Unreal Nature

December 29, 2015

A Spoon and the Broken Handle of His Chamber Pot

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:02 am

… the constraints imposed by the rules … force the inventive faculty to outdo itself …

Continuing through Art Brut by Michel Thévoz (1995):

… Born in 1901 in a village in the Lozère department of southeastern France, Clément was one of fourteen children. The whole of his boyhood and youth was spent working on his parents’ farm. He had no schooling and never learned to read or write. Always fighting and quarrelling with his brothers, he tried to set fire to the house in 1925 with a bundle of banknotes representing the family savings.

[line break added] After that he was interned in an asylum. Used to freedom and an open-air life, he found detention unendurable and reacted violently, making twelve attempts to escape. This only made his lot worse: he was put into solitary confinement in a narrow cell which he scarcely left at all for two years.

After six months of solitude, Clément conceived the idea of carving the paneled wall of his cell, using the only tools he had: a spoon and the broken handle of his chamber pot which he whetted on a stone. When these makeshift tools were taken from him, he contrived to make others.


… His work is that of a prisoner, a man under duress, cut off from the world in spite of himself and compelled to live for two years in a state of unendurable solitude. For him, the act of carving was an act of aggression, a release of pent-up forces. The bursts of rage flash out in the repetition of motifs, a stubborn rage gradually controlled and in the end inventive.

[line break added] These long processions of figures have their underlying source, not in Byzantine decorations or Romanesque reliefs, but in what Freud called the “repetition compulsion,” the emotional pressure of a traumatic situation which drives an individual to repeat a gesture or figure obsessively, to help him dominate that situation little by little.

[line break added] Clément reiterates the wheel design to mark the passing hours of the day, to exorcise the unendurable continuity of space and time. The check patterns repeat on the scale of the individual panel the overall structure of the wall paneling, which closes off the prisoner’s world. In a sense Clément reproduces the patterns of his fate, to give himself the illusion of acting upon it and gaining the initiative.


Once this figurative rhythm is worked out, he is free to make play with it, to deflect, reverse or syncopate it. The order imposed, the inexorable rhythm of the days, the obsessive patterning of the wall panels, all curiously combine to become the props and prompters of an unimpeded inventiveness. The repetition of figures functions like the constraints imposed by the rules of prosody, which are only apparent constraints, since they force the inventive faculty to outdo itself and come up with the most unexpected finds.

[line break added] Here perhaps is an essential paradox behind the work of any creative artist, who cannot set his course except on the basis of a given order. Thus the writer depends in the last resort on the inviolable system represented by the letters of the alphabet and the musician on the notes of the scale.

[line break added] André Gide likened these constraints to the cord which seems to hold back the kite but without which it would never get off the ground. In inventing his own combinatory system, Clément brought the art of carving back to zero point and started afresh on his own resources, without the benefit of any cultural influence.

portrait of Clément by unknown photographer

My most recent previous post from Thévoz’s book is here.




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