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Specters of Artaud: Language and the arts in the 1950s on view at the Museo Reina Sofia
Robert Rauschenberg at the Stable Gallery in New York in 1953. Photo: Allan Grant, Life Magazine. ©Time Warner Inc. Courtesy of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.

MADRID.- Museo Reina Sofía opens the season’s exhibition programme with Specters of Artaud. Language and the arts in the 1950s, opened on September 18th. Curated by Kaira M. Cabañas and Frédéric Acquaviva, this thesis exhibition aims to situate the influence of artist and writer Antonin Artaud (Marseille, 1896 – Paris, 1948) on the postwar avant-garde movements. The show includes some works by Artaud and also by visual artists, writers, poets and composers from the United States, France and Brazil, mainly, similarly concerned with language, the body, and spectator participation. Specters of Artaud is structured in several sections and explores this creator’s legacy, from his reinvention of language to his criticism of the psychiatric institution, which he suffered as a patient throughout his whole life.

Artaud was a playwright and a theater critic, as well as a poet, novelist, drawer, draftsman, painter, translator, actor, essayist and director. In 1938 he published The Theater and its double, a collection of essays where he developed the concept of the Theater of Cruelty, based, on the one hand, on the impact over the spectator over the plot and transcending language with extravagant sounds or onomatopoeia; on the other, on abandoning the conventional dispositions and structures of the mise en scène. Thanks to this contribution, Artaud still remains one of the most influential figures in contemporary drama theory.

To date, Artaud’s importance for the arts has been largely overlooked owing to the centrality of neo-Dada in the exhibition and historiography of post-war art. The present show thus hopes to shed new light both on Artaud and on his multifaceted reception in the second half of the 20th century.

Comprised of some three hundred works, the exhibition shows, as the curator, Kaira M. Cabañas, explains, that “Artaud’s desire to move beyond the confines of language, understood as both writing and speech, lives on in the work of [other] artists”. By including varied means of artistic expression —painting, photography, music, film and poetry— and an exceptional group of documents —manuscripts, letters, leaflets, magazines and facsimiles— the show routes several fronts in which the thought and influence of Artaud can be tracked in the works of Gil Wolman or François Dufrêne, members of the lettrist movement, that had its main development in Paris; the adoption of his precepts by some prominent figures of the American post-war avant-garde such as John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, pianist David Tudor or writer and poet Mary Caroline Richards; or the appearance of concrete poetry and expressive geometry in Brazil, with works by Lygia Clark, Ferreira Gullar or Hélio Oiticica. Besides, the show will also explore two sides of the anti-psychiatry movements through photographs, books, magazines, facsimiles and audiovisual material.

Specters of Artaud begins with an audio piece, recorded by Artaud himself, in which he recites his poem Alienation and Black Magic, written in 1946, and two small graphic pieces by the author.

From letters to bodily sounds
One of the main sections is the one dedicated to lettrism. Founded by Isidore Isou and Gabriel Pomerand in 1946, this movement whittled down poetry to the letter in order to reinvest poetic language, with new signifying potential. Artaud’s proposals were reformulated and developed in lettrist poetry in works like Gil Wolman’s Mégapneumies (1950) or François Dufrêne’s Crirythmes (1953); and in cinema with the main lettrist films, produced by Isidore Isou, Wolman, Dufrêne and Maurice Lemaître. Thus, one of the exhibition’s main aims is to postulate lettrism as a crucial mediation of Artaud’s legacy in the Parisian post-war context. This area displays graphic and documentary materials, drawings, publications and manuscripts, posters, leaflets and audiovisual and sound recordings.

Also included are lettrist films. These productions pursued a “direct” cinema that explicitly moved from the space of representation to the event itself. The exhibition rooms display François Dufrêne’s Tambours du jugement premier (“Drums of the First Judgement”, 1952/1973); Isidore Isou’s Traité de bave et d’éternité (“On venom and eternity”, 1950–1951); Maurice Lemaître’s Le Film est déjà commence (“Has the film already started?”, 1951); Gil Wolman’s L’anticoncept (“The Anticoncept”, 1951) and a fragment of Yves Klein’s conference at the Sorbonne in 1959, in which he broadcast a “very nice scream” by Artaud.

Indeterminacy: Theater Piece #1
Before the Living Theatre championed Artaud’s work and before the publication of the English translation of The Thèatre et son double [The Theater and Its Double] by M. C. Richards (1958), Artaud was the subject of a robust transatlantic exchange between Pierre Boulez, John Cage, David Tudor, and Richards. In the summer of 1952 at Black Mountain College, Richards gave a reading of her translation-in-progress, which inspired Cage’s Theater Piece #1. Generally described as the first happening, the work maintains mythic status because of its scant archival documentation. The exhibition traces the importance of Artaud for Theater Piece #1 through the presentation of works by Robert Rauschenberg and Franz Kline in addition to extensive documentation, including letters, photographs, program notes, and musical scores.

Concrete Impurities
Under the influence of Artaud, Swedish poet Öyvind Fahlström published the first concrete poetry manifesto in 1953. In São Paulo in 1952, Augusto de Campos, his brother Haroldo de Campos, and Décio Pignatari formed the Noigandres group. These poets were interested in the efficiency of communication, yet their poetry reveals impurities through redoubled meanings and bodily references. In neighboring Rio de Janeiro, poet and critic Ferreira Gullar was reading Artaud. The encounter would further Gullar’s visual deconstruction of discourse, and he would eventually spatialize language and physically activate the reader in works such as the poemas espaciais [spatial poems]. Artists Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica similarly explored the work of art’s embodied reception. By the mid-1970s, Oiticica even claimed to be the “son of Nietzsche and stepson of Artaud.”

The show also outlines Antonin Artaud’s heritage in the international artistic ground beyond the three main focuses that articulate the show. This is the case of Swedish writer Öyvind Fahlström, who, under his influence, developed the first concrete poetry manifesto in 1953, that is also on display.

On the exhibition’s epilogue, two sides of the anti-psychiatry movements are depicted. First, the one in Brasil lead by Nise da Silveira. The doctor knew Artaud’s work and opened a painting workshop in order to stimulate her patients’ creativity. In 1952, thanks to her impulse, the Museu de Imagens do Inconsciente (“Museu of Images of the Unconscious”) was founded. This gallery relates this tendency with the work of Lygia Clark, who in the seventies made therapy a material for her art. On display there are photographs, letters and documents, press cuts and audiovisual material, such as the documentary Memória do Corpo (“Memoria del cuerpo”, 1984) or Leon Hirszman’s trilogy Imagens do Inconsciente (“Images of the Unconscious”, 1986).

Another gallery shows the anti-psychiatry movements, lead by the lettrists after Isidore Isou’s forced institutionalization in 1968. After his reclusion, Isou published Antonin Artaud torturé par les psychiatres and Maurice Lemaître founded La revue de psychokladologie et de psychothéie. On display there are some examples of the posters, leaflets, pamphlets and books that were part of the lettrist campaign against the psychiatrist that treated both Artaud and Isou, Gaston Ferdière. Writer and pedagogue Fernand Deligny developed an alternative therapy based on dramatization, play and creative activity. Also shown, the film Deligny shot in 1971, Le moindre geste (“The slightest gesture”), whose main character is an autistic child that flees the psychiatric hospital, presenting mental illness with no melodrama. The exhibition closes with another record by Artaud, Les malades et les médecin (“The patients and the doctors”, 1946).

As the curator explains, “Specters of Artaud seeks to establish an alternative genealogy, a hauntology, that charts the comings and goings of Artaud’s ghost in the 1950s, a time when visual artists, poets, writers, and composers drew eclectically and selectively from his work. Another way of understanding the heritage of the historic avant-garde after the end of World War II is at the core of this exhibition. In the 1950s Artaud’s theories intersected with a burgeoning field of interdisciplinary practices that developed alternative models of modernism at midcentury. By incorporating Artaud’s ideas into their work, these artists demonstrate the importance of rethinking the history of art and the place of Artaud’s specter within it.

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