The Eye of Tapié de Céleyran: L’invitation au voyage by Baptiste Brun

Ever since Nietzsche and Dada, art has been seen as being absolutely the most inhuman of adventures: only a work worthy of this name gives justification to the present-day pioneers, and what it offers has little to do with pleasure but much rather with the most vertiginous challenge man has had to face, which is to look deep into himself without the slightest safeguard. At that price, a good many apparently unshakeable notions are called into question, if not swept away once and for all.

Michel Tapié, Un art autre: Où il s’agit de nouveaux dévidages du réel, Paris, Gabriel-Giraud et fils, 1952

The name Céleyran refers to a property in the south of France, not far from Narbonne, on the banks of the river Aude and just a few kilometres from the sea. It was here that the artist, musician, art critic, and broker Michel Tapié de Céleyran spent his childhood. If we leave aside its toponymic origin and the family ramifications it obviously evokes – the château of the same name was the summer residence of the young Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, painter-to-be of sulphurous reputation and Tapié’s great-grand cousin – Céleyran undoubtedly sounds like an ‘invitation au voyage’. The magical effect of assonance transports the listener or the reader from the shores of the Mediterranean to the coast of Ceylon. Moreover, magic and voyage are two keywords that Tapié constantly conjured up and repeated like an incantation in texts devoted to the artists he loved. To amuse oneself by listing these – Jean Fautrier, Jean Dubuffet, Wols, Henri Michaux, Georges Mathieu, Karel Appel, Camille Bryen, Giuseppe Capogrossi, Sam Francis, Hans Hartung, Jean-Paul Riopelle, and Pierre Soulages, but also Victor Brauner, Jackson Pollock, and Francis Picabia – is immediately to draw up the inventory of painting in the years immediately after the war, to chant an entire pantheon which, although not comprehensive, nevertheless brings into view those artists who, in the era of reconstruction, gave us what was most striking in the realm of art. Tapié was not mistaken – tireless promoter of the ‘informel’ as he was, and later of Gutai, an art he ardently desired to be ‘autre’.

His dense writing, shot through with harshness and sometimes a degree of affectation, was often held against him in terms of the impression people had of his work. The conceptual vagueness of his lexicon and his near-manic references to St John of the Cross, Nietzsche, and Raymond Roussel annoyed Dubuffet and Michaux, who liked precision and fiercely defended their singularity. But a re-reading of his career, which was until recently little known except by a few aficionados, leaves no room for doubt. Tapié had an eye, one of the best in the world of transatlantic art in the fifties.[i] Trained in the sphere of surrealism, at the crossroads of jazz (which he played with passion) and poetry and painting (which he cultivated on the eve of war at the heart of the group Les Réverbères), Tapié was moreover one of the most zealous promoters of Dubuffet and Michaux at a time when their work was known only to a select circle. In May 1946 he was involved in the second solo exhibition of the former at the René Drouin Gallery, contributing to the catalogue of Mirobolus, Macadam et Cie. Two years later, in the same gallery, he literally materialized three of the latter’s exorcism poems collected under the evocative and incantatory title Poésie pour pouvoir, by engraving them in linoleum in the form of illuminations. In parallel to this, Drouin put on the first important exhibition of the poet’s drawings and paintings.

It was with this gallery owner that Tapié was to start out on his career. He was stunned by Jean Fautrier’s exhibition ‘Otages’, organised by Drouin and Malraux in the autumn of 1945. It was Dubuffet, whom he had met a few months earlier, who took him to it. The painter of Mirobolus blanc became a sort of mentor to the young bassist. He helped him to write, but especially to become known as an art critic, then gave him the keys to the Foyer de l’Art Brut in the winter of 1947–48, in the basement of the gallery on the Place Vendôme. From then on, Tapié was able to put his talent to good use, earning the confidence of René Drouin, advising him and confirming his choices. The role suited him down to the ground – later with Paul Facchetti from 1951 on and then with Rodolphe Stadler in the mid-1950s. His position as artistic adviser went hand in hand with an original way of mounting exhibitions. Prefiguring the persona of the curator, Michel Tapié organised outstanding exhibitions. One thinks in particular of ‘Véhémences confrontées’ shown at the Nina Dausset Gallery in March 1952, for which Tapié represented the ultimate and most contemporary exhibition curator.[ii] The invitation card and booklet accompanying the event described it as ‘the confrontation of the extreme tendencies of the non-figurative painting of the United States, Italy, and Paris, presented by Michel Tapié’. As a perfect impresario or director, he exhibited the paintings all together, confident in the exercise of his eye and of that ‘something’ that we call instinct, shying away from imposing too much control. In this respect, the Francis Picabia retrospective that he put on with René Drouin in 1949 reminds us just how fine-tuned Tapié’s knowledge of Dadaism was, and reminds us too of his contribution towards a better knowledge of the movement at the moment of its historicisation. In his writing, the innumerable references made to the work of Tristan Tzara or Marcel Duchamp bear witness to this openly declared lineage. For him, ‘Dada was the big break’.[iii] The movement confirmed the demise of the old order of art and set out into what was to go beyond it. Such reiterated acts of homage on Tapié’s part sought to reflect a desire for the advent of something new that might shine forth beyond Dada, as a follow-up to the horrors of war. Moreover, the opus of another heir of Dadaism, ‘Dubuffet the Terrible’ as he liked to call him, caused him to write of Dubuffet’s work: ‘It was given to him to see that otherness’,[iv] something he would subsequently seek to define. It was with this in mind that he was led to approach the artists and the art that he was the first to call ‘informel’.

The term ‘informel’, which is too broad a term, as Tapié admitted, was inspired by the emergence of artistic productions that bore no resemblance to anything that had come before. What did Michel Tapié see in this? The excessive, almost obsequious insistence on matter on the part of Fautrier and Dubuffet endangered the classical notion of form, which had already taken a knocking at the hands of the cubist movement as well as from the attack launched by the Dadaists. To start from the formless became a credo as well as a formidable method by which the body displayed itself to view indirectly. Under cover of the commemoration of what was unspeakable about the war (Fautrier), or of legitimate provocation in the face of a cultural order to be rejected at all costs (Dubuffet), these painters undermined the very foundations of painting by refusing the grid and by asserting the importance of pictorial matter and the gesture that moves it. New spaces opened up. These invoke haptics, where touch and movement come together. And what do the painting habits of Wols, Mathieu, Hartung, Soulages, and Riopelle share, if not the possibility for those seeing them, looking at them, scrutinising them, to feel within themselves the gestures and rhythms that these artists imprint on the surface of the canvas? Dubuffet wrote in 1945 that the condition for a work to be successful, inventive, and powerful lay in this: that the viewer, whom he called the user of the painting, should be in a position of re-acting.[v] We do not doubt that Tapié very often re-acted the paintings of those who he loved to defend and to exhibit. And if there is something ‘informel’ about it, as he writes, it is not so much in the absence of form (the canvas is saturated in a form ‘deeply renewed’) that it lies, but in the impossibility of ‘telling’ these paintings properly; that is to say, describing them according to the methods customarily used by the critics.[vi] The astonishment that these painters provoked and continue to provoke has its roots in a form of suspension of judgement that their works arouse. Faced with this superposition of gestures and temporalities, silence jostles with astonishment which, in Fautrier, Wols, Soulages, or Hartung, blurs what was considered to be one of the duties of an artist: to prioritise legibility by means of smooth craftsmanship. Not that these works are illegible in the sense of confusion, on the contrary, but because in them something opened violently, creating a gash that rendered visible that ‘espace autre’ that Tapié knew how to recognise.

This task of surveyor of the new post-war sensibility, of which Tapié was one of the foremost practitioners, went with a search for talents that were capable of opening up this space, or rather these spaces. Once he had recognised them, Tapié confronted them. There too, the lexicon he employed is an indicator of his taste, particularly that of vehemence. The exhibition ‘Véhémences confrontées’ records this extreme vitality, this passionate energy that the exhibited works transmitted. It is also the expression of a will towards internationalisation distrustful of nationalist rivalries, and paradoxically fascinated by the United States. Tapié knew the American scene through Georges Mathieu and Alfonso Ossorio, whom Dubuffet had introduced to him. Opened in quick succession in March 1952, ‘Véhémences confrontées’ and the Jackson Pollock exhibition which Tapié put on at the Paul Facchetti Gallery evidenced an audacious spirit of openness towards the innovations of American abstract expressionism. Few Parisians and even fewer French people shared it at the time. In particular, these exhibitions sought to define a community of the ‘informel’ covering both shores of the Atlantic. The articles written later for Georges Mathieu and destined for the transatlantic luxury review United States Lines: Paris Review confirm his knowledge of what was happening in New York. This is no doubt a manifestation of the taste for adventure mentioned above that would, it would seem, lead him to Japan.

It was after reading the Gutai newsletters passed on to him by Japanese painters Domoto and Imai, who were living in Paris, that he went there for the first time in 1957 accompanied by Georges Mathieu. The adventure here was about discovery, a play of echoes, and confrontation, certainly, but also confirmation. Because his contact with the Gutai artists, with whom the bonds strengthened with each trip that followed, seemed to endorse one of Tapié’s profound intuitions: art is the product of its era, and the closest of artistic affinities can be woven between, for example, the work of Pierre Soulages and that of Kazuo Shiraga, from one point to another of the human world. Despite the fact that they draw upon different cultural sources, this formal closeness between their works met a requirement stated in Un art autre: ‘More specifically in the so-called artistic domain, I sought out the company of works chosen only for their high degree of “magicity”; any other artistic quality can be excused only in terms of what it contributes to this optimum magical return.’[vii] The obscure term ‘magicity’ is admittedly difficult to grasp, but it is an expression that confirms, once again, the strange effect that these works had on those who witnessed their emergence. In short, it concerns a magic operation by which what is offered to the eye does not merely represent but rather causes the body and the soul to experience something in a concrete manner (is not Gutai translated, precisely, by the notion of ‘concrete’?) beyond the barrier of language – a magic that continues to operate today.

Confrontation rhymes with the taste for danger, adventure with risk-taking. Tapié was aware of this, aware also of the exercise of his own eye and its aesthetic and historical value, indubitable as it is sixty years later. In 1961, returning from the Land of the Rising Sun and as a preface to a publication devoted to the Japanese avant-garde (a joint project with his Japanese counterpart Tôre Haga), Tapié wrote in an assured and, with hindsight, fair manner: ‘A certain type of Japanese art criticism, moreover generally connected to international organisations of art critics, will take exception to big traditional names that they refuse to consider from the authentic standpoint of artistic quality rubbing shoulders with those of an avant-garde which, up to the last few months, was not recognised because it refused to play the game of their avant-garde: to these critics, I issue an invitation to come back in a few years, as I did to their Western counterparts ten years ago.’[viii]

Baptiste Brun

PhD in the History of Art


[i] See in particular Juliette Evezard, ‘Un art autre: Le rêve de Michel Tapié de Céleyran, il profeta de l’art informel (1937–1987): Une nouvelle forme du système marchand – critique’, thesis defended 16 January 2015, supervisor Th. Dufrêne, Université Paris-Ouest-Nanterre-La Défense, forthcoming.

[ii] Astrid Handa-Gagnard, ‘Art autre, informel et internationalisation’, in Un art autre? Artistes autour de Michel Tapié, une exposition, Christie’s Paris, 31 January – 29 February 2012, Paris, Christie’s, 2012, pp. 34 sq.

[iii] Michel Tapié, Un art autre: Où il s’agit de nouveaux dévidages du réel, Paris, Gabriel-Giraud et fils, 1952.

[iv] Tapié, Un art autre. See also ‘Dubuffet, the Terrible’, New Post, Nov. 1950; republished in Paintings by Jean Dubuffet, Pierre Matisse Gallery, 9 January – 3 February 1951, New York, Pierre Matisse, 1951.

[v] Jean Dubuffet, ‘Notes pour les fins lettrés’, Prospectus aux amateurs de tout genre, Paris, Gallimard, 1946, p. 75.

[vi] Here it is essential to refer to Hubert Damisch, ‘L’Informel’ [1970], Fenêtre jaune cadmium, Paris, Seuil, 1984, p. 131.

[vii] Tapié, Un art autre.

[viii] Michel Tapié and Tôre Haga, Continuité et avant-garde au Japon, Turin, Edizioni d’Arte Fretelli Pozzo, 1961.