In the pantheon of poets, the most prized names are those collectively known as the maudits – the cursed ones.

Literature, like art, has been partial to its martyrs, the ones who died too soon, or who were marginalised by society and who appear to have died at the altar of creation.

In this category we can include Antonin Artaud (1896-1946), the author, actor, poet and drawer, someone affiliated with the surrealists, someone who was interned in a psychiatric ward on multiple occasions and received electro-shock treatment leaving permanent scars, as well as someone who was no stranger to artificial paradises.

In his self-emancipation and his violence, Artaud was the most rock n’ roll, or better yet, the most punk of modern poets.

In the exhibition catalogue of the exhibition of his works on paper at Moma in 1996, singer Patti Smith waxed lyrical about her passion for the poet from Marseille.

It’s also well known that the actor Johnny Depp is a collector of Antonin Artaud artefacts.

In addition Artaud exerts a strong influence over contemporary artists (1) such as the French father of art brut Jean Dubuffet, the German painter George Baselitz and the American artist whose sculptures seem to depict fairy tales, Kiki Smith.

On 28 January the auctioneer from Compiègne (86 kilometres outside Paris) Dominique Loizillon is selling a unique haul of 128 lots (photos, letters, manuscripts – estimated in total at around 800,000 euros).

These belonged to Antonin Artaud’s family and retrace for posterity the life and the work of this almost self-described ‘suicide provoked by society’.

The decision was taken to hold the auction in Compiègne due to its proximity to the home of Artaud’s sister’s son.

‘As well as the souvenirs kept by the mother and relatives, the family recovered various pieces from the asylums where Artaud was interned,’ explains the auction expert, Claude Oterelo, a specialist in the Dada and surrealist movements.

Antonin’s father was a ship owner from Marseille while his mother, Euphrasie, was of Greek extraction.

It was the latter who would come to his rescue at some of the most difficult points in his life.
One of the very earliest known self-portraits by the artist, a classic execution produced in the ’20s, was shown at Moma in 1996 and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris in 2006 (2). It is on sale with an 80,000-euro estimate.

In 2012 Sotheby’s in Paris sold a 1946 self-portrait that embodies the style of the mature Artaud for a 2.1 million euros, a record at the time.

It was purchased by the French contemporary art collector Marcel Brient.

As the catalogue of the Bibliothèque Nationale exhibition points out, ‘illness and medicine accompany Artaud throughout his life’.

The poet, forever stirring trouble, declared: ‘I have been sick all my life and I ask only that it continue, for the states of privation in my life always taught me a great deal more about the plethora of my powers than the petit-bourgeois credo: as long as you’ve got your health.’

In 1918 Artaud sojourned near Neufchatel where he spent his time drawing. The auction includes one of his very first sketches inside an asylum, ‘Portrait of the patient B’, a very dark charcoal in an expressionist style that the specialists (c.f. the Bibliothèque Nationale catalogue) believe to be a self-portrait. It is estimated at 40,000 euros.

One of the best-known photographic portraits of the poet was taken in 1926 by the great Man Ray, who was part of the surrealist circle.

One of the prints was owned by Artaud’s mother up until her death, although unfortunately she cut out the signature to fix the photo in a frame. (Estimate: 6,000 euros).

Artaud’s passport, issued in 1936, would serve as a notebook towards the end of his life. Inside are scraps of words and poems like ‘du sein d’un ciel de lit d’un lit sans ciel’ (estimate: 20,000 euros).

At one stage, he thought was being persecuted. In response, he wrote, without sending them it must be added, what he termed ‘destiny-letters’, which are full of denunciations and insults, like the one from 1938 addressed to Anne Manson estimated at 4,000 euros: ‘I have a debt to settle with you, my girl, for attempting to poison me.’

The most startling missive, included in all the exhibitions dedicated to him, is from 1939 and addressed to Hitler. Full of rage and contradictory assertions, it is estimated at 10,000 euros. But like a large number of documents in this forthcoming auction, the estimate is very conservative and is highly likely to be exceeded.

For art history aficionados, Artaud’s copy of the catalogue from the 1946 Van Gogh exhibition in Paris, which would inspire him to pen the legendary essay ‘Van Gogh, the suicide provoked by society’ is estimated at 6,000 euros. He has appended to the cover a series of marks that look like Cy Twombly gestures, as well as a few wine glass stains.

The object was shown in Paris at the Musée d’Orsay in 2014 as part of the magnificent ‘Van Gogh/Artaud’ exhibition.

The final photos of the poet have a tragic quality. Dated 1947, they were pinned in his bedroom in a clinic in Ivry (estimate: 20,000 euros).

Antonin Artaud incarnated the revolt of fine arts and literature in magical fashion.

28 January. Compiègne.


(1)  Exhibition catalogue ‘Antonin Artaud Works on Paper’. 1997. Moma

(2) Antonin Artaud. 2006. Gallimard.