Louis Aragon, 1975

Stone upon stone

Pierre sur pierre (Louis Aragon, 1975)

À propos

This text, written by Louis Aragon in January or February of 1975 on the subject of Alain Le Yaouanc's lithographic works, figures in the preface (first in French and then in English) of the catalogue of lithographs titled Le Yaouanc, published the same year by La Pierre d'Angle. A deluxe edition of 150 copies of this catalogue was printed on Arches vellum paper, numbered from 1 to 150 and signed by Louis Aragon and Alain Le Yaouanc, each copy accompanied by an original colored lithograph, signed and numbered. It is also included in the album of lithographs Stone Upon Stone, published in New York in 1977 by Cavaliero Fine Arts. «Pierre sur pierre» [“Stone Upon Stone”] was translated into English by Simon Watson Taylor and translated into German by Dr. Lydia Babilas.

It takes all sorts to make a world. A little of everything… This type of aphorism goes generally unchallenged. Except by those prophets called painters. The first ones drew on the walls of their caves. They drew bisons, hunting scenes: that was their choice. Century after century, the delineated dreams that are called paintings have presented an infinite variety, for they have always been dominated by a choice whose deep secret cannot be torn from the dreamers. It is this choice, and not a hotchpotch of everything, that makes their world. The world of the Brothers Le Nain, of Vermeer, of Watteau, of Seurat, of Nicolas de Staël. Random examples. Besides the palette of colours there is a palette of objects. Every painter is a fashioner of hieroglyphs, and though there may be Champollions able to decipher the signs, they still do not know how to speak the language of the Pharoahs. There are those who attempt vainly to explain choice in terms of personality, imagine that they have succeeded — and then a Picasso arises to confound them. In other words, the permanent refutation of criticism in a domain barred to commentaries, to the cackling of critics. And, in terms of fixed ideas and boundaries, this whole enterprise, from Giotto to Le Yaouanc, is the key to a vast day-dream destined to reduce all iconoclasts to despair.

There are more words in these dreams that I mention than there are stars in the sky. The fact that some human beings have succeeded in landing on the moon, on a fine pitch-black night, does not allow any presumption as to the limits of what remains for mankind to learn and discover. And it is by no means certain that the human world, the world that it may be within our power to attain, needs a little of everything in order to perfect itself. I am inclined to think that the mind expands through what it discards rather than through what it accumulates.

As a matter of fact, these reflections arise out of an attempted reading that proved very bizarre. I have before my eyes the photographs of sixty-three lithographs by Alain Le Yaouanc. To jog my memory. These works span the six years between 1969 and 1974 (inclusive… an impertinent phrase for this highly exclusive — that is to say, unique vision).

Lithography is not simply a process. To write on stone, or at least on certain days to cherish particularly this way of speaking to people’s eyes, is like suddenly and deliberately practising a particular way of making love that will seem more convincing. To whom? That is another matter: perhaps simply to oneself. Since man measures only his own pleasure. Only mesures himself by his own… We are concerned here with a practitioner who is not content to limit himself to painting in the old sense: oil or water; the colour of the venal palette. Among other things — or, to put it better, and in the plural too, for examples, he has extended the new art of collage very far: so far, indeed, as to multiply a chosen element in order to employ it as an archtect employs stone. He has extended collage, that is to say the use of a figure (as one says in grammar), to the very confines of sculpture. He inhabits a universe of cut-out papers that a mere draught might destroy were it not for the forest of pins that holds them together, as syntax does with words. And there one may unexpectedly witness the disproportionate blossoming, like the century-plant’s sudden bursting into flower, of enormous canvases that seem to copy invisible landscapes in some alternative universe obeying unknown laws, a universe constructed on the scale of a Polyphemus whom no one has yet had time to blind.

To write on stone… so that in its turn the stone may speak, that is to say, repeat, as echoes do… to write on stone: thinking about it, I cannot refrain from conjuring the image of vagabonds inscribing for other wanderers counsels and secrets that border on criminality. It is true, of course, that some lithographers are as innocent as the manufacturers of visiting cards, but it is not of them that I am speaking. The messages that I have in mind are of a quite different nature. The fact remains that the painter of today is closer to the outlaw recording his own experience on a wall than to any picture-postcard designer that I know of.

If one wants, at all costs, to understand the figurative adventure contrived on stone as well as on canvas, — but, in the present context, on stone in particular — by this art that is as remarkable as that of the tatooist, the first step must be to group these mysterious inscriptions, if not in strict order of succession… for even the painter himself could not re-establish this, not having dated these dream-materializations from day to day (1) — it would be more appropriate to say from night to night… if, I say, one wants to understand, then the attempt must be made to re-establish the order of succession of these images in time, at least within the limits of possibility (impossibility), that is to say the hasards of approximation during the course of an arbitrarily chosen time unit, the year: year after year, for example. So as not to be too exacting. We are concerned, I repeat, for the moment, with a series of lithographs peeled off the stone over a period of six years (1969-1974), and grouped year by year; and that, strictly speaking, to achieve a better understanding one should be able to read within the variable context, ranging from paper to canvas, all the ways of dreaming explored by the mysterious personage that one simplifies somewhat by calling a painter, our painter, that is to say he whom we are at present contemplating, or rather scrutinizing, or one might even say stripping were it not for the fear of a dubious ambiguity… but after all, one confronted with him have we not all played peep-show with him, so to speak? And in any case, who is depraving whom? who is the maniac: the painter or his observers? There is a strange sort of play between him and them, and the word may equally well be understood here in the theatratical sense and in the sense of the play at casinos — red or black, odd or even, manque ou passe… Well, I am going astray, or to be more honest I am leading you astray, or, if you prefer, swamping you with words.

But in fact I was saying someting very simple. That, in grouping the lithographs of Alain Le Yaouanc by year, over a period of six years, one should perhaps arrive… this verb suddenly makes me uneasy, as though we were discussing a train, and, like the discursive way I am writing, trains are apt to go off the rails… arrive (that is to say, at least more or mess on time), arrive at a point where, on our part, a certain state of indiscretion becomes apparent, and, on his part, a certain state of provocation. Make no mistake: it seems clear to me that a comparison of the years, or even the stages within a specific year, shows that there is nothing gratuitous about the way the painter varies in his procedures, of, if you prefer, proceeds to stylistic variations of such a kind that it is unthinkable that these variations could be mere chance arrangements. For example…

For example, and in the interests of orderliness, let us take the seven lithographs that constitute the year 1969 here. A matter of beginning at the beginning. Whatever may be the order of these works in this time-space — for we are not provided wth this information — one may observe in the actual presentation of the subject-matter a certain play of forces which is so evident that I venture to consider the presentation (the variation in presentation) as a dominant preoccupation in relation to the subject. But I must explain myself better.

Not only in the present context, but in his collages for example, Le Yaouanc sometimes contrives things so that the centring of the image, the margins imposed, the placing of the thing painted or engraved or pasted, asume a predominant importance in relation to the given motif which is not alloted all the workable space of the canvas, the collage, the engraving. The painter assumes the role of framer, here, by situating the motif (the statement) in, for example, a rectangle or an oval described on the paper or canvas itself, thus imposing margins, sometimes successive margins, or what might be considered the essential element of the work, so adding to the equilibrium of the composition or drawing a sort of suspension — sometimes in the middle, sometimes not — comprising tinted margins that seem to represent a positive accumulation of frames around the still-life that is indeed far from being « still »: a better description of this effect would be the equilibrium of framed forms. All of which tends to constitute a style. And an evident comparison offers itself between the presentation of the theme in an oval within which Braque and Picasso, around 1910 and 1911, contained certain of their cubist still-lifes. I do not imagine that this is a matter of chance. Especially since this particular style already had the aim, for Picasso and Braque, of centring their images in a way that harks back a century, or at least to the appearance of the first photographs — thos of Nadar, for instance.

In the case of Alain Le Yaouanc, the forces at play tend not only to confine the motif but equally to allow it to protrude beyond the frame, finally alloting it all the space that the painter had hitherto reserved for the marginal variations. But although something of the same relationship survives in the appearance of the lithographs produced in the five years succeeding 1969, the importance of the theme, and the invasion of the subject of all or nearly all the available space, become increasingly evident. Rather as though, with the design prevailing over the surrounding space, the painter had more to say. What was taking shape before our eyes was progressively (no longer a picture but) a world. A world that is not our own, although here and there among these gliding peninsulas a human form looms up, or birds surge forwards, beaks outstretched. Provinces invented for the approaching time when, in any case, our own Earth will have become uninhabitable. And obviously someone had to anticipate events and imagine these « tertiary residences » (at the very least), with their traffic-free motorways, with their particular brand of hell. At the edge of the sky, of course. Little parks were catastrophe lurks, under the night’s violent light; waterfalls that are in fact intersections; a chaotic universe of rolling balls; a procession of lorries that has no other aim that to increase the confusion between types of vehicle, and to intensify a traffic that can go nowhere except in reverse along its own tracks; a horde of Japanese mice with the staggers; the unpacking, or simply the spilling, of carefully prepared elements from a box which, lacking a genuine lock, has opened by means of a secret system with which this alternative universe is provided… a puzzle in which all the possible combinations between its elements will always collapse at the moment when one is on the point of guessing what kind of country is in the process of taking shape — will collapse because of a gap that no piece will fit, a weird fissure, in a word the checking piece that will enforce the total destruction that must precede a recommencement, the trap of the dud cheque with its torn edges and its unforgivable character: the clouded pond, to put it briefly, that drives Narcissus to despair because he will never be able to see his face in it, the fissure that refutes him.

Mozart enfant, 1970

Mozart enfant, 1970

Of the ten scenes registered during the year 1970, none of which can be assigned a particular order of priority, the apparition that would stand out most clearly for me, from among this mechanical ballet, is the white rhinoceros at the base of what seems a relatively simple construction, until one is halted by the grid that provides a window or a prison between an arrow near the bottom left-hand corner and the escape upwards of a black form in a grey mask accompanied by a broken cube.

I’ll wager that this perfectly recognizable animal is nevertheless not the figuration of what I am interpreting, but a complex fissure opposing the geographical world past which it appears to be trotting like a good little doggie: the non-painted which is one of the colours invented by the painters of this century to confuse the wandering eye with its untenable claim to « undertsand ». And after all, a letter like the others (capital E or H) in the landscape. The letter Rhinoceros. It would be puerile to identify similarly in each lithograph a dominant sign that effectively disorganizes the more or less conscioulsy elaborated structure of equilibration: however, I willingly imagine… because a fairly disconcerting margin divides the will from consciousness… as, for example, the multiplicity, in succeeding lithographs, of grooved cubes that on at least one occasion play the role of accordion in this orchestra from which they detach themselves or in which they reincorporate themselves, whilst elsewhere, behind the construction of a world — I mean, the construction site of goodness knows what university — lunar spheres loom up in all their brightness at dead of night, and I defy the great perfumers of haute couture to take these as models for their flasks of divine odours…


That, in fact, is the point that I had reached when I first Became personally acquainted with Alain Le Yaouanc. And this at a time when death had robbed me simultaneously of the one was my very life, and the power to write. No one, I imagine, encountering the first text that I devoted, in Les Lettres Françaises, to the art of Le Yaouanc, could have guessed at this atrocious blow, in redaing the words that I wrote at the time: there is a universe called Le Yaouanc: remember that name… it is worth the trouble…

This is not the place to analyze the echoes of my personal tragedy that may have left their trace on those five or six pages written in 1971, when I had finally succeded in overcoming this paralysis of misery… pages which initiated a friendship. Today I am looking at the photographs of the eleven lithographs of that year, which, even more than an exhibition at the Galerie Maeght in the rue de Téhéran, seem to me to sum up the inexplicable nature of what was just beginning for me then: this voyage into the unknown, whose strange stages I have watched succeed each other. One may perhaps sense, in these last few words, the degree to which, for me, art criticism is transcended by this spectacle of a continuous birth, or if you prefer, rebirth in the sense of a true Re-naissance. Make what you will of this avowal. I ended the « article » (as this type of writing is quaintly called) with a quotation of the text published in the review Derrière le Miroir, in which the painter expresses better than I could do what, since then, I have really never ceased repeating when I speak about him:

Perhaps we shall become the explorers of empty space, of the country in which the image is pitiless. Perhaps we are already there: what specualtive obstinacy can be detected in the facial angles of the future heroes whose chins touch the ground and whose trained ears can sense in the far distance beauty resonant summons…

Minerve, 1972

Minerve, 1972

It may be a somewhat immodest proposal, but what I have done since then but repeat this over abd over again, like a watchman of the battlements of a besieged city announcing the gradual advance through the night of dawn’s early light? In November 1972, for example, on the occasion of the Odermatt exhibition, when the painter, through the medium of a few immeasurable canvases, confessed this year at harbinger of « great painting »: « great » in the sense equally of dimension and grandeur. And the parallel activity exemplified by the eleven lithographs of which I have spoken. Followed by the year 1972, with twelve lithographs, perhaps the strangest of all those in this album which defies comment, despite the impression I may be giving of commenting upon it at this moment. In this respect, indeed, I feel a bit like, the space-coloured cat outlined there against a perfectly black sky (or background) and seeking to touch with its paw a motif (or motet) that is a blend of target and snail… At the very fringe of order and disorder. Locate the relevant image, to understand me.

And in the reverie of 1973 which corresponds to his exhibition in Geneva, the place given to these writings on stone prevails so strongly over every other element that I felt obliged to speak of it, first at Whitsun, and then again, towards the end of that year, with this page written in a minute characters and entitled To be read with a magnifying glass… And yet in the midst of what was a sort of retrospective of his work on stone, only eight lithographic images derive from that particular year. But what images! For instance, in this pre-dawn setting in which I do not know wether it is a feline or a saurian that seems to be giving the lie to the entire past history of the animal kingdom, the decor of the impossible future towards which it is advancing a questioning paw… Or this dance of bird-personages from cube to cube beneath the fall in the very middle of the sky (for we call the empty space above us sky)…

I suppose that it is during 1974 — there is nothing to indicate the fact — the year in which fifteen lithographs (more than ever, eh?) complete this collection to which I am making a show of writing a preface… after six months of prostration, you must realize, and I crave indulgence for this entirely personal notation… I suppose that it is during 1974 that I wrote this text entitled PEINDRE OU DÉPEINDRE [to paint or to depict] (Concerning a black diamond)… but there is no proff, it may be before, and, ith this posthumous feeling that has overtaken me, I would say that it may equally well be perhaps after… What was it intened to preface? Has it really been printed? More especially as, confining myself to the images that are posed beneath my very eyes (like the pouches on awakening from an impossible love) there is nothing to date them but this accent — the flights of wastrel birds, the feline that is just passing this way again, the antique statue like a gap at the end of the accordion of forms — an accent of antidote, a writing that is like an antidote to this physical night out of which I have plunged…

There I was, on the track of the painter, faced with these unpublished-unpublishable pages which, far from filling this gap in memory, bear witness to the fact that in this motionless journey during which, for more than five months, I feel that I went adrift at the end of my life, as though from a jetty in the night, whence nothing seemed to emanate but the sound of time and the surf of a nameless sea… between the stones of solitude… when it suddenly became indispensable to me to identify these handwritten pages; failing which, the foregoing would remain for me an enigma, set up at the approaches of a city, unknown to the Œdipus that I finally represent for myself… So, against all probability (where could my painter be, during this late August, surely not where I was seeking him…) I questioned the shades of the telephone from one end to the other of this domain into which I had slowly plunged from out the night of 28 or 29 January 1974… And behold Le Yaouanc is there to answer me, and assure me he has no knowledge of these pages which I am describing to him, although it is unthinkable that, having written them, they remain six large pages, before my eyes, of a manuscript that, since several months no doubt, I had assumed I had given him because it contains what seemed to me to be the conclusion of a reverie in which, after all, I remain alone to struggle with the enigma… of a reverie impossible, in fact, to conclude… like a dream is to turn it immediately into a lie… the question that was put remains, alone before us, I was inventing, unwittingly, along this path of stones, stones, stones, feet lacerated, eyes turned towards the black light.

O who will say tomorrow, in a more powerful voice, what yet remains to be cried out, who will speak for me when at last I shall have become silent, to reveal the great secret of this nascent universe of which I shall only have glimpsed into the genesis?

Louis Aragon

(1) I know of only one man who in enumerating his thoughts — no matter wether drawn, engraved or painted — has gone beyond the strict dating of the calendar, and he has done so with a concern for precision that makes the head swim: Picasso, in certain notebooks, taking the strange precaution of listing — for hi own benefit, no doubt, but also for others, for a memory that survives him — the sequence of his dreams, their variations, the timing, almost, of their variations in the musical sense of his last word.