Speak, Memory: The Auratic Portraits of Louis Boudreault
“I witness with pleasure the supreme achievement of memory, which is the masterly use it makes of innate harmonies when gathering to its fold the suspended and wandering tonalities of the past.”
- Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited
“In the depths of the forest your image follows me.”
- Racine, Phaedra
Through the tremulous prism of his truly implacable optic, Louis Boudreault makes it possible for our memories of his subjects to speak, and eloquently too, of prior acquaintance, admiration, respect, affection, even unrequited love. He encourages us to distinguish the features of his subject’s younger from their older selves, living from dead, celebrities we have known well from those we have almost forgotten. And while their lips may be closed, open or moving in mute speech, as Vladimir Nabokov once held of his own remembered and cherished ones, their eyes are wide open. (1) In the deep, dark and seemingly bottomless well of those eyes, there is a supplication less theirs’ than our own, and we immerse ourselves therein with alacrity and are moved and freshened by sundry memories provoked and recognitions pursued.
Boudreault is a rare savant at conjuring up truth and authenticity from portraits that practice a retroactive art of mnemonic seizure, serene investiture of self and aura-laden restoration. He speaks to our collective memory, and it then speaks in its turn of the changes wrought by time -- its nameless violence, ruptures and attrition – and proceeds to specify what, with a consummately delicate brush or iron, remains the same and what has changed as we identify his young subjects for ourselves. As we connect the dots between their childhoods and their adult lives, as we leaf through the thick mnemonic photo albums we all carry around inside our heads of the notables amongst us, whether it be Andy Warhol or Marguerite Duras, Winston Churchill, Chairman Mao or Francis Bacon, Boudreault summons them up, calls them forth from the dewy, idyllic meadowlands of their youth, and spurs a recognition that returns us knowingly to the archeo-psychic past, embedded memories and the ground of the figure itself.
I say ‘iron’ as in ‘clothing iron’ in addition to brush because the level of formal invention in Boudreault’s practice is very high, and stimulatingly so, and the iron is his signature instrument rather than traditional brush and paint can. To see him ‘ironing’ down fragments of handmade paper onto his pressed palimpsests rather than simply daubing there is to appreciate the sheer radicality – and the high stakes -- in achieving his paintings as wholly unified, totally unforeseen things. He builds his palimpsests from the ground floor on up like a carpenter or dry mason: a bare wood substructure is the support onto which myriad papers are ironed down onto the plane, resulting in a support rich with the stored labours of his thoughts and activities, with multiple strata that waylay all the voices of time. The applied charcoal then delineates forms, which are subsequently transformed into the outer epidermis – the breathing skin – of the portrait proper. A portrait by Boudreault is more than a portrait. It is a paradigm not only of what is mind to say but also of the process dimension, the much-vaunted act of making. Process reigns supreme here.
If Boudreault’s paintings achieve real presence and stake a singular claim upon us, it is because he amplifies the auratic volume of his portraits not just through acts of accretion – but through acts of consistent and radical subtraction. His is a manifestly reductive art that evokes and works though an aesthetic of absence. In spite of the perceived thickness of the support – a lovely mirage, really, or red herring since the sheer depth of the palimpsest is only literal around the edges of the wood support – Boudreault methodologically eliminates any detail, figural or colouristic – that might yield an extraneous effect or a baroque accent.
As French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy wrote:
“The entire history of representation-- that entire fevered history of the gigantomachies of mimesis, of the image, of perception, of the object and the scientific law, of the spectacle of art, of political representation – is thus traversed by the fissure of absence, which, in effect, divides into the absence of the thing (problematic of its reproduction) and the absence within the thing (the problematic of its [re]presentation)." (2)
Beyond this relevance to the history of representation, the absence here is binary – it works on the material level of literally pairing down and the metaphorical level of invoking not only absent time but the literal absence of his subjects. They are now embedded in our collective cultural memory, and our affection for them and attention to them stems from our own memories of their person, their reputation -- and their works. This lends poignancy to the experience of these paintings, and the work deepens as a result. Not into a dimension of sentimentality, but into a sense of loss that has nothing to do with commemoration.
Boudreault works in a vein of progressive erasure, of winnowing down, followed by delicate feints and parries of mark making on the way back up to the ground plane of representation. The colours of the collaged papers themselves inflect the backdrop and deliver his figures into the foreground of our attention, our focus. Yes, Boudreault’s is a reductive art. I have never seen one of his portraits fatten into baroque shapes, or fall into an array of overwrought forms. One is often reminded of the faces in Pontormo’s Visitation (Parish Church of Carmignano, Tuscany). The eyes seem to gaze out at us, into us, through us, timeless and unflinching, unavoidable in their interiority and understated intensity, at once transparent and opaque.
As Jean-Luc Nancy argued: “Painting goes straight to the heart of the matter, that is, of the mystery. It does not remove or resolve this mystery, nor does it make it an object of belief; rather it implants itself within it, so to speak.” (3)
Of course, in a Boudreault painting, we do not have the “convolution and tumult of cloth rippling with folds, sinuousities and billowing curves” Nancy speaks of in Pontormo but we do still have the mystery – and the eyes. (4) And that is more than enough. The eyes seize us and see through us. They are prehensile, those eyes, like a chimpanzee’s thumb. They have us – and hold us in their thrall. The eyes are the same respectively in the works of Pontormo and Louis Boudreault.
There is a phenomenal delicacy in the act of making here that bears commenting upon. Iron in hand, Boudreault is no sullen handmaiden to the domesticity of painting facture. Better call him its resolute midwife, because only in this manner – methodical layering, methodological sedimentation -- could such hauntingly alive and vital works of art be born out of the void, fully expressive, and encased in their sumptuous swaddling cloths, circumstances and surrounds.
One such work is his portrait of a young and wilful Andy Warhol, before rumours of spoilage and near-ruin set in, almost girl-like, a ravenous innocence in the features and the eyes. Then we look closer and closer again and register the fact that perhaps Warhol’s eyes were never innocent at all, even as a child, but always knowing, feral, on the prowl. But the eyes are the same – the self-same as those after the shooting and the other scars. They have not changed. They are the same. Boudreault captures and works from this captivating fact: from birth to death, the eyes of a human being remain the same.
For all the talk of darkening and dying, denigration and denial of vision and the optic in our thinking culture, the eyes remain identifiable and unchanged. Such is the case with Boudreault’s Warhol, Churchill, Duras, J.F.K. and all those others that he has so memorably put to paint. He seizes on his subjects in their ‘tender’ youth – and yet his portraits are ineluctably of the whole person, young and old. The eyes know. They reveal all: past, present and future and hold us within an infinite present tense, on the threshold of the image and transfixed by it.
Since youth, I have been infatuated with the books of Vladimir Nabokov and Marcel Proust, and I feel that both bodies of work seque with the deep thematics of Boudreault’s painting – namely, where time, aura and memory are all implicated. Poetry, too, if truth be told. If I cite Nabokov in particular here, it is perhaps because his ‘memory work’ reminds me of Boudreault’s in its elegance, cohesiveness and thoroughness. Its patina grows ever more resonant, thicker and deeper as time and rereading goes on, just as Boudreault’s paintings do as we look and look again and again.
In “Speak, Memory,” the memoir that Nabokov wrote in fragments during the 1940s, reconstituted in book form in 1952 and then again in the 1960s, he recovers from his past the scaffolding for a comprehensive poetic reverie of his early life. (5) It is similar to the entirely humane paintings of Louis Boudreault. We may not remember where and when we first laid eyes on those paintings, but from thenceforth we were hooked, awakened once again to the enabling power of his remarkable vision.
If Nabokov’s memoir was deeply autobiographical, Boudreault’s portraits are profoundly biographical. The images he secures of his subjects when young have to touch a chord in his psyche, and if this chord is not touched, a portrait will simply be impracticable for him. They are, thus, deeply autobiographical as well in their own way.
Boudreault conveys the working of inner and outer selves with poetic efficacy – and their wedding in his paintings. In a commentary on Speak, memory, Jonathan Yardley wrote:
"The development of the inner and outer self, and attending properly to that task can only plunge the author into the abyss of self. The successful memoirist is the one who explores self in ways in which others can see perhaps a glimmer of their own selves and who retains throughout the redeeming quality of self-deprecation." (6)
Nabokov may have been obsessed by his past, but Boudreault is not. Say rather, he is obsessed with ours. I mean our culture, here and now, and his salutary attempt is to supplant the horrors of the present with something like stoicism and hopefulness, reminding us of the golden world before the rot set in, human beings vitrified – and empathy failed. His portraits are luminous. Surely, the impulsion that drives him is neither one of commemoration nor of memorializing a given subject, but one of auratic visualization. He instills vital life in his subjects, and grants them a vivacious aura. It is we, his viewers who are, as a result, haunted by the past. Haunted collectively, say, by all those photos of Kennedy just before – and during – the assassination – that fly into the well of memory, and are drowned there, as we view Boudreault’s youthful, hopeful, vibrant image salvaged from the dead President’s brave youth – and are somehow, in some way, subsumed by it.
Nabokov wrote: “The act of vividly recalling a patch of the past is something that I seem to have been performing with the utmost zest all my life.” And later: “I witness with pleasure the supreme achievement of memory, which is the masterly use it makes of innate harmonies when gathering to its fold the suspended and wandering tonalities of the past.” (7)
Boudreault insinuates, rather than constructs. He is nimble and deft in suggesting likeness, and achieving something in graphite and fugitive incidents of colour that transcends verisimiltude. Exactly how he achieves this is beyond the compass of language. The pursuit of such incandescent patches and passages is tireless in the paintings under discussion here. The choice of the luminaries he has gathered into the fold is intrinsically interesting because it reveals the mark they have left upon him throughout life. No zealot he, but Boudreault, like Nabokov, places each chosen subject within the context of his or her own childhood, and there is never any indication that semiotic contrasts with his own past have any meaning or relevance, but that is the hallmark, after all, of an interior art that aspires to objectivity.
Whether or not Boudreault, like Nabokov, grew up in a prestigious St. Petersburg townhouse or on prosperous estates south of that city, has no bearing upon the matter. In a sense, Boudreault renounces his own personal biography in the making of these portraits. In another sense, of course, they are indistinguishable from his own history: they are the product of his hand, his imagination, his eye, and his mind. Furthermore, why excavate the past of his chosen subjects, if not to excavate his own, and make memory speak for both? The abiding need to perform an archeological dig on childhood memories is universal, after all.
Boudreault collects his subjects much in the way that Nabokov, that devout lepidopterist, collected his butterflies. However, unlike Nabokov, there is in Boudreault’s art no furtive collecting for its own sake or for rank covetousness. He chooses to share his findings with us, and those he has situated on the threshold of eternity invariably speak of a shared humanity. Therein, in that ennobling discovery, lies our own quantum of solace. His art is predicated on touching our collective memories, after all, just as his subjects touched him in some nameless way and occasionally shaped or impinged upon his own biography (i.e. Andy Warhol). Still, at a certain level of passion and intentionality and innatepoeisis, Nabokov’s confession and subscription to the promise of ecstasy is virtually indistinguishable from Boudreault’s own:
“I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip. And the highest enjoyment of timelessness—in a landscape selected at random—is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern—to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal.” (8)
Boudreault stands tall in the graveyard – but it is no mute ossuary – and he wears his heart on his sleeve. It is the place where memories swell and become living things once again, green shoots sense Spring and the scent of the morning air and all is made new and strange. He summons his tender ghosts into the present tense through a process that is probably torturous for him– and emotionally true. Lucky for us. Once engaged in a body of work, he is in the studio 24/7, and the work exerts its hypnotic hold upon him and he is well nigh helpless in its grasp. I would suggest that the art of interiority this memory work requires is significant, and probably harrowing for the artist himself. It is one thing to represent a human being, quite another to invest it with real presence and mensurable aura.
I mean ‘aura’ not in the way that Walter Benjamin spoke of it in his early writings but in quite another way, perhaps only conceivable across the vast divide that separates us from the ends of Modernism. Benjamin meant in the first instance that sense of awe and reverence one experienced in the presence of what he held to be authentic art. Benjamin held that aura was intrinsic in, say, the cultural value of the artwork. (9) But whereas he argued that aura was felt in relation to art's traditional association with primitive, feudal, or bourgeois structures of power and with magic and ritual, we find that, in Boudreault’s work, the aura stems from ongoing memory work and has thus withered away therein not one iota but has only been strengthened thereby.
However, having said that, it is interesting to note that when Benjamin invokes aura, it is in the context of as intimate a relationship as that obtaining between the childhood portrait of Warhol, say, and our memory of his older self. What I mean to suggest is that the originary aura stems from or is co-intensive with a utopian moment in the psyche and in life. Does childhood equate with utopia, then? For many of us, it probably does. We must then ask ourselves: Can childhood be auratic? It probably can be and is. At least in this painting.
Benjamin defined aura originally in terms of the gap between author (purveyor) of the work of art and the work itself. With the advent of mechanical reproduction, he argues, the distance has been narrowed, aura winnowed down, and the work of art itself democratized as a result. (10) How Warholesque! Yet, Boudreault’s portrait of the young Warhol is anything but, even though he has amassed an impressive working archive of Warhol photographic portraits from the Internet in the research phase.
Clearly, in the early 21st century, aura is far from being expunged from or marginalized in artwork. Attempts to exorcise it have been abject failures, even on the profane threshold of Damien Hirst’s giant shark, spliced in roundelles and preserved in formaldehyde. Who has not felt the frisson? Now, the distance between the work of art and the author (and consumer) widens more than ever. We live in a world where our aesthetic experience threatens to collapse Warhol, crown prince of both copy and commodity, into a potent posthuman integer aggressively marketing his own image. Yet Warhol is somehow released into full aura, made to live again, willed to speak by Louis Boudreault. If this is a paradox, it is also a testament to his considerable gifts as a painter.
It is also amusing to reflect on the fact that while Benjamin's "Artwork" essay calls photography into the judgment box for the dissolution of aura in the traditional artwork, Boudreault uses photographic images to his own ends, and secures aura for his own portraits, having used digital images, as noted earlier, as an invaluable resource in the pre-painting phase.
However, in his later essay on photography, Benjamin seems to reverse himself and further develop his notion of the auratic, even disavowing to some extent the earlier formulation. He suggests that aura is present in both early portrait photography and the commercial studio portrait. Benjamin cites, for instance, a childhood photograph of Franz Kafka, much like those used by Boudreault and perhaps even the self-same one cited, the melancholy aura of which inspired him.
In any case, we know that the melancholy atmosphere in this ‘portrait’ inspired Benjamin to formulate an unusual yet convincing post-auratic aura. It is fitting, given Boudreault’s own source imagery and collecting proclivities, that we cite Benjamin's writings on photography for an idea of aura that obtains between viewer and image and dovetails nicely with his own work. Here is a remarkable conjuring trick – and I think Warhol, who the painter met and knew during his lifetime, would have been amused – and would have, in all likelihood, wholeheartedly approved.
Bourdeault reminds us that, from our tainted vantage point in the present tense, an art of “looking backwards” using photographic images as reference, touchstone and phenomenological clue, might help restore an authentic sense of aura to subjects that so haunt the collective memory of the West. So rather than a wholesale elimination of aura, Boudreault offers an auratic mode of experience as authentic as it is pressing, and one in which aura itself holds sway.
In his paintings, aura is inextricably dovetailed with both memory and present experience, just as they are in our ‘reading’ of old photographs that continue to haunt and which, as Roland Barthes once observed, possess an entirely eerie and even uncanny residual presence that cannot be exhausted or tamed in the looking.
Quiet-- and quietly alluring -- but always highly charged and provocative in their way, rife with the hooks of real presence and numinous absence, Louis Boudreault’s paintings call to us not from an exorbitant outside – but from within ourselves. And, if we choose to answer that clarion call, if we heed that inner voice, we will be all the richer as a result. Boudreault, heir to Nabokov, heir to Proust, makes paintings that not only transport us to another time, another place, but offer us powerful environments in which Mnemosyne, at once the weakest and strongest of human faculties, and a very beguiling Muse, is made to speak. In so doing, both his subjects and his viewers are restored to paradisal youth, when the world itself seemed younger, if not wiser, and our latter-day swathe of darkness had yet to settle across the vast figural array of the lived world.
James D. Campbell
1.See Vladimir Nabokov. “Speak, Memory” in The Portable Nabokov, selected with a critical introduction by Page Stegner (New York: The Viking Press, 1968).
2. Jean-Luc Nancy, trans. Jeff Fort, The Ground of the Image (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005), p. 37
3. Ibid, p. 111.
5. Nabokov, op. cit.
6. Jonathan Yardley, “Nabokov’s Brightly Colored Wings of Memory” in The Washington Post (Wednesday, May 26, 2004; page C01).
7. Nabokov, Ibid.
9. See Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” (third version), in Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 4, 1938-1940 (p. 251-283). (Translated from “Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit” , Gesammelte Schriften I, vol. 2, p. 431-508 by Zohn and Jephcott.) or “The Artwork In the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in ILLUMINATIONS: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt, New York, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968 and Schocken Books, NY, 1969.
10. Walter Benjamin “Little History of Photography,” in Selected Writings Vol. 2 1927-1934. Trans Rodney Livingstone et. al. Eds. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith. Cambridge Mass: Harvard UP, 1999, pp 507-530 and [CP IbidKleine Geschichte der Photographie”, Die Literarische Welt, 7e j, n° 38, 18 septembre, p. 3-4; n° 39, 25 septembre, p. 3-4 et n° 40, 2 octobre 1931, p. 7-8,
11. See Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982)