drawing by Klossowski

In 1990, the eminent writer Pierre Klossowski, brother of the painter Balthus, dedicated the catalogue of his first Paris retrospective ‘ad usum Sarah Wilson’. Having edited a bilingual volume of his writings on art in 1998, it was a great adventure for me to organise a major exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. It coincided with a travelling retrospective from the Pompidou Centre of the German erotic artist Hans Bellmer, and ‘The Vicious Circle’ which I conceived to bridge the two shows. This displayed Klossowski’s writings from Sade, my neighbour (1947), and Roberte, ce Soir (1953) onwards, in the context of art and literature featuring Sade, Nietzsche and Klossowski’s close friend, Georges Bataille. ‘The Vicious Circle’ included works by Duchamp, Man Ray, Claude Cahun, André Masson and was the first London showings of lesser known figures such as Michel Journiac and the performance artist Françoise Jannicot who were 1970s contemporaries of Klossowski’s philosophical admirers, Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze. Klossowski is acknowleged as a precursor for postmodern debates on simulacra and political concepts of ‘hospitality’; yet it is the sensuality of his silvery pencil or colour crayon drawings with their mannerist resonances and mythological and theological themes, and his late polychrome sculptures of the 1990s which are so striking. All three interrelated exhibitions opened to the public in late September 2006, attracting 42,000 visitors.

Klossowski was born in 1905 of Paris-based German parents, and after an adolescence in Switzerland as the protegé of Rainer Maria Rilke, was sent back to Paris as secretary to André Gide. During the war he trained to be a priest; La Vocation Suspendue (1950) explains the abandonment of his vocation. He married his wife Denise, a Scottish-American protestant and Ravensbruck survivor in 1947: she became his official muse. His writings are marked not only by the interpenetration of sexual and theological issues but by the device of the mise-en-abyme, first encountered in Gide’s The Counterfeiters, a novel which is a key to La Monnaie Vivante, (Living Money), 1970, a theoretical work illustrated with erotic photographs of Pierre and Denise by Pierre Zucca, anticipating Klossowski’s ventures in film.

It was exciting to find Le Bain deDiane, 1953, the earliest life-sized drawing in the show, a stone’s throw from Christ Church, Spitalfields; and at a very late stage to interview Klossowski’s London cousin, Peter Spiro, son of the anti-fascist painter Eugen Spiro. Centre Pompidou Curator of both Bellmer and Klossowski shows, Agnès de la Beaumelle subsequently discovered large-format pencil drawings relating to the story of Judith and Holofernes which I related to a cache of unpublished 1930s love letters for the Whitechapel’s international conference. Pierre Klossowski opened as the Christmas exhibition at the Ludwig Museum Cologne. In Paris, Klossowski’s living heritage is represented in the French catalogue by Catherine Millet, author of The Sexual Life of Catherine M… and Artpress editor, and the photographer and novelist Alain Fleischer who will introduce his films made with Klossowski, June 1-3, 2007.

Both Alyce Mahon, now lecturing at Trinity College, Cambridge and Kathleen Brunner, once students and now dear colleagues worked with me on the Whitechapel catalogue, co-edited by Hatje Cantz, who published the German-language version.

Dr. Sarah Wilson – Reader