Michaux, Henri

1899, Namur, Belgium | 1984, Paris

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao



As he himself would say, Henri Michaux was born to a French-speaking bourgeois family of German and Spanish descent. A congenital heart condition, mentioned in several of his writings, would accompany him until his final hour.


The memories of his childhood in Belgium, which he would spend between Brussels and the Campine, are marked by introspection, melancholy, and a dislike of food. As an adolescent, Michaux developed an interest in ornithology, entomology, and Chinese characters.


As Belgium was under German occupation during World War I, Michaux had a spiritual crisis and saw the awakening of his love of words. He became an inveterate reader. These were years of reading and intellectual assemblage. When universities reopened after the war, Michaux entered the School of Medicine, but he never obtained his degree.


Enlisting as a sailor, without knowing the first thing about the trade, Michaux went to Britain, Brazil, and other countries in Europe and the Americas: “Bremen, Savannah, Norfolk, Newport News, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires”. Upon his return to Marseille, he left for Belgium, which he then abandoned for good and settled in Paris, making his first contributions to the magazine Le Disque vert. His regular contributions allowed him to meet the likes of Jean Cocteau, André Gide, André Malraux, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Francis Ponge.


Unable to find a pen name, he continued to sign his writings with his “ordinary name.” He met Jean Paulhan, reader, editor, and friend. He discovered the works of “Klee, then Max Ernst, Chirico,” which came as an “extreme surprise” to him. As a result, Michaux made his first attempts at painting, which reflect his ambivalent feelings towards the Surrealist canon.


He travelled to Ecuador, Turkey, Italy, North Africa, and, at last, Asia. His fascination for India and especially for China, became even greater. He wrote about his experiences in books, such as Ecuador: A Travel Journal and A Barbarian in Asia (translated into Spanish by Jorge Luis Borges a few years later), which were immediately welcomed by critics and in literary circles.


Michaux began to draw regularly, producing a series of gouache in almost fluorescent colors against a black background. His first show was held at Galerie Pierre in Paris. It was followed by the publication of his first collection of poems (7) and paintings (16) by Gallimard.


In the wake of the bombing of Paris and his studio, Michaux moved to Le Lavandou, in the south of France, with partner Marie-Louise Termet. They stayed there for three years. In April 1944, he showed his watercolors and other works at the Galerie Rive Gauche. Later on, he published “Combat contre l’espace,” his first mature, programmatic work on painting. The book included 44 color reproductions in the collection Peintures et dessins, 1946, poem excerpts, and a preface/essay. Painter Jean Dubuffet evokes Michaux in some of his portraits of that time.


After the tragic death of his wife, Michaux increased dramatically his production of paintings, which he showed in different galleries in France and Switzerland. He made his first ink drawings these years, his Meidosems and Mouvements series, as well as the book Passages. Galerie Rive Gauche hosted his first retrospective.


Michaux held his first show in the USA, at Dusanne Gallery in Seattle. With Jean Paulhan and poet Édith Boissonnas, he made his early experiments with psychoactive substances (mescaline and psilocybin), which were to continue over the following years under the supervision of Bilbao-born neurologist Julián de Ajuriaguerra. In 1959, Ajuriaguerra published a comprehensive study on Michaux’s experiments. Michaux’s art is shown internationally in London, Milan, Frankfurt, Stockholm, and many other cities.


Retrospectives were dedicated to Henri Michaux at Silkeborg Museum (Hovedgården) in Denmark, the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, and Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris (exhibition opened by André Malraux). In 1965, Michaux was awarded the French National Prize for Letters, which he turned down. He went back to frequent travelling–Morocco, India and Nepal, then Mexico, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire–, this time with new partner Micheline Phankim.


To his inventory of painting techniques, already comprising watercolor, ink, and gouache, Michaux now included acrylic. To his many travels, art gallery shows, numerous publications, and even theatrical adaptations, he added museum exhibitions in both Europe – Kestnergesellschaft in Hannover, Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts in Vienna–and America. The recently opened Centre Georges Pompidou hosted his largest retrospective, which then traveled to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Musée d’art contemporain in Montreal.


Michaux continued working till the end of his life. His last living retrospective was held at the Seibu Museum of Art in Tokyo. It was followed by exhibitions in other venues in Japan. Michaux died of heart failure on October 19, 1984, leaving more than 10,000 drawings behind.

Henri Michaux, “Quelques renseignements sur cinquante-neuf années d’existence” [“Some Information About Fifty-Nine Years of Existence”], in Œuvres complètes, Gallimard (Bibliothèque de la Pléiade), Paris, 1998, vol. I, p. CXXIX. This chronology is based on this text, as well as on the critical apparatus of the three-volume edition of Michaux’s works by La Pléiade. Leslie Jones’s Untitled Passages by Henri Michaux (Drawing Center, New York, 2000, pp. 217–36), has also been useful.


This text was first translated into Spanish as “Combate contra el espacio” and also into Basque in Henri Michaux: el otro lado/Henri Michaux: beste aldea, Museo Guggenheim Bilbao, Bilbao, 2018, pp. 169 and ff.


Works by this artist