by Francis Ponge
Excerpt translated by Manuela Kölke (from German)
What do painters who ask you to write about their painting want?
They want their works (exhibition, collection of paintings), in addition to appearing before the world’s eyes, to also ring in the world’s ears at the same time.
They want words about their painting to bring about a sort of prescription for thought. That one furnishes words (in bulk) to those who will visit the exhibition or flip through the album.
They also want the connoisseur to say: “Indeed, there is this or that in so and so’s painting,” or rather, “No, there is not this, nor that, but instead this and that.”
Of course, there is (at least) another thing at play: there are real objects, namely canvas and paint.
Above all, they want the connoisseur to be struck that one can think and say so many things about the works of the painter in question, because for the connoisseur this seems a guarantee. Is good painting, then, that which we talk much about a lot, and that which we will always talk about a lot? That which will provoke controversies, explanations, for a long time? Or, on the contrary, would it be the painting that gives us the (immediately obvious) impression that it would be wrong to say anything about it, that it ridicules in advance any attempt at explanation? That one must limit oneself to proclaiming: how pretty or beautiful it is, how agreeable it is to have it close by?
In any case, good painting is that about which, in every attempt to say something, one could never say anything satisfactory.
Does it make sense then to speak a lot and in an unsatisfactory fashion?
Isn’t this falling into the trap?
Are there words for painting? One can ask oneself this (here is the proof). And answer: Of course, we can speak about everything.
But, in order to begin, mustn’t one avoid asking this and instead enter into the game right away?
Or answer oneself more simply: let’s see … let’s try, we shall see.
Or, on the contrary: no, obviously not, no words of worth; painting is painting, literature is something else, and it is clearly for literature that words are made, not for painting.
But, looked at this way, there are words for everything and there are words for nothing. We have hardly advanced.
… And besides, nobody cares anyways. Let’s see your words, one resigns to think.
What are we getting ourselves into?
Painters, or their dealers, seem to want nothing more than for their paintings to give rise to words. One could, however, very well imagine that things happen quite differently. As follows, for example:
Paintings are exhibited in a gallery. The public does not come or, on the contrary, comes, looks. What they see does not please them, or it does, and they buy. The paintings are taken down (thousand-note bills are pocketed), then hung in the homes of the connoisseurs who look at them at leisure. There it is, that’s all.
But no, things ought to be slightly more complicated. Because one must (anyway, this seems not only tolerable, but useful), one must attract the public. One could decide to simply let the public come on its own, to tell oneself: it will come if it wants, it just needs to remains unbiased. Leave it to the contingency (or law) of curiosity, of flânerie, or of the painting’s need for a crowd.
No, we think it better to attract the public. Fine. Well, one could do so differently than with literature, or even with words. For example, one could limit oneself to distribute reproductions on small pieces of paper. Without a word (except for the address of the gallery).
One could even forbid any speech in a gallery, accept only thousand-note bills, and the gesture of taking the painting away.
But no, the more words, the bigger the audience.
So, here is the public at the gallery. The public (sometimes) still makes up its mind on the basis of an idea as much as on appearances. One tells the public: this is good for this or that reason. One gives it reasons for expressing itself to itself and its friends. This is necessary. We are among men, after all. A talkative, garrulous species, a species that exchanges opinions through words. A species not too sure of its desires or pleasures. A deceived species that knows from experience it will take pleasure tomorrow (and then always) in what displeases it (most vehemently) today. But then again, if it knew that, it would not need words. But it forgets, and one must remind it.
Now, even so, when one buys an (expensive) painting, isn’t it better for it to please you tomorrow and always, or even in three months and always, rather than today and maybe only today?
So, listen to these literati gentlemen and friends of the painter. If they have become friends, it might be, of course, for many reasons (varied, diverse). It could have served their self-interest, of course. One must keep that in mind. But, in the end, the world is not necessarily so bad, so simply, so outright mean. There could have been worthy reasons (I mean worthy for you as well) for these friendships, a veritable sympathy for one another. So, this too must be kept in mind.
Listen, then, to these literati gentlemen and friends of the painter: people of taste by definition, who have already earned their (literary) spurs. Because they have carried these paintings home, they have kept them for a good long time. That is a guarantee. And they say good things about them. Perhaps this is the decisive factor. No?
But still … Don’t we, literati friends of painters, fall into a clumsy trap? Aren’t we condemned to confused, absurd expressions? Aren’t we only going to serve as helots, as a negative counterpoint?
Well, then! Let’s regard it as a defeat.
Or rather, let’s accept it just like asceticism (out of masochism?).
In any case, it will be a good exercise.
And it should bring us a little bit of money (very useful, money, if only to allow us to write other things, writings of another sort).
Some money, and one or two of these paintings.
To stare at them all one’s life.
So, let’s go! It is worth the effort: I like Fautrier’s paintings.
If I said only one thing, it would be: I like Fautrier’s paintings.
But let’s enter further into the game. Let’s look for words. Let’s take up the challenge seriously.
When it dies, the human body comes to experience various fates: the simplest (and I would say the most common, were I not writing in the time in which I write) is aging and death by aging or by sickness. This gives rise to feelings, reflections, and numerous representations, certain of which contain a kind of revolt against the human condition, and we do not want to say that this protest or revolt is totally unjustified (if not vain). But man has also tried acquiescence and praise against the inevitable and inescapable necessities of his condition. For example, there exist highly reassuring and consoling portraits of the elderly, and even of (recent) cadavers.
As for the human body’s fate after death, it is passed over in silence. There is hardly any literature or painting of decomposition. On the other hand, the skeleton is an admittedly well-known, oft-used aesthetic object.
Less common is death by accident: the human body in all its youth, power, vitality, is brutally stopped, cut to the quick, broken, crushed. Then blood flows out: a glimpse into life’s inner vitality. In this way we have a cross-section of life, from which stems a feeling of both pride and injustice.
But it seems that the accidental aspect of such an event removes all its aesthetic interest. I am unaware of artistic representation of such disfigurement. Here there is something indifferent, fortuitous, without cause (or else a destiny or an individual fatality for which we have no strong feeling, which is not very moving). Chance is not poetic, not tragic; it has a hard time appearing tragic.
Still less common is murder. Here, too, it is a matter of an anecdote whose cause is more or less fortuitous, but with an added element of melodrama that makes it rather too “considerable as a work of art.” Nevertheless, passionate murder could be an option. The woman murdered because she was too beautiful. The man murdered because his wife was too beautiful and he was annoying her. But the motive for murder is usually sordid, and (I forgot to say that) there is only a wound (and usually not mutilation); the human body is not reduced to a pulp.
Furthermore, we discover another fate:
It is war, the horrors of war (see Goya, etc.). Here are corpses, here is a fatality to which we react strongly, and here is our miserable human existence. This is what is worthy of an artist’s brush in a given epoch. However, it is worth noting the usually anecdotal character of these representations.
There is also death for an idea (Liberty Leading the People, by Delacroix, etc.). But there again, it is instead a fate of the entire human species, a sort of epidemic (The Plague Victims of Jaffa) or collective rage. There is no space for such a protest, there is nothing so tragic as what we have known for a few years.
I would just like to mention surgery and its effects (the peg-legged beggars by Breughel, or his blind). These are good mutilations, beneficial mutilations that prolong life.
Finally, let’s come to our last fate, the most recent one.
People became—almost—indignant, at the very least they made fun of the accounts on Russian radio calling the Nazis cannibals. However, one must accept the evidence. Objectively, the Russians were right. Not even the Middle Ages experienced such collective barbarism (except, perhaps, during the Inquisition).
But hostages, Nazis? There we really are dealing with cannibalism. Bourgeois cannibalism. Of course, since the repression of the Commune, we had an idea of what the bourgeoisie were capable. We had not yet seen them in the guise of their handymen, the Nazis.
Neither you, dear connoisseur, nor I, are savages. Yet, barbarism is among us, it floods the century. Dear connoisseur, we are living in the middle of barbarism.
How can it be? Aren’t we accomplices? At least to the extent to which we do not recognize it, or do not denounce it strongly enough.
Perhaps to the extent to which we occupy ourselves with something else (but one must distract oneself and live).
How does one behave before the idea of hostages?
One might say that this is one of the epoch’s main questions.
The usual reaction is indignation, cursing, and a desire to kill the torturer as a dangerous enemy of humankind. Vengeful anger is the reaction.
In the face of the idea of torturing the human body, one normally reacts with a complex feeling in which shame is mixed with a certain disgust over living in these conditions, but above all with stupefaction, then anger and the desire to kill (without torturing) the torturer, to annihilate him in one single blow.
The torturer’s desire—not taking into account a certain sadism that develops, apparently, in the exercise of torture—is to provoke confessions (consequently, to justify the torturer), denunciations—that is, to progress with the action he considers his justice; in short, to inspire a salutary terror—that is, to assure his power and his peace.
It is remarkable that these procedures generally do not succeed.
For every noble soul, the idea of torturing others inspires horror and vengeful anger much more than it does terror and panic. And there are always enough noble souls to pull history along.
For the most intelligent or the most ambitious, it inspires the resolution to do everything possible to eradicate the deeper cause of such atrocity at its root or at its source, to change the world and to change man so that he is no longer capable of such crimes. Lastly, it can incite one to capture this in valid formulas on a painting.
Reproach must be included in the expressions of my faces and my bodies (I do not know what kind of rancor, painful surprise, contempt, what disdainful or simple pardon, perhaps)—because they are not dead, they have not been disfigured, dismembered, damaged by accident. And, for sure, illness or accidents cause similar mutilations. But the entire gravity of these mutilations stems from the fact that they are the work of man (of the enemy that looks like a man) and that each torturer intended them for each victim, intended them from nearby, from close up. And, even more, they were not perpetrated in the tumult and fire of battle, but in the silence and cold-bloodedness of occupations. And, even more, on hostages; that is, by definition, on the innocent, on abused innocents, who have surrendered without resistance (and at first almost without consciousness), without complaints, without possible struggle: the weak.
Something had to oppose the intolerable idea of the torture of man by man himself, the idea of the body and human face disfigured by the work of man himself. One had to stigmatize and immortalize the horrible by stating it.
One had to recreate it in reproach, in loathing; one had to transform it into beauty.
No gestures. No gesticulation. Stupefaction, reproach. No movement, except the movement of the image that invades the field of the mind; of the tortured visage that rises from the depths of shadow, that approaches in close-up; except the gyrating movement of the martyrs’ faces in our sky, like stars, like satellites, like moons.
Physical torture—that is a mutilated, cramped, bloody, dismembered body; that is a crushed, deformed, swollen, tumescent head. Mental torture at the same time, because it is about righteous and innocent people—and so is the expression of these bodies and these faces. An expression I hardly dare to speak about for fear of misinterpretation. Yet, in the cramping of the fusillated body, one can see a challenge, a protest; in the faces, an expression of painful and sometimes scornful stupefaction. And something more presumptuous and proud than reproach: something like a rather haughty observation.
We first talked about physical torture, and I would like to come back to that, for, after all, what else besides the physical could be painted? But painted in such a way (with such passion, such emotion, such rage) that one cannot say it is only a matter of observation. Of course, it is not the same excitement as that which can accompany the sharp eye from which a painting arises: it is the strong sensation from which the idea of such a deed or suffering in the soul grows.
Compare this with other forms of expression inspired by terror or war (for example, the works brought together in the “Vaincre” collection). There are no gestures (moreover, no limbs: heads, trunks), no theatrical poses. Not the act of torture, not the suffering in torture, is described or evoked. It is the result of all this, the lifeless or still twitching object: it is the corpse, the stump, the part. This is the horrible result, this is the corpse, the stump of the limb, the inhuman, unbearably crushed face with its ugliness, its beauty, its language of horror and injustice, of remorse, rage, and resolution.
Not one portrait. And thus, we do not feel sympathy for a particular being, but a much more poignant, irresistible necessity. A (general) religious or metaphysical sensation, combined with rage and resolution.
These faces, they are also moons and I suppose that each connoisseur who has one hung in his home will also look at it that way, will have one of those martyred heads circle forever around his head like a satellite face that remains inseparable from him forever.
Morally speaking, it is a good thing. Everyone will want to have their own satellite. There might be some who will have many. Mine are called R.L. and M.P.
Sometimes in the morning, when I wake up looking at my “head of a hostage,” I have a very strong impression of the sanguine, with the viridian white and black as complementary to blood, to red.
Obliterated by torture, partially clouded over by blood. Darkened by a vile fog, red as blood, a fog as sticky as blood.
The deformation of the human face by torture, its obscuration by its own blood that has escaped from within, by the blood that, hidden at first, now pours itself out, is suddenly released
Each face is darkened by its own blood.
Negro masks, Michelangelo’s Slaves, Picasso’s Guernica, crucifixions, descents from the cross, the faces of the holy.
They are religious paintings; this is an exhibition of religious art.
The fusillated replaces the crucified. An anonymous man replaces the Christ of paintings.
Elsewhere, they are holy faces, certain of which very much recall Veronica’s cloth (the one that retained the imprint of Christ’s face).
And just as the artists of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance rarely painted the torturers of Christ, just as we do not see the act of the crucifixion figured in their paintings (I mean that we don’t see soldiers with hammers nailing the body to the cross or with hoists bearing up the cross) and just as they have, on the other hand, very often, at every moment, on all occasions, depicted the victim’s body, taking it as a pretext for their nude studies, no doubt because they considered Christ to be the perfect man and his body the perfect male body and, as such, they naturally identified with him, like them—although it surely would have been more logical and easier to stigmatize Nazi cruelty by showing the act of torture, so as to leave no doubt as to the origin of, the cause of, responsibility for these mutilations—Fautrier had no inclination to paint the torturer, did not feel up to it in heart and soul; therefore it was not in his power. Whereas the victim, the victim, oh, I know with my heart and soul that it could have been me.
Here, then, we stand before a new subject, of such (negative) significance that a new mythology, a new religion, a new human resolve can emerge from it. This religion is not entirely one of freedom: it is that of humanity, with all its voluntary discipline and also, with regard to its executioners and their accomplices, the unforgiveability that belongs to it.
Anti-German unanimity, humanist unanimity against such atrocities, has given us a common soul—as in the Middle Ages—a soul that we do not have to look after, that goes without saying.
Since the artists of the Middle Ages worshiped Christ, the Virgin, and the Saints, there was no question that this was their natural and readily outlined subject, their unique subject, a subject they painted with immediate, unquestionable, self-evident fervor, about which there was nothing to prove, nor anything to say. This, on the other hand, allowed them to consider these subjects only as pretexts, and to devote themselves entirely to properly painterly problems and techniques—so it goes for this new national, international and human unanimity and for Fautrier.
In this way, Fautrier has no fear of the subject. He has a passion for expression (for the color tube). He did not take up painting to say nothing, or to say just anything. That is his achievement.
How is this possible? How is it possible for me to recognize here the horror and compassion instilled in me elsewhere by the torture of human flesh, the deformation of human bodies and faces; horror, remorse, and, at the same time, the will to triumph, the determination?
Fautrier shows us tumescent faces, crushed profiles, bodies cramped by gunshots, dismembered, mutilated, eaten by flies.
He is right, for here it is about the most important cause of the century: the cause of the Hostages.
And secondly, he shows it to us as he must: in a manner so gripping (which becomes increasingly more gripping over time), and so irrefutable, so beautiful, that it will last for centuries.
(Because, even of horror, man only retains those images that please him.)
Shall we now say that the faces painted by Fautrier are pathetic, moving, tragic? No: they are pastose, drawn with thick strokes, strongly colored; they are painting. This can be said, because one cannot say that they are flesh. They are not poor copies of flesh. Color comes out of the tube, it spreads out in some places, elsewhere it is applied thickly; the drawing draws its lines, takes shape; each from its own side, each for its own part.
It is a whole species, a family of new feelings, that Fautrier offers us: they range from eye’s delight to horror, to the eye’s terror.
We said it: it would be vain to attempt to express in language, with adjectives, what Fautrier has expressed through his painting.—Adjectives, words, do not do Fautrier justice.—What Fautrier has expressed through his painting cannot be expressed in any other way. How might one get around this difficulty? Perhaps one might try a song of praise on zinc white coming out of a tube? A song of praise on pastel crushed in primer, on oil paint?
If the end justifies the means? We see the result: nameless and nearly faceless atrocities.
Well! If in art at least the end justifies the means? For the sake of this result: beauty.
Fautrier’s works tend to distance themselves more and more from painting and approach something else. Especially because of the pasty structure. What is quite remarkable, by the way, is that, properly speaking, it is not a pasty application of color, as one might believe at first. It is white applied pastily.
It is a thick layer that is worked in with a brush or a knife and has a certain shape or is at least defined. By what means? By the artist’s taste and the requirements of the subject. There is a relief to this layer as well. It is not the same everywhere. It is applied in this way or that way. Most often it appears as superimposed petals, but sometimes it is deeply ridged, or gathered in craters, ravines, fissures. On this basis, or better on this primer, the color is usually applied in a very thin layer.
… (Continue by elaborating on the development of the application of color. The role of this layer in catching light reflexes or serving other purposes, depending on the concept of the painting.)
The parts of the canvas that are not covered with this thick layer of colored white are treated in another, quite unusual way. Here, a special glossy primer is applied warmly and, lastly, ground pastel powder is applied onto this still warm primer. According to the artist, this powder incorporates itself into the primer so as to constitute a material even more resistant than oil paint. The whole thing takes on a strange appearance: brilliant and granular at the same time, like stucco on a varnished surface.
his very special technique subjects the artist’s work to its own conditions. He takes a long time preparing for the painting he will create, but this preparation is quite Platonic. In contrast, the execution must be fast and intense. On the day he will paint the intended painting, Fautrier gets up before dawn. He begins by stretching his canvas onto the frame, then he glues one or more layers of paper to this canvas as firmly as possible. Now the primer is heated and applied and the pastel dust immediately worked into the primer. Finally, tubes of white are taken to hand, expressed, brought onto the canvas, then the work with the brush and, at the same time, with the surface coloration of white with colored oils begins. (A layer thinner than the epidermis.)
The work should be finished in a few hours and, in any case, within the same day. It is good or bad. At any rate, you see it costs Fautrier dearly.
For some parts (where the white layer is especially thick), it takes up to a year to dry.
One of the ways Fautrier responds to those who think they compliment him by saying he has gone beyond easel painting, that he paints for the wall, for architecture: “No! For the wall limits the work too much, there is the light, there is the wall itself, which one has to deal with. Fernand Léger, he would be a marvelous fresco painter.”
It is clear that Fautrier has a different ambition. He wants to break through the wall. He considers painting an artistic being of a higher order, as Rembrandt or da Vinci might have, for example.
Like a meteor, like music (psalm), like the moon.
Fautrier is subject to many inner constraints: he has very high expectations (on the one hand), but on the other hand he is so full of inner scruples that he has no need to impose further external ones. His passion is enough for him.
Thus, his passion is imposed on him by the passion of others, of anonymous humanity.
Originally published in French, Francis Ponge, Note sur les Otages, peintures de Fautrier. P. Seghers, Paris, 1946.
Translated from French to German by Gerhard M. Neumann and Werner Spies in Francis Ponge, Francis Ponge. Texte zur Kunst, “Bemerkungen zu den “Geiseln” von Fautrier”. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt, 1990.
Translated by Manuela Kölke, commissioned by DFG Graduiertenkolleg „Kulturen der Kritik“, Leuphana Universität Lüneburg, März 2019.