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‘Locus Solus: Impressions of Raymond Roussel’ is the first major exhibition to trace the artistic legacies of Raymond Roussel; fin de siècle poet, dandy, impresario, self-cast genius and a guiding light to many of the past century’s most notable figures in Western arts and letters. Through a presentation of interrelated artworks and ephemera, the exhibition looks at the details of Roussel’s life and work to draw trajectories of its influence through leaps in time and geography. That a coherent exhibition could gather material by figures as disparate as Jules Verne, Marcel Duchamp, the College of Pataphysics, Marcel Broodthaers, Allen Ruppersberg and Mike Kelley, testifies not only to the strange magnetism of this work, but to the remarkable investment of the Museo Reina Sofía and guest curator François Piron. To walk through the exhibition is to experience what may happen when a major institution flexes its muscles.
The show commences amidst the Proustian Paris that Roussel inhabited, and insists that his work cannot be known without grasping something of his surrounds. Cabinets are devoted to Jules Verne and his meticulous heroes, such as the ever-scheduled Phileas Fogg. In an adjoining room Georges Méliès film Le Voyage à Travers de L’Impossible (The Impossible Voyage) (1904) is projected alongside photos of Roussel dressed as a boy in carnival costume. Roussel’s hallmark exaltation of genius and the polymath (among which he counted himself) is discovered here in a world of secular wonder; a realm of pure imagination that is not transcendent but rendered in the finest material detail—the vividness of a sea-monster described down to its very last scale.
Although taking himself as a classicist, the stage-productions upon which Roussel expunged his family fortune were either ignored or found only succès de scandale. It was the surrealists who came to Roussel’s defence, somewhat to the playwright’s bemusement. Among a raft of artefacts from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France is a play-bill from the 1912 staging of Roussel’s Impressions d’Afrique (Impressions of Africa) that, among others, was attended by Guillaume Apollinaire, Francis Picabia, and Marcel Duchamp. Following this lead, a Rousselian flair for fantastic contraptions is traced through works by Picabia, Man Ray and Max Ernst; while André Breton’s alignment of Roussel with Giorgio de Chirico is displayed via a series of the artist’s ‘metaphysical paintings’.
Roussel’s ‘realm of pure conception’ struck a chord in particular with Duchamp, who cited Roussel’s rich flights of imagination as having provided a ‘liberation from the plastic’. In a small cabinet-room the particular influence of Roussel on the ‘bachelor machines’ of Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915– 23), is charted through notes from Duchamp’s The Green Box and a reconstructed fragment of the work signed by Richard Hamilton (although attributed to Duchamp on the label). Meanwhile, amongst a dense room of Salvador Dali, a blurred tableau titled Locus Solus charts another Roussel tangent in the work of Chilean surrealist Roberto Matta (coincidentally the father of Gordon Matta-Clark).
A certain spark ricochets throughout the exhibition as a leitmotif—often finding its expression in, quite astounding, historical footnotes. Roussel spoke of ‘the star on the forehead’ of genius and the show, of course, contains that famous photograph of Duchamp with a star razored into his crown. Also, amidst a cabinet containing correspondence with the (then celebrity) astronomer and playwright Camille Flammarion, a star-shaped glass vessel catches the eye. A caption-card reveals that it houses a biscuit treasured by Roussel from a meeting with Flammarion, and that the glass container was commissioned to preserve the star-shaped morsel. The story goes on: many years later the object was found, by chance, in a Parisian flea-market by George Bataille who identified it by a hand-written note.
Advancing through the 1900s, different artists find for themselves a different Roussel. To the surrealist ethnographer Michel Leiris, the fantasised tales of Impressions d’Afrique were a tool through which to discover civilisation as a charade—the abstraction of culture. Fifty years on, in Los Angeles and via the vector of French émigré artist Guy de Cointet, the same meticulous descriptions of imagined worlds paved a new access to narrative for artists working through the aftermath of conceptualism, such as John Baldessari, Allen Ruppersberg and Morgan Fisher. Serendipity, again, figures in these trajectories. It so happened that Leiris’s father was the business manager of Roussel, and as a boy he had sat in the same 1912 audience as Apollinaire, et alia.
It would take a longer format than this review to provide a proper exegesis of the quite astounding amount of material assembled for this exhibition. Not yet noted is the presence of Michel Foucault and the influence of Roussel on the Nouveau Roman, Broodthaers has not borne mention, nor artists from Rodney Graham to the proto-feminist Ree Morton, and it could go on. I do not think it detracts from the overall achievement of the exhibition to suggest that it could have been intriguing to have lingered a moment over the homosexual life of Roussel. The exhibition catalogue references a comment by Leiris that Roussel’s bouts of extended exotic travel (notably never to Africa) were usually preceded by an attempted blackmail. It seems an interesting frame to consider the position of one who addresses the strangeness of culture, its fabrication, from within.
And yes, the catalogue is a wonderful read; padding out many of the project’s loose ends and footnotes. Of course, an exhibition as historically rich and meticulously researched as this lends itself easily to the page. Through these forms—the exhibition and the book—we see how the ‘Locus Solus’, the ‘singular place’, of Roussel has become populated over the past century. As claimed by Marcel Duchamp; ‘To this day I consider Raymond Roussel all the more important for not having built up a following’. And herein, perhaps, lies the difference between having a following and having followers— for of the latter Roussel indeed has many.
‘Locus Solus: Impressions of Raymond Roussel’ was organised by the Museo Reina Sofía, in conjunction with Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Serralves. Curators were Manuel Borja-Villel, João Fernandes and François Piron.