top of page


About two or three series of Philippe Hénensal


He grew up in Le Havre (France), and yet it is not the aquatic desert of the sea that lulls Philippe Hénensal's dreams but a far-off place that we call Western. Nothing, therefore, of the mysteries present under "the wet suns of these blurred skies"[1] as Baudelaire sang, but the aridity of landscapes that all have an air of déjà vu.

The works in question in this text reflect it. They are the fruit of a work carried out over a little more than two years (2015-2017), without beginning or end, and which continues today. Three parts make up this set: first, drawings made mainly from cinema films, that is to say, stopped images, replayed in different techniques, and which all exist together, in dialogue; then another series of drawings, this time colorful, still inspired by films, but also by documentaries, magazine photographs, images found on internet or captured during travel or in the artist's daily life; finally, the third part, comprising charcoal and paintings, refers to Patrick De Witt's book, The Sisters Brothers (2011).

Subjective camera

In front of these paintings, drawings and etchings, we hesitate: are they images borrowed from other creators, sketched scenes, or worlds straight out of Henensal's imagination? Basically, the same question arises in the cinema and it is there that the artist supports: does the actor interpret a role or does he let his own nature take over? On our side, are we all actors of a great fiction?

"Real life" and cinema: which is more real? According to legend, the Lumière brothers' L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat caused panic in the room where the film was shown in 1896, and we continue, by empathy and a form of abandonment, to feel and to transpose ourselves into what is happening on the screen of the most recent films. Surprisingly, the still image nicely called "screen capture" brings us back to the identification of the actor by name: we recognize in some portraits Matthew McConaughey, Casey Affleck, Dustin Hoffman and others. On the contrary, the course of the film erases the actor's name to leave the place to his/her character. The emotional power of a face thus always resists a little and despite us. The image reveals itself as two-sided, reversible, like a lenticular: one moment the actor, the next the person he embodies.

It is on the wall, by bringing together paintings, drawings and etchings that a form of linearity and narrativity – very cinematographic – is recomposed. « There is a link between these images and it is the montage that reveals it, says Hénensal. It is as if with each drawing, we try to draw this absent link ». There is one unknown: the very choice of these images whose capture seems to be arbitrary, unless they have caught the eye of the artist in the middle of the flow of images. Like Brown Dog, the half-breed Indian, Jim Harrison's hero in The Summer He didn’t died (2005), our artist takes mental pictures by blinking. In front of a redistributed deck of cards, it is up to us to reweave a story, probable or fantastic, between a hitchhiker with oversized thumbs, the kitsch of aerial dolphins in front of a Las Vegas hotel, the cheerleaders of a Super Bowl game, Robert Redford in Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett and Casey Affleck in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and the screams of a man writhing in front of his liquor bar.

In Proust, Swann, as a great aesthete, recognizes in Odette, Zephora, the daughter of Jethro present in Botticelli's fresco, and in a kitchen girl in Combray, Giotto's Charity in the Scrovegni chapel in Padua. On the surface of a face or a posture, ghosts emerge that Aby Warburg was able to track down in his Mnemosyne Atlas (1921-1929), and that the French artist Pascal Convert caught in his pietà scenes. We find in Hénensal's drawings another form of reminiscence, like a mise en abyme. There is something of Pierrot le fou in the painted face of Little Big Man, something of Manet in the prostitute played by Faye Dunaway from the same film, or in the man lying in the Californian desert, something of Psycho in the shower scene from Paranoid Park. Elsewhere, it is the conquest of the West that is replayed through the rodeo scenes, this time under a raw light that the artist captures and cultivates with happiness through the perilous use of Posca markers. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish the sketches taken on the spot during his stays in California, Utah and Texas, from drawings inspired by films. We are familiar with these stereotypes and movie tics, like blinds filtering a neon light or headlights sweeping across a motel room. If they bring realism to fiction, they also make reality fictional. The anonymous people crossed in a grocery store, the stetson sometimes screwed on the head, seem forced to preserve the myth of the cowboy, like the extras of a western between two scenes. One will still quote a striptease - "we look but we don't touch!" - which does not need a camera to be only a staging, both seductive and frustrating, as the desired image on the screen.

California Dreamin’

A horse becomes one-eyed, an old blind woman bewitches a cabin, a gold digger decimates a colony of beavers before being ravaged by his own poison. In the midst of all this, the two Sisters brothers appear alternately as heroes and losers, somewhere between Ulysses and Bouvard and Pécuchet, alternating violent adventures and calamitous experiences. These adventures that we quote, Henensal did not transpose them, nor did he transpose the numerous other scenes that could have been illustrated in a literal way. Each one was however isolable, charged with a narrative power which authorized a decomposition of this novelistic fresco in episodes. This is not the case in the artist's work. From the wandering of the two protagonists that leads them ineluctably towards a return to the mother’s home, he retains above all a floating world and characters inspired closely, or, more often, from very far away, by this story. In the painter's work, the action and its protagonists are as much in search of a setting as of their own personality.

The desert makes its naked landscape available. The golden age of the Western has passed by, forging a powerful archetype, a common place in which everyone identifies and appropriates in his own way. Its gigantic expanses were a promise for the pioneers, at the same time as a bloody land, soiled from the birth of the American nation. This ambivalence and the melancholy that arises from it are prevalent in the works of Henensal. In the cinema, the western made a synthesis of this original and continuous violence: conquest of the western states and the gold rush, massacre of the Indian peoples, fratricidal confrontation of the Civil War. Here, the hills have eyes. And the stigma is still there, far from the big screens: it is in the Utah desert that the Enola Gay teams trained before Hiroshima, in the Indian reservations that the establishment of numerous casinos hides the misery of the tribes and that a pipeline crossing the Sioux lands of Standing Rock in North Dakota has recently come to reopen wounds that are still alive.

Yet it was painters, not filmmakers, who first invented the Western. Between naturalism and pomposity, documentary precision and sensational scenes, Charles Marion Russell and Frederic Remington established all the clichés of the genre, and largely inspired the films of John Ford for example. Then came the major influence of samurai films through the work of Akira Kurosawa. In the life of the cowherd boys as in the Japanese warrior, the calm is punctuated by outbursts of violence justified by the righteousness of the hero and an implacable code of honor.

This legitimizes, if need be, this reappropriation of the American West by Henensal. But then, how to understand in his works the stretching of a yogi, naked except for his cloche hat, between a cactus and a coyote? What do these two right feet wearing Nike shoes have to do with a shaggy dwarf whose agony does not even frighten a rabbit that has come to snuggle up to him, in the middle of dead bottles?

The Wild Wild West

Once again, one will look in vain for a literal illustration of The Sisters Brothers in which these details are absent. Could this be an allusion to Henry David Thoreau, who practiced yoga by his pond?[2] But the important thing is not there. The characters are waiting for who knows what, collapsing, leaden by the sun or pacing, entering the image as others pass in front of a camera without having been invited. In the same way, we suspect an off-field, an elsewhere that will remain invisible and mute. Where is this coyote headed? Whose hand is holding a glass of whiskey? Who is threatening to shoot the man with his hands in the air? We have to be content with a framing that gathers, in a closed system, scenery, characters and accessories, lingering on a banal foreground while the essential happens in the distance. Once again, the viewer makes the work, or at least weaves the narrative.

Here, we never take ourselves too seriously. With the sneakers of the gold diggers or the poop-shaped parasite that, in the images taken from David Cronenberg's Shivers (1975), sows terror in a luxury residence by transforming its inhabitants into sexual maniacs, the second degree is always in order. Seemingly tragic, the stories actually have the lightness of helium that the characters breathe, singing in a nasal voice a probable "It burns, burns, burns the ring of fire".

As the The Sisters Brothers-inspired series evolves, the images blur and overlap. The action breaks down with a character falling in several decomposed steps to finally embrace a cactus. Elsewhere, a stetson hesitates to become a cactus or a Grand Canyon; the ragged landscape alters the reading as if under the effect of a mirage: branch or shoe? Cactus flower or plucked eye? Man or gun? In these images, Henensal prefers dead time to action, the floating appearance to the sharpness of bodies and nature. A cloud of images thus forms a mental landscape, a dream where eagles and clovers sewn on a jacket are hypertrophied and blur the whole, where hyperrealism cohabits with the approximation of a childish drawing when already, the memory fades away, held back by an ultimate capture.

Fabien Petiot

unpublished text, July 2018

[1] Charles Baudelaire, "L'invitation au voyage" in Les Fleurs du Mal (1857).

[2] Initiated by the American philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau was deeply influenced by the Manusmirti that he discovered in the library of his friend, and practiced yoga during his retreat on the edge of Walden Pond in Massachusetts where he wrote Walden, or Life in the Woodspublished in 1854.

For further informations, see @philippehenensal


bottom of page