A crazy painter who likes a carpenter poet: is this outsider art ?

(This blog entry is the translation of this original French blog entry; if you notice any strange English or have any other suggestion, do not hesitate leaving a comment)

The way we look at Georges Focus’s drawings in the 21st century is necessarily influenced by the reputation of art brut or outsider art and the discourse it generates. However, if one sticks to a chronological definition, Focus obviously cannot be part of this movement.

Art brut begins in 1945 and we can say that there is no art brut before Dubuffet’s art brut!

C. Delavaux, Art brut. Le guide (Paris, 2019), p. 19 (translation: ADH)

However, if we adopt a typological definition of works of art brut, it is more difficult to decide:

Productions of all kinds – drawings, paintings, embroidery, modeled or sculpted figures, etc. – doted with a spontaneous and highly inventive character, as little as possible indebted to artistic customs or cultural clichés and having for authors unknown people, who do not belong to professional artistic circles.

Jean Dubuffet, quoted by C. Delavaux, ibid. p. 22 (translation: ADH)

The spontaneous and inventive character of Focus’s drawings is undeniable, but they show many “cultural clichés”, and Focus, because of his artistic education and his membership of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, is a perfect example of professional artist. His mental disorders and his internment in the Petites Maisons took him out of this category, but it was his previous career and his proximity to power that enabled him to continue to draw inside a hospital institution for privileged few.

On the other hand, the technical quality of Focus’s drawings, his mastery of artistic techniques and processes, his culture as well as his desire to compete with famous painters and engravers mean that we cannot simply call his work the “art of a madman” nor compare it to contemporary therapeutic art practices, especially as we do not know the effect that his drawings had on him or what treatments he would have followed1.

Here, it is worth noting that Focus himself was interested in the history of madness, or rather in mad people because he names in the texts accompanying his drawings many personalities known for their mental problems, some of them his contemporaries, others historical figures, even mythological heroes. I plan to explore this point in another post. Here, I would like to focus on a writer to whom Focus makes several allusions in his “comic writings”, Adam Billaut, the “first working-class poet in France”, who could in a way be associated to Art Brut.

Drawing 16

Georges Focus, Drawing 16 (University of Edinburgh, Recueil de Desseins Ridicules f. 80 r.).

The drawing presents a view of the Pont-Neuf in Paris; you can easily recognize the pump house La Samaritaine and the statue of Henri IV. A troupe of actors gives a show on the right bank; barges are moored to the left one. Naked people sunbathe and swim in the Seine river; Focus, recognizable by his halo, seems to be the most awkward swimmer, and he swims perpendicular to the current. In the foreground, we can see the Capitoline she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, as well as the River god, seated with his back leaning casually on a bundle of rushes. With his left arm, he points to Focus. Two Fame personifications hold a speech scroll, whose text is divided into two columns.

This text, available at the French version of this blog entry, is particularly difficult; I do not understand the meaning of several words, nor its general organization, and several people names cannot be identified. I propose as an hypothesis the following interpretation. The poem begins in a surprising and funny way by imagining that the statue of Henry or the king himself fell from his horse. The king is compared to a carpenter. Then it looks like Focus assimilates to the king in his downfall. The mention of carpentry tools allows by their homonymy with dentist’s instruments to switch towards the theme of dentistry, which fits with the illustration of a theater scene accompanying, as we saw previously, the services of quack doctors and dentists working near the Pont Neuf. Focus / the king has fallen into the Seine and is swimming, which leads to the comparison with different fishes. Someone is judging a painting by Focus, but lies like dentists tend to do. Focus is not rewarded for all of his efforts.

The words « Monsieur de Nevers » and « menuisier » are most helpful in understanding the text.

Portrait of Adam Billaut, by Edme Bovinet — Bibliothèque nationale de France, Public domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11613834

Adam Billaut is a carpenter from Nevers who wrote poetry. He gained some fame after he dedicated some of his texts to the cardinal Richelieu. He received the patronage of Louise-Marie de Gonzague and her sister Anne de Gonzague, whose family owned the Hôtel de Nevers, from where the view on the Seine is very similar to Focus’s drawing.

In 1644 a collection of poems by Billaut appeared, with the title “Les chevilles de Me Adam” (Master Adam’s plugs). This volume is remarkable because Billaut’s poems are preceded by a very long “Approval of Parnassus”.

Les Chevilles de Me Adam, menuisier de Nevers (Paris, 1644), p. 1.
« On peut dire en tout l’Univers,
Voyant les beaux écrits que Maistre Adam nous offre,
Qu’il s’entend à faire des vers,
Comme il s’entend à faire un coffre. »
Sainct Amant

Some of the most famous authors of the time took part in this celebratory preface, expressing their admiration for the woodworker capable of making verses. Sometimes these praises look like anticipations of the surrealists’ or Dubuffet’s writings.

Quel Dieu t’a rendu son Oracle ?
Quel Démon t’inspire ces vers ?
Dois-tu passer dans l’univers
Pour un Monstre, ou pour un Miracle ?
Ô prodige entre les Esprits,
Qui sais tout, & n’as rien appris !
Merveille du siècle où nous sommes !
Étonnement de tous les yeux !
À peine es-tu connu des hommes,
Et tu parles comme les Dieux

Docte ignorant, puissant Génie,
qui parmi le bruit et le bois,
a su trouver plus d’une fois
et la cadence, et l’harmonie
(…)

Georges de Scudéry, ibid. p. 3 s.

Which god delivered his oracle for you ? what god inspired these verses of yours ? Are you a monster or a miracle in this universe ? O prodigy among spirits, who knows everythinh without ever having studied ! Wonder of our century ! Surprise for our eyes. As soon as you are known among mortals, you start speaking like a god. Wise ignorant, powerful Genius, who found rythm and harmony in the middle of noise and woodwork (…)

(Translation: ADH)

If the words may sound the same as surrealist’ praise, in fact the admiration of these great writers for the carpenter of Nevers is radically different in spirit from art brut: their praise serves more to extol the merits of the Cardinal de Richelieu and the other protectors of Billaut: it is because of these grandees’ interest, because of their benevolence that the miracle happens, that a rimailleur craftsman rises to the rank of poet.

Drawing 5

Georges Focus, Drawing 5 ( (University of Edinburgh, Recueil de Desseins Ridicules f. 59 r.).

We are again at the Pont Neuf, near the Samaritaine pump house. Focus, recognizable by his halo, narrowly misses being run over by the horses of a carriage. To the side, a small crowd admires some actors performing on a small theater stage. In the foreground, the personification of Time is standing, a scythe in his left hand, and pointing towards Focus with a stick in his right hand. The similarities between the two drawings are obvious.

In the accompagnying poem, Focus seems to assimilate himself to Christ and relates a traffic accident which he allegedly escaped despite his intoxication. Nothing links this text to Billaut. For this, you have to look at the lower right corner of the drawing.

Here is a kind of small self-explanatory rebus in French: un rat botté rabote (a rat with boot is planing wood). Billaut was known for his nickname Virgile au rabot (“Virgil with a wood plane”)2. In his poems, he mentions this carpentry tool more than forty times.

It is not completely certain that Focus is thinking of Billaut with this drawing, but the similarities between the two sheets presented here are so strong that I accept this identification. In addition, the play on words “ca-billaud” of the drawing Cat. 16 is very similar to the boot rat rebus.

Why is Focus interested in Billaut?

It should first be noted that Billaut, whose work precedes that of Focus by one or two generations, experienced a resurgence of fame with the massive inclusion of his poems in the Barbin anthology published in 16923, that is to say one or two years before the probable date for creation of Focus’s drawings.

It is pretty certain that Focus did not look at Billaut in the same way as the Cardinal Richelieu or the authors who participated in the Approbation of Parnassus; it is not the almost miraculous aspect of the carpenter capable of literature that interests him. The two documents we have presented do not allow us to establish that Focus actually read Billaut; we do not detect here any textual connections or a practice of quotation. Rather, it seems to me that it is Billaut’s reputation that would justify his appearance in Focus’s drawings. Billaut and Focus share two characteristics, a sense of humor and, above all, a poor status that forces them to find patrons in order to survive, in a competitive environment where, according to Focus, false promises and betrayals abound. In that sense only, Focus is an outsider artist.

Cite this article as: Alexis D'Hautcourt, "A crazy painter who likes a carpenter poet: is this outsider art ?," in Georges Focus, peintre et fou, 23/08/2020, https://georgesfocus.hypotheses.org/1760.
  1. On the difference between “art brut” and art made by mad people, see C. Delavaux, Art brut. Le guide (Paris, 2019), p. 63-65. []
  2. The oldest occurence I could find for this nickname is in the Recueil Barbin published in 1692 and it is immediately copied in a review of the anthology published in the Jounal des savants. []
  3. Recueil des plus belles pièces des Poètes Français, tant anciens que modernes, depuis Villon jusqu’à M. de Benserade; see Dinah Ribard, « Le premier poète ouvrier », Pratiques et formes littéraires 16 (2019). URL : https://publications-prairial.fr/pratiques-et-formes-litteraires/index.php?id=96. []

Auteur/autrice : Alexis D'Hautcourt

Maître de conférence (Associate Professor), Université des Langues Étrangères du Kansai (関西外国語大学, Kansai Gaidai University)

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