Faces in Fabrice Neaud
The image above is from an English translation of several pages from Journal 1 by Edward Gauvin.
I can’t seem to get away from Fabrice Neaud. I’ve now read most of the Journal series. One of the many pieces of connective tissue throughout the work, and one with which I’m particularly taken, is the fact that faces are essential for Neaud.
A common visual metaphor throughout Journal is the sudden disappearance of a character’s face, replaced either by an abstract inky blur or simply by nothing - by absence. The outlines of the face remain, but its features simply drop away. In both cases, Neaud draws attention to the artifice of his technically proficient, near-photorealistic style, underscoring the fact that these are simply lines on a page.
Sometimes the disappearing faces of Journal seem quite purposeful, coinciding with moments when the issue of representation becomes particularly pertinent. For instance, following a brief but profound sexual encounter with an army sergeant in Journal 3, Neaud struggles with the fact that a lack of photographic evidence leaves him unable to draw the man’s face. In a way, it’s another side to the distancing effect present in the sequence I translated a few weeks ago, where Neaud focuses on his surroundings to dull the pain of being beaten, or even in the short story Emile, where he refrains from drawing any people at all. You can read that story online in English (weaknesses in the text are, I assure you, translation errors and not faults on Neaud’s part). Other times, though, a character’s face will flicker and blur in a single panel before returning to normal, with no obvious explanation. It’s sudden and unexpected, like some sort of nervous tick.
Neaud says that some of this ambiguity was in early volumes less considered. “Sometimes, it was just because I didn’t have an “image” to use for that particular moment,” he says in one interview. But even in that lack of purpose there is significance. The blurring of faces seems to indicate that from the beginning Neaud was on some level struggling with the issues of representation and ownership of one’s visual identity that play an increasingly important thematic role in Journal and that encroached on Neaud’s personal life in an profound manner. Recent statements indicate that the Journal series will end with volume four, with harsh criticism of the way Neaud portrays his friends in the work culminating with him being legally forbidden from drawing at least one person in his comics.
Even the reader’s face, their gaze, plays a subtle role in the work. Neaud’s characters will look directly out at us in extended sequences when we take up his role as silent observer, careful listener, for long monologues on the part of his friends and acquaintances. There’s a different sort of tension between the real and the constructed here. On the one hand, Neaud makes us direct participants in the narrative by offering us a first person perspective, very directly showing us what he himself saw. On the other hand, and as Neaud freely admits, these monologues are blatantly reconstructed, collaged dialogues stitched together from Neaud’s notes or memories of many different conversations. At times this becomes a bit cumbersome, when it seems that Neaud only allows his characters to present straw man arguments which, in their obvious faults, place the Fabrice Neaud character clearly in the right. Still, given how harshly critical Neaud is of himself elsewhere in the work, this effect is surely conscious and considered. It is obvious artifice placed in contrast with supposed verisimilitude – a different sort of blurring.
And in addition, here again is that visual blur. In some of these monologue passages, the shifts in Neaud’s rendering style from one panel to the next are all he offers us in terms of movement or action. There is motion not in the character’s gestures, but in Neaud’s pen marks that jump suddenly away from careful rendering, meandering towards abstraction, before leaping back towards photorealism.
In the same interview mentioned above, Neaud says, “The principal question [of Journal] was linked to this issue of representation. Did I or didn’t I need to represent the facts, the people? Did I need to name them?…That was the most difficult. It remains a daily struggle. In any case, the entirely of the work is nothing but an immensely infinite response to this line of questioning.” Neaud’s approach to drawing (and not drawing) faces is one clear testimony to this struggle.
- Andrew White