Jean-Paul Sartre: The Fanatic as Critic

French philosopher, playwright and novelist Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) wrote criticism of literature and art. Sartre’s art criticism is a small section of his large literary output. Comprising volume 7 of the Seagull Sartre Library, On Modern Art collects six long essays by Sartre on art of his period. The subjects are Alexander Calder, André Masson, Wols, Alberto Giacometti (twice) and Robert Lapoujade. The texts were written between 1948 and 1963.  

In a widely read article of 1948, Sartre masterfully summons the essence of Giacometti, finding something essential and primal in his search to conjure a human presence out of matter. The Biblical connotations of making man from clay are never far from Sartre’s evocations. He quotes the artist saying, “I was happy with them, but they were made to last only a few hours.” The author manages to spend almost as many words rhapsodising the “plump contour of a marble haunch” (that Giacometti eschewed) as he does describing the sculptor’s wizened forms. Sartre’s approach is not art historical but rather evocative and philosophical, reaching for the essence of the art and implications for thought on these topics. A typically Existential view is the importance of humanity as a measuring stick. “[…] human beings possess absolute dimensions for other human beings. If a man walks away from me, he does not seem to grow smaller, but his qualities seem rather to condense while his ‘bearing’ remains intact. If he draws near to me, he does not grow larger, but his qualities open out.” This observation follows Giacometti’s comment that “Distance should at least, then, effect its contraction in all three dimensions. But it is breadth and depth that are affected; height remains intact.”

Calder’s mobiles are evoked through a reference to nature through the eye of a poet. “Valéry said the sea is always beginning over again. One of Calder’s objects is like the sea and just as spellbinding: always beginning over again, always new. A passing glance is not enough; you must live with it, be bewitched by it.” Once again, Sartre knew the artist and could call upon his memories of encountering the art in the presence of the artist.

Masson and Wols have both sunk in terms of appreciation. What seemed innovative art turned out to be innovative but poor art. Masson is more impressive in theory than practice. He was a leading practitioner of Surrealism, who developed the automatist method of applying paint or glue at random and then interpreting the marks in a way that echoes the Rorschach test. The automatist practice was developed over 1926 by Masson and Ernst; Rorschach published his method in 1921. Masson produced art that rode the line dividing the temperate and the histrionic, frequently crossing into the latter. His collaboration with Georges Bataille was the most controversial and stimulating part of his career.

While Jean Fautrier and Jean Dubuffet – other painters of highly textured Modernist paintings – have remained highly admired (and highly valued), Wols has slipped from view. He seems more of an amateur, a dabbler or dilletante. The small size of his paintings, lack of ambition, repetitiveness and the emphasis on technique over content mark Wols’s dainty paintings as minor works by a minor artist.  Sartre writes engaging about Wols the man. “I got to know Wols in 1945. He was bald and had a bottle and a knapsack. In the knapsack there was the world, his concern; in the bottle, his death. He had been handsome but he wasn’t any longer: at thirty-three you would have taken him for fifty, were it not for the youthful sadness of his eyes. No one, himself included, thought he would live to a ripe old age.” He died in 1951, at the age of 38, dead of alcoholism. Sartre does well to compare Wols to Klee, another painter who worked on a small scale. “Klee is an angel and Wols a poor devil. The one creates or recreates the marvels of this world, the other experiences its marvellous horror. All Klee’s good fortune conspired to create his one misfortune: happiness remains his limitation. All Wols’ misfortunes gave him his single piece of good fortune: his misery is boundless.” Sartre perceives in Wols’s cramped frenetic paintings a giddy vertigo and nauseating lack of fixed reference points – something sickly and self-absorbed. While Klee’s world is full of things, beings and places, Wols’s is on the verge of nothingness. Sometimes, one imagines Wols compulsively trying to block out the gaping blankness of an empty sheet or board in an act motivated by horror vacui. One can imagine the hungover Wols (face pale, stomach tight) hunched over his painting, dabbing, dribbling, scraping away, driven by animal anxiety to distract himself from his state.   

Robert Lapoujade (1921-1993) is not so much forgotten in the anglosphere, more never noticed. He was a French painter who worked in the tachiste style, making pictures that are diffuse, with repeated dabs of strong colour on a neutral ground. Some are abstract; the portraits are semi-abstract; some scenes of crowd have energy, though they lack the hypnotic repetition of Henri Michaux’s ink drawings. Paradoxically, it is Lapoujade’s undistinguished paintings that prompt Sartre’s best (and longest) essay in this collection. The artist’s subjects were crowds rioting regarding the civil war in Algeria and this leads Sartre to consider the political angle of art. Sartre’s politics are evident only in the Lapoujade essay. He relies on his impressions and does not refer much to aesthetic and art-historical considerations. Of course, that is not what one would go to Sartre for. It is to Sartre’s benefit, as he is better suited to a more wide-ranging and discursive approach than anything narrowly art historical.

Sartre accuses Titian of excessive tact. His work for princes marked Titian as a dissembler of history in service of the aristocracy. “On these grounds, I regard Tiziano Vecellio as a betrayer: he forced his brush to render tranquil horrors, painless pain and deathless dead: it is his fault that Beauty is a traitor to humanity and that it sides with kings. If a pig-headed painter with a room overlooking a triage camp paints fruit bowls, then that is not so serious: he sins by omission. The real crime is to paint the triage camp as though it were a fruit bowl.” It is a great piece of rhetoric and nonsense art criticism in service of Marxism. Sartre claims for Lapoujade the position of class solidarity: “Yet, amidst the human presences embodied in his canvases, he is the first not to claim any privilege.” It is revealing that it is – alone in this collection – the ecstasy of angry protest in the cause of Algerian independence that elicits from Sartre a paean in stirring prose. It is the annihilation of the self in the instance of collective action that moves Sartre (advocate of murder of Europeans in the Arab nationalist cause and Maoist to his dying breath) to excitement. Sartre was less dangerous around pictures than he was around human beings.  

Jean-Paul Sartre, Chris Turner (trans.), On Modern Art, 2021, Seagull Books (distr. University of Chicago Press), paperback, 126pp, £9.99/$12.50, ISBN 978 0857 429 100

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