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THE LONG ROAD TO SELF-KNOWLEDGE
From a young age, Henri Michaux (b. 1899, Namur, Belgium; d. 1984, Paris) strived to understand his self nature and the nature of the world around him. His life and work were based on a constant process of self-exploration.
This Didaktika online section explores his forays into the subconscious, his bonds with other cultures, and the importance he placed on music, written language and the painting medium.
TRAVELING THROUGH THE SUBCONSCIOUS
Do you want to learn what your self is? Disconnect. Withdraw to your inside. You’ll learn by yourself what’s crucial for you…
Self-exploration is a constant quest in Henri Michaux’s creative practice, and one he engaged in throughout his life. An important part of this search focused on finding ways to establish a connection with his subconscious, in an attempt to free himself from self-control and to experiment with the artistic creativity that such introspection can lead to.
To that end, Michaux experimented with a variety of techniques, such as meditation and guided daydreams, which allowed him to reach altered states of consciousness. He also engaged occasionally in a controlled consumption of substances such as mescaline, in collaboration with professionals in the field of psychiatry, and notably doctor Julian de Ajuriaguerra, whom he befriended in Paris in the 1950s. His Mescaline Drawings, created between 1955 and 1959–60 and on view in gallery 307, are of an abstract nature and are examples of the works he created from his experience with this kind of substance. Michaux did not paint directly under their influence; the speed and dynamism of the visions he experienced made such an attempt difficult. He was, however, able to jot down some notes that only he could understand, and would paint once the effects had become minimal or had subsided, as a memory and testimony of the experience.
JULIÁN DE AJURIAGUERRA OCHANDIANO
Julián de Ajuriaguerra (b. 1911, Bilbao; d. 1993, Villefranque, France) was a major Basque scientist and one of the most important psychiatrists in contemporary history. He met Michaux in Paris and collaborated on his mescaline experiments by documenting and analyzing the effects of this substance on the artist.
Based on these experiences he wrote and published, together with F. Jaeggi, the essay Le poète Henri Michaux et les drogues hallucinogènes. Contribution à la connaissance des psychoses toxiques, expériences et découvertes du poète Henri Michaux (1963).
WHAT IS MESCALINE?
Mescaline is a psychoactive substance obtained from plants that can be found in certain varieties of cactus, such as peyote cactus, which has been used by Native Americans for both medicinal and ritual purposes.
Consumption of this substance—which can have adverse effects—extended to Western society in the 19th century, around the time of the birth of psychiatry as a field of medicine. Doctors, thinkers, and artists would use it in numerous experiments.
1930–31 In Asia. At last his voyage[...] India [...] Indonesia, China [...] countries about which he will then have to think and ruminate for years.
As a young man, Henri Michaux discovered that in order to progress towards self-knowledge he would first need to free himself of the socio-cultural barriers that shaped his way of thinking. This would lead him to explore non-western cultures and primitive art, and to become a tireless traveler who would journey through various continents. Of all his travels, his trip to Asia in 1930–31 would have the strongest effect on his work. On this voyage he went to India, China, and Japan, and it inspired his book entitled A Barbarian in Asia. It also sparked his lifelong interest in Eastern art, culture, and philosophy.
Music, the art of behavior […] Eight minutes of folk music say more about an unknown people than a hundred pages of notes and writings. [It is] the most revealing psychological document.
Music is central to Henri Michaux’s aesthetic explorations. Through music, the artist was able to connect with the present moment and achieve deep states of meditation. As a result, he would often engage in pictorial activities to the sound of music.
His taste in music ran along two main lines: non-western folk music, which he came into contact with during his travels and helped him discover new rhythms and instruments; and contemporary minimalist, serialist, noise, and concrete music, developed by composers such as Alban Berg and Karlheinz Stockhausen, whom he admired.
Michaux shared the rhythms of Eastern and African music with his friends, as well as traditional, religious, and tribal melodies from many regions across the globe. Important composers and artists of the time were part of his close circle, including painter and sculptor Jean Dubuffet, to whom he gave many recordings.
MUSIC COMPOSITIONS INSPIRED BY MICHAUX'S WORK
Just as Henri Michaux was fascinated by the world of sound, many composers were attracted to writing musical adaptations of his works. Important figures such as Pierre Boulez and Witold Lutosławski endeavored to reflect the essence of some of Michaux’s poems in their music, while others paid him tribute posthumously, such as Giacinto Scelsi in his String Quartet no. 5. And Boulez, who was usually quite critical of most authors who wrote about music, tended to praise Michaux’s texts and music criticism.
Henri Michaux also experimented with musical improvisation, though he left no record of this activity other than his writings and the recollections of his neighbors. For his improvisations, Michaux relied mainly on the piano and a number of percussion instruments he had acquired through his travels— among them, the tam tam and the kalimba—as well as any other wood object that could work as a makeshift instrument.
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE WRITTEN LANGUAGE
I write to course through myself. Painting, composing, writing: to course through myself. That is where the adventure of being in life lies.
Despite a natural talent for writing, at first Henri Michaux did not want to devote himself to it, judging that it distanced him from free expression, which he considered essential. Nevertheless, he began from time to time to publish writings on art and literature in the Belgian magazine Le Disque vert, which he would eventually co-edit in 1925, once settled in Paris.
For Michaux, writing was not an end in itself, but a medium that allowed him to explore and reflect on the expressive possibilities of language. He cultivated prose poetry, which allowed for greater experimentation and let him create characters and settings that strayed from conventional reality (he wrote short, one- and two-paragraph stories inspired by his paintings) and actively seek new ways to depart from established protocol and grammar (for example, he invented words for which he alone understood the meaning).
While exploring the possibilities of language, Henri Michaux became interested in the graphic side of writing and calligraphy, the shapes of letters. In this regard, he was inspired by the calligraphic nature of Chinese and Japanese characters that he discovered on his travels, and which he would adapt in his painting in an attempt to create his own visual register. What at first were words, over time became images.
As for living creatures and things, who has not wished to get a fuller, better, different grasp on them, not with words, not with phonemes or onomatopoeias, but with graphic signs?
In painting, Henri Michaux discovered a medium that freed him from words, in which he could experiment with a new language that allowed him to express his inner world in a more direct and spontaneous manner. As a result, Michaux’s paintings were quick and dynamic.
To that end, he worked mainly with highly liquid mediums, such as ink and watercolor, which gave him greater speed of movement. He created compositions full of rhythm, gesture, and signs that often represent recognizable figures such as people or animals, as well as abstract forms he created based on his memories of the altered states of consciousness he had experimented.
CONFERENCE JULIÁN DE AJURIAGUERRA AND HENRI MICHAUX
Thursday, February 22, 6:30 pm
Joseba Mikel Aguirre Oar, a disciple of Julián de Ajuriaguerra, will talk about the relationship between the Bilbao-born psychiatrist and the French artist and poet. Ajuriaguerra assisted Michaux in his experiments with psychedelic drugs, especially mescaline, which resulted in one of his most intriguing works, Miserable Miracle.
TEXTS BY HENRI MICHAUX
Thursday, April 26, 7:00 pm
Michaux’s texts played a crucial role in his career. In this activity, members of the Poetalia will recite excerpts from his travel journals, poems and short stories.
TALK - CREATIVE PROCESS. MARIE CHOUINARD AND DANCE IN HENRI MICHAUX
Friday, May 4, 7:00 pm
The renowned Canadian dancer and choreographer Marie Chouinard created a contemporary dance piece for her Montreal-based dance company, inspired by Michaux’s Mouvements (1951). A member of the company will unveil the secrets of this piece. Chouinard and her dance company are a global reference in contemporary dance.
Audio guide and adapted guides
The audio guides, available at the Museum entrance, provide further information on the works in each exhibition.
Ask at the Information desk for audio/video guides for people with cognitive, hearing and/or visual impairments.
Free quick tours on the artworks exhibited. Check times, topics, and available languages at the Information desk.
Tickets: Free admission. Min. 5 people, max. 20 (first come, first served; no prior reservation). Groups will not be admitted