The sleeping artist

In the three final chapters of The Erl-King, Michel Tournier describes three positions adopted by a boarding-school’s boys: on their back, the stomach or their side. The postures of these ing boys are described as three ways of embracing sleep. They are presented as three different possible approches to life. Children go to sleep in the same way as some people embark on travel or begin painting: as simple means of existence.

I like to believe that one can be an artist in the same way as a sleeping child, whose mysterious dreams are artworks. Beautiful in their existence, awestruck and conscienceless.

First posture: lateral. By sleeping on its side, the child reverts to his feotal state, closes up and dreams for himself. In this instance his art is akin to a shy, personal quest. It is a centripetal art, with its navel at the centre. Second posture: on the back. The child, probably with greater confidence, watches the sky, quite openly. He is possibly dreaming of an ascension. A worldly artist, in other words, and a centrifugal art, targeted at others. Third posture: on the stomach. In this position, the child-artist is neither truly in communion with himself, nor turned towards others. He is making a self-offering to the earth, towards which he is turning. His artwork is, in a sense, the mirror-image of the depth towards which it is turned. Here we are dealing with a telluric artist, focused on the earth’s entrails, with which his dreams resonate.

It so happens that Maurice Béjart’s ballet Les Sept danses grecques opens with a sequence in which, before dancing, the dancers also thanks the ground which supports them, by brushing against it. Do they also sleep on their stomachs to embrace the earth? There is no doubt Béjart’s dance is anchored to the ground, and turned towards it.

The child-artist with his three sleeping postures is an image that interests me, because it can allow us to understand and to appreciate painting (and dancing). I myself was guided by it in my progress as an artist. Each of these postures is an attitude that one can adopt in the face of the world and thus, by extension, in the face of a work of art. They have taught me to look at my work, and to judge it. Initial years as a painter saw me in the posture of the child sleeping on his side, inward-looking and indifferent to the outside eye. Tucked up like a foetus, confidant in my pictorial stance, my judgement on my work was strictly personal. Such a painting is good, because I find it good. A self-centered point of view, always quite tempting for anyone not wishing to submit to the vagaries of criticism. Also quite an easy stance, concealing itself behind a certain vision of artistic creation to avoid submitting to any form of questioning.

The inadequacies of this ducking stance became apparent and I turned towards the public, with exhibitions, among other factors, prompting me in that direction. At that stage I was as a child sleeping on his back, turned towards people and accepting the judgment and endorsement of others on my work. Social recognition. This work is good because it is regarded as such by others. A pleasing stance, as it opens one up to the appreciation of others. A mercantile stance, too, since it amounts to painting what the public demands. And, consequently, an inadequate stance, since the public will never ask for anything that does not already exist.

One is then left to adopt the third stance, that of a child sleeping on his stomach. Contact with reality, here, is close and comforting. One’s cheek, huddled against the sheet, provides a soothing stability. When he sleeps on his stomach, the child-artist draws support from the ground, as does a dancer about to take flight. At this stage, the artwork no longer requires external validation, since it provides its own demonstration. It is justified in its telluric foundation, and consequently, it is justified.

The foetus seeks strength in himself, a worldly individual believes he can find it in others. A child of the earth draws it from the ground, like a Béjart dancer. For him, painting amounts to building on the energy provided by the world, in order to establish a relationship with it that will engender an artwork. Does one’s work still require any subsequent endorsement? That, at any rate, is no longer what is at stake. One is reminded here of Friday slipping through tree roots so that nature can engender their symbiosis (in Friday, another work by Tournier).

I would like to paint like a child sleeping on his stomach, too be this spirit, guided by its dreams, not fully wake. Human nature is expressing itself through these child-artists. They are its chosen voice.