09 September 2009


Antonin Artaud is perhaps one of the most peculiar artists I have come across so far. Artaud is considered a Surrealist artist, who's dabbled in film/cinema, drawing, acting and playwright. Though the artbook focuses on his drawings, most of my research has uncovered erratic, obscure, sometimes disturbing cinematic and theatrical accomplishments. There is no understanding to his work without first exploring the personal history of this artist- specifically, Artaud's psychological deterioration, beginning shortly after birth. 

Antoine Marie Joseph Artaud (better known as Antonin Artaud) was born in 1896 in Marseille, France. At 4, he suffered from a severe case of meningitis, which left him with some psychosocial brain damage. He was also diagnosed with clinical depression, neuralgia (neuropathic pain) and stammering. He spent some time in and out of sanitariums, and though drafted to the army in 1916, he was quickly released due to mental instability. Antonin was prescribed opiates, to which he quickly became addicted to. He maintained this addiction throughout his life. As Artaud came into adulthood, he moved to Paris and began studying the theater. This marked the beginning of his acting/ writing career. He formed friendships with some of the major surrealists artists and writers in Paris (namely Breton), who became major influences on his work. These artists later rejected Artaud due to his refusal to join the Communist party. 

At this time, Artaud formulated his "Theatre du Cruelle," a conceptual approach to the theater in which the stimulation of the senses overtakes the intellectual storytelling process. Translating to "Theater of Cruelty," Artaud was striving to cause "eroticism, cruelty, blood thirstiness, quest of violence, obsession with horror, dissolution of moral values, social hypocrisy, lies, false witness, sadism, perversion" yet at the same time a sense of liberation. He also published a book during this time, "The Theater and its Double," discussing a theory of theater as a kind of alternate universe equally as real as the one we live in. Aspects of his mental condition are certainly pervasive here, but I think it's more than that: Artaud is expressing an element of the human condition that is only magnified (not fabricated) under the influence of mental disease. We all have the discretion to establish a difference between reality and fantasy, and it is only a matter of opinion to which one of us is correct. In society he is labeled psychotic, yet in the art world we are able to visualize and internalize a disparate reality in a different light, a more humanizing and relatable fashion, in a way where we can arrive at a true appreciation for the routes of genius his mind took him through.

(If you're interested in his writings, I highly suggest you purchase a book of his work:
The Theater and Its Double, Selected Writings, I plan on buying the former)

In 1937 Artaud suffered from a mental break, was arrested and put in a straitjacket. From this time on he spent the majority of his time in various psychiatric wards.
Towards the end of his life in 1946, Artaud, was admitted into an asylum in which he received electro-shock treatment. Delivered by Dr. Gaston Ferdiere, this treatment caused a serious change in his mental state. Ferdiere encouraged art therapy, having Artaud draw and write frequently. Artaud produced many drawings at this time (which were exhibited at MoMA in 1997). 

In 1948, Artaud was diagnosed with intestinal cancer and died not long after in the psychiatric ward. He was alone, seated at the foot of his bed, holding his shoe. 
There have been many works created since that are influenced by Artaud's work, some of which I have come across and been admittedly quite disturbed by. His ability to warp reality, blur the distinction between eccentricity and insanity, and evoke wild discomfort are really unmatched. What a fascinating artist.

Below is his film "The Seashell and the Clergyman" (cut into three sections), an early work of his exploring cinematography a theatrical boundaries. A definite psychological self-portrait, Artaud presents seemingly normal scenes with elements of fantasy in a sinister, eerie portrayal. Especially at a time when themes of rape and murder were not prevalent in films and other modes of popular culture, this film extends accepted subjects to their furthest reach. 

I couldn't find a great amount of work from his later period (which makes this an interesting choice by the Artbook), but I found a self-portrait he did while under the care of Ferdiere. 

Here is another film I found on Youtube in which a student has used Artaud's work as a basis for his project (shot in 2004). Though not necessarily endorsing the film, I do find it interesting to see the type of interpretation that someone from the current decade has given to Artaud's work. It certainly does seem just like the type of film he would make were he alive and working presently.

Caution, depending on your level of sensitivity, you may feel this film disturbing and/or offensive. 

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