The mirrorless genius – Paul Éluard

The mirrorless genius – Paul Éluard

When will books read themselves without the aid of readers?
            We’ve been through tragic times; floods have drenched our bones, the multiplied blazes of the stars and fires have stripped almost the entire body of its hair. Thunder no longer frightens us, we pry open skulls to release the exquisite crystal and gold spiders whose beauty is ignored by fools. But very cunning is he who was able to see his eye without the aid of a glass, the one who was able to run his eyes over the voluptuous hollow of his neck. We have loved flexible idols who still ignore what charm the arch of their backs can have. Ah! bring on the day when we will smash the mirror, this final window, where our miraculous eyes will be able to contemplate the marvels of the brain.


Translation by John Lyons

Le génie sans miroir

Quand les livres se liront-ils d’eux-mêmes sans le secours de lecteurs.
            Nous avons traversé de tragiques périodes; les déluges ont détrempé nos os, les feux multipliés des astres et des incendies ont fait la calvitie sur la presque totalité de notre corps. Le tonnerre ne nous effraie plus, nous ouvrons les crânes pour en faire s’échapper les belles araignées de cristal et d’or dont les sots ignorent la beauté. Mais bien malin celui qui a pu voir son œil sans le secours d’une vitre, celui qui a pu promener son regard sur le creux voluptueux de sa nuque. Nous avons aimé des idoles flexibles qui ignorent toujours quel charme peut avoir la cambrure de leurs reins. Ah ! vienne le jour où nous briserons le miroir, cette dernière fenêtre, où nos yeux miraculeux pourront contempler le merveilleux cérébral.

Ceri Richards – Self-portrait (1934)

by Ceri Richards, oil on composition board, 1934
Ceri Richards, Self-portrait (oil on composition board) 1934

Ceri Richards (1903-1971) was born in a small village near Swansea. He and his younger brother and sister were brought up in a highly cultured, working-class environment. His mother came from a family of craftsmen; and his father, who worked in a tinplate foundry, was active in the local church, wrote poetry in Welsh and English, and for many years conducted the Dunvant Excelsior Male Voice Choir. The children were all taught to play the piano, and became familiar with the works of Bach and Handel. In later years music would be an important stimulus to Richards’s painting – as would his youthful sensitivity to the landscapes of Gower and the cycles of nature. Richards trained initially at the Swansea School of Art before completing his studies at the Royal College of Art, (where in later years he became a teacher).

In this beautiful self-portrait from 1934, the influence of the surrealists is quite apparent, particularly that of Picasso. Nevertheless, the portrait remains very much rooted in Richards’s Welsh background, with the dark earthiness of the colours capturing the tone of the valleys where the artist grew up. It is very much the ‘portrait of the artist as a young artist,’ but an artist emerging from a very specific landscape, which the rugged shapes and the simplicity of the composition evoke so well. It is an action painting in the sense that the subject is proudly presenting the tools of his trade, the palette and brushes which he carries as emblems. The thick black lines enhance the notion that the artist is an accumulation of elements, yet the eye is drawn to the bright complexion and the affirmative expression which underline the pride Richards took in his work and his vocation. This self-portrait is quite simply his coat of arms.

Richards wrote: “One can generally say that all artists — poets, musicians, painters, are creating in their own idioms, metaphors for the nature of existence, for the secrets of our time. We are all moved by the beauty and revelation in their utterances — we notice the direction and beauty of the paths they indicate for us, and move towards them”.

The beauty to which Richards refers is intrinsic in every detail of this self-portrait which so clearly and affectionately references his roots in the Welsh valleys —which he appears to be wearing about his shoulders— and his belief in the rugged powers of art. Former pupils have described Richards as a cheerful, boisterous teacher, and these traits come through in this marvellous celebratory painting which is there to be admired any day of the week in the National Portrait Gallery on Charing Cross Road.