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Palais de Tokyo stages an ambitious exhibition mapping the influence of Raymond Roussel
Joseph Cornell, Blue Sand Box, 1950. Courtesy of the Karsten Gallery Greve (Paris).

PARIS.- Under the presiding spirit of the eccentric and fascinating figure of Raymond Roussel (1877-1933), Palais de Tokyo is staging an ambitious exhibition mapping the influence of that dazzling genius on the artists of today. The man who was a writer, poet and playwright, as well as a peerless pianist, a gold medalist at pistol shooting, the inventor of the luxury camper van, and the creator of the “reading machine”, first and foremost explored the resources of writing turned in on itself, with no obvious link to the real world. From this has emerged a totally self-sufficient world of imagination, which in an exhibition brings together Jules Verne and Marcel Duchamp, Mike Kelley and Guy de Cointet.

Raymond Roussel is finally being celebrated in Paris: a long overdue event for this writer who for more than a century has occupied a central place in the imaginations of artists— some artists, but not the least important—, embodying the figure of the artist totally dedicated to his work, to the very boundaries of reason, the work of the artist who creates a “complete world”, “following only the inclination of his imagination” (André Breton).

“New Impressions of Raymond Roussel” is a follow-up and a complement to the exhibition “Impressions of Raymond Roussel” which was held at the Museo Reina Sofia (Madrid) in 2011 and the Museu Serralves (Porto) in 2012. It outlined a diagonal history of 20th-century art, linking the points between artists and creative people who have talked of the influence of this author and his writings on their work: starting with, Marcel Duchamp, then the Surrealists, but also Michel Foucault or Georges Perec. This time “New Impressions of Raymond Roussel” intends to accord a larger place to the present, and brings together artists encountered during these recent years of research focusing on Roussel. It did not seem necessary for their relationship to that writer to have taken the form of a tribute, or even for them to refer to him explicitly. That would underestimate the nature of those influences, as deep as they are underground, to reduce them to games involving quotation. These works cannot be reduced to a theme and their combined presence here is an exercise in unraveling the motifs – always different – that artists have derived from Roussel, consciously or not, according to a reading which must of course be assumed to have been partial. It is indeed the “greatest magnetizer of modern times,” in the words of André Breton, that this exhibition is recalling to people’s memories; the man who, for Michel Leiris, achieved “escape from the field of Reality into that of Conception”. It involves telling of the power of his poetry, its capacity to transport us into a “topsy-turvy world”; the vast childish and sometimes cruel theater that is the universe of Raymond Roussel.

Raymond Roussel (1877-1933) published around ten books in his lifetime, poems, novels and plays, all derived from the same determination that “nothing real” should interfere with the world of writing. For a long time little was known about this author’s life, apart from a few episodes divulged by Michel Leiris, one of the few people to have been close to him. We had to wait for a biography by François Caradec in 1972 and the discovery of the Roussel archives in 1989 to become better acquainted with a man who had withdrawn from all public life at a very young age, and devoted himself totally to writing. Heir to a large fortune made from stock exchange, he traveled around the world, following the tracks of the writers and the books he loved. He spent money on his work without counting the cost, in particular on lavish adaptations of his novels for stage, which caused a scandal in the 1920s and brought the author out of his anonymity, without resolving the lack of understanding between him and the public. Convinced that he was predestined for glory, he suffered greatly from this lack of comprehension and “shed blood,” he said, over every sentence he wrote, each work taking him several years of work. The posthumous publication of Comment j’ai écrit certains de mes livres [How I Wrote Certain of my Books] in 1935, revealing the nature of his writing “process” based on homophonic word play, allows a retrospective understanding of the complexity involved in elaborating his work, while leaving his intentions obscure. That book has occupied a considerable place in the analysis of his work, so incurring the risk of forgetting that in his lifetime he sought to dissimulate the nuts and bolts of his writing
to create striking images, a world “of conception” indebted only to the imagination.

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