Claudel and Painting

[…]  An arrangement in imminent danger of disintegration, it is easy to prove that that is the whole explanation of the Night Watch. The entire composition from front to back is arranged on the principle of an ever increasing movement like a sandbank beginning to crumble. The two characters in the foreground are on the march, those in the second ranks have already taken a step forward, while those in the background are only beginning to measure the extent of the road they have to travel whose direction is indicated by the hand of the philosopher on the right, but already, like tiny grains of sand that begin to flow apart, the little boy on the right with the powder-horn and the little dog on the left have started to leap forward. The pike in the hand of the shining captain plays the same role as the above-mentioned wine in the glass (representing the power of oscillation) and the lemon-peel serves so to speak as a scale, a concealed regulator of this movement that gives life to the whole. As for the three red arquebusiers in the second line, the first one loading his weapon, the other crouching entrapped, as it were, behind his commander, they represent the start forward on adventure which, as one very well sees, will bring dangers with it. But how can we resist imagination, this shining fairy, this discerning messenger from the beyond who wears a dove at her belt, like letters of credit? And in front of her, her masked acolyte has already cleared a path, toward the interior, through the group of gallant adventurers over whom a sparkling sea-green nobleman proudly raises a red and black striped flag. But, in the background, spilling out under the solid architecture of a dark porch, the motionless rear-guard looks out over the heads of those comrades who have advanced step by step, and measures the future; it is doubtless to get there sooner that they have armed themselves with those long pikes! One can see the helmets shining, a gorget, a scarf, a silken doublet. Even the high hat of the clownish character looks like a lighthouse, an observation tower. And then the spectators, one feels they are about to be transformed into actors, are ready: the drum beats; for this page, borrowed from the darkest work-shops of dreamland, is yet full of a strange, subdued sound: the drum, the barking of the little dog, that word hovering on the eloquent lip of Captain Cock, that conversation transmitted by the eyes from one witness on the right to another, that gunshot, and the one to come that the arquebusier on the left is stuffing cautiously into the depths of his weapon. They are off!

“Introduction to Dutch Painting”, in The Eye Listens. Trans. Elsie Pell. NY: Philosophical Library, 1950, pp. 48-50

The Eye Listens

           Claudel’s years at the French embassy in Japan (1921-1927) played a decisive role in his visual vocation. They awoke and stimulated his interest in painting and allowed him to multiply his contacts with Japanese art and artists. An exhibit of modern Japanese works, for instance, sparked his reflection on “the goal of painting.” Claudel focused on emptiness, the simplification of forms and the spiritualization of matter. When he returned to Europe, he pursued his interest in western art, including innovative works like Monet’s Water Lilies. A second important stage in Claudel’s art awakening was his time as ambassador to the United States from 1927-1933, where, as a diplomat, he was granted access to major private collections. In his Journal he relates his discovery of other works from Asia and many from Europe: Goya, El Greco, Vermeer, Titian, Rembrandt, Botticelli. His encounter with Dutch painting in 1933 was the decisive one. It crystallized the interplay of art and life: on the one hand, visual themes that involved rejecting the tumult of contemporary history and withdrawing into intimacy; on the other hand, a time of peace in Claudel’s personal life, after he had resolved major crises of faith and love. The earlier jubilant lyricism of a space founded on “the need for other things and other places” gave way to a “contemplation” based on listening (The Eye Listens). Claudel saw Dutch painting as a symbolic representation of inner spirituality, a dramatization of the Anima.

           The Catalan painter José-Maria Sert figures prominently among the contemporary painters about whom Claudel wrote, thanks to a friendship of some 27 years between poet and painter. Sert stimulated Claudel’s interest in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Baroque painting and invited him to Geneva to admire an exhibit of masterpieces from the Prado. Inspired by this visit, Claudel wrote Spanish Painting, and, based on El Greco’s paintings, offered the only definition he would ever give for the baroque in painting, describing it as “reactive energy.” For Claudel, compositions depicting blocked ascension and the tension among “heroic” figures symbolized the conquering spirituality of the Counter-Reformation.

           Claudel’s biblical exegesis, to which he devoted himself from the 1930s until the end of his life, contains numerous pictorial references, and several volumes of his works contain important studies of art. He devotes a chapter of A Poet Looks at the Cross (1938) to  Rubens paintings in Antwerp. In The Song of Songs  (1944) he discusses two Titian paintings. And most of all, in Lord, Teach us to Pray (1942), he chooses six paintings as conduits for an initiation into prayer and meditation. Claudel’s preface to Henry de Waroquier’s edition of the Apocalypse (1952) is a commentary on fourteen of the artist’s color etchings.     

           Modern painting occupies a very small place in Claudel’s art commentary. In his Journal he devotes only a few notes to Impressionist painting and even fewer to Cubism. The virulence of his one essay about modern painting: “Some Reflections on Cubist Painting” (1953), shows how subversive he found the revolutions of Impressionism (“decomposition”) and Cubism (“the juxtaposition of incompatibles”), even after so many years. Claudel’s art criticism is filled with invectives and exclusions; the historical approach to painting, even if it can only reveal a “lugubrious decadence”, is for him the only principle of intelligibility.   But all too rarely, when the poet looked carefully at certain works, like Monet’s Water Lilies, his denunciations gave way to delight, and anathema to a language that was attentive to their painterliness.

           In his art criticism,  Claudel’s work bridges the traditional frontiers among genres, bringing together poetics, exegesis, spiritual meditation, autobiography and the psychology of perception.

                                                                                                         Emmanuelle Kaës translated by Carol Rigolot

Works by Claudel: Selective Bibliography

In The Eye Listens (1946):

           “Introduction to Dutch Painting” (1935)

           “The Road in Art” (1937)

           “Reflections on Cubist Painting” (1953)

The Song of Songs  (on Titian), in Claudel’s Complete Works XXII

Lord, Teach us to Pray (on The Philosopher meditating), in Complete Works XXIII

Critical Bibliography on Claudel and Painting

Paul Claudel et l’art, textes réunis par Jacques Petit, Lettres Modernes, Minard, 1978.
Emmanuelle Kaës, « Cette Muse silencieuse et immobile », Paul Claudel et la peinture européenne, Honoré Champion, 1999.
Emmanuelle Kaës, « De la fiction à la critique : les regards de Claudel sur Rubens », Claudel et la CréationCahiers de philosophie et de littérature, Institut Catholique de Rennes, n° 18, 2006.


Un arrangement en train de se désagréger, mais c'est là, avec évidence, toute l'explication de la Ronde de nuit. Toute la composition d'avant en arrière est faite sur le principe d'un mouvement de plus en plus accéléré, comme d'un talus de sable qui s'écroule. Les deux personnages du premier plan sont en marche, ceux de la seconde ligne ont déjà mis le pied en avant, ceux du fond ne font encore que mesurer du regard le chemin à parcourir dont le philosophe latéral indique de la main la direction, mais, déjà, comme des grains plus légers qui se détachent, à droite le gamin à la poire à poudre et le petit chien à gauche se sont mis au galop. La pique dans la main du capitaine solaire joue le même rôle que tout à l'heure le vin dans le verre (représentant la puissance d'oscillation) et la pelure de citron, elle sert pour ainsi dire de balancier et de régulateur latent à ce mouvement qui anime l'ensemble. Les trois arquebusiers rouges sur la seconde ligne, l'un qui charge son arme, l'autre comme tapi et embusqué derrière son chef, c'est l'ébranlement vers une aventure dont l'on voit bien qu'elle comporte des dangers. Mais comment résister à l'imagination, cette fée lumineuse, cette pénétrante messagère de l'au-delà, qui porte à la ceinture, en tant que lettres de créance, une colombe ? Et déjà devant elle son acolyte masqué s'est frayé un passage vers l'intérieur à travers le groupe des chevaliers de l'aventure dont, au-dessus de lui un étincelant gentilhomme, couleur de mer, arbore fièrement le drapeau rayé de rouge et de noir. Mais, au fond, débouchant parmi de fortes architectures d'un sombre porche, l'arrière-garde immobile par-dessus la tête de ses compagnons qui de degré en degré ont fait le pas en avant, envisage et mesure l'avenir : c'est pour y toucher plus tôt sans doute qu'ils se sont munis de ces longues piques ! On voit briller des casques, un hausse-col, une écharpe, un corset de soie. Il n'est pas jusqu'à ce haut chapeau sur la tête d'un personnage falot qui n'ait l'air d'un phare, d'une tour d'observation. Les spectateurs bientôt, on sent qu'ils vont se transformer en acteurs, ils sont prêts, le tambour roule, car cette page empruntée aux plus sombres officines du songe est cependant pleine d'un étrange bruit muet : le tambour, l'aboiement du petit chien, cette parole sur la lèvre fleurie du capitaine Cock, cette conversation d'œil à œil entre les témoins de droite, ce coup de fusil et celui, futur, que l'arquebusier de gauche empile précautionneusement au fond de son arme. On part !
L'Œil écoute. Œuvres en Prose. Gallimard, Pléiade, p. 202-203 - D.R.