât d’une signification.” He observes how in classical painting, the analogy of the painting was echoed in the analogy of the title. When the title of the work does not immediately appear to correspond to the subject of the painting, the title initially appears to block access to an understanding of the content. The title’s very specificity seems to invite an analogy that refuses to fit the work. In his attempt to wed the visual and the verbal aspects of representation, Duchamp exploits the viewer’s dependence on language. Le Grand Verre seems to be engaged against culture whose rhetorical discourse it abandons by establishing a hermetic code. This is an impenetrable code, exacerbated by the notes of La Boîte Verte, and which causes the viewer to incessantly return to the image in an interminable attempt to reread and reinterpret. The (non)sense of the title pervades the work,

Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre


constituting “le moment négatif de toute initiation” (Barthes, 1982; 170). Barthes observes that with the readymade or real object, art begins only at its periphery, its framing, its museography. The framing begins with the name: “Dans le ready made, l’objet est si réel que l’artiste peut se permettre l’excentricité ou l’incertitude de la dénomination” (Barthes, 1982; 204). The readymade reveals precisely what functionalism denies: the function of the name. Duchamp chooses an industrial product and displaces it, putting it to another purpose, whereby it loses its utilitarian dimension but, by the same act, gains a function that is purely symbolic. The symbolic nature of Duchamp’s readymades lies partly in the incongruity of the title to the object. Rather than an ontological view of art, Duchamp believed in “nominalisme pictural,” by which he intended that naming an object transforms it into something else. Calling a manufactured object a readymade imbued it with the status of art. By the same process, adopting a female name and character changes Duchamp into a woman. By becoming Rrose Sélavy, the artist changes his name and his identity. If titles are significant in Duchamp’s work, this is because they no longer function as mere labels but instead as devices that reframe the retinal impact of images in terms of punning associations. The visual opacity of Le Grand Verre attests to Duchamp’s successful displacement of meaning away from the retinal and toward its active interplay with linguistic and poetic frames of reference. Like Nu descendant un escalier, the subtitle of Le Grand Verre (Retard en Verre) inscribes a temporal delay that attempts to interfere with the visual consumption of the image. Duchamp wishes to redefine painting as a process that includes temporal considerations. The Cubists, particularly Braque and Picasso, sought a similar effect in their collages where the disjunction of images introduces a temporal delay and the displacement of meaning. The formal texture and polyocular vision wrenches the image away from traditional notions of temporal and spatial depiction. Retard en Verre reflects Duchamp’s continued attempts to move beyond the notion of painting by refusing to assimilate this work to a picture on glass. Duchamp introduces the notion of delay as a way of distancing himself from traditional pictorial conventions. Thematically, this infinite deferral


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

prevents any action from being triumphantly carried out. The Bride remains forever in the process of being stripped bare. For Duchamp, this strategy of postponement or deferral does not involve the mere transposition of painting into another medium but rather, the redefinition of the medium itself in terms of a deferral, a passage that postpones the pictorial becoming of painting. The Retard is imposed upon the viewer’s impatience to see/seize the object: “Il ouvre des intervalles et moments de délai, il décomprime les coordonnées du centralisme, il démobilise le corps d’armée qu’est le corps de l’oeil. Non seulement l’uniformité disparaît, mais l’identité” (Lyotard, 1977; 69). Deferral is symptomatic of selfdiscovery: not to get to the point is to put off definitive selfconfrontation and commitment. Autobiographical truth lies in the process (the journey) rather than in the product (the destination). The notion of deferral or postponement is characteristic of autobiographical narrative. Self-narrative involves a dynamic process that is a double drive, backwards and forwards. The dynamism of autobiography is driven by the contradictions of memory and desire. Duchamp’s declaration in 1923 that Le Grand Verre was to remain definitively unfinished demonstrates the impossibility of completing his own narrative. The “Subject” of the Work As I have observed, self-representation has an overt public dimension. It involves not only an engagement or negotiation with the conventions of genre but also with an imaginary Other, an interpolated subjectivity which receives and responds to the image with which it is presented. Self-identity is therefore always constituted through a relation to an Other. Confronted with Le Grand Verre, the viewer becomes the object of his/her own gaze, mirrored in the reflective surface. Instead of being cast as the passive consumer of the image, s/he is awakened to an awareness of the prevailing conditions of viewing. Duchamp vicariously crosses the boundary that separates creation from reception and tries to anticipate and incorporate in advance the position of this Other. An anticipation of the viewer is made further explicit in Duchamp’s later work Etant Donnés, where the artist dictates every aspect of the work’s reception from the peep-holes in the door, to the

Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre


cut-off perspective of the nude figure and his posthumous directive that the work was not to be photographed until twenty years after its installation.8 Unlike the Other anticipated by the traditional autobiographical text, a fictive Other with whom the real reader can never coincide and who serves to frame the real reader by heightening their self-awareness, Duchamp creates a space for the viewer which accommodates a plurality of viewing positions. To be addressed by one’s own image is to be made aware of the manifestation of oneself as subject while being interpolated into Duchamp’s subjectivity who remains both subject and creator of the work that frames the gaze. Duchamp’s paintings reveal him to be a painter of images, and of images whose relationship to their backgrounds and to the space around them is occasionally irrelevant and always of secondary importance. This separated him from the Cubists, who were interested in the concept of objects embedded in a spatial continuum or flux that was as pictorially significant as the depicted objects. By using the transparency of glass as a medium, Duchamp denies one of the signatory marks of painting, that of figure/ground relations. Duchamp reduces the notion of pictorial background to a readymade, one that changes with the position of the glass. The referential relations between figure and background now emerge as no longer internal to


To its detractors, Etant Donnés is little more than another of Duchamp’s hoaxes: “the ultimate bluff against art and its whole superstructure, an obscene diorama pawned off on a reputable museum because of the reputation of the “artist” and the brilliant literary apparatus lending it prestige” (Shattuck, 1984; 291). To others, it represents Duchamp’s most profound exploration of the troubled confluence of vision and desire. The viewer becomes voyeur, reviving the theme of Le Grand Verre where the témoins oculistes watch the bride being stripped bare. Now, the beholder is directly turned into a scopophilic viewer, caught in the embarrassing act that underlies all visual pleasure. Or, more precisely, that act is put in quotation marks, because the problem with the scene is its “hyperreality,” its excessive realism, which stages eroticism as a spectacle in the glare of artificial light. The installation subverts the traditional identification of subjectivity with either a monologic, spectatorial gaze or a dialogic specularity. Rather than the picture returning the gaze of the viewer in the manner of previous nudes (for example, Manet’s Olympia), which suggests the possibility of reciprocity, the viewer becomes the uneasy object of a gaze from behind – that of those waiting to see the peep show. The door, as Paz notes, is like the hinge of a chiasmic visual scene, which turns the viewer into the object of the other’s look. The equation of the “I” with the sovereign “eye” becomes itself unhinged.


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

the logic of the image but as a product of its chance encounters with the world and its spectators. Looking at Le Grand Verre therefore leads a viewer back to his/her own image, which blends with the painted forms and reflections of the outside world. The act of looking-at a painting becomes an act of looking-through. The glass, on which the composition is painted, by reason of its very transparency, becomes an obstacle to the viewer’s vision. Gazing at Le Grand Verre, the viewer’s eye is not allowed to rest. The viewer is enclosed in Le Grand Verre and becomes part of the work. This brings about an inversion of the position of the terms that are seen to constitute creation and artistic contemplation: the artist’s subjectivity (or the viewer’s) and the work. Thierry de Duve observes:
Art does not address itself to the masses but to an individual, and the work of art, whatever it is, chooses its viewers one at a time. However, once the spectator falls into this viewing trap, it is another viewer that he sees looking at him or whom he sees looking. There the viewers are always double; following Lacan, we might say that the individual viewer gets split there. It is to another that his gaze is addressed and from an Other that it comes back to him (de Duve, 1996; 405).

In Barthes’s appreciation of Arcimboldo’s painting, he observes that the painting is mobile. The painting dictates to its viewer by the obligation to come closer or to step back from the image in order to decipher it. The reflections and images mirrored in Le Grand Verre cause a viewer to look at the work from different angles and distances which both incorporate and eliminate their own likeness. The transparency of the material also ensures that a viewer circles the work to look at the reverse view. Barthes observes that by asking the human subject to move, the work implies a relativization of the space of meaning. Including the viewer’s gaze within the work, whilst simultaneously opening up a multiplicity of viewing positions, Duchamp ensures that the viewer’s movement participates in the work’s status. Barthes also comments how in the verb to gaze, the frontiers of active and passive are uncertain. By dint of gazing, one forgets one can be gazed at oneself. Duchamp overturns the relationship between subject and object by revealing the subjectivity of the authorial I to be interchangeable with the subjectivity of the viewer.

Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre


Barthes indicates in La Sagesse de l’Art that there is a useful lexical ambiguity to the term “subject.” As Barthes concludes in the case of Cy Twombly, so the same applies to Duchamp:
Chez Twombly, le ‘sujet,’ c’est bien sur, ce dont la toile parle; mais comme ce sujet n’est qu’une allusion (écrite), toute la charge du drame passe à celui qui la produit: le sujet, c’est Twombly lui-même. Le voyage du ’sujet,’ cependant, ne s’arrête pas là: parce que l’art de Twombly semble comporter peu de savoir technique (ce n’est, bien sûr, qu’une apparence), le sujet de la toile, c’est aussi celui qui la regarde: vous, moi (Barthes, 1982; 175).

The subject of a work can refer to its “object” (that which it offers to reflection), or the person who thereby represents him/herself – the implicit producer. “Je vous regarde comme on regarde l’impossible”9 Despite its public character, as a graphic description of the workings of a machine and the representation of an erotic ritual, Le Grand Verre, as Octavio Paz observes, is still a secret work:
The Large Glass opens out before us like the image of contradiction. But the contradiction is apparent rather than real: what we see are only moments and states of an invisible object, stages in the process of manifestation and concealment of a phenomenon. With that lucidity which is no less unique in him because it is constant, Duchamp alludes to the duplicity of his attempt: ‘Perhaps make a hinge picture (tableau de charnière).’ With the Large Glass, we face a hinge picture which, as it opens out or folds back, physically and/or mentally, shows us other vistas, other apparitions of the same elusive object (Paz, 1978; 93).

As Le Grand Verre resists rational definition, so it still resists critical appropriation. I have explained how traditional portraiture conveys an illusion of the uniqueness of the portrayed subject by presupposing a belief in the unity of the signifier (the “interior essence” of the portrayed) and the signified (the exterior form). However, Le Grand

Lacan, Séminaire XI, pp.70 - 96; quoted in Barthes, 1982; 280


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

Verre undermines the optics of pure vision, refuting the notion of artwork as mimesis or mirror. Martin Jay has described the history of modernist painting as a laboratory of postperspectivalist optical experimentation, with a subcurrent of outright antiretinalism that culminates in Duchamp. Duchamp dismisses the use of a sign system that refers iconically. He therefore prefigures the crisis of modernity that can be perceived in the recognition of the irreconcilable split between signifier and signified. As soon as this unity is challenged, the homogeneity and the authenticity of the portrayed subject fall apart. Much contemporary portraiture renders a sitter’s presence through the indexical sign: similarity is outmoded; contiguity is proposed as the new mode.10 However, Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre further problematizes any indexical association with subjectivity. His painterly performance is systematically absent in the multiple reproductions of his work. Le Grand Verre further subverts Lacan’s stade du miroir, where the Imaginary, associated with looking and being seen, becomes the realm of a coherent and stable self-image. Lacan defines imaginary intersubjectivity as a three-term structure: 1) I see the other; 2) I see him seeing me; 3) he knows I see him. The relation to one’s body image, one’s identity, passes through the relay of the Other. However, in the viewer’s relation to Le Grand Verre, the nature of intersubjectivity is closer to Barthes’s understanding of the lover’s gaze:
Or, dans la relation amoureuse, le regard, si l’on peut dire, n’est pas aussi retors; il manque un trajet. Sans doute, dans cette relation, d’une part je vois l’autre, avec intensité; je ne vois que lui, je le scrute, je veux percer le secret de ce corps que je désire; et d’autre part, je le vois me voir: je suis intimidé, sidéré, constitué passivement par son regard tout-puissant; et cet affolement est si grand que je ne peux (ou ne veux) reconnaître qu’il sait que je le vois – ce qui me désaliénerait: je me vois aveugle devant lui (Barthes, 1982; 282).

The viewer of Le Grand Verre sees himself blind in his/her own gaze. The space of subjectivity that Le Grand Verre reveals is both theatrical and symbolic. However, the performative dimension of selfrepresentation, whether it is enlisted to validate the self by
Orlan, whom I shall discuss in my concluding chapter, is a perfect example of this contemporary shift.

Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre


confrontation with others or to transform the self through the interpolation of the Other’s complicity, is inevitably constrained by other factors which threaten to expose it as nothing more than a rhetorical illusion; Duchamp refuses to constitute an image of himself for others. As Barthes explains: “l’imaginaire est ce sur quoi les autres ont barre” (Barthes, 1975; 85). In rejecting figurative art, Duchamp shakes off the remnants of the psychological realism that Barthes identifies as part of traditional character formation.11 The desire to elude definition lies in the need to maintain an unstable, creative identity. To impose an image on the self is to deprive it of certain liberties. As Barthes later observes in La Chambre Claire, the loss of the self is brought about because the objectification of the subject that bestows the experience of wholeness on it, is a discursive transformation that translates the subject into the terms of the doxa, the platitudes of public opinion (see also chapter 3, page 84 and chapter 4, page 151). One’s image is always cast in terms of the already-represented. Duchamp’s highly personal iconography resists oppression by resisting the images and concepts that reinforce traditional self-representation. Duchamp constructs a conception of subjectivity based on variety and diversity. Analogous to the decentring of the self in contemporary autobiography, Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre refuses to re-inscribe a unified subject. The interrogation of mimesis and the confrontation of the barriers between masculine and feminine challenge the notion of the image as a transparent representation of the “self” of the artist. By inscribing the notion of delay (Retard) into an abstract self-portrait, Duchamp also indicates his refutation of the Other’s perception of his self. Duchamp’s self is spatial, time is translated into space and difference is rooted in desire. The topology of subjectivity favours dispersal. Identity is unlocatable and involves displacement. It is what the artist is but what the Other perceives. If postmodernism signifies performativity, as Lyotard outlines in La Condition
11 See L’Introduction à l’analyse structurale des récits. This essay observes that a “character” is a collection of semes held together by a proper name (or the je of the first person narrator). The justification of particular collocations is the compatibility of the meanings in relation to cultural (ideological) codes. Cultural codes depend upon stereotypes whose essence is pure repetition. The stereotype is a synonym for déjà-lu, déjà-fait and functions iteratively, like the sign.


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

Postmoderne, Le Grand Verre is a paradigm of postmodern subjectivity. In merging subject and object positions and deploying techniques of reproduction, Duchamp reveals the intersubjective formation of identity. Through the incorporation of male and female symbols, he indicates the interdependence of gender definition while the impenetrability of the visual and verbal semiotic systems and the cycle of sexual desire illustrate the impossibility of narrative closure. Le Grand Verre demonstrates how a genre can be liberated from its history so that it can become an arena for new significations.

The Autoportrait: Michel Leiris’ L’Âge d’Homme
Introduction Michel Leiris’s L’Âge d’Homme is an exploration of the plasticity of memory. It is at once confession, catharsis, classic childhood memoir and representative of the avant-garde crisis in self-representation. If autobiography prior to Leiris and as opposed to autobiographical fiction (such as Proust’s enterprise) was regarded as a retrospective moulding and ordering of the past, in order to convey upon it a teleological coherence, Leiris reveals both the fallibility of memory and self-knowledge, and the mutual desire that propels an autobiographical text. Memory has traditionally been conceived as visual: classical mnemonic strategies for rhetoric (mnemonic deriving from Mnemosyne – goddess of memory and mother to all muses) depended upon a visualization of architectural or spatial structures. Much modern self-narrative draws upon the mnemonic power of visual imagery often leading the autobiographer to include photographs (see Barthes and Breton) or to adopt a fragmented text, analogous to a collection of snapshots (see Walter Benjamin). From the outset, L’Âge d’Homme reveals itself to be a highly visual undertaking. Leiris announces his desire in the introductory essay to group together the images that have contributed to his sense of identity. He draws constant analogies between his writing and the visual art of self-portraiture. He refers to “les traits qui [...] donnent sa ressemblance au portrait” (p. 29),1 “un tableau de moi, peint selon ma propre perspective” (p. 26), “une telle galerie de souvenirs” (p. 41).
All references to L'Âge d'Homme in this chapter are to the 1995 edition in the Folio collection by Gallimard.


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

In the prologue, Leiris commences with an intricate description of his physiognomy. In textualizing his physical presence, Leiris renders it as sign, and thus his body becomes a metaphor in the text, standing in for something that is not there. L’Âge d’Homme begins with an exterior vision of Leiris, the detailed description of his person and concludes with the interior visions of his subconscious, the dream descriptions. This framework represents the corporeality of existence, the external representation of the self, and the open-ended quest for an interior subjectivity. Leiris’s rule of composition reflects this symbolic framework: “Identité [...] de la forme et du fond.” He seeks simultaneity in the conjunction of interior and exterior vision. The conspicuous lack at the heart of L’Âge d’Homme is a material image of the autobiographer. This lack of an image – of the body that is a sign of desire and of agency in the world – places the emphasis of the writing upon the constructed nature of identity; how the presence of the writer is both evoked and dispersed throughout the text. L’Âge d’Homme and La Règle du Jeu have been subject to innumerable critical appraisals and analyses. Many of these investigations of the texts have focused upon the psychoanalytic elements of Leiris’s writing and the significance of both his experience of psychoanalysis and his position as a Surrealist dissident upon the style and structure of his writing.2 While these factors remain integral to a comprehension of L’Âge d’Homme, they do not concern my own exploration of the text. I wish to reveal how Leiris evolves a visual imagination by inscribing the visual into the verbal, the extent to which he develops a “plastic” self-retrospective and to what extent his identity is formed through pre-existing visual images or projections. In order to take account of L’Âge d’Homme as a partially therapeutic exercise, as indicated by Leiris, I shall discuss the links between Surrealism and psychoanalysis, the similarities between Lejeune’s definition of autobiography as transaction, which I discussed with reference to Duchamp, and the psychoanalytic notion of transference. This will enable me to elucidate the dialogical nature of Leiris’s enterprise in contrast to its interpretation as a cathartic outpouring of fear and self-loathing; the interpretation suggested by Leiris himself. Through a subsequent discussion of the fallibility of self-knowledge, I shall look at the way in which Leiris frames his

See, for example, P. Lejeune (1975), R. Bréchon (1973) and R. Simon (1984).

Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre


narrative, the imagistic presentation of memories and the self-deception that results from a masking of desire. I shall also explore the common themes that Leiris develops through his art criticism, their relevance to L’Âge d’Homme and the concept of le sacré, which he developed with Bataille, and to which Leiris considered all art should aspire. Before embarking upon my analysis of Leiris’s archive of images, it is helpful to contextualize the narrative in relation to the cultural climate in which it was written, as Leiris’s involvement with writers and artists at the time had a marked influence upon the evolution of his own aesthetic ideal. Leiris was deeply involved in the visual arts both through his friendship with artists and the art criticism he wrote for various journals. It is therefore important to consider the position of figurative or realist art and the crisis it faced during the 1930s. Modernism versus Realism The Left-sponsored realism debates in Paris in the mid-1930s demonstrate that self-representation, in particular portrait painting, was drawn into the fray. Louis Aragon’s address Réalisme socialiste et réalisme français was made in October 1937 and had a profound influence. He condemned modern theories for their neglect of the traditional humanist genre of portrait painting. The artists found themselves trapped within a dialectic – modernism versus realism. Representation and self-representation were at the centre of this dilemma. Since the advent of Cubism, portraiture had ceased to be a solely realist genre, one which was committed only to replicating physical likeness. It became a stage upon which was played out the tension of the drama between tradition and avant-gardism. As artists moved increasingly away from figuration to abstraction, the genre of portraiture held a problematic position in the hierarchy of artistic classification.3 A frequently cited case of an avant-garde artist reviving portraiture as part of a return to realism was that of former Surrealist, Alberto Giacometti, who did so in a Cézannist portrait of his mother
I shall examine the traditional role of the portrait and the crisis it faced in the early part of the twentieth century in greater detail in the following chapter.


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

in 1937. The pressure on avant-garde artists of the period to submit to the political dictates of the prevailing realism put them under much strain; similar pressures had helped to precipitate Picasso’s much talked about cessation of painting during 1935. As artists registered the dissolution of a once secure artistic identity, they turned towards introspective self-examination. Leiris, at the heart of this cultural upheaval, was aware of the difficulties for artists as his criticism of both Masson’s and Giacometti’s work reveals. He was also preoccupied with how to reconcile contemporary political, cultural and artistic demands with his own highly personal project. A social realist agenda demanded not just a politically engaged art but also one that was accessible and in touch with reality. Leiris’s desire to make his work accessible to his reading public is revealed in his introductory essay “de lui faire découvrir en lui-même quelque chose d’homophone à ce fond qui m’était découvert.” Leiris was aware of the criticism he would receive regarding the apparent indulgent narcissism of his project and when he wrote the introductory essay to L’Âge d’Homme at the end of the Second World War, he sought to deflect such opinions. As regards the duty of the writer:
Il resterait qu’il lui faut, se situant sur le plan intellectuel ou passionnel, apporter des pièces à conviction au procès de notre actuel système de valeurs et peser, de tout le poids dont il est si souvent oppressé, dans le sens de l’affranchissement de tous les hommes, faute de quoi nul ne saurait parvenir à son affranchissement particulier (p. 24).

Leiris’s exhortations on behalf of self-representation were not intended to be merely self-justificatory but conformed to his general convictions about the role of art in society. Leiris considered his friend André Masson’s return to self-portraiture during the war years as the most effective way to come to terms with oneself and the current climate. He applauded the artist’s objective self-appraisal and his attempts at self-definition through portraiture (see Leiris, 1940; 198). However, Leiris still criticized his own self-absorption at this time of international crisis:
Il y a, certes, quelque chose de risible (voire que d’aucuns n’hésiteraient pas à qualifier d’odieux) dans mon obstination à poursuivre cette recherche sans rapport direct avec la crise pourtant tragique que le monde traverse aujourd’hui. Mais n’est ce pas dans le moment même que tout est remis en question qu’on

Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre
éprouve, avec le plus d’urgence, le besoin de faire le point en soi-même (Leiris, 1968; 200-201).


In this perspective, Masson’s self-portraits become symbolic of Leiris’s own autobiographical project. Leiris sought in Masson’s work the reflection and expression of his own artistic ambitions. In doing so, he established a pattern that was to characterize his art criticism for the rest of his life. He looked to visual art not merely for the justification of his own likes and dislikes, his preference for certain artists’ work over others, but also for inspiration – for a surge of energy that remotivated his own work. His art criticism reveals as much, if not more, about his creative intentions and ambitions than does his self-commentary in his journals and critical essays. For Leiris, Masson was the peintre-matador who incarnated the definition of tauromachic art. In his criticism, he envisages him as a matador, who in place of the painter’s palette and brush wields a cape and sword (see Leiris, 1940; 100). Leiris appreciated particularly in Masson’s portraits, his exploration of the relationship between freedom and servitude as they are expressed in the referential space – the balance between reality and invention. He describes Masson’s self-portraits as a mirror offered up to the artist’s conscience where the processes of consciousness itself are reflected. Although Masson does not seem to have credited his self-portraits with any heuristic function, Leiris regarded them as the mise en abyme of his entire oeuvre. He saw them as establishing an intrinsic relation between the process of introspection and the external circumstances which prompted it, therefore, serving as the link between self and the world, le soi et le réel. Typically, Leiris’s criticism reveals more about the critic, his desires and intentions, than the artist of whom he speaks. If Leiris’s undertaking was to a great degree a quest for self-knowledge and self-definition, it was also a search for the origin of artistic vocation:
Si tant est que l’un des buts les plus ‘sacrés’ qu’un homme puisse se proposer soit d’acquérir une connaissance de soi aussi précise et intense que possible, il apparaît désirable que chacun, scrutant ses souvenirs avec le maximum d’honnêteté, examine s’il n’y peut découvrir quelque indice lui permettant de discerner quelle couleur a pour lui la notion même de sacré (Leiris,1989; 74).


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

The significance of le sacré and its consequences for L’Âge d’Homme will be explored in a later section. However, cathartic confession would not suffice for Leiris’s self-examination. In order to confer an artistic status upon his endeavours, he imposed his tauromachic code – an undertaking to remain as objective and truthful to his past as possible. Such an undertaking requires the indulgence of an attentive reader. It is with this reader that Leiris establishes his dialogue in the prefatory essay. Autobiography as Dialogue: Transaction or Transference? In L’Âge d’Homme, Leiris uses a technique of thematic layering, setting up frames within frames to create a context where minor incidents accumulate manifold meanings. The relevance of his anecdotes is tied to their structural position within the network of themes, chapters and sub-texts. Michael Sheringham has highlighted the similarity between Leiris’s narrative method and Freud’s case-histories:
If, for Freud, the memory of an incident will ‘make sense’ in the light of a network of associations uncovered (or supplied) in the work of analysis, for Leiris it is the process of textual construction which engenders meaning. In Freud, meanings are assigned by the analyst, in Leiris they are largely a function of the interplay of themes and structures, and therefore remain virtual and unofficial: it is for the reader to collaborate in the work of analysis (Sheringham, 1993; 129).

L’Âge d’Homme proceeds not so much through causal development but rather by associations engendered by memories which bring to the fore a principle of discontinuous narration and thus highlight contrasts. This produces a narrative whose progression is often grounded in antithesis. Memory assumes a constituent importance for the work of art. Of L’Âge d’Homme, Leiris writes in his Journal that no other form of literature was possible for him at the time. He envisaged a form of confessional literature, for example, theoretical essays based on personal experience, episodes from his life, or thematically grouped anecdotes (see Journal, 24.8.33; 230). Leiris conceived L’Âge d’Homme not just as a work of art but also as a form of therapy. He wanted his friends to regard his autobiographical project as a form

Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre


of liquidation. He hoped they would understand that the reason for his detailed and unflattering self-portrait was severity, not complacency; it represents his desire to break with or disassociate himself from the past (see Journal, 7.1.36; 298). Leiris’s explicit reference to L’Âge d’Homme as an exercise undertaken as a type of therapy forms a part of the three-fold act that is his autobiography. It is first and foremost:
Acte par rapport à moi-même puisque j’entendais bien, le rédigeant, élucider, grâce à cette formulation même, certaines choses encore obscures sur lesquelles la psychanalyse, sans les rendre tout à fait claires, avait éveillé mon attention quand je l’avais expérimenté comme patient (p. 14).

He describes it further as an act in relation to others, as his confessions would alter the way in which others perceived him, and finally, as a literary act. Leiris’s desire to confess, to paint a self-portrait that is apparently as objective as possible, leaves him vulnerable to interpretation and appropriation. His awareness of this is revealed in the second act: “Acte par rapport à autrui.” One of the aims of Leiris’s autobiographical writing is therefore concurrent with the aims of psychoanalysis – to elucidate and identify repressed or suppressed aspects of his identity. Whereas these might be revealed during the act of transference in the psychoanalyst’s room, Leiris chooses a method of revelation that is dependant upon the transaction between himself and the reader. Like the patient on the couch, Leiris seeks to provide neither interpretations nor explanations for the memories, dreams and images that he relates. The thematic structure of the book groups images that are linked through association rather than linear temporality. He invites the reader to make associative links by the way in which the related incidents arise not in the course of a chronological narrative but through the thematic structure. To speak of Lejeune’s pacte autobiographique as that of a transaction between writer and reader is to insist upon the constitutive role of an intersubjective relation between self and other in generating identity. To claim, as psychoanalysis does, that otherness is inscribed within the self is to assert that the subject is divided from the outset. The subject is neither identical with itself nor with the imaginary portrait that the reader paints of the writing subject. The art of the self-portraitist and the art of the analyst initially appear to be


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

diametrically opposed. Lacan consigns portraiture to the realm of the Imaginary, and refers to it only as a regrettable instance of those static imagos in which the subject seeks to alienate its desire. The art of the portraitist and analyst are thus pitted against one another in Lacan’s campaign against ego psychology. According to Lacan, ego psychology is misguided in its attempts to strengthen the ego defences, which only serve to further alienate the subject in an imaginary construct.4 However, the notion of self-representation as a transaction implies a parallel with the psychoanalytic situation of transference. The transaction – transference analogy diverts attention away from the illusory unity of the ego and towards the more malleable concept of a subject-in-process. Lejeune’s concept of le pacte autobiographique, as we have seen, is that of a relationship that the reader enters into with the text, and consequently, with the autobiographer. Numerous scholars of autobiography have charted the ways in which the reader enters into such a relationship, confident that the autobiographer’s tale will have relevance as well as referentiality.5 Lejeune’s relationship of trust recalls Derrida’s notion of otobiographie. Derrida posits the ear of the Other as the place into which the autobiography is told, and in which the autobiography takes form. Thus an autobiographical text becomes autobiography only in its transit through telling – highlighting the constitutive role played by the reader in the relationship. A Visual Memory As Leiris’s description of and references to images reveal, he is fully aware of their power to frame and objectify, therefore he attempts to resist photographic stasis in his writing. Instead of reproducing the images which haunt him (the schoolbook illustrations, the photographs of his aunt) Leiris reconstructs them in the narrator’s memory, a reconstruction of images in which the reader necessarily colludes. Leiris describes the power that images hold for him in the prologue as he sets out the metaphysics of his childhood; for example, the recursive image on the tin of cocoa that reveals to him the mystery of infinity, the pictures in journals and textbooks that contribute to his
4 5

See Lacan, Ecrits (1966), p. 42. See, for example, Bruss (1976) Eakin (1985) or Lejeune (1975).

Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre


understanding of ageing, maturity and death. Through his associative method, the image on the cocoa tin also becomes a mise en abyme of Leiris’s autobiographical oeuvre: representative of the open-endedness of the quest for identity. The emotional intensity with which Leiris reconstructs such images opens up the possibility for his subjective re-entry into the objectified past. This runs the risk of breaking the rigidly imposed stylistic framework of the narrative. Leiris expresses the desire, in laying down his tauromachic code, for a “cadre rigide imposé à une action où, théâtralement, le hasard doit apparaître dominé.” However, he later admits, that having presented the reader with a gallery of childhood recollections:
Je n’attache pas une importance outrancière à ces souvenirs échelonnés sur divers stades de mon enfance, mais il est d’une certaine utilité pour moi de les rassembler ici en cet instant, parce qu’ils sont le cadre – ou des fragments du cadre – dans lequel tout le reste s’est logé (p. 40-1).

Rather than presenting an incomplete framework, I contend that Leiris explodes the limitations of the temporal frame as the past confronts the present in the realm of subjective experience. James Olney reminds us that the integration of past and present represents a hallmark of autobiographical narrative: “Memory can be imagined as the narrative course of the past becoming present and [...] it can be imagined also as the reflective, retrospective gathering up of that past-in-becoming into this present-in-being” (Olney, 1980; 241). Visual memories from childhood reveal to Leiris certain mysteries of life and serve to shape his views, his metaphysics. Leiris explains the formative images of his childhood as due to the inability, common to most children, to grasp abstract concepts, the need to visualize these ideas in order to comprehend them. For example, he associates the soul with a bauble or a trinket. In retrospect, he explains this association as his firm belief as a boy in the substantial existence of his soul that he could only imagine as something solid and identifiable (p. 38). So deeply ingrained in his memory are these images that he writes, for instance, of the image that formed his notion of suicide: “cette association s’est tellement ancrée dans mon esprit qu’aujourd’hui encore je ne puis écrire le mot SUICIDE sans revoir le radjah dans son décor de flammes” (p. 31). This particular passage


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

also reveals the extent to which these visual memories are synaesthetic. The very word suicide is broken down by Leiris to expose the visual, oral and sensual connotations that it holds for him:
Il y a l’S dont la forme autant que le sifflement me rappelle, non seulement la torsion du corps près de tomber, mais la sinusoïdalité de la lame; U I, qui vibre curieusement et s’insinue, si l’on peut dire, comme le fusement du feu ou les angles à peine mousses d’un éclair congelé, C I D E, qui intervient enfin pour tout conclure, avec son goût acide impliquant quelque chose d’incisif et d’aiguisé (p. 31).

The sense of the word is contained in the shape of the syllables and the experience of memory which it gives rise to. Leiris’s account of his childhood metaphysics and the catalogue of images which gave rise to them serves as an introduction to the image which he claims inspired L’Âge d’Homme: Cranach’s painting of Judith and Lucretia:
De ces deux créatures – auxquelles j’ai attaché, arbitrairement peut-être, un sens allégorique – il y a quelques années la vue m’a bouleversé [...] Et de là m’est venu l’idée d’écrire ces pages, d’abord simple confession basée sur le tableau de Cranach et dont le but était de liquider, en les formulant, un certain nombre de choses dont le poids m’oppressait; ensuite raccourci de mémoires, vue panoramique de tout l’aspect de ma vie (p. 41).

Leiris’s impulse to write a “confession” confirms his desire to write the truth, yet as L’Âge d’Homme reveals, it is never as simple to confess as one might expect. Because the subject of autobiography is a self-representation and not the autobiographer himself, most contemporary critics describe this self as a fiction. When we locate the pressure to tell the truth in the context of the fictive self that is accountable for producing the truth, the problematical alliance between fact and fiction in autobiography begins to emerge. Confession, and consequently autobiography, is of a relational nature. The relational nature of the autobiographical pact depends on the authorization of the reader and the trust that the reader places in the “truth” of the autobiography. Leiris perceives certain truths relating to his sense of identity within the Cranach painting. This external representation gives the reader an opportunity to locate the “truth” of

Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre


Leiris’s subjectivity within a pre-existing material image. It is the authorization as well as the catalyst for the confession to follow. In Leiris’s writing, as in the work of his favourite artists, there is a constant oscillation between form and formation. He draws our attention to the process of writing, the subject engaged in the process of remembering, but is simultaneously bound by self-imposed rules of form and style. As his life becomes literature, it is caught in the dialectic of tradition and innovation and this tension remains unresolved. Leiris’s reading of the Cranach painting is a highly subjective one and is located in the eroticism of the image. Leiris forms his relationship to the painting through what he perceives as the reality of the image as it relates to him:
Le réalisme artistique ou littéraire ne ‘chosifie’ pas ce que de nos jours on appellerait le référent. Loin de rejeter celui-ci dans la froideur d’une prétendue objectivité, il s’efforce de traduire la relation concrète que nous avons avec lui et implique donc une large part de subjectivité! ce que je nomme la ‘présence’ n’est peut-être pas autre chose que la capacité que cet objet d’art plastique ou d’écriture a de faire sentir avec force, par le spectateur ou le lecteur, l’existence d’une telle relation entre l’auteur et son référent (Journal, 23.1.82; 751).

This passage not only reveals the nature of the relationship between Leiris and the painting but also what he perceives to exist between Cranach and his painting (thereby, also implicating Leiris’s relation to his own writing). In its production as well as in its consumption, the work of art confronts the spectator and the reader with difference, with the failure of interpretation to appropriate the art-object itself. As s/he interprets, the interpreter is confronted with a repeated failure and a continual desire to take possession of otherness and difference. The experience of difference is not only ever-present but also elusive and unlocatable. Leiris’s transcription of Cranach’s painting, from the spatial sense of pictorial imagery into the temporal process of a written text, is his attempt to subsume the difference of the picture, to bring it into his own sphere of experience in an act of interpretative appropriation.


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

Projecting Identity It is worth considering Leiris’s descriptions of Judith and Lucretia in some detail:
la première, Lucrèce, appuyant au centre de sa blanche poitrine, entre deux seins merveilleusement durs et ronds (dont les pointes semblent aussi rigides que des pierres ornant au même endroit un gorgerin ou une cuirasse), la lame effilée d’un poignard au but duquel perlent déjà, comme le don le plus intime pointe à l’extremité d’un sexe, quelques gouttes de sang, et s’apprêtant à annuler l’effet du viol qu’elle a subi, par un geste pareil; celui qui enfoncera dans une chaude gaine de chair et pour une mort sanglante l’arme bandée au maximum, telle la virilité inexorable du violeur quand elle était entrée de force dans l’orifice béant déjà entre ses cuisses, douce plaie rose qui peu d’instants après restituait la libation à pleines gorgées, exactement de même que la blessure – plus profonde, plus méchante aussi, mais peut-être encore plus enivrante – faite par le poignard laisserait jaillir, du fin fond de Lucrèce pâmée ou expirante, un flot de sang; la seconde, Judith, á la main droite une épée nue comme elle, dont la pointe meurtrit le sol à très peu de distance de ses orteils menus et dont la lame très large et très solide vient de trancher la tête d’Holopherne, qui pend, débris sinistre, à la main gauche de l’héroïne, doigts et cheveux mêlés pour une atroce union, – Judith, parée d’un collier aussi lourd qu’une chaîne de bagnard, dont le froid autour de son cou voluptueux rappelle celui du glaive près de ses pieds, – Judith placide et ne paraissant déjà plus songer à la boule barbue qu’elle tient à la main comme un bourgeon phallique qu’elle aurait pu couper rien qu’en serrant ses basses lèvres au moment où les écluses d’Holopherne s’ouvraient ou encore que, ogresse en plein délire, elle aurait détaché du gros membre de l’homme aviné (et peut-être vomissant) d’un soudain coup de dents (pp. 142-3).

Both descriptions reveal the horrified fascination with which Leiris perceives the two women. Devoid of feminine charm, his use of adjectives evokes monsters of nature, possessing more masculine than feminine attributes. The first description of Lucretia, her breasts described as hard and round, no beguiling curves, likens her to the instrument of death that she holds in her hand. The act of penetration, like the thrust of the dagger, lends a rhythm to the description that climaxes with the “flot de sang.” Far from an objective transcription of the painting, Leiris’s art appreciation comes closer to that of Baudelaire’s in its evocation of images, allusion and analogy. His

Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre


subjective input is evident in the adjectives, similes and metaphors: the drops of blood on the tip of the dagger are like the gift “à l’extremité d’un sexe,” the stiffness of the dagger is the same as “la virilité inexorable du violeur.” In drawing this parallel between the act of rape and the act of suicide, Leiris imaginatively recreates and anticipates the past and future of the static image; re-animating the petrified heroine with the projective force of his imagination and lending attributes to the picture, such as sensual adjectives, that the medium of paint cannot convey and that were, perhaps, unintended by the artist. Similarly, the description of Judith recreates a woman whose deeds render her, in Leiris’s eyes, barely human. She is an “ogresse en plein délire” whose nudity, compared to the sword she holds, is infinitely more menacing than seductive. The horror of the act she has perpetrated is accentuated by the apparent nonchalance with which she holds the bloody head in her left hand. Again, Leiris’s use of adjectives reveals the multisensual nature of his pictorial appreciation: the necklace Judith wears is both heavy and cold. Leiris’s imaginative re-creation of the painting’s history involves the participation of Holofernes – a drunken, perhaps vomiting victim. Leiris acknowledges his subjective interpretation of Cranach’s painting when he writes that his description leaves the women even more naked than they appear to be in the painting. This is shortly followed by Leiris likening himself to Holofernes, lying at the feet of his idols. This recurring comparison is first drawn at the conclusion of the prologue when Leiris describes himself as Holofernes, the hero. He indicates that the subject of his autobiography could be summarized as how the hero, Holofernes, graduates, with the inevitable mishaps, from the miraculous chaos of childhood to the ferocious virility of manhood (p. 42). The psychoanalytic implications of Leiris’s identification with Holofernes have been commented on by previous critics and do not concern me here; what is significant is how this parallel, established from the outset, allows Leiris’s subjective entry into the painting that is the source of his inspiration, and how this characterizes his emotional re-creation of visual memories throughout the book. Leiris’s self-exploration is always in part an extension of his Surrealist nominalism, a quest for an intensity experienced within the act of writing itself. This is also reflected within his art criticism; he


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

admires artists who he feels share his aesthetic quest – the moment of tauromachic truth, confrontation with the self, a drive against the void. In an article of 1929, Leiris defines what it is he admires in Giacometti’s sculpture:
Il n’y a cependant rien de mort dans cette sculpture; tout y est au contraire, comme des vrais fétiches qu’on peut idolâtrer (les vrais fétiches, c’est-à-dire ceux qui nous ressemblent et sont la forme objectivée de notre désir), prodigieusement vivant, – d’une vie gracieuse et fortement teintée d’humeur, belle expression de cette ambivalence sentimentale, tendre sphinx qu’on nourrit toujours, plus ou moins secrètement, au centre de soi-même (Leiris, 1929; 210).

The parenthetical explanation reveals what Leiris seeks in the art he admires – an objective expression of his own subjective desires. Leiris seeks an art that appears to reconcile the objective or external expression of subjective longing with the evocation of that longing in the viewer. It is such a role that Cranach’s painting plays in L’Âge d’Homme. Portraiture sets up a perpetual oscillation between observer and observed. The artist and his or her subject, whether it be another or the self, creates a representation that combines the dual positions of passivity and activity. The notion of an intersubjective relation between subject and object, artist and sitter, makes possible the conceptualization of an interactive relationship – an oscillation that might eventually conflate subject and object. As a Surrealist, Leiris was aware of the apparent heterogeneity of the self that écriture automatique was intended to reveal; as a veteran of psychoanalysis, he was aware of the intersubjective components in the formation of identity. The collaborative or interactive nature of the relation between analyst and analysand is reflected in the dialogic nature of Surrealist enterprises.6 Leiris’s knowledge of psychoanalysis combined with his experience of Surrealism, where the technique of automatic writing was understood as fracturing an illusory unity of the self, prevents him from seeking to create the consoling fiction of an autonomous ego.


At the origin of the Surrealist movement is a collection of automatic texts, Les Champs Magnétiques created by André Breton and Philippe Soupault writing in tandem with each other.

Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre


The techniques of thematic association, discontinuity and disruption which Leiris retrospectively described as his règle tauromachique lead to a certain symbiosis of style and content: “Identité, si l’on y tient, de la forme et du fond mais, plus exactement, démarche unique me révélant le fond à mesure que je lui donnais forme” (p. 21). However, this description of his technique is deceptively simple, belying the stylistic rigour that Leiris brought to his writing. It does nevertheless confirm Leiris’s desire for an impression of spontaneity, whether real or contrived, his desire to render his experiences present to the reader. To create an “authentic” self-portrait, Leiris realizes that the intimacy with one’s self, which the term “identity” presupposes, must be broken down and along with it, the cohesiveness of the self-image. The onus lies with the reader to reconstitute both the self-image and the identity of the writer. Leiris’s technique of fragmentation undoes the tradition of self-representation within autobiography that attempts to represent the subject as a coherent entity. Such a specular subject belongs to the Lacanian order of the Imaginary. As I have observed, Lacan contends that formal stagnation marks all the portraits that the subject produces of itself in the Imaginary. The task of the analyst is to erase these false icons and to suspend the subject’s certainties. As a “photomontage” of images, memories, dreams and extracts, Leiris’s subjectivity manifests itself for the reader through a series of provisional self-portraits. The Frame and le Sacré In the writing Leiris contributed to the Surrealist reviews is evidence of his Surrealist convictions, for example, his preoccupation with the unconscious and dreams, but unlike the automatic writing of his colleagues, Leiris already subjected his writing to a “souci compositionnel.” Leiris identified amongst those Surrealists who were to group around André Masson, including himself, a common desire for a certain formal discipline where the work of imagination had to be dominated by formal beauty (see Leiris, 1992; 219-229). Although Leiris rapidly disassociated himself from the Surrealist group, the impact of Surrealist techniques left their mark upon his work. Perhaps the most significant of these influences for the imagistic narrative of L’Âge d’Homme is that of the dream.


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

For the Surrealists, the dream represented an instant of involuntary poetry – it was at the basis of Aragon’s artistic convictions.7 Similarly, for Leiris, dreams were a source of imagery and escape, but above all, they represented the possibility for creating another separate, autonomous reality. Aragon was later to highlight the use of the dream for the Surrealists:
La pureté du rêve, l’inemployable, l’inutile du rêve, voilà ce qu’il s’agit de défendre contre une nouvelle rage de ronds de cuir qui va se déchaîner. Il ne faut pas permettre que le rêve devienne le jumeau du poème en prose, le cousin du bafouillage ou le beau-frère du haï-kaï (Aragon, 1980; 186).

However, it could be contested that it was precisely the similarity between the dream and what Barthes has identified in the haiku that fascinated Leiris. According to Barthes, “le flash du haïku n’éclaire, ne révèle rien; il est celui d’une photographie que l’on prendrait très soigneusement, mais en ayant omis de charger l’appareil de sa pellicule” (Barthes, 1980; 113). The haiku for Barthes represents what the dream comes to represent for Leiris – a fleeting evocation of an authentic, self-contained moment of reality, of presence. Leiris tried constantly to define this sense of the instant, which was for him, primarily pictorial. In his journal, he describes this sense as présence and claims that whatever it is that is imbued with this quality does not need to signify anything; it is sufficient that it is there, that it exists (see Journal, 30.7.77; 682). In Bacon’s painting, Leiris exalts above all the painter’s ability not only to be present (présent) but also to be contemporary (actuel):
Recherche plus ou moins expresse d’un comble de tension, sans doute est-ce à cela que répond l’oeuvre entier de Bacon [...] Sur le plan thématique, tension [...] entre tradition et modernité [...] de sorte que l’on pourrait croire le peintre avait – spontanément – fait sienne la phrase de Baudelaire assurant qu’un moitié de l’art est ‘l’éternel et l’immuable’ et l’autre la modernité ‘soit le transitoire, le fugitif, le contingent’ (Leiris, 1989; 19-20).

This very same tension, the dialectic between tradition and innovation, characterizes Leiris’s own writing. Leiris celebrates paintings that seem to achieve what frustrates him as a writer – the possibility of

See Aragon, Une Vague de Rêves (1924).

Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre


cancelling out absence, “peupler le vide.” Rendering reality for Leiris never involved a copy but rather a transmutation. In his Journal, he writes about Picasso’s paintings, claiming for them a quality of authenticity that does not lie in any naturalism or rationalism but rather in their air of urgency or inevitability: “le tout est qu’il y ait nécessité” (Journal, 27.12.35; 295). The canvas or sculpture is never simply a blank screen across which images are projected but is above all a dynamic space, a space of animation that calls reality into question. Leiris’s chosen artists describe their relationship to their subject. This relationship cannot be resolved in the past (of the subject) but only in the present (of the creation). For Leiris, art is primarily a matter of authenticity and not representation – the trap to avoid is that of narrative. On the margins of the quotidian, the work of art should express a new temporality – that of the instant. This is to be perceived not in the product but in the process of creation. Giacometti’s sculpture, in particular, seemed to mirror Leiris’s indefatigable and eternal pursuit of the réel and he claimed that Giacometti’s figures constituted an acte de présence. Thus for Leiris, some visual art, like the dream, comes to represent disruption and discontinuity, placed as it is outside the continuum of the everyday. Similarly, the theatre, “lieu de la mort feinte” (Leiris, 1955; 44), symbolizes a link, a bridge between illusion and reality, sleeping and waking. Like the stage of the theatre, to whose influence Leiris attributes his allusive and metaphorical writing style (p. 44), the dream or the work of art became a screen upon which were played out his fears about mortality and death. Therefore these ideas held significant thematic implications for Leiris’s writing but they also held stylistic significance – representing the ability to escape a pre-ordained order, allowing for disruption and discontinuity. It is this stylistic influence, connected to Leiris’s use of imagery, rather than its interpretation, that interests me here.8 It was in the attempt to situate his writing outside the traditional concepts of space and time, to liberate it from the chronological transcription of the


For discussion of the relevance of the dream to Leiris’s autobiography, see Lejeune “Rêve et autobiographie” in Lire Leiris Autobiographie et Langage, Paris, Klincksieck, 1975, pp. 91-100.


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

quotidian, where “le singulier devenu fragment de pluriel,” that Leiris turned to his Surrealist legacy. Leiris’s dedication in L’Âge d’Homme acknowledges a debt of gratitude to another Surrealist dissident: “A Georges Bataille, qui est à l’origine de ce livre.” Bataille’s theory of le sacré which he evolved with Leiris derives from salient features of the visionary ideals of Surrealism: the rupture of the ego boundaries, the sacrifice of oneself, becoming Other. During the 1930s, Bataille returned repeatedly to the theme of loss over and against the modern norms of utility and conservation. He contends that our lives are impoverished by the dominance of our instincts of self-preservation. Life, according to Bataille can only hope to achieve an incandescent intensity when it puts itself at risk, burns and consumes itself. This argument is demonstrated in Bataille’s essay on Van Gogh, published in Documents, 1930. Bataille argues that Van Gogh’s self-mutilation, in spite of its basis in mental illness, was no less the expression of a social function. The act of cutting off an ear is compared with mutilations carried out in initiatory and other rites; both are said to spring from a desire to rupture limited being. Leiris seems to have shared this scorn for bourgeois self-preservation, literally, in his account of masochism – slashing his body during his unsatisfactory love affair with Kay – but more importantly and more profoundly, the desire to rupture is expressed symbolically and stylistically. Through his projective identifications with Judith, Lucretia and the decapitated Holofernes, Leiris is able to become Other. Identification is usually conceived of as a process of incorporation, or introjection, analogous to the physical ingestion of an object. Leiris’s type of associative or projective identification is the reverse of this: it becomes a forceful projection of the Subject outside of himself.9 Object and Subject L’Âge d’Homme is purgatorial rather than redemptive, and lacks a clear end-point. Leiris uses his past and his past personae in order to elaborate a new, present self, thus making the autobio-


For discussion of the concept of identification in psychoanalysis, see Laplanche and Pontalis Vocabulaire de la psychanalyse (1973).

Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre


graphical process a basis for future transfiguration of the self. Leiris hopes that his autobiography:
Me modifiât, en m’aidant à prendre conscience, et qu’elle introduisît également un élément nouveau dans mes rapports avec autrui [. . .] Envie [. . .] de tout avouer pour partir sur de nouvelles bases, entretenant avec ceux à l’affection ou à l’estime desquels j’attachais du prix des relations désormais sans tricherie (p. 14-5).

The significance of this transformation is stylistic in as much as Leiris plays down the gap between past protagonist and present writer by representing the past only as it is reconstructed in the act and process of writing. The fragmentation of the text, the multiplicity of the images, breaks up and offsets the imposition of a monolithic identity. Through writing, Leiris controls the image-making process and attenuates the potential spell-binding fixity of self-images. Autobiography thus becomes the site of the formation of subjectivity through writing and the locus of the confrontation between a fragmentary self and a multivocal text. The extent to which Leiris succeeds in conveying an impression of spontaneity and discontinuity is relative; his visual memories are as carefully framed in the text as any of the static visual images to which he makes reference. For example, in the section entitled “Le Génie du Foyer,” Leiris frames the story of his sickness with the memory of his mother looking like a Roman matron. The memory has been inspired by Leiris’s thoughts on classical themes, “Antiquité.” He introduces the anecdote with his most familiar memory of his mother: “Quand je pense à ma mère, l’image d’elle qui me vient le plus fréquemment, c’est telle que je la voyais alors, en chemise de nuit – une longue chemise de nuit blanche – et natte dans le dos” (p. 65). The memory then develops, related in the past tense and overlaid by interjections from the narrator as to how the memory still holds true in the present. The anecdote in question is postponed by yet another memory, brought to mind by the unfolding narrative, of how Leiris and his brother played with the stove before which he now sits. In such a manner, the mechanics of memory unfold, layer upon layer. Finally, Leiris recalls the text to its initial point of departure and closes the frame with his mother: “Ma mère, très petite, devait avoir une vieille robe de chambre passée sur sa chemise de nuit et sa natte pendant long dans son dos” (p. 67). Although this sentence does not


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

conclude the section, followed as it is with a description of his father, the near repetitive use of vocabulary, besides its relevance to the appearance of women from antiquity, provides a precise visual frame to the anecdote. The interplay between object and subject positions is an integral point of exploration in autobiography where the self as subject gazes at the self as object. “Le sujet et l’objet” forms one of the sections outlining Leiris’s childhood metaphysics. The account of his first erection, experienced during a family walk when he sees poor children climbing trees barefooted, reveals to him how an involuntary subjective response to external events indicates the interaction of interior and exterior worlds:
Je notai du moins une coïncidence, impliquant un parallélisme entre deux séries de faits: ce qui se passait dans mon corps, et les événements extérieurs, dont je n’avais jusqu’alors jamais tenu compte en tant que se déroulant dans un milieu réellement séparé (p. 40).

This memory recurs several times in the narrative, on each occasion imbued with different layers of meaning. The initial account of his sexual awakening is interpreted as this intuition of the division between subject and object and the extent to which the self is formed through its responses to the external world. At the time, Leiris makes no connection between the scene he witnesses and his erection; later he recalls the emotions he experienced upon seeing the children and remembers the empathetic sensation of pleasure and pain of the children’s bare feet against the bark, the pity he felt for their poverty and the fear he imagined in anticipation of their possible fall. Such moments of intense revelation constitute for Leiris the expression of a tauromachic truth – an interruption of consciousness, which brings him face to face with himself in a heightened awareness of the present instant. In the section “Mon frère ami,” Leiris describes such a moment of truth resulting from a simultaneous experience of positive and negative identification. On the cliffs of Sainte-Adresse, Leiris observes a studious schoolboy walking with his brother and mother. At the same time, the clanging of a solitary buoy reminds him of a young prostitute he had met the previous evening:

Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre
Dans une certaine mesure, je m’identifiai à lui [the schoolboy] – de par mon incapacité à mépriser certaines contingences matérielles telles que le confort – à des travaux scientifiques que je juge mesquins, tandis qu’au coeur du monde comme au large de cette crique il y a quelque chose de si brûlant qui délire, qui crie tout seul [the buoy he associates with the prostitute], demandant simplement qu’on l’entende et qu’on ait assez de courage pour s’y dévouer tout entier (p. 128).


This experience of identification brings Leiris to a sudden awakening of consciousness. Sheringham interprets this scene as confronting Leiris “with a mise en scène of his inadequacies, particularly his inability to surmount the fears and scruples which impede his devotion to the poetic intensity and authenticity he craves” (Sheringham, 1993; 133). Sheringham’s exposition of the scene fails to observe that while Leiris’s projective identifications lead to the inevitable introspective self-examination, they also turn his thoughts beyond himself and to the insights he has gained into the life of the prostitute. This juxtaposition of narcissistic self-reflection and exterior vision is channelled into a feeling of pity which Leiris (relating back to the occasion of his first erection) expresses as an experience of sexual desire: “Revenu en ville, j’eus un moment l’idée de retourner ‘à la maison close, pour coucher avec la prostituée. Je ne le fis pas, et sans doute ai-je eu tort” (p. 128). Such a sexual union would perhaps have accorded Leiris the means with which to reconcile the opposition he senses: his self-pity, provoked by his despised life as fonctionnaire, and his admiration for the authenticity he perceives in the hardship of the prostitute’s existence. According to Leiris, the divide between object and subject can be traversed only in the act of sexual union or in suicide. The death of Cleopatra represents to Leiris a kind of symbolic union of the Lucretia and Judith prototypes:
Examinant les conditions dans lesquelles Cléopâtre, reine d’Egypte, a mis fin à ses jours, je suis frappé par le contacte de ces deux éléments: d’une part le serpent meutrier, symbole mâle par excellence, – d’autre part les figues sous lesquelles il est dissimulé, image courante de l’organe féminin [...] je ne puis m’empêcher de noter avec quelle exactitude cette rencontre de symboles répond à ce qui est pour moi le sens profond du suicide: devenir à la fois soi et l’autre, mâle et femelle, sujet et l’objet, ce


The Body as Medium and Metaphor
qui est tué et ce qui tue, – seule possibilité de communion avec soi-même (p. 141-2).

The implication of the dissolution of gender barriers (as well as the division between object and subject) in an act of absolute love or suicide, the inseparability of eros and thanatos, recalls Barthes’s notion of jouissance. Jouissance appears essentially as an interruption of consciousness that shatters the static mirror world of the Imaginary (see also chapter 4, page 138). The annihilation of the self that is inherent to the notion of jouissance makes explicit the association between orgasm (jouir) and death, aligning with Leiris’s concept of suicide:
On peut dire que la crise de la mort est en analogie avec le spasme, dont on n’a jamais à proprement parler conscience, à cause de la déroute de toutes les facultés qu’il implique et de son caractère de retour momentané au chaos. La tristesse bien connu d’après le coït tient à ce même vertige inhérent à toute crise non dénouée, puisque dans l’aventure sexuelle comme dans la mort le point culminant de cette crise s’accompagne d’une perte de conscience, au moins partielle dans le premier cas (p. 87).

Leiris’s text, through a certain symbiosis of style and content, seeks to suspend the reader’s sense of self as a unified subject (just as the author seems to elude definition); therefore, the act of reading (like the act of love or suicide) comes to imply the dissolution of the subject/object divide.10 Textual Crises The theme of death, the fear and loathing, attraction and revulsion it inspires in Leiris, is a recurrent one in L’Âge d’Homme. Barthes maintains that death is omnipresent in the sphere of self-representation, particularly in the visual art of photography.11 This idea is present in Leiris’s vision of himself petrified and framed in the wooden oblong of an old daguerreotype (p. 35). Barthes connects the representation of the body in photography with death, through both his
I shall explore this concept further in relation to a multivocal text in my study of Gisèle Prassinos. 11 The pervasive presence of death in the sphere of self-representation is a theme that I shall elaborate upon with reference particularly to Francis Bacon and Gisèle Prassinos.

Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre


definition of the studium and the punctum. Through the studium, photography has the capacity to impart to its subjects a mask-like fixity and the immobility of this mask represents death in person. However the body appears, the subject has no control over how others perceive it (this relates back to the fears expressed in Leiris’s prologue: his concerns about others’ misinterpretation of his intentions). To experience the process by which the Subject becomes Object is to undergo a kind of mini-death. Simultaneously, the insistence upon the past reality of the object reveals a kind of punctum. The attestation of the past reality of a human being is also an attestation of their death at some future time, which may itself be in the past. Photography embodies the illusion of le stade du miroir; the Subject is always already dead to itself, as it is always already a mask. Similarly, for de Man, death presides in autobiography: “Death is a misplaced name for a linguistic predicament, and the restoration of mortality by autobiography [. . .] deprives and disfigures to the precise extent that it restores” (de Man, 1984; 70). The fragmentation and discontinuity of Leiris’s text, the lack of any material likenesses, attempts to avoid this petrifaction. The accumulation of anecdotes and the juxtaposition of memories and images dissolve the self into the Symbolic text, evading the coalescence of the Imaginary. However, Leiris is aware, as he indicates in his prologue (“Acte par rapport à autrui”), that the text remains a rhetorical genre open to interpretation and therefore unable to guarantee the dispersion of the Subject (see also chapter 4, page 138). The triumph of the Symbolic over the Imaginary, or the Imaginary over the Symbolic, is dependent upon the reader’s interaction with the text. Autobiographers do not write primarily for themselves. In the light of reader-response theory and Lejeune’s discussion of le pacte autobiographique, the importance of the reader’s role in the autobiographical process is in no doubt. Autobiography constitutes a kind of act, in the case of L’Âge d’Homme, a three-part act. Leiris is aware and desirous of the possible therapeutic value of the autobiographical process but he still determines to challenge and confront his reader. Leiris’s autobiographical act corresponds to the theme of the theatre and the corrida, which permeates L’Âge d’Homme. A theatrical performance, like any act (as I shall demonstrate in my final study of the performances of Orlan) requires


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

the complicity of the Other (reader/viewer). In the act of reading, the borderline between stage and audience, performance and existence becomes blurred. In Leiris’s narrative, this has particular relevance as Leiris presents his memories as the visual performance of his past. He likens the distance from which he views his past to watching scenes in a theatre (p. 44); he is confined to an imaginative reconstruction of the past in which the reader is invited to collaborate. Moments of intense revelation experienced by Leiris in the past and recounted in the present reveal how the instance of recall still has the power to render him vulnerable to the very emotion he tries to capture in writing. The account of the incident on the cliffs of SainteAdresse provokes a crisis in the writing of the text and Leiris, noting how far he has departed from his starting point, wonders whether his associative method, his linking of memories, has deteriorated to become no more than a matter of style:
A mesure que j’écris, le plan que je m’étais tracé m’échappe et l’on dirait que plus je regarde en moi-même plus tout ce que je vois devient confus, les thèmes que j’avais cru primitivement distinguer se révélant inconsistants et arbitraires, comme si ce classement n’était en fin de compte qu’une sorte de guide-âne abstrait, voire un simple procédé de composition esthétique (p. 128).

This apparent crisis in the writing of the text makes the reader aware of the present act of textual construction, the engagement with material, words, memories, current preoccupations, in which connections must be established and out of which something must be created. Similar crises occur elsewhere in the text and serve a dual purpose that is both stylistic and thematic. They alert the reader to the fallibility of the autobiographer and the fallibility of memory, or the extent to which a present perspective can be accurately brought to bear upon a personal history. They also reveal the latency of experience: the way in which Leiris relives the experience at the time of writing. What constitutes the crisis is the temporal abyss between the moment in the past, the memory of the sensation, and the moment in the present, the reality of a sensation: the fact of discontinuity. The nature of autobiography involves the constant intervention of the past into the present moment, a radical revolution of temporality. Therefore what

Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre


incites Leiris’s narrative crises is not the simple fact of remembrance but the intensity that is latent within the process of remembering. As I have observed, the intensity of experience revealed by Leiris in L’Âge d’Homme is most often related to an interruption of the continuum of consciousness brought about by the unexpected collision of the object/subject. The importance of this experience, or the vision of this ideal experience, and its relevance to Leiris’s work is defined in his notion of le sacré, which I have mentioned above. The significance of le sacré is explored in the 1929 Giacometti article:
Il y a des moments qu’on peut appeler des crises et qui sont les seuls qui importent dans une vie. Il s’agit des moments où le dehors semble brusquement répondre à la sommation que nous lui lançons du dedans, où le monde extérieur s’ouvre pour qu’entre notre coeur et lui s’établisse une soudaine communication [. . .] La poésie ne peut se dégager que de telles ‘crises,’ et seules comptent les oeuvres qui en fournissent des équivalents (Leiris, 1929; 209).

In the sculpture of Giacometti, the paintings of Picasso, Masson and Bacon, Leiris admires the artists’ ability to disrupt a sense of continuity and to shatter the apparent homogeneity of the quotidian. I shall explore how Bacon achieves this sense of disruption in the following chapter. The entirety of Leiris’s art criticism is united by a few specific essential criteria. Above all, the trait Leiris exalts in his art criticism is realism: “ce qu’est au vrai notre condition propre” (Leiris, 1983; 46). In his Journal, he writes about Bacon’s style of prophetic realism (Journal; 21. 1. 81). It is this sense of reality that Leiris seeks to convey by imposing his tauromachic code in an effort to communicate a truth that is as objective as possible. In order that L’Âge d’Homme conforms to Leiris’s self-imposed tauromachic code, it has to involve the taking of risks, to present a challenge not only to the reader but also to the author. He describes his autobiographical enterprise as an attempt to shape his life into a solid block as a means of warding off the threat of mortality. He acknowledges the paradox of this attempt as, at the same time, he declares himself willing, like the matador, to risk everything. Leiris perceives this sort of risk in the art of André Masson:
Point crucial de l’art: guerre inexpiable du créateur avec lui-même et du sujet avec l’objet, dichotomie féconde, joute sanglante dans


The Body as Medium and Metaphor
laquelle l’individu entier est engagé, ultime chance pour l’homme – s’il consent à y risquer jusqu’à ses os – de donner corps à un sacré (Leiris, 1966; 63).

This notion of an art in which the artist is fully engaged – mind and body – is elaborated upon in the prologue to L’Âge d’Homme: “Il s’agissait moins là de ce qu’il est convenu d’appeler ‘littérature engagée’ que d’une littérature dans laquelle j’essayais de m’engager tout entier. Au-dedans comme au-dehors” (p. 15). Leiris also seeks to imbue his autobiography with the sort of realism that he perceives in Bacon’s work, a realism that is subjective because he is wholly engaged with his narrative, and a realism that involves the taking of risks because of the intensity of that engagement. The visual manner in which Leiris evokes and reconstructs his past facilitates the technique of stream-of-consciousness memory association but it also allows the reader to enter into and participate in the pictures of his past. These pictures are all the more potent for their textual reconstruction, which, as opposed to any form of static image, are multisensual or synaesthetic in their evocations of the past. The Fallibility of Self-Representation Autobiography, however fragmented or faithful to the discontinuity of experience, remains an exertion of control over self-image. In writing an account of his/her life, the writer “authorizes” the life because the identification between writer and text is explicit. Nevertheless, in writing the life, the autobiographer must also stand apart from the self, trying to envisage and read the self from a distance imposed by the passage of time. L’Âge d’Homme reveals how a creative, constitutive relationship exists between image and identity in autobiographical writing; how the visual memory, the reading of images from the past – be they fixed in an external materiality, such as the Cranach painting, or fluid in the mind’s eye, like the dreams, – is integral to Leiris’s construction of identity. Leiris’s fixation upon the Cranach painting unfolds in a series of readings of that image – readings that structure the text because the painting has come to structure Leiris’s self-identity. These readings are concerned with the act of interpreting visual memories in a way that becomes integral to the very construction of identity. Both his sense of self-identity and the narrative he recounts about the formation

Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre


of that identity are evoked in repeated attempts to fix and understand that image, which expands and shifts as he returns again and again to read its significance. Leiris establishes this distance between himself and the self in formation on the page through his projective identification with Cranach’s painting. In the attempt to represent and, perhaps reconcile, the apparently contradictory facets of his character, the figures in the painting become his alternative “doubles.” Freud, in the essay on The Uncanny, recounts an incident that occurred on a train journey when he caught sight of his face reflected in a swinging glass door and, for an instant, failed to recognize it as his own. He recalls having a hearty distaste for the bearded stranger lurching towards him and wonders if his reaction was not “a vestigial trace of the archaic reaction which feels the “double” (the mirror reflection) to be something uncanny (unheimlich)” (Freud xvii, 1953-74; 248). Leiris recognizes his alien doubles within the three images contained within the painting: the self-sacrifice of Lucretia, the bloody bravery of Judith and Holofernes’s severed head. The quotation that Leiris selects to head the chapter entitled “Tragiques” is indicative of the role that the Cranach painting plays in the construction of L’Âge d’Homme. Goethe’s Faust sees in the Medusa the image of his beloved Margaret. Mephistopheles warns him: “C’est de la magie, pauvre fou, car chacun croit y retrouver celle qu’il aime” (p. 43). In the figures of Lucretia and Judith, Leiris perceives the characteristics of the women whom he has known and loved, and he projects onto these women the entirety of his sexual history. Thematically, the painting serves as the structuring pivot of the autobiography. The image of Lucretia in tears gives rise to the section on wounded women; Judith is the figure around whom are gathered the images of death and tragedy – principally, the tragic roles played by Leiris’s Tante Lise. “La Tête d’Holopherne” groups a series of recollections ostensibly inspired by the theme of wounded men. Leiris finally combines the names of Lucretia and Judith to write a chapter beginning with the tale of Cleopatra (mentioned above), whom Leiris considers to encapsulate the qualities of eternal femininity in her ability to reconcile the characteristics of both Judith and Lucretia (p. 142). These passages, linked as they are to the Cranach painting, underscore how the visualization of his memory is integral to the


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

formation of Leiris’s identity as he writes. Both the subject of the book and his present subjectivity seem embodied in this image. If the image incarnates Leiris’s self, what is required of him now in the autobiographical act is to read into this image a meaning and an identity. Leiris orients his book around an image because the image evokes more about his life than a conventional autobiographical narrative might. Leiris makes the reader aware of the inherent open-endedness of the quest for identity; in so doing he makes autobiography a process that spawns self-estrangement as much as self-retrieval. By reading his own subjectivity through a pre-existing image, autobiographical desire in Leiris can also be interpreted as a desire to become other. The juxtaposition and layering of visual memories sets aside the story as narrative progression, as a path or line that leads to a centre. The way is through the Cranach painting, or, rather, the story evolves out of the painting that is its centre. Event and identity unfold in a fragmented, nonchronological way as evocations born of an image. The reading of the image entails that self-representation becomes a form of self-analysis which turns on the retrospectively constructed meaning of an image. The visual image is privileged over narrative. Thus the painting not only evokes an experience of identification but also provides three divergent types of muse. Muses for the Surrealists always provided this double function: inspiration and a blank canvas upon which could be projected the desires and fears of the individual artist. For example, this double function of the muse for the Surrealists is revealed in a joint venture involving Man Ray and Meret Oppenheim. The best known of these photographs shows Oppenheim posed naked beside the etching press, her inked forearm and palm raised, as if to imprint directly on the photographic plate. The body of the Surrealist muse becomes a text upon which the male Surrealist reads his desire; femininity is perceived as a reflective mirror in which the artist narcissistically recognizes himself. The logic of the Man Ray photograph – black ink on white skin, the phallic handle of the printing press obscuring the sex of the female subject – is a logic that disavows difference and otherness. However, Leiris, in evoking three separate muses, of both the male and female sex, exploits both the differences between the figures, their difference as well as their similarity to him, and consequently the very different associations that each of the characters hold.

Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre


The Multiplication of Self In laying down his tauromachique code, Leiris desires to reveal an “authentic” self or selves. He is aware that he is unable to provide a perfect or complete portrait, as he acknowledges on the second page:
Si rompu que je sois à m’observer moi-même, si maniaque que soit mon goût pour ce genre amer de contemplation, il y a sans nul doute des choses qui m’échappent, et vraisemblablement parmi les plus apparentes, puisque la perspective est tout et qu’un tableau de moi, peint selon ma propre perspective, a de grandes chances de laisser dans l’ombre certains détails qui, pour les autres, doivent être les plus flagrants (p. 26).

So Leiris is aware of his fallibility and aware that a single interior perspective can produce only an abstract self-portrait. He is also aware of the risks that this entails as regards his relations to those around him. The risks inherent to self-representation, the risk of distortion, manipulation and deception are evoked by Goethe in an essay on Leonardo’s Last Supper, who alerts us to the potentially disconcerting aspect of a face viewed through a distorted perspective. Asserting that the human countenance is only beautiful if contained within strict parameters of size, Goethe instructs the reader, “look at yourself, in a concave mirror, and you will be terrified at the inanimate, unmeaning monstrosity, which like a Medusa, meets your eye. Something similar is experienced by the artist, by whose hands a colossal face is to be formed” (Gage, 1980; 185). The risk entailed in exploiting such a perspective lies in placing the subject, at least temporarily, beyond the grasp of recognition. The subject, through a process of rupture and self-estrangement, is propelled outside of him/herself. The selfportrait therefore becomes the portrait of a moment of rupture, of the destructuring of the self in an experience of otherness. It is such a destructuring that Leiris pursues through his evocations of otherness. In pursuing “authenticity” and reality, Leiris presents eclectic, sometimes contradictory, images. It is as if, in the words of Rimbaud, “Je est un autre.” Whether this distorted perspective is intentional or unintentional, it imposes a sort of mask upon the writing subject. This is acknowledged by Leiris in a diary entry heading “Amours d’Holo-


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

pherne”: “Comment oserais-je me regarder si je ne portais pas soit un masque, soit des lunettes déformantes” (p. 156). This mask can be equated with the kind of defacement described by de Man in his essay on autobiography. De Man contends that the act of textual self-construction works to create a new physiognomy through the agency of prosopopeia, thus disfiguring (transforming) the writing self (de Man, 1979; 67-82). De Man’s notion of textually creating a new face aligns with the image of the mask. However, in his theory of autobiography, self-exposure becomes self-deception, an aesthetic game, a play of signifiers. Cognizant of the fact that any self-image construed in an autobiography must also confront the image of the self constructed elsewhere, Leiris acknowledges the risk of distortion and draws the reader’s attention to the unavoidable fallibility of self-knowledge. If portraiture or representation is of a relational nature, a dialogue, the meeting of object and subject, as I have indicated, then self-portraiture or self-representation is also a complicitous act, as we have seen with regard to Duchamp. And, here, the mask plays a crucial role in the interpretation of self-representation. The subject, who is also the object of his/her own gaze, provides a likeness which is then given over to the gaze of the spectator or reader. The distortion of the subject imposes the aforementioned mask. Self-representation therefore becomes less about recognition than about desire: the mask is the catalyst for desire. The search inherent to self-representation is that of the desire to recognize and, in turn, to be recognized. Leiris refers to his style as a sort of photomontage yet fails to include any photographs. Photography, with its claims to authenticity and veristic representation, has to be disposed of before the mask, the place where desire is invoked, can be grappled with. The mask is both the mechanism for the arousal of desire and the impediment to its attainment; therefore, the mask becomes one more rhetorical strategy in the collusive process of self-representation. The incorporation of images from the past, material or verbal, creates the effect of looking at the self as if the self were another – the photographed self, the dream or memory self; for example, Leiris’s incorporation of diary entries, records of dreams. A picture of the past, whether verbal or visual, flashes upon the consciousness of the reader or writer and causes a kind of disassociative shock, transforming our perception of the present reality. The picture of the past, detached

Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre


from the course of history, represents a confrontation of the past with the present moment and the recognition of the relevance of the past to the present moment. If the mind is likened to a camera, the photographic moment erases the distinction between past and present by interrupting time, taking a frame out of its context for perusal in the future. The inclusion of such (textual) images within an autobiography involves a certain process of spatializing the narrative of a life. The textual fragments, which compose a text that is no longer continuous and linear, perform as historical pictures, breaking the flow of (narrative) time, existing as fragments, and superimposing the past upon the present. Leiris speaks of his visual imagination in terms of allegory:
Pour une très large part, le goût que j’ai de l’hermétisme procède du même mouvement que cet amour ancien pour les ‘allégories,’ et je suis convaincu qu’il faut rapprocher également de ce dernier l’habitude que j’ai de penser par formules, analogies, images, – technique mentale dont, que je veuille ou non, le présent écrit n’est qu’une application (p. 55).

In Laokoon, an Enlightenment study on the inimical relationship between plastic and literary art, G. E. Lessing prescribes a sharp distinction between the spatiality of pictorial art and the temporal nature of narrative. Lessing criticizes allegory as a decadent form, because it attempts an illegitimate crossover between narrative and picture. But in Leiris’s work, allegory’s spatialization of narrative has a special purpose and design. The spatial interpretation of a static image, or rather, a series of images paradoxically reveals to Leiris the temporal process of ageing:
Je retrouve une image matérielle très précise qui contribua pour beaucoup à me donner la notion de la succession des stades de l’existence, de l’écoulement du temps . . . Il s’agit d’une suite de compositions que je vis tout petit, ornant le dos du cartonnage d’un album édité à Epinal, et qui était intitulée Les Couleurs de la vie (p. 32).

Leiris’s reactions to these images constitute his first experience of objectification. He perceives himself as belonging to these coloured categories, unable to outwit the inexorable progress of time despite his inclinations: “J’ai passé maintenant par un certain nombre de ces


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

couleurs [...] La couleur jaune – ou de maladie de foie – me guette et j’espérais, il y a à peine plus d’un an, échapper, grâce au suicide, à la couleur noire [...] je demeure encastré dans ces Ages de la Vie” (p. 35). Imagination is contained in and by the remembered image, which lends to the imagination its very form and makes it specific to the self. The images are dispersed yet they take precedence in the memory over temporal moments and events. The teleological unfolding of events in a story is contrasted here with the more vivid and ever evolving images from Leiris’s past. The reality of the images becomes mythic in their status not as events but as catalysts for the unravelling of memory. Leiris admits the fallibility of his visualization of the past. After relating his memory of the Contes d’Hoffmann, he writes:
J’arrive à le reconstituer ici d’après mes souvenirs, y joignant l’observation de ce que je suis devenu depuis lors et comparant entre eux les éléments anciens ou récents que me fournit ma mémoire. Une telle façon de procéder est peut-être hasardeuse, car qui me dit que je ne donne pas à ces souvenirs un sens qu’ils n’ont pas eu, les chargeant après coup d’une valeur émotive dont furent dépourvus les événements réels auxquels ils se réfèrent, bref, ressuscitant ce passé d’une manière tendancieuse? (p. 51).

Such self-doubts and questioning permeate Leiris’s text, highlighting the distinction between the past self of memory and the present writing self. Leiris uses Cranach’s painting as a sort of reference point to draw together his memories and classify them in a manner which, he feels, best demonstrates the contradictory elements of his personality, thus attempting to breach the divide between past and present selves.

Mimicking Mimesis: Francis Bacon’s Portraits
Introduction According to Bacon’s friend and biographer Michael Peppiatt, Bacon was an enigmatic character who could not be pinned down:
The closer you got to him, the more likely he was to turn nasty or simply disappear – to go through a wall into a life where you could not follow. He was a past master at slipping from one situation, one social level, to another, and at being many things to many people [...] The enigma that he sought in his work surrounded him like a protective cloak, allowing him repeatedly to break the mould of accepted thought and accepted behaviour. Enigma was the source from which he drew his greatest strength and inventiveness (Peppiatt, 1996; xviii).

In paying homage to Bacon the man, Peppiatt also reveals one of the most intriguing and therefore powerful aspects of the artist’s work: its evasiveness, its ability to confound interpretation, whilst simultaneously inviting the spectator to engage with an apparent narrative. In this chapter, I shall be looking at this characteristic of Bacon’s work, in particular through his self-portraits – the extent to which they reveal or disguise the subject. What happens when the painter turns his gaze upon himself? Does the work reveal the knowledge of a coherent and unified identity, or does it reflect Bacon’s multi-faceted public personae? To address these questions, I shall adopt a partly art-historical perspective in order to look at the extent to which Bacon was consciously working within a tradition of portraiture and also working against, or subverting that tradition. It is necessary to take into account not only the biographical knowledge that we have of Bacon but also the critical attention that he has received, from writers as diverse as Gilles Deleuze to Milan Kundera and Ernst van Alphen. Many of these critics have attempted to address what they perceive as the indefinable element in Bacon’s work, its ability to move and disturb


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

its audience. The most recent of these critical texts is Van Alphen’s Francis Bacon and the Loss of Self, which examines Bacon’s conception of self-identity and how this relates to his representation of the body. This text is the most relevant to my own enquiry into self-representation and I shall consequently extrapolate and engage with those aspects of Van Alphen’s text that are most pertinent to my own argument. Within the context of this thesis, Bacon presents himself as the logical successor to both Duchamp and Leiris. Among the few artists for whom Bacon expressed admiration, Duchamp, the great anti-retinal artist, ironically drew high praise from this visual artist. Before Duchamp abandoned easel-painting, he created one of the most influential paintings of the twentieth century for the consequences it held for the portrayal of movement and the human body: Nu descendant un escalier. Duchamp was interested in process as a subject for painting, and the way in which a human body makes a coherent structure in movement, even if that structure is never revealed completely at any one moment in time. There are certain technical similarities between Duchamp’s analysis of movement and Bacon’s distortions of the human figure but the difference between the artists’ objectives is considerable: Bacon does not seek to show successive appearance, but rather the superimposition of appearances. However, it was not only, or so much, Duchamp’s artistic legacy which impressed Bacon but the myth of the man as artist. As John Russell explains:
Bacon’s admiration for Duchamp is extended not so much to individual works [...] as to the attitude of mind behind them: the unfailing historical sense, the conclusions arrived at and decisively acted upon, and the disdain for self-promotion and the making of a ‘career’ (Russell, 1971; 51).

Part of Duchamp’s “attitude of mind” was, as we have seen, his ambivalent attitude toward critics whose interpretations he sought constantly to deflect and which resulted in an effect of self-promotion and self-mythification. If Duchamp had both a social and artistic influence, Bacon’s life-long friendship with Leiris, to whom he was introduced by Sonia Orwell in the 1960’s was both beneficial to Bacon’s career (through Leiris’s criticism and the contacts facilitated by his art dealer wife, Louise, daughter of Picasso’s dealer,

Francis Bacon’s Portraits


Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler) and influential in the degree to which the two men shared similar ideas and philosophies. Leiris’s concept of beauty, which he elucidated in much of his criticism, was something Bacon related to his own aesthetics, while Leiris found in Bacon’s painting, as we have seen, the moment of le sacré, which he constantly sought to convey in his own writing. If, as I argued in chapter two, Leiris’s L’Age d’Homme reveals the fallibility of memory and the nature of an open-ended quest for a self-identity which he seeks through projective identifications with pre-existing images, I now wish to explore Bacon’s plastic identity through a similar investigative framework. How far were Bacon’s self-representations informed by his knowledge of images in art history? To what extent were the self-portraits influenced by his fascination for photography, in particular the experiments of Muybridge and Eakins, and popular imagery in the press? How does Bacon reconcile the figurative imperative, which he brought to his entire oeuvre, with his desire to exploit the sensual quality of his medium, and how is the materiality of oil paint understood to engage with the materiality of the represented body? And, finally, to what extent do his self-portraits question the very possibility of self-knowledge and the possibility for the artist of representing this self? I shall draw upon both the critical vocabulary of semiotics and contemporary feminist art criticism, which is invaluable in its articulation of the problems inherent to the objectification of the self and negotiating the artist’s relation with pre-existing images. Distorting mirrors Just as Duchamp related Le Grand Verre to the tradition of self-portraiture partly through his references to this work as a mirror of the fourth dimension, Bacon also engaged with this generic rule. Similarly to Duchamp, who, as we have seen, referred to the mirror not as a duplicating but as a duplicitous mechanism, expressing his disdain for pure opticality, Bacon expressed his preference for the bizarre distortions provided by fairground mirrors as opposed to the apparent mimetic truth of conventional mirrors. John Russell quotes Bacon as saying:
One thing I’d like to have is an enormous room lined with distorting mirrors from floor to ceiling. Every so often


The Body as Medium and Metaphor
there’d be a normal mirror inset among the distorting ones. People would look so beautiful when they passed in front of it (Russell, 1971; 90).

It is this quality of distorted mirroring that has often been perceived in the twisted and contorted features of his portrait subjects. However, it is not only the superficial, decorative effects of these trick mirrors that led to their fascination for Bacon but the way in which they offered him the scope to undermine and subvert the traditional conventions of mimetic portraiture. Here, I shall pursue the observations I made in my first chapter on the mirror not only as a metaphor for painting but also for knowledge. Van Alphen devotes a section of his book to “The Mirror Image: Deceptive and Deceived.” This deals with how Bacon often employs the image of the mirror in his paintings and the extent to which it plays the role of a mise en abyme. However, the literal representation of the mirror in Bacon’s paintings is not necessarily relevant to the way in which it relates to his self-portraiture. It is helpful to look at René Major’s concept of negative hallucination, employed by van Alphen. Major introduces this idea in an interview about Bacon:
Il arrive qu’une personne se regardant dans un miroir ne parvienne pas à se voir. C’est ce qu’on appelle l’hallucination négative. Je pense à un cas précis de quelqu’un qui a retrouvé son image dans le miroir après avoir brisé la surface en jetant un verre. L’image apparut d’abord morcellée avant que les fragments ne retrouvent leur unité habituelle. Le morcellement s’avère ici lié à l’impossibilité temporaire de faire apparaître une définition fixe et répétitive de son image (Major,1978; 28-31).

Van Alphen applies this idea to Portrait of George Dyer in a Mirror, 1968. This painting raises the question of sight by pitting the internal gaze of the portrayed subject against the gaze of the viewer, external to the picture. Van Alphen observes how the focalization in the painting is ambiguous with regard to both its object and its subject:
It is impossible to detect where the defect in looking originates, or whose defect it is. Is it the external focalizer (the inscribed viewer), the internal focalizer (the figure), or the mirror that defeats the representation of the visual experience? Is the sense of sight deceived, or does sense of sight deceive us? Do we see what

Francis Bacon’s Portraits
we see, or does vision (the mirror) make us see? (Van Alphen, 1992; 73).


Van Alphen demonstrates the way in which Bacon unsettles the viewer by questioning the apparent representational paradox of the painting. However, can the concept of negative hallucination still be applied when there is no narrative, unresolved or not, and when the mirror is absent from the representation? Major’s use of the mirror recalls us to Lacan’s stade du miroir. Through seeing itself in the mirror with the mother, the infant is able to differentiate its polymorphous experience of its body from those of the mother and form a specular image of its whole self. The concept of negative hallucination, referring as it does (in Major’s example) to both the temporality of display and the fractured reflection, draws attention to the fragility of a specular sense of self. The problem of the instability of vision is inextricably related to the problem of the instability of identity. The reflected image identified with an ideal self whose integrity and consistency implies a unified, autonomous self, is at odds with the incoherent experience of embodied selfhood. When the mirror image is stable, the figure has a demarcated identity. Identity becomes blurred when the mirror image cannot be identified as a mirror reflection (see also chapter 4, page 153, and chapter 5, page 171). Self-representation, as we have seen in the work of both Duchamp and of Leiris, requires the sanction of the Other, as demonstrated, for example, by Lejeune’s pacte autobiographique. How does the Other sanction a self-representation when a distorted or shattered image fractures the illusory unity of the self? Russell refers to the six heads that formed part of Bacon’s first show at the Hanover Gallery in November 1949: “What painting had never shown before is the disintegration of the social being which takes place when one is alone in a room with no looking-glass. We may feel at such times that the accepted hierarchy of our features is collapsing” (Russell, 1971; 38). Such an observation indicates the very subjective content of Bacon’s painting, its lack of objective contours, and the emotional response that this provokes in the viewer. The rupture of ego boundaries implied by the destruction of the cohesiveness of the self-image not only invokes the artist’s unstable sense of self but also that of the viewer.


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

The Presence of Death As I have already observed, a dependency on a unity-bestowing relation to the self-image is not desirable but mortifying. I illustrated this point by evoking Barthes and Lacan. According to these theorists, the subject loses itself when it is objectified in representation. The loss of self happens because the objectification of the subject that brings about an experience of wholeness is a discursive transformation that translates the subject into terms of the doxa, the platitudes of public opinion. The subject falls prey to a representation that constructs it in terms of stereotypes. So, according to Barthes, in the portrait the subject is not confronted with itself in its essential quality, but in becoming an image it is alienated from itself, because it is assimilated into the doxa. Duchamp tries to avoid casting his image in terms of the already-represented by deferring and diffracting the gaze of the Other while Leiris disperses a decentred sense of self through a fragmented and multi-layered text. Bacon seeks to unsettle representations of the self that mortify self-experience by portraying the conflict between the artificiality of representation and the resistance of the subject to that artificiality. In his interviews with David Sylvester, Bacon emphasizes the need for distortion in order to represent the “real” appearance of the portrayed subject:
Bacon: What I want to do is to distort the thing far beyond the appearance, but in the distortion to bring it back to a recording of the appearance. Sylvester: Are you saying that painting is almost a way of bringing somebody back, that the process of painting is almost like the process of recalling? Bacon: I am saying it. And I think that the methods by which this is done are so artificial that the model before you, in my case, inhibits the artificiality by which this thing can be brought about (Sylvester, 1982; 40).

Bacon explicitly tries to represent the experience of death and the process of bereavement and mourning through his series of paintings that commemorate George Dyer. The objective representation of death

Francis Bacon’s Portraits


is not the aim of these paintings as much as the representation of the presence of death. The mortification implicit in the act of representation as intimated by theorists such as Barthes, Lacan and de Man implicates death metonymically in the representation of a living body. In the paintings of Bacon, death is evoked not simply through the representation of the human subject but through the conflation of the living body with death. To see the portrait as an instance of narrative implies that the viewer must distinguish two stories in the representation: the life-story that is condensed into one moment of that life, the description of that moment becoming a metaphor of the past and future in which the depicted moment is embedded, and the story of the process of representation, of portrayal. Traditionally, the act of representation by means of condensation is the act that challenges death. The portrait is the story of the life, the story that has still to be formed and shaped by the representation of it. Death is made intelligible by portraying and fixing the life-story, which will have preceded the sitter’s death. Without the act of representation, the life remains unshaped and indistinguishable from death. From this perspective, the motivation for the act of representation is the desire to transform the unacceptable situation of death into an event – an event in which death is acceptable because it is represented as absence. The death-to-come is indirectly represented as the opposite of the life-story portrayed. So conventionally, the portrait claims to unravel a reality: the life-story. The representation claims to unmask the truth about a person or life. However, as we have seen, the distortions and facial variations of Bacon’s portraits seem to produce the opposite effect, that of masking the subject. The contorted imagery deforms, decomposes and kills the subject. This kind of representation draws the viewer into the situation of death. The disturbing impact of Bacon’s portraiture lies, to a great extent, in the damage he inflicts upon the faces of his subjects. The power of facial disfiguration is partly semiotic in the disruption of the expressive repertoire. Disfigurement becomes a mask. Bacon’s portraits with their facial variations often evoke metaphors of injury but Bacon himself resisted the idea: “Whether the distortions which I think sometimes bring over the image more violently are damage is a very questionable idea. I don’t think it is damage.” However, the


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

images leave the viewer unsure. Their suggestions of modelled flesh that often seems to suffer injury and dislocation are at the same time dissolved into elusive smear-blurs, or are transformed by blots and swipes of naked paint. Do these confusions and disruptions alleviate sensitivity with formal surface technique and optical arabesque? Or do they aggravate it by suggesting impossible but still imaginable extremities? The subjective impact of Bacon’s faces does not only lie in the disarrangement or fracturing of the features. It is to be found in certain kinds of unreadability, uncertainty and ambiguity. The fugitive blurs where the shaping of the flesh becomes insubstantial and untraceable have an obscure depictive purpose, the background seems to be corroding into the figure. This confusion is expressive, deliberately breaking down the pictorial register and becoming marks of loss. While Bacon was working on commemorating his lover, George Dyer, he was also engaged in a parallel series of self-portraits. In the early 1970s he concentrated almost exclusively on images of Dyer and himself, capturing the effects of suffering on his own face. In these self-portraits, singles or series of small heads and the occasional full-length painting, Bacon used for his own image some of the same expressive means he had found to portray his dead lover. Parts of the head are scalloped out or hidden by black brushstrokes of shadow. In sharp contrast to the almost theatrical nature of the paintings of the previous decade, with their emphasis on new visual metaphors, these heads came out of a need to reduce and simplify. In one series, the black background surrounds the artist’s face like a liquid, submerging all but a few features. Yet the heads are always instantly recognizable, and all the more vivid for the encroaching darkness. Bacon’s use of shade and shadow in his portraits is unlike the traditional use of shadow in painting. It is not the realistic projection of the figure, a mirror image of the subject or a repetition of the subject’s profile. Traditionally, shadows are seen in relation to identity, supposedly confirming the identity of the subject through substantiating their presence. If a shadow is read metaphorically as a realistic representation, the identity of the figure is captured and represented by its shadow. Shadows, like photographs, are re-productions, mimetical mechanisms. However, in Bacon’s painting the shadows subvert the classical distribution of light in painting and

Francis Bacon’s Portraits


undermine their mimetical function. The shadows in the portraits are not extensions of the subject but a part of its reality. The figures dissolve into their shadows and the shadows dissolve into the backgrounds of the paintings. The figure is no more real than its shadow. Reproductions such as those created by shadows, mirrors and cameras create visual identity by externalizing identity within framed visuality. The use of shadows in Bacon’s work demonstrates the invasion of the subject by external elements that lead to the deformation of the body. The body is deformed into extensions; the shadow is one of these extensions. Therefore the shadows lose their iconic function and become indexes of the depicted bodies. Self-portraits remained a dominant feature of the artist’s output for the rest of his life, but here they have the particular poignancy of bereavement. In a large new triptych, painted in 1973 and entitled Three Portraits, Bacon portrays himself, a blur of confused movement, seated in the central panel. He is flanked by a heroically muscled George Dyer and by Lucian Freud caught in a sudden contortion. Self-Portrait, 1973 records the artist’s deepening despair with the graphic detail of a diary: the emotional isolation conveyed by the painting, where the figure leans for support on a washbasin, apparently ripped off the wall and left to float on the picture plane, is also rendered by the incongruity of the image, adding to the immediacy of its impact. Simultaneous Memory Memory is inherent to self-representation, constituting in large part the knowledge or sense of the self. As we have seen, Duchamp encompasses memory in Le Grand Verre by making of it a sort of compendium or catalogue of his previous work. Leiris’s L’Âge d’Homme is composed around memories of childhood and adolescence. The role that memory plays in figurative self-portraiture is much less obvious – how does the artist encapsulate in a single image the knowledge or sense of the past? As opposed to the temporal comprehension of a written text, which reflects and mimics to a certain extent the passage of time, the instantaneous apprehension of a static image obliges the artist to incorporate temporality by different means. It is useful here to consider for a moment the way in which portraiture has traditionally dealt with this issue.


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

In the medieval period, physiognomic likeness was not the primary way of representing a person’s identity; for example, the position and status of a nobleman was conventionally symbolized by his coat of arms. A method of characterization was thereby initiated which still takes place in conservative portraiture and which depends upon the imitation of a recognizable iconographic type. Portrait imagery was responsive to the social and political circumstances of the sitter and demonstrated this through the depiction of various symbols and prototypes. An implied historical narrative was therefore conveyed through conventional symbols contained within the painting. Thus portraiture was not just a matter of rendering a likeness but also involved a narrative element. In the nineteenth century, a belief in the scientific objectivity of the science of physiognomy led to the conviction that a person’s character could be deduced from the external appearance, so the depiction of a sitter’s history became less important; the greatness of the subject was revealed in his/her features. However, artists such as Courbet, Manet and the Impressionists began to interrogate this presumed identification between individualized physiognomy and a distinctive, interiorized identity and portraiture soon became more concerned with a lived intimacy between painter and sitter, challenging the normal politics of the portrait transaction. The identity of the artist became as significant as the identity of the sitter and began to imply a self that was distinct from the abstract, interior identity which justified orthodox public recognition. At this point, there is a recognizable shift in the emphasis on memory in portraiture. Rather than encompassing entirely or solely the past of the sitter, the emphasis is placed upon the temporal nature of the portrait transaction. It is also at this point, with the invention of the camera that we begin to identify the primary difference between photography portraiture and painting. Generally speaking, the decisive difference between photography and painting lies in their respective material relation to what they represent. To say that a painting or a drawing is a translation is to say that each mark on the paper is consciously related to the appearances that are represented and equally, to each mark or space set out on paper. Both painting and drawing are the result of consideration and transposition, a process of

Francis Bacon’s Portraits


making that requires time.1 Photographs on the other hand do not translate from appearances but quote from them; their figuration is not necessarily impregnated by experience or consciousness. A photograph can render an instantaneous and apparently unconstructed reproduction of reality. Its being unconstructed or literal relies on the fact that on the level of denotation the photograph appears to be purely analogous. Thus, to quote Barthes: the photograph is a “message sans code” (Barthes, 1982; 13); it is essentially weak in intentionality because the photographic message is simply given. Photographic portraits therefore seem to close the gap between “external” likeness and the self of the depicted person: the portrayed body no longer represents the sitter; it is the trace of the sitter. The iconic identification between photograph and living reality was supposedly guaranteed by the passage of light waves from the sitter’s body to the photographic emulsion. It is the very temporal nature of painting that opens up the possibility of a relationship between the sitter and the artist and creates a space for the intervention of memory. The relationship between painter and sitter has often been described in analogy to the act of making love. Russell writes:
We also know that the relationship between painter and sitter is charged with contradictory feelings and instincts as any other human relationship [. . .] portraiture can also be an act of love, and the penetrations involved can be as profound as anything in sexual relations: each partner gives himself, in such a case, without reserve (Russell, 1971; 62).

Such a metaphor belies the traditional assumption of the male as opposed to female artist but nevertheless conveys the sense of the relationship that evolves over the process of portrait painting, a progressive rather than an instantaneous appreciation of character. The position of memory or the passage of time in portraiture is comparable to the transaction-transference metaphor, which I employed with regard to Leiris: the notion of intersubjectivity giving rise to an interactive relationship that seeks to conflate subject and object. The idea of time therefore becomes an essential part of the relationship between the portraitist and his/her subject. Here we should remember that the very concept of modernism is temporal. Modernist painters such as Braque and Picasso attempted to collapse

See John Berger, Another Way of Telling, p. 93.


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

time and memory into a single image through the manipulation of perspective and the simultaneous apprehension of different views of the subject. The complicity inherent to the act of portrait painting becomes apparent if the portrait is understood to be a series of narratives, the likeness of the sitter being one of those narratives. Bacon’s attitude to portraiture was unusual in many respects. He disliked having the sitter in the room with him as he worked and preferred to work from photographs and memory. Also the majority of his portraits tend to represent friends and lovers. He told Sylvester “If I like them, I don’t want to practise the injury that I do to them in my work before them. I would rather practise the injury in private by which I think I record the facts of them more clearly.” Russell makes the observation that portraiture had a bad reputation in the 1960s:
People still felt, in a primitive, unjustifiable but quite irresistible way, that a portrait could deny and destroy them. They remembered how Winston Churchill had reacted when he saw Graham Sutherland’s portrait of him; and they remembered how de Gaulle, when in power, never sat to a painter. Portraiture had become a gamble in which you laid your identity on the gaming-table and ended up as the loser (Russell, 1971; 107).

This reveals one reason, amongst others, for which Bacon preferred to work from memory and not from direct observation when executing a portrait. More significantly, the fact that Bacon preferred to work from memory indicates the extent to which his portraits are less about capturing physical likeness and more about representing the character or self of the subject. Bacon’s self-portraits were also painted, as Russell records “out of his head” (ibid; 97). In his self-portraits, as in his portraiture, Bacon depended more on the memory and experience of self than on the direct transcription of external appearance. Index versus Icon Linda Nochlin characterizes the originality of portraiture in the “meeting of two subjectivities” (Nochlin, 1974; 29). This foregrounds the aspects of portraiture that depend upon specific notions of the human subject and of representation, that is, that subjectivity is equated with notions like the self or individuality and is

Francis Bacon’s Portraits


defined in its uniqueness, as an interior essence rather than as a result of a social formation. Therefore the portrait refers to someone, a presence outside the portrait. Traditionally, the portrayer proves his/her artistic originality by consolidating the self of the portrayed. The portrayer enriches the interiority of the portrayed’s self by giving it exterior form. In this sense, photography is not the traditional portrayer’s ideal but the failure of that ideal, because the essential quality of the sitter can only be caught by the artist, not by the camera. A camera can capture the appearance of a person maximally but the photographer has as many problems in capturing a sitter’s “essence” as a painter does. In Hans-Georg Gadamer’s text on the portrait, he speaks not of an essential quality that is captured but of an increase of being that seems to be produced by the portrayer in the portrait. The portrayer makes visible the inner essence of the sitter and this visualizing act is creative and productive. Therefore a portrait is more than a passive rendering of what was presumed to be already there (although interior and hence invisible). The portrayer gives this supposed interiority an outer form so that it can be perceived; the outer form becomes the signifier (expression) of the signified (the sitter’s interior essence). Gadamer exemplifies the semiotic economy of mimetic representation by assuming a unity between signifier and signified. However, in assuming this unity – that of a straightforward relationship of identity between signifier and signified – Gadamer asserts the apparent essential homogeneity of the sign. The semiotic conception that underlies this view is based upon the idea that the sign in its unity must represent the singularity of the signified: thus the sign comes to represent authenticity. Van Alphen observes how in twentieth century art the portrait has become a problematic genre precisely because from a semiotic point of view the crisis of modernity can be seen as the recognition of the irreconcilable split between signified and signifier. He explains that as soon as the sign becomes split, the portrait loses its exemplary status for mimetic representation. But artists, who have made it their project to challenge the originality and homogeneity of human subjectivity or the authority of mimetic representation, often choose the portrait as the genre to make their point. He observes: “The portrait returns, but with a difference, now exemplifying a critique of the bourgeois self instead of its authority; showing a loss of self


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

instead of its consolidation; shaping the subject as simulacrum instead of as origin” (Woodall, 1997; 242). This tension between signified and signifier is evident in Bacon’s portraiture. While Bacon remained resolutely a figurative painter, many of his paintings verge on abstraction not only because of the distorted imagery but also through his exploitation of the sensual potential of his preferred medium – oil paint. The evidence of the artist in his work, the index, is left in visible and textural brushstrokes. While the icon signifies by virtue of a resemblance to its object, it is not necessarily predicated upon the degree of “realism” of the image. It is the decision to suppose that the image refers to something on the basis of likeness that is the iconic act, and a sense of specularity is its result. The index signifies by virtue of an existential bond or causal connection between itself and the object. C.S. Peirce’s description of the index emphasizes its symmetrical opposition to the icon: while the icon does not need the object to exist, the index functions on the ground of that existence. Therefore, Abstract Expressionist painting is the apotheosis of the indexical sign. It uses the contiguity of the index to point back to the presence of the artist, hence the importance attached to the individuality of the expressionist gesture. This gesture is contained in signs that range from the recognizable “hand” of the artist, to the signature.2 Bacon derided the Abstract Expressionists, dismissing all abstraction as essentially “decorative;” he was known to refer to Pollock as “that old lace maker” and to compare de Kooning’s Woman series to playing-cards. Such public derision, however, did not prevent Bacon from responding to the Americans’ achievements and turning them to his own purpose. The flat bands of colour in many of Bacon’s later works clearly show that at some level he was influenced by the Barnett Newman colour-field canvases he had seen, either in shows or in reproduction. Bacon was also aware of the gestural spontaneity of de Kooning’s brushwork, which may have encouraged him to become freer in his own application of paint; he sometimes experimented with throwing paint on to the canvas and letting it drip. Bacon’s criticism of abstract painting indicates, perhaps, the threat he felt it posed to his

This idea is developed in Derrida’s notion of the trace: the indexical sign that refers by contiguity, not simply to the past (the maker of the image) but more importantly, to the future, the reading of it.

Francis Bacon’s Portraits


own work. He also understood that taking a figurative image to the verge of abstraction gave it a compelling tension. Bacon’s paintings, unlike the work of purely abstract painters, which are devoid of any mimetic relationship to empirical reality and embody an indexical registering of traces, create a tension between the demands of figurative representation and an abstract engagement with the materiality of his medium. In other words, they embody a conflict between indexical and iconical signs. Deleuze uses the term figural in an attempt to describe this aspect of Bacon’s style. This stylistic tension becomes evident if his portraits are compared to photographs of his sitters, as is often done in critical works about the artist, such as Bacon: Portraits et Autoportraits introduced by Milan Kundera. On a preliminary viewing, there is apparently little to differentiate one portrait from another. However, a comparison between the photographic likeness and the painted portrait reveals the extent to which Bacon captured the physical idiosyncrasies of his sitters. The features that he focuses on in each portrait obviously depend upon his personal or intimate knowledge of the subject. Bacon claimed not to be interested in showing people, as is often supposed, in a state of nervous tension:
I’m not a preacher. I’ve nothing to say about the “human situation.” What gives the pictures their desperate look, if they have one, is the technical difficulty of making appearances at the present stage of the evolution of painting. If my people look as if they’re in a dreadful fix, it’s because I can’t get them out of the technical dilemma. As I see it, there’s nothing, today, between a documentary painting and a very great work in which the documentary element is transcended (Russell, 1971; 99).

It is the fragile balance between index and icon, the way in which the materiality of the paint engages with the materiality of the flesh that combines to characterize his portraiture. Bacon observed about portraiture: “Once you know how to do it, it becomes illustration.” Bacon’s artistic imperative was, therefore, to remain within the area of the not-known, in a challenging technical sphere, while concentrating on sitters who were well-known to him. “Portraiture is impossible now,” he also remarked, “because you’re asking chance to fall your way all the time. The paint has to slide into appearance at every level, the accidents have to be all in your favour” (Russell, 1971; 70). This reveals the degree to which Bacon was still


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

consciously working within a Surrealist legacy with an emphasis on le hasard. However, in both his first self-portrait of 1956 and the second one, which he made two years later, the number of explicit accidents is comparatively small; in relation to the self-portraits of the 1960s these take few technical chances. Le Geste Brutal The initial impression of Bacon’s portrait heads is not so much that they are distorted as that they are contorted. In the work of the 1950s, there are times when the image seems to surpass the paint, where the iconic image dominates the indexical marks of paint (for example, Three Studies for the Human Head 1953) and there are other occasions (as in several of the van Gogh series) when the paintwork looks overworked and has become almost detached from the image. In the close-up heads of 1961, the image is often twisted and the paintwork is vigorous and fluid, yet the image and the paint coalesce in a way that demonstrates a harmony of index and icon. The paintwork verges on abstraction in its dynamic and confident layering, while the image retains the likeness of the person portrayed (for example, Three Studies of Henrietta Moraes 1969). As the 1960s progressed, the portrait heads grew consistently more abstract to the point at which, as Russell remarks, the human face would seem to disappear altogether in the “jewelled slime of the paint, leaving behind it an eye-socket, or the deep cave of a nostril, or an irreducible patch of hair, as tokens that somewhere among the strong-willed chromatic smearing a named individual was commemorated” (Russell, 1971; 100). The indexicality of Bacon’s paintwork, the processing of the paint which creates the impression of impasto and leaves the traces of the construction within the image, is often read as self-reflexive as it renders the process of image-making manifest: the painter and the act of painting are metonymically represented in the image. In the case of Bacon, the nature of this reflexivity does not signify the making of the image but rather the unmaking of the body. The painter’s hand is metonymically present in the textures of cloths and in the imprints of tools he has used to wipe away the paint that would have given substance to his subjects. These traces unmake the bodies resulting in the unbinding and dissolution of the subject. The painting of the body coincides with the perception of the body in a symbiosis of form and

Francis Bacon’s Portraits


content. In the conflation of representation and perception, the body is unmade. Bacon himself provided the best commentaries on his work in the course of two interviews, with David Sylvester in 1976 and Archimbaud in 1992. In both interviews he speaks admiringly of Picasso, in particular his period between 1926 and 1932. It is here that Bacon observes Picasso exploring a domain that “n’a pas été exploré: une forme organique qui se rapporte à l’image humaine mais en est une complète distorsion” (Kundera, 1996; 9). Here Bacon identifies the principle characteristic of his own work. Kundera describes this period of Picasso’s work : “chez Picasso, le geste léger du peintre transforme des motifs du corps humain en réalité picturale bidimensionnelle et autonome” (Kundera, 1996; 10). However, Bacon’s work, he continues, achieves a very different transformation:
Chez Bacon nous sommes dans un autre monde: l’euphorie ludique picassienne (ou matissienne) y est relayée par un étonnement (sinon un choc) devant ce que nous sommes matériellement, physiquement. Mue par cet étonnement, la main du peintre [. . .] se pose d’un geste brutal sur un corps, sur un visage, ‘dans l’espoir de trouver, en lui et derrière lui, quelque chose qui s’y est caché’ (Ibid; 10).

In this instance, Kundera invokes the indexical quality of Bacon’s images – the hand of the painter that is revealed in this geste brutal. So how does Bacon, through the contortion of his models, maintain their recognizable characteristics? And the models are recognizable, the triptychs and various series reveal the same people over and over again. It could be said that Bacon’s portraits are investigations into the limits of the self. To what extent can a person’s likeness be manipulated and transformed for it still to remain recognizable? Where and what are the boundaries beyond which a self ceases to be that self? Bacon on Bacon Autobiographical voices are often thought of as deeply singular attempts to inscribe individual identity. They are, however, not only mosaic compositions but may often be structured through processes of mirroring and dialogic relations with cross-historical and


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

cross-cultural others and thus may resonate with various sorts of “double” voicings. Bacon’s obsessive and recurring scream or cry, the image of the open mouth, has been attributed to several sources. Bacon himself claimed to have been haunted by the close-up of the screaming bespectacled face of the nurse in the Odessa steps sequence of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. Bacon was fascinated by the idea that a solitary image could summarize the self-destructive courses of a whole continent; an image that collapsed time and space into a single symbolic moment. At other times he referred to the image of a screaming girl in Poussin’s Le Massacre des Innocents which he saw as a young man at Chantilly. Dawn Ades has linked some of Bacon’s imagery, significantly the mouth, to images and photographs that were reproduced in Bataille’s Documents.3 Bacon also, infamously, derived many paintings from Velásquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X. In so far as Bacon was influenced by Velásquez, Russell observes that the influence extended further than the mere borrowing of a motif. Looking, for instance, at Velásquez’s portrait of Philip IV of Spain, he was struck by the fact that hidden within that great and complex image was a straightforward portrait. Velásquez’s genius, as far as Bacon was concerned, lay in the deformations, which in his hands, looked inevitable. Bacon was also impressed by the element of continuity in Velásquez’s work: his determination, for example, to vie with the state-portraits of Titian and remake them in the image of Velásquez’s own time (see Russell, 1971; 46). Among other influences, Bacon acknowledged Picasso and Rembrandt, who according to David Sylvester, “taught him most about the handling of paint, the creation of volume, the representation of flesh and of the relation of clothes to the body within them”

3 One entry in the Documents’ critical dictionary is Bataille’s “La Bouche.” It is accompanied by Jacques-André Boiffard’s photograph of an open mouth, wet with saliva. In his text Bataille discusses how experiences of both pleasure and pain are physiologically expressed through the mouth and uses this to demonstrate the bestiality of man: the mouth, normally the locus for the emission of language that differentiates human from beast, serves in extreme moments as an orifice that emits bestial cries.

Francis Bacon’s Portraits


(Sylvester, 1986; 56). Bacon did not receive a formal art education; he was an autodidact in both the practice and the history of art. Nevertheless, he was very conscious of the tradition within which he was working. His fascination with certain preceding artists is communicated to us, not just via the anecdotal evidence of his biographers, but through the work itself. Bacon was not only engaged with the work of his predecessors but also with their Romantic legacy: the mythological cult of the artist as genius. It is important to examine here the historical construction of the myth of the artist as genius. Art has always been informed by material circumstances, despite its claims to independence. When artists found themselves, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, producing for an art market rather than for a relatively stable system of patronage, it was necessary for their role to be reinvented. They became marginalized figures with respect to social institutions, which no longer financially supported them, and they, in turn, adopted the marginal position as one of power. Their freedom from the “system” bestowed upon them the status of creative individuals that became a selling point for their art. As Carole Duncan points out, with specific reference to the overt sexuality of the male bohemian lifestyle and the art produced through it:
The artist [...] in his turn must merchandize and sell himself, or an illusion of himself and his intimate life, on the open avant-garde market. He must promote (or get dealer or critic friends to promote) the value of his special credo, the authenticity of his special vision, and – most importantly – the genuineness of his anti-bourgeois antagonism [...] In acquiring or admiring such images, the respectable bourgeois identifies himself with this stance (Duncan, 1982; 311-312).

The genius myth valorized the economic marginality of the artist and turned that weakness into strength. Bacon was not only conscious of the power of the mythological cult of the artist but knew how to manipulate his own self-image to the extent that he became his own best publicist while still appearing to elude publicity. Sylvester’s Interviews with Bacon were quoted so extensively in the ever-increasing volume of Bacon scholarship that they became the prime sourcebook. After decades of mystery enshrouding the artist and his work, their effect was oracular. The power of Bacon upon Bacon grew to such a degree that it became


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

axiomatic that the artist himself was the greatest, if not the sole, authority on his work. Thus Bacon managed not only to create a corpus of images whose meaning could not be reduced to a particular narrative statement about the human condition, he also provided a guide to how they should be understood, which was, briefly stated, that they should not be “understood” at all. The images, as far as the artist himself was concerned, were to all intents and purposes ineffable. According to Peppiatt: “They were to be glazed, framed like Old Masters, then exhibited to the crowd. The passionate atheist, who would denounce the sham of faith in every bar, had made pictures for which he demanded the unquestioning acquiescence of religious conviction” (Peppiatt, 1996; 273-4). Bacon’s desire to control the way he himself and his pictures were interpreted did not diminish as he grew older and more respected. He continued to affect indifference to what was written on the subject, but in the last years of his life he took extreme measures to prevent several texts from being published about his life and work. Peppiatt relates some of the difficulties he faced as Bacon’s biographer and cites other examples, such as when the writer and editor Bruce Bernard put together a “scrap-book” juxtaposing extracts from articles with documentary photographs and reproductions. Bacon encouraged the project right up until publication, when he stepped in to block the book.4 An artist who becomes a legend in his own lifetime while limiting and controlling all the available information about his life inevitably attracts an avalanche of conjecture and revelation once he dies. New approaches to Bacon have been prompted not only by the discovery of unknown works or documents but also by questioning his own contradictory reading of his art. Peppiatt observes: “Rarely has the dictum not to heed what an artist says, only what he does, been more applicable.” Bacon suppressed as much biographical information about himself as he could, insisting that his work had to stand by itself, without reference to his life; yet, the life he lived and the images he made are intimately interdependent. Bacon proclaimed his distaste for narrative or literary painting, for any imagery that told a story. He insisted that his work, although replete with symbol and allusion,

See Bruce Bernard “About Francis Bacon” Independent Magazine, 2 May 1992.

Francis Bacon’s Portraits


“meant nothing.” Yet the mystique Bacon created with and around his paintings appeared almost to amount to a substitute religion. By assimilating hieratic images of the past, he seemed to be seeking to reclaim some of the mystery and power of great religious art. Although over recent time, poststructuralist theory and feminist interventions into art history have interrogated the paradigm of the Romantic genius, certain features of the myth are still pervasive in our society. A pertinent example would be the recent film about Francis Bacon: Love is the Devil by John Maybury. Scenes that involve the artist at his easel portray Derek Jacobi as Bacon thrusting paint at the canvas in an impulsive and spontaneous manner, usually characterized by an expression of concentrated anguish. The film leaves little or no room for the thoughtful deliberation and structuring of an image; Bacon wielding his paintbrush is analogous to a sexual demonstration of virility. Christine Battersby, in her book Gender and Genius, charts the chronological development of the concept of genius and its associations with both artists and maleness. As a feminist critic, she observes the consequences this held for women artists but makes a distinction that is worth noting here:
From its inception and up to our time, this notion of a genius-personality would trap women artists and thinkers. On the one hand – even before Freud – the driving force of genius was described in terms of male sexual energies. On the other hand, the genius was supposed to be like a woman: in tune with his emotions, sensitive, inspired (Battersby, 1989; 103).

As Simone de Beauvoir argued in Le Deuxième Sexe, the archetypal genius artist was Vincent van Gogh, whose legacy as a type has filtered down through the generations. Van Gogh represents the misunderstood genius of the avant-garde whose works are in advance of their time and are only vindicated for their innovation generations later. He was, biographically, a model of the suffering, alienated bohemian and became a paradigm for a generation of artists after him who would champion his work. The biographical film Love is the Devil not only reveals the extent to which the public still valorizes this romantic myth but also the enduring success of Bacon’s determination to fabricate and perpetuate his own legend.


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

Pre-existing Images Bacon used photographs as a source of inspiration for his work. His studio was constantly littered with black and white images, press clippings and documentary pictures. He observed about the influence of photography on his work:
I think of myself as a kind of pulverizing machine into which everything I look at and feel is fed. I believe that I am different from the mixed-media jackdaws who use photographs etc. more or less literally or cut them up and rearrange them. The literalness of photographs so used – even if they are only fragments – will prevent the emergence of real images, because the literalness of the appearance has not been sufficiently digested and transformed. In my case photographs become a sort of compost out of which images emerge from time to time. Those images may be partly conditioned by the mood of the material which has gone into the pulverizer (Russell, 1971; 71).

Bacon’s source material was eclectic and wide-ranging. Apart from pictorial imagery, he acknowledged the influence of literature, textbooks and manuals. Dawn Ades has investigated the extent to which Bacon could have been influenced by Bataille’s journal Documents: “Bacon possessed copies of Documents, and has talked specifically about the effect some of the illustrations reproduced in them had upon him, notably those of slaughterhouses” (Ades, 1985; 12). However, she continues, “It was not just the illustrations, but the whole context of ideas in which these illustrations were situated, that must have touched Bacon” (ibid; 12). The heterogeneous content and format of the journal, which adopted the principle of collage, isolating and juxtaposing disparate images and texts, was a familiar Surrealist device. It is a strategy designed to subvert conventional hierarchies, categories and identities, and to produce strangeness and incongruity. Parallels can be seen between the type and layout of illustrations in Documents and Bacon’s own disparate collection of visual sources. It is interesting to note that Bacon’s obsessive fascination with news photography was by no means an isolated phenomenon: picture journalism had just come of age, with the advent of small cameras, new printing techniques and magazines such as Picture Post. From the outset, Bacon was fascinated by the way images on film and in photography changed almost imperceptibly and then beyond

Francis Bacon’s Portraits


recognition from frame to frame. He particularly admired the studies in movement by Muybridge. Bacon himself preferred working in series. His imagination was stimulated by a sequence, with one form developing out of another; “images breed other images in me,” he said (Peppiatt, 1996; 87). Even in his earliest experiments as a painter he tended to execute variations in sequence on a specific subject. Apart from these working influences, Bacon also understood the potential of photography to perpetuate his own burgeoning myth. A photograph of the artist in his studio taken by Douglas Glass in 1957 shows the immaculate Bacon sitting in the midst of the chaos that always characterized his studio space. According to Peppiatt this aesthetic disorder reached a climax in the Reece Mews studio where the artist worked for the last thirty years of his life, claiming that he worked best amongst the chaos because it suggested images to him. He was also aware of the photogenic potential of these surroundings and how artists, since the end of the nineteenth century, had used images of their studios to publicize their work and enhance their image. Bacon was constantly aware of the legend growing up around him. Peppiatt confirms that Bacon created and manipulated the public image of himself and, by extension, of his studio:
It is less likely that the exhilarating mess actually ‘suggested images’ to him than that the wild disorder reinforced a certain notion of the randomness and spontaneity of his creative process that Bacon wanted to project. The confusion in the studio, like the ‘confusion’ of vision on the canvas, was willed [...] At another level the studio chaos suited the legend that was forming around the artist, partly at his instigation, partly beyond his control” (Peppiatt, 1996; 162-163).

Although he came from an upper-class background, Bacon deliberately cast himself as an inspired misfit from the wilds of an Irish stud farm. He used these public misconceptions of himself to perpetuate his outsider status and thereby link himself to preceding traditions. Bacon identified himself with Romantic misfits and Surrealist heroes, including Rimbaud, Lautréamont and Van Gogh amongst others. It was no coincidence that Bacon painted his first identified Self Portrait at the same time he produced his variations on a portrait of Van Gogh (around 1955). Bacon’s fascination with Van Gogh was clear from as early as 1951, when he was painting Head, which started


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

out as a pope but eventually turned into a portrait of the Dutch artist. Bacon kept a copy of Van Gogh’s letters by his bedside and constantly reread them, finding many of his own convictions as an artist reflected in his predecessor’s insights. According to Peppiatt, Bacon’s interest in Van Gogh was quickened by seeing Vincente Minelli’s Lust for Life, in which Kirk Douglas plays Van Gogh to Anthony Quinn’s Gauguin, and he returned to the theme less obliquely in 1956 with the first Study for Portrait of Van Gogh. This picture was directly inspired by The Painter on his way to Work of 1888, which was destroyed during the Second World War and consequently only exists in reproduction. It shows Van Gogh, weighed down by outdoor painting equipment, making his way towards a motif in the fields of Provence. Bacon’s versions are uncharacteristic in their loose, rapid brushwork and explosion of colours. Bacon clearly felt a degree of identification with Van Gogh, in much the same way as, by his own admission, he had become obsessed by Velásquez’s Pope. Van Gogh represented the ultimate outsider, “le suicidé de la société,” as Artaud called him. At the time of painting, Bacon was involved in an unhappy love affair and possibly empathized with the suffering reflected in Van Gogh’s solitary stooped figure. Certainly, in Bacon’s variations on the theme, the figure conveys a weight of loneliness and appears to melt into its own shadow, which in its turn is swallowed by the harsh yellows and reds of the road. However, the legacy of Van Gogh’s influence permeates Bacon’s work to a greater extent than this one series of portraits. The features that have consistently been stressed throughout the century in the self-portraits of male artists include their isolation, their alienation and their uniqueness. To be an “artist” was signified as much by lifestyle as by any aesthetic sensibilities or common artistic style. Thus links between life and art ensured authenticity as much as a signature could. Much self-portrait imagery was caught up in this artist mythology and certain forms became standard means to ensure that artists were perceived in the correct way. Many representations showed artists in marginal social spaces such as cafés, bars and brothels. When self-portraits were set in the studio, that space was almost always conceived as being beyond ordinary domestic routines and even, possibly, a dangerous anti-bourgeois place.

Francis Bacon’s Portraits


Tropes in self-portraiture that went beyond evocations of risqué settings also developed over the course of the century. The figure of the artist himself often used the concepts of marginality and alienation. Most often, the artist is represented as a tortured figure, sometimes in pain. The archetypal image of the tortured artist is Van Gogh’s Man with a Pipe of 1889, in which he portrayed himself with a bandaged ear, having himself cut off part of it. Bacon paid direct homage to Van Gogh in his 1957 series of heavy impasto paintings but there are also oblique references in his self-portraits where he depicts himself with facial injuries, such as the self-portrait of 1972 with a black-eye. Through employing such tropes, Bacon linked himself to a tradition of painting and also to a certain artistic identity. Foreplay with forefathers For artists who pursued the path of figurative painting through the 1950s, Giacometti’s obsessive adherence to the figure and devotion to the demands of his artistic vision was well known. As in the case of Duchamp, it was the mythological cult of the artist himself, as well as his work that had a lasting impact upon Bacon. The sculptor’s apparent indifference to financial success made a deep impression on a younger generation of artists. Bacon was clearly affected by Giacometti’s attitude to life and the chaos of his own studio no doubt derived in part from the older artist’s photogenic cave behind Montparnasse, filled with rubble and sculpture. Ades states: “Giacometti was of central importance to the generation of artists starting their career in the late 40s and 50s: his work and his ideas were brought to the fore in Britain by the critic David Sylvester (a close friend of Bacon)” (Ades, 1986; 74). Bacon named Giacometti as “the greatest living influence on my work” (Farson, 1993; 167). He was conscious, above all, of Giacometti’s artistic achievement: the need to take human appearance to the edge of dissolution by reducing it to its essence. In his search for a solution to the long-standing problem of how to articulate the pictorial space around his figures, Bacon clearly borrowed certain formal devices from Giacometti, notably the cage-like structures the artist had used in early sculptures. But he was also indebted to the overall reverberation of Giacometti’s oeuvre, which, like his own, had its roots in surrealism.


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

While all artists are influenced, in some way, by the work of their predecessors, I have demonstrated that Bacon was not only concerned with a painterly tradition but also with the tradition of the painter, in other words, the artist’s image and position in society. As we have seen, Bacon’s attempts to control his public image involved both the manipulation of publicity and the way he presented himself to the public in the context of his own work, that is, through his self-portraits. But he could not prevent critics from making comparisons between himself and other artists or writers. In Bacon’s interview with Archimbaud, he refers several times to the work of Samuel Beckett: “J’ai toujours été étonné de ce rapprochement entre Beckett et moi [...] j’ai toujours trouvé que Shakespeare avait exprimé bien mieux et d’une façon plus juste et plus puissante ce que Beckett et Joyce avaient cherché à dire.” He goes on to say, “En peinture, on laisse toujours trop d’habitude, on n’élimine jamais assez, mais chez Beckett j’ai souvent eu l’impression qu’à force d’avoir voulu éliminer, il n’est plus rien resté et que ce rien en définitive sonnait creux” (Kundera, 1996; 12). Bacon’s attack on, or dismissal of Beckett, reveals much about his fears concerning his own work. His remarks about Beckett expose the degree to which he resented being classified as a particular type of painter and the need he felt to protect his work from cliché and categorization. Bacon resisted certain dogmatisms of modernism that created a division between tradition and modern art, and that defined contemporary art as existing in an autonomous epoch with its own set of values and criticism. He defended himself against a systematic explanation of his ideas on art in the fear that he would stifle the unconscious creative element in his work, fearing also the risk of turning his art into narrative. If it is possible to draw a comparison between Bacon and Beckett, it lies in their respective positions regarding the history of their art, in recognizing the tradition within which they work. Both artists were also concerned, above all with the physiological materiality of the human individual. This is why even Bacon’s Crucifixion, which in the history of art has often encompassed the significance of religion, ethics, the history of the western world, becomes in Bacon’s imagery a physiological phenomenon: “J’ai toujours été touché par les images relatives aux abattoirs et à la viande, et pour moi elles sont liées étroitement à tout ce qu’est la Crucifixion” (Kundera, 1996; 16). For Bacon, the

Francis Bacon’s Portraits


non-believer, the notion of sacrilege did not enter into his work, focusing as he did upon a purely corporeal reality. Leiris described his work as an art of demystification, cleansed of religion and morality. Another acknowledged master whose influence Bacon, like all other twentieth century painters, had to learn to assimilate was Picasso. Of all Picasso’s work, Bacon remained throughout his life most particularly impressed by the period between 1927 and 1932. Like the Surrealists, whose activities he followed closely and whom he occasionally joined, Picasso was deeply interested in the fertility of the unconscious mind; he was also attracted to the dreamlike blend of the animate and inanimate in surrealist art. Out of this new freedom to re-create the human form with the metamorphic fluidity of dream, Picasso produced one of his most disquieting images, the combination of sex and mouth, or “vagina dentata” as the Surrealists named it. This metaphor of confusion, anger and fear intrigued Bacon, whose obsession with the open mouth had already been confirmed. However, more significant than the specific ways in which Picasso influenced him was Bacon’s realization that the only way to make the human form once more central to art lay in distorting it. Certain stylistic similarities with Picasso are immediately apparent. The knob-like, featureless head of Bacon’s figure in his Crucifixion of 1933 unambiguously recalls the one in Picasso’s Crucifixion. While remaining aware of the possible sources of Bacon’s imagery, it is necessary to be cautious about seeing Bacon’s pictures as the product of various assimilated “influences.” As Peppiatt among other critics has noted, Bacon’s interest in the open mouth may quite simply date back to his first sexual experiences; and that may explain why, as a young man, he was transfixed by Poussin’s cry when he chanced upon it in Chantilly; and why that fascination continued to haunt him, even extending to hand-coloured illustrations of diseases of the mouth (see Peppiatt, 1996; 85). The supposed hierarchy of influence, whereby the older work, the source, is presumed to have influenced the newer one, is often perceived as detrimental to the received artistic authenticity of the newer work: the new work is perceived as the passive recipient of influence. However, Michael Baxandall has proposed a reversal of this view. According to Baxandall, the later work actively produces the “influence” by choosing to respond to the older work. It is equally possible to consider, as Van Alphen proposes, that both artists shape their work


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

through an active intervention in the assumptions and theories about the artwork and that understanding these interventions helps to understand their works in relation to the historical process in which it is shaped. Eluding the doxa The distortions and contortions inherent in Bacon’s portraiture are analogous to the construction of identity. Each painting is a performance, an act of creation that demands the effort of recognition. The emotive content of the portraits, the dark scalloped shapes, shadows and blurred features are perceptive pictures of the anxieties that shape our subjectivity. As with the act of looking into a mirror, each painting involves a scrutiny of self-searching as the viewer’s eye traces the paintwork, and the emphasis is necessarily upon the process of this search, represented in the artist’s evolving imagery, as well as in the end product that is the image. The fact that the facial images often appear to be distorted almost beyond recognition forces the spectator to enter into an interactive relationship with the image. Ultimately, the artist’s images must be able to exist outside of his intentions, and therefore, the viewer participates in their creation. In Bacon’s portraits, the spectator sees the documentation of the performative act of creating identity. The tenuous nature of some of the portraits’ iconic relation to their sitter exposes the essential contingency of identity and reveals notions of the self to be a constructed convenience. Bacon confers identity with one hand and undermines fixed notions of it with the other. Bacon’s self-portraits, from image to image, series to series, explode the notion of a linear, chronological sense of life; they provide a lateral autobiography. The recurrence of Bacon’s own image throughout his oeuvre is not an overt first-person narrative or a narrative of artistic failure or triumph. Bacon’s approach to his self-image creates an omnivorous, ever-expanding self that constantly reveals facets of itself. His self-portraits lack restraint and irony; they attempt to resuscitate emotional content via the artist’s aesthetic. Philippe Sollers has written about the social aspect of Bacon’s portraits, the way in which the apparent “ugliness” of the images is a possible consequence of both external and internal influences:

Francis Bacon’s Portraits
Les individus sont constamment déformés par la broyeuse sociale et par eux-mêmes. On les oblige (ils s’obligent) à être absurdes, idiots, grimaçants, appliqués, menteurs, intéressés, pourris, boursouflés. Et tout à coup, ils sont beaux. Terriblement beaux comme ils le méritent. Voilà ce que le portrait, repensé, doit dire en une seule fois. L’apparence au-delà de l’apparence. Energie, déformation, beauté [...] Les portraits de Bacon sont ainsi peints à l’arraché, comme pour sauver l’essentiel d’un être humain avant sa disparition biologique ou son engloutissement dans le mensonge photographique. (Où les morts sont-ils plus morts que dans les enregistrements que l’on fait d’eux?) (Sollers, 1996; 102).


From this perspective, subjectivity is viewed not as an essential, indisputable essence but rather as the result of an accumulation of factors, social, perceived and projected. According to Van Alphen, Bacon’s portraits propose that sight becomes a kind of touch, a stimuli, an act that is inflicted upon the body as a whole. Taking Bacon’s Three Studies for Self Portrait (1979) as an example, Van Alphen observes how the event of perception of visual stimuli is represented visually:
The eyes of Bacon in all three panels [...] express total susceptibility to visual stimuli. The figure’s gaze is paralysed, reminiscent of the gaze of a rabbit caught in a band of light. The gaze is dictated by the stimulus, not by the holder of the eye (Alphen, 1992; 54-5).

Van Alphen compares this with the portrait of Michel Leiris where the writer seems to be under the spell of something he sees. In an apparently trance-like state, he is no longer the powerful observer of the outside world; rather he is dominated by the visual: “Thus the function of focalizer is detached from perception: the focalizer’s look is arrested” (ibid; 55). Van Alphen concludes that what Bacon’s portraits theorize is a need for the specific: “for the sensational that is no other than itself, for a process in which the viewer must participate, for a participation that hurts, deforms, but happens; they theorize the need for narrative” (ibid; 57). This narrative does not tell the story of the picture but the story of an interactive encounter between viewer and image. The deformations Bacon inflicts upon his subjects problematize vision. In the same way as the portrait subjects appear to observe


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

the observer; the observer tries to re-form the subject of vision. Through focusing upon the contortions and smears of paint, the viewer’s concentrated perception analyses and breaks down the image. Like an Impressionist painting that shifts into focus only when viewed from a distance, under the gaze of analytical scrutiny Bacon’s subjects dissolve and evaporate into the materiality of the blurs of paintwork. The distinction between object and subject disappears and leaves only the sensation of perception. The process of perception that the work reflects upon and stimulates undermines the concept of self as an external image of the physical body in favour of the subjective or internalized experience of self: a self that eludes the fixity of vision and is constantly in flux. Van Alphen concludes:
The difference between the idea of an originating identity and that of a deformed identity provides the opportunity for a temporal re-establishment of identity. The deformed body is the only representation left of the missing identity. This representation of the deformed body is not only the logical result of the violent process of perception, it is also the only signifier which keeps the idea of identity alive (ibid; 81).

I contend, however, that it is precisely the process of perception involving the re-construction of the image by the viewer that conveys the sense of identity. This is not a monolithic view of self-representation but an inter-active, structuring sense of perception that involves the viewer and the decomposing object in view. Traditionally, portraits and self-portraits have been representative of our attempts to understand ourselves through our own self-representation. Fundamental to the construction and articulation of identity, the portrait flatters our vanity, not only as a record of beauty or a promise of immortality but also because the image describes an identity founded on the implicit assumption that there exists some stable, authenticating origin behind it, which it is the task of art to reveal. Far from being only the record of appearance, the portrait promises to be an art of revelation. In the same way, as I have observed, portraits have been judged to be “good” if they succeed in revealing the “inner” person, extricating the ideal from the incidental, expunging the contradictory and the peculiar to reveal a unified and immutable essence that is thought to underlie the chiaroscuro of appearance.

Francis Bacon’s Portraits


Bacon’s portraits reveal the extent to which any coherent notion of a permanent and stable identity is little more than a consoling and controlling fiction. In basing his self-portraits and portraits on remembered perceptions, the face becomes the site of a dynamic transaction, an interface, between the self and the other. The disturbing abstract amorphousness of the face and head shifts the register of the image away from an external reality; the distortion of the image suggests the anomalous experiences and feelings that necessarily have no name or image. Resisting identification, the shadowed face insinuates a destabilized self, creating the need for the spectator’s interaction, the effect of which is to emphasize that identity flows rather than resides, so that a person becomes little more than an assemblage of identities, or a succession of faces. To recall Kristeva, Bacon’s self-portraits reveal the extent to which self-identity is constantly en procès. The sensuousness of the visible strokes of oil paint emphasizes the fragility of the self as notions of an originary identity give way to an idea of subjectivity as a social construct, hinted at in the indexical marks of the painter in the image. The heavy gloss of the varnished surface of the paintings insistently pulls the viewer’s eye back to the surface of the image, denying any illusion of access through depth. Similarly, though isolated and tightly framed, the heads imply proximity, rather than intimacy or revelation of character. The facial expressions, the isolated features, and the directly confrontational nature of some of the faces, which seek to engage and challenge the viewer, rather than offer themselves up as objects of contemplation, are all expressive of social interaction. The strong shadows and lighting in the portraits suggest an actor caught in a stage spotlight, underscoring the idea of performance. So the distortion which creates the mask-like effect becomes the essential means to emphasize an awareness that identity is always constructed according to the distanced gaze of the Other. Like the actor, projective images of self are sanctioned under the guise of having ceded control of identity. Rather than as a source of anguish, Bacon celebrates the freedom that an elusive identity confers, much as his own art demonstrably celebrates the continual creative potential of painting.

Textual Imagery: Visualizing the Self in the Writing of Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos
Part One: Bernard Noël
Introduction: Autobiography or Autoportrait? According to Michel Beaujour in Miroirs d’encre, autobiography is essentially opposed to self-portraiture: “L’anamnèse de l’autoportrait s’oppose à la réminiscence autobiographique, toujours fondé à quelque degré sur la croyance en la permanence d’un moi individuel dont l’intériorité est antériorité” (Beaujour, 1980; 167). However, as I have already observed with regard to Leiris (one of Beaujour’s autoportraitists), it is possible that the tension between different forms of memory, for example, memories that evolve with the narrative and those that are overlaid and juxtaposed within the narrative, are features of both autobiography and the autoportrait. For Beaujour, the existence of narrative order commits autobiography to a monolithic view of memory which undoes the mechanisms or the process of remembrance. Therefore autobiography is perceived as a teleological narrative that recounts the contents of memory while the autoportraitist views memories as impersonal materials out of which to construct a present self in the act of writing (see Beaujour, 1980; 252). This definition, however, is hardly applicable to either the discontinuous work of Leiris, which highlights the distinctness and emotional potency of past memories, or, even more clearly, the fragmentary, present-tense discourse of Noël. For Leiris, the contents of memory are repeatedly subordinated to the ramifications of his associative network: the way in which one memory gives rise to another or the way in which the present recalls the past, associations which occur independent of chronology. The clarity with which images are formed of the past, the precision with which certain


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

moments are captured, is no guarantee that a coherent picture will emerge or that a sense of continuity between past and present selves will be established. However, there is throughout L’Âge d’Homme, a sense of the profound intertwining of past and present. Sheringham observes with regard to Stendhal that the reader is “dealing with memories, not Memory, fragments of a past, not the Past” (Sheringham, 1993; 295). This also applies to Leiris. Memory in Leiris is tied to the momentary and the singular, remembering remains a present activity but his narrative identity arises out of this temporal network that weaves together present and past, past and present. Beaujour claims that the autoportraitist (therefore Leiris) does not attempt to rejoin the past as s/he lacks confidence in a coherent self that is constituted through time and seeks, solely, to apprehend him/herself in the present through the act of writing. The autoportraitist’s desire for textual incarnation leads to the suppression of personal memory and the complete acceptance of the self as a montage of disparate images and materials. However, as I have indicated, Leiris in L’Âge d’Homme although seeking a particular experience of self through the act of writing, seeks it also in the conjunction of past and present selves. Writing for Leiris represents the attempt to rediscover the relevance of the past, to accept that his narrative identity is a fusion of the textual and the historical. Leiris’s subjective retrospection is as important a component in the examination of his self-identity as the textual persona reflected in the act of writing. If Leiris reveals the extent to which an identity can be created only through the play of resonances and connections between past and present, Noël reveals the vulnerability of the self and memory as a performative act. Through the juxtaposition of styles and genres, he attempts to avoid the stasis and fixity of language. Such writing is far from the vraisemblance of the traditional mirror of the social world. Although Noël makes no autobiographical claims upon his writing inasmuch as there is no specific autobiographical volume, he repeatedly clarifies the indissoluble link between his life and his writing. His life is perpetuated through language and vice versa. In this chapter, I shall be primarily concerned with the way in which Noël deals with the concept of vision and how he tries to reconcile a visual consciousness that inheres in the body, with a literary project. I shall also extend my focus on self-representation

Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos


beyond the bounds of autobiography by looking at an epistolary text Le Double Jeu du Tu and I shall concentrate principally on Noël’s novel, Le 19 octobre 1977. Noël’s writing lends itself to the investigation of the links between a visual consciousness and self-representation through both his art criticism and his fiction. In the texts I have selected, Noël is ultimately concerned with a three-way relationship, the way in which he apprehends and perceives the exterior world, and how it passes via his body to be translated into symbols on a page. Noël’s Journal du regard is almost entirely dedicated to an exploration of the nature of vision and how this relates to painting. Nevertheless, Noël’s constant investigation of the possibility of sight and its transcription inevitably has a bearing upon his own art and this becomes explicit in the final pages of the journal:
Qu’est-ce d’ailleurs que notre création? Un langage, c’est-à-dire un espace artificiel, qui déchire l’espace où être et voir étaient identiques, donc parfaitement unis. Mais, peu à peu, nous changeons l’apparence du monde pour lui substituer une surface artificielle de même nature que notre langage, car nous espérons retrouver l’identité en unifiant l’espace du monde et l’espace inventé derrière nos yeux. Ainsi deviendrons-nous notre propre création dans un monde créé par nous. Et tout cela par le travail du regard (Noël, 1988; 124-5).

The intertextuality of his work, elements of repetition, re-examination and re-interpretation, constitutes Noël’s work as an inseparable entity, a symbolic body standing in for the body of the writer. This metaphor is extended by Noël’s fascination with his own and others’ corporeal existence. In his poetry and novels, notoriously Le Château de Cène, Noël explores the nature of physicality, he refuses to dignify the body and often seems to emphasize its most base or ridiculous elements. Le Double Jeu du Tu
La vie, apparemment, n’a d’autre but que de perpétuer la vie, et pourtant, dès que l’on parle, tout se passe comme s’il ne s’agissait que de perpétuer le langage – le langage qui, lui-même, ne fait durer que l’absence de tout. L’homme, dès lors qu’il est devenu un mot, n’existe plus (Noël, 1998; 10).


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

In other words, language, while predicated upon presence (the presence of the writer), instantiates the absence of that present. While acknowledging the apparent futility of literary self-representation, the impossibility of the text coinciding with the writing self, Noël recognizes the inseparability of his life and language. If he is conscious of the fallibility of language, he is also conscious of its autonomy, the way in which it gives rise to another self:
J’écris, je me regarde écrire, et que vois-je? Je me vois en train de me replacer moi-même par un autre. Un autre qui portera mon nom, mais ne sera cependant pas celui qui, ici et maintenant, écrit: Je. D’ailleurs, n’est-ce pas le langage en son entier qui est l’Autre auquel s’efforcent de s’identifier tous les Je qui s’écrient: Je est un autre? (Noël, 1998; 18).

Noël highlights the physical and self-reflexive nature of writing while simultaneously recognizing that the object that is the creation is finally severed from the act of creativity. This severance does not, however, produce closure upon a text, as language is constantly regenerative. Thus Noël draws the reader’s attention to the dangerous duplicity of language: “Tel est le double jeu de l’écriture: elle vous efface, mais pour vous conserver dans le mouvement même de cet effacement qui, lui, perpétuellement recommence. Ainsi, elle n’immortalise, dérisoirement, que la mise à mort” (Noël, 1998; 9). In drawing attention to the petrifaction of language, Noël strikes at the heart of the autobiographical enterprise at the same time as examining his own motives for writing. Le Double Jeu du Tu is an epistolary text which Noël wrote in collaboration with Jean Frémon and it differs from a more conventional autobiography as the letters are written for a specific reader, the recipient of the letter. The text is interesting in the extent to which it reaches beyond the autobiographical genre, as it is usually understood. As a genre, autobiography cannot exist only as the objective transcription of what happened to the writer in the past; autobiography is also writing, with all the elements of textual construction and self-reflexivity that I have observed this to involve. Autobiographical theory has in the past been brought to bear upon private letters, journals or notebooks in the absence of an official autobiography, as well as having been used to throw light upon published formal autobiographical works. Le Double Jeu du Tu is

Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos


interesting in the light of such studies because although the letters that comprise this book take the form of private documents, the enterprise was clearly always intended for publication. This juxtaposition of public performance and private exchange highlights the degree to which the writing constitutes a kind of act. A notion of performance is always already present in the way the two writers issue challenges to one another and construct a space in which identities are formed and performed. In the light of reader-response theory and Lejeune’s discussion of the pacte autobiographique, it is not surprising to find an emphasis upon the reader’s role in the book. However, this is complicated, or made more ambiguous, by the apparently private nature of the correspondence. Neither of the writers make any claim for personal letters being a more “authentic” representation of the self than a more traditional form of autobiography and Noël, in particular, seems to be consciously rebelling against having any autobiographical associations made with the writers’ correspondence. Nevertheless, Le Double Jeu du Tu demonstrates that it is not formal autobiographies alone that involve a construction of self. No genre can be guaranteed of greater “authenticity” than any other as all texts involve textual construction and to posit a more authentic mode of autobiographical writing would be to propose that a form of writing exists which is unaffected by questions of reception. But different forms of writing involve different conventions and this serves to throw the emphasis back upon the reader and the expectations they bring to bear upon different works. In Le Double Jeu du Tu, Noël demonstrates a type of performative autobiography, the creation of an identity in and of the present, without recourse to memories of the past. Instead of a formation of the self over and through time, the reader engages with a performance which is at once reactive and creative; a provisional self is proposed, rejected, defined and evolves through interaction with the other and in the present act of writing. A reading public is anticipated by the text in the first exchange of letters, which contain the writers’ ambitions for their project. They state their desire to embark on a project together, which will be transformed through the effort of collaboration; a project that is both unpredictable and replete with obstacles and provocation because it evolves from a process of interrogation and response;


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

observation and query. Consequently, one of the aims of the game would appear to be precisely a certain element of surprise and an obligation to respond to questions with the greatest degree of honesty. Frémon envisages the enterprise as distancing the writers from their usual sphere of literature:
S’exposer à la provocation, se mettre mutuellement, soi-même et l’autre, à la question [...] – écrire, et se trouver forcé de dire pourquoi on ne l’aurait pas voulu. Dire également pourquoi nous allons cacher ce que nous allons cacher ce que nous ne manquerons pas de cacher […]. L’intérêt de tout cela? Ce que je te cacherai ne sera pas forcément ce que je me serais caché sans ce double jeu, et inversement, et réciproquement (ibid; 15).

Frémon opens up the possibility of dishonesty in the dialogue and thereby acknowledges that the non-dit of the texts to follow will possibly hold as much interest or as much relevance as what is expressed. Although one of their ambitions for their exchange is to be as uncensored as possible, Frémon acknowledges that an element of cheating will be inevitable, perhaps despite the will of the writers. He thereby draws attention to the fallibility of the text, any text, in its failure to be as transparent as possible. The inherent duplicity of language, its potential manifold meanings, renders the possibility of truth an unlikely outcome. The writers recognize that one of their tasks is to create sense through language. As their letters become embodiments of their identities, the words give form and expression to that identity. Frémon introduces a citation from Beckett, which, in commenting upon expression in general, has a direct bearing upon the writers’ self-imposed task: “The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.” The two writers have no starting point other than their agreement to write, they have no narrative thread, no specific idea of what they want to discuss; the only origin is an obligation to respond to the other: “il me plaît de croire que je vous persuade, et il me plaît de croire que cela me suffit grâce à vous je me crée, je me crie, un non-dit, un problème mais dont on peut alors parler” (ibid; 17). As correspondents, the writers write for a specific reader who is well-known to them but they are still aware of the creative force of

Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos


language and the way in which their letters reveal and create identities. Noël and Frémon write to one another in the hope that the literary exchange will be both a self-discovery and a discovery of each other. The apparently formal tone of the “vous” address that is employed at the start of the correspondence indicates that there is no false assumption of intimacy or pre-conceived familiarity. All that is required for the exchange to evolve is reception and response: “Votre écoute, vos réactions, supposées, tendent à le combler (le vide), à le remplacer par un débat: le pourquoi de ce phénomène. Et dès lors plus rien n’est vide, vous m’avez répondu et je m’accroche à vous” (ibid; 18). The speaker feels the need to speak without knowing exactly what he will say, and the listener responds to this intention. As embodiments of their subjectivity, the letters of Noël and Frémon are manifestations of their intention to speak and arise through the interpellation of mutual address. The title of the collection makes explicit the intersubjective nature of the exchange. Le Double Jeu du Tu implies the plural nature of the je, which is contained within the jeu, and that is constituted through the interplay with the tu. Also implicit in the sense of jeu, is the notion of indefinition, the process of gambling, of risk or false-starts as well as development. Noël re-evokes his metaphor of the body:
Sans doute avais-je envie d’écrire un livre qui serait unique comme mon corps – un livre qui serait mon corps de papier, mais à la différence du corps, les livres se retournent […] On entre dans le jeu, et il ne s’agit pas de gagner – de gagner un corps – mais de jouer (ibid; 26).

In place of the concept of the book existing as an impersonal space of a collection of texts (in this case, the collection of letters), Noël draws attention to the book as object, as an integral and autonomous unit of meaning. However, in place of the defined contours of a body, the book takes shape as it is written, while the form, constituted and interpreted by both writer and reader, is permanently in flux and forever subject to change and redefinition. With the notion of indefinition co-exists the possibility of imprecision, and Frémon draws attention to this by indicating the duplicity of language or the fragility, the permeability, of the borders between truth and fiction. The writers, consciously or unconsciously, in performing for their


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

reader adopt masks, inventions and untruths, claiming that there is no single true face. In acknowledging the imprecision of language, the writers highlight the ambiguity of the dialectical relation between the apparent freedom of self-expression and its simultaneous dependence upon the perspective of the Other. Frémon evokes the image of a rolling snowball, a metaphor for the accumulation of words and letters and asks where does the truth lie: does it lie in the process of accumulation that works towards the revelation of the truth? Or does the accumulated mass conceal the truth? Already he is expressing doubts about the revelatory potential of language, doubts that are constantly re-evoked throughout the text. He expresses his anxieties about the consequences of the correspondence for the writers’ relationship:
Je me demande soudain si ce jeu entrepris depuis quelques semaines nous rapproche ou nous éloigne? Incontestablement, il précise des différences […] tout l’intérêt du projet est là, me semble-t-il, creuser les différences, creuser les résistances, sans que cesse l’amitié, qu’au contraire elle se trouve renforcée par le risque même qu’elle prend: le choix commun de fuir la complaisance (Noël, 1977; 43).

The writers have issued themselves a challenge that lies in the creative expression of self and the avoidance of the complacent belief that there is a pre-existing, originary self that is waiting to be revealed or represented. Despite the obviously intended honesty of the texts and the authors’ claim to be writing personally, they wish at all costs to avoid the trap of autobiography. Consequently, it is little surprise when Noël accuses Frémon of wallowing in autobiographical discourse. Despite his criticism, he recognizes the difficulty of providing a textual backdrop to their discussions without resorting to self-revelation. However, Noël is wary of becoming rhetorical. The nature of their exchange aims less to record a pre-existing self than to demonstrate an ongoing construction of self and a simultaneous examination of this process. A letter is a provisional self, proffering elements of an identity that are open to interpretation, appropriation. A series of letters opens up the possibility for the reconstruction of that provisional self in the light of the response or reaction in the replying letter. Noël’s suspicion of autobiography reveals an awareness of the

Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos


danger of becoming solipsistic and complacent. The writers have set themselves the task of attempting to live out an autobiography, living for and through the written text. The risk is that of becoming narcissistic, of losing their grasp on the world, the process and exchange of writing and, instead, to start recording the past. In response to Noël’s accusation, Frémon acknowledges that he has a tendency to individualize the debate, or to reduce it to the dimensions of individual psychology. At the same time, he recognizes that one of their primary aims was to write without self-censorship and so he questions the reasoning behind Noël’s apparent wish to stifle autobiographical inclinations:
La seule censure pourrait venir, dis-tu, du tien reproche de te vautrer dans l’autobiographie […] J’en reviens à ce reproche: Qu’est-ce que l’autobiographie et quoi fait qu’elle est l’objet d’une censure particulière. Est-ce que devenir cet homme-médecine n’est pas la solution au dilemme: impossibilité de l’autobiographie – impossibilité d’autre chose. Et quelle est la cause de ce dilemme s’il existe? Tu as fort bien relevé un point: à s’exercer à l’examen de conscience, on en découvre l’ennui. Est-ce qu’il n’y aurait pas lieu pour échapper à cet ennui et qui sait déboucher sur de l’inconnu révélateur, de pervertir l’autobiographie (ibid; 44).

To which Noël replies that the problem does not lie precisely in writing or not writing autobiography but in the avoidance of complacency:
Attention: il y aura une ‘biographie’ qui serait noble, bien portée, moderne, et une autobiographie, qui serait la complaisance réactionnaire. Il va falloir faire table rase de cette distinction, car toute est biographique. Je pense au miroir qui, autrefois, en se baladant le long de la route, écrivait le roman. Eh bien, nous avons avalé le miroir, et du coup, au lieu de réfléchir, il pense. Cela change le niveau de la description, et les mémoires, au lieu de nous venir d’outre-tombe, nous viennent à présent d’outre-corps (ibid; 52).

Noël reveals that he accepts the inevitability of the subjective nature of the writing but he hopes to change the level of description from that of retrospective reflection to an active demonstration of ongoing thought. Consequently, the self-seeing “I” attempts a level of criticism from within subjectivity rather than observation from


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

without. Objective vraisemblance has disappeared and, consequently, the belief in the transcendent status of language. Already in Le Double Jeu du Tu, Noël’s emphasis on the corporeality and the intentionality of language awakens the reader to an awareness of consciousness as incarnate in a body and inhering in the perceptual world. So how does he reconcile this desire for the expression of a performative, evolving identity with the demands of fiction? Le Corps Noël draws attention to the central contradiction of the autobiographical text, that is, the ontological gap between the writing self and self-reflexive protagonist of the work, by focusing upon the representability of the body. He explores this paradox via the body as specular, imaginary synthesis and the body as dynamic dispersion throughout a fragmented work. The body is a dialectic that operates as the point of fusion and mutual suspension of subject and object:
Le corps, dis-je. Et il y a devant moi cette main qui écrit. Je la regarde. Elle s’arrête. Elle écrit qu’elle s’arrête, et donc ne s’arrête pas […] Cela pourrait servir de prétexte à une observation de l’observation, et j’apprendrais à noter le décalage entre le regard et l’écrit, ou peut-être le trajet de l’image entre sa réalité, sa conscience et son écriture – le trajet à travers mon corps (Noël, 1998; 30).

Noël perceives his body to be the medium that apprehends and names reality, transforming perception into language. Noël’s insistence upon the physicality of language highlights the interdependence of the body and consciousness:
Qui parle? Ma bouche. Qui parle par ma bouche? Mon corps. Mais si mon corps a besoin de parler, de se parler, pourquoi la parole a-t-elle perdu à peu près toute évidence physique? Pourquoi la nomination est-elle, par excellence, l’opération abstraite? C’est que le corps ne produit pas son langage: il apprend à parler. On lui apprend […] Un corps qui parle s’oublie dans sa parole. C’est un peu comme s’il entrait dans un autre corps – un corps abstrait, celui du langage (ibid; 15).

As the knowledge of language is incorporated into the body, language is the very tool by which we express this knowledge and thereby

Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos


transform the impersonal abstract potential of language into personal expression. Noël’s consuming interest in the nature of vision, the way in which we apprehend images, is conveyed most explicitly in his writing upon the visual arts, such as Journal du regard and Onze romans d’oeil. In these texts, he also elaborates on his fascination for the physical interpretation of the visual, that is, the gesture of painting, the hand that creates the mark on the page or canvas. The conscious and deliberate transcription of imagery is conveyed through the body, which acts as a mediator between the interior and exterior worlds. However, this physical transcription is not only the mechanism of representation, Noël also credits the body with interpretative and creative faculties. He refers to his body as the chambre noire via which all thought must pass in its transformation into expression. He describes the process of writing as a form of translation of vision that occurs in and through his body (see Noël, 1998; 97). In this description, he comes close to Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of vision in L’Oeil et L’Esprit : “C’est en prétant son corps au monde que le peintre change le monde en peinture” (Merleau-Ponty, 1964; 16). Through his analysis of le regard, Noël concentrates on the interdependency and metamorphosis of images that exist in reality and images that exist in thought. In other words, he is consumed with the inevitability of subjective vision. In order to look more closely at the way in which Noël attempts to reconcile the visual with language, I shall now look at his novel Le 19 octobre 1977. According to Hervé Carn: “Pour B.N. plus que l’imaginaire, c’est l’image qui est la matière privilégiée de la fiction” and this book demonstrates, above all, the limitations of language in comparison to painting. According to Carn, Noël considers painting to be a more emotive, efficient and affective means of expression than literature (see Carn, 1986; 71). However, Le 19 octobre does not only demonstrate the power of painting but the potency of any visual image. In Le 19 octobre, Noël sets out to write what he terms “le premier monologue extérieur.” The first part of the novel juxtaposes elements which gravitate around a certain malaise. It is revealed that this malaise was provoked by reading Maurice Blanchot’s L’Arrêt de mort several years earlier and the profound distress experienced on that occasion has been re-evoked by a photograph that had been slipped inside a book. So, similarly to


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

Duras’ L’Amant, the book begins with a photograph, a visual image that is central to the text but never reproduced for the reader. Transcribing Vision The text of Le 19 octobre shifts between the voice of the first-person narrator, unidentified snatches of dialogue, lines of poetry, literary quotations and the voices of characters that seem to articulate further the thoughts of the narrator. This dissolution of the authorial body forestalls the unification of the text under a single authoritative message. The anonymous snatches of conversation serve to emphasize this level of indeterminacy, marking each proposition with the process of its uttering, while rendering it impossible to anchor the utterances. The self-reflexivity of the text introduces a dramatic gradation of language and highlights the ambivalence of the referential status of je: “Où en suis-je à présent? Mais il ne s’agit pas de moi: il s’agit toujours de relations, de rapports, et de cette impuissance à dire ce que leur fixité met en circulation” (Noël, 1998; 14). The text’s self-reflexivity holds thematic as well as stylistic implications. The narrator employs a similar technique to that of Barthes whereby the writer draws attention to the physical act of creation. Barthes writes: “J’écris: ceci est le premier degré du langage. Puis j’écris que j’écris: c’en est le second degré” (Barthes, 1975; 70). Barthes attempts to postpone the moment at which discourse thickens into stereotype by reinserting discourse into a situation of énonciation in which the énoncé no longer appears natural (see also part 2, page 168). Noël highlights the physical process of writing, constantly drawing the reader’s attention to the act of transcription as the pen covers a blank sheet of paper with symbols (Noël, 1998; 18). Both writers are attempting to shake off the remnants of the psychological realism that is identified as part of traditional character formation but Noël’s discourse introduces a further metaphor whereby the physical act of transcribing words onto the page is likened to the painter’s gesture on the canvas. In the Journal du regard, he observes: “Dans toute oeuvre visuelle, la visibilité est le résultat du travail obscur de la main. Cette visibilité voyage à travers le corps, de l’oeil à la main, puis elle entre dans le regard” (Noël, 1988; 28). In comparing the act of writing to the visual art of painting, Noël emphasizes how both the

Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos


brush and the pen are tools that serve to convert reality into images and images into thought. The fragmentary nature of Noël’s texts, in particular the Journal du regard, seems to subvert the ideology of authorship, insofar as the author functions as an authority that is a barrier against interpretation (the text cannot signify beyond conscious authorial intent), but also authority in all its forms. Authority, in this sense, is represented by any idea or agency that can be presented as the ultimate signified of a text. The verbal performance of the Journal du regard embodies the practice of this theory, reminding the reader that its writer is also a poet. The text’s anti-linearity, the blank spaces and fragments of poetry create a symbiotic relation between form and content, challenging the reader to apprehend the text as a visual ensemble as well as a symbolic structure. The fragmentary structure of the text displays an aphoristic tendency and the discontinuous paragraphs comprise a multiplicity of discourses. In Le 19 octobre, the narrator draws attention to the fragmented text, making a claim for its greater vraisemblance, indicating that as thought processes proceed through fitful starts of inspiration, the text should reflect this; what is fictitious in fiction, according to Noël, is precisely its quality of seamless continuity (see Noël, 1998; 31). Noël repeats this claim in a response to André Miguel that is collected in Treize cases du je. The question posed concerns above all Noël’s poetry: “L’écriture fragmentaire, telle que vous aimez, est-ce un travail intellectuel, à froid, ou est-ce une révélation spontanée. Ou les deux?” To which Noël replies:
L’écriture est un travail, mais reste à savoir sur quoi. Un travail pas seulement sur la langue, mais sur le corps. Je crois que l’écriture est la pensée du corps […] Mon écriture consiste justement à travailler à cette description […] Je n’aime pas plus une écriture fragmentaire qu’une écriture ‘globalisante,’ mais sans doute ai-je cru, un temps, que le fragment était plus près du vrai – plus près parce que l’à-pic sur lequel il s’achève est à l’image de la vie coupée net par la mort (Noël, 1998; 96).

Noël’s use of fragmented specular images recalls the question posed by Barthes in “Le cercle des fragments”: “écrire par fragments: les fragments sont alors des pierres sur le pourtour du cercle: je m’étale en rond: tout mon petit univers en miettes; au centre, quoi?” (Barthes, 1975; 96). Barthes’s rhetorical question creates the notion of


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

images in a fragmentary space that resist the coalescence of a single image into the Imaginary. If the centre conceals a void, revealing subjectivity to be disoriginary, such a space can only be the unstable location of the text as writing. In “Le fragment comme illusion”, Barthes claims that the fragment is an attempt to break out of the specular echoes of ideologized discourse; he is constantly deploying strategies to diffract his narrative. In his autobiography, Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes, the author deploys a fragmentary structure to negate the sense of linear progression. Like Noël’s Journal du regard, the text takes the form of a series of displacements from one mode of discourse to another. While Barthes’s technique stems from a desire to undermine traditional assumptions made about the meaning of a text and its origin, Noël’s technique also seeks to challenge the nature of vision, the different ways in which we apprehend a visual image and a written text:
Mettre en mots consiste à projeter le monde sur son intimité; mettre en images entraîne à projeter son intimité sur le monde. Dans le premier cas, on fabrique du lisible; dans le second, on pense faire un objet visuel, mais lui aussi sera lu (Noël, 1988; 11).

De Man asserts that the assumed referential status of autobiography reveals the fictionality of all referentiality and how autobiographers, in their attempt to escape the constraints of language, are necessarily and inevitably reinscribed within the textual system. However, the nature of Noël’s fragmentary text resists the illusion of a centred self that language is sufficiently transparent to express. De Man’s critique suggests that the specular nature of autobiographical discourse tends to posit the self as the cause of language, rather than its most profound effect. However, language is neither an external force nor a tool of expression, but the very symbolic system that both constructs and is constructed by the writing self. If, as I have observed, self-representation is the effect of a constructed similarity between identity and language, an attempt to cast in fixed terms the self-reflexive, discontinuous shifts in modality and perspective that are inherent in human experience and to ground them in a single subjectivity (the illusory stade du miroir), then to make this attempt is to confront the limitations of expression. Noël acknowledges these limitations and attempts to resist interpretations of his work as a

Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos


composite sign: a signifier and signified already congealed into a finished meaning. Like Barthes, Noël reveals his distrust of language. This is exemplified in Le 19 octobre by the status of the first-person pronoun:
Est-ce le mot ‘signe’? C’est un mot glissant. Il m’a poussé vers une image, où il y avait un je, un je, encore un je, beaucoup de je. Oh! me suis-je dit, quoi de plus impersonnel que le pronom le plus personnel. N’importe qui est un je (Noël, 1998; 35).

Noël’s constant interrogation of language prevents the reader identifying with the source of the text. He unravels characterization, revealing that identity is only an identity-effect, the transformation of a material surface into imaginary profundity. At another moment, he asks: “Je, me dis-je, mais qu’est-ce que je, sinon le garant de la crédibilité de tous les récits?” (Noël, 1998; 51). Noël highlights the ambiguity of the status of je. Je is an element in a code, a language, but it is also an index. Je refers only to the person uttering it and is thus what Jakobson calls a shifter, a message straddling the code. Je can be appropriated by any speaker of that language but its meaning can only be given as the addresser of the message to which it belongs. Therefore je is not a conventional sign as it relates to a specific act of utterance. The irreducible nature of the pronoun means that it can never be the immediate expression of a subjectivity prior to the code. The narrator of Le 19 octobre has a sense of identity that depends solely on his relation with the objects and people that surround him, including his writing; Noël describes him as “simple figure optique.” When he is no longer able to see, as in the following example, he loses his consciousness of self:
J’ai plongé dans la nuit. Elle est alentour comme une liaison dans laquelle toute chose accède à un même rapport. Et dès que je me suis enfoncé dans l’immobilité qui me tient là, j’ai senti l’intensité de cette liaison, et son intimité. Le je s’y éteint (Noël, 1998; 67).

The nature of Le 19 octobre as a monologue extérieur means that the reader never forms an external image of the narrator. Instead, we experience the world through the eyes of je and are therefore confronted with a series of disjointed tableaux. In the absence of a definable physical presence, the book stands in for and creates the narrator. He explains how his reality is a fiction as it only gains


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

substance within the body of the text; he can achieve a sense of reality only through writing: “A présent je me dis: ta réalité sera ce que tu écris, et à la fin on verra” (Noël, 1998; 16). The repeated criticism of his lover is: “Il n’y a pas de corps dans ton texte” (ibid; 89). The narrator’s body, his body-image, is dispersed within the text he produces. The body for Noël as the subject of knowledge is not an assembly point for the unified totality of self, but a point of dispersion for the affects that pull the unity of self apart. The body is more process than image; it therefore exceeds representation. The consequences of this for the reader involve an inability to identify with the text and therefore the reader’s sense of self as a unified subject is suspended. Like the decentred self of the writer, the reader has no secure identity, as the receiver of a message, for there is no message and the reader cannot identify with the discourse, as there is no recognizable speaker. The multiplicity of textual voices multiplies the reader’s response and divides their subjectivity. In Treize Cases du je, Noël writes:
Il faut écrire, entrer dans l’écriture, mais le moment où j’écris est le moment où l’écriture disparaît, c’est-à-dire devient si réellement elle-même qu’elle ne fait plus rien d’autre qu’être. Comment communiquer cette disparition à l’instant même où moi je disparais? Le lecteur, à son tour, ne cherche-t-il pas la même intimité? Et qu’est-ce que l’intimité, sinon la dissolution de la différence? A partir de là, il ne s’agit plus de demander: où est le corps? mais où n’est-il pas? (Noël, 1998; 30).

If Noël recognizes that to enter into language is to enter into a symbolic body, an autonomous system, language is also an extension of the body. This relates not only to a formation of identity, as previously observed but also to a physical experience of language. When the narrator states that his reality is a fiction and his girlfriend claims that his text lacks substance, this is less an attack on his literary skills than an affront to his reality. Similarly, Noël writes in the present because “Il n’y a pas de corps dans le passé” (ibid; 90) and the text must become an experience like that of a lived moment. The philosophy professor elaborates on this point: “Il y a rencontre entre le lu et le vécu des yeux comme si le livre était l’espace corporel d’un récit […] – Corporel? – Oui, pas l’espace vécu” (ibid; 94). He avoids a narration of the past because memory contains neither flesh nor blood; it is but words and images (ibid; 50). So the narrator of Le 19

Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos


octobre is defined not by any self-image, which would be necessarily be a past image, but by the images of what he perceives around him in the present: he is a “simple figure optique” because “tout n’est que matériau de la pensée” and this material is “la pensée de mes yeux” (ibid; 72). Like an image that appears to stop time with its evocative power (the photograph in part one), writing seeks to become an experience of and through the body. Language versus Sight The second part of Le 19 octobre, “Le travail du jour”, begins with a crisis of conscience for the narrator who asks himself if he can continue writing. He recognizes a certain paradoxical quality in language:
Il est vrai que les mots éloignent les pétales et l’odeur pour ne réaliser que l’Absente de tous bouquets; mais ils savent également produire une proximité inquiétante, à la manière d’une loupe qui, en grossissant tel détail, le rend plus que présent (Noël, 1998; 66).

Here Noël is clearly foregrounding the idea of absence by placing it in upper case unlike the lower case of Mallarmé’s text. But while resigning himself to the limitations of language, he notices its symbolic potency, and hopes that he will be able to exploit this potential. Seemingly in order to test this dual and microscopic power of language, the narrator breaks into description, extending the physical quality of vision, the way in which it resonates through his body, to encompass even the most quotidian scene. Fixing his look upon three dead leaves moving across the paving stones, he notices how his vision creates a frame, a photographic framework: “Mon attention vient de se fixer sur un espace très restreint: une parcelle de sol pavé […] Je ne vois que cela, et la pointe d’un pied chaussé de noir” (ibid; 66). The random designation of his use of space creates its own internal logic as, like the use of light within a painting, a luminous quality radiates from and appears to unify the three elements of his picture: “Je veux dire qu’elle (la lumière) forme entre les feuilles, le pied et les pavés un petit volume transparent dans lequel les trois choses que je vois semblent enfermées.” His spontaneous creation of a nature morte within an invisible framework leads him to identify with and respond to the


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

vision: “j’éprouve, à les voir ainsi libres et retenues, une allégresse au centre de laquelle, à mon tour, je me sens lumineusement libre et retenu” (ibid; 66). The narrator’s impression of being at once both free and constrained demonstrates the impossibility of sublating perspectives into one coherent construct. The way in which vision is experienced and carries an emotional or sensual weight exemplifies how, for Noël, the interplay of the senses, while each one remains unique, all contribute to a single expressive space. In focusing the narrator’s vision in such a manner, the reader is also reminded that perception is always perspectival, dependant on the viewer’s position. The narrator of Le 19 octobre is far from the role of the traditional omniscient, omnipresent narrator; his vision is fragmented, fallible and incomplete. The monologue extérieur may be an attempt to inaugurate a paradigm of narrative multiperspectivism but it does not, however, amount to a new synthesis of the “real.” The representation of things is never total or panoramic. It is fragmentary, now larger, now narrower, but most often reduced, as if by a fracture in the field of vision, to a section of the real, strictly limited, beyond which it is futile to try to see anything. This recalls Noël’s description of his poetry. Noël seeks to bring to his writing a similar set of aesthetics as he perceives to exist in painting:
Or le problème du peintre c’est de mettre dans l’espace des objets qui font que, tout à coup, l’espace devienne adéquat à l’identification, à une circulation entre celui qui regarde et cet espace. Cela unit le regard à l’espace peint parce que les objets ont été disposés dans une harmonie, un équilibre […] Je me demande si le poème n’est pas la même chose: en écrivant on a affaire à un espace dans lequel on dispose des objets verbaux. Et voilà, c’est tout à coup un poème […] à cause d’une certaine condensation d’énergie (Noël, Entretiens avec Dominique Sampiero, 1998).

Imposing a framework on perception, the narrator foregrounds a fragmentation, an explosion into aspects where energy is condensed: the narrator’s gaze turns living beings into things, things into living beings, fascinated by the insignificant detail and underscoring congruity and diversity in place of a homogeneous appearance. At times, the description in the novel appears to be purely visual. The narrator is not only fascinated by the look or the

Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos


appearance of objects surrounding him, he is also intrigued by the look, the gaze of other characters. Describing the appearance of his escort in part two, his vision is held by her face and eyes. With minute attention to detail, the narrator metaphorically holds a magnifying glass up to his companion’s face and his look is indiscriminative: “C’est peut-être qu’ayant fixé les yeux, je n’ai plus un regard qui décrit, mais, tout au sommet de moi, un flottement: celui d’une légèreté encore hésitante entre le lâcher et la retenue” (Noël, 1998; 74). He describes her eyes and, consequently, the emotional effect they have on him: “L’oeil gauche me paraît plus étroit, plus mouillé, plus tendre; l’autre est vif, avec un point de lumière au centre, qui me pique et me dérange” (ibid; 75). Therefore, this is no longer a question of pure optics but again of the interrelatedness of the senses. The eye is not only considered to be in some way revelatory of the “I” of the perceived but provokes a subjective response in the beholder. The power of being held in someone’s look is also described as disturbing, as that of being aware of the oscillation between being the viewed object and the viewing subject: “Je vois son regard; j’ai même l’impression d’être à l’intérieur de lui, et cependant il m’échappe sans que je puisse m’arrêter à un mot qui me dirait avec certitude: il est tendre, il est ironique, il est fuyant, il est attentif” (ibid; 77). If desire is provoked by sight and yet eternally frustrated at not being able to describe a vision or render it eternally present, it is also this frustration that drives desire. The ultimate incompatibility of image and language is parallel to the impossibility of the seeing subject coinciding with the seen object. Acknowledging the limitations of human vision, the narrator’s refrain, “Je ne me connaîtrai jamais […] Parce que je ne peux pas regarder mes yeux au moment où je la regarde” (ibid; 105), denies the fiction of unmediated, self-contained presence, of a self-identical moment which is removed from the temporal flux. As the philosophy professor observes: “Nous sommes fluides et changeants […] L’important est qu’une tête réelle puisse dire à une autre tête réelle: Je suis Toi, alors c’est la débandade des certitudes, la fin du corps considéré comme boîte conserve de l’identité” (ibid; 98). The impossibility of deducing the self from its appearance is mirrored in the impossibility of the coincidence of the seeing and the seen: the eye meeting the “I”. This concept is pre-empted in part two by the narrator’s companion who has a large


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

mirror above her bed: “Si je l’ai mis là, c’est pour la raison un peu folle que je rêve de m’y voir en train de dormir” (ibid; 79). The description, as I have demonstrated, is not limited to the sense of the visual, it extends to incorporate more synaesthetic moments but these are often concluded by a return to sight, such as a description of the potent beverage in part two:
L’effet est volatil; la langue, le palais irradient ensuite un froid odorant, et chacun me semble creusé de milliers de papilles brusquement ouvertes. La bouche y gagne une présence envahissante au milieu de la tête, et il s’en suit que mes yeux s’étalent bientôt sur une concavité qui gonfle et gonfle, m’obsédant de sa grotte où j’imagine d’incessantes métamorphoses entre la chair et l’odeur (Noël, 1998; 76).

Vision is the catalyst for other sensory experiences. The pleasure the narrator takes in his visualization of the scene becomes frustration when he realizes that it will not suffice to hold his attention for long. Distractedly, he seeks another prop for his eyes to behold, trying to avoid the trap of description: “Du temps passe, et je devine que je cherche moins un lieu où reposer ce qui m’anime qu’un détour pour lui éviter de tomber de mes yeux dans ma bouche.” Paradoxically, the writer perceives verbal description as that which renders vision impure and thus he returns to the central theme of the novel: the failure or inadequacy of language. He realizes that words have only one advantage, that of being able to bring about the transformation of objects. The limitation of language is that it represents the loss of an original presence, and in our pursuit of that presence, our attempt to recreate reality through language, we are continually misled and deceived. Words remain behind as the failure of what they were witness to. Reality is diluted or rendered false in the transposition of representation from fact to vraisemblance: “Entre les mots et les choses, il y a cet escalier sans marches auquel manquent même le limon et la rampe” (ibid; 37). Here, I would like to recall the task of the autobiographer and the way in which the attempt to render reality (vision or memory) shares this characteristic. The autobiographer attempts to circumvent a settled vision of the past. However, this difficulty is compounded by the possibility that the lived reality of the individual past will have been eroded or contaminated by prefabricated elements taken from literary and cultural stereotypes. The writer runs the risk that the

Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos


reconstruction of past feelings is commandeered by the vraisemblance of convention and artifice. Memory is heterogeneous and the material of memory lies largely outside language; autobiography involves the attempt to bring the extra-linguistic into language, aiming to record and simulate the resurgence of sensation. Noël’s writing deals in the momentary and the fragmentary. This can be linked to the failure of the autobiographical project, which remains, in essence, a collection of fragments. This then poses the question, if autobiography is linked to an essential unity, a coalescence of the disruptive, discontinuous work of memory, is memory therefore incompatible with autobiography? I would argue that Noël’s writing, in seeking to avoid the artifice of vraisemblance, acknowledges the limitations of language to represent a lived reality and through this acknowledgement, comes closer to expressing the multiplicity of lived experience. Noël’s fragmentary text exemplifies how time is neither undergone nor constituted by us and, consequently, we can no more encompass time than we can circumscribe our life. Similarly, we can never be sealed into any single temporal dimension, but exist as a living synthesis of all three. When we remember a past incident, we do not call up an idea or an image we re-open time and carry ourselves back to the moment when it was present. Time is a network of overlapping intentionalities. Therefore, our past always remains potentially retrievable as temporality is not something we conceive or observe: it is the process of living our lives. Noël demonstrates how, just as vision’s perspective precludes the possibility of perceiving everything simultaneously, so the perspective of our temporal consciousness rules out an all-encompassing grasp of time. Our reflection on time is itself situated in time; our reflection on subjectivity is itself part of our subjectivity. In Le 19 octobre, while recognizing the ultimate incompatibility of vision and language and the impossibility of the perfect transcription of sight, the narrator also recognizes their complementary natures and the presence of certain parallels: “J’ai compris – trop tard? – que le mouvement qu’articulent nos yeux ressemble à celui de la langue” (Noël, 1998; 67). As he walks, he forgets himself in the observation of the objects he passes: “Les yeux passent d’une chose à l’autre, et le regard les unit, formant récit” (ibid; 68). Paradoxically, the narrator seems to want to deprive his lover of the power of vision:


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

“Je veux te crever les yeux.” He expresses admiration for her eyes and mouth but significantly the shape of her mouth. If he renders her blind, he binds her more tightly to him. As a writer, his is the power of language. The loss of vision accompanies the annihilation of self and the consciousness of difference. There is a sexual metaphor in Noël’s description of the loss of self: “J’ai plongé dans la nuit […] Et dès que je me suis enfoncé dans l’immobilité qui me tient là, j’ai senti l’intensité de cette liaison, et son intimité. Le je s’y éteint” (ibid; 67). In the darkness, as in the act of love, a sense of self is surrendered. This comparison is apparent in L’Âge d’Homme, as I have already remarked, when Leiris observes how the annihilation of self in death compares to the orgasm (see chapter 2, page 67). The final sentences of Le 19 octobre make explicit the association between orgasm and death: “Je vois l’âme de ton sexe, dis-je. Et je meurs” (ibid; 122). Earlier in the text, the narrator refers to the female sex as the eye: “elle […] me regarde, pose un pied sur le lit, se retrousse, cambre son bas-ventre, et cuisses écartés, ouvre son sexe des deux mains: -Mon oeil!” (ibid; 22). Leiris also draws a parallel between the female sex and the eye:
La signification de l’oeil crevé est très profonde pour moi. Aujourd’hui, j’ai couramment tendance à regarder l’organe féminin comme une chose sale ou comme une blessure, pas moins attirante en cela, mais dangereuse par elle-même comme tout ce qui est sanglant, muqueux, contaminé (Leiris, 1995; 81).

Noël extends the metaphor with his implication that pure vision involves the annihilation of the self: “pour la première fois, je me perds dans mes yeux. Je n’existe plus; seule compte la chose regardée” (Noël, 1998; 22). The loss of consciousness or self that death and orgasm entail is compared to the ability to hold a vision and to suspend other sensory experiences: “Il m’a dit: – Voir vraiment, c’est mourir. Ou peut-être était-ce: – Voir vraiment, c’est voir la mort. A moins qu’il n’ait dit: – Le visible nous cache la mort” (ibid; 95). From the description of the photograph in part one, to the petition for the torture victims in Argentina, to the sacrificial tableau in part two, to the narrator’s possible death at the end of the novel (quoted above), themes of death and violence are omnipresent in Le 19 octobre. The montage nature of Le 19 octobre and its anti-linearity are reminiscent of Breton’s Nadja. In part three of Le 19 octobre, Noël

Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos


relates a childhood anecdote in which a young girl rips out the eyes of a doll. The incident begins with a question:
Tu crois qu’elles nous voient vraiment? […] Mais ce ne sont pas les vrais yeux […] Et si on regardait ce qu’il y a derrière? […] Elle prenait alors une des petites cuillères de son service à poupées, puis, saisissant l’un des bébés de la rangée, elle lui arrachait les yeux (ibid; 96).

Breton uses the same metaphor related by Nadja:
Cela la fait penser à sa petite fille, une enfant dont elle m’a appris avec tant de précautions l’existence, et qu’elle adore, surtout parce qu’elle est si peu comme les autres enfants, ‘avec cette idée de toujours enlever les yeux des poupées pour voir ce qu’ il y a derrière ces yeux’ (Breton, 1964; 102).

Both writers are questioning the nature of vision and its tenuous relationship to a purely subjective reality. They undermine both the notion that it is solely through the sense of sight that we apprehend and comprehend the world and also the idea that the eye can be in any way revelatory of the beholder’s identity, or to recall the Romantics, the expression of the soul. Imaging Identity In part three, the narrator eavesdrops on a conversation where the speaker adopts the role of the writer’s alter ego. During the conversation, it is explained from a writer’s point of view how images can be transcribed into literature; the image inspires the words, which inevitably cannot remain true to reality but in their turn transform reality and provoke other images:
Le texte raconte ce visible en transformation, comme si je ne faisais que transcrire, avec des mots, des fantômes de formes […] D’une part, le texte conserve ce que j’ai vu, et d’autre part, il élimine puisqu’il n’est plus du visible, mais des mots […] Plus ce que je veux représenter se perd dans ce que je fais, plus j’écris avec acharnement pour que le lecteur voie. Qu’il voie ce que je ne vois plus (Noël, 1998; 99).

Suddenly the emphasis upon the creation of images is displaced from


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

the writer onto the reader. Through focusing on the processes of production and reception, Noël reveals the extent to which the writer’s identity as writer is situated within the texture of discourse. Rather than being, in humanist terms, the origin of meaning, it is deeply implicated in language. However, he acknowledges that the attempt to associate the identity of the writer with either the person who produces the text, the text itself or the interpretation of the text by the reader is a false enterprise. The identity of the writer is in perpetual transformation but while a writer can only exist through his work, the work itself can only exist through the reader. This aligns with Noël’s observations on the impossibility of language coinciding with lived reality and how language becomes the Other that replaces the writer. In part 3, the anonymous talker explains:
Il m’arrive parfois d’avoir un regard sans interprétation; d’un seul coup le langage fait silence, et je sais que ce silence est la chose que j’essaierai de faire entendre au stade final: un langage pacifié parce que tout voyant, ni pilleur de réalité, ni pilleur d’être, simplement en accord de telle sorte qu’il n’y a plus rien à dire (Noël, 1998; 104).

This moment can only be identified as that of the death of the writer as the writer both realizes and is realized through his work: “Dans les moments où je n’écris pas, je ne vois plus rien. L’écriture me fournit une image du monde, et elle construit l’espace dans lequel je vis” (ibid; 100). Noël writes that he has stopped writing and the words confront the writer as an impossible challenge; the defiance of the gesture is an illusion: a writer ceases to be a writer as soon as he puts down his/her pen. Referring to the writer, Blanchot explains:
Ses talents, il les met en oeuvre, c’est-à-dire qu’il a besoin de l’oeuvre qu’il produit pour avoir conscience d’eux et de lui-même. L’écrivain ne se trouve, ne se réalise que par son oeuvre; avant son oeuvre, non seulement il ignore qui il est, mais il n’est rien. Il n’existe qu’à partir de l’œuvre (Blanchot, 1981; 15).

So according to Blanchot, the writer comes into being through language. However, for Noël, because the image is inextricably tied to

Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos


the word and vice versa, he writes not only to produce an identity to be perceived and interpreted by the reader, or as a means of communicating his vision but also as the sole means of rendering his world visible and real to himself: “J’écris pour voir, mais aussi pour vivre, pour vivre et voir par le biais de l’écriture une totalité, seul monde où j’ose avoir des gestes, habiter.” And this work is perpetual. The writer’s task is symbolic of the role of language within the fabric of society. Sight does not suffice to constitute experience, without language we cannot participate in or incorporate ourselves into the reality we perceive: “j’ai envie de voir, mais voir ne me suffit pas, car si je vois sans mots, c’est comme si je voyais de loin et sans pouvoir toucher, m’incorporer” (Noël, 1998; 103). In Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of vision and painting, L’Oeil et l’Esprit, he proposes that while the body is in the world forming part of the objects and substance that surround us, an object amongst others, it is the capacity of sight that leads us to interpret the world as an extension of ourselves, to conceive of the self as the centre of the visible world. This arises from the enigma that the body is both seeing and seen:
Lui qui regarde toutes choses, il peut aussi se regarder, et reconnaître dans ce qu’il voit alors ‘l’autre côté’ de sa puissance voyante. Il se voit voyant, il se touche touchant, il est visible et sensible pour soi-même. C’est un soi, non par transparence, comme la pensée, qui ne pense quoi que ce soit qu’en l’assimilant, en le constituant, en le transformant en pensée – mais un soi par confusion, narcissisme, inhérence de celui qui voit à ce qu’il voit, de celui qui touche à ce qu’il touche, du sentant au senti – un soi donc qui est pris entre des choses, qui a une face et un dos, un passé et un avenir (Merleau-Ponty, 1964; 19).

So the body inhabits space not in the sense of position but in the sense of situation because the body is constituted through its rapport with the objects which surround it. Noël explains that his (textual) identity arises as a consequence of his interaction with his surroundings, environment and relationships, as well as his very inability to express what defines this experience of identity (Noël, 1998; 14). In other words, an awareness of the intersubjective formation of identity can be indicated but never perfectly described. For Merleau-Ponty perception is not an exact science; the seeing subject plays a role in perception but this is not the role of the


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

calculating, reasoning subject. It is not the intellect that apprehends the world but the emotional, bodily subject, which, therefore, projects onto the perceived world its emotional repertoire. Similarly, time is a subjective experience. The subject is present only in regards to his/her future and past, as time is a network of intentions. The narrator of Le 19 octobre recognizes that his appreciation of reality is limited “il arrive qu’une chose se perde dans sa propre évidence. J’en vois bien la réalité, mais voir la réalité la couvre d’une énigme […] Ou bien, est-ce que la pensée ne se trahit pas elle-même en prenant sa représentation pour sa réalité?” (Noël, 1998; 13). Art is the product of subjectivity and therefore an imperfect picture of reality. At the end of Barthes’ autobiography, there is a sample of Barthes’s handwriting, an indexical trace of bodily presence which claims “on écrit avec son désir, et je n’en finis pas de désirer” (Barthes, 1975). For Noël, the locus of this desire is in the pursuit of the visible. In Le 19 octobre, the narrator recalls a conversation: “Je ne veux rien, et cependant ce que je fais est voulu. / Qu’est-ce qui est possible? / Le désir. Seulement le désir” (Noël, 1998; 13). Desire in Noël’s text is represented by a constant oscillation, a movement to-and-fro, the tension created by the wish to reconcile or assimilate word to image and image to word. The narrator explains that writing is his attempt to draw closer to the world or to reconcile himself with it through representation and expression. It is this movement towards the world that produces the tension inherent in writing, as the reality he wishes to apprehend seems to slip away (ibid; 103). The tension lies in the fissures or the fault-line of the text, just as the most erotic part of the body, according to Barthes, is “là où le vêtement baîlle” (Barthes, 1973; 19). In Le 19 octobre, words reveal and belie images, faces are confused with identity, skirts cover and expose the female sex, and a single image has multiple verbal interpretations. The desire which propels the text is evoked in the narrator’s love-letter: “J’écris pour le désir et la violence, c’est dire que je cours toujours derrière toi. Toujours en retard des mots parce que les mots retardent par rapport aux yeux” (Noël, 1998; 42). If the linear nature of the text unfolding in time mimics a movement towards the future, this is in contrast with the contents of Noël’s text. Noël states: “La mémoire est le roman. Le roman est le passé présent” (Noël, 1998; 42). The past is composed of images that are realized through words and render the past present; the past is not

Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos


composed of language but language serves to re-evoke it. The infinitely possible permutations of a single image that is evoked through language entail that the past can never be perfectly communicated. Language modifies the image in such a way that it is re-evoked in the mind’s eye, the reconstituted image is an imperfect reflection of the original, which we then attempt to rectify with further descriptive language, and so on, in infinite regression (ibid; 16). Consequently, in the present, our narration of the past can only be told untruthfully and hence passes into the realms of fiction (ibid; 26). The narcissism of gazing into images from the past does not escape Noël as he writes: “Se souvenir: on enfonce toujours la même porte ouverte, et l’on entre suivi de soi-même, et de soi-même, et de soi-même” (ibid; 91). Any objective retrieval of the past is as unlikely as looking past one’s own reflection in a mirror. The narrator wonders if the relationship between a memory and its image is not the same as that between an image and its reflection but recalls that one is drawn out of the passage of time while the other breaks up into the ripples of Narcissus’ pond (ibid; 108). The advantage of words in the evocation of memory is that they are “un miroir sans reflet” (ibid; 39).1 For Noël, le corps is analogous to the text. In seeking to render language as immediate, as discontinuous as imagery, the fragmentary, self-referential discourse becomes experiential. It unsettles the reader and destroys the comfortable world of the Imaginary in the attempt to become a discourse of the body. And the body becomes the space of fictional dispersion. However, the
1 The way in which moments of chance evoke past experiences that have been retrospectively masked by the intellect also recalls Proust. In Proust, voluntary memory is structured as an archive of images, and involuntary memory functions as past images intervene into the present moment. Within the Proustian novel it is the body that registers or records memories and impressions, for example: “Ma mémoire, la mémoire involontaire elle-même, avait perdu l'amour d'Albertine. Mais il semble qu'il y ait une mémoire involontaire des membres, pâle et stérile imitation de l'autre, qui vive plus longtemps, comme certains animaux ou végétaux inintelligents vivent plus longtemps que l'homme. Les jambes, les bras sont pleins de souvenirs engourdis” (Proust, vol. 3, 1954; 699). That cognition and perception are dependent upon the entirety of the sensory apparatus means that memory is irreducible to the operations of consciousness and therefore cannot be brought to light: to remember within the space of the remembering body is to remember without knowing anything. The body in Proust, as in Noël, names a principle of articulation between writing, memory and materiality that does not belong to the domain of knowledge.


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

accusation brought by the narrator’s girlfriend (“il n’y a pas de corps dans ton texte”) indicates that the writer’s quest is perpetually doomed. Reading, like writing, destabilizes subjectivity. Noël creates a rhetorical fragment of the Imaginary but the Imaginary is inhabited by the fragmentary; the moment of textuality affirms the fragmentation of the self. The body is an object that is always liable to congeal into a purely imaginary entity; the self falls back into the Imaginary by writing but writing will always return to the fragmentary. The narrator of Le 19 octobre is never entirely co-incident with fragmentation but his use of fragmented images evokes the dispersed self. The text reveals that self-representation is never self-same. Like Barthes’ concept of jouissance that exceeds the frame of representation, language is a shifting, symbolic order, which appears to cohere into an Imaginary whole but is always subtended by the fragmentation of the dispersed self. If Noël posits the body as a dispersed presence, an experiential void, insisting on the materiality of language to evoke the materiality of a fragmented, perceptual subjectivity, the following section will examine how Gisèle Prassinos creates a similar sense of self through a very different approach. In contrast to the absent body image of Noël’s text, where no corporeal contours are attributed to the narrator, through a close reading of Mon Coeur les écoute, I will demonstrate how Prassinos fabricates a mulititude of surreal body images where consciousness and physicality are juxtaposed in disturbing and satirical ways. In my examination of Noël’s texts, I have sought to show how he brings a heightened visual consciousness to bear upon a linear, if discontinuous, text. How does Prassinos manipulate the text and the incorporation of actual images to convey her particular vision of the body and challenge the reader’s preconceived sense of self?

Part Two: Gisèle Prassinos
Introduction Mon Coeur les écoute is a literary exploration of an unending search for identity. It is the continuation of the self-portrait Gisèle Prassinos started in Brelin le Frou, created in 1975. The text, which is

Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos


composed of short stories often resembling prose poems, shifts between the narrative voice of a je, sometimes male, sometimes female and il, nous, on and moi et moi-même. The playful and humourous sketches that at times derive their humour from tragic and bleak situations, prevent the reader from penetrating the text and extracting any given meaning or identifying any single narrator. Indeed, the text displays paradoxical shifts in the narrative voice. A confessional first-person narrative builds a relationship of warm intimacy with the reader, which is stripped away in a subsequent story by a change of pronoun or a change of tone, and replaces the sentiment of intimacy with one of confused alienation. The stylistic devices that Prassinos uses to keep her readers from falling into a false sense of security are echoed by the themes of her stories; familiar emotions, situations and recognizable occurrences from everyday life are pushed to the point of incredulity and incomprehension. A story with a plausible beginning accelerates into a surreal nightmare where all vraisemblance is lost. The symbiotic relation of theme and style is reinforced and reiterated in the incorporation of Prassinos’s images within the text. The images, which do not so much illustrate the stories but become ideograms of them, are included in the text in such a fashion that it is impossible for the eye to skim over or ignore them. The images are inserted between paragraphs, at the side of the page or at the end of a story. Consequently, they appear to interrupt the smooth linear perusal of the narrative and enhance the already thematically fragmentary text. The short stories, or fragments, therefore assume an almost episodic structure. All of the images portray the bodies that are the victims of Prassinos’s text; bodies that undergo metamorphoses, become porous or abject, which have their past lives literally inscribed on their flesh or become mere tools of extraordinary conscious control. The images and text work together to the point at which the very notion of the body’s self-sufficiency becomes nebulous. The metamorphoses of the body are inextricably linked to the fluidity of the text. This uncertainty and indefinition that surrounds the body propels the workings of the text; with the lack of any identifiable corporeal morphology within the stories, the body of the text also becomes troublesome and complex. What is the rapport between the speaking voice and the text? How many narrative voices are there? From what perspectives are they


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

speaking? As the voices multiply, the possibility of any coherent narrative perspective is irremediably undermined. Mon Coeur les écoute is not only an exploration of the body and its manifold images, the images that are projected outwards and reflected back, it is also a search for self-knowledge and acceptance. In the preface to the 1939 edition of L’anthologie de l’humour noir, André Breton recalls Freud’s definition: “L’humour a non seulement quelque chose de libérateur, analogue en cela à l’esprit et au comique, mais encore quelque chose de sublime et d’élevé.” In this edition, he included the writing of a fourteen year-old poet, Gisèle Prassinos. Prassinos’s literary debut is well known – the child prodigy and femme-enfant to the Surrealists. What is less well known are the problems faced by the mature woman writer seeking a narrative voice of her own and attempting to shed the formative and restrictive influences of her teenage years. Consequently, Prassinos’s autobiographical texts not only work their way back through an accretion of poetic texts and myths, trying to unravel and unwork the conventions of first-person narratives, they are also a personal search for a narrative persona that is capable of shaking loose the shackles of her own literary history. Her highly idiosyncratic use of humour is not merely a literary device used to prevent the text from cohering into an easily identifiable and generic whole, but also a personal quest into the possibilities of autobiography and self-representation via the medium and metaphor of the body. The playful sketches display a humour which is at different times fantastical, self-derisive and double-edged, a humour that is mirrored in the pen and ink drawings. The Body The first story of the collection introduces some of the themes that permeate the text. In Ce que je sais maintenant, the narrator awakes one morning to find himself invaded by un corps étranger, an almost transparent membrane that has attached itself to his face. As the story progresses, the narrator’s body accumulates these membranes and he observes them also on the bodies of other people, although they are not visible to everyone. By the end, the narrator is covered by membranes which have, with the progression of time, become hard and brittle, clinging to the body as though it had become

Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos


a mollusc (p. 12)2. The narrator realizes that they do not constitute an illness but are a consequence of life: “Tantôt insidieuses et prenant leur temps, tantôt brutales, elles se plantent dans nos chairs jusqu’à nous réduire et nous perdre. L’une ou l’autre, cela ne change rien.” The first story already clearly demonstrates the thematic concern of the vulnerability of the body through a fantastical and symbolic exploration. The imagery in the writing, evoked through metaphor and detailed description, is enriched by the simple drawing at the end which depicts an anthropomorphic figure encased in a womb-like surround of what the reader assumes to be crusty membranes. The humour that underpins Prassinos’s prose surfaces when she describes two injured boys, hit by a car, seeking to shake loose the membranes that seek to suffocate them. She describes the membranes at first like rose petals then, finding this too poetic a metaphor, resorts to the more mundane image of a cabbage. The movements of the boys are described in such detail that the reader envisages the scene in slow motion and they are described ludicrously as: “On eût dit deux danseurs costumés mimant la frayeur et le désespoir le plus intense” (p. 11). What do these membranes symbolize: the irrevocable and inexorable progress towards death, an attempt by the body to protect itself against the ravages of life? Or do they relate to the title Ce que je sais maintenant, in that all the narrator now knows is the fragility and ephemerality of physical existence? The reader is ultimately left in the position of the narrator: “Inutile de dire où j’en suis maintenant moi-même et ce que je sais, comme beaucoup doivent savoir sans oser parler. Je m’observe chaque matin” (p. 11). Useless to draw a definitive signified from a surreal text when the possible interpretations appear infinite, the critic’s task is one of observation and comment. Prassinos’s text is a very knowing text and readily lends itself to a variety of readings: psychoanalytic, feminist or performative. In this reading, I shall make use of such critical frameworks to elucidate her imagery and wordgames although I do not think it would be helpful, rather limiting, to enforce any of these frameworks onto such a playful text. The critic Annie Richard3 has categorically concluded that this is an autobiographical text and the indications in the narrative to support this are
2 3

All references are to Mon Coeur Les Ecoute Paris, HB Editions, 1998. Annie Richard, Le Monde suspendu de Gisèle Prassinos, Calvisson, HB Editions, 1997


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

innumerable and undeniable. Ce que je sais maintenant is less a comment on the visible traces tracked onto the body by time as an observation by a mature writer on her current situation. However, as we shall see, this text is far from the straightforward rendition of a life-story; as the stories unfold, the possible interpretations accumulate. The ambiguity that is initiated by the scenario in the first story is reinforced in the second, Comme un amas de scories. The anonymous ils spoon-feed the narrator as left to him/herself, mealtimes become slow, tortuous and messy (p. 14). Is the narrative voice that of an infant or, following one of the suggestions of the previous story, an old and infirm person? The text is uncertain as all the information the reader is given is that concerning the physical sensations of the protagonist’s current situation and the haunting he is subjected to by vague and indefinable memories. The sensual description of food (“J’aime la pâte tiède et molle des aliments qui vient se poser sur ma langue et mes gencives nues”) is followed by a womb-like image of the wool which keeps him warm, before the sensuality resurfaces in a reference to masturbation: “Quant aux caresses des doigts entre mes jambes, ils ignorent que je les provoque en m’oubliant volontairement dans mon linge” (p. 15). This physical bliss, a return to the innocence, pleasures and dependency of infancy, is disturbed only by the nagging suspicion of a loss of better times: “Parfois je me demande si, entre celui-ci et la fin ou entre l’arrivée et le départ, comme on voudra […] une période plus essentielle ne se serait pas écoulée dont j’aurais perdu le souvenir” (p. 14). Prassinos here raises what is to be another central theme of the collection, that of the fallibility of memory. In a concentrated and abstract form, Prassinos’s narrative expands like a sponge full of water. She evokes common emotions: regret for time past, nostalgia, half-forgotten faces, laughter and voices. These sentiments are contained within symbolic and economic prose: “En effet, je devine au milieu de moi-même comme un amas de scories d’où se détachent, durant certains de mes rêves nocturnes, des morceaux ravivés.” This story introduces the concept of doubling, which is expanded upon in later stories: the doubling or division of the conscious or cerebral self and the body’s corporeal existence. The reader is also made aware of the protagonist’s domination of the narrative voice, of a division or alienation between the je and the unidentified ils. This story concludes

Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos


with a dismissal of the troubling psyche and a return to the pleasures of the flesh, “toujours dans mes rêves, je sens une autre chair que la mienne s’ouvrir et s’épanouir sous ma main heureuse.” In the third story, Les trous, the idea of time and the body’s resistance to, or rebellion against, its inexorable progress is developed. Unlike Ce que je sais maintenant, where the body is shown to be impotent in the face of time, this story introduces the narrator as struggling against the wave that threatens to engulf him. The central thematic concern is highlighted by the personification of time:
Je dois aller avec le Temps, les bras chargés de mes “oeuvres”, sinon Il me dépasse, entraînant la catastrophe. Que j’arrête d’être laborieux et dans ce torrent de pierres endiablées, du moins dans l’étroite bande qui m’y est affectée, il se forme des trous et je tombe (p. 18).

In order to avoid these holes, which are “des lieux de pensée,” the narrator reacts and seeks to inscribe himself in time. He tries to achieve this inscription by continually working, ensuring a ceaseless flow of production to prevent the formation of holes. However, he realizes that the frenetic pace of work serves no purpose as the narrator creates objects that are useless: “sans emploi à notre époque.” The story’s irony runs deeper as the narrator is not creating but destroying objects around himself: “je fais de la charpie.” The concept of work as profitable and worthwhile employment is subverted, as the narrator achieves nothing through his occupation save that of distraction. Indeed, in keeping himself occupied, he avoids the trap of thinking. Thought, in this case, involves “une lucidité aiguë, non pas la sérénité, l’abandon dû à la faiblesse qui, je le crois, précède la plupart des morts véritables.” The story concludes with a worrying thought. Although the narrator succeeds in keeping himself busy for the moment, he is preoccupied with the future when he will have no more space in his over-flowing apartment for more shreds of material and he will be obliged to give himself up to “la seule et mortelle pensée.” This story, to a greater degree than its precedents, is more probably a reflection on the task of the writer. The “oeuvres” are, in contrast to their maker, durable, however useless, and not subject to the passage of time. In the face of mortality, the protagonist is driven to create. Even if his creations are redundant, desire is stronger than reason and the creations are only required to be


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

visible and tangible: to exist. However, the ambiguity inherent in these tales ensures that no one interpretation is infallible; the tale is also an allegory of the mindless but necessary pursuit of manual labour. As the stories progress, so Prassinos elaborates on her themes. In the fourth story, L’heure du rendez-vous, the division of mind and body becomes explicit. The device of personification previously used for time is employed to talk about the body as a demanding and annoying acquaintance. In this objectification of the body, we are reminded of Lacan’s stade du miroir where any sense of bodily contour is articulated through a necessary self-division and selfestrangement. For the infant, this involves an imaginary relation, one of psychic projection in the register of the Symbolic, that is, in and through the differentiated and differentiating use of speech. While in Lacan, the body in pieces finds its unity in the image of the Other (which is its own anticipated image), Prassinos creates a reversal of these terms so that the body literally divides from its own identity. “Le corps” is referred to as “l’esclave” with whom cohabitation becomes impossible, thus is banished. However, the banishment proves to be no easy task, as the narrator discovers hitherto unsuspected connections between mind and body. For some time, he succeeds in living “seul” (without his body), lost in a world of meditation and ecstasy, free of corporeal concerns. However, finally he is forced to admit the apparition of disturbing signs: “Quelque chose qui ne m’est pas étranger, que j’aurais connu jadis et qui s’efforcerait de me rejoinder.” The narrator concludes that these puzzling physical manifestations are the body trying to rejoin the self. The body is a sad, humbled version of its former self and the self fears that its reapparition is a reminder of “l’heure du rendez-vous.” Here again, in a different form we are reminded of the vulnerability and ultimate frailty of our physical condition. Once again, despite the conscious efforts of the narrator, he is inevitably recalled to thoughts of mortality: “la seule et mortelle pensée,” or in different phrasing “l’heure du rendez-vous.” The humour that is omnipresent in these stories occurs cheekily in Mon bras droit where the narrator loses his right arm on a regular basis, which, after a certain time, returns repentant to its body. The drawing depicts a figure with a heart that features prominently on his chest and curiously, a detached left arm. The discrepancy between the image and text highlights the reader’s role as interpreter.

Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos


Confronting the image, it is the right arm that has been lost (whereas it is the depicted character’s left arm). The accuracy of the image exists only within the gaze of the reader, in the relationship between reader and image rather than in the faithful depiction of a reality that might objectively precede this. A play on words occurs in the last sentence “Est-ce que j’y tiendrais tellement à ce membre?” (p. 34). How is it possible to be attached to something that is detached? The narrator is holding onto the arm that would normally do the holding. A similarly provocative humour emerges in Le matin which starts: “Le matin, il est mou” and is the first story to employ the il pronoun. This is also accompanied by an image, more explicitly provocative than the former and reinforces the theme of physical (and here, sexual) impotency. Not all of the stories are illustrated and the images appear at irregular intervals throughout the text. When they do appear, the adoption of lines in place of words demonstrates an attempt at specificity and precise description. As opposed to the symbolic power of language, drawing represents a more direct mode of communication: it arrests the work of the reader’s imagination. The visual interruption of the text, of the perusal of the linear narrative, also interacts with one of Prassinos’s thematic concerns that seems to play down narrative causality and to suggest, at least potentially, an alternative sense of self and identity. Similarly to Duchamp who seeks to expand the frame of Le Grand Verre and disseminate meaning through his interference between semiotic systems, Prassinos crosses visual and verbal modes of signification to allow for the possible expansion of interpretation. As I have observed, the inclusion or reference to images in narratives of the self, interferes with the text’s temporality. Leiris’s use of the Cranach painting prevents his narrative unfolding as a temporal process and it becomes instead a process of returning to and searching the image which acts as the catalyst for the unraveling of the skeins of memory. Prassinos’s images do not serve as a catalyst for the text but they allow for a transit between word and image that becomes an essential rhythm in the text. The instantaneous appreciation of a static image contrasts vividly with the temporal flow of discourse and apart from capturing and expressing a fleeting moment of description, insisting on the particularity of description, it also slows the reader down to create a different experience of reading.


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

Peuple fier again explores the vulnerability of the body, this time its emotional vulnerability, in a satirical tale of an imaginary tribe. Deploying the pronoun nous for the first time, the narrator explains how this people could no longer accept the fact that every internal emotion was captured and revealed in facial expression: “Nous n’étions pas disposés à admettre plus longtemps que notre peau, forte de sa souplesse, continue à enregistrer des émotions ou sentiments que nous avions le droit de garder secrets” (p. 52). The people devise a series of defensive disguises in order to hide their faces. These are judged insufficient and develop to the point where they become an all-in-one body armour where any gesture of friendship or respect towards others, any sort of revealing body language, is rendered impossible. Nevertheless, there remains one final inconvenience. They perceive, through the visor, eyes that well with tears. In the absence of adequate disguise, they are obliged to turn their eyes away from this indecent display of emotion (p. 54). The picture here is a perfect illustration, depicting an oblong case on wheels where the only signs of life are betrayed by two eye and nostril holes. Is this an ironic comment on an increasingly impersonal society, the difficulties of communication or the inevitability of emotional betrayal? In a parody of extremes, the text gives rise to innumerable interpretative possibilities. A Doubtful Identity While the first stories in the collection underscore the fallibility of the body, J’ai du mérite raises the theme of the vulnerability of identity, of the je. The narrator decides that he must change his name, as the person he is becoming has nothing to do with the person he once was. The concept of an evolving identity is taken to the extreme where he is no longer recognized in his own neighbourhood and the narrator puzzles “Je ne sais qui je suis maintenant. Du moi ancien et de l’actuel, qui est ou fut l’usurpateur?” (p. 35). Whereas in other stories the division occurs between the intellect and the body, in this instance, the intellect is literally represented by the unrecognizable head: “Pour le moment, il s’agit de faire l’unité entre mon corps et ma nouvelle tête.” The past here takes a different toll on the self by achieving the effect of doubling the soi.

Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos


The old self is shed, albeit reluctantly, and a new self is symbolized by the new head. As is common to all the stories, however, the past will not readily or easily disappear and the uncomfortable juxtaposition of a new head on old shoulders gives rise to comic situations. The new head does not have the same likes and dislikes as the first one, so the narrator finds it necessary to order an entire new wardrobe, tailormade. The end of the story presents the reader with the image of a personality that has evolved and changed as the consequence of a changed body:
J’étais en harmonie avec ma première tête et depuis si longtemps. L’intruse me l’a sournoisement détruite et sans doute dévorée de l’intérieur. Puis elle en a fendillé la peau qui seulement demeurait, comme on fait de la coque d’un oeuf dur, pour finalement l’écarquiller un jour, surgir et régner à sa place (p. 37).

Characteristically, this tale is not without ambiguity. If the replacement of one head by another indicates an evolution in character, then from where is the narrative voice speaking? Prassinos reveals that the materiality of the body is not the effect of discourse or vice versa, but that self and body, or corporeality and discourse, are mutually determining. She undermines the material irreducibility of the body through her fantastical configurations and surreal scenarios. Moi et moi-même explores this same division of self:
C’est au coeur du mal que nous coïncidons le mieux, Moi et moimême, quand à l’instant d’agir nous renonçons à nous interdire quoi que ce soit. Notre unité atteint alors une plénitude telle que nous trahissons de concert, sans chercher à distinguer qui de nous deux est le vrai coupable (p. 94).

The title story is accompanied by a figure composed of a castle and the narrator elucidates for us: “Il y a en moi un château, vieux à present et dont les ramparts menacent sans cesse de s’écrouler” (p. 46). In order to prevent this deterioration, the narrator dedicates his time to his own self-preservation, closed off to the outside world and to the appeals of others. Despite his reiterated selfjustification for his insular attitude for which he supplicates the compassion of the reader, his conscience troubles him: “Ce que je supporte mal, ce sont les cris de détresse. Ils profitent de ma


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

distraction, je n’ai pas eu la présence d’esprit de les couper pendant leur trajet et ils me sont parvenus […] Et je m’en veux.” He realizes that were he to come to the help of all the plaintive cries of others, he would return to himself to find himself in ruins. Nevertheless, he hopes that as long as he survives, through the effort of selfpreservation, he will serve as an example to encourage and console the others: “Car au fond, ils n’ignorent pas que mon coeur, lui, les écoute” (p. 48). This short story has been interpreted by Richard as the key text of the collection, an autobiographical comment on the part of the writer, for whom the problem is how to listen and respond to others, how to maintain communication. She concludes: “L’humour voile à peine le soupçon qui pèse sur la tâche de Gisèle Prassinos: faut-il continuer à se tenir dans cet ailleurs, quelque part dans le passé?” (Richard, 1997; 105). While, as I have observed, the autobiographical input into this collection is undeniable, this is altogether a far too reductive reading of this text. Mon Coeur les écoute is a perceptive and allegorical reading on the nature of identity. The castle ramparts, always on the point of collapse, are also the defences of the ego. According to Lacan, as I have pointed out with reference to Leiris, ego psychology is misguided in its attempts to strengthen the ego defences which only serve to further alienate the subject in an imaginary construct. This apparently coherent self-image is delusive as it suppresses the diffuse, indeterminate sense of existence that is associated with the Symbolic. In Lacan, the existence of the Imaginary depends upon the adoption of the perspective of the Other to convey this impression of wholeness. However, in Prassinos’s text, it is precisely the Other that threatens the illusion of the Imaginary. Aware of the fragility of the self, the narrator feels that in order to maintain the ego, he must close himself off to the Other. However, he realizes that this task is in vain as selfmaintenance is a permanent process, and, try as he might, he cannot entirely block out the presence of the others. In other words, the ramparts of the ego remain an illusory and provisional defence; they cannot deny the heterogeneity or intersubjective nature of the self. The relation of the self to the Other is as necessary a part in the construction of identity, as the recognition that this identity is constantly in the process of self-renewal. In Barthesian terms, as I have indicated in my discussion of Noël (see part one, pages 136 and 152), the Imaginary is inhabited by the fragmentary; the moment of

Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos


textuality (the Symbolic) affirms the fragmentation of the self. If the body is an object that is always liable to congeal into a purely imaginary entity, the self falls back into the Imaginary by writing (as the text is open to the appropriation of the Other) but the act of writing will always return to the fragmentary. The image of the castle also, of course, recalls the reader to the theme of imprisonment which permeates these texts; the notion that a life is impoverished by the dominance of the instinct of self-preservation which shores up the defensive ramparts of the ego only to confine and isolate the self. The theme of memory resurges in Maintenant je suis le maître, an ironic tale on the power and unpredictability of recall. The narrator finds that his memories accumulate to such an extent that they become confused and overwhelming and he loses all sense of himself (p. 49). The discontinous jumble of memories is so disruptive that the narrator determines to find a means to order and control them: “Chaque fois qu’une période de ma vie toucherait à sa fin, je l’enfermerais sous une chape. En même temps et par le même moyen, je travaillerais à isoler les couches anciennes.” However, this system of isolation proves to be self-defeating as whenever the narrator wants to indulge in nostalgic reminiscence, he finds that his memories are inaccessible. Thus he devises a system of trapdoors whereby he maintains the classification of his memories but can access them at will. He concludes triumphantly: “Enfin, je suis victorieux. Aujourd’hui je peux évoluer à l’aise d’un étage à l’autre. J’ai les clés, je suis le maître. Chacun de mes temps est prisonnier comme dans un livre. Rien ne vient plus confondre mon esprit ni l’offenser.” This story highlights the importance as well as the fallibility of memory. The narrator has a fundamental need to indulge in reminiscing (“j’avais besoin de m’attendrir sur un corps, un visage du passé”); the resurgence of the past in the present is necessary for a current act of self-affirmation. However, memory is spontaneous and sometimes unreliable, therefore the associative method of recall creates confusion: “un paysage, un fragment de scène, une phrase et plus souvent des figures, passaient d’un temps à un autre sans que j’y prenne garde.” In this story, Prassinos draws attention to the impossible, if desirable, nature of this fantasy. The heterogeneity of memory and the associative process of remembrance render impossible the cataloguing of memory (this is, of course, what Leiris attempts to demonstrate with his associative style of writing). The


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

narrator’s comparison of his memory system to that of a book undermines the status of Prassinos’s text. The fragmentary and discontinuous nature of the writer’s own text reveals no trace of chronological ordering or teleological masterplan. La parole is an observation on language and its consequences. The undesirability of la parole is mentioned in several stories, including Mon Coeur les écoute and J’ai décidé de ne pas grandir. The narrator observes that the word in thought and the spoken word are but distantly related. In an organic metaphor, the word is compared to a seed, which in the blink of an eye “a germé, poussé tiges et racines, déplié feuilles et fleurs [. . .] Des étrangers en somme, pour la plupart. Il y a de quoi être émerveillé et méfiant” (p. 55). The power of language is not to be underestimated, in public it even presents a danger as it transforms itself, takes on manifold meanings, exercises untold influence and operates as in a game of Chinese whispers, where the final word has no bearing on its original intended meaning. The narrator draws this conclusion: “Le mieux est de se taire, réduit au minimum, sans proliférations et de s’en contenter.” As Prassinos does not distinguish between the spoken and written word, this can also be read as an observation on the dangers of writing and misinterpretation. The consequences of la parole are infinite: “Une unité lâchée n’est jamais perdue” but despite the fact that subsequent interpretations may have little or nothing to do with the writer’s intention, they will always be held to account (“On est malgré tout responsable”). While the conclusion is ironic (the writer cannot be silenced), s/he can always attempt an economy of style “sans proliférations” which is exactly what Prassinos sets out to achieve in a metaphoric economy of language. Performing the Self Prassinos recognizes the limitations of self-expression with its unforeseen interpretations and seeks to resist any single perspective through a series of rhetorical strategies. The text shifts between the “autobiographical” je, the novelistic il and the collective nous or on as if to detach the producer of the text from the subject of the work. This dissolution of the authorial body forestalls the unification of the text under any single authoritative message. It is useful here to recall Benveniste’s distinction between énonciation and énoncé that is used

Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos


in autobiographical theory to refer to the subject of the enunciation (the present je of the narration) and the subject of the utterance (the je whose history is being recounted and who exists at a temporal and ontological distance from the narrating self). Similarly to Noël’s text, Prassinos achieves the production of different levels through énonciation, marking each proposition, each story, with the process of its uttering while rendering it impossible to anchor the utterances. In so doing, the reality of the text can only be constituted through the process of utterance and not reflected in it from outside. The verbal performance of her text operates as a mirror-like reflection between form and content: the structure of the text is fragmentary (as I have indicated through reference to the images) and the stories become autonomous entities revealing no overall narrative development while they comprise a multiplicity of discourses. The pervasive humour in her texts also introduces a gradation of language that seeks to avoid the coalescence of the sign. For Barthes, the coalescence of the sign involves the absorption of difference, which is a function of doxa. An effect of coalescence is the rush towards the signified, the refusal to follow the signifiers, the steady consumption of the mythic production of meaning. The surreal situations in which the narrators find themselves also avoid the psychological realism that is the essential part of traditional character formation. Prassinos attempts to reinsert discourse into a situation of énonciation where the énoncé no longer appears natural. Aware of the far-reaching consequences of language, Prassinos prevents her discourse from cohering into the continuous utterance of a single subject. Whereas linear utterance seems to suggest the unfolding of a single, definable message towards a pre-destined conclusion, the fragmentary structure keeps the signifier on top, preventing an ultimate meaning being drawn from the text and arresting the interminable circulation of signifiers. In Le fragment comme illusion, Barthes claims that the fragment is an attempt to break out of the specular echoes of ideologized discourse; he is constantly deploying strategies to diffract his narrative. However, he is also aware that “en croyant me disperser, je ne fais que regagner sagement le lit de l’imaginaire” (Barthes, 1975; 99). Similarly, Prassinos seems to resign herself to the inevitability of (mis)interpretation (“Le mieux est de se taire”) but while the text might run the risk of reappropriation, the writer continues to explore its possibilities.


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

A different gradation of language becomes apparent in the following story where the concept of performance in identity formation is undermined and consequently displaced. Lorsque le rideau est tombé explores the performative (and, here, theatrical) aspect of self-identity and the impossibility, perhaps for a writer, of seizing the experience of life in the present. The narrator rarely shows himself in public, as the least witness is an obstacle that prevents him from experiencing and, therefore, participating in the present (p. 58). He feels that he is misunderstood and unknown, as he is unable to reciprocate the attentions of others: “C’est donc rétrospectivement et dans la solitude que je vis l’heure passée […] Pour tout dire, je deviens moi-même, je joue mon rôle, lorsque pour les autres le rideau est tombé” (p. 58). The theatrical nature of the self is not only evoked in the image of the curtain but in the revelation that in order to become himself, he plays his role. Prassinos again reveals the falsity of an Imaginary and coherent self that is conveyed by the perspective of the Other; in order to find his identity, the narrator must remove himself from the interpretative gaze of the Other. Similarly to the previous story, where one of the consequences of language is that of misinterpretation, here the true self of the narrator cannot be perceived in the presence of others by whom he remains “incompris, méconnu.” The paradoxical position highlighted by the narrator is that he would have to be seen in private to be understood which remains an impossibility as the private space would thereby become public. Theatrical performance traditionally concerns the staging of an event and, like any performance, requires the complicity of the Other, that is the interrelation of performer and spectator. Although performance is inevitably an ephemeral event, like la parole of the previous story its consequences can extend beyond the event, which is why the narrator is untrusting of the gaze of others. The fact that it is only in private and in retrospect that the narrator feels he can grasp reality, indicates Prassinos’s recognition that the desire to recapture and replay or rewrite significant moments of our lives represents an attempt to possess our own subjectivity. As Best and Collier have indicated, with reference to Barthes, “the experience of subjectivity is always traumatic, in the sense that it escapes meaning in its immediacy and can only be understood in retrospect” (Best and Collier, 1999; 13). Prassinos’s story undermines the possibility of reciprocity inherent to performance (theatrical or social) but restages it

Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos


on a textual level. Instead of the immediacy of a “real” performance, the reader is privy to the temporal deferral of a narrative performance. The deferral of interpretation implicit to the consumption of a text is highlighted in the story: “Je reçois, comme tout le monde. Quant à donner, à rendre, j’y apporte toujours du retard” (p.57). The private and “real” space of the narrator does indeed become public as he performs for the benefit of the reader. The narrative voice, despite its protestations, blurs the borderline between stage and audience, performance and existence, and remains intersubjective. The idea of the heterogeneity of the self is comically parodied in L’un ou l’autre and this leads to the effect of doubling and selfdoubt that occurs in many of the stories: “En vérité je ne sais qui je suis. Celui qui agit en secret ou l’autre qui, au moment d’agir, s’aperçoit qu’on l’a déjà fait à sa place” (p. 59). This personal or psychological misrecognition is also raised in Cela where similarly to J’ai du mérite, the narrator fails to recognize his own face. It is also a more direct commentary on le stade du miroir: “Non, je ne me sens pas le droit de supprimer cet homme. Que m’a-t-il fait? D’ailleurs je ne le connais pas. C’est moi que je venais chercher dans ce miroir et c’est lui que je vois” (p. 61). The suicidal desire of the narrator is thwarted as he drops his revolver in surprise upon seeing the strange face in the mirror. Wondering if the face he sees is a hallucination, he closes his eyes and turns away but returns to the mirror only to find again the strange face. The texts undermine any preconception that the self is captured and reflected in an unchanging physiognomic likeness; identity cannot be represented through mimesis or a literary vraisemblance. Origins In J’ai décidé de ne pas grandir, Prassinos passes from the desire to combat the force of time to the ultimate form of conscious control over the body. Having been inside his mother’s womb for ten years, the narrator, upon finally entering the world, decides to keep the size and the appearance of a newly born baby. In order to do so, he constructs an invisible cage around his body. This story makes explicit the womb imagery which earlier stories conjure up and suggests a reason for which the characters sometimes seem to seek confined or confining spaces: “Je désirais conserver au-dehors le loisir, le calme et


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

la protection totale que j’avais appréciés dans mon habitat original.” Amongst the things that the narrator finds disturbing in the real world, he mentions “la parole que je jugeai superflue.” Similarly to the narrator of Le Visage, he prefers to remain quiet and reflective, with his thoughts, his calculations and his discoveries as his only companions. In this way, in a strange reversal of the mentally handicapped child in an adult’s body, the narrator remains, to outlive his mother and subsequent nursemaids, in an infant body which acquires “l’âme et l’esprit d’un vieux savant.” The purity of origin or the desirability of the infant or preinfant state is again evoked in Je suis sale where the baby is represented literally as the clean slate or blank canvas: “un enfant si pur de teint à sa naissance qu’on ne pouvait le distinguer des draps de son berceau” (p. 30). In this story, the body does not acquire membranes but cobwebs and other physical traces of the life lived, including “des villes entières mais en ruine, des scènes de famille mais en mauvais état, des souvenirs, des phrases essentielles mais transies et des têtes partout, plus mortes que les autres;” the negatives of life are printed on his body. This story is a virtual reversal of Les trous: instead of the narrator inscribing himself in time with his artifacts, time is inscribed on the body. In an allegory of life’s inevitable process of gain and loss, the body becomes the archive of memory, which literally stores the images of the past. In a humourous twist, the narrator finally finds it necessary to rid himself of his parents, who have also become marked on his body, as well as his best friends. In a frustrated quest for the cleanliness of his original state, he attempts to scrape and scratch away these physical souvenirs but in the end realizes the futility of his task: “Déjà bien qu’il m’arrive de travailler jusqu’à la tombée du jour, je ne parviens jamais à être propre.” With Emboîtements, halfway through the collection, the narrator changes gender and becomes female. This story re-evokes the theme of the pre-nascent state in a description of happiness: “Quand je me sens au comble de bonheur, je sais très bien ce qui se passe […] J’ai réintegré ma mère ou bien, nostalgique, elle m’a reprise” (p. 76, author’s italics). The condition that the narrator experiences is double; the days when she feels this luxurious womb-like state, she also feels in a state of pregnancy herself: “Je donne à flotter en rêve dans une eau que balancent des mouvements divers […] Celui qui m’habite éprouve la volupté que j’éprouve, j’en suis sure […] Ainsi me la

Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos


doublant.” She experiences simultaneously both the sensation of returning to the womb and the sensation of being pregnant. The notion of the doubling inherent in the infant’s detachment from the mother underlies La septième fois with the narrator’s frustrated search for the love of his other half. Although it is the seventh time the narrator has fallen in love only to be disappointed, he concludes optimistically: “Il faut me l’avouer, j’en suis sûr, tout me l’apprend, c’est là qui me double, ma couche originelle. C’est là mon temps, mon verbe qui va s’accomplir, me mettre au monde, c’est là mon envers et mon endroit” (p. 70). Playing with the Oedipal theory, the narrator concludes that it is not so much through frustrated desire for his mother that he seeks his beloved but that he is propelled by the original severance from her body that leaves him incomplete. In the final sentences, the metaphor of writing raises the question of whether artistic creation can take the place of procreation. The theme of pregnancy is again raised in Qui? which also returns to the idea of the face as the locus of an identity. The mother’s primary concern for the baby is what he would become if she hadn’t consented to bestow upon him a face: “Cet attribut, ce sceau, ce lieu public où se concentre et se répand tout ce qui remue dans l’obscurité de l’homme?” (p. 81). This becomes the central concern of La roue (p.126), where the narrator is born without a face. It therefore becomes the task of his mother, happily an artist, to create his features. This text reveals the extent to which identity is a construct that will always depend, to a certain extent, upon the features attributed to oneself by the Other. The importance of the maternal relationship in the formation or affirmation of self-knowledge is raised in Où suis-je donc? The narrator suffers from a bad memory and at times loses the knowledge of where he is, with whom and when. Unexpected details such as a smile or an idiosyncratic gesture serve to resituate his memory. In the beginning, he is confusingly offered resituation in two different timescales. Confronted with this choice, he always opts for “les temps originels” where he rediscovers his mother: “Quand je reconnais ma mère, c’est ému par l’odeur de ses mains qui combine celle de Javel et de la lavande. Ou bien, à l’aube, dans son lit […] Alors, vraiment, je me mets à exister, je sais où je suis” (p. 106). The theme of imprisonment recurs in the stories. The narrators are imprisoned within their own frail bodies, subject to the flux of


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

physical fallibility and often this gives rise to the impression of doubling. The notion of restriction or restraint not only occurs within the framework of the body but also within physical space, as in Les trous where the narrator’s creations threaten to overwhelm his living space. Insufficient space is again evoked in Un Frère, where the protagonist’s projects and desires assume physical dimensions and occupy his living space until they take up the whole of his bedroom floor. Often the narrator seeks a confining space, as in Le visage, but more common is the idea that the characters are imprisoned against their will. The exception to this rule is, as I have just indicated, when the sensation of imprisonment recalls the pre-nascent state of being in the safety of the womb. In Comme un mort qui respire, the narrator is entrapped within an impossibly tiny living space: “Mon logement n’a qu’une seule pièce, si réduite que je ne peux déplier les coudes dans le sens de la largeur” (p. 139). This claustrophobic situation, depicted also in the accompanying image, is nevertheless redeemed by the view that the narrator sees through the window. At this point, the register of the prose changes and gives way to poetic description. This flow is abruptly halted by the thoughts of the narrator who reminds himself: “A quoi bon m’exalter? Je continue à me taire, sans pensées, sans mouvements, comme un mort qui respire.” The temptation represented by a window onto the world is again taken up in Le visage where the narrator has chosen seclusion and solitude in a cell-like space in order to dedicate himself to study. He is continually disturbed by a face that appears at the tiny window high in the wall. At first, the narrator is indignant and loses his concentration, finding it impossible to ignore the intruder. Finally the supplications of the disembodied head win over the narrator and he suffers the fleeting impression that a mask detaches itself from his face to kiss the lips of the intruder. The fulfillment of desire is frustrated by the glass barrier that separates the narrator’s self-image and the image of temptation. The final story of the collection turns from the theme of origin to return to one of a final destination. In La sentinelle, the je has always looked out towards the left where he sees the sea. Frustrated by the limitations of his vision, he puts out his left eye and therefore looks in the other direction, towards the land. However, the narrator finds that he is unsatisfied with this new perspective and instead starts to gaze back towards the forbidden region of the sea. He is forced to

Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos


return his attention to the external world when he becomes aware of the shadow of a large ship that is cast over the land, thereby uniting his two worlds and two visions. The narrator acknowledges the implications of this unexpected unity: “Mon instinct de sentinelle me renseigna. Cette fois, sans aucun doute, on venait pour moi. Consentant ou non, je ne pouvais échapper. Du reste, j’étais déjà désigné, touché. Un mât de ténèbres projeté par l’imposant visiteur commençait à me pénétrer” (p. 155). The unification of self, the reconciliation of difference, the resolution of ambiguity can only indicate the inevitability of a final destination (“l’heure du rendez-vous”). The themes of division, discontinuity, fragmentation and uncertainty that underscore this text and its subjects finally seem to resolve themselves in an image of death. Or does the image represent the autonomy of a finished work of art?

From the informe to the abject: shifting morphologies in the art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan
Introduction This chapter needs to be located within the context of this text. In chapters one and three, I have demonstrated the ways in which Duchamp and Bacon use self-representation to question the very possibility of self-knowledge and how they engage with and subvert the traditions within which they work. This chapter arises also in the light of my work on Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos (chapter four). As we have seen, Noël reveals not only the vulnerability of self through the performative act of memory but demonstrates the extent to which our visual apprehension of the world is influenced by our corporeal existence. Noël credits the body with interpretative and creative faculties. He draws attention to the central contradiction of the autobiographical text, that is, the ontological gap between the writing self and the self-reflexive protagonist of the work, by focusing on the (un)representability of the body. Prassinos explores the possibilities for the representation of an identity through a surreal and explosive narrative where the body metamorphoses and reduplicates itself in a way that questions the certainty of interpretation and unsettles the reader. In this chapter, I will look at how two women artists, Louise Bourgeois and Orlan, have also negotiated the subject/object dialectic through their work on the body in order to subvert the conventions of visual self-representation. I shall approach their work through definitions of the informe and the abject, to demonstrate how these terms are applicable to the subversive nature of their work and how they operate in the work’s encounter with the spectator. With reference to Bourgeois, I will look at the framework of the art institution and how it affirms the role of the artist in society, a perspective that reflects back to my chapter on Duchamp, and to


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

investigate the possible ways in which the work of an artist such as Bourgeois has been an enabling influence on the artist I shall subsequently discuss, an artist who makes use of media technology, Orlan. I will show how art has become less a matter of a single social environment, for example, the fecund metropolis that was Paris at the fin-de-siècle, to evolve in a technological age where geographical borders no longer present a handicap to an exchange of influences and where the nationality of an artist is rendered obsolete in the eyes of an international audience. The work of Bourgeois and Orlan is preoccupied with the positioning of the subject and how this subject interacts with corporeal morphology, but it is not possible to launch into a discussion of their work without first drawing attention to the historical and critical contexts from which they emerge. As we have seen in chapter three, the Romantic myth of the artist is one that dates back to the nineteenth century. Bacon perpetuated the Romantic myth of the artist on the margins of society whilst simultaneously undermining the pre-existing traditions of portraiture and self-representation. He engaged with the tradition of the marginal artist through the conscious manipulation of his own myth and its perpetuation through the autobiographical content of his work. The resonances of that still pervasive myth are all the more pronounced for female artists working in the field of self-representation. Self-portraits by women artists of this century frequently intervene in these masculine artist myths and their favoured visual forms by engaging with previous visual tropes and parodying, reappropriating or actively subverting them. The problematic posed for artists in self-representation is that of being at once subject and object, seer and seen. The now classic formulation from John Berger is still central to a consideration of the subject/object contradictions which face women working with the female body:
A woman must continually watch herself […] From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyed and the surveyor within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman (Berger, 1972; 46).

For women artists, this problematic is magnified by the historical approach to woman, perceived as the object that is to be represented

The Art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan


by the subject, the male artist. “Woman” has been consistently evoked in western art while “women” were subjects that escaped representation. Stereotypical uses of women’s bodies as subject-matter occluded the representation in art of women's multifaceted experiences. For the woman artist producing a self-representation, this situation was particularly difficult to surmount. That is, it is difficult to find a form of representation which does not objectify the woman’s body but which represents the woman as subject. Therefore, the confrontation between subject and object has been a common feature of women’s self-portraiture. The dichotomy inherent in self-portraiture is consequently multiplied when a woman artist is negotiating a space for self-representation. The concept of the surveyor and the surveyed, self and other, and the ways in which this interacts with both the specular tradition of self-portraiture and the construction of a female identity has been commented on and investigated by women writers and critics as diverse as Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir and Luce Irigaray. More recently, several works have been published on women and self-portraiture, including Marsha Meskimmon’s The Art of Reflection (1996), which I shall refer to later, Francis Borzello’s Seeing Ourselves: Women’s Self-Portraits (1998) and Amelia Jones’s Body Art; Performing the Subject (1998). Since the 1970s, the body has been a crucial site for feminist intervention in art practice as it was perceived to represent the exclusively male-dominated history of western art and, at the same time, offered women artists the scope to articulate a specifically female experience. However, as I have indicated, reappropriation of the female body by women has never been an uncomplicated issue. The debates in the 1970s and 1980s about pornography and voyeurism raised the question of how the sexed body could be represented in ways which would avoid its framing by the traditional structure of the male gaze.1 It is imperative to take into account a feminist practice and critique of self-representation as, in the late 1970s and 1980s,

I am referring to how, in the European tradition of the female nude, ownership is primary and the sexuality of the subject is not her own but that of the owner/spectator. In reflection of cultural and social relations between the sexes, the perfect female body in representation became the cipher for masculine desire, that of the artist and viewer. This question has been explored in depth by critics such as Linda Nochlin in Woman as Sex Object, Studies in Erotic Art 1730-1970 (1973) and in Berger et al, Ways of Seeing (1972).


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feminism contributed a fundamental dimension to the conviction that identity is neither authentic nor essential but socially constructed. In the light of a feminist, psychoanalytically informed conception of subjectivity, I am here examining the ways in which the body in selfportraiture has become the framework through Louise Bourgeois and Orlan explore and expose identity construction.

Part One
Informing the Margins of Modernism It is impossible here to do justice to an artist whose oeuvre encompasses almost the length and breadth of the twentieth century and on whom the secondary literature constitutes a secondary body of work almost as dense and often as elliptical as the work it comments upon. I prefer to examine a cross-section of Bourgeois’s oeuvre, specifically her sculpture of the 1960s and 1970s. I shall also look at the installation of her four sculptures in the Tate Modern in 2000 since Louise Bourgeois is a pertinent example of an artist who, in order to reflect upon her cultural and personal history, exiled herself from her country of origin (similarly to Duchamp). Moreover, it has been in the United States that she received the closest critical attention up until the last ten years. The opening of the Tate Modern Gallery in London brought her suddenly to the attention of a largely unsuspecting British public and the appearance of her imposing, site-specific sculptures in the entrance hall to this national institution tacitly acknowledged her as one of the most important sculptors of her generation.2 Here, I shall focus upon these two periods of Bourgeois’s work that best demonstrate how the representation of the body traverses her oeuvre in ways that unsettle gendered norms and undermine the idea of a single corporeal morphology that is identical to a gendered identity. How does self-representation move away from an integrated surface image to emerge in part-objects and physical amalgamations, and how does the spectator come to stand in as a surrogate artist to confuse and

The Turbine Hall is the site of temporary exhibitions and Bourgeois’ Towers have long been succeeded. However, for the sake of this study, I shall discuss the works in situ.

The Art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan


conflate self-identities? I will examine the way in which the work in the Tate Modern connects with the long productive past of the artist, to what extent it evokes her repetitive themes and how it interacts with the intimidating space that houses it, and consequently, houses the artist. Bourgeois’s life story is now as well known as her artwork and this has frequently led to reductive readings of her sculpture. As Bernadac writes:
Louise Bourgeois has become a major phenomenon in the space of just a few years, almost in spite of herself. Her place in art history is now so special that the legend around her occasionally tends to eclipse the aesthetic import of her oeuvre. The fate is typical of strong and charismatic personalities whose lives are tightly intertwined with the evolution of their work (Bernadac, 1996; 7).

Griselda Pollock has pointed out that there is a tendency with critics confronted by Bourgeois to conflate the artist and the work and perform a narrowly psychobiographical reading: “The problem with psychobiography […] is that it is both bad art history and bad psychoanalysis” (Cole, 1996; 88). It is difficult to side-line the intensely personal narratives that feed into Bourgeois’s work as the artist herself has indicated the relevance of her life history and especially, the childhood memories that resurface throughout her oeuvre. Yet it is also necessary to take into account the way in which her artwork transcends the particularities of a single autobiography to engage with the other subjectivities that encounter it in the gallery space and how this encounter creates the meanings that arise from the work. Psychoanalytic criticism has moved away from its early limited focus on the author of a particular work and looks instead at the ways in which the work communicates with its reader. This shift in emphasis cannot be ignored by art history. The relevance of the spectator and the way in which s/he responds to an artwork and how the artwork itself interacts with its surroundings is imperative to a consideration of Bourgeois’s work. As early as 1975, Lucy Lippard wrote:
It is difficult to find a framework vivid enough to incorporate Louise Bourgeois’s sculpture. Attempts to bring a coolly evolutionary or art-historical order to her work, or to see it in the


The Body as Medium and Metaphor
context of one art group or another, have proved more or less irrelevant. Any approach – non-objective, figurative, sexually explicit – awkward or chaotic; and any material – perishable latex and plaster, traditional marble and bronze, wood, cement, paint, wax, resin – can serve to define her own needs and emotions. Rarely has an abstract art been so directly and honestly informed by its maker’s psyche (Weiermair, 1989; 13).

While Bourgeois’s oeuvre remains a singular and idiosyncratic project as Lippard rightly points out, it is nonetheless important to contextualize Bourgeois’s situation, seeing its position in relation to history and to the traditions from which she emerged. Bourgeois left Paris in 1938 where she had been at art school and forged contacts with the Cubist artists and the Surrealists. Her work can be seen to interconnect with Surrealist preoccupations and it manifests certain of their themes. One of these abiding themes is eroticism.3 The erotic content of much of Bourgeois’s sculpture has been a subject of focus for many critics, yet Bourgeois has maintained an ambivalent and distanced attitude when questioned about it:
People talked about erotic aspects, about my obsessions, but they didn’t discuss the phallic aspects. If they had, I would have ceased to do it […] Now I admit the imagery. I am not embarrassed about it […] When I was young, sex was talked of as a dangerous thing; sexuality was forbidden […] At the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, we had a nude male model. One day he looked around and saw a woman student and suddenly he had an erection. I was shocked. Then I thought what a fantastic thing, to reveal your vulnerability, to be so publicly exposed! We are all vulnerable in some way, and we are all male-female (Weiermair, 1989; 17).

Here Bourgeois touches upon one of the principle ideas that characterize her erotic works: the notion of bisexuality. Bourgeois’s sculpture is above all a sensual art. Surfaces and textures are as integral to her work as the form or the concept. She identifies surfaces with her skin. Lippard observes:
It can be the cloth in Cumulous, or a thin layer of peeling latex over bulbous plaster, or the heavier folds in Fillette, or a glowing

Eroticism in Surrealist art and writing has been extensively investigated by critics such as Hal Foster (Compulsive Beauty), Mary Ann Caws (Surrealism and Women) and Xavière Gauthier (Surréalisme et Sexualité).

The Art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan
flow of dark resin totally immersing underlying forms. Within the art (as, one suspects, within the artist) form and the formless are locked in constant combat (Weiermair, 1989; 17).


Certain sculptures, forming part of her 1974 exhibition in New York, were made by placing wet wood inside plaster; the plaster dried the wood which then split its shell. This process of physical pressure can be seen as a metaphorical or creative equivalent for giving birth or as the eruption of sexual desire. It could equally be understood as the artist literally breaking out of her skin, the intellectual evolution of an idea that cannot be contained or restrained. It is in the process by which the object is made that its symbolism lies. Therefore, the object does not signify as a finished autonomous work; a slippage of meaning occurs in its evolution. However, this slippage does not only occur in the fabrication of Bourgeois’s objects. It also occurs at the moment of encounter between the artwork and the viewer. It is this idea that I shall now pursue with reference to Bourgeois’s part-objects and their expression of a gender duality. The Part-Object Bourgeois’s famous Self-Portrait of 1963-4 (figure 26) bears no resemblance to the body of the artist. Armless, legless and containing references to both male and female genitalia (breasts, vulvic folds and testicles), the overall form represents the phallus. Lacking direct mimetic clarity, the work re-presents the boundaries between masculine and feminine and subverts the orthodox notion of a single gendered self-identity. According to Lippard, Bourgeois sees such mergings of opposites as a “presexual perception of the dangerous father and the protective mother. [The work deals with] the problem of survival, having to do with identification with one or the other; with merging and adopting the differences of the father” (Weiermair, 1989; 16). Freudian connotations of the Oedipal stage are evident here but such work also taps into the Surrealist tradition of androgyny. In Arcane 17, Breton clarified the need to resolve the inherent conflict between male and female principles. As a glorification of spiritual fecundity, the myth of the androgyne became a celebration of spiritual procreation. The Surrealist painter, Victor Brauner, produced a work in 1934 entitled Number, which shows a boxlike womb,


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

attached to the ends of which are male and female sexual organs and in which a small sculpted figure resides. For Brauner, as for other Surrealists, the metaphysical fusion of male and female into the perfect androgyne had a spiritual and physical counterpart in the sexual act; a union that blurred the distinction between the sexes in a celebration of love. Giacometti’s Suspended Ball of 1930 is sexually ambivalent. The ball, which swings over the blade of the wedge, is presumably the active masculine element of the work although the sphere has a cleft removed that creates a vaginal shape, while the wedge despite its phallic shape has a labial form. The erotic reading of the contact between the ball and wedge also suggests phallus and buttocks. Giacometti’s work first appeared in the publication of the Surrealists’ intellectual rivals, Bataille’s Documents, before it was taken up and feted by the Surrealists. It is a Bataillean view of this work that is most relevant to my own enquiry into Bourgeois’s sculpture. According to Rosalind Krauss and Yves-Alain Bois in their reading of Bataille’s definition of the informe (Formless: A User’s Guide, 1997), Giacometti’s sculpture collapses definitions of distinct sexuality and therefore belongs within the operational sphere of the informe. They define this operation as a process that strips away categories and undoes the very terms of meaning and/or being. They see the constantly shifting identity of the sculpture’s organs, or “partobjects,”4 that is brought about by the systematic relationship between movement and permutation as a mechanism to resist meaning, to attack the illustrative or the thematic. Bataille describes the informe in the critical dictionary published in Documents (see Bataille, 1968).

The idea of the part-object derives from the psychoanalytical work of Melanie Klein in which she describes how certain organs seem to detach themselves from the maternal body to produce scenarios of paranoia through which the infant enacts its desire or frustrated rage against the figure of the mother for whom these objects stand. Deleuze and Guattari engage with Klein’s discourse in L’Anti-Oedipe (1972) to demonstrate how the goal of Klein’s theory makes the part-object into a symbolic agent of intersubjective relations. They refuse this interpretation in order to demonstrate how the part-object works within a chain of signifiers and changes its nature as it changes its function. They move away from its definition as symbolic to stress the incessant production of meaning and argue that the part-object is not the representation of the parental figure but part of a sequence of connections: a permutational operation that enacts change, the reversal of this change, and therefore demonstrates the utter instability of meaning. Thus Deleuze and Guattari’s definition of the part-object comes close to Bataille’s theory of the informe.

The Art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan


For Bataille, the informe is neither a stable motif nor a classification; the formless has only an operational and performative existence. It is the operation of slippage between readings or interpretations that renders them unstable. The informe therefore displaces binary oppositions. Here I shall seek to show how Bourgeois’s erotic sculpture likewise displaces such oppositions and, rather than resolving them into a dialectic, maintains the slippage of interpretation and meaning that characterizes the operation of the informe. Modernist logic categorized the part-object as the “partial figure” whereby the body contracted into its synecdoches. The fragment became the vehicle of a symbolic truth, and body parts or organs came to stand in for the absent figure (columns to represent phalluses, breasts to represent the mother). However, the part-object allows for a psychoanalytic dimension that creates interpretative space and allows for a process of intersubjective connections which refuses any single authoritative signified. As with her Self-Portrait, where the title interacts with the sculpture to further displace meaning and the viewer’s expectation of a gendered self-identity, Bourgeois’s Fillette of 1968 exemplifies the relevance of Bourgeois’s naming of her work to disseminate the signified. Fillette is a large phallus and resembles, according to Rosalind Krauss, “nothing so much as an outsized dildo” (Weiermair, 1989; 23). The textural quality of this work arises directly from the combination of materials: latex and plaster. Like other of Bourgeois’s objects it is not mounted but suspended in the exhibition space so that the viewer confronts it, alarmingly, at eye-level. This also means that the viewer encounters the gently swiveling object from a number of viewing positions, which undermines the need for any single perspectival view. Le Regard of 1966 has a squat spherical form with undulating contours and a vaginal split that reveals other indeterminate, organic shapes. Germinal (1967), The Fingers (1968), and Soft Landscape II (1967) are made of bulbous protruding forms which suggest both the phallus and breasts while Cumul I (1969) (figure 27) resembles a lunar landscape again formed by protruding phallic shapes amongst soft, curvaceous folds and suggesting associations with eyes or eggs. Hanging Janus (1968) (figure 28) and Janus Fleuri (1968) combine phallic shapes to create oval hanging forms and Janus Fleuri


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incorporates an explosive split where the texture of inner tissue is externalized and contrasts with the smooth, finished, round forms. However, the forms are not always so organic. In Femme Couteau, a pointed, aggressive shape rises to form a pair of buttocks or a clitoris. It is a wrapped and folded marble blade which was described by Bourgeois, in Freudian terms, as embodying:
The polarity of woman, the destructive and the seductive […] The woman turns into a blade […] A girl can be terrified of the world. She feels vulnerable because she can be wounded by the penis. So she tries to take on the weapon of the aggressor […] The battle is fought at the terror level which precedes anything sexual (Weiermair, 1989; 16).

Harmless Woman (1969) shows a female torso with assertive, outsized breasts and a phallic point in place of a head. Bourgeois’s sculpture combines elements of both aggression and vulnerability, dependence and independence, interconnecting with a network of signifiers. The artist transgresses categorical oppositions to produce morphological mutations where definitions of male/female, inner/outer, and object/subject are collapsed and provide no fixed position from where a meaning can be generated. Bourgeois’s erotic sculpture manifests most clearly what I have identified in her work as the informe. However, in order to illustrate how the informe also permeates other, non-erotic work, I will now look briefly at some earlier sculpture of very different thematic concern, which nevertheless, still shows the informe at work. As we have seen, Bourgeois has always worked with a wide range of materials with different physical properties that lend themselves to a variety of metaphorical associations. Another dominant preoccupation has been the way in which architectural structures become anthropomorphic or acquire psychological overtones. Bourgeois’s early work of the 1940s already contains and manifests this interest. One of her first sculptures is entitled The Blind Leading the Blind, 1947-9 and is constructed of wooden stakes of human height that can be interpreted as figures in procession, each with their arms on the shoulders of the figure in front. The sculpture could be equally understood architecturally as a double row of columns capped with lintels. The figural and architectural interpretations are not at odds but can also be combined so that the structure can be conceived of as

The Art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan


enclosing or protecting the figures. In the 1940s, Bourgeois was primarily a painter and her work often showed women with houses for heads or bodies, a series of Femme Maison (the segmented nature of these images is reminiscent of the series of Surrealist drawings cadavres exquises). Her interests already clearly lay in the way people correspond or adapt to, the structures they inhabit or the spaces they occupy. Her position as a foreigner in New York led to a relationship with her architectural surroundings that was one of fascination and alienation. Other paintings and engravings show links between sculptural forms and psychological or emotional frustrations: ladders that are suspended from ceilings and rendered purposeless, a balloon trapped inside a room by too small a door or houses with wings. The paintings demonstrate how architecture mediates relationships between the individual and the world, the private and the social. The unexpected metaphorical associations and juxtapositions demonstrate how Bourgeois’s early sculpture already operates in a similar manner to her later erotic objects, working to undo binary oppositions and produce a ceaseless flow of different readings. Bourgeois’s work has rarely conformed to the Modernist precept that art should or can only ever be about art. In chapter one, we saw how in Greenberg’s definition, sculpture is optical, appealing to the eyes and the intellect (it is intrinsically Apollonian) and does not require or rely for effect upon the viewer’s participation. Sculpture interacts with the space around it but does not own the space; in Greenberg’s terms, sculpture that depends upon bodily presence becomes theatrical. The space of theatre, which differs from everyday space as it is reserved for a performance, does not conform to Greenberg’s theory as he envisages sculpture as being independent of a particular place or particular human presences. Bourgeois’s two sculpture exhibitions in 1949 and 1950 included a series of totemic wooden sculptures called Personnages which were installed as an environment in the gallery and which could be rearranged from show to show. The way in which the sculpture articulated the surrounding space and the very mobility of the sculpture made the exhibition into an event (a concept that also arises out of Surrealist practice). Their mobility lent the sculptures an almost bodily presence and they are consequently irreducible to Greenberg’s purely optical criteria, they refuse to be self-contained objects. Here again in the slippage between definitions, we see the informe at work. The installation of


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Personnages illustrates that the artist conceived of her work as functioning in groups, elements that connected and operated within an undefined network. In 1966, Bourgeois exhibited work in a show called “Eccentric Abstraction” organized by Lucy Lippard at the Fischbach Gallery. At this time, Bourgeois was working in plaster and semi-soft materials such as latex and rubber. Her work included open-fronted hanging forms in plaster, which she called lairs. Again these have contradictory psychological overtones relating to the home nest and safety but also to threat and vulnerability. The different physical properties of the materials both bewilder and invite interpretation. In the 1990s, Bourgeois made a series of works called Cells. These have often been interpreted, as Warner points out, as a meditation on memory:
They are spaces which make evident the continuity of the past in Bourgeois’s present, and her duty to confront, re-enact and exorcise her experiences […] The use of architecture as a metaphor for psychological, physical and sexual relationships between people recurs throughout her work […] But it was not until the Cells that Bourgeois created a dynamic, spatial formula for the exploration of body and environment, self and past, past and present (Bourgeois, 2000; 13).

It is out of this work that the Tate Modern towers developed and if the meaning of these sculptures appears momentarily to be more clarifiable than the previous works I have discussed, I will seek to show that the operation of the informe is still at work. Spiraling Selves
“Then it was done. ‘Biggest ever’ permeates the room, mixing Spielberg-scale spectacle with the psychological symbolism of the surreal. Here, installation art gears up to theme-park showmanship. Yet the theme, harking back to Bourgeois's 1947 suite of engravings with text ‘He Disappeared into Complete Silence,’ weds architectural forms to the cycle of nurture, rejection, and reconciliation experienced between mother and child. We crane our necks, staring up the inner shaft of I Undo, with its jolting red glass ovals--a psychedelic model of the birth canal. We wait in lines to climb to roller-coaster heights, becoming weak-kneed and vulnerable as we reach the top and find ourselves under those massive, terrifying mirrors--each of us a cruel, Francis Bacon--like portrait in a sky-high theater of

The Art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan
clinical self-regard. Such ruthlessness and pity mingle easily with tenderness. They’re caught like specimens under glass, just as the artist's mother-and-child dyads are, secreted at the heart of each tower. Old battles are reimagined and resolved. Indeed, Bourgeois remarks that the works ‘reflect the optimistic view that I feel today’--a view seen through the long lens of her eighty-eight years, as if from a great height” (Steven Henry Madoff “Towers of London” Artforum Summer 2000).


Entering the vast space of the Turbine Hall that is the entrance to the Tate Modern in the year 2000, the spectator was overawed by the immensity of the surrounding area. The architects involved in the conversion of the building from power station to art gallery maintained the industrial connotations of the space by guarding elements of the existing machinery as well as the space’s uncluttered simplicity. Approaching the four works of Bourgeois, a spectator was first of all struck by the contrast between these huge organic shapes of curvilinear aspect and the industrial lines and angles that house them. The four works, the largest in Bourgeois’s series of spiders, entitled Maman, and the three towers entitled, I Do, I Undo and I Redo, seemed to draw their material inspiration from their surroundings – giant steel constructions. The first tower, I Do, was constructed of a spiral staircase which wound around a central column and up towards a small, railed platform. This was surrounded by four circular mirrors, a fifth mirror that encompassed the entire scene, and at the centre of the platform was a wooden chair. The second tower, I Undo, was a cylindrical core with a spiral staircase in a square-framed steel skin, around which was wrapped a second staircase. At the bottom of the tower, a small door allowed access to a cell-like space where a chair and a mirror faced each other. The third tower, I Redo, was made of two spiral staircases, one of which was compacted into the interior void of the column while the other wound about the outside. Similarly to the first tower, there was a platform encircled by mirrors on which were two wooden chairs and a steel-framed glass cabinet containing a double-headed sculpture. For anyone familiar with Bourgeois’s work, the sculptures in the Tate Modern and the artist’s accompanying text revealed one of the themes that dominate her output: parent-child relationships. Bourgeois referred to the towers as a “family affair” and originally imagined the conversation that visitors would engage in across the towers as being dialogues between father and son. However, as the


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

sculptures that were housed in the towers suggested, the work finally became the manifestation of the maternal relationship. In each tower, the artist placed a small bell jar containing the sculpted figures of a mother and child that represented three different kinds of maternal relationship, described in Bourgeois’s accompanying text. I Do represents the good mother and featured a nurturing mother and child:
I Do is an active state. It’s a positive affirmation. I am in control, and I move forward towards a goal or a wish or a desire […] I am the good mother […] the giver, the Provider. It is the “I Love You” no matter what.

I Undo represented the rupture of the maternal bond where the sculpture showed the infant reaching out towards the distracted mother whose breast disgorges useless milk:
The Undo is the unraveling. The torment that things are not right and the anxiety of not knowing what to do […] One is immobile in the wake of fear […] In terms of a relationship to others, it’s a total rejection and destruction. It is the return of the repressed […] I am the bad mother […] The guilt leads to a deep despair and passivity. One retreats into one’s lair to strategize, recover and regroup.

In I Redo, the sculpture showed the bond between mother and child through an attached umbilical cord, which tied the floating infant to the mother’s body:
The REDO means that a solution is found to the problem. It may not be the final answer, but there is an attempt to go forward […] You have confidence again. In terms of relationships to others, the reparation and reconciliation has been achieved. Things are back to normal. There is hope and love again.

The towers encompassed the themes not only of the relationship between parent and child but also the relationship between architecture and sculpture. The maternal theme introduced Bourgeois’s personal narrative on an intimate level while the sculptures invited spectators to interact with them on a social level. The towers created for the viewer a spatial experience that was encountered through movement and over time. Marina Warner in the

The Art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan


Tate catalogue described the associations that the towers might hold for a viewer, such as architectural structures associated with watching and warning: observation posts and watch-towers, lighthouses and signal stations, places that afford different means of seeing and being seen. She also observed that the spiral staircase is technically the most efficient way of providing vertical access within a confined space and simultaneously, perhaps, conjures a vision of those most private spaces concealed within everyday structures, such as attics or cellars: “The stairway is thus a means of entry or escape, a passageway between the public and the private realm” (Bourgeois, 2000; 8). Spiral staircases, as Warner indicates, are an economical use of space. However, they are also associated with self-defense, allowing the besieged to defend himself from above his attackers. In the first tower, I Do, the single spiral staircase was the only means of ascent and descent, consequently controlling and limiting the number of visitors to the tower. I Undo and I Redo contained two spiral staircases. The double spiral may represent the process of dialectical argument and its continuing debate or resolution. In place of a static or complete structure, the double spiral embodies a process. It does not express a moment past but the continuing evolution of the present – a process of growth, the advancement towards self-knowledge or understanding. The harmony of rhythm encapsulated in the double structure represents how time and movement are collapsed into the individual’s progress on the spiral staircase and becomes ceaseless movement. As I have observed, the chairs on the tops of the towers were intended by Bourgeois to encourage encounters and dialogue between the viewers on the towers. They also correspond to the subject themes indicated by the titles. I Undo contained a single chair and mirror in a cell-like space in the interior of the tower, rendering communication with others impossible. I Redo had two chairs in place of the single chair at the top of I Do and therefore seemed to encourage dialogue of a private nature. I have previously discussed the importance of the mirror as a metaphor within painting in my chapters on Duchamp and Bacon and it is worth recalling here. In addition to the concept of painting as mirror, the way in which a painting “mirrors” the likeness of the world, the mirror also acts as a metaphor for framing images. The frame constructs the image or the knowledge by placing certain material into the centre of discourse and marginalizing others. To


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

move the mirror is to alter the frame and thus to consider different subjects or knowledge. As a literary device, embedding the frame within the text produces a mise en abyme: a process of infinite regression that explodes the frame and decentres the text. The mirrors on the towers lent themselves to just such a framing function. The person who occupied the central chair found him/herself reflected in the four circular mirrors, which inclined towards one another and inwards towards the platform to create the semblance of a private area. On the first tower, the fifth raised mirror encompassed and reflected the entire scene. The self-reflection prompted by contemplation of one’s self in a mirror was invoked and subsequently undermined as the fifth mirror reflected back the narcissistic scene as a simulacrum of a real event. The fifth mirror, operating as a framing device, was reminiscent of Bacon’s paintings, which often incorporate frames within frames, the persons depicted are enclosed within a pictorial as well as a real frame. The figure is therefore isolated in representation while this self-reflective mechanism furthermore serves to highlight the artificial status of the work of art and undermines any pretensions to mimesis or the notion of the painting as being a window onto another reality. The towers were at once structures of isolation and fortification, metaphors that can easily be applied to the maternal position or the situation of the child. If the mirror stands for the construction of knowledge, it also stands for the construction of the self, as we have seen, through the Lacanian stade du miroir. The thematic sequence of the towers can also be interpreted as representing this stade du miroir. The infant of I Do depends upon the mother’s presence in a symbiotic relationship and identifies him/herself with and through her body. I Undo could symbolize the infant’s move away from the mother as it develops its own sense of a gendered identity and a (false) sense of an integrated self-image. The final tower, I Redo, can be equated with the child’s realignment within the family structure and a new sense of identification with the figure of mother or father, depending on the sex of the child. In Freud’s Oedipal theory, this process signals the transition from the pleasure principle to the reality principle, from the enclosure of the family to society at large. Lacan’s interpretation sees the child moving from the Imaginary stage into the Symbolic order: the pre-given structure of social and sexual roles and relations which make up the family and

The Art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan


society. The integral position of the mirrors in Bourgeois’s towers aligns the infant’s progress more closely with Lacan’s view of the infant as it invests a sense of identity in its own self-image. Paradoxically, the museum visitor climbed the tower in order to look out, to look at the others below but because of the positioning of the mirrors found him/herself locked in self-contemplation, and became, when reflected in the fifth mirror, an integral part of the sculpture. However, the spectator’s experience did not remain a private one; s/he also became the object in the gaze of gallery goers on the first floor of the Tate Modern who could look down onto the sculptures – the participant was simultaneously object and subject. Also, in this way, the association of the towers with structures such as lighthouses becomes apparent: intended both as places to be seen and to see from. The careful placing of the chairs and the mirrors in the towers set up a situation of controlled viewing which is rarely encountered in sculpture. The work of art most noted for this concept is Duchamp’s Etant Donnés (see chapter 1, page 40, footnote 8) where the spectator beholds the installation through a peep-hole in a door. The viewer consequently becomes the uneasy object of a gaze from behind, that of those viewers waiting their turn. The act of viewing becomes the uncomfortable act of voyeurism and the beholder becomes a scopophilic viewer, thus the traditional relationship of an artwork with either a monologic gaze or a dialogic specularity (where the gaze is returned by the figure depicted) is undermined and the equation between the “I” and the sovereign “eye” is subverted. In other words, the viewer is no longer in an anonymous position of authority but becomes, through the artist’s manipulation, part of the artwork that is viewed by others. This again transgresses the Modernist principle of the autonomous artwork and serves to ensure that the artwork becomes less of an autobiographical narrative and more about the way in which self-representation can become the representation of any self. In this case, the participant encounters his/her own reflection and the sculpture becomes the site of encounter with another subjectivity. The sculpture changes its function and thereby, characteristically of the informe, changes its nature as spectators take their turn to climb the spiral staircases.


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

From Informe to Abject In Formless: A User’s Guide, Krauss and Bois take issue with the notion that the informe could ever be associated with the abject. They draw attention to an exhibition that was planned at the same time as their own (the exhibition for which this book operates as a manual). The title of the rival exhibition was to be From the Informe to the Abject. A title that they claim clearly implies the belief that:
If the informe has a destiny that reaches beyond its conceptualization in the 1920s to find its fulfilment and completion within contemporary artistic production, it is in the domain of what is now understood as ‘abjection’ (Krauss and Bois, 1997; 235).

They claim that in contemporary art criticism, there is a danger that the two terms become conflated and they oppose the operational function of the informe to the static, semantic concept of the abject:
The abject-as-intermediary is, in this account, thus a matter of both uncrossable boundaries and undifferentiable substances, which is to say a subject position that seems to cancel the very subject it is operating to locate, and an object relation from which the definability of the object (and thus its objecthood) disappears (ibid; 237).

Krauss engages with Laura Mulvey’s interpretation of Cindy Sherman's recent work, frequently described as abject, and demonstrates that what Mulvey perceives to be abject is, in their definition, informe. What Krauss and Bois choose not to highlight is the crucial slippage in Kristeva’s definition of the abject (they recognize that it is Kristeva’s and not Bataille’s definition of the abject that is currently employed) that is, her distinction between the condition “to be abject” and the process “to abject.” This distinction will become clear in my discussion of Orlan’s work. Here, I would like to propose that the abject can be as operational as the informe and, without wishing to confuse the terms, I shall seek to demonstrate that in the work of Orlan, the second artist in this chapter, the informe becomes abject, and that the abject, if remaining objectifiable, depends upon the informe in order to be represented.

The Art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan


In the 1970s, there was a noticeable shift of emphasis towards what Rosalind Krauss has defined, in an attempt to characterize the pluralistic art of the decade, indexical art. Much art became refocused on the indexical grounding of art in physical presence, on a body, in a site.5 As we have seen, Bourgeois’s work became site-specific through her gallery installations that were conceived for a particular place. This shift was not without its historical precedents (I refer back to my chapter on Duchamp) but it arose out of a general crisis in representation. The move to reground art was urgent in the wake of the serial objects of Minimalism, simulacral images of Pop and demonstrations of Conceptual work. However, it was also prompted by a growing sense of disillusionment with the art market; artists were attracted by the ephemerality of performance and installation art, and its lack of marketability in its stress upon action in time rather on the creation of a finite object. One of the most important catalysts in the development and increasing prevalence of performance and body art was the influence of practicing female artists and a new wave of feminist criticism. Their art demonstrates a return to the body and the social, to the abject and the site-specific. This grounding of art in a real presence, whether the body, a pre-existing site or object, was not confined to feminist practice (indeed Krauss cites specific examples such as Gordon Matta-Clark who made cuts into derelict buildings and Bruce Nauman’s moldings of body parts and marginal spaces), however, it was a crucial site of feminist intervention. Mary Kelly remarked in 1981, in the light of much of the work that arose out of the 1970s, that the specific contribution of feminists, “has been to pose the question of sexual difference across the discourse of the body in a way which focuses on the construction, not of the individual, but of the sexed subject” (Kelly, 1984; 96). However, if much feminist body art of the 1970s posed the question of identity in terms of sexual difference located in the body, there was still the ever-present contradiction between the demand for a rigorous critique of existing codes of the erotic and the desire to produce new and liberating representations for women. Feminist body art seemed sometimes to dangerously run the risk of being reinscribed within old systems of viewing. For example, very divergent performances by

A distinction must be drawn here between the historical tradition of monumental site-specific sculpture and the innovations of the 1970s which led to sculpture that could more descriptively be defined as site-responsive.


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

artists such as Carolee Schneeman, Yoko Ono and Ana Mendieta, with their emphasis upon the body in an attempt to control its objectification, were sometimes misconceived by critics who understood their work to be “essentialist,” that is confirming the binary opposition within a phallocentric order by equating the feminine with the other term in the phallocentric regime. Because of this risk, many artists tended to deconstruct existing representations of women and simultaneously rejected narrative, figuration and illusion in favour of textual strategies, which refused any easy identification between viewer and image. For similar aesthetic reasons, artists also turned away from painting and favoured instead photo-texts, performance and “scripto-visual” media.6 This artistic revolution was later termed “negative aesthetics” because as Laura Mulvey pointed out, if women were to be represented as active desiring agents “the great problem then is how to move on to ‘something new,’ from creative confrontation to creativity” (Mulvey, 1992; 968). One of the ways in which women artists have sought a productive space to investigate the re-presentability of the body is through site-specific and performance art. The spaces and locations of art have been used to explore the relationships between absence and presence, identity and experience. Work that incorporates both spatial and temporal dimensions maps out territories where artists are able to explore the self as an ongoing process of construction in time and place through the operation of memory as well as in the present. Location and time become a means to narrate the self, even if the narrator (the artist) is absent. Even when the artist’s presence in installation or performance art is only referenced indirectly by association or allusion, these “indexical” works insist on the need to situate the practices of making art in relation to a practice of viewing which is also positioned socially and symbolically.


This was also the consequence of attempts to unsettle other traditional binaries such as high versus low art, fine art versus “domestic” craftsmanship.

The Art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan


Part Two
Performing Orlan Orlan is a French artist who began her career as a performance artist in 1964. Her first street performance was in 1965 and for five years, she ran a performance symposium with Hubert Besacier in Lyon. She came to the attention of the international media in 1990 with her Réincarnation project that involves plastic surgery and whose ramifications raise philosophical, social and cultural questions. I shall look in depth at the Réincarnation project through a framework of the abject but first I would like to indicate the traditions from which Orlan arises and the way in which her early performance work situates itself as a natural precursor to her current projects, an aspect that is ignored by many critics. Sarah Wilson has remarked how:
Synchronic, ‘postmodernist’ accounts of Orlan's work today omit its time-impregnated axis which situates it at the crux of the old and the new. The relationship between sex and art, the sacred and the profane is at the heart of the matter; her enthusiastic embrace of technology – ‘le nouveau trompe-l'oeil de notre temps’ as she calls it – is simply the obverse of her relationship with a long tradition (Orlan, 1996; 10).

Orlan’s work, despite its contemporary radicality, is not without precedents in the French tradition from which she emerges. This is demonstrated by Wilson in the article that heads the catalogue Orlan: ceci est mon corps . . . ceci est mon logiciel. Wilson indicates a lineage that stems from Germaine Richier’s sculpture that vilifies the western cult of female beauty, marking the caesura of the second World War, to Niki de Saint Phalle’s evocation of the power of the church, to Gina Pane, who in the 1970s and 1980s practiced her art on her own body. Pane used serial photography and film to record these events, and Wilson highlights the religious resonances of Pane’s work that evoke a “Franciscan attitude to self-abnegation and Sainthood.” Wilson notes that Orlan has also indicated alternative sources of influence, such as Antonin Artaud’s “Theatre of Cruelty,” the Viennese Actionists and American contemporaries like Chris Burden. The way Orlan’s work reaches back within a tradition, interacting


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

with her precedents and how her work evolves as a consequence, allows me to indicate how the informe can be seen to react within the sphere of the abject, and how the latter is not possible without the former. In Gender Trouble, Judith Butler assesses the body in theoretical terms that are useful for a consideration of this argument with reference to Orlan’s early performance work. Butler poses the question of whether there is a shape, cultural or political, that serves to define the body. She points out the Christian and Cartesian precedents, which, prior to the emergence of vitalistic biologies in the nineteenth century, understood the body to be inert matter that either signified nothing or the flesh of the fallen state of mankind. She notes that in the writings of de Beauvoir and Sartre, the body is figured as mute, to which meaning can be attributed only by a transcendent consciousness. In a move away from this Cartesian dualism of mind and body which is redescribed in the structuralist frame as culture and nature, she asks: “How are the contours of the body clearly marked as the taken-for-granted ground or surface upon which gender significations are inscribed, a mere facticity devoid of value, prior to significance?” (Butler, 1990; 129). She takes issue with Foucault in his essay “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History”,7 who argues that there must be a stable and self-identical body prior to its cultural inscription. For Foucault, cultural values emerge as the result of an inscription on the body. The body acts as the medium or blank page that must be destroyed and transfigured in order for “culture” to emerge. Butler also refers to Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger,8 which suggests that the very contours of the body are established through markings that seek to establish specific codes of cultural coherence. Therefore any discourse that seeks to establish the boundaries of the body naturalizes the taboos that serve to define what it is that constitutes the body. Butler interprets Douglas as saying: That what constitutes the limit of the body is never merely material, but that the surface, the skin, is systematically signified by taboos and anticipated transgressions; indeed, the boundaries of the
“Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews by Michel Foucault, trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon, ed. Donald F. Bouchard (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977). 8 Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger, London, Boston and Henley: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969.

The Art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan


body become, within her analysis, the limits of the social per se. A poststructuralist appropriation of her view might well understand the boundaries of the body as the limits of the socially hegemonic (ibid; 131). Butler pursues this argument with reference to AIDS, bodily “pollution” (the meaning of which I shall explore later) and Kristeva’s definition of the abject to demonstrate how binary distinctions are constituted to define the contours of the body; in other words, how the corporeal concepts of “inner” and “outer” consolidate and stabilize the socially inscribed coherent subject. How does Orlan’s performance work challenge the viewer’s preconceptions of the limitations and possibilities of the body? How does the artist not only play with physical boundaries but also ideas of “inner” and “outer” and gender constructs? I would like to propose that Orlan’s work prior to the Réincarnation project, which I will discuss later, already challenges the gendered contours of the body through exploring their social construction and by questioning the notions of inner and outer that Butler raises in her text. Orlan has written:
J'ai toujours considéré mon corps de femme, mon corps de femme-artiste comme étant le matériau privilégié pour la construction de mon oeuvre. Mon travail a toujours interrogé le statut du corps féminin, via les pressions sociales, que ce soit au présent; et dans le passé où j'ai pointé certaines de leurs inscriptions dans l'histoire de l'art. La déclinaison des images possibles de mon corps a traité du problème de l'identité et de l'altérité (Orlan, 1996; 84).

Since her earliest performances, Orlan has sought to unsettle gender binaries, undermine the western canon’s depictions of the female nude and challenge social expectations of conformist behaviour. In 1968, she posed as a series of tableaux vivants, parodying the Venuses of Manet and Velasquez. During French feminist action during the late 1960s and early 1970s, Orlan intervened with placards that declared “Je suis une homme et un femme.” Her subversion of grammar already demonstrates the shifting possibilities of an unstable gender. She became Sainte Orlan in 1971 and wrapped herself in costumes, white leatherette and black vinyl. Much of this work was based around the trousseau left to her by her mother which, in a direct transgression of its traditional purpose, she


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

used as a canvas to record sperm trails left by lovers that she traced with the “womanly” art of embroidery. The sacred and profane have long been enmeshed in Orlan’s work. (This recalls not only Bataille but also Leiris and le sacré discussed in chapter two.) In an event in Lyons in 1976, she was recorded in a series of sixteen photographs performing a striptease. Starting with the image of a baroque Virgin (figure 34), Orlan was draped in the sheets of her trousseau, exposing one breast that suckled a swaddled bundle. As the striptease progressed, Orlan shed her layers, along with their connotations of modesty, sanctity, femininity and maternity, until she was naked. In 1977, at the International Contemporary Art Fair in Paris, she offered the baiser de l’artiste (figure 33) to passing members of the public at a price of five francs. Through highlighting the commercial nature of her gesture, Orlan evoked issues of prostitution, art as commodity, tenderness versus aggression, and exploitation, which she pursued in an exhibition entitled Art et Prostitution in Nice. It was also recorded in a triptych that registered three phases: the solicitation and the kiss, the swallowing and the visible descent of the money through a plastic tube and a plastic pubis that filled with the money. Confrontation with the spectator in order to elicit strong responses was foregrounded in a performance at the Musée S. Ludwig, Aix-la-Chapelle. This work also demonstrates the way in which Orlan’s work has always been theoretically informed. Entitled Etude documentaire: la tête de méduse, this performance involved Orlan showing her genitals to the public through a magnifying glass during menstruation, with half of her pubic hair painted blue. Video monitors showed the heads of spectators arriving, those viewing and those leaving. Freud’s text on the head of the Medusa was handed out to visitors at the exit, which quoted “A la vue de la vulve le diable même s’enfuit” (quoted in Orlan, 1996; 85). An ongoing performance involved the measuring of spaces (their physical and moral parameters) with Orlan’s body as the measuring standard. Over the course of four years, she measured art galleries, including the Pompidou centre, museums and a convent. The ritual involved the process of measuring, the washing of her soiled costume (created herself), and the collection of the water, used in the washing, which was then transferred to containers sealed with wax as relics. Wilson

The Art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan


has noted some of the connotations and reactions provoked by this performance: The Virgin, conceived ‘immaculately,’ without stain, counters the tradition of the bride's display of bloodied linen after the wedding night; we are brought back to the central motif of the trousseau for Orlan. Her ‘measuring’ performances provoked violently sexual reactions: she was spat upon, insulted as a ‘woman of the streets;’ the trial of measurement passes through filth: ‘L’épreuve de la mesure passe par la souillure’ (Orlan, 1996; 10). The first indications of Orlan’s future Incarnation project appeared in an exhibition in Lyons where seven stuffed pillows were suspended from high-tension cables, onto which increasingly large images of Orlan as Ingres’s Grande Odalisque were projected. Orlan wrote: “Volonté d’entrer en lutte avec le mythe / de se mesurer à lui, de le mystifier à son tour / de s’approprier sa légende. En épousant l’oeuvre d’art référentielle, j’en éprouve le narcissisme […] Passer du fait à l’être” (Orlan, 1996; 11). In the same way as she challenged the hierarchical patriarchy of the church, Orlan now turned her attention to the Western canon. In 1990, on her forty-third birthday, Orlan gave a performance that involved the signing of a declaration of intent for her project La Réincarnation de Sainte Orlan. As Orlan has explained, the performance has two titles:
Cette performance a deux titres: Le premier: La réincarnation de Sainte Orlan fait allusion au personnage qui s’était crée petit à petit en endossant les images religieuses de madones, vierges, saintes. Le deuxième titre: image-nouvelles images fait un clin d’oeil aux dieux at déesses hindous qui changent d’apparence pour faire de nouveaux travaux, de nouveaux exploits (il s’agit pour moi de changer de référents de passer de l’iconographie religieuse judéo-chrétienne à la mythologie grecque), chose que je ferai après toutes les opérations. D’autre part ce titre fait allusion aux dites nouvelles images, c’est-à-dire aux nouvelles technologies car je me suis fait une nouvelle image pour produire de nouvelles images (Orlan, 1996; 86).

If the informe is to be found at work in Orlan’s performances, it is surely in the way she seeks to unsettle binary definitions, the traditionally designated forms of art: male/female, high/low art, religious/profane, self/other. In parodying a phallocentric western canon, she both engages with the tradition and maintains a marginal


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

stance, simultaneously interior and exterior to an acknowledged lineage. Her direct challenges to a gendered identity unsettle conventional expectations and situate her work on a fuzzy borderline of transexuality (she is un femme and associates herself with the transexuality of the figures of saints). She exposes the interior of her “real” body to confound the assumption that identity can be associated with an integrated surface image and to present what has been unacceptable in conventional depictions of the female nude. The erotic mixture of the sacred and profane operates in a similar manner to her approach to the tradition of fine art. In stripping away a moral high ground, she injects religious icons with a direct transgressive sexuality, and through bodily invocations of an iconographic ideal of beauty (the Venuses and Odalisques), she marries the mundane with the sacrosanct, the real with the ideal. Butler insists that the notion of performativity must be kept distinct from the notion of performance (she refers to the performances of Vito Acconci). Performance presumes a voluntarist conception of subjectivity according to which we can all theatrically remake or restyle our bodies and identities while performativity contests the very notion of the subject. Therefore if identity is a construct that is performative, according to Butler (that is to say that the gendered body has no ontological status apart from the various acts that constitute its reality), and thereby temporal, then Orlan’s work represents a microcosm of coming-into-being. With reference to homosexuality, Butler discusses the vulnerability of bodily margins: “If the body is synecdochal for the social system per se or a site in which open systems converge, then any kind of unregulated permeability constitutes a site of pollution and endangerment” (Butler, 1990; 132). Butler maintains that the construction of stable bodily contours relies upon fixed sites of corporeal permeability and impermeability and she suggests that those sexual practices that challenge the hegemonic order effectively reinscribe the boundaries of the body along new cultural lines. Indeed, challenging the heterosexual construction of gendered exchange “disrupts the very boundaries that determine what it is to be a body at all” (ibid; 133). I would argue that this is one of the principal aims of Orlan’s work. However, rather than directly challenging the notion of compulsory heterosexuality, Orlan confronts the rigidity of binary gender and its policing of the body. Starting with the blank canvas of the naked

The Art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan


body, she exposes and undermines social expectations of its potential and re-inscribes its boundaries by changing its shape, altering its possibilities and consequently challenging our notion of the subject. Abject Alienation If Orlan’s early work explores the possibility for the construction of an identity over and in time by exploring and representing concepts of inner and outer, deconstructing gender binaries and recreating sexed identities, her more recent work also explores notions of inner and outer but this time the work comes closer to Butler’s formulation of permeability and impermeability. La Réincarnation de Sainte Orlan does not so much disrupt the boundaries of the body as much as render them obsolete. Butler demonstrates how Kristeva’s formulation of the abject suggests the uses of this structuralist notion of a boundary-constituting taboo for the purposes of constructing a discrete subject through exclusion. The “abject” designates that which has been expelled or discharged from the body and rendered “Other.” The abject is not only alien to the subject but also intimate with it. This intimacy is characterized as overproximity and therefore produces panic in the subject. Hal Foster in The Return of the Real, indicates how:
The abject touches on the fragility of our boundaries, the fragility of the spatial distinction between our insides and outsides as well as of the temporal passage between the maternal body (again the privileged realm of the abject) and the paternal law (Foster, 1996; 153).

Therefore, both spatially and temporally, abjection is a condition in which subjecthood is troubled and where meaning collapses. Butler concludes that the expulsion of the abject allows the subject to establish the contours of the body by constructing an alien Other, the “not-me.” She describes how the boundary of the body, as well as the distinction between internal and external, is “established through the ejection and transvaluation of something originally part of identity into a defiling otherness” (Butler, 1990; 133). Butler uses the definition of the abject to question the validity of terms such as inner and outer, revealing how they make sense only with reference to a mediating boundary that strives for stability. In other words, if we


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

accept the terms of inner and outer, we constitute a binary distinction that stabilizes and consolidates the coherent subject. The abject, according to Butler, consolidates this fantasy by constructing an alien other, against which the subject defines its impermeable external border. However, the moment of expulsion, the creation of the abject, is what interests me here as it threatens to explode this binary definition, as the inner literally becomes the outer. When the coherence of the subject is challenged, the meaning and necessity of these terms becomes vulnerable to displacement: “If the ‘inner world’ no longer designates a topos, then the internal fixity of the self and, indeed, the internal locale of gender identity, become suspect” (ibid; 134). In other words, the informe is always already at work on the margins of the abject; the informe is present when form and borders are at the point of dissolution. As I have already indicated, the crucial ambiguity in Kristeva’s formulation is the slippage between the operation “to abject” and the condition “to be abject.” “To abject” is to expel, to get rid of what is unacceptable to the self; “to be abject” is to be repulsive, unsure of one’s coherence as a subject. For Kristeva, as for Butler, the operation to abject is necessary for the maintenance of the subject as well as society while the condition to be abject is corrosive and threatening. According to Butler, when the subject abjects what is unacceptable in order to define him/herself against an alien other, the subject is colluding in a fantasy that maintains that a coherent subject is a viable and desirable possibility. In modernist writing, Kristeva views abjection as conservative, even defensive. Her example demonstrates that even writers such as Louis-Ferdinand Céline sublimate and purify the abject. So is the abject disruptive of subjective and social orders, or a confirmation of them? To what extent does Orlan’s project of the 1990s transgress binary distinctions and terms of symbolic difference, or in its horror-filled content, merely offer provocation that allows the viewer to walk away, reassured and reconfirmed in their coherent subjecthood? Abject art does not only belong to the domain of selfrepresentation but, as the Whitney Museum exhibition on abject art demonstrated in 1993, covers many social and cultural preoccupations. According to the authors of the museum catalogue, Abject Art: Repulsion and Desire in American Art, abject art became the oppositional art form of the 1990s. It encodes the traditional stance

The Art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan


of the avant-garde, which positions itself outside the mainstream and seeks to flout artistic and social conventions:
Although ‘abject art’ is a play on ‘object art,’ the term does not connote an art movement so much as it describes a body of work which incorporates or suggests abject materials such as dirt, hair, excrement, dead animals, menstrual blood, and rotting food in order to confront taboo issues of gender and sexuality. This work also includes abject subject matter – that which is deemed inappropriate by a conservative, dominant culture (Levi, 1993).

Its very classification as the oppositional art form suggests its accepted and necessary position in both the art world and society as the rebel that reconfirms the hegemonic order through its oppositional stance. However, where abject art offers an interesting and powerful critique is in the domain of self-representation and the ways in which artists are currently seeking to present a self or identity. As I have demonstrated so far, Orlan’s early performance work marks a move away from the figuration of identity as an integral whole. Now I would like to turn to an analysis of La Réincarnation de Sainte Orlan, a project that combines notions of the temporal and performative in her identity construction with an emphasis on the abject in the literal manipulation of her bodily contours. Orlan’s project since the beginning of the 1990s involves repeated operations of plastic surgery that are intended to shape her body in ways which conform to her sense of her own identity. She thus becomes a living portrait, using flesh and blood rather than canvas and paint to create a likeness. In her manifesto, published on her website, she calls her work carnal art and situates it within the tradition of self-portraiture:
L’Art Charnel est un travail d’autoportrait au sens classique, mais avec des moyens technologiques qui sont ceux de son temps. Il oscille entre défiguration et refiguration. Il s’inscrit dans la chair parce que notre époque commence à en donner la possibilité. Le corps devient un ‘ready-made modifié’ car il n’est plus ce readymade idéal qu’il suffit de signer” (Manifeste de l’Art Charnel, Internet).

Orlan’s work, and its connotations with a sort of social sadomasochism and corporeal alteration, often uses violent imagery that elicits strong emotional and physical responses. In this, her present work has clearly evolved from her early performances, which also


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

sought to bring about direct psychic and emotional responses in the spectator. Her use of plastic surgery both alludes to a cultural norm of feminine beauty (through its conventional associations and purpose) and transgresses it, by enacting rituals of pain on the body through cutting and dismemberment. Its shock value derives from the sight of a woman who “remodels” her face and flesh through her own action or by surgery. Orlan’s work has been associated with cyber-feminism because of its links to the technologies of plastic surgery and the way she has packaged herself as a product in CD Rom form. Ideas about cyber-feminism refer to the potential for future spaces, opened up through science and technology, in which images of femininity and masculinity would be so altered as to be devoid of binary meaning, indicating a loss of any sense of a natural or essential body.9 However, Orlan’s recent project appears to confirm rather than destroy gendered distinctions as her self-image relies upon a variety of western icons of female beauty. Since the beginning of the 1990s, the surgery that Orlan has undergone alters her facial features to conform to a composite of images from the Western art canon of five famous Renaissance and post-Renaissance representations of idealized feminine beauty. There are many problematic ramifications to Orlan’s project that are significant to debates about women artists and the representation of female corporeality and which have been commented on by critics. Rosemary Betterton has observed: Like the story of the ugly sister in Cinderella who cuts off her toes in order to fit the slipper or the Little Mermaid who walks on knives in Hans Andersen’s story, mutilation of the flesh stands as a powerful negative message that female desire can only be achieved through pain. Cosmetic surgery is ambivalent in its assertion, on the one hand, that we have the freedom to transform our bodies as given in nature, and on the other, that such self-mutilation inscribes a cultural ideal (Betterton, 1996; 147-8). Orlan has stressed that this is not a project in the search of beauty. She claims to have chosen the five beauties as much for their

See, for example, Donna Haraway’s essay “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century” in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, New York and London: Routledge, 1991, pp.151-163.

The Art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan


particular mythological or historical importance as for their physical attributes. Although Orlan thereby refutes any narcissistic investment in her project, the historical and mythological connotations remain important iconographic issues. For example, she chose the nose of a sculpture of Diana because the goddess was aggressive and refused to submit to the will of gods and men; she chose the forehead of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa because of its androgyny and the chin of Botticelli’s Venus because of her desire for love and spiritual beauty. Each operation that Orlan has undergone is expected to change a specific feature of her physiognomy, and she generates computer images for the surgeons to follow. That her features are drawn from different styles and periods effectively demonstrates that the concept of “natural beauty” is a question of history and fashion, a discursive construct. Currently, her appearance is in defiance of cultural codes of beauty, especially since the forehead implants that were intended to replicate the appearance of the Mona Lisa’s brow, and that are commonly referred to in the press as Orlan’s horns. As Philip Auslander has pointed out, the fact that Orlan’s unconventional physiognomy is the result not of defiance of her culture’s standards but, rather, of an effort to conform to canonical models of beauty is an irony that cannot be ignored: “The work’s critical edge derives from the failure of the subject to become the desired image” (Auslander, 1997; 131). Paradoxically, the combination of five “beauties” has resulted in the creation of a grotesque mask, highlighting the way in which physiognomy, rather than revealing the subject, operates as a masking or a masquerade of identity. Sculpting Identity The project, La Réincarnation de Sainte Orlan, in itself as well as its various forms of documentation, is open to multiple readings in relation to questions of femininity, social taboos, private and public domains, the limits of art and self-portraiture and the commodification of women. Orlan has eliminated the distance between artist and object in representation and undermines many of the senses of self-portraiture that depend upon this critical distance by using her own body as the blank canvas and confronting in the most direct way possible the concept of woman as an object in representation. However, by rendering herself redundant as practising


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

artist, she places the medical establishment, in particular the doctors who operate on her, in the position of artists by proxy. Therefore she objectifies herself with regard to them by offering up her flesh as the raw material from which they fashion an image of femininity. The way in which her work is documented (her operations are shown on video screens in galleries and exhibited in photographic format) also does not exclude her from objectification with regards to the art market and its audience. By engaging in this project, Orlan has demonstrated her own investment in the images of female beauty that have been enshrined by the western art tradition and has established a form of control over her own self-image which allows her to accede to the power of that image and her investment. As Marsha Meskimmon has indicated, this control could be similar to the pathological control which is akin to eating disorders and other self-damaging behaviour that is undertaken by disempowered individuals struggling to maintain some sort of selfcontrol. Meskimmon observes:
The issue of control in the Orlan project is crucial because it alters the subject/object relationship in the work. If she can be said to control the project, it could be a dynamic response to the technological possibilities available to people in the late twentieth century and the concepts of excessive femininity as masquerade. If, however, Orlan is the material of surgeons and the art establishment, her work is little more than a radical restaging of the traditional disempowerment of women in our society (Meskimmon, 1996; 127).

Orlan herself has stressed that these are not masochistic performances but interventions into the technological reworking of the human body. Orlan’s refusal to play the role of the passive patient is important and undeniable. She is an active participant and the surgeons are as much performers in her theatre of operations as she is the object performed upon. While she cannot reverse the power relations that necessitate her being the object of the surgeon’s knife, the surgeons are as inscribed in her artistic discourse as she is inscribed within the medical discourse. Her project, in all its complications, re-emphasizes the difficulties of women artists who attempt to come into self-representation through reappropriating femininities which operate within a patriarchal system.

The Art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan


While Orlan’s project demonstrates very literally Butler’s theory of identity as performative (action and transformation with their material consequences are clearly in process), it also comes close to demonstrating Butler’s refinement of her theory as explained in Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” In Bodies that Matter, Butler suggests that gender identity is an impossible goal that can never be fully realised. It is a performance whose fault-line lies in its incorporated knowledge of its own constructed nature. Orlan’s project is interminable; it has no stated goal or end-point (she does not know how many operations she will undertake and has envisaged further identity-changing processes that will extend beyond the physical element). Contrary to the conventions of plastic surgery where surgeons display images of before and after to persuade potential clients of the perfect transformations they can achieve, Orlan uses the technology of plastic surgery in ways that challenge the rhetoric of the stable self, the ideal self that cosmetic surgery is advertised to reveal, and that is, therefore, intrinsic to surgical discourse. The surgeon’s publicity images allude to a hidden process which produces a static result, images of Orlan during and post operation refuse the notion of an image frozen in time and space and suggest instead a definition that foregrounds process and change. Rather than being the means by which an inner identity achieves its appropriate external manifestation, Orlan’s use of plastic surgery exposes a self for which identity is mutable, suspended, en-procès. The reason that Orlan’s project has gained so much media attention (that rarely makes any reference to her work as a performance artist prior to the 1990 project, despite a career that has spanned thirty years) is perhaps not to be understood as a result of the critique she is making on plastic surgery, feminine beauty or identity but in the effect it has on its spectators. This effect derives precisely from Kristeva’s observations on how morphology is constituted, the inner and outer, permeable and impermeable. Central to Orlan’s project are the video projections of her operations, which are screened worldwide in various galleries. The time in between operations is dedicated to exhibitions derived from this performance: reliquaries are made out of bottling the fat that is extracted from her body during liposuction, blood-soaked gauze is exhibited alongside photographs of Orlan in the stages of recovery. This ties in with her early work and its references to religious iconography, martyrdom and religious relics.


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

Sarah Wilson has indicated the religious implications of the operation performance, recorded in the photographs:
The Sandra Gering gallery exhibited forty one pairs of computer composite photos paired with photos of recovery, equivalent to forty exhibition days (Orlan in the wilderness) plus a final face created with morphing software, and in addition reliquaries of human flesh in resin, and Dr Cramer’s operating outfit–a displaced, empty shroud. It was a Passion Play for our times, with all the drame, mystery and anxiety generated by surgical procedure, followed by the triumphant resurrection of unscarred Flesh (Orlan, 1996; 13).

Orlan challenges the logic of a system (western art) that privileges form over matter. By filming the process by which her physical image changes, Orlan reveals the informe becoming abject, a site of intervention, the borderline between inner and outer. During her operations, Orlan reads from carefully chosen texts: a passage from Lemoine-Luccioni’s book on dress, La Robe, extracts from Michel Serres, Artaud’s Corps sans organes, and the well-known passage from Kristeva’s Pouvoirs de l’horreur on what constitutes the abject. These texts are important to Orlan’s performance as they frame it within a literary, psychoanalytic and theoretical exploration, establishing the control she exerts over her project and situating it for her viewers. As she explains in her manifesto: “L’Art Charnel transforme le corps en langue et renverse le principe chrétien du verbe qui se fait chair au profit de la chair faite verbe; seule la voix d’Orlan restera inchangée, l’artiste travaille sur la representation” (Manifeste de l’Art Charnel, Internet). However, the contents of the texts have often been denigrated by critics who attach more importance to the act of reading, to the voice that maintains a monologue throughout the clearly painful operations. This is partly due to Orlan’s claim that she feels her voice captures and expresses her “self” better than her physiognomy ever did, and partly due to the necessary importance of her role as conscious agent. Parveen Adams has written:
What is important is not meaning but articulation. Orlan’s voice carries on through all the vicissitudes of the operation. Perhaps neither she nor the spectator actually follows the meaning. It doesn't matter. In a sense her reading is a resolute turning away from the body at the very moment when it is critically involved in

The Art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan
surgery. It is a way of ignoring her body . . . If this use of the voice works, it is because it divorces her from meaning and designates her. It is the hypnotic quality of the voice and not what it is saying that matters (Orlan, 1996; 69).


However, I contend that the passages that she reads, Kristeva’s in particular, indicate the reasons for which her performances are so difficult to behold. In a recently published paper, Kate Ince observes that Orlan’s readings refer doubly, both to Orlan’s body and to the aims and implications of the Réincarnation project. She demonstrates how Orlan’s readings are performative, referring to Butler’s claim that “there is no reference to a pure body which is not at the same time a further formation of that body” (Butler quoted in Ince, 1999; 66). I would argue that in Orlan’s performance, no element takes precedence over another nor can be separated from the spectacle as a whole. The texts are an integral part to the performance in the same way as the question and answer sessions that she holds with her video audience or the importance of the costumes, worn even by the surgeons, and the all-pervasive element of the carnivalesque (see figure 36). However, I believe that Kristeva’s text is crucial to an understanding of the audience’s response to Orlan’s show, wherein lies the meaning of her work. The video installations of Orlan’s operations and the exhibition of the work which results from them demonstrates how the fetishized surface of the female body is opened to reveal its disturbing interior; the work demonstrates a progression from the exterior, which masks the horror of abject matter, to the interior of the body. From the tradition of the fine art nude where the unregulated sexual body is repressed in order to maintain the unity and integrity of the viewing subject (that is, the perfect female body representing the object of desire for the heterosexual male spectator), Orlan’s work has evolved in a way that does not so much elude the objectifying gaze as expose its profoundly fetishistic structure. Orlan’s operations embody the slippage of the abject as they reveal the division between surface allure and its concealed horror. The nature of her work exposes the body as a problematic site that disrupts normative assumptions about self and identity. The disturbing power of Orlan’s work lies in its ability to have an impact on more than the cerebral register. The shudders of


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

disgust, anticipation, horror and fascination that her work incites in her audience are violent physical responses. Orlan insists that the operation is shown live as it is the moment at which the body is cut open; the body is the material with which she is working and the content of her work is in its very process and progress. Orlan denies that she experiences any pain during her operations, despite only having a local anaesthetic for procedures which usually require a general anaesthetic. This is a point that she emphasizes in her manifesto, claiming that it distinguishes her Art Charnel from Body Art:
Contrairement au ‘Body Art’ dont il se distingue, l’Art Charnel ne désire pas la douleur, ne la recherche pas comme source de purification, ne la conçoit pas comme Rédemption. L’Art Charnel ne s'intéresse pas au résultat plastique final, mais à l'opérationchirurgicale-performance et au corps modifié, devenu lieu de débat public (Manifeste de l’Art Charnel, Internet).

Orlan describes what she experiences as discomfort and claims that it pales to insignificance beside the pain of childbirth. That Orlan denies any pain is ambivalent and perhaps unsettling in the context of a defence of her work as feminist, it does however run against the tradition in body art, where performers have emphasized the pain they undergo in performances in order to stress their artistic credibility. The denial corresponds to Orlan’s desire not to represent the body’s material presence as irreducible but rather contingent and malleable. It also serves a further purpose when Orlan turns to her audience and says – you are about to see videos which will make you suffer. Orlan displaces her pain onto the suffering of her audience. Orlan’s work undoes the work of representation. During the operation, her face is partially detached from her head, a tube is inserted to separate the skin from the flesh and the surgeon’s finger follows, gradually the face becomes pure exteriority and the camera shows the red bloody mass behind the skin (see figure 35). The face no longer projects an illusion of depth and in revealing that behind the image there is nothing, Orlan disturbs one fundamental illusion about the inner and the outer, that the body can no longer be understood as representing the self, or the face as being the locus of identity, because

The Art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan


the face is an appearance without essence.10 In her exploration of this fragile borderline, Orlan abjects matter that is difficult to behold. In the eyes of the audience, during this process, she becomes abject. The subversive power of her performance lies in her simultaneous personification of Kristeva’s two terms. Her operation destroys the distinction between inner and outer, her body becomes permeable as the surgeon’s knife manipulates its contours. The artefacts that Orlan places in exhibitions of her work, including the bodily matter that I have described previously, can safely be qualified as a form of abject art. Yet once this matter is detached from the body, it becomes inert and consequently less threatening. It is precisely in the collision of the process of abjecting with the abject figure that lies the subversive potential of Orlan’s live performance. Confronting the abject incites panic in the viewer; it puts the viewing subject’s sense of unified self into crisis. Barbara Creed has drawn on Kristeva in an analysis of horror films. In referring to those moments when the spectator is forced to look away, she writes that in this instance:
Strategies of identification are temporarily broken, as the spectator is constructed in the place of horror, the place where the sight/site can no longer be endured, the place where pleasure in looking is transformed into pain and the spectator is punished for his/her voyeuristic desires. Confronted by the sight of the monstrous, the viewing subject is put into crisis — boundaries, designed to keep the abject at bay, threaten to disintegrate, collapse (Creed, 1993; 137).

The meaning of Orlan’s work lies in the process of continually destroying and rebuilding her identity. This simultaneously calls into question the identity of the viewer. Conclusion In this chapter, I have tried to demonstrate the way in which two very different artists have come to terms with self-representation.

The psychoanalytic implications of Orlan’s project, dealing with issues of inside and outside and relating them to Lacan, anxiety and lack, is explored in Parveen Adams’s “Operation Orlan” (Orlan, 1996).



The Body as Medium and Metaphor

Bourgeois’s sculpture manifests the interruption of binary distinctions and a new mapping of gendered morphology that frees up relations between artwork and viewer for an alternative construction of identity. Orlan’s performance work demonstrates how an artist moved away from the fascination with surface to concentrate on the construction of an identity through time. Her work, focused in on the human body, also betrays the move back towards the indexical sign and an attempt to ground the referent in a temporal reality. The way in which Orlan’s performance work revels in the sensual potential of the body testifies to its historical context but, I would argue, it also paves the way for much contemporary art which is situated in the real; a current “real” that is situated in the abject or traumatized body. Hal Foster has indicated some of the reasons for this preoccupation in the work of contemporary artists:
There is dissatisfaction with the textualist model of culture as well as the conventionalist view of reality — as if the real, repressed in poststructuralist postmodernism, had returned as traumatic. Then, too, there is disillusionment with the celebration of desire as an open passport of a mobile subject – as if the real, dismissed by a performative postmodernism, were marshalled against the imaginary world of a fantasy captured by consumerism (Foster, 1996; 166).

He also relates this interest to recent social phenomena such as AIDS, the destroyed welfare state, poverty and crime. He observes that the diseased or damaged body is the evidentiary witness or testimonial to certain truths. He also indicates the danger of designating the abject body as the site of truth as it risks becoming a point of alterity pushed to nihilism. Nevertheless, on the other hand, in popular culture, trauma is treated as an event that guarantees the subject, and in this psychologistic register: “the subject, however disturbed, rushes back as witness, testifier, survivor […] In trauma discourse, then, the subject is evacuated and elevated at once” (ibid; 168). In Bourgeois’s part-objects, the artist becomes an absentee authority that challenges the experience of the viewing subject. If Orlan’s recent work seeks to tackle two contradictory imperatives, deconstructive analyses and identity politics, suggesting that the self must be destroyed in order to be represented, that contiguity rather than mimesis represents the contours of the self, it also exemplifies a strange rebirth of the author. Orlan’s project witnesses the return of

The Art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan


the real converging with the return of the referential. This is not the referential as we knew it, static and authoritative, this referential is subject to metamorphosis, process and change. Bourgeois and Orlan have contributed to a body of work that rethinks the morphology of the subject, which contests the very notion of the self and how it is to be represented. By tracing the fault-lines of the self through reference to the informe and the abject, these artists expose the falsity of a naturalized, coherent subject and search for a means of expressing the multiplicity of their lived experience.

Throughout this study, I have referred to the intersubjective nature of self-representation, which I defined in the introduction as an insistence upon the contingency of the self of the artist/writer on that of the interpreter of the work. As I have demonstrated, the intersubjectivity of these encounters, between artwork and viewer, text and reader, instantiates the decentring and dispersal of the Cartesian subject of modernism. The Cartesian tradition taught us to juxtapose thought and body, and to purge them of all ambiguity – in abandoning this tradition we reinstate the embodied subject as one who is always already intentionally related to the world in some measure. The work I have chosen to focus upon exemplifies instances of this profound shift in the conception and experience of subjectivity that has occurred over the last century. While self-representation is not the only arena where this shift has been manifested, self-writing and self-portraiture are necessarily paradigmatic of this change as the originary subject was, and often still is, presumed to be revealed by the work. I have sought to show how the work that I have chosen, rather than revealing a subject, creates and constructs that subject. I have highlighted the position of the body as the locus of this dispersed self and as a marker of the subject’s place in the social and artistic arenas. The selfrepresentations I have examined propose that the subject comes about always in relationship to others and the locus of identity lies elsewhere. The body, as represented in these works, is not an unmediated repository of selfhood or subjectivity, it only acquires meaning through its contextualization within certain codes of identity: interventions and interactions by and with others. For those who wish to privilege self-representation for its merging of art and life, who envisage the unique body of the artist as self-contained in intention and authority, the body must be conceived of as an unmediated reflection of the self. Rather, I have shown how self-representation problematizes the ontological coherence of the body. The relation to the self entails reciprocity and contingency as an embodied experience


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

of subjectivity involves being, simultaneously, both object and subject. I have sought to show how the apparent narcissism of selfrepresentation, for example, Leiris’s misgivings expressed in his preface to L’Âge d’Homme or Orlan’s fixation on her own body, is, while remaining an exploration of the self, dependent upon an exploration of the other. Duchamp’s self-portrait implicates the viewer, as do Bourgeois’s autobiographical Towers, while Leiris projects and formulates an identity around pre-existing mythological figures and Bacon interacts with a tradition of historical selfportraiture. The narcissism of self-representation is a projection of the internal structures of identification outwards, interconnecting the internal and external self as well as the self and other. Rosalind Krauss has argued, “identity […] is primarily fused with identifications (a felt connection to someone else)” (Krauss, 1985; 197), while Butler has indicated that the narcissistic imaginary by which the subject constitutes itself, produces the body as the image of the other: “The specular image of the body itself is in some sense the image of the Other” (Butler, 1993; 76). The work that I have focused on splinters rather than coheres the self. Instead of assuring the pre-social coherence of the self or subjectivity, these self-representations enact narcissism as contingency. However, while these works seem to describe the destabilization of the subject and the interconnectedness of self and other, subjectivity remains embedded in the materiality of the body. Subjectivity is neither decorporealized or made transcendent but is enacted through the body. As Noël, Prassinos and Orlan demonstrate, the body is no longer objectified or fixed (indeed, in Le 19 Octobre 1977, the body no longer exists as a set of definable contours but as a sensory receptacle) but enacted through particular relations of production and reception. I do not propose that the works that I have drawn on, in terms of reception, can be seen to mean anything or everything, but rather that these texts and images have a range of potential meanings that are linked and relative to the contexts of their production, display and interpretation. However much autonomy a particular reader/viewer may have, or assume to have, in front of a painting/text, according to this theory, subjectivity is always produced at least by the interaction between the “I” of the work and the “you” this “I” addresses. Meaning is located not only in the dialectic



between artwork and viewer but also in the dialectic of the past and present of the work. My concluding study of the work of Orlan is exemplary of the way in which artists are now enacting the dispersed subject of the contemporary era and indicative of the future directions that selfrepresentation may take in the visual arts. Severing the link between bodily appearance and self-identity, Orlan constructs herself through technologies of representation as well as medical technology, to produce herself, as Amelia Jones describes, as “posthuman” (Jones, 1998; 227). Orlan’s body is experienced both by herself and her audience in and through technology. While refocusing attention back onto an embodied subjectivity, Orlan paradoxically seems to be disembodied via high-tech media. Amelia Jones observes how this apparent contradiction characterizes much contemporary art:
Seemingly paradoxically, given the conventional association of technology with disembodiment and disengagement from the world, recent body-oriented practices have increasingly mobilized and highlighted this reversibility, using the artists’ own body/self as both subject and object, as multiplicitous, particular, and unfixable, and engaging with audiences in increasingly interactive ways (Jones, 1998; 239).

While technological and media innovations are rapidly and more clearly absorbed into the sphere of visual arts and are sometimes slower to appear in literature, the consequences of these innovations and the implications they hold for the ways in which we conceive of our subjectivity, inevitably spill over into textual form. In the last chapter of French Autobiography, Michael Sheringham looks at recent innovations in autobiographical writing and examines how certain writers have incorporated the visual aspect of memory into their texts, either through the literal use of images or their indirect transcription. He observes, “For a majority of Westerners in our time photographs are the most telling and evocative tokens of the individual past […] photographs have come to play a prominent part in modern autobiography” (Sheringham, 1993; 315). Looking in particular at Roland Barthes, Marguerite Duras and Paul Auster, Sheringham examines how, for these writers, the photograph is an emanation of the real and how it can be used to circumvent or to


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

highlight the vulnerability of the process of remembering by making it manifest within the text. If, as Sheringham observes, contemporary autobiographers are turning increasingly towards a visual aesthetic in order to inscribe their identity, then this goes some way towards demonstrating, not only the concerns surrounding the problematic status of the self and how this can be expressed textually, but also the interplay between genres that this thesis has attempted to encapsulate and express. My comparative approach has been an attempt to highlight the profoundly intertextual nature of self-representation. While visual arts and literature remain distinct art forms with their own set of internal and generic rules, I have revealed here, partly by concentrating on writers who are driven by a visual aesthetic, the extent to which visual art and the written text are motivated by mutual concerns. Leiris and Bacon demonstrate clearly an exchange of influences; Leiris perceived in Bacon’s painting the moment of le sacré that he desired to capture in his writing while Bacon was aware of and responded to, amongst other interests, the Surrealist legacy of le hasard. Noël and Prassinos demonstrate how a visual aesthetic can be brought to bear upon a text, resulting in the instigation of radical innovations in prose writing. Orlan, similarly to Duchamp, uses words and text to expand and diffuse the frame of her visual art. These artists and writers locate the body and vision as sites of interaction and interplay between literature and visual art in ways that destabilize generic hierarchies and continue to call into question the nature of the subject.

Chapter One Adcock, C. Marcel Duchamp’s Notes from the Large Glass, An NDimensional Analysis Epping, Bowker Publishing Company, 1983 Barthes, R. Critique et Vérité Paris, Seuil, 1966 Barthes, R. L’Obvie et l’obtus Paris, Seuil, 1982 Barthes, R. La Chambre Claire Paris, Gallimard/Seuil, 1980 Barthes, R. Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes Paris, Seuil, 1975 Benjamin, W. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” trans. H. Zohn in Illuminations London, Jonathon Cape, 1970 Bourdieu, P. Les Règles de l’Art: Genèse et Structure du Champ Littéraire Paris, Seuil, 1992 Bryson, N. Tradition and Desire: From David to Delacroix Cambridge, Cambridge Uni. Press, 1984 Bürger, P. Theory of the Avant-Garde trans. M. Shaw, Manchester, Manchester Uni. Press, 1984 Chevreul, E. Théorie des effets optiques que présentent les étoffes de soie Paris, Firmin Didot frères, 1846 D’Harnoncourt, A. and Mcshine, K. (ed.s) Marcel Duchamp New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1973 Dällenbach, L. The Mirror in the Text trans. J. Whiteley, Cambridge, Polity and Blackwell, 1989 de Duve, T. Kant after Duchamp Cambridge, Mass. MIT Press, 1996 de Duve, T. The Definitively Unfinished Marcel Duchamp Cambridge, Mass. MIT Press, 1991 de Man, P. “Autobiography as De-facement” in Modern Language Notes, 94 1979 Derrida, J. La Vérité en Peinture Paris, Flammarion, 1978 Duchamp, M. Duchamp du Signe, Ecrits réunis et présentés par Michel Sanouillet Paris, Flammarion, 1975


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

Duchamp, M. Ingénieur du Temps Perdu, entretiens avec Pierre Cabanne Paris, Editions Pierre Belfond, 1967 Frascina, F. and J. Harris (eds) Art in Modern Culture: an Anthology of Critical Texts London, Phaidon, 1992 Goldfarb Marquis, A. Marcel Duchamp: The Bachelor Stripped Bare. A Biography Boston, MFA Publications, 2002 Gough-Cooper, J. Ephemerides on and about Marcel Duchamp and Rrose Sélavy, 1887 – 1968 Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993 Greenberg, C. The Collected Essays and Criticism ed. J. O’Brian, Chicago, Chicago UP, 1993 Jay, M. Downcast Eyes: the Denigration of Vision in Twentieth Century French Thought California, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1993 Jay, P. Being in the Text: Self-Representation from Wordsworth to Barthes Ithaca, Cornell UP, 1984 Jencks, C. What is Post-Modernism? London, Academy Editions, 1996 Jones, A. Postmodernism and the En-gendering of Marcel Duchamp Cambridge, Cambridge Uni. Press, 1994 Judowitz, D. “Rendez-vous with Marcel Duchamp: Given” Dada/Surrealism, 16 1987 Judowitz, D. Unpacking Duchamp: Art in Transit Uni. of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California, 1995 Krauss, R. "Notes on the index, Part 1" in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, Cambridge, Mass. and London, MIT Press, 1985 Kuenzli, R. and Naumann, F. (ed.s) Marcel Duchamp: Artist of the Century Cambridge, Mass. MIT Press, 1987 Lejeune, P. Je est un autre: l’autobiographie, de la littérature aux médias Paris, Seuil, 1980 Lejeune, P. Le Pacte autobiographique Paris, Seuil, 1975 Lyotard, J. Les Transformateurs Duchamp Paris, Editions Galilée, 1977 Lyotard, La Condition Postmoderne Paris, Les Editions de Minuit, 1979 Meskimmon, M. The Art of Reflection London, Scarlet Press, 1996 Paz, O. Marcel Duchamp, Appearance Stripped Bare trans. R. Phillips and D. Gardner, New York, Viking Press, 1978



Rosenberg, H. “The Mona Lisa Without a Mustache: Art in the Media Age” in Art News 75 no.5, May 1976, pp. 47 - 50 Schapiro, M. “On Some Problems in the Semiotics of Visual Art: Field and Vehicle in Image-Signs” in Semiotica vol. 1, The Hague, 1969 Shattuck, R. The Innocent Eye: On Modern Literature and the Arts New York, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1984 Sheringham, M. French Autobiography: Devices and Desires Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1993 Tomkins, C. Marcel Duchamp, a Biography London, Chatto and Windus, 1997 Woodall, J. Portraiture: Facing the Subject Manchester, Manchester UP, 1997

Chapter Two
Aragon, L. “Une Vague de Rêves” in Commerce II, automne 1924 Aragon, L. Le Traité du Style Paris, Gallimard, 1980 Barthes, R. L’Empire des Signes Genève, Flammarion, 1980 Beaujour, M. Miroirs d’encre: Rhétorique de l’autoportrait Paris, Seuil, 1980 Benjamin, W. “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” in Illuminations, London, 1973 Breton, A. “Manifeste du Surréalisme, 1924” in Oeuvres Complètes 1 Paris, Gallimard, 1988 de Man, P. “Autobiography as De-facement” in Modern Language Notes 94, 1979 de Man, P. Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism Minnesota, 1983 Foucault, M. L’Histoire de la Sexualité Paris, Gallimard, 1984 Freud, S. “The Uncanny” (1919) in The Standard Edition of Complete Psychological Works, xvii trans. James Strachey, London, Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1953 - 1974 Gage, J. Goethe on Art London, Scolar Press, 1980 Gombrich, E. H. A Propos Portrait Painting London, 1945 Lacan, J. Ecrits Paris, Editions du Seuil, 1966 Leiris, M. “45, rue Blomet” in Zébrage Paris, Gallimard, 1992 Leiris, M. “Alberto Giacometti” in Documents 4, septembre 1929


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

Leiris, M. “Bacon le hors-la-loi” in Fourbis Paris, Gallimard,1989 Leiris, M. André Masson Rouen, Imprimerie Wolf, 1940 Leiris, M. Biffures Paris, Gallimard, 1948 Leiris, M. Brisées Paris, Gallimard, 1968 Leiris, M. Fourbis Paris, Gallimard, 1955 Leiris, M. Francis Bacon Paris, Albin Michel, 1983 Leiris, M. Journal 1922 - 1989 édition établie par Jean Jamin, Paris, Gallimard, 1992 Leiris, M. La Peinture est plus forte que moi Leiris, M. L’Age d’Homme Paris, Gallimard, 1995 Leiris, M. Miroir de la Tauromachie Montpellier, Fata Morgana, 1981 Leiris, M. Portraits Maubon, C. Michel Leiris: en marge de l’autobiographie Paris, J. Corti, 1994 Mitchell, W. J. T. Iconology: image, text, ideology Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1986 Olney, J. Autobiography: essays theoretical and critical Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1980 Sheringham, M. French Autobiography: Devices and Desires Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1993 Woodall, J. (ed.) Portraiture: Facing the Subject Manchester and New York, Manchester University Press, 1997

Chapter Three
Archimbaud, M. Francis Bacon: Entretiens avec Michel Archimbaud Paris, Editions Jean-Claude Lattès, 1992 Barthes, R. L’Obvie et L’Obtus Paris, Seuil, 1982 Battersby, C. Gender and Genius: Towards a Feminist Aesthetic London, Women’s Press, 1989 Baxandall, M. Patterns of Intention and the Historical Explanation of Pictures New Haven, Yale UP, 1985 Benjamin, A. “Betraying Faces: Lucien Freud’s Self-Portraits” in Art, Mimesis and the Avant-Garde London and New York, Routledge, 1991 Deleuze, G. Francis Bacon: Logique de la Sensation Paris, Editions de la Différence, 1996



Duncan, C. “Virility and Domination in Early Twentieth-Century Vanguard Painting” in Brude, N. and Garrard, M. (eds) Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany New York, Harper and Row, 1982 Gadamer, H. G. Truth and Method New York, Continuum, 1975 Kundera, M. Bacon: Portraits et Autoportraits, Paris, Les Belles Lettres, 1996 Major, R. and Tronche, A. “Entretien” in Opus International 68 Summer 1978 Nochlin, L. “Some Women Realists” in Arts Magazine May 1974 Peppiatt, M. Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1996 Russell, J. Francis Bacon London, Thames and Hudson, 1971 Sollers, P. Les Passions de Francis Bacon Paris, Editions Gallimard, 1996 Sylvester, D. About Modern Art London, Chatto and Windus, 1986 Sylvester, D. The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon London, Thames and Hudson, 1982 Van Alphen, E. Francis Bacon and the Loss of Self London, Reaktion Books, 1992 Chapter Four Part One Barthes, R. Le Plaisir du Texte Paris, Seuil, 1973 Barthes, R. Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes Paris, Seuil, 1975 Beaujour, M. Miroirs d’Encre: rhétorique de l’autoportrait Paris, Seuil, 1980 Blanchot, M. “La littérature et le droit à la mort” in De Kafka à Kafka Paris, Gallimard, 1981 Blanchot, M. L’Arrêt de Mort Paris, Gallimard, 1979 Carn, H. Bernard Noël Paris, Seghers, 1986 Derrida, J. Mémoires pour Paul de Man Paris, Galilée, 1988 Merleau-Ponty, M. L’Oeil et l’Esprit Paris, Gallimard, 1964 Noël, B. and Frémon, J. Le double jeu du tu Montpellier, Fata Morgana, 1977 Noël, B. Journal du regard Paris, P. O. L., 1994 Noël, B. Le 19 octobre 1977 Paris, P. O. L., 1998


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

Noël, B. Le Château de Cène Paris, Gallimard, 1990 Noël, B. L’espace du poème: Entretiens avec Dominique Sampiero Paris, P. O. L., 1998 Noël, B. Onze romans d’oeil Paris, P. O. L., 1999 Noël, B. Treize Cases du je Paris, P. O. L., 1998 Proust, M. A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, vol. 3 Paris, Gallimard, 1954

Part Two
Barthes, R. Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes Paris, Seuil, 1975 Best, V. and Collier, P. (eds) Powerful Bodies: Performance in French Cultural Studies Bern, Peter Lang, 1999 Breton, A. L’Anthologie de l’humour noir Paris, Sagittaire, 1939 Prassinos, G. Mon Coeur les écoute Paris, HB Editions, 1998 Richard, A. Le monde suspendu de Gisèle Prassinos Calvisson, HB Editions, 1997

Chapter Five
Abel, E. “(E)Merging Identities: The Dynamics of Female Friendship in Contemporary Fiction by Women” in Signs 6 Spring 1981 Auslander, P. From Acting to Performance: Essays in Modernism and Postmodernism London, Routledge, 1997 Bataille, G Documents, édition établie par Bernard Noël, Paris, Mercure de France, 1929 Battersby, C. Gender and Genius: Towards a Feminist Aesthetics London, Women’s Press, 1989 Berger, J. Ways of Seeing London, BBC and Penguin Books Ltd, 1972 Bernadac, M. L. Louise Bourgeois, Paris and New York, Flammarion, 1996 Best and Collier, P. Powerful Bodies: Performance in French Cultural Studies Bern, Peter Lang, 1999 Betterton, R. An Intimate Distance: Women Artists and the Body London, Routledge, 1996 Bois, Y. A. and Krauss, R. Formless: A User’s Guide New York, Zone Books 1997



Bourgeois, L. Louise Bourgeois London, Tate Gallery Publications, 2000 Borzello, F. Seeing Ourselves: Women’s Self-Portraits London, Thames and Hudson, 1998 Butler, J. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” New York, Routledge, 1993 Butler, J. Gender Trouble New York, Routledge,1990 Causey, A. Sculpture Since 1945 Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998 Caws, M. A. (ed.) Surrealism and Women Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 1991 Cohen, J. T. In/Sights: Self Portraits by Women London, Gordon Fraser, 1979 Cole, I. (ed) Louise Bourgeois Oxford, Museum of Modern Art, 1996 Creed, B. The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis London, Routledge, 1993 Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. Anti-Oedipe Paris, Editions de Minuit, 1972 Foster, H. Convulsive Beauty Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 1993 Foster, H. The Return of the Real Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 1996 Gilbert and Gubar The Mad Woman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination New Haven, Conn. Yale University Press, 1979 Ince, K. Orlan. Millennial female. Oxford, Berg. 2000 Jones, A. Body Art; Performing the Subject Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1998 Jones, D. The Body Abject: Self and Text in Jean Genet and Samuel Beckett Oxford, Peter Lang, 2000 Kelly, M. “Re-Viewing Modernist Criticism” Screen 22, 3 Klein, M. Contributions to Psycho-Analysis London, Hogarth Press, 1930 Kristeva, J Pouvoirs de l’Horreur: Essai sur l’Abjection Paris, Seuil, 1980 Kuhn, A. Alien Zone: Cultural Theory Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema London, Verso, 1990 Levi, B. (et al) Abject Art: Repulsion and Desire in American Art New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1993


The Body as Medium and Metaphor

Meskimmon, M. The Art of Reflection: Women Artists’ Self-Portraiture in the Twentieth Century London, Scarlet Press, 1996 Mulvey, L. Visual and Other Pleasures Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1989 Nead, L. The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity and Sexuality London, Routledge, 1992 Nochlin, L. and Hess, T. B. (eds) Woman as Sex Object; Studies in Erotic Art 1730-1970 London, Allen Lane, 1973 Orlan Manifeste de l’Art Charnel www.cicv.fr/creation_artistique/online/orlan Orlan Orlan: ceci est mon corps . . . ceci est mon logiciel London, Blackdog Publishing, 1996 Seiberling, D. “The Female View of Erotica” New York Magazine, February 11, New York, 1974 Weiermair, P. (ed.) Louise Bourgeois Zurich, Edition Stemmle, 1989

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