Henri Michaux, 'Untitled Chinese Ink Drawing' 1961

Henri Michaux
Untitled Chinese Ink Drawing 1961
Ink on paper
support: 746 x 1099 mm frame: 781 x 1130 x 38 mm
Purchased 1963© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002

One evening Henri Michaux heard on the radio “an exceptionally abstract programme”. Voices spoke in measured tones about the history of metaphysics intermingling with nuclear physics and the newest discoveries concerning the constitution of matter and the birth of the universe. Almost (almost) without realising it, Michaux picked up his pencil and began to draw. He would go on to describe how this drawing started to “undo” the drawings he had been making for months. Guided by voices, he changed the weight and curvature of his graphic gestures. Stroke by stroke, the marks on the paper started to command a kind of attention that had eluded him. Line by line, he ended up creating what he called a visual “situation” by displaying, negating and erasing, at once, the images he felt manifesting within him as he tried to grasp, with less and less assurance, the swarm of words gathering in the air. By pursuing these elusive words on to paper, Michaux said he was joining “the grand and noble exalting adventure of elucidating the universe in its entirety”.

Is Untitled Chinese Ink Drawing 1961 that adventure? It certainly looks as though it is. The globular black marks that cover the drawing and are supported by smears and smudges of ink create, in an instant, the image of a universe humming with noise. And yet like most of Michaux’s work, the longer Untitled captures your attention, the more it changes. The ground slowly gives way to figures, until the drawing transforms into a negative imprint of a painting by Brueghel. Instead of a universe, it becomes an expansive grassy pasture filled with human-like shadows fighting, or falling to the ground, or getting drunk, or entangling themselves and generally making a mess of things.

Michaux’s work has a way of doing that. Resemblances dissemble with time and a bit of focus. Like his writings, his drawings are constantly turning into something else. They refuse to settle into anything in particular: echo chambers on paper. But they hold shape and display a strange clarity. This is what is most unsettling in his practice. In his book Miserable Miracle, he takes mescaline in order to write. But he doesn’t write for the sake of expressing some inner truth about himself through the hallucinatory experience, nor does he want merely to describe the strange and disturbing images that are conjured by the drugs. He writes about his experience of fighting to stay mindful and rational in the throes of being intoxicated. He wanted to write about the tension that resulted from not giving into the drug, while taking the drug. Quixotic to say the least. Yet what unfolds in Miserable Miracle is some of the most dramatic prose about the struggle for nothing in particular ever written.

Obstacle qui excite l’ardeur. This is perhaps why Untitled looks the way that it does. Unlike Pollock, the marks feel decidedly unexpressionistic. They appear rather stunted or compressed. This is the inner resistance in Michaux, fighting the urge to express, in order more fully to embody. In a sense, one expresses only what one already knows. But what Michaux is after is not what he knows, but what he does not. Ignorances. Diversions. Aberrations. These are undiscovered territories that he wanted to reach. So he looked for things such as drugs or voices from the radio detailing scientific and philosophical concepts (same difference, right?) to create emotional, aesthetic and conceptual frictions for the writings and drawings to work against. The essential unsettledness in his work is the sedimentation – in form – of this struggle situated at the heart of everything he made. In Untitled, every mark is the embodiment of a wish to resist what it is, to better become what it wants to be.

Michaux has always been a source of pleasure for me. One of the four books I took along during a trip to Iraq right before the second Gulf War invasion in 2003 was Ecuador, his travel journal published in 1929. Reading this in Baghdad on the eve of an illegal and immoral military invasion, waiting in a dilapidated hotel next to the Tigris river for the start of a press conference by international activists pleading for someone, anyone, to stop the US from invading Iraq, while listening to the hotel lobby speakers blaring Uday Hussein’s pop radio station (Missy Elliott was on), it seemed to me that Michaux was more realist than surrealist. And his breezy yet precise writing style was an important antidote to the heaviness of the words I listened to and situations I found myself in during my stay in the city. The order and time were both out of joint, and factions left and right conspired to march forward, for and against the war, without a breath or break to marvel at the absurdity of the coming conflict.

Filmmaker Robert Bresson once said the supernatural is the natural precisely rendered. Doesn’t this capture Michaux’s essence perfectly?

What is a resemblance without dissemblance?
A drawing with no fight in it is a bore.
It is incomplete. Everyone gets this, right?
Henri Michaux

Thgir, siht steg enoyreve. Etelpmocni si ti.*

*Author’s note: there is a minor tradition in an obscure neighbourhood of poetry, referred to as using the “witch alphabet”, that spells words and sentences backwards. This line I consider the most private view I have of Michaux.