Michel JOURNIAC: Les Mains

15 January - 26 February 2022


Les Mains

15.01 - 26.02.2021

The work of Michel Journiac (1935–1995, Paris) is an attempted approach to the body. The body is the question and the very material of his work. His paintings, sculptures, photographs, actions, and all of the manifestations that he invented from the late 1960s onwards, question the role of individuals in society and the mechanisms that condition it. His artworks reveal and defend that of the intimate body, the individual body in relation to the collective and social body.  

The body is what emerges and constantly asks us the question we cannot destroy. Ideas can evolve or transform; we can use all possible and imaginable sophisms to get away from them, but faced with someone who we desire or with death, with the corpse, ideologies crumble. This is where creation has its role to play in acknowledging and accepting the body’s attempted approach.1  

From his earliest works, Michel Journiac invented a semiology, an alphabet2  of the body. He accords particular importance to the hand, or even hands, in the plural rather than the singular, since they mainly represent in Journiac’s work a call, a contact, or an encounter. The first signs of human expression to have appeared in cave paintings, they are the sign of a presence and signify the first movement of communication, the first gesture towards the other. Many historians have described and analysed their representations since the origins of creation. Endowed with great suggestive power, hands convey the expression of feelings and thought, to the point of symbolising humanity’s relationship to the divine. André Chastel for example studied, since ancient times, the iconographic importance of prayer, the joining of hands, as a primal symbolic gesture (also regularly found in Journiac) and showed how much the fact of isolating hands enabled us to consider them “a considerable signifying object”, a “wonderful visual metonym” because “there is a kind of tendency of the sign to focus on itself 3”. 

Michel Journiac has retained the lesson from this pictorial tradition: hands are showcased in most of his artworks and are the main subject of his Rituels. Whether it is his own or those of some of the actors of his performances, he chose to stage them in a sequenced way and photograph them in close-up, in black and white, with his characteristically extreme concern for the effectiveness of the image. The tight framing also serves to isolate the hands and individualise them, almost personifying them. As for the bichromy, it reinforces the play of contrasts and highlights the expressiveness of the bodies while rendering them anonymous and universal. Journiac reuses the codes and religious iconography that he studied and knows for his own ends. In his photographic actions, he offers an array of gestures borrowed from Catholic liturgy, which he combines with the simplest gestures from everyday life. Hands that are held or entwined, index pointing, fists closed, hands shaken… From the represented to the lived, he develops a repertoire of signs and invents a non-verbal language – a kind of new sign language – which he aims to excavate from the trappings of religion and society, in order to express and approach both the intimate and the sacred.


Extract from a text written by Armance Léger. 


1  Michel Journiac, Écrits, 157. 
2  It’s the title of a major series of his paintings: Alphabet du corps (1965).
3  André Chastel, “L’art du geste à la Renaissance” in Revue de l’art, n°75, 1987, 9–16.