Image Studies

Image Studies

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Roland Barthes: An Exercise in Drawing


A visit to the Bibliothèque nationale de France (in the same building, many years ago, Walter Benjamin handed over his ‘Arcades’ convolutes to George Bataille for safe keeping): Here I was afforded the opportunity to view the ‘drawings’ of Roland Barthes. Drawings in that they were made on the flat surface, and feel best in one’s hand, or viewed horizontally. Drawings in that they are mainly formed of lines. Yet painterly too, with the use of inks, acrylics, and pastels. The colours bear minor instances of blending, of collision. Through this ‘medium’ a picture might nearly form.

I’m inclined to call the drawings ‘exercises’. Despite Barthes having produced many hundreds of drawings over a decade, there is very little variation. Working mainly on sheets of paper (and always of a scale convenient to working on a small table top), the drawings offer irregular interconnections of marks, colour and line. If you look a little more, perhaps you discern the recurrence of a sweeping directionality, from left to right, working diagonally across the paper. Or perhaps not. All the mark making, however, is contained within an imaginary frame, usually set an inch or more from the edges of the physical paper.

Barthes drew in the afternoons, in-between writing, and mainly in the vacation periods that allowed for a regular routine. The simplicity of the drawings, and the lack of deviation suggests less an exploration of drawing, more an exercise in drawing. Like a child completing their homework when they return home from school, the drawings are the work of a writer who has slipped out from the study. And like the school child at home, whose handwriting and concentration are allowed to wander, Barthes appeared to complete these exercises (each diligently numbered and dated) with a handwriting that was entirely free, undone. The drawings are methodical, yet portray only play. And while we might think them depictions of ‘nothingness’, their materiality (and the inscription of time) make for an archive, a diary, a study in ‘idiorrhythmy’ (to use Barthes’ guiding term of the  lecture course Comment vivre ensemble). The drawings yield an individual at peace; a making of/in calmness, pleasure.

Despite leafing through many examples of the drawings, I must admit the  first one I saw was the one that held me the most. It was love at first sight. The small sheet, little more than 20cm x 15cm, is held in a cellophane slip making the inks glisten with the reflection of the ceiling lights of the library.  Number 403, 18 Juin ’72, is atypically black and white, a series of dabs, streaks and brief lines. (The drawing is reproduced, if poorly, in the catalogue of an exhibition held in Rome in 1981, Roland Barthes, carte segni, p.160, plate 228 – here it looks heavy and smudged). Again the drawing gives the sense of diagonal directionality, from left to right (though you can never quite swear to such a schema). It is really just a dance of writing without letters upon undistinguished paper, a little creased in the upper right, appearing to have taken a spillage, then blotted dry. The bottom edge of the paper has been cleanly cut, but for a little serrating  and tearing  on the right hand side. As with each of the drawings, it is dated on the right and numbered on the left, just beneath the ‘framed’ picture space. And, in this particular case, appearing from the underside , as if a blue vein showing through skin, we read in reverse the signature ‘R Barthes’. The ‘R ‘is voluminous, the curves flowing away from the stem like a German ß [Eszett], and which is again echoed in the ‘B’, followed through with an ‘r’, ‘t’ and ‘h’ as small, even peaks and troughs. Set upon the end, a microcosm of the entire drawing: the plurality of a neat, flowing, and overwritten ‘s’.

…I just had to let them go. Put them back in the large, flat grey box. I shall return…

See Also: video of Roland Barthes’ drawings, which features curators Guillaume Fau and  Marie-Odile Germain, from the library’s Department of Manuscripts, and Céline Flécheux, lecturer in aesthetics, Université Paris-Diderot.

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