The title of this exhibition about Henri Michaux (Namur, 1899 – Paris, 1984) is a parody of the famous title of his 1933 book – A Barbarian in Asia. Belgian by birth, but naturalized French in 1955 Henri Michaux was one of the great French-language poets of the 20th century, creating an experimental language, completely idiosyncratic and unique to him. Alongside his written work, which fills three large volumes of the prestigious series La Pléiade, from the late 1920s he developed a considerable body of abstract expressionist painting, considered by Michel Tapié one of the most striking examples of what he called l’art autre – ‘different art’.
The core of the exhibition has a deliberately incantatory, repetitive tone, similar to that in Michaux’s music, which has been lost forever – very much in consonance with the spirit of the poet-painter, a man of obsessions, a man of series, capable of reducing the world to an ideogram, and exploring an inner landscape and its abysses. A man who at the same time, as his biographer Jean-Pierre Martin points out, had a ‘gargantuan, insatiable appetite’, a man of infinite curiosity.
The exhibition is complemented with a selection of books: some monographs, some exhibition catalogues, Michaux’s works translated into Polish, the score of Trzy Poematy Henri Michaux (1963) by Witold Lutosławski, and the corresponding recording Trois poèmes d’Henri Michaux, released in the German series Studio Reihe Neuer Musik; a few selected pieces from his ample collection of Oriental books, Lao Tse, Milarepa, the Mexican Miguel Covarrubias’ Island of Bali, Alexandra David-Néel, René Grousset, Léon Wieger and others, plus the Upanishads, plus treatises on yoga, plus a Hokusai’s book published in 1817, and the very beautiful album of eight lithographs by the Chinese painter Zao Wou-Ki, with the poet’s commentaries, published in 1950 by Robert J. Godet.
Juan Manuel Bonet
The poetry of Henri Michaux, the ‘inhabitant of inner spaces’, is quite well known in Poland. The fine translations by Julia Hartwig, Jerzy Lisowski and Artur Międzyrzecki induct the Polish reader into the world of the artist’s extraordinary, unique imagination, where we meet a Certain Plume, travel to the Land of Magic or make a journey to Great Garaband, where else. And although the phenomenon of Michaux’s lyrical work has for years been the subject of insightful analysis, it eludes unambiguous interpretation while invariably occupying a high place in poetry. Here is how Julia Hartwig describes this ‘place’:
This place is separate, and his work incomparable to anything else. It shows us a world abruptly unveiled, reveals scenes that inspire horror, and above all it brings us closer to an image of ourselves, confronted with the inevitable choice between meek submissiveness and often hopeless opposition. […] What emerges from these poems is the face of a man seeking his own truth and heedless to how he will be judged by us. How is it possible then that, despite this striking separateness that he has reserved for himself, we feel that we have so much in common with him?
A Barbarian in Kraków: Henri Michaux is a personal, auteur exhibition prepared for the Manggha Museum by Juan Manuel Bonet, a Spanish art critic and poet, a leading expert on Michaux’s oeuvre. Bonet’s selection of exhibits is dominated – not surprisingly – by pictorial compositions inspired by the art of the Far East, China and Japan, because those are exactly the works that feel at home in our Museum’s spaces.
Michaux began his career as a painter three years after his debut as a poet, unconvinced that using only one language of artistic expression was right. His spontaneous compositions in ink on paper, sometimes in characteristic horizontal formats, showing an affinity to Japanese paintings, and above all his suggestive brushstrokes show the power of the other kind of ‘writing’ used by the poet-painter. The ‘writing’ which he described so in 1971:
I paint to integrate myself; to connect to what calls to me, what writing [écriture] leaves aside, untouched; also to connect in some other way with that world which falls asleep unless one collaborates with it using a few primary movements. […]
The kind of little explosions that had always taken place inside me, which I had not known what to do about, unbearable and inexpressible by literary means, found their vent… finally when I provided them with painting techniques.
‘Any Japanese painting looks like a resurrection.’ (Henri Michaux)
‘I too was in Japan. A man is a cripple there if he doesn’t know how to signify with signs.’ (Henri Michaux)
‘To be a calligrapher, as one might be a landscape painter. Even better, for in China a calligrapher is considered the salt of the earth.’ (Henri Michaux)
‘But it is Chinese painting that enters into me in depth, converts me. As soon as I see it, I become a complete adept of the world of signs and lines.’ (Henri Michaux)
Works loaned from:
Micheline Phankim, Henri Michaux Archives
Galerie Lelong, Paris
Galerie Thessa Herold, Paris
Monika Poliwka Bonet
Juan Manuel Bonet