Henri Barande is one of those artists who push themselves to extremes. His creativity first emerged when he was a child, and he has pursued it almost compulsively ever since. Yet his output not only remains unknown to the public and to arts institutions, but to a large extent has been annihilated at his own hands. His work was previously dedicated to creating a world of miniature forms and figures, but today it has been reduced to mere vestiges carefully concealed from observation. Nevertheless, out of this destructive act there has arisen, over some fifteen years, a stunning array of monumental paintings. They hang, distant yet absorbing, sharpened by colours of rare refinement, playing freely with the dialectics of the abstract and the figurative.
Despite the fact that he has produced so much, it is almost as though Barande is actively seeking anonymity. His works bear neither titles nor signatures, and they are not for sale. They exist in a world of their own. An artist in his own right, he has acquired the means to be free from material constraints, to devote himself to his task uncompromisingly, literally to disappear behind his work and to live through it alone. Simply to be absent from the scene. But he initially set himself the rule never to exhibit his work. Not only to avoid the ritual gaze of other people, but also to draw closer to it himself, to scrutinise it without pretence or indulgence, and even to be able to destroy it as he saw fit: to remain free, protecting himself from the curiosity of others. It was only recently that he became aware of the impact his work has on people, gauged the stir it has caused, and so decided to break his private, unspoken pact.
Until then, there had been something suicidal about his practice, a withdrawal for the sake of the grim pursuit of his art. One seldom comes across this attitude, and it should be examined here: it is the reason for this exhibition in the galleries of the School of Fine Arts. Here, it is bound to raise the question of the legitimacy of a solitary, mute corpus of work normally intended for invisibility and oblivion, exhibited without the usual support of recognition and without the cooperation of the professional arts community. The way the work is produced calls into question the institutional function of art and the art system as a whole. This place is devoted to all creative forms and expressions, so it is neither anodyne nor futile for it to present to the public an adventure like Henri Barande’s. One of his quirks is to avail himself of the most sophisticated modern technologies and apply them to painting and its history. In particular, he uses the classic method of citing known motifs, but reinterprets them through the filter of digital images. He prefers to do so by hand, but balances this by using projections. He thereby manages to produce images that contain, paradoxically, both the unicum and the many. By virtue of a cryptic, ambiguous sleight of hand, they superimpose the original onto the reproduction, the prototype onto its serial dimension. In so doing Barande has hoisted the art of his time on its own petard, using the same means and the same conceptual references.
Cruelly separated from his beloved native Algeria, and having experienced the pain of a loved one’s mental breakdown, Barande believes his life is a prolongation of a death that has already occurred, and that his work is the surviving version of a previous existence. Looking at it, one is inevitably reminded of the writing of Maurice Blanchot, of the final silence, of the authority of death, which fertilises it. The artist’s images are distanced, deadly, linked by fragments, like an unending story, similar to the writer’s unceasing meditations on neutrality, on absence and tonelessness. The images are all part of the construction of an immense figure, the tomb – the word the artist would like to see applied to everything he produces. The tomb is the central paradigm in the thought of this absent one (as he likes to describe himself), but it does not take the shape of that funereal, elegiac and ecstatic celebration familiar to the baroque world. It is more like Mallarmé’s tomb, to which that writer often referred, especially after the death of his son: it is a silent monument, an architecture weakened by an inconsolable affliction, a poem fissured by an impossible grief. Today, after that total collapse, Henri Barande is building a lofty and monumental narrative, a sort of immense, shimmering frieze of incandescent colours and muted, dusky accents. It is carried by an inexorable scansion, a repetitive form, in which a weaving, talking, converging pattern of images emerges as in an altarpiece, sharpened by the clever visual procedures the painter uses. It is a world of refinement, yet worried and tragic, made of disembodied images doomed to the transparency of memory. Its features borrow from a paradoxical mixture of Mannerism, Pop Art and Hyperrealism, but it is immediate, instantaneous, built from the power of detail, of citation, articulated in random, iconographic combinations so that every hanging, every exhibition is different.
It is the opposite of what preceded it, those first actions of modelling bread mixed with sand, secretly and productively forging the rudiments of a universe that reinvented sculpture and rewrote, despite itself, the history of the world. Now there remain only fragments, rescued from disaster like funerary artifacts doomed to burial, enigmatic, where shapes appear in the perfection of their birth, in the preciosity they have acquired during their long night’s journey into the daylight of our gaze. They are reliquaries of a kind, comprising at once ideal figures and natural eccentricities, archaeological traces or simple everyday things, carefully arranged and suggesting innumerable, infinite groupings, showing a hidden meaning, an imperceptible intention that imbues them with a bewildering significance.
At first sight, the sculptures and paintings seem completely different. But a closer examination reveals comparable processes. Each tomb that now contains the remnants of his previous output is like a miniature Wunderkammer.The remnants are different yet inseparable, conveying the permanent quest for the missing piece that was supposed to fuel and pursue the story others began. They show the same meticulous taste for the plastic perfection of minimal forms, materials that are rare or carefully shaped by time, and they display the ease with which they juggle with scale, suggesting both the monumental and the miniature. The artist plays with the ambiguity between the artifices of nature and those of the sculptor, now a modeller, now a metal worker, transforming a humble piece of bread into gold. But his speciality plays with the magnetic principle of attraction and repulsion, which governs the way the objects are arranged in their boxes – like a secret alchemy. The same principle applies to his paintings in their own way, and despite their silent restraint, their stratagems are no less sophisticated.
Behind their apparent distance, Barande’s images show a marked liking for composition and for the fragment. They enjoy the tricks artists have always practised, wishing to defy the ordinary conditions of human vision, recreating reality with the overdeveloped and infallible gaze of optical instruments. Having played as a child among the ruins of ancient Carthage, used to those ‘beyonds’ of the ruins, Barande is able just as easily to wander around the meanders of his memory: the contemporary pixelated image can today be quite naturally superimposed on the memory of the mosaics in Tunisia’s Bardo Museum. The powerful imagery of those carpets and hangings of crystallised stone has the concision of the figures and motifs that haunt his pictures, and their shimmering splendour belies the artist’s slow, demanding, laborious method to obtain the precision of colour that gives them their fascinating tonality.
The need for ‘metaphysical freedom’, as he himself calls it, leads Barande in the steepest ways of asceticism. He is the ‘absent one’ who wishes simply to disappear behind his work and thereby procure his own annihilation. The theme of disappearance, of the death of the artist, is central to Blanchot’s writing, and Roland Barthes, in a text on Balzac entitled ‘La mort de l’Auteur ‘ (‘The Death of the Author’, gave it this resounding conclusion: ‘The birth of the reader [here, viewer] must be ransomed by the death of the Author [or Artist].’ (trans. Richard Howard) The neutrality claimed is that of writing, the identity of the ‘body that writes’, an identity that creates the writing and in a sort of osmosis comes and obliterates itself in it. The same goes for the work of Henri Barande, for it also proclaims its neutrality and the absence of the artist, asserting that its presence is proof of his death, and finally substitutes itself entirely for its creator. The anonymity he asserts, this death he keeps telling us to take literally, is really proof of the most absolute trust the painter can place in his viewers. For by inviting them to dispense with the usual protocols, to step over the boundary of his retreat, he creates the conditions for a truly intimate meeting, free of all prejudice. This is when his work merges with him, literally becomes his body – beyond all conventions, beyond any limits, to the point where there is no longer any difference between artist and viewer.
However, Blanchot reminds us that in order somehow to escape a death we cannot master, over which we are powerless, which ‘we never attain’, we might prefer a voluntary death. So suicide is a path at the end of which we are likely to find the origin and the meaning of the work, because both are taking the same risk, because both appeal to an experience of the same gravity, because Blanchot’s ‘power of dying’ is in the final analysis the same power to which the work gives us access. The work is a definitive process, like the irreversible glance cast by Orpheus descending towards Eurydice in the infernal regions. The work is the sole condition, the sole method of attaining its hidden goal: the power and sovereignty of the profound. Henri Barande has always understood this. And for him, it has always been the price to pay.
Henry-Claude Cousseau, directeur des Beaux-Arts de Paris.