Pierre Klossowski (1905-2001): Drawing
cujus abditis adhuc vitiis congruebat. -Tacitus
Claiming not to be a writer, philosopher, or even an artist, "but first, foremost, and always, a monomaniac," Pierre Klossowski (1905-2001) has long remained a cultish figure, better known for his literary works yet ultimately unclassifiable. He was born in Paris to parents of Polish origin who raised Pierre and his younger brother Balthazar (who would become famous as a painter under the name Balthus) between France, Germany, and Switzerland immersed in fine art, music, and literature. Their father was a painter, art critic, and specialist in 19th century art history and their mother, a painter and student of Bonnard. The brothers were weaned on culture, nourished by a milieu of artists, poets, and intellectuals, and encouraged by their mother's lover, Rainer Maria Rilke, to pursue the arts - Balthus with a paintbrush and Pierre, at first, with words. Pierre became an accomplished translator (of Hölderlin, Kafka, Nietzsche, and Virgil, among others) and an erudite philosophical essayist, finding intellectual exchange in the Surrealists and, more lastingly, in its dissident faction grouped around Georges Bataille. A bout of religious fervor struck him during the years of the Occupation and Klossowski turned to theology, spending several years living as a seminarian with the Dominican order. Having decided against monastic life, he met and married Denise Marie Roberte Morin-Sinclair in 1947. She and Catholicism would everywhere haunt his future work. A book on the Marquis de Sade read through a theological lens, Sade, mon prochain (1947), and his first novel, La Vocation suspendue (1950), no less imbued with religious questioning, followed. For Roberte ce soir (1954), his second novel and the first of an erotic trilogy introducing the character "Roberte" inspired by his wife, Klossowski's publisher advised him to produce a deluxe, illustrated edition to be sold by subscription so as to avoid French censorship. Balthus proposed a set of illustrations, but they didn't satisfy his brother who ended up drawing his own clumsy lead pencil sketches to accompany the publication. Thus began a slippery imbrication of textual and visual narrativites.
Klossowski continued to draw and, at the encouragement of friends such as Bataille, Alberto Giacometti, and André Masson, he showed his drawings in a small private exhibition in 1956. It was more than a decade later, in 1967, that he first exhibited his works publicly. By 1972, the critically acclaimed author had given up novel writing altogether in order to devote himself fully to drawing. This "absolute rupture with writing," as he called it, also accompanied a move from the monochromatic lines of lead pencil to the soft hues of color pencils. Although critics in the period saw them all simply as "bad" drawings, Klossowski's graphic work insisted on a formal vocabulary that refused both belle forme and the shock of the new of avant-gardism. Some 300 works made over 40 years trace Klossowski's engagement with his peculiar brand of drawing - eschewing the technical training, ease of coverage, saturation of colors, and more permanent support of painting. Often working on sheets of paper spread directly on the floor, he insisted on making his pencil drawings nearly life-size - recognizing, of course, that this was a particularly demanding and time-consuming combination. But their size, and thus their engagement with the viewer's own body, was crucial, as was the choice of pencil. Klossowski appreciated the precision of his unskilled lead or color line - the shades didn't spread or soften and there was nothing polished about the result. One can see every shaky, untutored, and incomplete stroke the artist made on any given page. A series of colored lines in the form of "Roberte" would not convince anyone they were actually looking through a window onto a world with a woman in it. And this is exactly how Klossowski wanted it.
Let it be said, Klossowski's drawings are odd. Look at La cuisine de Gilles (1976) in which an effeminate boy is fondled and bitten fireside by the 15th century nobleman Gilles de Rais, infamous for his murderous sexual debauchery, necrophilia, and unshakable Catholic faith. Look at Roberte, naked and sleeping with a fully dressed, wand-waving lilliputian Gulliver on her knees in Roberte et Gulliver I, (1980). Look, in Tarquin et Lucrèce (1976), at the flattened space from which Tarquin is supposed to be emerging, the way Lucrecia's leg slides off her improbable bed, or the way, despite the struggle, one of her ankles remains delicately covered. There is something both absurd and strangely disquieting about Klossowski's large-scale erotic renderings, a fact compounded by their lack of perspective, technical sophistication, and finish. In his graphic oeuvre, one will not find a single landscape or still life, no pretty Arcadias and no studies of baskets of fruit. Klossowski made a specialty of overtly theatrical tableaux vivants. In them, figures appear off balance and out of proportion, frequently supplicating, reprimanding or seducing (and gesturing with their other hand against this at that same time), and often in some state of undress. They look as if they are suspended - in action and in another time.
In their subject matter as in their style, the drawings relentlessly evoke long outmoded places, moments, and forms: Classical Greece, Late Antiquity, Early Renaissance frescos, Sadean decadence, sinuous Baroque poses, Catholic ritual. Repetition and citation are central to these artifacts. As if announcing this, the atypical drawing Le grand renfermement II (1988) juxtaposes a pantheon of disparate temporalities, religious and secular figures, and drawn citations from the author-artist's real and fictive worlds, including a rendition of Leonardo da Vinci's Renaissance panel painting of Virgin and child with St. Anne (1510) in one corner and a reduced-size version of one of Klossowski's early portraits, Georges Bataille (1955) in another. Klossowski drew a number of portraits of friends (Bataille, Roland Barthes, Louis René des Forêts, André Gide…) but, for the most part, his drawings are stages in which his literary characters appear. He draws and redraws Roberte above all, but also, Diane, Lucrecia, or Judith (who all appear with the unmistakable likeness of Klossowski's wife, model, and muse, Denise), as well as the young Ogier, Tarquin, Gulliver, the Marquis de Sade, and any number of clerics, saints, and dwarfs. Androgynous women and effeminate boys inhabit the world of mystical visions, moral instruction, theological initiation, and carnal corruption that Klossowski speaks of in his novels. His drawings thus inescapably recall his literary works, which are themselves filled with descriptions of paintings, photographs, and projected images. Depicting characters from Klossowski's final novel Le Baphomet (1965), the drawings La Tour de la Méditation (1976) and Ogier morigénant le frère Damiens (1990) portray scenes of erotic ambiguity in contexts lined with the symbols of religious order (Christian crosses, ecclesiastical dress, Latin church text…). This mix of nudity, sexual innuendo, and theological references - so characteristic of his oeuvre - should make the images shocking, difficult, or scandalous. But in their strangeness and curious instability, they manage to be endlessly puzzling and captivating instead. Untranslatable from or into words, Klossowski's drawings are never mere illustrations of his novels and, invariably, they resist and retell the written narratives from which they seem to emerge.
Admired and defended by some of France's most renowned thinkers, including Maurice Blanchot, Gilles Deleuze, and Michel Foucault, Klossowski's graphic works have nevertheless remained largely misunderstood, ignored, and invisible in the history of art. Dense in their references and little like anything else of their era, they are hard to categorize. Yet, it is precisely in their troubling of categories and coherence that the full significance of this oeuvre emerges. Repetitious, anachronistic, and internally contradictory in their forms, the drawings also combine fragile, often pieced-together sheets of paper with large-scale forms, keeping in tension precarity and grandeur. They combine an awkward, seemingly amateurish style with extremely cultivated references, bringing together hesitancy and seriousness. They combine fantastic, pornographic scenes with an utterly un-arousing stiffness, orchestrating a sense of seduction and absurdity, animation and immobility. Only the sum of such incongruous combinations could provide a fitting stage for the presentation of Klossowski's monomaniacal preoccupation (and one of modern Western society's most fundamental oppositions): the meeting of the erotic and the sacred.
Elena Filipovic is a Paris based independent curator and art historian completing a study on Marcel Duchamp and the museum. In the spring of 2001, she guest-curated Marcel Duchamp: On Display for Zabriskie Gallery.