Art, travel and other drugs

The extraordinary life and work of Henri Michaux remain profoundly influential abroad. Why not here?
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The Independent Culture
The year 1928 was a busy one for the poet Henri Michaux. He wrote to his friend Jean Paulhan about various books and shorter writings he had in hand, as well as his involvement with music, drama, theatre, painting and sculpture, and his fascination with the Tibetan sage and sorcerer Milarepa. Meanwhile, though his health was far from robust, Michaux was keeping himself out of mischief by spending several months canoeing along a tributary of the Amazon for a thousand or so miles, and climbing mountains and volcanoes in the Andes.

"I brutalised myself," he wrote. "I forced myself to walk, but my body stood up poorly to these adventures."

When not pushing his frail constitution to its limits exploring the outer world, he applied himself just as recklessly to the murkier recesses of his inner world, dosing himself with ether and opium. He was, in short, no Philip Larkin.

In fact, it's hard to think of any Anglophone writer or artist with whom Michaux might reasonably be compared, though some have made the attempt. Richard Ellmann, who translated a selection of his writings in the early Fifties, found affinities between Michaux and Jonathan Swift, since both were inventors of imaginary lands and were moved to savage indignation by human cruelty and idiocy. (Less plausibly, Ellmann thought he saw a certain likeness of Michaux in the American writer and cartoonist James Thurber.)

You might also say that Michaux is a little like Aldous Huxley, since both were mystics who wrote at length about their experiences with mescalin; a little like Sir Richard Burton, since he was a pioneering and stoical traveller with a keen interest in matters anthropological; and a little like William Blake, since Michaux, too, expressed himself as urgently in paint as he did in writing.

And then, having drawn such analogies, you finally throw in the towel, since there remains so much in Michaux's vast oeuvre of books and paintings which has any true counterpart in our culture; a very good reason, then, for our starting to pay more attention to him. A hundred years after his birth in Belgium, Henri Eugene Marie Ghislain Michaux (1899-1984) is regarded by the French-speaking world as an inescapable, magisterial presence in both visual art and literature, and by the English speaking world as... well, it is tricky to complete that phrase.

Despite the best efforts of, inter alia, Professor Ellmann, the Tate Gallery (which showed a decent number of Michaux's paintings alongside Picasso and Giacometti in its "Paris Post War" exhibition a few years ago) and Bloodaxe Books (which recently published a translation of Michaux's late book Deplacements, Degagements as Space, Displaced, Michaux remains pretty much unknown in Britain, even to the least parochial souls. A few weeks ago, I launched into an animated discussion about Michaux with a particularly cultivated Europhile publisher, only to find myself at hopeless cross-purposes - until it dawned on me that he assumed I must be talking about the novelist and politician Andre Malraux.

This week, it falls to London's Whitechapel Gallery to make another attempt at importing this unclassifiable maitre. On Friday, the Whitechapel will be opening the first one-man show of Michaux's work to be held in the United Kingdom. This will include some 130 works, displayed in three sections. The first two are "Calligraphy" - work done mainly in Indian ink, representing the uncertain borderland between words as lexical units and words as visual patterns - and "Watercolours," including both abstract and figurative paintings, especially of faces. "It's not in the mirror that one should contemplate oneself," runs one of his maxims. "Men, look at yourselves on paper."

The third section is entitled "Mescalin", and contains 63 of his agitated, weirdly affecting graphic records of the hours he spent on that drug as well as on LSD-25 and other hallucinogens, with his doors of perception well ajar. These unearthly visions, in conjunction with the four books he wrote about his drug experiences, Miserable Miracle (1956), L'Infini Turbulent (1957), Connaissance par les Gouffres (1961), and Les Grandes Epreuves de l'Esprit (1966) (only the first is available in English), earned him notoriety as well as admiration.

His response was partly diffident, partly defiant. On the one hand, he was chastened by the gap between vision and expression: "The present drawings are, need I say? Reconstructions. A hand 200 times more agile than the human hand would not be up to the task of following the speeding course of the inexhaustible spectacle."

On the other, he was scornful of what might be called the tabloid response to his work: "To the amateurs of one-way perspectives who might be tempted to judge all my writings as the work of a junkie, let me say - sorry, but I am more the water-drinking type."

Oddly, this self-portrait was quite accurate. As far as we can make out from reminiscences and confessions, Michaux was rather a grim, ascetic character, and was one of the very few writers (another would be Ernst Junger) of whom it could accurately be said, in the antiseptic cliche, that he "experimented with drugs", as opposed to getting gleefully or wretchedly zonked on them. He hated being photographed, but the handful of shots which exist - generally by the likes of Brassai, and very fine - show the stern reserve and forcefulness of a man who might in another life have been a cardinal, a general or a hanging judge.

Michaux strikes us, that is to say, as an intensely serious man, driven as much by a strange sense of self-invented duty as by a deep unhappiness that stemmed from his childhood, which was solitary, stubborn, and blighted by a condition we would now call anorexia. His wanderings in Europe, North Africa, South America, India, China and Japan (some of them the inspiration for his most celebrated travel book, Un barbare en Asie/ A Barbarian in Asia (1933), appear less like youthful adventurousness than the type of pathological restlessness anatomised by Bruce Chatwin in The Songlines and elsewhere. And there's evidence to suggest that Michaux turned to writing and painting as others might turn to a therapist, which may be why his most productive periods were during private agonies. Asked, in 1942, to explain his reasons for writing, he said that his principal motive was "to free myself from an intolerable tension."

Michaux began painting as early as the Twenties, but did not really become known as a painter until, in 1938, Un poete se change en peintre, announced the poster for his show at the Galerie Pierre. He began to be taken seriously only in 1948, after an outburst of creativity immediately following the death of his wife Marie-Louise that February. (She had been in hospital for two months after suffering from terrible burns when her nylon peignoir caught fire.)

In his grief, Michaux poured out hundreds upon hundreds of watercolours in the space of little more than a month. By April, some of these were on show at the Galerie Rene Drouin. The critics were enraptured, and Michaux's reputation as both writer and artist was assured.

Andre Gide, a fervent supporter of Michaux's work, summed up its distinctive quality by saying that "He excels in making us feel intuitively both the strangeness of natural things and the naturalness of strange things." It's a catchy slogan, and not a bad thought to bring to Michaux's work. But there are even better thoughts to take away from his work. Knowing himself how wonderful it was to be liberated by the example of a writer such as Lautreamont or artists such as Paul Klee and Max Ernst, he hoped to serve as a liberator for artists still unborn, as he wrote in the "Postface" to Mouvements (1951):

"Whoever, having perused my signs, is led by my example to create signs himself according to his being and his needs will, unless I am very much mistaken, discover a source of exhilaration, a release such as he has never known, a disencrustation, a new life open to him, a writing unhoped for, affording relief, in which he will be able at last to express himself far from words, words, the words of others."

`Henri Michaux: Works on Paper' is at the Whitechapel Gallery, Tue-Sun, 19 Feb-25 April (0171-522 7878). Admission free