jan fabre's man who cries and laughs






After ‘The man who measures the clouds’ (1998), 'The man who gives fire (The man with a light) (1999), ‘Searching for Utopia’, and in expectance of 'The man writing on water' (2006), Jan Fabre also made'L'homme qui pleure et qui rit' (The man who cries and laughs)' (2005) erected in the 'Verger Urbain IV' in Avignon, on occasion of the triumphs of this many-sided artist in the Avignon Theatre festival.

Without any hesitation, Paul Ardenne* mentions this bronze sculpture in the same breath with Umberto Boccioni's 'Forme uniche della continuitá nella spazio' (Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913),one of the remarkable feats in the history of sculpture. Whereas, according to Paul Ardenne, in Boccioni's sculpture, movement and bronze are united on a 'physical' plane, in 'The man who cries and laugh's, two opposite feelings are united 'metaphysically'.

Crying and laughing are not only closely allied as emotions, as expressions they are not easily discernible from one another either. It is typical for the nowadays widespread misunderstanding of purely artistic values, that Paul Ardenne does not even mention the phenomenon, although it has been a hot topic in art theory for centuries. Already da Vinciremarked in his 'Treatise on Painting' that there is no difference 'between the expressions of laughter and weeping 'in the motion of the features, either in the eyes, mouth or cheeks; only in the ruffling of the brows, which is added when weeping, but more elevated and extended when laughing'. In his 'Discourses on Art' (1769-1790), Sir Joshua Reynolds wondered how to differentially depict 'the frantic joy of a Bacchante' and 'the grief of a Mary Magdalene'. In 'Méthode pour apprendre à dessiner les passions' (1667), Charles Le Brun artificially differentiates the two expressions by accentuating the ruffling of the brows. In 'The Analysis of Beauty' (1753), also William Hogarth remarks that excessive laughter is apt to form pain lines about the mouth, which sometimes appears like crying. In 'The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals' (1872) Darwin hoped to tackle the problem without resorting to conventional wisdom.

With regard to Jan Fabre's sculpture, it is not superfluous to remark that the authors above are talking about the facial expression. 'The man who cries and laughs', however, is not a bust, but a full-size sculpture. As far as gestures and postures are concerned, laughter and crying are far more differentiated. The body of someone who weeps seems to contract, whereas that of someone who laughs rather tends to expand. In both cases, the body no longer stands firmly on both feet, but rather tends to collapse. But is foremost the gestures that make the difference. The hands of someone who is weeping touch the face, cover the eyes, rip the clothes or tear the hair from the head, whereas the hands of someone who laughs slap on the legs or thighs, if not on the backs of companions. And the latter reminds us of an important difference in the gaze: whereas one who weeps has a vacant gaze, someone who laughs seeks the gaze of his companions in an effort to have them join the feast.

Whereas the facial expressions are rather ambivalent, gestures and postures are fare more unambiguous hence. That should not surprise us. In contrast tosmiling or looking sad, laughing and weeping are not visual, but auditory expressions. In that sense, they are related to speaking. And just as we do not look at the mouth of someone who speaks, but rather at the accompanying gestures and posture, just so do we not look at the face of someone who is crying, but at his gestures and posture. No wonder that visual artists who want to depict these expression tend to concentrate on gestures and postures: think of the two weeping women on the right and the left of Rogier van der Weyden' s magnificent Deposition in the Prado (1442). Add to this that, as already William Hogarth remarked, a weeping of laughing face are not precisely a beautiful sight, so that artists often cover the face with a veil altogether: think of Claus Sluter's magnificent pleurants in Champmol (1414), whose gestures and posture suffice to unambiguously indicate that they are weeping. Artists who concentrate on the face nevertheless, eliminate every ambivalence by simply introducing the gesture of a hand: think of Picasso who has his 'Woman in tears' bite her hands (an who also resorts to the convention of the eyebrows.

Nothing of all these concerns is found in the text of Paul Ardenne, and even less in Jan Fabre's sculpture itself. Already the choice of the life-size format betrays how little the artist is aware of the problem. Posture nor gestures apply to someone who laughs or cries, let alone to a synthesis of both. From the collapse of the body, onlythe opposition between standing and hanging leg is left in a bronze draft from 2004. But in the final version, Fabre's 'crying laugher' has both feet firmly on the ground. And there is even less trace of the accompanying gestures of laughing and crying: the hand of the left arm holds a book, and the right arm dangles loosely at his side and ends up in a relaxed hand! Rather than of someone who laughs or cries, such posture reminds me of a mannequin who is showing a trendy shirt and ditto trousers. The facial expression is even worse: what is to be seen there, has, apart from the open mouth, nothing to do with laughing or crying. That head bent backwards, with all its teeth showing, rather reminds me of someone who, in the rear-view mirror of his car, inspects the new set of dentures he just comes to receive from the dentist. The gaze is neither the vacant gaze of someone who weeps, nor the contact seeking gaze of someone who laughs. If we have to choose between crying and weeping altogether, than the choice is obvious: the head thrown backwards and the open mouth tilt the balance to laughter, since there is no trace of weeping. No ambivalence, hence, neither in the facial expression, nor in the gestures and posture.

And that lays bare an even more fundamental flaw of 'The man who cries and laughs'. Also in this sculpture, it is only the title - and comments like those of Paul Ardenne - that reveal what the sculpture is supposed to depict. That holds even more of a draft for this sculpture (Salzburg, July 10 , 2003), where a face with a hypnotising gaze is to be seen: only the words 'HAHAHA' and two rows of rears betray that this face is supposed to weep and to cry at the same time.

What goes for the expression of laughing and crying, goes even more for the book that the apparently laughing man is holding in his hands. Judging from the title carved in the cover - 'Je suis une erreur' 'I am a mistake' - it is a book with theatre scripts and theatre texts from Jan Fabre himself. We may guess that the author is not weeping or crying about the quality of the creations that are written down in it. Paul Ardenne has a way out: according to him, we are not dealing with a particular book, but rather with a symbol of 'the knowledge, the earnestness, the rationality of modern man'.* 'Is the man of the Enlightenment not a man of the book?' Although it is certainly not his intention, Paul Ardenne's interpretation tells us something about how the sculpture as such is perceived. Jan Fabre laughing with a book in his hands: that gesture cannot but remind us of ''The Legs of Reason Skinned' at the entrance of the University in Ghent, of 'Totem' in front of the University Library at the University of Louvain, if not of Shitting rats of heaven and doves of peace' in the Louvre (2008)...

The only thing Paul Ardenne knows to tells us about the sculpture as such - not about what it intents to be - is that its 'language' is rather conventional - which is no more than a euphemism for the assessment that it is merely a cast from a living model. Such 'photographic' rendering is, as we have argued, the best way to miss the mark when you want to render laughing or crying. It is as if Boccioni, in his effort to render a running man, would have started from photos of Muybridge.

Laughing and crying may not be easily discernable - at least on a photo of a laughing or crying face - the wide gap between a sculpture like Umberto Boccioni's 'Forme uniche della continuitá nella spazio' and Jan Fabre's 'The man who cries and laughs' can hardly be overlooked. Therefore, when contemplating this poor achievement - if not when reading the comments on it, I would not now whether... to laugh or to cry.

Stefan Beyst, April 2008.

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