Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe reviews Simon Hantaï and the Reserves of Painting

Molly Warnock. Simon Hantaï and the Reserves of Painting. University Park, Penn.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2020. 280 pp.

Review by Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe

6 October 2021

Simon Hantaï left Hungary soon after the end of World War II and would remain in France for the rest of his life. He belongs to the first generation of French painters to be influenced as much by American artists as by European ones, and the paintings Jackson Pollock made in the years 1948–51 were the ones that inspired him the most. Before Pollock became a major influence for him his paintings were not unlike those of many of his contemporaries on either side of the Atlantic: figure paintings in which groups of people did or did not look out at the audience and which invoked Paul Cézanne’s awkward drawing or Henri Matisse’s almost pure color.                           

Like Pollock, Hantaï would do most of his work on the floor rather than the wall, and for the most part give up figuration—and also using brushes—for an allover format and style through which to reconsider and carry forward the ideas or themes of Cézanne and Matisse that already occupied his attention but in a way that was quite discontinuous with it. Two things in particular influenced him in this: surrealism and the Christian argument and ritual to which he returned when he gave up surrealism. Departing from the surrealist movement not long after associating himself with it, Hantaï believed that all surrealism did was turn the church’s hierarchy of values on its head, replacing the church’s “'absolute dogma’” with the surrealists’ “'relativism of experience’” (p. 99). He called this inverted spirituality “'magic’” (p. 66). 

The premise—stipulated by Maurice Merleau-Ponty and taken for granted in quite a different way by the surrealists—that painting and writing were originally the same thing is echoed in Hantaï’s Peinture (Écriture rose), which contains actual writing and also little marks which could be letters of the alphabet but aren’t and which for some (most) connect it to the surrealism he had come to abandon. The marks make clear that one difference between Pollock and Hantaï is that Pollock works fairly quickly and Hantaï quite slowly: Pollock because he wanted the viewer to experience painting as only loosely under control and Hantaï because he wanted the viewer to feel the laboriousness that is an important component of the work. After the break with surrealism Hantaï nearly always used a technique that involved some physical discomfort. The paintings he would make obliged him to spend a lot of time working on the floor, just as he would kneel in prayer to carry out instructions that came from a text by Gaston Fessard. Fessard was a Jesuit priest who was moved by Alexandre Kojève’s famous lectures on Hegel, which Molly Warnock says he saw as a “loosely dialectic” study of how history may be experienced as irreversible while also, or primarily, leading the reader towards the ahistorical or transcendent (p. 104). Fessard’s text encouraged one to follow a procedure designed to put one in touch with a speculative sense of the Virgin Mary’s subjectivity after the Crucifixion, a condition which cannot be straightforwardly depicted or described and therefore doesn’t appear in the Bible. Hantaï saw the Mass as a shared ritual in which, more than in any other, individuality gave way to collectivity. 

After Pollock, Hantaï invented ways to work that encouraged the viewer to get close to the surface of his paintings, which are often bigger than Pollock’s, dwarfing both the artist and the viewer. It is to this end that most of them were ostentatiously slow to make, much more a matter of the wrist than the arm, like writing as opposed to painting. Somewhere in the seventies he gave up the rather odd combinations of oil paint and ink that he had been using and substituted acrylic paint, which I think must have given him a surface that was much lumpier than before because acrylic dries so quickly. He would become friends with all sorts of intellectuals, including Jacques Lacan, Georges Didi-Huberman, Jean-Luc Nancy, Hélène Cixous, and Jacques Derrida.

Warnock’s achievement in bringing together Hantaï’s modernist ambition with his extremely conservative use for religion is enormous. She is thorough but never boring and never even for a moment suggests that there’s anything odd about the premises with which he works. I think, in conclusion, we may return to his beginnings. To me, the scraped or folded or otherwise oddly executed paintings transfer the notion of drawing from the image to the canvas as a whole, and this contributes to their recalling Cézanne’s awkward drawing. I note that when one shows reproductions of his work to an artist quite unfamiliar with it the first thing they notice tends to be the color. This leads one to Matisse, although for me Warnock’s insistence on Hantaï’s concern for the social also reminds me of Barnett Newman’s saying that if people would look at his work closely there would be world peace.

Like Cézanne and Matisse, the reserves—as in Heidegger’s description of the Rhine as a standing reserve or reservoir—of painting are to be found in the part of the painting that is unpainted: the white canvas that when left uncovered assists in adding depth to the painting for Cézanne and the white that Matisse recommends one leave around the objects being depicted to allow them to breathe. For Hantaï the parts of the canvas left unpainted in the scraped and the folding/crumpling pieces raise the question of the relationship of the unpainted to the painted, the unfinished to the never started, the part that is not continuous with the whole or continuous with it by being discontinuous. As Warnock helps us to see, Hantaï’s attitude to, or use for, the unpainted is central to his yearning for a “politics of ‘with’” that he shares with many or most of his agnostic friends (p. 251). Modernist, undoubtedly, but obviously not surrealist at all.