La Grande Image

Michel Weemans


Let us contemplate the concluding words of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Eye and Mind, which describe the basically incomplete state of a created work:

For if in painting or elsewhere we cannot establish a hierarchy of civilisations nor talk of progress, it is not because fate is holding us back, but rather that in some sense the first painting plumbed the future. If no painting completes the painting, if no work is absolutely complete, every created work changes, illuminates, fathoms, confirms, exalts, recreates and creates in advance all the others. If creative works are not secured, it is not just that like everything else they pass, it is because nearly all of them have their lives before them.(i)

This condition of ‘discompleteness’ (ii) and, so to speak, of impossible acquittal constitutes the singular lesson contained in the work of Henri Barande. The lesson teaches that the work remains discreet – the form of discretion that the philosopher Maurice Blanchot sees as awareness of divestiture and of the inappropriable. No picture completes the picture. But as Henri Barande would probably say, all works of art make this condition a possibility and use it to exercise freedom. If a painting begins by being incomplete, if it is non-complete at the start of its future, then the experiencing of it becomes part of time as well as place, a trail of indetermination, drawing an invisible line of non-acquittal that is also a driving force.

This intuition underlies one’s discovery of Barande’s work and its two faces: one hidden in shadows and made up of objects sculpted in raw, perishable matter, the other exposed to the light that hugs the surface of the pictures and their apophantic figures. From the very beginning, in order to reflect life, art assumes the property of recollection rooted in the pure experience of creation. At the age of five, the artist watched the exhumation of an archaeological fragment, which gave him the idea of trying to sculpt a mixture of sand, earth and bread. ‘Those fragments of suppressed power, formed by my fingers or picked up from the ground as my eye spied them, were the same shape as the faces painted on Phoenician necklaces. What was fascinating about the fragments I made was that they were haphazard, and often more archaic than the shapes I had access to.’ (iii) The compulsion to make sculptures coincided with his interest in things found on or underneath the ground, an interest in discovering the mystery and power of the objects in the archaeological sites of Carthage, where he spent his childhood. There he made forays into the Phoenician Tophet cemetery that the Romans ‘eradicated’ by covering it over with a vault. Entering through a hole, he gained access to a sepulchral darkness where he sensed the mysterious energy of objects that seemed to communicate with each other, along with the tension between a dominant culture and the one it quashed. His fascination for the vestiges of lost civilisations and their votive and cultural artefacts triggered an enthusiasm for ancient cultures and the archaeological excavations that revealed them. He insists that the earth ‘is still the world’s oldest museum, and its treasures aren’t so much buried as sublimated’. (iv)

Henri Barande made thousands of sculptures in the course of the following decades. (Fig 1.1) He stopped doing so when he decided to remove his ‘autistic’ (v) creations from sight by burying or destroying them. Since self-destruction is never just destruction alone,(vi) in 1994 the artist began to preserve some of his creations in ghostly form by incorporating them into paintings. He preserved a few highly poetic ensembles, but hid them from view. The proximity of the two sides of his work makes one think in terms of configurations, which he refers to as ‘tumbled out of time’ or ‘tombs’.


Inchoate likenesses

The groups of objects and sculptures are fashioned or sampled by the artist and established or merely perceived in a glance – a glance that they return. Derek Pullen has suggested that they are part of the Wunderkammer tradition.(vii) The analogy is attractive but misleading, since it refers not to a collection but to creations and their correspondence with nature. (viii) Barande’s small-scale sculptures stand side-by-side with small objects: fragments of stone and shells, bark, twisted elastic bands, pieces of marble, rock crystals, and figurines of opal or ivory. (Fig.1.2) When one notices the effects of juxtaposition, repetition and analogy, one grasps the basic principle of the work, which is to link the man-made with objects not fashioned by the human hand, and to link these in turn with the actual pictures. Dario Gamboni calls this principle the ‘potential image’. The potential image can be in the realm of possibility or not, but it still manifests an inchoate dimension requiring both active and subjective perception. It belongs to the wider category of the double image – one that can be perceived in two different ways, like the natural images formed by clouds or rocks, composite or reversible images, crypto-images or hidden ones. But unlike these, which offer themselves immediately to one’s gaze and once seen remain stable, the potential image remains latent, and its realisation depends on the viewer. (ix)

In this body of work, the configurations and proximities themselves are factors of the image. (Fig.1.3) One example is offered by the juxtaposition of a stone and a little oval sculpture made of bread and earth, with a knob and a few incisions forming a nose, a mouth and eyes. The proximity allows one to see in the tiny stone a profile, with perfectly formed lips, prominent nose, high cheekbones and a round eye. The placement of two sculpted heads reveals an archaic torso in polished marble the colour of pale skin. Elsewhere, the groupings elicit anthropomorphism: a root and a mineral fragment, a pebble and a pink shell polished by the sea transform themselves into a person or a warrior from the ancient world. (Fig.1.4; Fig.1.5) Some apparently modest-seeming items turn out to be visually very complex. A simple piece of root is capable of projecting an entire series of aspects. (Fig.1.6) The swelling of the wood and a few deep cracks indicate eyes, mouth and nose. Grafted onto this mask, like dry lichen, is the profile of a hybrid creature half-cat, half-satyr. Not so much a double image as a poly-icon, the root also elicits other metamorphoses, some sort of body surmounted by a veiled head: an elegantly striated mother-of-pearl shell. The face hovering between figure and non-figure – between found object and artefact, between accidental image and sculpted image – makes sense of the idea of ambiguity defined by belonging to two categories (as the Latin prefix ambo means) and by the disconcerting effect caused by the indeterminate. An echo of this is to be found in a portrait, sculpted in a composite material, that navigates the porous border between natural image and artefact. (Fig.1.7) A phallic obelisk of rock crystal, a Japanese reversible double-image sculpted in ivory, along with dendrites and marble plaques evoking Italian limestone paesine, recall the ancient fascination for nature imagery and the roots and landscape stones beloved of Chinese scholars. (Fig.1.2; Fig.1.8) The little blue cube here has symbolic value. (Fig.1.9) Its front is either at top left or at bottom right, depending on how one perceives it. A ‘seeing as’ in Wittgenstein’s words, that ‘does not enter perception’ but that conceals perception, ‘half visual experience, half thought’. (x) The potential images hidden in the artist’s work make us, due to the bi-stability of perception, experience a phenomenology at the root of the vision, and they ask the basic question about thought and interpretation that accompanies perception. Ancient shapes match the ancient recognition of shapes.

In fact, since the Renaissance, imaginary perception has been linked to the origins of art. As the medieval theoretician Leon Battista Alberti observed: ‘Examining a tree trunk, a mound of earth of other similar things, people must one day have noticed certain features which, slightly amended, might resemble actual human figures’ (De Statua, 1430). (xi) The idea that the first work of art came from nature herself and from the wish to complete the inchoate likenesses she offers, has given rise to much speculation on the part of artists and theoreticians. The ‘chance realism’ that the fledgling skills of prehistory associated with animal representations hugging the irregular surface of Palaeolithic caves seems to confirm Alberti’s hypothesis. When an anthropomorphic pebble was discovered in 1925, fresh debate was stirred over the question of the origins of art and the perception of images. (Fig.1.11) An object with no sign of deliberate modification was interpreted as a very old example of an image not produced but perceived by humans, found and then carried far from its place of origin just because of its chance resemblance to a human face and its arresting ‘expression’. One could easily set the Makapansgat pebble side-by-side with Barande’s archaic sculpted heads (Fig.1.10; Fig.1.12), or even the coyote head formed from a llama vertebra (12,000 B.C.) (Fig.1.14), next to his ‘monkey head’ knucklebone. (Fig.1.13) And it seems quite significant and reasonable that the monkey knucklebone and the coyote head recall the sculptures of Picasso and Giacometti, like the Phoenician heads they likewise resemble.

The accidental image is also at the heart of Barande’s paintings. Four iridescent red splashes thrown on the paper as if by chance suggest the underside of an insect, complete with fine lines indicating antennae and legs. (Fig.1.15) Elsewhere, water tossed ‘at pigments, which fall apart, contradict and intensify each other’ evokes a dancing figure with a skull for a head. (xii) (Fig.1.16) Several drawings of potential images have been transposed to the paintings, including an embryonic head and an extraordinary seagull, both of which arise from the magic confluence of paint and water, seeming to appear from the actual process of disappearing. (Fig.1.17; Fig.1.18) A fluid diagrammatic landscape, when turned on its side, becomes the profile of a face, the ruin of a head returned to earth. (xiii) (Fig.1.19) The canvases also transpose the inchoate likenesses of what has ‘tumbled out of time’. The sculpture showing the cruciform image of a potential face (Fig.1.20) – one sees the eyes and a human expression – gives rise to a pictorial interpretation. (Fig.1.21) A reprise and a mutation: by using a different medium, the artist transforms the possibility and the event. It is painted in gold on a purple background as a mixture of helmet and sarcophagus, lightened and transfigured into a fantasy image taking flight. The place of burial, of death, recently envisaged in the sculptures, becomes in the paintings an infinitely light figure, a supreme beating of wings.

By making destroyed or buried objects visible again, Barande metamorphoses them into a pictorial body. The little knot of elastic evoking a torso (Fig.1.2) seems to have inspired several potential images painted as if straight from the principle of the knot or swirl. One can, for example, make out – though it is still a case of ‘seeing as’ – a ghostly skull with hallucinated eyes along a line punctuated by fluorescent blotches. (Fig.1.22; Fig. 1.23) In other canvases, in other nets, in other dotted lines (fig.1.24; Fig. 1.25), the skull is still present in different degrees of (in)determination. More than the symbolic reminder of the duration and vanity of all things, we should recognise in these objects the incessant knotting of what appears so to speak absolutely in the tissue of its appearance, between the motif of obviation – of death, perhaps? – and the evanescence of the image itself. In fact, we are talking about time, so it is a moment in which painting reflects itself in that which is no longer available to be imagined. In this respect paintings and sculptures regard each other. The potential image is what connects the two sides of Barande’s work, sculpture and painting. Indetermination can lead to dilution, and the interplay of appearance and disappearance that governs potential likenesses harmonises with the pictorial process itself, from the obliteration of the sculptures – destroyed or buried – to the traces of their ghostly inscription on the ‘canvas shroud’. (xiv)

Potential images are by nature fundamentally unstable and metamorphic. This is accounted for by the switching or oscillation often mentioned in their regard. They are echoed by Gaston Bachelard’s definition of the unstable, fleeting images of the aerial imagination that ‘evaporate or crystallise’, and that we have to seize ‘between the two poles of this ever-active ambivalence’.(xv) The artist makes them potential, but they depend on the viewer for their actualisation, making the viewer aware of the subjective nature of vision. (xvi) Barande shares this self-reflexive aspect of the potential image with a number of contemporary artists, including Jasper Johns and John Stezaker. It links him with a long and rich pictorial tradition,(xvii) with the added characteristic that his canvases are never alone. They are always in pairs or in series, so that perception of one panel is always influenced by those adjoining it.

This effect, not unlike the one Lev Koulechov wrote about with regard to the filmed image, also occurs between distant images via visual echoes resulting from their being shown in a continuous line. Thus the perception of potential images in several paintings invites the viewer to see virtualities that are more implicit in other paintings. The large portrait of a woman, for example (Fig.1.26), in which the recognisable part of the face becomes unrecognisable as it merges with the amorphous mass of thick hair hanging down one side, evokes the tension between figure and non-figure characteristic of potential images. The inversing effect of solarisation, the extreme elongation, and the almost organic treatment invest the three-metre-wide painting of a hooded waistcoat with a disquieting strangeness. (Fig.1.27) Because it is horizontal and rather indeterminate, the picture invites the viewer to switch angles to decipher its subject. The hood now coincides with an emaciated head echoing those that painters from Dürer to Delacroix and Bonnard have hidden in the folds of cushions or the sheets of an unmade bed. In other pictures, the inchoate image resembles a ruin that the eye seeks in vain to complete. In one huge landscape (Fig. 1.28), the implied figure of a bull is surrounded by shadows diluted into blots and dots, visual latencies that the eye, floating across the surface, interprets as nameless, moving, indiscernible forms.


The mosaic image

The decision to give all the canvases the identical height of 2.15 metres, the width varying from one to several metres, has a homogenising effect, while the motifs, sources and themes vary: sculpted portraits and objects drawn from the ‘tombs’, drawings, and photographs taken by the artist mix with revisited art historical works. According to a non-deterministic logic, Barande’s paintings can keep company with Virgin and Child by Jean Fouquet, or Portrait of a Young Woman by Petrus Christus, the nudes of Gauguin, the prehistoric horses of the Chauvet Cave, The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, figurative images from photographs, abstract images, informal compositions, and geometric abstractions. But the homogeneity is assured not so much by the format as by the processing of the sources. They first undergo a digital treatment that pushes them to the verge of recognition and abstraction. The extreme enlargement of a landscape photograph (Fig.2.1) distorts its appearance to reveal its rudiments, its grain. Ghostly coordinates then materialise in the texture of the pigment. Migration from the photographic image to the painting engenders hybrid pictures, ‘photogenic paintings’ in the words of Michel Foucault. (xviii) Thus Barande joins that band of painters who have chosen to include other mediums in their work, including photography, although his images distinguish themselves from theirs via a heightened hybridism, mixing the optical rules of photography, digital and pictorial imaging, and subjecting objects and images from diverse cultures and eras to enlargement, solarisation and pixelisation.

These processes lend his oeuvre one of its most arresting formal characteristics: its mosaic quality. ‘Mosaic’, of course, means an assemblage of small cubes or multicoloured fragments of different materials to make a decoration for a wall or a floor. It is in this sense that many paintings – the huge landscape (Fig. 2.2; Fig. 2.3), portrait, female nude (Fig.2.4; Fig.2.5; Fig.2.11), abstract composition (Fig.2.6), not to mention images that are themselves fragmentary, like the animals depicted in the Chauvet cave (Fig.2.7) – use, or rather sublimate in painting the tessellation of a mosaic. (xix) To the formal and technical homogenisation of disparate themes is added a temporal tension related to the durability of the mosaic, ‘a veritable painting made for eternity’. (xx) This tension lends the female nude painted from a photograph (Fig. 2.8; Fig.2.9) the completeness of a Bonnard nude or a mosaic water-carrier at Carthage. And it is associated, paradoxically, with the cave paintings of the world’s first artists. The union of the single and the heterogeneous, together with their temporal layering, points to one of the essential aspects of this work: the impossibility of seeing or interpreting the pictures in isolation, because they are constantly joined together and depend, at the different levels where it applies, on the relationship of components of which the mosaic is both image and process. So the image is now transhumée, to use Foucault’s term, and can be taken as a totality open to the heterogeneous.

On the subject of Barande’s paintings, it is worth considering how the mosaic, ‘all in pieces, a facetted object’, (xxi)  creates a basic tension between the two poles of the unity of the whole and the discontinuity of its components, so that viewers have to weigh up the truth of what they are seeing. (xxii) The mosaic connection of the constitutive parts involves a visual switch that can seem problematic; in fact, its history is marked by the devaluation of the fragmentary in favour of the unitary aspect, heterogeneity yielding to homogeneity, the fragment merging with the whole. The unitary point of view was examined by St Augustine in his treaty On Order, where he speculates that seeing objects in nature is like seeing a mosaic. He castigates the short-sightedness of those who see in fragments only a muddled mixture, at the same time incapable of discerning the underlying image.(xxiii) Since his youth in Carthage, St Augustine had been familiar with Greco-Roman mosaics, and the point of view of unity he discusses would subsequently dominate the history of the medium. But his text is important because it underlines the basic connection between vision and mosaic technique – in other words, the point of view, the visual thought the mosaic conveys. Unlike a mosaic floor, which invites the eye to perceive both fragmentary detail and the composition as a whole, the height at which Byzantine mosaic workers placed the Christ of Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia (Fig.2.10) removes the discontinuity of the tessellae in favour of a unified whole, intensified by a specific visual effect. When two colours are juxtaposed and seen from a certain distance, the eye perceives a third colour. This mixing effect – as the impressionists and pointillists would rediscover – lends the mosaic more luminosity than would be provided by simply mixing pigments. Visual distance, luminosity from a mixing effect, and the golden background all combine to give the face of Christ an aura of spiritual vision that prefigures the beatific vision of the Kingdom of God.

Due to its principle of discontinuity, the mosaic was progressively discredited, giving way to painting and fresco, which were deemed more suitable for the renascent aesthetic ideals of the unity of form and place. And when the figurative sense of the mosaic was described at the end of the classical period as ‘an ensemble composed of disparate elements’, (xxiv) it was the pejorative meaning of discontinuity that was emphasised. Hence, it is not surprising therefore that after a long period of disaffection, modern art rehabilitated not only the properties and use of the mosaic,(xxv) but also, through and beyond it, the heuristic values of incompleteness, fragmentation and materiality of the scattered image.(xxvi) From the paintings of Cézanne to the pointillism of Seurat, from Cubism to collage and Rauschenberg’s ‘combine paintings’, modernity began when the relationship between the unitary and the fragmentary was reversed, the tension between the parts and the whole kept visible.(xxvii) It was not just the order of things that was called into question, but also the order of causes and ‘reasons’(xxviii) were reconsidered in favour of the fragmentary and the open.

Understood and tested at the twin levels of potentiality and execution, the mosaic principle fuels Barande’s visual thought. This is how he structures his large blue-on-grey landscape, for example. (Fig.2.2) The composition is marked by an edge that curves down at either end, dividing the image into two halves. One can make out a clearing in the lower half, while a curtain of trees blocks the upper half. At the same time, large gaps of grey attract the eye to the detail of the tessellae with their subtle shades of blue, varying from light to dark, occasionally becoming white, alternating flat tints and pentagons with dark outlines. (Fig.2.12) The overall impression is one of vibration, making the eye take in both near and far, surface and depth, the unity of the landscape and its fragmentation, the figurative and the abstract. The mosaic principle still holds true if one considers the tension between the picture as a fragment and the links it forges with the one adjacent to it and all those that echo it along the continuous, infinite, virtual, and mental line at the heart of Barande’s vision. As it happens, the large blue landscape mosaic is connected to the inchoate likeness of the picture with which it is juxtaposed: a blue and pink knotted mass on a white background, which has a fluidity conjuring up a melting skull. (Fig.2.13)

Since the pictures are set side-by-side, there is a constant interchange between them; perceived as ‘fragments’ of the whole, each forming a unit, they nonetheless remain open and related to all. So the juxtaposition of the skull-shape and the large blue landscape induces one to regard the dark zone in the middle as a potential image: to make out a silhouette seen from behind, looking into the forest, unless this is the spectator’s own reflection or shadow. And again it is in the mosaic play of tension between the fragment and the whole that the eye makes out a similar layout in another compartmentalised landscape (Fig.2.14), which is nonetheless underpinned by the solid scheme of the great classical paintings: the horizon separates the dark foreground from the lighter background, cut on the vertical by two trees with dark trunks and foliage. Here, too, a dark form occupies the middle of the landscape. It is indeterminate or potential, and an alert eye can see in it a portrait. On the left, an edge defines the outline of shoulder and neck, then the oval of a face – as it happens, the face of the artist’s son reflecting on a piece of glass in a photograph-turned-painting.(xxix) The silhouette seems to pulse, to be absent and present, showing now front view, now rear view, muddling the viewer’s vision, playing with and frustrating the classic metaphor of transparent surface/image. In a configuration like this, symbolic in so many ways, the connections between the mosaic structure, the potential image and vision, become objectified or even intellectualised.

On the one hand, the effect of appearance/disappearance echoes the switch that defines the potential image, which hovers between ‘evaporation and crystallisation’. On the other hand, the intellectual nature of looking is repeated in the canvases, and to look at them is to be looked at. There is the frontal gaze of the female nudes or of the Kamikaze staring at us (Fig.2.15; Fig.2.16), a gaze intensified by a colour, a monkey, or a portrait rendered in swirls. (Fig.1.22; Fig.2.17) These insistent gazes belong to the pictorial tradition of the look that buttonholes the viewer and involves a dynamic exchange between the two. The frontal stance and large format create an encounter with the viewer. Significantly, the intellectual scope also includes the effects of obstruction and blindness. The glasses worn by Marguerite Duras, for example, based on a sculpted portrait transposed and magnified in a painting, become a blind mask. (Fig.2.18) The eyes of the young woman after Petrus Christi are covered with a silvery dust recalling a television-screen snowstorm. (Fig.2.19) The eyes of the recumbent Ophelia, seen from afar, gaze at one intensely, but up close they dissolve into blurred spots resulting in a collision of vision and blindness, radiant beauty and disturbing disfigurement. (Fig.2.20) More than any other image, the monumental female portrait with the half-obliterated face is imbued with symbolic value. (Fig.2.21)

Through the ‘filter figure’(xxx) and the motif of the impeded or veiled gaze, the painting obtains the intellectualisation of its own mosaic logic, stretched between an image-making aim and a perceiving aim, between unity and fragmentation, transparency and opacity


The great image has no form.

The inchoate likeness and the mosaic image are joined in Barande’s painting by a principle whose germ lies in the repeated creation of thousands of sculptures, nameless faces with indeterminate features, on their way to being real without actually attaining a particular likeness. The principle could be related to what the philosopher François Jullien calls ‘variance’.(xxxi) This means the ability of an image not to draw attention to one axis or to one aspect, but to leave different aspects juxtaposed and to keep together ‘all possible approaches equally’.(xxxii) He links the concept of variance with that of ‘compossibility’, (xxxiii) first described by the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who insisted on the need to consider every aspect of a particular person or thing, not giving precedence to one aspect alone. Referring to such possibilities, the most famous Chinese treatise on painting, the Laozi, in referring to these multiple possibilities says succinctly: ‘The great image has no form.

According to Jullien, greatness of an image implies its compossibility, its ability to contain all possibilities without concentrating on one particular aspect, and treating all possible aspects equally. Likeness is not excluded, but remains open because no feature is emphasised exclusively. This is why, alongside the compossible, the fundamental mode of the great image is evasive, indeterminate and indistinct. (xxxiv) Not the indistinctness limited to the representation of distance, or of disorder and confusion, but the indistinctness open to the inchoate and the evanescent, where things come and go, evasive, teetering on the edge of the perceptible. (xxxv) ‘Painting means to paint that form – singular as it is – but without becoming dependent on it.’ (xxxvi) Everything plays out in the tension, on one hand, between the concrete form without which the great image cannot exist, and, on the other, the unfathomable absolute, the transcendence to which the concrete image tends, but without ‘falling into the Other, or turning us towards a Being or a Truth’, without leading to a plane that is ‘separate, which would be the (spiritual) ideal, or the symbolic – the great image is not the symbol displaying itself as an idea’. (xxxvii) The image takes concrete form that is particular, and as such cannot be ‘the great image’; but at the same time the latter is unable to display itself ‘if particular images do not take form. The great image depends on being actualised in concrete form, but it is important that it not be dominated by the concrete, that the spirit not focus on the partiality of this concrete actualisation’.(xxxviii)

It is not surprising that the landscape, the ideal place for variance and the compossible, occupies a decisive position in Barande’s oeuvre. Indeed, the very notion of landscape needs to be expanded, as his painting invites us to do. In his work one encounters landscapes-becoming-portraits and portraits-becoming-landscapes: landscapes haunted, as we have seen, by the viewer’s reflection or the shadow of a filtered gaze (Fig.2.2; Fig.2.14), a colossal skull showing the geography of its coronal sutures (Fig.3.1), a horizon matching the fluid outline of a nameless portrait (Fig.1.19; Fig.3.2), a woman’s horizontal profile pulverised in an entropic landscape (Fig.3.3), Klimt’s portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer transformed into an archipelago of radiant islands (Fig.3.4; Fig.3.5). Elsewhere, the landscapes seem to be made of nature’s raw materials: a vegetable power spreading out over a large pink and black surface (Fig.3.6), liquid power or waves and ripples along the surface of a horizontal canvas awash with the blue tones of the sea (Fig.3.7). Barande’s landscapes frequently have an abstract quality, just as his non-figurative pictures reveal a dimension of landscape. They are ‘absolute landscapes’, one might say, where the eye is not at the front, constructing the visible, but where it ‘can simply receive what nature presents’.(xxxvix) These are landscapes without location, as the portraits are without name. The presence of a Japanese temple might seem to offer a clue, but the indeterminate remains stronger than any explicit identification (Fig.3.8): not only is the scene doubled through symmetry and reflected in water, but the image is solarised, inverting light and dark, turning day into night and introducing an indistinct, vague feeling.

Faces emerge from many of these landscapes and vice versa: this also occurs in the juxtaposition of images playing on variance, compossibility and indetermination. Thus, the pairing of a wide landscape and a face that borrows from the former its horizontality, width and vibrant colour. (Fig.3.9) To the right the landscape shows the edge of a forest and a dense curtain of trees, displaying by variance the blocked vision of the artist’s other landscapes and linking the indistinct quality to the mosaic principle of pointillist fragmentation. Ground, trees and sky are indicated by dots of red and blue paint. A regular network of red, luminescent spots, little explosions of colour, spreads over the whole surface, which is itself riddled with bright, pale blue dots. (Fig.3.10) The result is a merging of background and surface, near and far, wholeness and void, making the eye swing between the image of the landscape and the loose network into which it dissolves. It is an inchoate landscape, an indeterminate surface that nonetheless fully exists as a landscape, an ungraspable image that grabs us. We are faced with the ungraspable again with the female portrait on the left that is sensually linked to the landscape. (Fig.3.9) It is almost a red monochrome that reveals the delicate lines of a profile, barely perceptible, lifting and settling with the dark light. To describe the non-separation here between image and phenomenon, one would need Chinese aesthetics, which uses the same term, both noun and verb, to designate the image-making dimension and the advent. (xl)

The idea of ‘the great image has no form’ involves not only variance and compossibility, but also the transition from one figure to another: the progress more than the stopping, the process more than the creation, having neither beginning nor end, always in transition from one form to another, one aspect to another. (xli) This way of thinking is attentive to transformation, to what is underway, and this is why it focuses on landscape and some of its particular forms. For example, landscapes painted on rolls progressively unveil each moment as attached to the preceding moment and to the next, and the omnipresent void ensures passage between forms, between what appears and what disappears. (xlii) And there are evening landscapes in which the great image comes into its own: (xliii) ‘When in that other transition from day to night forms acquire haloes and darken, and gradually become indistinct. As the rising mist obliterates the ridges and the whole landscape begins to sink into penumbra, these forms mingle, and their temporary individuations yield to the undifferentiated fount of things.’ (xliv) So the landscapes are clouded over, painted in that state of suspense between forming and de-forming, between presence and absence. (xlv) “« La grande image est en essor et se maintient expansive : tout en se manifestant dans des formes concrètes, elle reste habitée de vague et de flou qui la déploient indéfiniment; en même temps qu’elle figure et fait voir tel aspect, elle contient en son fonds bien d’autres aspects possibles ; ou encore, en se réalisant en plein, elle demeure traversée de part en part par la vertu du vide (…) l’entrouvrant sur l’indifférencié. » (xlvi)

In the work of Henri Barande, the blurred and undecided are allied to the ‘virtue of the void’ – the void between the tessellae of mosaic images, the void that envelops like mist the forms that aggregate and disaggregate in grains of colour, the void encircling the figures that appear and disappear, the void, finally, that separates and links all the images along a continuous line. The void that works in things up close, (xlvii) making them uncertain and open, is less an entity than an ‘operating factor’. (xlviii) It dynamically takes part in the logic of variance and compossibility set in train by the mosaic tension between the discontinuity of the singular and fragmentary images and the continuity of the great image constantly in a state of becoming. Void and transformation inhabit each image, carried along in the same impetus towards its disappearance and figurability, depending on the forces of indetermination and the inchoate. And they inhabit all the images, taken in their continuity and togetherness.

As the artist himself explains:

The pictures in juxtaposition are connected and disconnected.   Sometimes they harmonise with each other, and sometimes they flee   from each other in horror. What opposes them is the unexpected source of their interaction, and their unfathomable separation is fed by the link created before it ruptures. Since no place is assigned to them, their infinite number of combinations is proportional to the chaos resulting from the state of impermanence. At the heart of this collapse of the symbolic, reality is sublimated as the only method of return. Return of the world of before, of the eternally unavowed desire for a beginning, of the world that precedes all knowledge. (xlix)

The resulting paintings seem to deploy a process of inexhaustible rearranging, since there is an infinite number of combinations involving hundreds of canvases. But the process is not wild or discordant. Landscapes and faces appearing and disappearing, enigmatic objects and abstract compositions, photographs and old paintings: his canvases link and unlink themselves in a never-ending juxtaposition that ‘reveals both dissonances and harmonies, sometimes incompatible with the laws of harmony’. He adds, ‘If you prolong the moment of surprise and resist the gladness, sadness or distress inevitably produced by a multitude of opposites, then you will hear music.’(l)

Thus is revealed the sequential and obsessive harmony linking human remains with vast jigsaw-puzzle abstract surfaces. A skull with Amerindian feathers sits next to a pink and black limitless landscape. (Fig.3.11) The solarised, ghostly traces of two skeletons in a foetal position (death as rebirth) are set side-by-side with a monumental surface covered with a black-and-white snowstorm. (Fig.3.12) An embryonic, skull-like head is juxtaposed with a segmented mosaic surface. (Fig. 3.13) Further on, the image of a skull and one of a rhomboid from a tomb, enlarged to human height, frame another immense abstract. (Fig.3.14) This image, unreproducible like all of Barande’s canvases requiring a direct perceptive relationship, is so big that it encompasses our entire gaze and submits it to an effect of vibration, an intense pulsation that is almost dizzying. The eye is engaged by a network of geometric figures that are flat and regular at the edges of the picture but become progressively deformed until they are sucked into the centre as if into an invisible vortex. It is an eye-landscape, both centripetal and centrifugal, on the threshold of expansion and reabsorption. It is an image of entropic regression that is also potential movement and energy.(li) It is the unfathomable, emblematic image of that visual thought devoted to opposing and communing forces in the universe, hovering between beginning and completion, between each image and the great image:


Their community is described as unfathomable.

Unfathomable and more unfathomable:

Such is the gate through which crowds the indefinitely             accomplished.             (Laozi) (lii)







Michel Weemans




* I am grateful to Xavier Vert, Thomas Sipp and Éric Corne for reading this and giving their advice.

(i) Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Eye and Mind, trans. by Carleton Dallery in The Primacy of Perception, ed. by James Edie (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964), pp. 159-90. Revised translation by Michael Smith in The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader (1993), pp. 121-49.

(ii) To use the term suggested by Gérard Wajcman: ‘ … Great works are never complete. Not because they won’t be finished, but because, once finished, they fill themselves with the times they go through, and complete themselves in an infinity of ever-beginning interpretations that they engender; even when finished, the works are lacking, not incomplete but rather “discomplete”, with an essential and irremediable “discompleteness”…’ Gérard Wajcman, ‘Le regard de l’ange’, Y voir mieux, y regarder de plus près : autour de Hubert Damisch, sous la dir. de Danièle Cohn, Paris, ENS, 2003, p. 188.

(iii) Henri Barande, Identification d’un absent. Entretien avec Romaric Sulger Büel, Manuela éditions, 2008, p. 14-15 (translation taken from the present publication, pp. xx-xx).

(iv) Henri Barande, Sublimation.

(v) Ibid, p. 28.

(vi) On the practice of self-destruction in modern art, see Dario Gamboni, The Destruction of Art: Iconoclasm and Vandalism Since the French Revolution, Reaktion Books, 1997, particularly pp. 380-97.

(vii) Cf. Derek Pullen, quoted by David Galloway in ‘A Reclusive Businessman’s 50-Year Passion: Sculptor’s Secret is Out’, The New York Times, 12th August 2000.

(viii) Barande, Identification d’un absent, pp. 14-15.

(ix) Cf. Dario Gamboni, Potential Images: Ambiguity and Indeterminacy in Modern Art, London, Reaktion Books, 2008.

(x) Cf. Wittgenstein, Études préparatoires à la 2e partie des Recherches philosophiques, tr. fr. Gérard Granel, Mauvezin, TER, 1985, § 554.

(xi) Alberti, De statua, éd. Bätschmann, 2011, pp. 62-3. On the potential image as origin of art, cf. especially Dario Gamboni, Potential Images, chapter “Mythes et traces d’origine”, pp. 44-50; Jean-Hubert Martin (ed.), Une image peut en cacher une autre, exhibition catalogue, Paris, Réunion des musées nationaux, chapter “Mythes d’origine”, pp. 1-10.

(xii) Henri Michaux, Émergence-Résurgence, Geneva, Skira, 1972, p. 14.

(xiii) In the tradition of the Dutch anthropomorphic landscapes of the 16th and 17th centuries. On this subject I refer the reader to Michel Weemans, Herri met de Bles. Les ruses du paysage au temps de Bruegel et d’Érasme, Paris, Hazan, 2013, especially chap. VI, “Image double. Le paysage anthropomorphe à la Renaissance”, pp. 171-203.

(xiv) Henri Barande, Identification d’un absent, p. 30.

(xv) Gaston Bachelard, Air and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Movement, trans. Edith and Frederick Farell.

(xvi) Cf. Gamboni, ibid., p. 37.

(xvii) About this, cf. Images doubles. Pièges et révélations du visible, ed. Michel Weemans, Dario Gamboni, Jean-Hubert Martin, Paris, Hazan, 2016.

(xviii) To describe the art of Gerard Fromanger. Cf. Michel Foucault, La peinture photogénique (1974), reprinted Paris, Le point du Jour, 2014.

(xix) Before painting, mosaics were present in objects and sculptures: a fragment of white coral and rusted metal lace with a texture like a mosaic. A sculpted, fragmented body made up of precious red tessellae, fixed in a crystalline resin sarcophagus.

(xx) As expressed by Stendhal, stating that “the veritable painting made for eternity is the mosaic”, repeating a topos that dates back to Domenico Ghirlandaio, “La vera pittura per l’eternità essere il mosaico.” Stendhal, Histoire de la peinture en Italie, vol. I, 1817, p. 155. Quoted by Lucien Dällenbach, Mosaïques. Un objet esthétique à rebondissements, Paris, Seuil, 2001, p. 43.

(xxi)         Cf. Lucien Dällenbach, Mosaïques, p. 40.

(xxii) On this structural definition of the mosaic cf. Lucien Dällenbach, Mosaïques. Un objet esthétique à rebondissements, Paris, Seuil, 2001.

(xxiii) « Si un homme avait une vision si myope que, sur un pavement fait de très petits cubes, l’acuité de sa vision ne fût pas assez forte pour aller au-delà de la largeur d’un cube, il accuserait l’artisan d’ignorer la technique de mise en ordre en un tout, parce qu’il croirait qu’il a devant lui un mélange de pierres dépourvu d’ordre, faute de pouvoir discerner et saisir par la même opération, d’un coup d’œil, les différents panneaux qui se raccordent pour former une seule et belle image. » Saint Augustin, De ordine, cité par Lucien Dällenbach, Mosaïques, p. 75.

(xxiv)            Cf. Dällenbach, Mosaïques, p. 41.

(xxv) In the case of art nouveau mosaics, like Gaudi’s, also numerous mosaic paintings like Klee’s checkerboard paintings, Dali’s Lincoln, Chuck Close’s mosaic portraits and the pixelated works of Gerhard Richter.

(xxvi) Dällenbach, quoting Cézanne who claims one must “use the actual qualities of painting to be a painter”, analyses these values which question unity and mimesis, promoting incompleteness, emphasising the fragment and materiality. Cf. Dällenbach, Mosaïques, pp. 90 sq.

(xxvii) As Dällenbach shows, there was a parallel rehabilitation in literature, as e.g. Balzac, Apollinaire and Claude Simon favoured fragmentary writing in tension with a problematic unity, yielding to discontinuities and blanks that broke the causal or discursive thread. C.f. Gila Lustiger stating à propos of her novel The Inventory, “I wanted to show not what is, but what isn’t, the void, the lack (…) If you write in a linear fashion, the story has a logic that escapes what you want to say. So I like to make a break.” quoted by Dällenbach, Mosaïques, p. 67, note 34.

(xxviii) Dällenbach, Mosaïques, p. 56

(xxix) Which he sent to his father, oral communication from Henri Barande.

(xxx) As Victor Stoïchita puts it. On the filter figure and the question of the impeded gaze in painting, cf. Victor Stoichita, L’effet Sherlock Holmes; variations du regard de Manet à Hitchcock, Paris, Hazan, 2015.

(xxxi) Here I am principally guided by his book The Great Image Has No Form, or On the Nonobject through Painting, trans. Jane Marie Todd, University of Chicago Press, 2009; and the chapter entitled “The great image has no form”, in Detour and Access: Strategies of Meaning in China and Greece, trans. Sophie Hawkes, MIT Press, 2004, pp. 259-286, also by his very fine analyses of landscape painting, especially Living within the Landscape or Unthought Reasoning, trans. Alan Eglinton [I cannot find publisher or year]; In Praise of Blandness: Proceeding from Chinese Thought and Aesthetics, trans. Paula M. Varsano, MIT Press, 2004. On François Jullien’s heterotopical thought as ‘detour thinking’, cf. especially François Jullien, Penser d’un dehors (la Chine), Paris, Seuil 2000; Oser construire pour François Jullien, Paris, Les Empêcheurs de penser en rond, 2007.

(xxxii) An idea also expressed by Guo Xi, an eleventh-century scholar-painter, exponent of painting that took in all views of a landscape. E.g. a mountain, as he says: “À considérer de près, c’est ainsi, à considérer de plus loin, c’est (différemment) ainsi, à considérer d’encore plus loin, c’est encore (différemment) ainsi. (…) C’est ce qu’on appelle la forme (actualisation) de la montagne, telle qu’on la voit de tous les côtés (…) tel est l’aspect d’une montagne, en même temps que de dizaines ou de centaines de montagnes.” Guo XI, « Peindre une grande montagne », quoted by Jullien, p.? When he adds that the mountain “is a large thing”, we should understand, says Jullien, that “large” does not mean size but “the capacity to contain everything possible, without getting caught up in any, without limiting oneself to any.” Cf. François Jullien, L’archipel des idées de François Jullien, p. 182.

(xxxiii) On the closely connected notions of variance and compossibility, cf. especially François Jullien, The Great Image Has No Form, pp. 77 sq. ???; Detour and Access, pp. 259-286; L’archipel des idées de François Jullien, Paris, Éditions de la maison des sciences de l’homme, 2014, pp. 179-192; Vivre de paysage, pp. 61-87.

(xxxiv) « Grand », en ce sens, que ce soit à propos du tao ou de la grande image, signifie qui embrasse les divers possibles et contient en soi tous les angles de vue; grand signifie qui est ouvert à l’un comme à l’autre et n’exclut pas. (…) Grand, en somme, dit la plénitude du compossible (…) Parallèlement au « flou », qui disait l’indétermination du foncier, le « grand » du tao ou de la grande image dit ainsi la dé-termination qui embrasse le plus amplement les déterminations et les con-fond. » François Jullien, The Great Image Has No Form, pp. 87-88.

(xxxv) On the indistinct, cf. François Jullien, The Great Image Has No Form, chap. III, « Vague, terne, indistinct », pp. 55-75; also Michel Makarius, Une Histoire du flou, Paris, éditions du Félin, 2016.

(xxxvi) Cf. François Jullien, The Great Image Has No Form, p. 143.

(xxxvii) Ibid., p. 143.

(xxxviii) The availability and compossibility that are part of the great image are best designated by ‘blandness’. This is why Chinese thought and aesthetics attach such value to this word, which Western thought understands in its negative sense. Cf. François Jullien, In Praise of Blandness, op. cit. Note 33.

(xxxix) As Louis Marin puts it in « Les plaisirs du désert en peinture », Philippe de Champaigne ou la présence cachée, Paris, Hazan, 1995, pp. 30-75.

(xl) On the term che, cf. François Jullien, The Propensity of Things. Toward a History of Efficacy in China, trans. Janet Lloyd, MIT Press, 1995.

(xli) Cf. François Jullien, Procès ou Création. Une introduction à la pensée des lettrés chinois, Paris, Seuil, 1989.

(xlii) On roll paintings of landscapes, cf. especially Francois Jullien, Detour and Access, pp. 327-330; The Propensity of Things, pp. 129-159.

(xliii) “To lodge one evening in the mists (….) while the landscape is losing itself in confusion: emerging-immersing, between what is there and what is not there – this is difficult to represent.” (Qian Wenshi). François Jullien, Le nu impossible, Paris, Seuil, 2000, p. 54.

(xliv) François Jullien, The Great Image Has No Form, p. 20.   It is both the transition between day and night and that between solid and liquid that gives the landscape its compossibility. ‘Mountain(s)-water(s)’ says the ideogram translated in the West by ‘landscape’. Cf. especially François Jullien, Vivre de paysage, chap. II, « Montagne(s)-Eau(x) », pp. 39-60.

(xlvi) François Jullien, The Great Image Has No Form, p. 143.

(xlvii) Cf. François Jullien, The Great Image Has No Form, p. 125.

(xlviii) « L’activité qui le définit est (et n’est que) de mettre en communication, désopacifier, traverser et porter plus loin ». Idem, p. 133.

(xlix) Henri Barande, Identification d’un absent, p. 42.

(l) Idem, p. 44.

(li) “The charm of the inchoate lies in its chaos” writes Michel Jeanneret on the Renaissance fascination with the indeterminate and chaos. Cf. Michel Jeanneret, Perpetuum mobile. Métamorphoses des corps et des oeuvres de Vinci à Montaigne, Paris, Macula, 1997, p. 93.

(lii) Quoted by François Jullien, Detour and Access, chap. XII: “The Great Image Has No Form”, p. 268.