Cabinet Installation: Le Corps Halluciné

Henri Michaux (1899-1984)

Henri Michaux - dessin mescalinien (detail), c. 1958-1959_Dessin à l'encre sur papier 31 x 24 cm Courtesy the artist and Natalie Seroussi Gallery

‘Michaux excels in making us feel… the strangeness of natural things and the naturalness of strange things.’ — André Gide

‘Je peins […] pour rendre […] les mouvements désordonnés, l’animation extrême des « je ne sais quoi » qui remuent dans mes lointains et cherchent à prendre pied sur le rivage. Pour rendre non les êtres […] non leurs formes […] mais leurs lignes de force, leurs élans […] pour montrer les rythmes de la vie et, si c’est possible, les vibrations mêmes de l’esprit.’ Henri Michaux - Le dessin cinématique, 1959

Belgian-French writer and painter Henri Michaux’s life story is as exceptional as it is grand. Born in 1899 in Namur, he went to a Jesuit school in Brussels but chose medical school over priesthood only to abandon his studies to become a sailor in the merchant navy. He settled in Paris where he started what would amount into a prolific career in writing and painting, publishing over 60 works across a number of genres and exhibiting at a.o. Documenta Kassel, Venice Biennial, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Centre Pompidou, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Seibu Museum Tokyo. His complete writings were honored with an inclusion in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade.

From the 1930s onwards, Henri Michaux combines writing with drawing and painting, engravings, frottages and gouaches in a continuous exploration of the infinite unknowable world. In his work, he addresses the rift separating reality from its representation. His works are an attempt for representation to come as close as possible to experience or observation itself. ‘Michaux understood aesthetic creation as a sort of ritual experience, an action which, through the repetition of certain gestures and movements, created a different time-scale, freed from the functional logic ruling everyday life. All of which he did in a tense, rapid, nervous style (...), in short agile phrases - energetic, rhythmic strokes (1). In his search for a creation far from the limitations imposed by rational knowledge and its ordering logic, Michaux ventured into an exploration of non-western cultures traveling widely in South-America and Asia between 1927 and 1940. He also voyaged into his own consciousness, aided by hallucinogenic substances.

Indeed, from the end of the 1920s onwards, Michaux experimented with a myriad of mind-altering substances including ether, opium, LSD, hasjiesj, psilocybin and mescaline. A first mention of it can be found in a 1929 text based on a travel report of his trip through Ecuador in 1928: ‘La nuit passée, j’ai pris de l’éther. Quelle projection! Et quelle grandeur!’ (2). Michaux’s explorations with these substances, in particular mescaline, took on a more systematic and sustained approach several years after the tragic death of his wife in 1948. A quiet, serious and introvert man, Michaux was adamant about the intentions behind his mescaline use: ‘Les drogues nous ennuient avec leur paradis. Qu’elles nous donnent plutôt un peu de savoir. (3) His intentions were investigative, and his goal was nothing more and nothing less than the deconstruction of cognitive thought and the unveiling of the mysteries of the human mind. His mescaline experiments gained their height in a ten year period spanning from the mid 1950s into the mid 1960s, during which he published a number of books including Misérables Miracles (1956), L’infini turbulent (1957), Paix dans les brisements (1959), Connaissance par des gouffres, (1961) and Les grandes épreuves de l’esprit et les innombrables petites (1966).

In this period, Michaux’s pictorial practice gains momentum and significance. He considers his drawings an expression of a thinking in statu nascendi; one that precedes thought as it is structured through language. No longer taking the detour of writing, he wanted to ‘draw the consciousness of existence and the flow of time. As one feels the pulse… (4)’ Or, as Octavio Paz put it ‘A poet, he began to paint when he realized that this new medium might enable him to say what he had found impossible to say in his poetry. (5)’

This cabinet installation brings together a number of Michaux’s drawings and writings as a ‘corps halluciné’ to reference the title of the beautiful publication by Anne Brun. Reading through and looking at Michaux requires a certain kind of mental gymnastics; a willingness to enter a poetic space without trying to control it. In this, it is quite similar to a hallucinogenic journey in which, as we have learned from Timothy Leary in The Psychedelic Experience, one must not try to grasp things if one wants to experience its treasures to the fullest. An encounter with the works of Michaux might require a similar ‘attitude’ in order to find a total vacuum of meaning and plenitude all at once.

In The Ecstatic Being, the works of Michaux offer an historic anchorpoint and deep source of inspiration reverberating in the works of contemporary artists in this exhibition and beyond.

(1) Exhibition catalogue: Henri Michaux - Icebergs (2007). Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporanéo.
(2) Henri Michaux - Ecuador (1929)
(3)Henri Michaux - Connaissance par les gouffres (1961)
(4) ‘Je voulais dessiner la conscience d’exister et l’écoulement du temps. Comme on se tâte le pouls…’ - Henri Michaux - Ervaring van het oneindige, de wereld van het onzichtbare. In Jan Godderis. En mijn verrukking neemt geen end, p.680
(5) Octavio Paz - Introduction to Henri Michaux - Misérables miracles (Mescaline), 1972. New York Review Books


Mouvement, 1950-51 c., Ink on paper, 31,5 x 24 cm. Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.
Untitled, 1952 c., India ink on paper, 32 x 24cm. Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.
3 écriture mescalinienne pour misérable miracle [1955], ca. 1955
3P. in-4 (264 x 209 mm), papier filigrane "Vidalon France". Ecriture a la mine de plomb.
26,6 x 20,9 cm. Courtesy of Galerie Natalie Seroussi
Dessin mescalinien, c. 1958-1959, dessin à l'encre sur papier, 31 x 24 cm. Courtesy of Galerie Natalie Seroussi
Composition mescalinienne, v. 1958, Encre de Chine monogrammée en bas vers le centre, sur une grande feuille d'un cahier à spirale, 36, 5 x 26,5 cm. Courtesy of Galerie Natalie Seroussi
Untitled, 1967, acrylic on paper, 56 x 75 cm. Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.
Untitled, 1968, acrylic on paper, 56 x 75cm. Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.
3 Untitled, 1967, gouache on paper, 38 x 28 cm. Courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co.
Zonder titel [Pour Jorn], 1967, lithograph: Ed. 23 / 100 (signé), 47 x 65 cm. Private Collection


Henri Michaux - Misérables miracles (Mescaline), 1972. City Lights Books. Private Collection
Henri Michaux - Paix dans les brisements, 1959. Conspiration Editions, 2022.
Henri Michaux - Les grandes épreuves de l’esprit et les innombrables petites, 1966. l’Imprimerie Floch (1994). Private Collection
Henri Michaux - Oeuvres complètes. Bibliothèque de la pléiade. Private Collection
Anne Brun - Henri Michaux ou le corps halluciné, 1999. Les empêcheurs de penser en rond. Private Collection