“Ferdière, guilty? Yes, if it’s a sin to leave language intact and to die without an oeuvre, not curled up inside his own enigma, but offering himself up on a plate for all who are burned or nourished by poetry. Guilty of keeping to a human stature, despite the temptation to become bigger than life and the desire to make himself hated.” Emanuel Venet, 2006.
From Surrealism to sound poetry, art brut, and Lettrism, the story of the Parisian avant-garde is weirdly entangled with the personal life and career of Gaston Ferdière. Now remembered (if at all) as the doctor who subjected Antonin Artaud to 58 electroshock treatments at the psychiatric hospital in Rodez, Ferdière had come to Paris as a young idealistic poet striving to reconcile the tensions between psyche and muse in the 1930s, at the height of the Surrealists’ engagement with the science of the soul. As an intern at Sainte Anne, Ferdière worked with “Professor Claude,” whom Breton pilloried in the anti-psychiatric rants of Nadja, while at the same time passing as “a star of Surrealism in the bistros” of Paris, where he met Desnos, Péret, Michaux, and René Crevel, the famous Surrealist suicide (who confessed his despair to the young psychiatrist over drinks on the eve of his death). A regular at the Desnos’s, Ferdière may even have encountered Artaud there while he was still directing his “Theater of Cruelty” in Paris. It was in any case Desnos who secured Artaud’s transfer to Ferdière’s care at Rodez, in the unoccupied “free zone,” in February 1943.
There can be little doubt that Ferdière saved Artaud’s life by taking him in. Having suffered a psychotic break in 1936, Artaud had already spent five and a half years incarcerated at various psychiatric hospitals, mostly in the vicinity of Paris. But with the outbreak of war, food supplies were severely curtailed by the Nazis in the Occupied territories, and thousands of mental patients starved. An outspoken critic of this policy, Ferdière worked the black market to supply inmates with food at Rodez, and Artaud quickly recovered from the brink of starvation once he arrived.
What followed next remains a source of controversy to this day. Having long since given up his own aspirations as a poet, Ferdière found his old interests rekindled in long conversations with the delusional Artaud, whose literary talents he sought to restore through “art therapy”—writing, drawing, translating Through the Looking Glass—accompanied by shock treatments—no less than six courses, between June 20, 1943 and January 24, 1945. Whether Ferdière “taught Artaud to write again,” as he later claimed, seems dubious (the playwright had been diagnosed with “graphorrhea” four years before he came to Rodez). But the intensity of his delusions certainly increased, as did the quality of the “magical” drawings and incantations he scrawled out in a desperate effort to keep his “demons”—quite literally—at bay.
The result was some of Artaud’s most influential work. Displayed in Parisian art galleries, staged at the Vieux Columbier, and recorded for a radio broadcast that would be banned for thirty years, Artaud’s postwar oeuvre sent ripples through the European avant-garde long after his death, just eighteen months following his release from Rodez, in March 1948. In a bizarre aftermath, Ferdière found himself caught up in one of those ripples decades later, when he treated another renegade, the Lettrist leader Isidore Isou.
—Kevin Repp, Curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts
Image: Antonin Artaud, 50 dessins pour assassiner la magie, Paris: Gallimard, 2004.
Artaud had this to say about powerful images like this one, hand-selected by the artist for an exhibition of “50 Drawings to Assassinate Magic” shortly before his death in 1948: “The aim of all these drawn and colored figures was an exorcism of malediction, a bodily curse against obligations of spatial form, of perspective, measure, equilibrium, dimension … And the figures I drew were spells—that I burned with a match after having meticulously drawn them.”
The Strange Case of Dr. Ferdiere Checklist and Object Descriptions