Double Image in the Work of Augustin Lesage, Painter-Medium. Connections between Written and Pictorial Productions of Hallucinating Psychotics. By Michel TERNOY
RESUME Augustin LESAGE (1876-1952) was born in the region of mines in Pas-de-Calais. Miner himself with no particular past, he heard, at the age of thirty-five, when he was breaking away coal in a narrow gallery, a voice telling him : “One day you will be a painter.” Inspired by what he called his “guides” and encouraged by spiritualists, Augustin LESAGE produced monumental work, more than eight hundred paintings in decorative style and of indeniable originality and aesthetic quality. Some of his canvases show compositions in which we can make out, behind meticulous decorative organization, anthropomorphic presence, ghostly and enigmatic. This duality, which characterizes, more or less explicitly, the whole of his production, recalls a formal quality found in the written and pictorial productions of hallucinated psychotics, that is a double image of undecidable identity. .
Key words : Augustin Lesage. Painting. Double image. Hallucination.
AUGUSTIN LESAGE (1876-1954) comes from a modest family of miners in Pas-de-Calais. He did not show any particular intellectual or artistic talent and did not have any other educational contacts than those provided to the workers in the mining village. He went to primary school in his village and after obtaining the primary leaving certificate, at the age of fourteen, he was employed as an aide in the mine. Between 1897 and 1900, he accomplished his military service and went back to work in the mine. In 1901, he married the daughter of a miner, with whom he had two children. AUGUSTIN LESAGE’S life seemed to be all lined up, without any surprise : a miner participating on life in the mining village, sufficiently recognized as a good worker and sociable enough to have been twice elected as a city council man in his community. There was nothing to hint at his future calling when in 1911, at the age of thirty-five years, while he was breaking away coal in a narrow gallery, he heard voices telling him : “One day you will be a painter.” He did not know what to think about this revelation, which repeated itself several times, and did not dare to speak about this either to his family or his friends who would consider him as crazy.
Worried, he would keep this experience to himself until spiritualism would not only deliver a reassuring explanation but also provide the framework for making this prophecy happen. In this period, a friend convinces him about the existence of spirits : “I said to myself : would there be a connection with my voices ?” During a séance invoking “spirits,” which he tries out with a few friends, all of them curious about occult sciences, he is designated as the medium of the group : it is he who receives supernatural “messages,” in which the former prediction is repeated : “One day, you will be a painter. Listen carefully to our advices, you will see that one day everything will be fulfilled as we have said.” In the course of other spiritualist séances, LESAGE, subjecting himself to the injunctions of those he called his “guides,” produced a few simple automatic sketches, first with pencil and crayon, later on a painting, always on paper. While nothing in his first attempts foretells this, LESAGE will make the decisive move which will project him, with no qualitative transition, in undertaking a monumental work, produced with great skillfulness and remarkable aesthetic sense. A new message urges him to paint on canvas, so he asks a friend to help him order the necessary material. As a result of a misunderstanding, he receives a piece of canvas of three meters by three meters. Embarrassed, he is about to cut it but his “guides” forbid him doing so. He fixes the canvas, which covers the entire wall, and begins painting without the least idea of what his paintbrush would bring about. For more than a year, LESAGE would spend almost all of his free time painting the big canvas, which will remain his masterwork, surprising in its dimensions, technical mastership and the richness of his ornamental style. Apart from painting, he would work also as a healer for a while ; laying on of his hands gave relief to crowds of patients (until two hundred a day), attracted by his reputation. From 1923, he abandoned his job in the mines for health reasons and devoted himself entirely to painting, accepting the proposal of patronage by JEAN MEYER, director of a spiritualist journal and the founder of Institut Métapsychique International, won over by what he considered as an an excellent example of mediumistic production. LESAGE’S reputation grew, partly thanks to active recognition of spiritualist cercles, which saw in his spontaneous artistic production a brilliant confirmation of their theses. From the beginning of his work and until the end of his life, LESAGE’S career thus depended on his spiritualist accolade as a “Painter-Medium.” He too sees himself as executing the orders of his “guides” or as an instrument of supernatural willpower leading his hand : “When I begin a canvas, I don’t know what my hand will paint. There is no moment when I know what will follow. (...) I do what they make me do (...) He who makes me paint uses me with no doubt as he would use his own hands when he was alive (...) There is nothing of me in my work, my work does not belong to me (...) The spirit uses directly my hands. “
Thus in the beginning LESAGE signs his sketches as “MARIE,” the first name of his young sister who died at the age of three years (when he was seven) ; he attributes his first canvases to LEONARDO DA VINCI, the following ones to MARIUS DE TYANE, a personality from the world of spirits. LESAGE paints his first canvas in 1952. His production comprises more than eight hundred works. Despite his notoriety, he kept a strong sense of his roots until the end of his life, maintaining his modest house in the mining village as a residence and studio, refusing any kind of commercial dealing with his works : when he did not give them away as presents, he sold them to the people of his own choice, basing the price on the cost of the material he used and the time he would spend painting the canvas, a calculation based on the hour rate of a miner. The purpose of this essay is not to reduce LESAGE to the theme of a double in his painting. Nevertheless, it is present in it in a recurrent fasion and in different modalities. Let us come back to his first canvas. It appears to be a happy and harmonious whole consisting of different series and pictorial sequences which all possess organizational unity and their own style. LESAGE tells us that he proceeded progressively, starting in the right-hand upper corner : “The spirit held me in this small square for three weeks in a row, without the possibility of moving further... My hand did not almost move, I was losing my patience.” We can see that the forms are created gradually, in a juxtaposition of diverse motifs generated and developed one after the other. As the work unfolds in front of us, the painting transforms itself from a world composed out of curvilinear lines to a different one based on symmetry, more and more clearly dominated by geometrical traces. LESAGE notes this sudden change, however with no explanation : “Afterwards, everything unfolded itself, the paintbrush moved from the left to the right, there was symmetry.” This structure, gradually asserted in the first canvas, would preserve its importance at a certain level in all of his paintings. Axial symmetry would play an important organizing role and suggests, even in his greatest paintings, a bipolar division in almost perfect doubles supported by a minimum of traced marks. In his following works, LESAGE would abandon this kind of composition consisting of different subseries developed in his first canvas, in order to create paintings, which are unified in their general structure, based on the use of axial symmetry (with the exception of a few works from 1927-1928). This unity is, however, accompanied by certain ambiguity, which the spectator can perceive in some works. While LESAGE notes that he never has the vision of the whole or a preliminary project, the spectator nevertheless perceives the existence of plastic unity. And in some of his paintings, there appears to be a strange figure hiding behind the level of the painted ornamental object which constitutes the painting ; this figure provokes a mixture of feelings. I call them the images of the double. The impression produced by these paintings goes back more to the revelation of human presence rather than to the representation of an image which would be directly discernible. If the production of double images is directly searched for by certain painters (f.g. the famous compositions of the seasons by G. ARCIMBOLDO), their obvious presence in certain works by LESAGE is not the result of a preliminary intention or a searched for effect. This anthropomorphic appearance becomes apparent especially if we face these huge canvases. Ghostly and enigmatic, it remains elusive and evanescent. What is painted and what offers itself to be seen - the accumulation and the organization of geometrical details - does not constitute itself as a significant entity while what forces itself upon us is the disturbing presence of what we could call the unrepresentable “Real.” The whole does not possess any explicitly signified coherence or obvious iconic (searched for) denotation ; as LESAGE has repeatedly asserted, there is no preconceived idea or some original intention to communicate a certain content. However, we can perceive underlying coherence, implicit but not deliberately masked, in fact unrealized (by LESAGE), because unintended and undiscovered : there is no realization - of this Real - either before or after. From this point of view, we can note that in his works LESAGE paints, makes something but doet not realize what he is doing (or, more precisely, does not realize ALL that he is doing). We can almost agree with him when he speaks about his way of painting : “I make what I am told to make (...) The spirit uses directly my hand.” His arm is guided, his hand executes without him directing the creation/realization of his work. This anthropomorphic presence, formal but indefinable, which in a way breaks up the apparent unity, characterizes his entire production. But it is particularly present in the first period (until the end of the 20s) and concerns especially the purely ornamental paintings. The general evolution of LESAGE’S work towards more rational style influences also this type of composition. The latent figures thus gradually lose their anthropomorphic prominence and transform themselves in more simplistic forms. In the works from the last period we can still make out momentary but gripping human forms in the cold mechanic organization. From the end of the 20s, LESAGE creates another type of double image of completely different compositional structure : instead of playing on both levels about which we have spoken previously, we see the development of composite paintings, in which figurative details are inserted in ornamental universe, mostly figures in medallions. They are all very different, especially in the beginning of this new style. For example, the portraits of DEBUSSY, celebrities or stars of the period are mixed with effigies from Egyptian or Greco-Roman antiquity. There follow a few religious themes based on theological imagery, but especially reproductions of Egyptian motifs, which will constitute the basis of LESAGE’S inspiration. LESAGE would use templates to outline his figures, which explains their identical dimensions, whichever the size of the canvas. This procedure, often of compensatory stereotypical appearance, enables LESAGE to employ different logic between the form and the content. In the first case, the spectator was destabilized because of a sort of “swinging movement” between two competing points of view. In the second case, the presence of very different representations functions as an attempt to materialize the previously elusive presence. Here the intrusion is personified and we can witness the transformation of the disturbing feeling, from the undefinable to the climate of mystery, carried by esoteric, spiritualist, supranatural or magical references and reinforced by their origin in the ancient times. This is why we can assert that while the issue remains the same, the logic changes, from the strange to the extraordinary. Esoteric interpretation replaces confrontation with the ineffable, spiritualist discourse transforms the obscure (l’occulté) into the occult. Augustin LESAGE’S existence and work are essentially characterized by the presence of the double. This modest miner who became a painter would carry through what he called his “mission” until the end of his life, together with a mode of life consistent with his origin. His works are essentially constituted by duplication based on the axis of vertical symmetry. His paintings have a double aspect : a presence appears behind appearances or attempts to impose itself through the introduction of heterogeneous elements. By his work LESAGE has not ceased to assert the fundamentally double nature of his experience and personality. He sees himself as carrying out inspirations of some spiritual other, whose manifestation he reveals to us, unbeknownst to him, in the non-figurative double images. LESAGE’S controlled work puts to the foreground certain qualities, which I have described elsewhere as characteristic of drawings created by hallucinated psychotics, whose productions I have studied within the framework of my art workshop in psychiatric hospitals. Double images are part of this specificity. Patients creating this kind of drawings or paintings see them as possessing undecidable identity. I would like to share with you the following example : a young man (hallucinatory psychosis) who made this painting, could not say whether it was “a head, a strainer, or numbers and letters,” to finally suggest that it was “all of this at the same time.” There is another example, a spontaneous drawing of a young hallucinated schizophrenic. He began by drawing the outlines of the central figure. To the empty chest, which looks like a square, he added two vertical lines saying “arms,” then he reconsidered his drawing, drew the horizontal lines and commented : “a window,” and from then on, he constructed an entire house around it. Of course, the style and simplicity of these two examples seem to be very far from LESAGE’S paintings. What they share in common is their proposal to consider simultaneously two points of view, which mutually exclude themselves. There is a vital difference in the quality of creative ressources and savoir-faire of the painter : where LESAGE, thanks to his skillfulness and artistic invention, introduces order and balance, our patients most often remain imprisoned in the disintegration of the psychotic processus.
The source of A. LESAGE’S quotations is fascicle no.3 of Publications de la Compagnie de l’Art brut and the presentation of the painter published at the occasion of the exhibition of his works at AUCHEL in 1988.
Société Française de Psychopathologie de l’Expression et d’Art Thérapie, Journées d’Étude Le double et ses miroirs cliniques, artistiques et scientifiques (The Double and Its Clinical, Artistic and Scientific Mirrors) October 20th and 21st, 2001, PARIS
This article was published in Revue Française de Psychiatrie et de Psychologie Médicale no. 80, November 2004, Editions MF, 8 rue Tronchet 75008 Paris, and reproduced here with the authorization of the Revue.
Michel TERNOY is Docteur d’État ès Lettres et Sciences Humaines Psychologist EPSM Val de Lys-Artois, 62350 SAINT-VENANT, former associated professor and member of the Laboratory of Applied Psychology, University of REIMS CHAMPAGNE-ARDENNE .