(This is a short English version of a longer French blog entry, where interested readers will find the French text accompanying the drawing, references and footnotes)
The drawing Cat. 27 shows a dynamic scene of unmounted horses racing through the streets of Rome for the carnival. An owl is riding one of the horses; on the left, Time is busy painting the portrait of the bird.
(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.
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.
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”.
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 (…)
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 (…)
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.
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.
(This is the English version of an original French blog entry: Les Petites Maisons; if you notice any funny English or have any suggestion, please leave a comment.)
I would like to seize the opportunity offered by Paris Museums’ new open access collection1 to present some information about the Petites Maisons, the institution, managed since 1633 by the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, that welcomed Georges Focus when his mental disorders became too strong to allow him a normal life. He might have died here in 17082. Architectural conservatism3 and the continuity of the hospice function of this set of buildings mean that documents from 1868 can probably be useful for understanding the living conditions of the last years of Focus, despite a time gap of more than 150 years.
Here is the text of the phylactery of the drawing Cat. 4 by Georges Focus, transcribed in modern and understandable French:
Vide qui vide qui, vide qui vit la petite mésange. De sur le ton de l’émerillon suivant le petit moineau pour la vendange. Vique que alati viti Vitu vitau. Au dessin de ce pressoir est vis-à-vis et vif martyr Vitus. Nourrissant l’injustice qui le suce et le mange. Qui en vit sans honte en le maltraitant et lui chantant louange. Ici, il eut le fouet quoique né le seigneur et le dieu des vignes pour le l’avoir montré à ses dames d’honneur. Pour avoir du maupoint mis par trop à leur gré dans sa tête, il fut fouetté Bacchus pour avoir montré le vit que l’on processionne en fête. Et la dévotion de la dame Cottereau n’en aurait pas voulu à Cholait de sur l’eau, encore que le père ami de Monsieur Valérien. n’en eut plus d’autre, elle abandonnait pour lui son exercice si chrétien.
Focus, Cat. 4 (my transcription differs slightly from that of the Cat.) 1
The drawing shows with some precision a screw basket winepress. Some workers are turning a screw, and another man seems to be checking that the produced liquid is flowing correctly into a basin. In the foreground, the personification of the Loir River removes the bark from a wooden stick with a drawknife. The text plays on the homophony of “vit” (phallus) and Saint Vit. Focus seems to be referring to a personal moment of drunkenness, when he made some obscene gestures and was punished. The drawing has been censored: it’s easy to imagine why a part of it was cut out.
The question that occupies us here is about the identification of the place called Cholait in the sentence “Et la dévotion de la dame Cottereau n’en aurait pas voulu à Cholait de sur l’eau”. The editors of the Catalog propose to recognize here the city of Châlette-sur-Loing.
I rather suggest identifying it with an actual toponym of Châteaudun, the birth city of Focus: Chollet or Cholet. Phonetically, this poses no problem. There is currently a rue de Chollet, near the Loir river, and a mill existed in Cholet in 1801/2, which would fit with the phrase “Cholait on the water”.
This new identification has no real consequence in terms of understanding the text, but it confirms the placement of this drawing by the editors of the Catalog in a series of drawings relating to the childhood and adolescence of Focus. It is also a new testimony to the precision of Focus’s memory, as well, I would say, as the quality of his drawing of the press which almost resembles a technical drawing.
Finally, it seems that it allows me to forget the assumption that I had been tempted to make on the possible identification of “the Cottereau lady”. I did wonder if it was possible to see here an allusion to the wife of the doctor and scientist Samuel Cottereau du Clos (1598-1685), a man whom Focus could well have met in Paris, as their lives and social circles seem to be so close. The purely local toponym of Cholait means that this Cottereau lady must be a local Châteaudun person.
Focus’s drawings are exceptional, but equally remarkable is their survival. Who saved them? Who kept them and transmitted them to the next generation? What did his contemporaries think about them? these are important questions, to which the catalog of the Paris exhibition has begun to answer. However, it is difficult to answer these questions because there are not many written sources on the manner the “art of fools” was considered before the 19th century. Could images, visual sources, help us?
The Rijksmuseum owns a series of prints entitled
“Slachtoffer van bezetenheid of tovenarij”, or “Victim of
Possession or of Witchcraft”. Made a little earlier than 1660, they show
men or women, 13 in all, who behave strangely. Some of these people seem to be
examined by a committee of civil or religious personalities or perhaps of
doctors, and they are treated for their troubles, sometimes violently
Many of these scenes seem to happen within one and the same building. A
detail has drawn my attention to Print 2.
A painting with simple lines is visible on the wall of a room. Chances are slim, because the background of these prints is treated very summarily, as shown by what appears to be a molded cornice below the painting, but I wonder if we could see here the reproduction of an example of art created by one of the mad persons of the establishment and kept by the doctors or inquisitors as part of a dossier or, more simply, as a strange object worthy of interest.
There are not many old representations of drawings or paintings made by mad
people. One of the best known is an engraving by William Hogarth, The Interior
of Bedlam (Bethlehem Royal Hospital) (1735 ).
One of the asylum patients is shown drawing on a wall a mixture of complex geometric figures and freestyle graffiti. Moreover, in a room in the back, we can also discern a series of papers pinned to the wall, each containing a circle surmounting what appears to be a line of text, a caption. These drawings remind us of Focus’s “drawn writings”, with their phylacteries. Might they also be drawings made by people suffering from a mental illness? To what extent can this engraving serve as a historical document since scholars agree that the fools represented by Hogarth are stereotypes and unrelated to the everyday life of the asylum?
This short blog entry is made up of unanswered questions, for which I apologize, but I wished to draw the attention on the possibility that there might be more old drawings made by crazy people than we think.
The other day I posted on a “page” of this blog the concordance between the numbers of Focus’ drawings s in the collections which host them and their edition number in the beautiful catalog of the exhibition of 2018 (Brugerolles). With the exception of one sheet that is now lost1, all of Focus’ drawings currently known to us belong to two sets: one part is kept at the University of Edinburgh (95 drawings that were bound together in the 19th c.), and the other part is a series of isolated sheets belonging since 1780 to the same French family (30 sheets of drawings, Focus is not the author of 4 or 5 of them, accompanied by separate commentary sheets, probably written in the 18th c. to make Focus’s drawings more palatable).
Focus’s drawings were presented in the 2018 exhibition and edited in its Catalog following a thematic logic, which broke their original archive order. As the two current sets of drawings probably come from a single ensemble, which was separated in the 18th century, and as the original organization of the drawings, if it ever existed, was probably disturbed at the same time, the thematic arrangement and the ensuing Catalog numbering are as good as any other, but it seemed to me that, as a preliminary to an electronic edition of Focus’s texts, it is worth keeping in mind the old organization of the drawings. Maybe it will make it possible to propose new groupings of drawings and new interpretative hypotheses.
The numbers comparison also offers an opportunity to draw attention to the fact that a small number of Focus drawings are precisely dated documents:
Edinburgh 2 (2)
July 24, 1693
September 8, 1693
November 8, 1693
March 18, 1694
May 26, 1694
June 16, 1694
It looks like neither the Edinburgh collection nor the Paris series have been organized or divided chronologically.
E. Brugerolles, Les “mille extravagances” de Georges Focus, in Georges Focus. La folie d’un peintre de Louis XIV (E.B. ed.) (Paris, 2018), p. 81-88, p. 81-83.
(As I am not a native English speaker, any English language correction or clarification is welcome. The French original entry is available here)
Georges Focus, who died in 1708, was a French painter who became crazy at the end of his life. He is the author of a bit more than 130 drawings, accompanied by poems, of great technical quality, made while suffering from psychological disorders. These bizarre works are also marked by great erudition and many precise allusions to contemporary personalities and events. They are a source of micro-history for research on 17th century French society, literature and fine arts.
With this researcher blog, I would like to present the research that hopefully will lead to the annotated electronic edition of Focus’ drawings.