With his new works the French painter Emmanuel Bornstein evokes an era showing a new aesthetics as a result of the struggle between figuration and abstraction. The vortex-shaped compositions, consisting of various layers, are characterized by breakings, multiple overpaintings and deliberately focussed dissonant colour tones. The palette seems to be both strange and familiar.

A nostalgic basic mood, already implied with the title of the exhibition by a modified citation of the poem „Das Spiel ist aus“ (The Game is Over) by Ingeborg Bachmann (1956), is pairing itself with a torn, nearly furious presence within the paintings. Bornstein sees the surfaces of his works to be vital or at least living like in the sense of Antonin Arnaud’s theatre theory, and to be a product of the performative encounter between artist and canvas.

Motifs of being wounded and healed are encountering therein as well as the conviction that the painting is presenting a medium of another reality.

After having reacted to the themes of the Holocaust and World Ward II with his works – due to biographic involvement of his own family history – the new work series of the artist introduces a totally new creative work capital. In the past, Francisco Goya and his engagement with the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War during the occupation by Napoleon represented an essential, substantial and formal reference. Now this commitment is abandoned in favour of a polyphony of different references ranging from Joseph Beuys via Georges Rouault and Henri Matisse to Raymond Hains’ palimpsest like posters. The intensive engagement in the medium of drawing, which opened new aesthetic levels to Bornstein, was also determinative.

The white, wide bordures edging the tableaus mark a zone, where the painting is reflecting itself as well as its history. Bornstein’s shining time capsules are paintings showing paintings questioning their own status as intertextual entity. Their architecture is comparable to the blades of an aperture. The view is conducted along the edges of multiple image layers from the outside to the inside and then again back to the outside. In the compositional centre, a faceless figurine is found again and again, which developped itself out of the Ophelia motif during Bornstein’s transition from the old to the new work series. Thus, there are felt many echoes to water or a seashore, attributed by the artist to the now rather male protagonist and whom he describes as the „beachcomber“. The step to an alter ego of the artist, who is newly reassembling the findings of the younger art history, is not far from here.

Emmanuel Bornstein was born in 1986 in Toulouse, France into a family focussed on theater and authors. His mother is an impresario, his father works as dramaturge and dramatist. He is familiar with literature and theater since his early childhood, however, he was desirous of being a painter only and to express himself by paintings. He starts drawing early and pays attention to Goya, Bacon and Munch already as a teenager. Immediately after his High School Graduation he studies painting at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de Paris, later on at the University of Arts in Berlin. The reference to literature, the influence of a family focussed on theater and dramatics are felt within his paintings. Poems, text fragments and entire literary works often serve as a basis for the generating of his pictorial worlds.


 Dr. Marc Wellmann, Director Haus am Lützowplatz, Berlin, May 2017




Let us pass now from the zoo of reality to the zoo of mythologies, to the zoo whose denizens are not lions but sphinxes and griffons and centaurs. The population of the this second zoo should exceed by far the population of the first, since a monster is no more than a combination of parts of real beings, and the possibilities of permutation border on the infinite (Jorge Luis Borges, Preface 1957, The Book of Imaginary Beings).

If the words of Borges stand as a description of the condition of an imaginary world, how much more so do they reflect the psychology of our contemporary cultural state of consciousness? The folkloric and the fantastical are all around us whether we speak of the freely spawned fantasies of Harry Potter films, science fiction imaginings of Star Wars or Star Trek, or even the warped creatures of violence common to the genre of horror movies or video games over the last thirty years. It is clear that a continuous calendar of popular fantastical or imaginary creatures have become an integrated certainty of our every day cultural life. The conflation and appropriation of their human and animal parts, though it may not always have the subtlety of the great South American master’s imaginative insight, has been fully grounded as a contemporary understanding of the creative and conflated use of the imagined ‘part object’. These psychological perceptions have been argued as forming many of the pre-conditions for a new and contemporary post-narrative painterly practice. In this context Jacques Lacan’s objet petit a (object little-a), as the causal principle of the unattainable object-desire in autre or ‘otherness’, is a commonly accepted idea of modern psycho-analysis and psychology. And, while fantasy was deemed by Lacan as an imagined projection, rooted in the separation and alienation brought about by the objet petit a, it remains on the side of reality rather than dream, and in consequence forms the foundation for a creative painter’s imaginings. The painter’s fantasies therefore exist and function at the very nexus of the psychologist’s threefold core of reality (through the Imaginary, Symbolic and Real). As a result the role played by creative fantasy and the imaginary is fundamental to a developed sense of psychological health and creative development, “…The truth value of imagination relates not only to the past but also to the future: the forms of freedom and happiness which it invokes claim to deliver the historical reality. In its refusal to accept as final the limitations imposed upon freedom and happiness by the reality principle, in its refusal to forget what can be, lies the critical function of phantasy.” It is in this context of fantasy and creative metamorphosis that the paintings of Emmanuel Bornstein emerge and generate their meaning. But more than this the artist expands the idea into personally projected expressive narratives and interpretation that suggest themes of transgression and event.

References to past events and iconographic sources alongside future projections and imaginings are creatively fused together in the paintings of Bornstein. In his latest series of paintings presented under the title rubric Waldbowling, the expressive focus is placed upon component themes of transgression and play. The wide ranging issues of play are referred to in the paintings in a double sense, that is not just in the sense of the included animal-human figures that play their game of ten pin bowling in a putative woodland setting. But also in terms (inadvertently, perhaps) of an inferred word play, since ‘woods’ is a familiar historical name for the original bowls which were themselves wooden. This series of paintings has therefore something of a parodical sense of humour that is less evident in Bornstein’s earlier black and white paintings of 2010/11, and which concentrated more explicitly on violence and transgression, influenced as they are by many Gothic literary and Goya-esque type sources. But to mention play or game playing as a subject in regards to painting is more than significant, since the notion of the artist-painter at play in the studio is a central trope of painting practice. Investigations into play and its close association with childhood, with human socialisation and creativity, has long been an observed and studied phenomenon most notably by Nietzsche, who accorded to it the essence of a painterly artistic nature. Therefore it has been argued that the role of play functions as both a cultural and civilising force in modern society, and has become central to understanding historical and psychological theories of human development, “…in the sense that something which was originally play passed into something which was no longer play and could henceforth be called culture.” The intended wit containing visual puns and word play in Bornstein’s Waldbowling form painted material references, the bowling lanes of ten pin bowling are most often made of laminated wood, as were once the original ten pins made from bonded maple and thereafter lathed into their familiar shape. But beyond these simple material word-play allusions to the subject, lies a more serious intention on the part of the artist. In the three paintings explicitly entitled Waldbowling I, II, III (2012), the bowling lanes form either direct or analogous rail tracks that recede into the dark passages of the woods or forest beyond. In Waldbowling II the reference to train tracks is made explicit, since a wedge of humanity stands across the tracks where the ass-headed human figure is about to bowl and skittle them over like ten pins – the ancient communal country game of skittles (nine-pin bowling) is the probable but still debated origin of ten pin bowling. The half-human and half-animal beings, whether possessed of horses/asses heads or the heads of wolves/dogs serve an implicit allegorical function analogous to that of the bestiary. On the one hand while they might suggest the illustrative figures of a child’s picture book, on the other with their aggressive bowling poses they evoke an emotionally unresolved sense of expressive ambivalence. In fact the three paintings in this series embody the paradoxical nature of transgression and play, ideas that are commonly intertwined within the context of childhood or adult game play and violence; this is evident in the familiar use of terms like the ‘theatre of war’ and war games. Clearly, the forest settings in the backgrounds of these Waldbowling paintings acknowledge a strong sense of the German folkloric tradition, and at the same time the roles played by bestial-human characters that commonly appear in folk and fairy tales. Similarly they point to and expose the complex symbolic influences of fairy tales on the development of childhood and modern psychology. The actual compositional structure of this series of paintings also points to art historical references and to conceptual aspects of rhetorical persuasion. For example the forest backgrounds of Waldbowling I, II and III have a complex play of mixed perspective that contradicts the simple recessive or monocular perspective of the bowling lanes. It might be seen to make an oblique reference to Uccello’s famous perspective composition of trees in ‘The Hunt in the Forest’ (c.1470), and if so Bornstein would certainly have no problem in acknowledging it, since the artist is deeply embedded and familiar with the history of painting and frequently makes references to and draws upon the works of earlier masters. However, unlike the explicit geometric perspective construction of the Paolo Uccello painting, Bornstein has deliberately adopted the use of a rhetorical perspective, a perspective that is rhetorical because it persuades you of its recessive presence but denies any geometric or modular certainty of application. This has a further effect of creating a different type of abstruse theatrical space that both intentionally and emotionally destabilises the viewer and opens up a sense of tension within the paintings. Hence the greater subliminal interpretation of Bornstein’s subject matter – which I will return in the wider context of this exhibition – seems highly personal to the artist and certain intuitive aspects of his family history.

The creative images of Classical fabulae (such as Ovid and Apuleius) and medieval bestiaries as sites of allegorical depictions of transgression have a long and well established history. However, in defining what aspect of bestiary allegory applies to Bornstein’s animals and animal-headed human figures is what establishes their actual analogy. In medieval allegory these were broken down into four main areas, the first might be called the literal where an associated symbolic inference was immediately intended, the second was typological that inferred events from the past that are in some way linked to the present, the third was moral in that what was depicted implied an immediate sense of affect or contemporary meaning, and the fourth anagogical as something prophetic that will come in the future. Clearly the last is not an issue in Bornstein’s paintings, but the literal and typological are given some relevance by the artist. Similarly the bestiary tradition retained and extended (or changed) archaic and ancient classical sources. In the current catalogue of Bornstein’s paintings we find untitled works that open up several forms of allegorical development. For example in an untitled triptych the right panel shows a dog-headed (Alsatian) human figure in what appear to be trouser fatigues and blue tee shirt. The figure is about to deliver a bowling ball somewhat reminiscent of our planetary globe in the direction of the centre panel, and eventually to the left panel which shows the ten pins quite literally scattered into the foreground picture space towards the viewer. The central panel contains a curved chasm-like space that continues into the left panel. Beyond in the main panel however a large group of crowded spectral figures appear behind a tree in the upper left background, while three National Socialist Wehrmacht soldiers stand like isolated introspective sentinels in the curved roadway that continues from the right hand panel into the centre panel ad field of the painting. Thereafter the green-black intensity of the forest beyond creates a flattened screen of near impossible penetration. Behind the dog-head figure in the right-hand panel is another ass or horse-headed figure simply repeating the same pose of the ten pin bowl that is being delivered. It is evident therefore that though we unable to derive an extract or immediate narrative event, the composition of the work proposes in structuralist terms a form of fragmented pictorial narrative, where there are references to game playing, violence and a sombre sense of potential transgression that is to come. Structuralism is after all defined in terms of pre-supposed interrelations within a dominant structural system of cultural expression. But if allegory also supposes a device in which characters or events represent or symbolize ideas and concepts, the artist denies the viewer the easy comfort of an implicit reading. The element of menace and black humour is further heightened by the persistent use of the dominant black, green, and acerbic yellow passages of paint that continue throughout this group of paintings. When other colours are used they are only randomly applied to inanimate objects like the bowling balls and ten pins. The initial sense of the darkness and transgression is set up by the extended tone of the paintings. The use of these animal headed figures of a dog, wolf and/or ass has a long iconographic history and set of associations. The most famous ass-human is that of Lucius who accidently transformed himself into an ass in Apuleius’s ‘The Golden Ass’ (a text sometimes call ‘Metamorphoses’), a figure-character that is usually seen as stubborn, priapic or self-deceiving. It returns in numerous creative settings such as the famous Aldine Press woodcuts in Francesco Colonna’s ‘Hypnerotomachia Poliphili’ (1499). But to most people it is known through William Shakespeare’s ‘Midsummer Nights Dream’, in the character of Nick Bottom, who was similarly transformed by the Fairy King Oberon into an ass-headed character with whom a spell-deceived Titania (Queen of the Fairies) is made to fall in love. Conceived and set centre of the woods the play (1590-96) deals with the primary themes of dream, the imaginary, farcical self-deception, and most importantly it also possesses a fragmented story within another story narrative structure. The use of animals as associated anthropocentric metaphors is common enough, but was in fact informed by historical physiognomic literature as it was interpreted and re-conceived. The study of physiognomy is also Classical in origin, and has been used and applied by many writers and artists in earlier centuries long before its use by Shakespeare.

Ideas concerning theatre, whether they are derived from Romance, Baroque or different aspects of the literary Gothic fascinate Emmanuel Bornstein. Another example is a painting depicting a group of animals and humans placed in the purlieu of a wood or forest at night. The sense of a imaginary ‘danse macabre’ is cast as a grotesque figure in a German military uniform dances with a caped and bare breasted female figure of death. A jack ass dances with a wolf-like human, masked military figures look on, and the same three National Socialist ‘Nazi’ Wehrmacht figures appear again on the right confronting the ghostly array of indeterminate spectral entities to the left. Are these the questioning ghosts of German history? Of this there can be little doubt since we find a painting with direct allusions to concentration camp towers, and where four asses have replaced the original four women or maidens who toss the puppet in a famous work by Goya called ‘The Manikin’. It is taken therefore from Goya’s famous tapestry cartoon painted for the bedroom of the child Infante of Spain. Again we see the idea of an ambiguous child’s game transferred into a commentary on transgression and violence. The sad humiliated puppet has all the attributes of a human being masked and disguised, and carries with it an intentional allegorical significance. Indeed, Goya abounds throughout many of the works in this group of paintings, and is always a continuous and freely admitted influence on Bornstein. The asses themselves also derive from Goya, who depicts the human-clothed jack ass in a famous aquatint entitled ‘As far back as his grandfather’ (1797-8) and shows a seated ass perusing a book showing the genealogical lineage of asses. The ass turns up as a doctor taking the pulse of a dying patient in the same series of eighty etching-aquatints called ‘Los Caprichos’ and entitled ‘Of what ill will he die’ (1799). The ass can be found in several other works within the same aquatint publication, nearly all of which are made reference to in Bornstein current paintings. The most famous of the Goya aquatints from the same series was ‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters’ (1797-8), but sadly as we know the works were all subsequently withdrawn after their publication by Goya due to the immediate threat of the Inquisition at the time. But it should also be remembered that Goya lived in a time when physiognomy studies and their extended obsessions were at their intellectual height, in the age of Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741-1801), Henry Fuseli (1741-1825), and alongside numerous spurious pseudo-science systems such as ‘reading bumps on the head’ in phrenology which frequently drew upon various forms of deterministic human to animal analogies. In another painted woodland scene by Bornstein he shows human asses dressed in a business suit, another in a full length bathing outfit, others posing in the background beyond, and a literal ass with a conventional rear end mule kick directing us the circular bubble above (remarkably formed like the ten pin bowls). This references the famous tumbling figure from plate 30 ‘The Ravages of War’, part of Goya’s shocking etching-drypoint series called the ‘Disasters of War’ (created sometime between 1810-20, against the background of the Napoleonic invasion and Peninsular War, 1808-1814). The theme of war is also strikingly evident in another Bornstein triptych where in the panel on the left ass-headed National Socialist soldiers are shown mistreating a lumpen-shaped human (intentionally anonymous and without identity) as he is loaded on what we suppose is a concentration camp death train, the middle panel showing the skeleton of death riding his pale horse across a seeming mountains of ill-defined amorphous and anonymous dead. The more complex right panel shows the same Goya derived seated ass-headed figure again, and other ass-headed figures building a primitive gallows beyond, while a Nazi officer watches on from the right side centre ground. Again the setting is a wood or forest and two famous fleeing Munch-like nudes, one with a face showing a skeletal mask of death, are being ravished by monkeys. In iconography monkeys are commonly associated with lasciviousness and mischief, while the saturnine ass sits focusing his thoughts of a bubble that floats between his hand-adapted hooves in front of him. All the canvases of the triptych are intentionally painted in a toxic yellow and black. In the case of another painting we see ass and fox-headed figures, death on another white equine apparition who also appears to be ravishing a naked woman, his bony hand being placed between her knees prising them apart. The inference being, perhaps, an allusion death raping Europa, and as a result, it can be said that it carries forward the Classical and Renaissance subject matter into a completely different form of determinate expression. We can have little doubt that these paintings make direct reference to war, and particularly the Second World War where the holocaust experience is foregrounded. The fact that the artist has chosen to express such events through historical fabulae and/or bestiary reference expresses a particular turn of mind and progressive imagination. However, while the artist never speaks about his biography or family history, and though we know he was born in France, Bornstein (as his name suggests) has a German-Polish-Jewish ancestry that betokens a complex history of cultural assimilation and displacement. The paintings in this respect may form both the emotional creative nexus and running in parallel they bring a cathartic aspect into his life.

Themes of transgression and history permeate through all of Emmanuel Bornstein paintings, and he has admitted a direct engagement with German history, violence and dream, the hypnogogic and hypnopompic as well as other peripheral states of consciousness that also fascinate him. Hence as he has previously stated the studio experience of daydreaming and peripatetic walking are central to his creative daily life. It is in this context that his insights into the fantastical emerges, Borges imaginary beings come into play, Lacan’s projected imaginary (as separated and alienated as the psychologist claims them to be) come into focus, and in so doing manifest themselves through a newly painted reality. Let us be clear Bornstein does not produce ‘dream paintings’, far from it, but consciously transforms them into his own self-imagined desiderata, the word meaning quite literally ‘desired things’. Hence its close and personal relationship to the libidinal economy of desire emerges, and there has always been within his work an artistic awareness of the daily isolation and the necessary psychopathology of the studio. It is on the basis of this state of withdrawn reverie that strong expressive feelings invariably emerge within what has been familiarly called the erotics of painting. This sensuous approach was just as evident in his untitled black and white paintings of 2010/11, though these it must be said they dealt more directly with issues of nightmare, frenetic violence, and the possibilities of its transference to the waking state – the old nineteenth century argument that madness is a dream awake. But through all these paintings there are directly extracted references and general appropriations from great art historical masters like Caravaggio’s ‘Flagellation of Christ’(c. 1607) and ‘Crucifixion of St Peter’ (1600), Rubens ‘Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus’ (1617-18), and yet more obtuse references to Rembrandt and Velasquez and the vivre un cauchemar of Fuseli. And, of course at the same time for Bornstein the ubiquitous and never ending influence of Goya. The many references to the Baroque in these black and white 2010/11 paintings is immediately self-evident, since the seventeenth century was an age of continual wars and violence that were commonly depicted as allegories by painters at that time. To speak of the literary in any conventional sense as regards Bornstein’s paintings is extremely dangerous, it might better be stated that his works address forms of non-linear or fragmented fiction. They represent non-specific events but work through a structuralist use of allegorical inference, an intentional paradox since the structuralist and post-structuralist intertextual paradigms claimed to have deconstructed and removed the relevance of allegory. But intertextual allusion and inference are crucial to understanding Bornstein paintings, which means what is presented to the viewer must be assembled and interpreted as a personal response to the paintings. However, whereas allegory in the historical past was often used as a form of didactic moral instruction (a reinforcement of prevailing authoritarian or institutional points of view) this was never implicit to its use since the role of symbolic signification is as powerful and meaningful as it ever was. Bornstein’s paintings open up the expressive symbolic order to new forms of free interpretation. I began with a reference to Borges famous ‘Book of Imaginary Beings’, where he lists entries of many of the fantastic beasts that humans have imagined over long period of history. The age of free imagining must continue because it is our most fundamental human quality of creative resistance to the pre-determinations of the world and our eventual death that will become. It is essentially as Marcuse observed, the ‘refusal to forget what can be’ and what ‘can be’ remains open to the possibility of an infinite variety of permutations.

Mark Gisbourne

Monday, 23 July 2012.


The 1957 preface of El libro de los seres imaginarios, is translated and published as the The Book of Imaginary Beings, London and New York, 1969 (and subsequent editions)

For example forms of non-linear narrative storytelling and historical appropriation have become central to contemporary arts, see Mieke Bal, Quoting Caravaggio: Contemporary Art, Preposterous History, Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press, 1999.

“…its is always a question of the objet á, or rather a question of reducing it – which may, at a certain level, strike you as being rather mythical – to an a with which – this is true in the last resort – it is the painter as creator who sets up the dialogue.” Jacques Lacan ‘On the Gaze (What is a Picture), The Four Fundamental Principles of Psycho-analysis, London, (1979) 1994, pp. 105-122 (p.112)

Herbert Marcuse, ‘Beyond the Reality Principle’ Eros and Civilisation, London 1969, pp. 119-131 (p. 124)

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, ‘Tokens of Higher and Lower Culture’, Human All Too Human: A Book of Free Spirits, Eng., trans, R..J.Hollingdale, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1986. “aph. 274. A segment of our self as artistic object. – It is a sign of superior culture consciously to retain certain phases of development which lesser men live through almost without thinking and then wipe them from the tablet of their soul, and to draft a faithful picture of it: for this is the higher species of the art of painting which only a few understand.” p. 129

Johan Huizinga, ‘Play and Contest as Civilising Functions’, Homo Ludens: a study of the play element in culture, Boston, The Beacon Press, 1950 (pp. 46-75) p. 46 (and subsequent editions) This text (first published in 1938) has played a crucial role in the foundation and subsequent formation of ‘play theory’. For a contemporary evaluation, see Brian Sutton-Smith, The ambiguity of play, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2001; also see the republished and updated version of the sociologist and philosopher (homme de lettres) Roger Caillois, Man, Play and Games (1961), Champaign, University of Illinois Press, 2001.

Debra Hassig, Medieval Bestiaries: Text, Image, Ideology, Cambridge and London, Cambridge University Press, 1995, also Erica Fudge, Perceiving Animals: Human and Beasts in Early Modern English Culture, Champaign, University of Illinois Press, 2002.

Maria Tatar, The Annotated Brothers Grimm, London and New York, W.W Norton & Co., 2004.

Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, New York:, and London, Knopf, 1976.

Christopher Lloyd and Sallyann Kleibel, Paolo Uccello’s ‘Hunt in the Forest’, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, 1981; recently updated by Catherine Whistler, Paolo Uccello’s ‘Hunt in the Forest’, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, 2010. Also, Jacques Darriulat, Une Chasse et perspective, Paris, 1998.

Rudolf Wittkower, Allegory and the Migration of Symbols: The Collected Essays of Rudolf Wittkower, London, Thames & Hudson, 1987.

Gilles Deleuze, "How Do We Recognise Structuralism?" Desert Islands and Other Texts 1953-1974. Michael Taormina (ed.), Eng. trans., David Lapoujade, Los Angeles and New York: Semiotext(e), 2004, pp. 170-192

Francesco Colonna, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, (The Strife of Love in a Dream), Eng. Trans., Jocelyn Godwin (the entire text), London, Thames and Hudson 1999 Published on the 500th anniversary of its original publication in Venice.

William Shakespeare, The Oxford Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Peter Holland (ed.), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2008.

For example human facial expressions and character assessments were commonly associated with particular animals and birds, and artists and art theorists created pattern books to show specific facial and bodily expressions associated with emotional states of mind and general character. The most famous is, perhaps, Charles Le Brun (1619-90), the court painter of Louis XIV ‘LeRoi Soleil’ who claimed he was the ‘greatest French painter of all time’, and whose system of facial expressions drew heavily upon the animal physiognomy of asses, cows, pigs, dogs and an a enormous array of other animals, see Charles Le Brun, L’Expression des Passions: autres conferences, correspondence, Paris Edition Dédale Maisoneuve et Larose, 1994.

Francisco Jose De Goya, Los Caprichos, London, Dover Books, 1970 (and subsequent editions)

Johann Kaspar Lavater‘s multi-volume publication. Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe (1775–1778), was received enthusiatically across Europe, nd particularyl in France, Germany and Britain. See, Christoph Siegrist (ed.) Johann Caspar Lavater, Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe.: Eine Auswahl, Stutthart Reclam Philipp Jun. Verlag, 1984. Henry Fuseli was a writer and painter who exemplified early Gothic literary and theatre scene painting, and was an important proponent of Romantic themes of dreams and nightmare, see Martin Myrone, Henry Fuseli, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2001, and Martin Myrone, Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination. London, Tate Publishing, 2006

The Prints remained unpublished at the time of Goya’s death in 1828, and only finally published in Madrid, by the Royal Academy of San Fernando in 1863, see Philip Hofer (intro.), Francisco Jose De Goya, The Disaster of War, London, Dover Books, 1968 (and subsequent editions).

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Joseph Canning, Hartmut Lehmann, and Jay Winter, Power, Violence and Mass Death in Pre-Modern Times, Farnham and London, Ashgate Publishing 2004. This publication initiates a comparative analysis and deals with the 14th, 17th and 20th centuries seen as centuries of mass violence.

Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust. New Haven and London,Yale University Press, 1979.


When people talk of black and white, with regard to photography and cinema, they are using a very inaccurate term – painting showed better judgement in coining the term grisaille: in reality, films or photographs in black and white are always images in variations of grey (without which we would be able to distinguish very little: absolute blacks and whites are rare in reality – an observation that also holds true in those cases where “black” or “white” refer to values of good or evil, truth or untruth, etc.). Yet despite this sin of original inaccuracy the expression has entered common usage and we must reconcile ourselves to using it. The first thing that strikes the viewer about Emmanuel Bornstein’s paintings is his distinctive process: he uses a tinted black and white – tinted mainly with yellow, although other colours from the spectrum have recently made a timid appearance in his theatre of memory. This black and white appeared in his work around three years ago, before he completed his studies at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and this voluntary restriction of his palette is worthy of closer consideration. The first explanation that offers itself is at once factual and symbolic in nature: black and white emerged in Bornstein’s work at the moment when he took on board – counter to the prevailing trend that encourages young artists to liberate themselves from their elders an early stage – his profound fascination with Goya’s Caprichos. This moment of acceptance coincided with another bold choice – of confronting in painting the essential history of the century he was born in, the 20th century with its camps and mass deportations of Jews in Europe (this history of the century is also the history of his own family). The coincidence of these two decisions, though certainly not pre-meditated on Bornstein’s part, is anything but fortuitous: modernity and the Aufklärung (Enlightenment) promised better tomorrows, the triumph of reason and moderation over obscurantism, the domestication of nature by technology; artists (Los Caprichos appeared in 1799, ten years after the French Revolution, a year before the golden century of industry) were alone in quickly understanding that reason would one day fall drowsy from the excessive demands placed upon it and give birth to monsters. From the Napoleonic wars through to the two World Wars, the modern age would reveal itself – true to Goya’s instincts – as an era of nightmares, too … Yet we must be wary of over-hasty interpretations, in particular the interpretation based on a quasi-natural connection between black and white and the past, justified no doubt by the assumption that colour came after black and white in the history of photography, film and television (in reality, processes for producing mechanical images in colour were invented more or less from the start – it was only their relative costliness and complexity that delayed their wider take-up). This is the argument Spielberg once gave to justify his decision to film Schindler’s List in black and white: the past, and the past of the deportations – so difficult to depict – would be grey in the cinema. Yet we only need to see the long sequence of the Falkenau camp liberation at the end of The Big Red One, by Samuel Fuller, which is filmed in colour, to understand that the choice of black and white is purely a matter of convention, not of actual necessity: Fuller’s vision – and as a member of the US First Infantry Division he had actually taken part in the camp liberation re-created in the film – instantly eclipses Spielberg’s. (Coppola very astutely mocked the naive association of the past with black and white in his film Tetro, filming only the flashbacks in colour.) It wasn’t that one day Emmanuel Bornstein posed the banal equation “black and white = respect = memory” in his painting. This is not the way he proceeds. He created a vacuum in his work and let the images emerge, pallid, from the darkness they were buried in – in the kind of light that is so perfectly described in the French phrase for twilight, “entre chien et loup” (literally, between dog and wolf – a hybrid that is one of the artist’s favourite figures, too), a light in which everything is, always, more or less grey. These images appeared in this form in his paintings during his first stay in Berlin, in 2009. Gradually the images became coloured with a yellow-ish light which gives them the striking, dream-like aura that now characterises Bornstein’s paintings. Here again it is important not to rush into over-hasty symbolic interpretation, and certainly not to make yellow’s symbolic value the primary reason for the artist’s choice of this particular colour. From the perspective of light and optics, yellow is first and foremost white that has lost its purity. It is a strange colour, its ambivalence well described by Goethe in his famous treatise. As a colour of light (when the sun’s rays pass through yellow glass, for example) yellow delights the soul: “This impression of warmth,” says Goethe, “may be experienced in a very lively manner if we look at a landscape through a yellow glass, particularly on a grey winter’s day. The eye is gladdened, the heart expanded and cheered, a glow seems at once to breathe towards us.” Yet as a shade applied to an impure surface, yellow instantly aligns itself with melancholy, despair and shame: “by a slight and scarcely perceptible change, the beautiful impression of fire and gold is transformed into one not undeserving the epithet foul; and the colour of honour and joy reversed to that of ignominy and aversion. To this impression the yellow hats of bankrupts and the yellow circles on the mantles of Jews may have owed their origin.”

It is in this second guise that yellow is held as having been the colour of Judas’s cloak in the Western iconographic tradition, is regarded as the colour of traitors to their class in French working-class tradition (where “yellow” is the term used for a strikebreaker), and was of course the colour used by the Nazis for the Star of David Jews were ordered to wear as a badge of shame. This might prompt the hasty assumption that the artist has made a literary choice of using yellow for images of shame. I know, notably through having witnessed the evolution of these initial works, that we should see the situation precisely the other way round: in reality it is because yellow started to colour Bornstein’s images that they were able to develop such direct references to the Holocaust. Emmanuel Bornstein is a painter, in other words someone who thinks first and foremost in shapes and colours, lines, lights, and tonal values, and whose intuitions suddenly crystallise into clear form. In the paintings of 2009, in black and white, the bodies represented can in most cases be directly linked to pictorial models, deriving in particular from the Depositions, Pietàs and Entombments that have given so many masterpieces to the history of painting. As they become infused with yellow light in 2010 and 2011, the bodies transfigured in death become inert, disjointed, grotesque, transported to the nightmare of the camps, along the iron tracks of which John Ruskin so rightly intuited from their first appearance that they would turn people into objects. If Bornstein had used yellow in a literary way, moreover, it would not possess the ambivalent power which it retains. Because this is the crux of the matter: what is painting, fundamentally? It is base materials, mud, ground earths, burnt bone, corroded metals, oxides of lead or iron, decoctions of plants, a magma combined in some inscrutable way with oily, foul-smelling liquids – but materials that artists elevate to the dignity of a mystery through work that can scarcely be explained in rational terms: conductors of coloured muds, capable of creating spirited miracles with the hairs of dead animals fitted onto the end of a stick and dipped in grime, that’s what painters are. Fundamentally painting delights us above all when it redeems a reality that is monstrous, horrible or simply trivial – Goya’s Tres de Mayo or Saturn, Manet’s Le Torero mort, the tainted flesh of Lovis Corinth, Chardin’s old pots, Bacon’s popes, etc. – or even, for the last century, when it does no more than redeem the base material it is made of, without pretence or representation: Pollock’s drip paintings, Shiraga’s canvases painted using his own body, the textures – like congealed lava – of Eugène Leroy, etc. And Emmanuel Bornstein’s yellows, mixed with his deep blacks and the washes and squirts of white, magnificently embody this material intelligence we call painting: they are at once yellows of shame and yellows of gold, making sumptuous tableaux of the worst images, without us ever being able to decide if they are solar or urinal, redemptive or toxic, quite simply because they are, inextricably, both at once. After all, for a long time the most beautiful yellow in painting was also a violent poison derived from arsenic: orpiment (a pigment Sigmar Polke is supposed to have used – but did he really? – in some of his paintings).

The alchemy of painting which Bornstein intuitively masters needs no alibis: his use, for example, of images borrowed from Goya or other old masters bears no relation to that critical distance, that slightly disdainful and worldly-wise step backwards, that we have become accustomed to calling postmodern. Postmodernism was born in the field of architecture, in the rejection, by a generation eager to supplant its predecessors, of the modernist aesthetic of figures such as Gropius, Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe: at a time when progress seemed to be coming unstuck they devised the notion that art history was a department store with shelves that could be freely ransacked to cobble together patchwork, disenchanted assemblages. Painting, or what passes as painting in society, has at times been seduced by this model. Yet it is a model for which it is very poorly suited. Painters don’t paint with their tongue in cheek and a dictionary by their side any more than orchestras are conducted with a teaspoon: painting calls for an unthinking commitment incompatible with cautious detachment, a thinking body and not a hand serving an agenda. If we can easily recognise sources, sometimes even emphatic references, in Bornstein’s carnival – for example when he echoes the composition of Goya’s Straw Manikin, replacing the “femmes fatales” of the original painting with the asses of the Caprichos, and setting the scene against the backdrop of a dark beech forest – this is not that the artist is deciding to read history through Goya. It is quite simply that he sees, always, through what he has already seen, and that his nightmares cannot not borrow from Goya – or equally from Velasquez, Otto Dix or numerous other image sources, some much more trivial: I suspect a cinematic origin for his bears and wolves, for example, and that his bowlers derive very directly from the Cohen brothers’ hilarious Big Lebowski. Bornstein embodies in painting, without having to demonstrate it, the self-evident truth that vision is not conjured from nothing, that it is always memory and re-creation, a matter of optics and recollection. No doubt he has been fortunate to come at a time when the prestige of art theory is beginning to fade. Are we aware of the extent to which, in recent decades, art criticism has become, in the media and as its primary function, an exercise in explanation rather than admiration (or indeed execration)? Music, regarded by Kant and his many followers as an inferior art form (one that speaks directly to the emotions and disturbs the neighbours) has escaped this misconception: even today, the soprano who slips up or the rock musician who botches a solo won’t be spared – the idea of “ironically” botching a solo has yet to catch on. Bornstein’s painting is offered to our judgement without the bullet-proof glass of a programme or a protocol. Conversations in his studio rarely touch upon history or ideas, not because he lacks knowledge in these areas but because he has the courage to operate without a safety net, observing colour areas, lights and depths, judging how successful they are, approving harmonies, rejecting superficial effects – in short, practising the love of painting. Bornstein’s painting speaks directly to the emotions and disturbs the neighbours, and this is an incredibly good thing. Let the devotees cook up their antinomies of taste in the back-kitchens of Königsberg – it doesn’t harm anyone and it may bring some pleasure – but let’s also pay homage to those who, like Emmanuel Bornstein, boldly address that primary and original ambition of painters, of turning mud into light.

Didier Semin, June 2012


C’est très improprement que l’on parle, en photographie et au cinéma, de noir et blanc – la peinture était plus avisée, qui avait inventé le mot grisaille : un film ou une photographie en noir et blanc sont toujours, en réalité des images en variation de gris (sans quoi on ne discernerait quasiment rien : les noirs et les blancs absolus sont rares dans la réalité – la remarque vaut d’ailleurs même dans les cas où l’on entend, dans « noir » ou « blanc », des valeurs de bien et de mal, de vérité et de mensonge …). Mais en dépit de ce péché d’inadéquation originelle, l’expression est entrée dans le lexique courant et il faut bien se résoudre à l’employer. Ce qui frappe d’emblée dans les tableaux d’Emmanuel Bornstein, c’est le procédé particulier qu’il utilise d’un noir et blanc teinté, de jaune pour l’essentiel, même si depuis peu d’autres couleurs du spectre font une timide apparition dans son théâtre de mémoire. Ce noir et ce blanc sont advenus dans son travail voici environ trois ans, avant même qu’il ne sorte de l’École des Beaux-Arts de Paris où il a fait ses études, et cette limitation volontaire de sa palette mérite qu’on s’y attarde. La première explication qui se présente est d’ordre à la fois factuel et symbolique : le noir et blanc s’est imposé chez Bornstein au moment où il a accepté, contre les injonctions ambiantes qui incitent les jeunes artistes à s’émanciper tôt de leurs aînés, d’assumer la fascination profonde qui l’attachait aux Caprices de Goya ; ce moment a coïncidé avec un autre choix courageux, celui de se confronter en peinture à l’histoire essentielle du siècle où il est né, le vingtième, celle des camps et de la déportation massive des juifs d’Europe (cette histoire du siècle est aussi l’histoire de sa propre famille) ; la coïncidence des deux décisions, même si Bornstein ne l’a certainement pas délibérée, n’est pas fortuite : la modernité et l’Aufklärung promettaient des lendemains meilleurs, le triomphe de la raison et de la mesure sur l’obscurantisme, la domestication de la nature par la technique ; seuls les artistes (Les Caprices ont paru en 1799, dix ans après la Révolution française, un an avant le siècle d’or de l’industrie) pour comprendre très vite que la raison finirait un jour, à force d’avoir été sollicitée, par tomber de sommeil et par engendrer des monstres. Des guerres napoléoniennes jusqu’au deux conflits mondiaux, l’âge moderne se révèlerait, conformément à l’intuition de Goya, aussi une période de cauchemars … Il faut se garder cependant des interprétations hâtives, et notamment de celle qui associe le noir et blanc au passé comme naturellement, au prétexte sans doute que dans l’histoire de la photo, du cinéma et de la télévision, la couleur aurait succédé au noir et blanc (en réalité, les procédés permettant de produire des images mécaniques en couleurs ont été inventés quasiment dès les débuts : ils n’étaient que plus chers, et plus complexes à mettre en œuvre, ce qui a retardé leur diffusion). C’est l’argument qu’a un jour donné Spielberg pour justifier le choix de tourner en noir et blanc La Liste de Schindler : le passé, et le passé si difficile à évoquer de la déportation, serait gris, au cinéma. Mais il suffit de voir la longue séquence de la libération du camp de Falkenau à la fin de The Big Red One, de Samuel Fuller, qui est en couleurs, pour comprendre que le choix du noir et blanc est affaire de convention pure, et pas de nécessité véritable : la vision de Fuller – il avait pour de bon, dans le premier régiment d’infanterie des États Unis, participé à la libération du camp reconstituée dans le film – renvoie instantanément celle de Spielberg au magasin des accessoires. (Coppola a très astucieusement moqué l’association naïve du passé au noir et blanc dans son film Tetro, en ne tournant en couleurs que les flashbacks). Emmanuel Bornstein n’a pas, un jour, posé en peinture l’équation banale « noir et blanc = respect = souvenir ». Ce n’est pas ainsi qu’il procède. Il a fait le vide dans son travail, et a laissé les images surgir, blafardes, de l’obscurité où elles étaient enfouies – dans cette lumière que l’on dit si justement entre chien et loup (cet hybride est d’ailleurs une des figures favorites de l’artiste), où tout est, toujours, plus ou moins gris. Elles sont apparues telles dans les toiles lors de son premier séjour à Berlin, en 2009. Petit à petit, ces images se sont colorées d’une lumière jaunâtre qui leur a conféré la saisissante aura onirique qui est celle désormais des tableaux de Bornstein. Là encore, il importe de ne pas se précipiter quant à l’interprétation symbolique, et en tous cas de ne pas faire du symbolisme du jaune la raison première du choix privilégié que l’artiste en a fait : le jaune, c’est d’abord du blanc qui se gâte, du point de vue de la lumière et de l’optique … C’est une drôle de couleur dont Goethe, dans son fameux traité, décrit bien l’ambivalence. Couleur-lumière ( lorsque les rayons du soleil traversent, par exemple, un verre jaune) le jaune enchantera l’âme : « On percevra, dit Goethe, cet effet réchauffant de la façon la plus intense en regardant un paysage à travers un verre jaune, en particulier par un jour gris d’hiver. L’œil se réjouit, le cœur se dilate, l’âme s’égaie, il semble que nous parvienne une chaleur directe ». Mais couleur-teinte, le jaune se rangera instantanément du côté de la mélancolie, du désespoir et de la honte ; si on l’applique sur une surface impure, « par un glissement réduit, imperceptible, la belle impression de feu et d’or devient celle de la fange, la couleur de l’honneur et des délices est mue en celle de la honte, du dégoût et du malaise. C’est de là sans doute que vient l’usage des chapeaux jaunes donnés aux banqueroutiers, et des anneaux jaunes sur le manteau des Juifs ; ce qu’on appelle la couleur du mari trompé n’est en fait qu’un jaune sale ».

C’est de cette seconde disposition que le jaune tient d’avoir été la couleur du manteau de Judas dans la tradition iconographique en Occident, la couleur des traîtres à leur classe dans la tradition ouvrière française (les « jaunes » …), et bien sûr la marque infâmante que l’on sait, associée par les Nazis à l’Étoile de David. On déduirait vite de tout cela que l’artiste a fait le choix littéraire de colorer de jaune les images de la honte. Je sais, notamment pour avoir été témoin de l’évolution de ces premières œuvres, que c’est exactement le contraire qu’il faut penser : c’est en réalité parce que le jaune a commencé de colorer les images de Bornstein qu’elles ont pu s’avouer des références si directes à l’Holocauste. Emmanuel Bornstein est un peintre, c’est-à-dire quelqu’un qui pense d’abord en formes et en couleurs, en lignes, en lumières, en valeurs, et qui soudain cristallise ces intuitions. Dans les toiles de 2009, en noir et blanc, les corps représentés sont la plupart du temps susceptibles d’être directement rapportés à des modèles picturaux, issus notamment des Dépositions, des Pietà et des Mises aux tombeaux qui ont donné à l’histoire de la peinture de si nombreux chefs-d’œuvre. À mesure qu’ils seront gagnés par la lumière jaune en 2010 et 2011, ces corps transfigurés dans la mort deviendront les corps inertes et désarticulés, grotesques, emportés dans le cauchemar des camps, le long de ces voies ferrées dont John Ruskin avait si bien senti, dès leur apparition, qu’elles transformeraient les hommes en choses. Son emploi eût-il été littéraire, d’ailleurs, que le jaune, chez Bornstein, n’aurait pas la force ambivalente qu’il a conservée. Car l’affaire est bien là : qu’est-ce au fond, que la peinture ? C’est une matière infâme, de la boue, des terres broyées, de l’os brûlé, des métaux corrompus, oxydes de plomb ou de fer, des décoctions de végétaux, un magma lié on ne sait trop comment avec des liquides gras qui empestent, mais une matière que les artistes élèvent à la dignité de mystère par un travail qu’on peine à expliquer en raison: chefs d’orchestre de boues colorées, capables de faire des miracles d’esprit avec des poils d’animaux morts emmanchés au bout d’un bâton, et trempés dans la crasse, voilà ce que sont les peintres. Au fond, la peinture nous plaît surtout quand elle rachète une réalité monstrueuse, odieuse, ou simplement triviale – le Tres de Mayo ou le Saturne de Goya, Le Torero mort de Manet, les chairs viciées de Lovis Corinth et les vieilles bassines de Chardin, les papes de Bacon … – ou même, depuis un siècle, quand elle ne fait que racheter la matière immonde dont elle est faite, sans feindre ni représenter – les drippings de Pollock, les corps à corps de Shiraga avec ses toiles, les laves refroidies d’Eugène Leroy … Et les jaunes d’Emmanuel Bornstein, mêlés à ses noirs profonds, aux badigeons et aux giclées de blanc, incarnent superbement cette intelligence de la matière à laquelle on a donné le nom de peinture : ils sont à la fois de honte et d’or, et font des pires images de somptueux tableaux, sans jamais pourtant qu’on puisse décider s’ils sont solaires ou pisseux, salvateurs ou toxiques, tout simplement parce qu’ils sont, indissolublement, les deux – après tout, longtemps, le plus beau des jaunes en peinture a été aussi un poison violent, dérivé de l’arsenic : l’orpiment (que Sigmar Polke – mais l’a-t-il fait vraiment ? – aurait utilisé dans certains de ses tableaux).

L’alchimie de la peinture que Bornstein maîtrise intuitivement n’a pas besoin d’alibis : l’emploi qu’il fait, par exemple, d’images empruntées à Goya ou à d’autres maîtres anciens est sans rapport avec cette distance critique, ce pas en arrière légèrement hautain – « À moi, on ne la fait pas ! » – qu’on a pris l’habitude d’appeler postmoderne. Le postmodernisme est né dans le domaine de l’architecture du rejet, par une génération pressée de prendre la place de la précédente, de l’esthétique moderniste, celle des Gropius, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe : on a alors inventé que, dans une époque où le progrès semblait patiner, l’histoire des arts devenait un grand magasin dans les rayons duquel on pouvait librement puiser pour bricoler des assemblages hétéroclites et désabusés. La peinture, ou ce qui porte socialement ce nom, s’est parfois laissée séduire par ce modèle. Mais il lui est particulièrement peu adapté. On ne peint pas plus avec un sourire en coin et un dictionnaire qu’on ne dirige des musiciens avec une petite cuiller, il y faut un engagement irréfléchi qui ne cadre pas avec la distance prudente, un corps pensant et pas une main au service d’un programme. Si l’on reconnaît aisément dans le carnaval de Bornstein des sources, parfois même des références appuyées, quand il reprend par exemple le schéma du Pantin de Goya, en substituant, aux femmes fatales du tableau original, les ânes des Caprices, et place le tout devant une obscure forêt de hêtres, ce n’est pas que l’artiste décide de lire l’histoire à partir de Goya. C’est, tout simplement, qu’il voit en permanence au travers de ce qu’il a déjà vu, et que ses cauchemars ne peuvent pas ne pas être emprunts de Goya, mais tout aussi bien de Velasquez, d’Otto Dix et de quantité d’autres viviers d’images parfois beaucoup plus triviales – je soupçonne ses ours et ses loups de venir du cinéma, et très directement ses joueurs de bowling de sortir de l’inénarrable Big Lebowski des frères Cohen … Bornstein incarne en peinture, sans avoir besoin de la démontrer, cette vérité d’évidence que le regard ne s’invente pas à partir de rien, qu’il est toujours souvenir et re-création, affaire d’optique et de mémoire. Sans doute a-t-il la chance de venir dans un temps où les prestiges de la théorie en art commencent de s’estomper. A-t-on remarqué à quel point, depuis des décennies, la critique d’art est devenue, dans la presse, et pour l’essentiel, un exercice d’explication et non un exercice d’admiration (ou d’exécration …) ? La musique, tenue par les (nombreux) disciples de Kant, pour un art subalterne (celui qui parle aux tripes et dérange les voisins) a échappé à ce travers, et gare, aujourd’hui encore, à la soprano qui dérape ou au rocker qui loupe son solo – la théorie du solo raté au second degré n’a pas fait école. La peinture de Bornstein s’offre à notre jugement sans la vitre pare balles d’un programme ou d’un protocole ; dans l’atelier, on parle avec lui peu d’histoire et de principes – ce n’est pas qu’il ignore l’une et les autres, c’est qu’il a le courage de jouer sans filet ; on observe tel aplat, telle lumière, telle profondeur, on la juge plus ou moins réussie, on applaudit à un accord, on renâcle à telle facilité, bref, on s’exerce à aimer. La peinture de Bornstein parle aux tripes et dérange les voisins, et c’est une drôlement bonne et belle chose – on n’empêchera pas les amateurs du genre de mitonner des antinomies du goût dans les arrière-cuisines de Königsberg, ça ne fait de mal à personne et on peut y trouver du plaisir, mais on rendra hommage à ceux qui, comme Emmanuel Bornstein, assument crânement la naïve ambition des peintres, faire de la lumière avec de la boue.

Didier Semin, Juin 2012


Emmanuel Bornstein belongs to a new generation of artists, a generation fortunate in being freed from the critical relationship with painting – often conflicted, sometimes anachronistic, rarely meaningful – that characterised the history of art during the second half of the last century. His work has nothing to do with purely formal investigations of aesthetic status, materials or the picture space. And even less to do with the purportedly philological approach of one recent backward-looking avant-garde, adroitly marketed under the label Transavantgarde. It is never about painting itself. On the contrary, it is the direct and quasi spontaneous (though certainly not naive) medium of a narrative imagination, rather than the dead end of a sterile, self-referential speculation. His paintings are, at most, enriched by the lessons and icons of the great masters, yet he never falls into modest/pompous paraphrase and never resorts to pedantic commentary or superfluous quotation: these lessons and icons are always integrated as the figures, masks or characters of a vast theatre that is just as much psychological as it is pictorial.

The fact is that Emmanuel Bornstein has a story to tell. A tale that’sfull of sound and fury,” told bya poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more.” This tale owes a great deal to memory, to stories of memories, to the caprices and nightmares of memory and their representation. His painting has a very clearly dramatic quality – the decors, lights and costumes serve to show something that could not be revealed without the filter of a theatrical presentation. And so against backdrops as black as the wings of a theatre, as dark as Goya’s Caprichos or the smoke rising from the chimneys of Auschwitz, he accumulates, cleverly composed, a breathless and teeming crowd of victims and executioners, monsters, asses, rulers, wolves, clowns and falling bodies, overcome by the force of history’s gravity, drawn towards the abyss. Disasters of war, tragic and grotesque. The truth of suffering, and a human masquerade. Choreography of terror, and dance of death.

The narrative character of these works is expressed in a pictorial alphabet essentially comprising four colours: black, white, grey and yellow. A chromatic scale of memory, dominated by darkness, and shot through with a few rays of yellowish light, as livid as the sunlight of the camps, picking out the grey of the guards’ uniforms, which merges with the grey of donkey skin, engulfing the skin tones, now ghostly white, of the deportees. And the drawing serves to heighten the dramatic tension, creating within the composition a conflict between the figures that are represented realistically and those that are barely sketched in with a few brushmarks, as if a struggle were ongoing within the painting itself between remembering and forgetting, between the attempt to retain all these images and the need to be rid of them, the poignant desire to put a name to every face and the inevitable disappearance of their identity. The result is painting that is authentically inhabited by theatre, not only in its images but also in its conception and its method – and all infused with a pathos at once intense and profound.

While looking at Emmanuel Bornstein’s paintings I could almost hear the harrowing, captivating waltz that accompanies the main scene of Tadeusz Kantor’s Dead Class, in which an elderly supervisor passes among the students, cutting them down to the rhythm of the dance. I don’t think that this was a coincidence: the two worlds share many close affinities. Yet this reference to a great master of the stage should not be read as an attempt to magnify the work of a young artist, much less to enclose it within a fixed interpretive framework. It merely serves to highlight an atmosphere I loved so much, a fragrance rising to the surface of the mind through memory’s sweet torment. Theatre of memory, dark paintings. Paintings of memory, dark theatre.

Didi Bozzini, November 2011


Emmanuel Bornstein appartient à une nouvelle génération d’artistes heureusement affranchis de cette relation critique à la peinture, souvent conflictuelle , parfois anachronique et rarement significative, qui a marqué l’histoire de l’art pendant la deuxième moitié du siècle dernier. Rien à voir avec les interrogations purement formelles sur le statut esthétique, la matière ou l’espace du tableau. Et encore moins à voir avec l’attitude prétendument philologique d’une dernière avant-garde rétrograde, qu’un marketing très habile a catalogué comme Transavantgarde. Ses œuvres n’ont jamais comme objet la peinture elle-même. Au contraire, elle est le moyen direct, quasiment spontané (certainement pas naïf) d’un imaginaire narratif, plutôt que la finalité d’une stérile spéculation autoréférentielle. Tout au plus ses tableaux se nourrissent-ils de la leçon et des icônes des Maîtres, mais sans jamais en faire une modeste paraphrase pompeuse, sans s’adonner à la pédanterie de la glose voire à la redondance de la citation, en les intégrant toujours comme les figures, les masques ou les personnages d’un vaste théâtre tout autant mental que pictural.

Le fait est que Emmanuel Bornstein a une histoire à raconter. Une histoire pleine de bruit et de fureur, racontée par un pauvre acteur qui pavoise et s’agite pendant son heure sur scène, avant que plus personne ne l’écoute . Une histoire qui doit beaucoup au souvenir, aux récits des souvenirs, aux caprices et aux cauchemars du souvenir, à leur représentation. De toute évidence il y a une dramaturgie dans sa peinture, des décors, des lumières et des costumes destinés à rendre visible ce qui ne pourrait pas être montré sans le filtre d’ une mise en scène. C’est ainsi que sur des fonds noirs comme les coulisses d’un théâtre, épais comme les nuits des Caprices de Goya ou la fumée qui sortait des cheminées d’Auschwitz, s’entasse, en une savante composition, une foule essoufflée et grouillante de victimes et de bourreaux, de monstres, d’ânes, de hiérarques, de loups, de bouffons et de corps en chute, vaincus par la force de gravité de l’Histoire, attirés vers l’abîme. Désastres de la guerre, tragique et grotesque. Vérité des souffrances et mascarade humaine. Chorégraphie de la terreur et danse des morts.

La nature narrative de ces œuvres est déclinée en un alphabet pictural composé essentiellement de quatre couleurs : noir, blanc, gris et jaune. Une échelle chromatique de la mémoire dominée par l’ obscurité, déchirée par quelques éclats de lumière jaunâtre, livides comme les rayons du soleil des camps, de laquelle surgissent les uniformes des gardiens, d’un gris qui se confond avec le poil des ânes, et dans laquelle sont englouties les chairs des déportés, désormais aussi blanches que les voiles des fantômes. Et le dessin est chargé d’en amplifier la tension dramatique, créant dans la composition un rapport conflictuel entre les figures représentées de façon réaliste et celles qui sont à peine esquissées par quelques coups de pinceau, comme si à l’intérieur du tableau se déroulait une lutte entre le souvenir et l’oubli, entre la tentative de retenir toutes les images et la nécessité de s’en débarrasser, la volonté poignante de mettre un nom à chaque visage et la disparition inévitable de leur identité. Il en résulte une peinture authentiquement habitée par le théâtre, non seulement dans ses images, mais aussi dans sa conception et sa manière, toutes imprégnées d’un pathos aussi intense que profond.

En observant les tableaux d’Emmanuel Bornstein, j’ai cru entendre cette valse douloureuse et envoûtante qui accompagnait la scène principale de « La classe morte » de Tadeusz Kantor, dans laquelle une vieille surveillante passait entre les écoliers en les fauchant au pas de danse. Je ne crois point qu’il s’agisse d’un hasard : les affinités entre ces deux univers sont aussi nombreuses qu’ étroites. Mais que la référence à ce grand maître de la scène ne soit pas lue comme la tentative de magnifier l’œuvre d’un jeune artiste, encore moins de l’enfermer dans une grille de lecture. Elle est seulement l’indication d’une atmosphère que j’ai tant aimée, d’un arôme remonté à la surface de la mémoire par le doux tourment du souvenir. Théâtre de la mémoire, peintures noires. Peintures de la mémoire, noir théâtre.

Didi Bozzini, Novembre 2011


Tout à commencé dans le noir. Celui de la nuit des temps telle que peut le ressentir un enfant en proie à la plus profonde des terreurs. Un enfant, encore absent à la parole, ressent dans la chair même de ses ancêtres, une frayeur si absolue, qu’en échange, il obtient le don des couleurs. L’œuvre qui commence sous nos yeux est la chute brutale et magnifique de cet échange. Le peintre qui vibre à ce combat entre frayeur et couleur s’appelle Emmanuel Bornstein, et il tremble puisque son nom, « Bornstein », celui de son père, renvoie, dans sa sonorité même, à des paysages innommables, cendres d’hiver, noir et blanc, puis blanc, blanc de peur, puis noir, noir absolument, car là, derrière cette porte, il y a le silence pour les vivants, le noir, plus même que le noir, l’inexistante absence de couleur, de tout, opacité des opacités pour l’imagination, l’immobilité impérative.

Tout à commencé par une croix peinte à l’âge de l’enfance. Les toiles s’enchaînent. Toujours des croix. Je les ai vu lorsque j’ai rencontré Emmanuel la première fois. Il avait quatorze ans. Il ne peignait que des croix. Incompréhensibles. Des croix, à peine deux lignes qui s’entrecroisent, des croix couchées, tordues, étendues, pliées, repliées, redéployées, sur fond abstrait, avec couleurs toujours vives, des croix comme des couteaux, objets de jeux inquiétants. Emmanuel disait : « J’aime la forme des croix ». Mystère étrange tout de même jusqu’au jour où paraît dans un journal, cette photo d’archive prise de haut, par l’aviation anglaise, des camps de concentration d’Auschwitz – Birkenau dont la forme générale est celle d’une croix !

L’intuition ici est d’une fulgurance aveuglante ! Alors l’enfant d’aujourd’hui s’éveille à l’enfant d’hier et la sensibilité d’un peintre encore jeune, comprend que le temps est une fragile membrane dont il ne faut pas se contenter. Sans s’approprier un destin qui n’est pas le sien, il se sait, par son histoire même et par son humanité, à jamais lié à la disparition et parce qu’il est lui-même encore si proche de l’enfance, ressurgissent devant lui les enfants mille fois aperçus dans les documentaires, dans les livres d’histoire, celui-ci, levant les bras, l’autre marchant, celle-là regardant droit devant elle.

Qui mieux qu’un enfant pour être épris jusqu’aux ténèbres par ces enfants ?

Ce qui frappe avant tout lorsque l’on rencontre ces tableaux pour la première fois, c’est cette coïncidence entre émotion et peinture, entre forme et couleur entre enfance et mémoire. L’espace gigantesque de couleur n’est ni un lieu géographique ni un espace intérieur, il n’est qu’un soulèvement pour redonner à ceux et celles qui furent noyés dans le noir de la terreur, la couleur magnifique et vibrante qui leur revient. La couleur ici provient de cette férocité à fendre le noir ! Et l’Histoire du peintre ici, généreusement, par amitié, s’ouvre à tous les enfants. Toutes les guerres. Toutes les époques. S’il ne faut jamais comparer les guerres ni niveler les massacres par un odieux aveuglement, on peut recréer une communauté d’enfants arrachés trop tôt à l’enfance. Qu’importe l’époque.

Ces enfants ont tous été seuls. Mais en regardant l’ensemble des tableaux, ont est saisi par cette foule, ces enfants soudain « ensembles ». Car ces enfants ne sont pas dans des paysages, ils sont simplement sur la toile même d’Emmanuel Bornstein. Leur redonnant la couleur comme on redonne la lumière à celui qui est enterré vivant, il leur donne aussi un nouvel espace; la toile. La toile même. Ces enfants ont enfin un lieu, et celui-ci, dans le chagrin même de leur mort devient, par la puissance émotionnelle et humaine de l’artiste un, lieu de beauté.

La couleur ici est tremplin pour faire rebondir de l’oubli à la couleur les vies brisées qui nous bouleversent.

Des enfants marchent dans nos mémoires car un peintre leur redonne le souffle tant il a ressenti, avant de le savoir, le souffle monstrueux de l’histoire.

Wajdi Mouawad.



Le temps s'affole de chuter dans l'abîme
Insoutenable figuration noire
D'une vaste traque d'ascendance
Mais qui tombe dans le râle brossé à sec ?
Terreur d'un trait tiré du noir
Bouche ouverte tirée à blanc
Suspens viride à l'exact de l'effroi
Qui tient là dans la violence cadrée ?
Pourquoi tant de regards pour ne pas voir ?
Tant de haute noirceur à l'envers de l'aversion !
Ne pas faire tant de pieds et de mains et
A la sécante d'espace
Tant tenir à ne pas tenir dans le repentir et
Reprendre ainsi l'insoutenable exploit de
Dans quel camp se trouve l'oubli blanc du passé ?
Le trop advenu qu'annule la face étrangère de la nuit ?
Trait bleu à vif dans la taillade
Rosé, rougi à peine, si enfoui:
sang noir
Tout arracher dans le corps à corps qui
l'épouvante de la picturalité dans l'averse verte du tombeau
Tout reprendre pour nuire à l'espace
Force avivée de la Présence entoilée d'absence comme au


20 mai 2009


Galerie LACEN. 20 rue de Picardie. 75003 PARIS

Terrible scénographie des corps qui basculent
Et des mouvements tirés outre toile.
Les carrés virides qui se tutoient
De mur à mur opposés
Sont une épreuve de force
La tension n’est pas vaine
Il existe une résolution du visage qui tient
Le regard d’enfant demeure dans l’à vif de l’épreuve rouge
Carré vert de l’insolvable
les traits des visages
tirés à la règle décollée
Ça tient
C’est l’enfance de l’art : le beau, en effet, n’est que
Le commencement du terrible
Tout tient
De haute main et
Tout part de l’autre


Septembre 2008