I believe it was Apollinaire who said that “There are some artists whose hand is guided by an unknown being that uses them as an instrument.” Anyway, those were the words that came back into my memory the day I said to myself that perhaps, if I set myself the task of really revealing Banier’s kaleidoscooic mind, of sketching his portrait, then I might succeed, not in understanding him better, but in imagining him better.
I was familiar with Banier many years before I met him; I had read his first novels, published between 1969 and 1972—Les Résidences secondaires, Le Passé composé and La Tête la première—with their laconic romanticism, their burning lucidity. Straight away he had found a voice, and one of his vocations. He was about twenty. He was noisily and magnificently successful. And yet it was not until thirteen years later that he published Balthazar, fils de famille, which, to my mind, is his masterpiece.
I do not think it is possible to capture in words the essence of the beings we know best. The degree of precision to which language can lay claim, especially when it comes to defining another person, is almost illusory. But that person’s writings, if they write, may afford revelations that, if partial, are exact.
It is rare for a writer not to leave confessions in some recess of his work wherein we may hear his secrets.
I read Balthazar as an autobiographical novel, even if it is not exactly that, or is so involuntarily.
Borges—Borges, whom Banier met in Paris in 1983 and of whom, with delicate rightness, seeing him emerge from a lift aglitter with gilt, he observed: “He is a host…”—Borges says, in an old article for La Prensa, that all literature is, when you come down to it, autobiographical; that everything which speaks of a destiny and brings it before us is poetic, and that, sometimes, the personal content is obliterated by the accidents that embody it; “and it is like a heart beating in the depths.”
I listen to Balthazar, who is fourteen years old. I tell himself—pardon me the “borgeada” — that all men were once Adam and that most, come a certain age, regret no longer being so—that day when they look back on their childhood, on their adolescence. But Balthazar’s adolescence was a harrowing one.
I leaf through the book; it is the adolescent who speaks. I read and, as I do so, I listen. It seems to me now that his prose has the same freedom and the same sudden accelerando as his painting does today, fifteen years later.
I listen, I hear: “In the end I just carry on with things regardless.” And: “In this life, your age never changes. You get it when you are born and you stick with it.”
I go on with my reading. I listen: “The trouble with examining my life as it unfolds is that I end up not knowing where I am going. I try to cultivate the art of detachment, but it’s too much for me. I want to get out of it. Getting out of it doesn’t mean being above it, or beyond, but on the edge. Being nonchalant. Laughing at it. I want to laugh. It’s not easy to laugh out loud. Laughing is a silent, ambitious, incommunicable act. You laugh the way you shrug your shoulders, the movement is so very difficult and dangerous. Great shrugs are imperceptible. Now and again there are major shrugs, just as there are major texts, which, without saying anything, have an answer for everything. I don’t know how to shrug my shoulders.”
I press on. I am starting to get to know him and, suddenly, here is a real admission: “I can speak freely only to myself and I say what I think, I speak aloud in front of others. I surprise myself… The others are surprised. In fact they are flabbergasted, a bit stunned, as if my speaking was abnormal. Still, I must wound people quite often without realising it.”
Then I wonder if this line is not just a little disingenuous: “I just hope that there’s no one else but me inside me.”
Yet there is—I am thinking of his painting here—something in this last sentence I read that is not pure literature: “I build when inside me everything is in ruins.”
The construction of a life is always a destruction. If the painter’s work is successful, the painter has expressed nothing without first destroying, or at least shattering, the image he had of himself, what he thought he would make. The successful work of art is always superior to the artist’s intentions.
The canvas which emerged from that ultimate darkness before thought is, in the first instance, a dream. To dream is to see beyond the real: the art of seeing painting is the opposite of the gaze that recognises objects.
In parenthesis, this remark of Edgar Allan Poe’s: “Those who dream with their eyes open know a thousand things that elude those who dream in their sleep.”
Occasionally, Banier told me of his dreams at night. They are long, full of twists and turns and of people he knows—rarely are the actors in them unfamiliar. One could say that his soul—as the Ancients used to do, or Góngora, or Joseph Addison—is at once the theatre, the actors and the audience. His are the dreams of a disciplined imagination, in the manner of Fellini, and they come with a proper end, a resolution: when the story of the dream is over I see the word “end” on the screen, as in old films.
That said, I think that his waking dreams are greatly superior to his nocturnal ones. The development of sensations and the sensitivity to harmonics, this double movement that the artist is slow to perceive in himself but which is determined by his own nature, is much more important for his work.
To come back to the apparent discord between “construction” and “destruction”, it seems to me that, in the case of Banier, everything is constructed by instinct. It is in vain that we ask what the plan was, which the first brushstroke.
There is a reason: figures formed by chance would, if harmonic, be harmonic by chance. In the same way, the viewer may at first glance think that a certain form is in the foreground when it has already leapt to the back, because a barely sketched face, or even the beak of a bird hidden in the foliage of signs, has become the very centre of the composition.
Banier the painter, then. It is tempting to maintain that everything he does got there before he did; that it is the hand acting with the eye that paints; the hand that takes possession of the canvas and the eye that obeys it. But with this, at that same instant, one has the sense of almost manic fine-tuning and analysis—which can, on the other side, go on indefinitely when he is puzzled by the behaviour of people who are quite without interest. He is capable, too, when he writes, of spoiling a page out of a need for perfection that seems to be driven by an untraceable fear; and skilled, too skilled at spotting a flaw or turgid passage, a word that is pedantic or excessive, superfluous or out of tune.
However, I often get the impression that he paints as a man who has suddenly been struck by a presentiment, an extreme sense of urgency, a sort of vision.
First and foremost, his painting expresses a rebellion that I cannot succinctly elucidate. I shall hazard a slightly hyperbolic hypothesis here, which is that Banier is grievously affected by the disappearance of the individual, that he cannot bear the state of dependency imposed on him by the now universal and increasingly fast movement that is ushering in the absolute technological state, which threatens the essence of the human being more than any other civilisation. Thought and art are already going underground. We are condemned to intensity, to enormity, to speed, doomed to forget all voluptuous pleasure, to forget ourselves… We have worn out the future.
And so each brushstroke joins battle, or provokes it. The impression of violence is so strong that the forms seem to be flying into pieces, frenetically “destroyed” either by some cataclysm or by their own internal dynamic. (One thinks of some metaphorical example of a Vorticist manifesto: “The bus dashed at the houses along its route and, in turn, the houses threw themselves on the bus and mingled with it…”)
The forest of images is burning. Beauty is wounded.
The characters sketch their figures and it is as if they are running past to warn the world that it is crashing down. Here or there a tribe—or forms—invades a canvas. A dream, a frozen nightmare. Singular by the speed and extravagance of their facture, the paintings are, in the form of canvas and brushmarks and saturated colours, dramatic and suddenly joyous. But the pleasure of living is always relentlessly mixed in with suffering and a curious “writing” of sensation.
Where does he get them, these visions? this mixture of distress, horror and world’s end—and, at odd moments ( again, if we concentrate) so moving that we feel, at an extreme pitch, love, tenderness and an innate pity, but without hope.
There is no doubt in Banier a kind of intoxication, and something like the temptation to let everything go in the company of these hallucinatory creatures that teem, so often half-formed, from his brush.
Gottfried Benn: “Nowadays, everything revolves around everything, and if everything revolves around everything, nothing revolves except around oneself […]. All that would remain is a few residual, solitary souls, a little spirit, very lucid, profoundly melancholy, acting in silence: but the dogma, that of Homo sapiens, is coming to an end.”
The true secrets of an artwork are more secret than they are for the beholder attracted by a felicitous distribution of lines and colours.
No, the artist did not calculate. He yielded to a major need; to see and to give life to all the things that have come together, accumulated within him, around him too, up to that point in the world where every man is, when all’s said and done, like any other man.
The fact that banier became known as a writer and, much later, as a photographer too, is not without its consequences for his position as a painter. We can’t consider his books as independent of the painting and photography. The painter had not need to draw on his literature or his photographs, nor they on the painting.
Diabolically subtle, he is also as unintellectual as can be—if, as Roger Caillois said, the intellect is the capacity to reason from nothing, without the raw material of lived experience. What interests him is the human being. He comes to this through his work—but sometimes I say to myself, when thinking of his multiple activities, that if he had been the contemporary of Proust and had known and frequented him, La Recherche might have served him as a substitute.
This observation, which may appear frivolous, is not, I think, empty, for it is not absurd to suppose that Banier’s literary intermittency is due to the fact that over the years he has met characters beyond the imaginings of a novelist; true one-offs. And he has not only met them, but he has developed friendships—his most ardent passion— with some of the most significant figures of recent decades. I am not exaggerating. I could make a list. But that is not my purpose here.
I do not believe that with respect to Banier one can point to obvious influences. Neither in literature nor painting. However, in the course of our conversations, and although it is never a question of “isms”, schools or techniques, I sometimes observe that he has a certain sympathy for the great adventurers of art of the beginning of the twentieth century, among them the magnificent iconoclasts who firmly believed in the absolute power of the imagination, our only hope of not sinking into barbarism. “Every conviction is a sickness”, said one of them, Picabia. One could mention Duchamp, Arp, Man Ray and the Russians! All of them could take as their motto Shelley’s wonderful words: “The world is weary of the past.”
And, above all, there is Tristan Tzara. Tzara, who brandished the flag of Dada, began by twisting the neck of writing and, exemplary Dadaist that he was, never ever called himself one. Tzara who, twelve years after his “revolution of 1918”, published the superb poems of L’Homme approximatif:
“Approximate man like me
like you reader and like the others
approximate man moving
in the vaguenesses of destiny
with a heart like a suitcase
and a waltz for a head”
I quoted these lines in one of my first pieces of journalism. I spoke them under my breath—how many years ago was that? —that day when, in the last room of Banier’s very big exhibition at the Württembergischer Kunstverein in Stuttgart, at the centre of the labyrinth, I first saw that painting: “…in the vaguenesses of destiny / with a heart like a suitcase and a waltz for a head.”
That was on 24 November 1998.
Seven years before, a few months after the publication of Sur un air de fête—for the time being, his last novel—Banier had already surprised his readers and many who thought they knew him well with this first exhibition of photographs at the Pompidou Centre, accompanied by a book. It would be followed by others in which painted photographs and painting had a prominent position.
For many years photography was denied the status of art. Today, it would seem that such intransigence belongs to a bygone age. And yet, while, when speaking of an artist, we may say “his painting”, “his literature”, “his music”, the language—and I am thinking of the Latin language here—refuses to accept the expression “his photography” as applied to a photographer. Usage has not yet acquired the lexical nuance required by the art of photography.
Admittedly, no one now could reiterate Baudelaire’s apostrophe:
“You photographers will never be artists. You are copyists.” But because the value of a photograph may sometimes hinge on something quite involuntary, we might still find ourselves doubting that it takes a special sensibility to be a photographic artist.”
Here is dauthendey (the father of the poet) speaking of Daguerre’s first images: “We didn’t trust ourselves at first to look long at the first pictures he developed. We were abashed by the distinctness of these human beings, and believed that the little tiny faces in the picture could see us, so powerfully was everyone affected by the unaccustomed clarity and the unaccostumed fidelity to nature of the first daguerreotypes.”
These words are quoted by Walter Benjamin in his Little History of Photography. And, as he looks at the image of a Newhaven fishwife by David Octavius Hill, a Scottish portrait painter who often worked from photographs that he had himself taken, they strike him as expressing a general vision of photography. Benjamin again: “In Hill’s Newhaven fishwife, her eyes cast down in such indolent, seductive modesty, there remains something that goes beyond testimony to the photographer’s art, something that cannot be silenced, that fills you with an unruly desire to know what her name was, the woman who was alive there, who even now is still read and will never consent to be wholly absorbed in ‘art’.”
Metamorphoses sometimes occur as a result of which photographs that were originally documentary become more beautiful than professionally beautiful photographs. Jacques-Henri Lartigue, who suddenly became famous in the early sixties, will always be remembered as the insouciant witness of the first decades of the twentieth century, of the joie de vivre and dreams of the bourgeoisie. But it would be wrong to think that it is the documentary aspect alone that has made the photographer a legend: Lartigue was an artist, a great and innocent artist.
In another genre there is Robert Frank, who seems familiar to us because he shows America in the manner of those film makers who demolished the American dream… Frank is an artist. And what of Alfred Stieglitz, who, at the beginning of the twenties, single-handedly embodied the transformation of photography from an “art” that imitated painting to an art of the snapshot that snares reality and captures the unforeseen but revealing moment or gesture?
The snapshot constitutes the aesthetic of Banier the photographer.
But the snapshot is not just the fleeting moment; it is a person’s entire past, caught in the instant and perpetuated.
Banier captures an air, an attitude, a gaze and thus reveals what is unique—the character, the very nature of the individual. Thus for example a triumphant-looking woman may, by the grace of a photograph taken without the slightest pose, go back to being the vulnerable little girl she once was… Or vice versa.
Paul Valéry: “Photography accustoms the eyes to waiting for what they must see, and therefore to seeing; and it teaches them not to see what does not exist—which, before, they could see perfectly clearly.”
Should the painted photographs be classified as a third activity, a third body of work? And besides, is this term appropriate?
That the first images to which the painter put his brush should be described thus, very well. That those who have not seen with their own eyes but imagined this “genre” via hearsay should be wary of it, fine.
Painted photographs. Before I saw them I too was sceptical. Painting would become impure if it was mixed with a model of expression that is much more effective than itself at rendering the immediate aspects of reality. All the more so since Banier was already an acclaimed photographer when he entered—forcefully, fierely and with furia—the world of painting.
The first time I saw the painted photographs was the exhibition in Stuttgart, alongside the paintings. I remember that from the beginning I read them as paintings. The brush had hidden half the face, or body, or hands, the better to bring out some capital, significant, decisive detail.
Sometimes, very little of the photograph is still visible. This is because it has prompted an unforeseen creation so that the result is, essentially, a painting.
(I run the risk of contradicting myself as regards what I said earlier about photography’s capacity for exactitude but, faced with the alloy of photography and painting, I begin to doubt absolute perfection…)
As he pursues his winding path, Banier is certainly not driven solely by conscious desires and wants, but is drawn on by something that is always hidden, calling out to be uncovered, illuminated.
Does he believe in it with a solid faith? Is he a man of faith, or is he moved by a curiosity that watches out for an unknown something whose steps he can hear, whose appearance he knows to be imminent?
I am persuaded that curiosity of mind is superior to faith, for faith is monolithic and sedentary, unchanging. It hangs back.
In all Banier’s explorations—paintings, books, photographs—, throughout his oeuvre, there is an insatiable amorous curiosity. And much boldness, many hazards confronted, much daring and danger.
Once again, I have taken from Valéry these words which seem to suit him well: “Honour to artists who advance into arbitrariness and leave necessity behind them.”
Hector Bianciotti, 6 February 2000
Fotos y pinturas, cat. Buenos Aires, Centro Cultural Recoleta, 2000
Translation: Charles Penwarden
This text was written by Hector Bianciotti, published on the occasion of the release of the exhibition catalog Fotos y Pinturas which took place at the Centro Recoleta in Buenos Aires from the 17th of april until the 21th of may 2000.