"Few graphic expressions in the twentieth century show the power and authentic inner necessity seen in the drawings of Antonin Artaud . . . they show the heightened sensibility and critical lucidity of a mind at odds with society and unable to compromise with its conventions." That is the standard Artaud defense, put forward by Margit Rowell, curator of the MoMA exhibition. The reason he needs defending is the stark diagnostic probability offered by Rowell: Artaud (1896-1948) "suffered from confabulatory paraphrenia, a delusional psychosis which is not accompanied by intellectual deterioration and in which some symptoms - hallucinations and confabulations - are close to those of schizophrenia."
Rowell invites us to view Artaud as one of the great "spiritual revolutionaries" of modern art, as Wassily Kandinsky called them - "solitary visionaries" articulating "the internal truth which only art can divine . . . which only art can express by those means of expression which are hers alone." Does Artaud belong among them? Or are his works on paper the visual ravings of the Artaud who "screamed deliriously as his argument disintegrated into crazy acting" during a lecture, and the Artaud who regarded "cruelty [as] a sort of rigorous discipline" that would be the basis for a new "physical and spatial poetry that has long been lacking in theater"?
Art and "aggressive cruelty," to use Rowell's phrase, were one and the same for Artaud. But the issue is whether Artaud was a prophet of social catastrophe, or whether it served his personal catastrophe, which had been in the making since the "nervous disorders" and "depression" of his adolescence, when he was diagnosed with hereditary syphilis and given the laudanum that began his lifelong drug addiction. (He eventually turned to heroin.) Apart from an early self-portrait (ca. 1915), the works in the exhibition were made immediately before, during, and after the Second World War, but it is equally important to note that they were made during Artaud's confinement in mental hospitals, where he received fifty-one electric shocks over a nineteen-month period and was diagnosed as suffering from "incurable paranoid delirium." The exhibition begins with the so-called "Spells," 1937-39, which seem, in their violence and terror, to herald the trauma of war. They are angry letters to real and imaginary friends - Artaud tried to bewitch them with cryptic emblems as well as words - written on paper that has been all but destroyed: ripped, punctured, and burned; splotched and smeared with ink and gouache. The second group of works (1944-46) carries the destruction into the image, which becomes a nightmarish "bouillabaisse of forms in the tower of Babel," to use the inscription on one of them. Finally, there are a number of portraits (1946-48), of varying degrees of expressive uniqueness, which seem to bespeak postwar - post-traumatic - exhaustion, ruin, depression. The self-portrait of May 11, 1946, and La Tete bleue (The blue head), another self-portrait made about the same time, are particularly extraordinary: what Artaud did to the paper of the "Spells" he now does to himself. He in effect shows the death throes of his psyche.
The question, then, is whether these works are simply cultural and aesthetic curiosities - the symptomatic products of a delusional psychotic - or whether they have an important place in modern art, where they hold their own intellectually, morally, and stylistically. The relation of art to madness has been an issue since antiquity - Plato assumed their inner connection in the Lysis - and has become an open issue in modernity, where the art of the insane has been celebrated as, in the words of Bernard Dorival, "equal in dignity, in quality, even in financial value" to any "major art." Are Artaud's works on paper "major art" because they are insane and insanity is disturbing to the bourgeoisie, or because their quality resides in the uniqueness of the artistic methods with which they mediate insanity? …