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  • On Frankétienne: The course of an opus.1
  • Jean Jonassaint (bio)
    Translated by Christopher W. Lemelin (bio) and Mariana Past (bio)

It has been more than 40 years since Frankétienne published his first collections of poems, and exactly 40 years since the first book that garnered him some critical reception, Mûr à crever, was published. 1968 was also the year in which Gallimard released the great trilogy of Marie Chauvet, Amour, colère, et folie, that simultaneously closed and opened a double trend in Haitian fiction: "return to the country" and "exile."2 Over the course of these years of persistent work, he published some forty volumes representing some ten thousand printed pages, becoming undoubtedly one of the most prolific Caribbean writers of the twentieth century, and one of the great figures of world literature that critics compare to James Joyce, John Dos Passos, Antonin Artaud, and François Rabelais, among others.

Frankétienne's work is complex. Its "march," (to adopt one of Frankétienne's very first titles), goes from Au fil du temps (1964) to Chevaux de l'avant-jour (1967), which ends what could be called his years of apprenticeship through poetry, and gives one year later a first text mirroring a (fictional) novel, Mûr à crever, which clearly projects the spiral as a privileged form. This first text in prose, subtitled "genre total," contains the seed of all that which would develop, either manifestly or latently, in Frankétienne's later works: the enigmatic relations with the father, the ambiguous relationship with the woman, the mythic figure of the mother, the freedom of expression, the esthetic search, the artist's responsibility, and his embroilments with power, but also and above all a quest for a typo/topographic language, for a typo/topo/poethics,3 which, beginning with Chevaux, attempts to integrate the image into [End Page 112] the text, to bind graphic and written art. If, even today, this has not been completely realized, and remains unnoticed, the illustration on the cover of Chevaux de l'avant-jour—where the name of the author, title and date of publication are inscribed, or engulfed, in the same red ink—is by Frankétienne. An unsigned illustration, certainly anonymous, which prefigures the blurry (or hazy) forms, the "zobòp" horde, or mass of zombies, haunting the painted surface, which he would develop, notably from the 1980s, in both his larger and smaller paintings, which made their mark on the greater public, and which the images reproduced on pages 113, 114, and 119 show like a darkroom.

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According to Frankétienne's estimation, his artistic production comprises some 2000 pictures dating to the beginning of the 1970s, more accurately after the publication of Ultravocal (2002). Indeed, it is after Ultravocal that he devotes himself in a professional way, if not even an obsessional one, to this new method of work, the paintbrush, and a new form of plastic expression. His public entrance into art was made with a first exhibition in 1974, at Dante Alighieri Hall at the Italian embassy in Port-au-Prince, culminating, in 1985, with the inauguration of an imposing triptych (2 x 20 meters) that hung in the Hall of the French Institute of Haiti for the Bicentennial of Port-au-Prince until the building was ransacked [End Page 113] in 2000. With this important institutional acknowledgement, he establishes himself definitively as a painter, with his dense, black signature of clearly written letters, his clean lines that find roots as much in modern Western art (Mathieu, Pollack, Michaux, the Cobra group, among others) as in popular Haitian culture, notably in the tradition of vaudou, to which he renders an homage in the works reproduced here. In these monochromatic (black and white) canvasses, which reveal his esthetic better than his color works and recapture the symbolism of the Guédés [Translator's note—mischievous, often obscene vaudoo spirits of death], he brings out multiple spectral forms, that rise grotesquely or nearly from the black darkness like the white bones of a sepulcher. It is, strictly speaking, in its most exposed, its most manifest form, the...


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pp. 112-120
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2013
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