Michel Leiris

Michel Leiris
Michel Leiris.JJ.1984.jpg
1984 portrait
Born20 April 1901 Edit this on Wikidata
Died30 September 1990 Edit this on Wikidata (aged 89)
OccupationWriter, poet, collector Edit this on Wikidata
FamilyPierre Leiris Edit this on Wikidata

Julien Michel Leiris (French: [lɛʁis]; 20 April 1901 in Paris[1] – 30 September 1990 in Saint-Hilaire, Essonne) was a French surrealist writer and ethnographer. Part of the Surrealist group in Paris, Leiris became a key member of the College of Sociology with Georges Bataille and head of research in ethnography at the CNRS.[2]


Michel Leiris obtained his baccalauréat in philosophy at the Lycée Janson de Sailly in 1918 and after a brief attempt at studying chemistry, he developed a strong interest in jazz and poetry. Between 1921 and 1924, Leiris met a number of important figures such as Max Jacob, Georges Henri Rivière, Jean Dubuffet, Robert Desnos, Georges Bataille and the artist André Masson,[3] who soon became his mentor. Through Masson, Leiris became a member of the Surrealist movement, contributed to La Révolution surréaliste,[4] published Simulacre (1925),[5] and Le Point Cardinal (1927), and wrote a surrealist novel Aurora (1927–28; first published in 1946). In 1926, he married Louise Godon,[6] the stepdaughter of Picasso's art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler[6] and traveled to Egypt and Greece.

Following a falling-out with the surrealist leader André Breton in 1929, Leiris contributed an essay to the anti-Breton pamphlet Un Cadavre,[7] and joined Bataille's team as a sub-editor for Documents, to which he also regularly contributed articles such as “Notes on Two Microcosmic Figures of the 14th and 15th Centuries” (1929, issue 1), “In Connection with the ‘Musée des Sorciers'" (1929, issue 2), "Civilisation" (1929, issue 4), “The ‘Caput Mortuum’ or the Alchemist's Wife” (1930, issue 8), and on artists such as Giacometti, Miró, Picasso, and the 16th Century painter Antoine Caron. He also wrote an article on “The Ethnographer’s Eye (concerning the Dakar-Djibouti mission)” before setting off in 1930 as the secretary-archivist in Marcel Griaule's ambitious ethnographic expedition. From this experience, Leiris published his first important book in 1934, L’Afrique fantôme, combining both an ethnographic study and an autobiographical project, which broke with the traditional ethnographic writing style of Griaule. Upon his return, he started his practice as an ethnographer at the Musée de l'Homme, a position he kept until 1971.

In 1937, Leiris teamed up with Bataille and Roger Caillois to found the Collège de sociologie in response to the current international situation.[8] Increasingly involved in politics, he took part in a mission to Côte d'Ivoire in the French colonies, in 1945. As a member of Jean-Paul Sartre's editorial committee for Les Temps modernes,[9] Leiris was involved in a series of political struggles, including the Algerian War, and was one of the first to sign the Déclaration sur le droit à l'insoumission dans la guerre d'Algérie,[10] the 1960 manifesto supporting the fight against the colonial forces in Algeria.

In 1961, Leiris was made head of research in ethnography at the C.N.R.S. (Centre national de la recherche scientifique) and published numerous critical texts[11] on artists he admired, including Francis Bacon, a close friend for whom he had modeled.[12] That year he also published Nights as Day, Days as Night [13](Eng. translation, Spurl Editions, 2017).

Considered a leading figure in 20th century French literature, sociology, and cultural criticism, Michel Leiris left a considerable number of works. These range from autobiographical works such as L'Age d'homme (1939), La Règle du jeu (1948–1976) and his Journal 1922-1989 (published postmortem in 1992); art criticism such as Au verso des images (1980) and Francis Bacon face et profil (1983); music criticism such as Operratiques (1992); and scientific contributions such as La Langue secrète des Dogons de Saga (1948) and Race et civilisation (1951). (His fields of interest in anthropology ranged from bullfighting to possession in Gondar, Ethiopia.)

With Jean Jamin, Leiris founded Gradhiva,[14] a journal of anthropology in 1986. The journal is now the journal of anthropology and museology of the Musée du quai Branly (Paris, France).

Leiris was also a talented poet, and poetry was important in his approach to the world. In the preface to Haut Mal, suivi de Autres Lancers (Gallimard 1969) he is quoted as saying that "the practice of poetry enables us to posit the Other as an equal" and that poetic inspiration is "a very rare thing, a fleeting gift from Heaven, to which the poet needs to be, at the price of an absolute purity, receptive – and to pay with his unhappiness for the benefits derived from this blessing."

Works (selection)

  • Simulacre (1925)
  • Le Point Cardinal (1927)
  • Aurora (1927–28)
  • L’Afrique fantôme (1934); Phantom Africa (Eng. translation, Brent Hayes Edwards, Seagull Books, 2018)
  • L’Âge d’homme (1939); Manhood (Eng. translation, Richard Howard, University of Chicago Press, 1992)
  • Haut Mal (poems) (1943) / reprinted as Haut Mal, suivi de Autres lancers (1969)
  • La Langue secrète des Dogons de Saga (1948)
  • Race et civilisation (1951)
  • La Possession et ses aspects théatraux chez les Éthiopiens du Gondar (1958)
  • Nuits sans nuit et quelques jours sans jour (1961); Nights as Day, Days as Night (Eng. translation, Richard Sieburth, Spurl Editions, 2017)
  • Brisées (1966) (Eng. translation, Lydia Davis, North Point Press, 1990)
  • Au verso des images (1980)
  • Le Ruban au cou d'Olympia (1981) (Eng. translation: The Ribbon at Olympia's Throat, Christine Pichini (2019))
  • Francis Bacon face et profil (1983)
  • Operratiques (1992)
  • La Règle du jeu (1948–1976); The Rules of the Game (Eng. translation: Vol. I Scratches, 1997; Vol. II Scraps, 1997; Vol. III Fibrils, Lydia Davis, Yale University Press, 2017)
  • Journal 1922-1989 (published in 1992)

See also


  1. ^ "Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research" (PDF). Chicago Journal.
  2. ^ Press, The MIT. "Michel Leiris". mitpress.mit.edu. Retrieved 2020-07-28.
  3. ^ Oisteanu, Valery (2012-06-04). "ANDRÉ MASSON The Mythology of Desire: Masterworks from 1925 to 1945". The Brooklyn Rail. Retrieved 2020-07-28.
  4. ^ "Michel Leiris (André Breton)". www.andrebreton.fr. Retrieved 2020-07-28.
  5. ^ www.bibliopolis.com. "SIMULACRE by André Masson, Michel Leiris on William Reese Company". William Reese Company. Retrieved 2020-07-28.
  6. ^ a b www.metmuseum.org https://www.metmuseum.org/art/libraries-and-research-centers/leonard-lauder-research-center/research/index-of-cubist-art-collectors/leiris. Retrieved 2020-07-28. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  7. ^ Breton, André; Ribemont-Dessaignes, Georges; Prévert, Jacques; Queneau, Raymond; Vitrac, Roger; Leiris, Michel; Limbour, Georges; Boiffard, J.-A; Desno, Robert (1924). Un cadavre (in French). Paris: s.n. OCLC 801805934.
  8. ^ Caillois, Roger (2003). The Edge of Surrealism: A Roger Caillois Reader. Duke University Press. ISBN 978-0-8223-3068-4.
  9. ^ Davies, Howard (April 1987). Introduction. Sartre and 'Les Temps Modernes'. pp. 1–12. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511897726.003. ISBN 9780511897726. Retrieved 2020-07-28.
  10. ^ SIRINELLI, Jean-François (1998-01-12). "Algérie, Manifeste des 121. "Déclaration sur le droit à l'insoumission dans la guerre d'Algérie"". Libération.fr (in French). Retrieved 2020-07-28.
  11. ^ "Michel Leiris - Auteur". CNRS Editions (in French). Retrieved 2020-07-28.
  12. ^ "Michel Leiris | Francis Bacon". www.francis-bacon.com. Retrieved 2020-07-28.
  13. ^ Leiris, Michel; Davis, Lydia; Blanchot, Maurice; Fort, Jeff (1998). "1944 Journal [The Liberation of Paris]". Conjunctions (31): 201–231. ISSN 0278-2324. JSTOR 24515878.
  14. ^ "Gradhiva - Revue d'anthropologie et d'histoire des arts". journals.openedition.org (in French). Retrieved 2020-07-28.
  • Jean-Louis de Rambures, "Comment travaillent les écrivains", Paris 1978 (interview with M. Leiris, in French)

External links

Media files used on this page

Michel Leiris.JJ.1984.jpg
Author/Creator: Charles Mallison, Licence: CC BY-SA 3.0
Michel Leiris dans son bureau du Musée de l'Homme en 1984.