Last winter, Madrid’s Museo Reina Sofia put together an exhibition of artefacts related to the writings of Raymond Roussel, France’s literary exception non pareil. Roussel’s books were the Baedekers of an immense and baffling imaginative terrain, and the show paired them with text and artworks which were effectively postcards, home movies, travel dispatches and queer keepsakes sent back from that same realm. Starting with Duchamp, it laid bare the different ways that successive artistic generations have approached Roussel’s singular vision.
Now comes a related exhibition in the Palais de Tokyo, in Roussel’s birthplace – Paris. Starting today, Nouvelles impressions de Raymond Roussel builds on the earlier show while adding more contemporary works whose connection to the author in question may not be readily apparent. “It did not seem necessary for their relationship to that writer to have taken the form of a tribute,” assert the curators, “or even for them to refer to him explicitly.”
This raises the possibility that Roussel’s influence is so covert that the artists themselves don’t know that their hands are guided by an eccentric French writer who died in 1933. Which is quite something. Here is the full statement regarding Nouvelles impressions de Raymond Roussel:
Raymond Roussel is finally being celebrated in Paris: a long overdue event for this writer who for more than a century has occupied a central place in the imaginations of artists— some artists, but not the least important—, embodying the figure of the artist totally dedicated to his work, to the very boundaries of reason, the work of the artist who creates a “complete world”, “following only the inclination of his imagination” (André Breton). “New Impressions of Raymond Roussel” is a follow-up and a complement to the exhibition “Impressions of Raymond Roussel” which was held at the Museo Reina Sofia (Madrid) in 2011 and the Museu Serralves (Porto) in 2012. It outlined a diagonal history of 20th-century art, linking the points between artists and creative people who have talked of the influence of this author and his writings on their work: starting with, Marcel Duchamp, then the Surrealists, but also Michel Foucault or Georges Perec. This time “New Impressions of Raymond Roussel” intends to accord a larger place to the present, and brings together artists encountered during these recent years of research focusing on Roussel. It did not seem necessary for their relationship to that writer to have taken the form of a tribute, or even for them to refer to him explicitly.That would underestimate the nature of those influences, as deep as they are underground, to reduce them to games involving quotation. These works cannot be reduced to a theme and their combined presence here is an exercise in unraveling the motifs – always different – that artists have derived from Roussel, consciously or not, according to a reading which must of course be assumed to have been partial. It is indeed the “greatest magnetizer of modern times,” in the words of André Breton, that this exhibition is recalling to people’s memories; the man who, for Michel Leiris, achieved “escape from the field of Reality into that of Conception”. It involves telling of the power of his poetry, its capacity to transport us into a “topsy-turvy world”; the vast childish and sometimes cruel theater that is the universe of Raymond Roussel.