Componimento Inculto

“How Modern Artists Caught the Doodle Bug.” Apollo, 18 April 2023.

Imagine Dubuffet or Basquiat scrawling on the back of a Michelangelo and you get a good idea of the first impressions of a visitor to ‘Gribouillage/Scarabocchio: From Leonardo da Vinci to Cy Twombly’, currently at the Beaux-Arts de Paris. Curated by Francesca Alberti and Diane H. Bodart, the show explores the striking, perhaps even disquieting resemblance between doodles discovered on works by the Renaissance masters and those of modern artists.

This sumptuously presented exhibition maintains an achronological arrangement throughout. The antique cast of a profile carved into a segment of wall from Alberto Giacometti’s Paris studio hangs cheek by jowl, at the entrance, with the drawing of another profile, discovered — along with a profusion of small but intricate sketches — behind a fresco by Benozzo Gozzoli (1471–72). On a nearby partition, works by Cy Twombly (1967) are flanked by Claude Lorrain drafts (1630) and a Delacroix lithograph (1827), its thick borders alive with the artist’s marginalia.

The question that hangs over the entire exhibition is whether the doodles of the past should be interpreted in the light of artistic modernity. In the Renaissance, prevailing wisdom dictated that the hand was the instrument of reason. By contrast, Leonardo da Vinci himself described his sketching technique as componimento inculto — literally, uncultivated compositions. Leonardo advocated letting go; allowing the hand to drift on the page — guided by happenstance or what we would now call the unconscious — until latent figures surface. The finest example of this vagabond style is Stefano della Bella’s 1648 study of a young man falling to his death, seemingly submerged by the swirling scribbles from which he emerges.

The exhibition abounds in variations on Leonardo’s template: André Masson’s surrealist automatic drawings, Robert Breer’s minimalist cartoon, A Man and His Dog Out for Air (1957), or Henri Michaux’s suitably hypnotic pieces produced under the influence of mescaline. Physical constraints are frequently adopted in pursuit of spontaneity: Salvador Dalí drawing while pleasuring himself; Willem de Kooning electing to draw with his left hand or with several pencils at the same time. A film of 1995 shows Robert Morris performing one of his numerous Blind Time compositions. The film finds an echo in Brassaï’s photograph of Henri Matisse from 1939, standing bold upright beside the face he has just scrawled on a door with closed eyes and a piece of chalk, while also calling to mind the spiritualism that inspired Victor Hugo’s ink sketches.

For Paul Klee, who naturally looms large here, the activities of drawing and writing were identical. Many of the works on display — those of Klee, Giacometti, Masson, Twombly, and Steinberg in particular — conjure up Roland Barthes’ famous essays on the artistic tradition of ‘illegible’ writing, which, he felt, held out the utopian promise of a world free from the tyranny of preordained meaning.

But the exhibition also revels in the subversive charge of doodling. The section where Renaissance sketches are presented vertically on counters — allowing you to see the official production on one side and the unofficial on the other — provides the illicit thrill of a peep show. Images are sometimes of a scatological or sexual nature. There are caricatures of cuckolds with outsize horns from the 17th century and photographs of criminals’ tattoos taken by the French police around the Second World War. A diminutive sketch by Michelangelo represents a young man defecating. James Ensor draws a man urinating against a graffitied wall on which someone has scrawled ‘Ensor is mad’! The artistic production of the mentally ill is explored, as well as that of bored office clerks and children. ‘It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child,’ said Picasso. Visiting this exhibition, one gets the impression that he was by no means the only one.

Like its subject matter, ‘Gribouillage’ is an irreverent, provocative and playful show, but it also reaffirms the power that doodles hold over us in the modern era. As George Steiner once remarked, ‘modernity often prefers the sketch to the finished painting’ — both because it gets us closer to the original inspiration of the artist and because it remains unfinished, in the process of becoming.

Here is a different, longer, unpublished version of the above review:

To misquote Borges, all artists create their own precursors. ‘Gribouillage de Léonard de Vinci à Cy Twombly’, currently at the Beaux-Arts de Paris, seems predicated on such a principle. The premise of this sumptuous exhibition, curated by Francesca Alberti and Diane H. Bodart, is the striking — at times even disquieting — resemblance between doodles discovered on works by the Renaissance masters and those of prominent modern artists. Imagine Dubuffet or Basquiat scrawling on the back of a Michelangelo and you get a good idea of the visitor’s initial impression, sustained by a studiously achronological arrangement, with ancient and modern juxtaposed throughout. The antique cast of a profile carved into a segment of wall from Alberto Giacometti’s Paris studio hangs cheek by jowl, at the entrance, with the drawing of another profile, discovered — along with a profusion of small but intricate sketches — behind a fresco by Benozzo Gozzoli (1471-1472). On a nearby partition, works by Cy Twombly (1967) are flanked by Claude Lorrain drafts (1630) and a Delacroix lithograph (1827), its thick borders alive with the artist’s marginalia. Thus reframed, should the doodles of yesteryear be reinterpreted à rebours, in the light of artistic modernity? This question, that hangs over the entire exhibition, is illustrated by Inge Morath’s black-and-white photograph of Giacometti holding up an empty frame to showcase a white figure daubed on his studio wall.

The existence of a rival tradition — whose origins may stretch back to the cave paintings painstakingly reproduced by Henri Breuil or the Pompeian graffiti photographed by Brassaï, both on display here — is embodied by Leonardo da Vinci himself. The sketching technique he described as componimento inculto — literally, uncultivated compositions — ran counter to the then prevailing notion that the artist’s hand should be the instrument of reason. Contrarily, Leonardo advocated letting go; allowing the hand to drift on the page — guided by happenstance or what we would now call the unconscious — until latent figures surface from the tohubohu. The finest example of this vagabond style is Steffano della Bella’s 1648 study of a young man falling to his death, seemingly submerged by the swirling scribbles he emerges from. Robert Breer’s minimalist cartoon, A Man and His Dog Out for Air (1957), comes a close second.

The exhibition abounds in variations on Leonardo’s template: André Masson’s surrealist automatic drawings, or Henri Michaux’s suitably hypnotic pieces produced under the influence of mescaline. Physical constraints are frequently adopted in pursuit of spontaneity: Salvador Dalí drawing while pleasuring himself; Willem de Kooning electing to draw with his left hand or with several pencils at the same time. A 1995 film shows Robert Morris, eyes wide shut, performing, as it were, one of his numerous Blind Time compositions. The latter echoes Brassaï’s 1939 photograph of Henri Matisse standing bold upright beside the face he has just scrawled on a door with closed eyes and a piece of chalk. (We are not far off from the spiritualism that inspired Victor Hugo’s ink sketches.) Svetlana and Igor Kopystiansky’s short film, Steps Sole Sound (1979), put me in mind of Robert Walser — the infamous picture of footsteps in the snow leading up to the dead writer’s prone body — or the Ann Quin character who abandons conventional art in favour of making ‘paintings with her footprints in the snow’.

Doodling, especially in the shape of scribbles and squiggles, lies at the intersection of art and writing. It is the liminal space where the one becomes the other. For Paul Klee, who naturally looms large here, both activities were identical. For most preliterate children too, presumably. Many of the works on display — those of Klee, Giacometti, Masson, Twombly, and Steinberg in particular — conjure up Roland Barthes’ famous essays on the artistic tradition of ‘illegible’ writing, which, he felt, held out the utopian promise of a world free from the tyranny of preordained meaning. The best way to sever the connection between hand and intellect is indeed by deactivating the communicative powers of language itself.

If doodling has gradually come out of the closet and taken centre stage, this sprawling exhibition manages to retain part of its subversive charge. The section where Renaissance sketches are presented vertically on counters — allowing you to see the official production on one side and the unofficial on the other — provides the illicit thrill of a peep show. Images are sometimes of a scatological or sexual nature. There are dick pics from the 16th century, caricatures of cuckolds with outsize horns from the 17th, and photographs of criminals’ tattoos taken by the French police around the Second World War. A diminutive sketch by Michelangelo represents a young man defecating. James Ensor draws a man urinating against a graffitied wall on which someone has scrawled ‘Ensor is mad’! The artistic production of the mentally ill is explored, as well as that of children or bored office clerks à la Bartleby.

Like its subject matter, ‘Gribouillage’ is an irreverent, provocative and ludic show, but it is also an important one. As soon as Western art ceased to be mere imitation of the great works of the past — as soon as it became modern — a glaring gap opened up between inspiration and execution. This is why, as George Steiner remarks, ‘modernity often prefers the sketch to the finished painting’. Not only does it seem closer to the source of origin, but its unfinished nature means that it remains in the process of becoming. Doodling preserves art’s potentiality by gesturing to a future finished work as yet untainted by instantiation.

The Doodles of Yesteryear

This appeared in the June 2017 issue of Literary Review, pp. 9-10.

Read All About It

At first blush, the author of ‘The Death of the Author’ may seem a somewhat paradoxical choice of subject for a biographer. Au contraire, argues Tiphaine Samoyault in Barthes: A Biography, originally published in France in 2015. Just shy of five hundred pages long, excluding notes and index, it is, to date, the most comprehensive portrait of Barthes’s life and times. Calling it definitive — which in many respects it is — would be to miss the point, however. Memories being open to constant recomposition, Barthes felt that lives should not be written in stone. He hoped his own might be limited to a few ‘biographemes’ – ‘a few details, a few preferences, a few inflections’ – which, ‘like Epicurean atoms’, would perhaps touch ‘some future body, destined to the same dispersion’. The ideal biography would thus come in the form of a book in a box, like something by Marc Saporta or B S Johnson, the unbound pages of which could be shuffled around like the index cards Barthes wrote on. The stand-alone paragraphs of his own memoir, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (1975), were arranged in alphabetical order so as to obviate narrative continuity and its attendant teleological bias. While cleaving to a traditional, broadly chronological format, Samoyault goes to great lengths to ensure that Barthes does not end up pickled in aspic. In a prologue, she retraces his last steps on the day in 1980 when he was knocked over by a van, an accident that led to his demise (from pulmonary complications) one month later. ‘The Death of Barthes’ is, in effect, cordoned off, lest his life be reduced, retrospectively, to a fixed, univocal reading, akin to the ‘“message” of the Author-God’ he had once lambasted.

Barthes regarded death as the only event that truly eludes language. All the rest is discourse, as he argued in Mythologies (1957), a book in which he took reading out of the library and into the world. Rather than drawing up a laundry list of the different hats he wore, we should probably regard Barthes, above all else, as a reader. In bringing literature to life (‘every text is eternally written here and now’), the act of reading rewrites ‘the text of the work within the text of our lives’. Textual pleasure climaxes, he contends, when a book ‘succeeds in writing fragments of our own daily lives’ — when, in other words, it reads us. He even confessed to deriving more enjoyment from the ‘abrasions’ his distracted perusal imprinted upon ‘the fine surface’ of a text than from the narrative itself. It is through the prism of these abrasions — the interface between life and art — that Samoyault succeeds in getting a purchase on Barthes’s eclectic oeuvre.

Having famously described literature as the space ‘where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes’, Barthes increasingly sought out the inscription of this physical presence, ‘the hand as it writes’. Samoyault traces his penchant for self-portraiture back to the time he spent in sanatoria and the repeated diets he went on, turning his body ‘into an object for analysis’, which he read ‘like a text’. She avers that ‘going back to the body’ implied ‘viewing writing as a material production of signs that placed it on the same level as any other artistic practice’. Between 1971 and 1975, Barthes painted every day, inspired by the ‘absolute corporeal gesture’ of calligraphy he had discovered in Japan, a partly fantasised land that seemed to herald ‘a civilisation of the signifier’. Samoyault insists that this activity was ‘inseparable from his thoughts about writing’. In several essays and reviews, Barthes reflects upon the tradition of ‘illegible writing’ in the works of artists such as Henri Michaux, Cy Twombly or Bernard Réquichot, going as far as to claim that André Masson’s semiography achieved the ‘utopia of the Text’. His own graphic productions — he was reluctant to speak of artworks, preferring to see them as a form of handicraft — were, according to Samoyault, neither words nor paintings, but the ‘union of the two’. Describing them (there are 380 paintings and drawings by Barthes in the Bibliothèque Nationale’s archive), she observes that they ‘can be very close to writing when it forgets to make sense, when it turns into a trace, remembers the productions of childhood, the scribbling’. If they are indeed reminiscent of the doodles of yesteryear, they are also — perhaps more importantly — post-verbal. She explains that they allow us to enter a world free from ‘any formed language, any preconstructed thought’ – a world ‘exempt from meaning’, to use Barthes’s recurring phrase. In his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France in 1977, he described language as ‘fascist’ because it compels us to think and talk in a given manner. The world is therefore always already written; the ultimate purpose of literature, in his eyes, is ‘to unexpress the expressible’, to take the intransitivity of writing to its logical conclusion: ‘For writing to be manifest in its truth (and not in its instrumentality) it must be illegible’.

Samoyault suggests that Barthes’s life can be partly explained by what it lacked. Together with his homosexuality and Protestant roots, tuberculosis (‘incontestably the major event of his life’) led to missed opportunities, contributing to a lifelong sense of marginalisation. Barthes spoke about the ‘great Oedipal frustration’ of having no father figure to slay. His mother’s death, in 1977, accelerated the autobiographical — and indeed literary — turn that began with the publication of Empire of Signs in 1970. ‘It is the intimate which seeks utterance in me,’ Barthes declared, though whether this urge would have taken the shape of a novel remains a moot point. Although Barthes left only an eight-page outline for his projected ‘Vita Nova’, Samoyault believes that much of the material that has been published posthumously, as well as large chunks of the unpublished writings in archives she was given access to, would eventually have found their way into some magnum opus.

Barring a few approximations — inevitable given the Herculean task — Andrew Brown’s translation is excellent. Chris Turner has also done a sterling job with Seagull Books’ beautifully presented five-volume series of essays by Barthes and interviews with him (£14.50 each), which is the perfect companion piece to the biography. Organised thematically, these occasional articles, reviews and texts are all briefly but expertly introduced, and in the process are made available to an anglophone audience for the first time. Some, like those where Barthes agonises over the definition of left-wing literature, are very much of their time, but they provide snapshots of his mind at work and confirm Samoyault’s premise that the unity of his life and oeuvre is to be found in the ‘desire to write’.