Great Works: Repos dans le Malheur (1945), Henri Michaux

Pompidou Centre, Paris

Henri Michaux is known for his imaginary travelogues, his quasi-philosophical reflections, his poetry – and for his art. He began to make art in the 1930s, and the two disciplines came to be practised side by side for the rest of his life. Art seemed to offer him a purer and more perfect way of defining the nature of the self than writing because writing, he felt, was always, finally, prevented from defining reality by the troublesome presence of language. Perhaps art, like music, could be trusted to get closer to the heart of things. Surrealism proved helpful to him, though he would never call himself a Surrealist. Others chose to call him a neo-Surrealist instead. The Surrealist movement gave him "la grande permission" to be himself, to do exactly what he wanted in his art. (He also admired, and learnt from, classical Chinese painting, with its spare use of line.)

There was much that Michaux loathed about the practice of creating art: the whole "carnival" of stretched canvases; the flourish of brushes; the squeezing out of oils in their wormy, squirmy lengths; the whole, vainglorious stew of colours laid out across a palette – in fact, as he, a shy and constitutionally evasive man, saw it, all the sheer, self-important posturing and pageantry of art-making. All that was not for him.

What Michaux preferred by way of materials was something modest and more secretive – such as Indian ink, for example, with which he could make tiny, seething marks on plain paper, marks suggestive of some kind of ultimate calligraphic expression, but which might also suggest, when looked at from various angles, and with the utmost care, the frenzied movements of human beings en masse, or birds in crazed flight, or microbes doing their zizzy-zazzy manoeuvres inside the body's inner dark. He aspired, somehow, to capture the very consciousness of existence, the flow of time itself.

Repos dans le Malheur (1945) is entirely characteristic of Michaux's work. Quite secretively small in format, a mixture of Conté crayon and frottage, it is not so much a portrait of a human form as the image of an ill-defined being of quasi-human form emerging into tentative existence. It looks like a kind of ghoulish biological experiment. The being rises up ghost-like, from a thin, wispy torso, and then shoulders up to a head which is more thickly and emphatically pronounced. Mouth, eyes look like scorings, bite marks, wounds. Its translated title (Rest amidst Unhappiness) summarises its mood well: it has an air of weary, melancholy resignation, as if it is condemned to being itself in all its hulking repulsiveness – it is an elephant man for the year of its making, 1945, when Michaux would have been living in occupied Paris, a man doubly trapped by his own extreme sensitivities as an artist, and that mood, outside in the street, that the very air was tainted by suspicion, fear, danger.

This was not a moment for heroic gestures of any kind – and this work is the farthest removed that can be imagined from a work of triumphalist assertiveness. Was there relief to be found anywhere? Yes.

Michaux also experimented with mescaline, doing a series of works called "mescalinien drawings". What did the drug do for him? On one unrepeatable occasion, it gave him a vision of beatitude: "I saw thousands of gods ... Everything was perfect... I hadn't lived in vain... My futile, wandering existence was at last setting foot on the miraculous road." Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, a great admirer, loved him for this. But Michaux, unlike Ginsberg, had no talent for embracing life as if it were some ultimate lover.

ABOUT THE ARTIST

Henri Michaux was born in 1899 in Namur and died in Paris, where he lived for the greater part of his life, in 1984. His writings and his art form a single imaginative whole. His work deals in the stuff of troubling dreams: hallucinatory landscapes, feverish images of beings emerging into existence.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor