The Hidden Dreamscape of Claude Tousignant’s Violence Lucide

Violence Lucide, Claude Tousignant (copyright courtesy Isa Tousignant)

Titles frequently influence a viewer’s understanding of a work of art, either summarizing the theme or emphasizing a particular element in the work. In the case of Claude Tousignant’s Violence Lucide, the ambiguous title that translates roughly as “violent lucidity” proves to be as ambiguous as the work itself. Alluding to the act of lucid dreaming, Tousignant uses the painting’s formal elements — shape, colour, and space — to invoke the experience of a lucid dream. While the sparseness of the composition makes the viewer believe they have a complete grasp over the painting, both as a material object and as the subject of the viewing experience, Tousignant makes one question whether this is truly the case. The violence mentioned in the title becomes the viewer’s inability to fully control what they are seeing and, more importantly, how to interpret what is seen.

The psychoanalytical connotation and simple colour palette of Violence Lucide are not unprecedented. Tousignant was inspired by the work of Barnett Newman, which he saw in 1962 and admired for Newman’s “ability ‘to say as much as possible with as few elements as possible.’”1 However, it is Piet Mondrian, to whom Tousignant states he is “indebted to,”2 who proves helpful for considering the larger thematic concerns of Violence Lucide, especially if one compares Tousignant’s painting to Mondrian’s Tableau I: Lozenge with Four Lines and Gray. Tousignant builds on the foundations established by Mondrian, beginning with the introspective quality of Violence Lucide. In his theoretical treatise, ‘The New Plastic in Painting’, Mondrian writes that the “artist’s inner vision is other than visual […] an inner transformation that one cannot explain by physical abnormality.”3 Both Tousignant and Mondrian create “windows” into their pieces that are carefully delineated by the edges of geometric shapes and literal lines, the latter most evident in Mondrian’s painting. Both artists invite the viewer to consider not only the everyday act of looking but also the act of looking inward that inevitable occurs when a viewer engages with a work of art through sight. The simplicity in form and colour in the two works echoes Mondrian’s Neo-plasticism, in which “he saw the relationship between variable elements (colours) and invariable ones (lines) as linked to that between unconscious and conscious.”4 Both works deceive the eye into thinking that what it sees is a clearly defined, straightforward composition, yet the formal elements are only the initial, surface experience of the work. Instead of visually overwhelming the viewer, Mondrian and Tousignant designate a focal point, a literal open space created by the square and the circle respectively, from which the viewer begins their viewing experience. Yet Mondrian’s lines create a balance to the composition that counters the dynamism of the lozenge form, more concerned with overpowering the viewer in the same way that Neo-plasticism demanded full control over a person’s life. Tousignant, on the other hand, presents a divergence from this approach. He visually eases the viewer into the painting and gives them the opportunity to examine shape, colour, and space individually before considering how they function together, all the while drawing one deeper into the subconscious realm.

Form is perhaps the first thing one notices when looking at Violence Lucide. The circle asserts itself both through colour, as will be discussed later, and through its overpowering size, dominating at least half of the painting’s surface area.  The crisp and clear contour of the circle, the line so steady it looks as if an object was traced directly onto the canvas, initially seems contrary to the theme of lucid dreaming, more representative of the physical realm of material objects because of its accurate, geometrical nature. When discussing African masks and the stylized and abstract forms that cover them, Gilbert J. Rose notes how these forms help contain “[i]ntense emotions [so that they] are no longer in danger of either imploding or exploding and fragmenting the inner and outer worlds […now] ‘contained’ in a stable esthetic structure of rhythmic plastic forms.”5 Tousignant’s painting functions in a similar way, for it is the circle that acts as a visual gateway into the psychological realm: standing directly in front of it creates the sensation that one is about to fall into the painting, the surface receding into a kind of endlessness. The circle “convey[s] a happening rather than a being,”6 existing simultaneously on the painting’s surface and in the viewer’s subconsciousness, and it is only by placing the two together that the form “opens up.” The viewer is constantly aware of their place in relation to the painting, the circle acting as a marker of distance. It is also a kind of “center” that is only accurate as long as someone is standing directly in front of it, as its off-centre position is only truly noticed when the viewer steps back and takes in the painting in its entirety, creating an unsettling sensation. Fariba Bogzaran points out that circles and dots are frequently reported in lucid dreams, “followed by a sense of ‘awe’ and ‘spiritual opening’”,7 and Tousignant’s circle creates an easy visual entry point into the work for this kind of self-reflection to occur. By building on Grodon Onslow Ford’s theory that “the simple marks ‘line, circle, dot’ constitute the seed that leads to the inner-worlds”8, Violence Lucide creates the experience of dreaming both in its visual language and in the sensation the former invokes. Tousignant transforms the circle, moving away from the geometrical and mathematically perfect form and making it a symbol tied to the dream world and the themes of life, infinity, and even mysticism. The painting is not a static image as much as it is a negotiation between physical surface and perception, a connection the circle is meant to trigger through its unsettling perfection and asymmetrical placement.

The painting’s dual colour scheme further informs the viewer’s perception of the circle but is also an important aspect of the painting that should be examined individually, as it builds on the sensation of lucidity. A solid black colour emphasizes the circle’s geometric perfection, applied in an even coat with no visible brushstrokes. In contrast, the white background is not uniform — the top and bottom left corners have visibly darker and uneven beige patches. Although Ken’ya Hara’s discussion of whiteness is predominantly in connection with Japanese aesthetics, some of his ideas can be applied to Tousignant’s Violence Lucide, especially his assertion that  “[w]hite steps forward or back in relation to the colors surrounding it […for] it is contrast that causes it to appear brighter, fade into the background, or seem dull.”9 Colour is an experience rather than a quality in Tousignant’s painting, a non-mimetic way of exploring themes like chaos and order which are closely tied to the dreamscape, because “[d]efamiliarization is closely related to white [which] moves in the opposite direction of chaos [and] is the singular image that emerges from disorder.”10 The painting looks neutral because of the dichotomy created by black and white, colours that have numerous connotations but do not immediately register a strong emotional response the way colours like red do. Tousignant emphasizes the circle’s presence with this dichotomy by making it appear to be floating on top of a background, while the surrounding, uneven whiteness gives the impression of movement, as shaded and blurred surfaces are wont to do.11 Tousignant constructs a freeze frame-like condition that the viewer can slip into and initially feel safe in — the sanitized sensation arouses discomfort only after some time, and after an act of personal realization occurs. By making the viewer consider the optical implications of the work — whether the composition is a black circle on a white background, or if the two exist on the same “level” — and even the possible mimetic explanations for this —a black planet in an expansive white space or a gapping hole in a piece of fabric — Violence Lucide creates dream-like conditions in which one has a limited amount of control over how to interpret what one sees. Yet the viewer has no control over what is seen, as colour and shape are deeply interlinked and rely on each other to create a sensorial experience.

Both of these elements come together in the space of the painting, their work on a micro-level, as individual components of the painting, culminating in their ability to affect the overall atmosphere of Violence Lucide. The circle’s askew position now becomes more significant if the viewer moves around and sees the painting from different angles, and considering it in relation to the space, or the absence of it, created by the work. The result is another level of optical illusion, for by looking at the painting at an angle from the side gives the impression that the circle remained the same size. This heightened awareness is akin to Bogzaran’s observation that “often the body is floating in the air in the [lucid] dream, or else the body disappears in the intensity of the experience and only consciousness remains.”12 The space of the painting is not flat, but this observation can only be made when the viewer is in a sensitive state of viewing with a heightened awareness. The viewer thus becomes the key component to completing Violence Lucide, whether this is by moving in relation to the painting and considering how it functions within the larger space of the gallery room, or by focusing on the circle and abstracting oneself from the background so that the former looks like it is floating in a vacuum. The massive size of the canvas makes this sensation possible —the thin frame looks like it is barely containing the painting, and that the space created by Violence Lucide is close to spilling out from the frame, losing its physical manifestation and acquiring a kind of unseen presence, similar to how the sleeping individual loses the awareness of their body when in a lucid dream. Despite being a geometric abstraction with a horizontal orientation, Violence Lucide challenges the rigidity of this classification by prioritizing spontaneity of perception over spontaneity of composition. The viewer is given guidelines for how to consider the painting visually, yet the resulting association is much like a dream: open to interpretation.

It is worth considering, however briefly, Violence Lucide’s place in Tousignant’s oeuvre, especially since the painting led not only to other “circular” works but also to pieces that build on its visual sparseness and simple colour scheme. Two notable works are Noli me tangere and Untitled (Black White Squares), produced in 1998 and 1999 respectively, both of which move away from the traditional painterly approach of Violence Lucide. However, although the two share formal aspects with Tousignant’s earlier painting, neither invokes the same sensation of lucid dreaming. The silkscreen medium of Noli me tangere makes it almost impossible for the kind of slight colour variations found in Violence Lucide. The four squares further balance the composition by evenly dispersing colour across the surface, the two blacks visually balancing each other in the same way that the dark purple and blue compliment each other. The square is a stable form, unlike the circle, suggesting a fixed position on the work’s surface, although the vertical arrangement of Untitled (Black and White Squares) challenges this with its vertical arrangement, creating movement by forcing the viewer to look up and down. Space and size prove to be the biggest difference in the two later works by Tousignant — by giving them a decorative appearance, the viewer is unable to have the same sort of psychological response as they do with Violence Lucide. The surface becomes a fixed space of a set size that is taken in in its entirety at first glance. What makes Violence Lucide unlike Tousignant’s other works is that shape, colour, and space are multifaceted in the painting — they not only make the work possible but also challenge the conventions of their roles, shaping the viewer’s response to what they are seeing.

If Mondrian is the artistic predecessor to Tousignant’s painting, then works by Hilma af Klint are similarly worth looking at to consider how Tousignant uses shape, colour, and space to evoke similar psychological, and even mystical, sensations in the viewer without being so visually overt. Klint’s The Swan, No. 14, Group IX/SUW and No. 3a Buddha’s Standpoint in Worldly Life share a close visual resemblance with Tousignant’s painting and have a spiritual connotation which, though not in the scope of this essay to explore, has a similar interest in exploring the internal psychological workings of the individual. The most immediate, and noteworthy, difference is Tousignant’s simplification and flattening of the painting surface: where Klint is more inclined to leave hints for her viewer — the small triangle with yellow, blue, and red rays in The Swan, and the inscription and almost mimetic allusion to the Yin and Yang symbol in No. 3a — Tousignant places all of his focus in a clear and clean composition, ridding Violence Lucide of all temporal or spatial markets. Tousignant’s painting is, above all else, an exercise in subtlety — it takes a moment for the viewer to realize that the circle is off-centre, that its contour is a perfect line and that the black was applied in one uniform coat, unlike the canvas. Klint, on the other hand, leaves ample evidence of the painter’s hand, from the uneven background and even a couple of splatters in The Swan to the intimacy created by the handmade visual quality of No. 3a, invoking parchment paper. It is for this reason that Violence Lucide is, as mentioned in the beginning, similar to a lucid dream in which everything seems logical and harmonious at first, and it is only the process of careful disentangling that results in a kind of violent awakening as the viewer realizes this is not the case. Comparing Klint and Tousignant demonstrates demonstrates the different roles an artist takes on, a kind of seer in the case of the former and an architect or even “psychological transcriber” in the case of the latter, yet both stress the importance of the viewer, as “the Meaning unfolds through the individual’s personal affective experience simulated by the painting’s Being.”13

Tousignant’s Violence Lucide is a painting that goes beyond the physical surface both literally and psychologically, redefining what the medium is capable of. Drawing the visitor in with its apparent simplicity it demands complete emotional investment, for one to go beyond its formal qualities and experience the painting rather than simply see it. Instead of startling or misleading the viewer, Tousignant creates a viewing experience that occurs gradually, much like the process of falling asleep. Using the dominant form of the circle as a starting point, the viewer is guided inward where they begin to consider the role of colour and the significance of space both within and beyond the canvas. The viewer gradually loses the strict sensorial perception of everyday life and slips into a transcendental state in which the painting becomes an extension of one’s subconscious being. ∎

  1. “Claude Tousignant”, National Gallery of Canada, accessed March 31, 2018,
  2. Ibid.
  3. Michael White,“‘Dreaming in the Abstract’: Mondrian, Psychoanalysis and Abstract Art in the Netherlands”, The Burlington Magazine 148, no. 1235 (February 2006): 98
  4. Ibid., 105
  5. Gilbert J. Rose, “Abstract Art and Emotion: Expressive Form and the Sense of Wholeness”, Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 39, no. 1 (1991): 152
  6. Ibid., 140
  7. Fariba Bogzaran, “Lucid Art and Hyperspace Lucidity”, Dreaming 13, no. 1 (March 2003): 30
  8. Ibid., 35
  9. Ken’ya Hara, White (Zurich: Lars Müller Publishers, 2015), 21
  10. Ibid., 71
  11. Gilbert J. Rose, “Abstract Art and Emotion: Expressive Form and the Sense of Wholeness”, Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 39, no. 1 (1991): 140
  12. Fariba Bogzaran, “Lucid Art and Hyperspace Lucidity”, Dreaming 13, no. 1 (March 2003): 31
  13. Gilbert J. Rose, “Abstract Art and Emotion: Expressive Form and the Sense of Wholeness”, Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 39, no. 1 (1991): 155