The Mysterious Barricades

François Couperin’s piece for harpsichord Les Barricades Mystérieuses has caught the imagination of many. In these pages I discuss the piece and its title and gather its echoes in music, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, the visual arts, film, and performance.

There is a film by Peter Herwitz entitled Mysterious Barricades (1987; 8 mins, Super8mm). Herwitz writes of the film (in personal communication):

I am a big fan of Couperin, not just the Mysterious Barricades. I took the title for the film because the film which is a semi-abstract montage of water, silhouttes, flowers etc. is about seeing and veils for not seeing and the Couperin title seemed perfect. Barricades are generally not mysterious thus, another expression of seeing and not seeing this time in music.

Steve Anker, in a piece “The Avant Garde, into the Eighties,” writes:

Peter Herwitz, in films such as Mysterious Barricades (1987) and Roses of Isfahan (1984), has amplified the relative murkiness of the super-8 image to create a world of fleeting glimpses in which the world is apparently beyond reach. Herwitz uses an array of vivid hand-drawn colors directly applied to visual motifs that are broken in mid­stream and repeated (birds in flight, friends, and home life), creating an emotional landscape of longing and an ambiguity toward beauty.

Finally, a showing of the film in 1999 was advertised with this description:

Herwitz’s Mysterious Barricades suggests the ephemeral nature of memory, as fleeting glimpses of the world struggle to be seen through physical effects created by the filmmaker directly on the film.

The Italian artist Berty Skuber made her video Sieben Farbräume (Seven Colorspaces) in 1996. The video intersperses film, images and animation with excerpts quoted from Wittgenstein’s Bemerkungen über die Farben (Remarks on Color). It falls into seven sections, each devoted to a particular color, with the final section associated with the color white. The whole is accompanied by a performance by Philip Corner of three works for piano and percussion (and some humming and ambient noise) by him: 1) Earth Breath – becoming OM; 2) Gong/Ear – becoming pulse; 3) Through the Mysterious Barricade. The last of these pieces is discussed extensively on the Music page of this site. The performance here consists only of a very slow rendition of Couperin’s piece, beginning as the final white section begins (at around 13′ 23”), and going through to the end of the credits. The tensions and drama played out in the music match beautifully those represented visually through the different colors.

The Swiss film-makers Frédéric Gonseth and Catherine Azad are the makers of a documentary film gonsethLes Barricades Mystérieuses (2002), about Gonseth’s old drawing teacher, the painter Bernard Pidoux (pictured right; a catalogue for an exhibition of his paintings can be seen here). The note accompanying the film tells us this:

The landscapes around Lake Geneva have not lost all of their charms since Corot, and indeed they provide the daily bread of the man who was the filmmaker’s drawing teacher at college, ever since he was old enough to make them his personal salvation after the rigours of a protestant education, which is a long time ago since he is now over 90. As a result of his decision to make this nostalgic video portrait of a painter of water colours who has withstood the battering of time, the director found himself confronted with an increasing number of very disturbing coincidences between the choices made by his teacher, and his own first efforts in the “seventh art” of the cinema. This clever portrait thus serves as a delightfully devious way of introducing the viewer to a whole series of discoveries that go well beyond the realms of either painting or cinema. Is it possible that certain things pass between a teacher and his pupil without either being aware of the act of transmission?

Regarding the title of the film, Gonseth says (in personal communication):

The title evokes the fact that the film-maker took so long – forty years – to appreciate the importance to him of one of his teachers, a painter.

In 2004, the Québécois animation artist Jacques Drouin made the film Imprints (Empreints). The film uses the Couperin piece as the basis of its sound-track. The film is made by the pinscreen method of animation, a technique of which Drouin is practically the only major contemporary exponent. In this method, a screen with an enormous number of pins is used. The pins can be depressed in various shapes, and the whole is then side-lit and filmed for its shadows and depth effects. The film is described thus, on the website of the National Film Board of Canada (who have kindly made the enitre film available to the public):

Jacques Drouin draws us into an unforgettable sensory experience. On the surface of the pinscreen he imprints his desires and his intuitions, hurling himself into a hand-to-hand tussle with his favourite instrument. He positions the camera and the lighting to reveal the relief formed by the pins, and continually pivots the screen so that the viewer can glimpse the images hidden behind this mysterious barricade. The repeated harmonies of a rondo for harpsichord by François Couperin give the film its rhythm and shape. Alexeïeff’s invention, caught up in this whirlwind of creativity, appears in a new light.

At the start of the film, Drouin sits down in front of the pinscreen like a musician at his keyboard, preparing to leave his mark on the work. When the animation begins, the pins and the music answer each other, vibrating in unison like the rhymes of a poem. Imprints is a film of love about an object as beautiful and rare as a harpsichord, made by a filmmaker at the height of his powers.

And here is some commentary from the 2011 Master’s Thesis by Tereza Janáčková (posted with the author’s permission; I omit footnotes and references to illustrations):

4.5.1 Synopsis

The film starts with a pixilated depiction of the creator of the film, Jacques Drouin while working on the film itself. The pixilated i.e. real-like creative process in the beginning is then transposed within the frame of the pinscreen, on which an outline of a head is shown. Most probably it is an artist’s head, very likely symbolizing Drouin’s own head, so the viewers can see what is going on in his mind during creative process. Similarly, minds of other both children and adult people can be seen later on in the film. The ideas take various forms from lively organic ones to obsessively penetrative objects of technical nature. The film is rounded up by the image of the artist again, possibly indicating Drouin himself, as the final scene is crowned by the image of the pinscreen frame, which was actually used in the process of animation of The Imprints.

The film is basically a series of abstract images, some of which are highly symbolically coded, some are included for their great visual impact. It is also a variation on visual music as it was inspired by a Francois Couperin song for harpsichord Les Barricades mystérieuses. Drouin created a non-narrative, non-verbal colourful film in which various ideas become literal imprints on human mind. In this particular case study the categories of characters and mise-en-scene in Giantetti’s sense are absolutely irrelevant because Drouin’s film is a mixture of abstract masterpieces and reflections on the way human mind works. Most importantly it is an ode on Drouin’s favourite animation instrument: the pinscreen.

4.5.2 Style

Drouin mastered the technique of pinscreen animation in an absolutely unique way. Moreover he had enough time to develop his own artistic expression within the technique. The Imprints is his 11^th pinscreen animated film. If not deliberately accentuated, nobody could tell that the images were created on a pinboard. The pins are moved with such a precision that the shades make such perfect shape that the images seem as if produced in a 2D method such as painting or drawing. Compared to the unwieldy lines and too thick and dark shading of the inventors of the pinscreen Alexeieff and Parker, most of Drouin’s images are much softer, lighter and more precise.

This is evident namely in rendering the fire, symbolizing the outburst of the artist’s creativity. The rendering as well as well as timing of the various phases of the burning flame is excellent. In many other scenes, namely with different tools and various rotary mechanisms, spirals appearing on the scene the style gets more crude. In comparison with Drouin’s Mindscape (1978), the style becomes more radicalised. The shading is still soft and extremely precise but the soft round lines changed into sharp contrasting lines forming dark meanders and pointed zig-zaging twists.

The head of the artists as well as the other heads appearing in the film have no longer the dream-like qualities of old photographs from a distant past. The oval head shapes, expressive cheek bones and the overall schematic nature of the facial expressions became new markers of his style. It seems that Douin was inspired by some of the native arts or the “primitivist movement” within the western culture. The faces look rather like African tribal masks (fig. 13) than a mimetic rendering of the face. In his case it is not a historicizing style but rather a search for a form that would correspond to the content. Art it its various forms was with people since the first days of humankind, it was not decorative but meaningful. In various native cultures it was made for ritual or votive reasons. For Drouin animation seems to a be a kind of ritual; a process in which he himself becomes a schematic depiction of his mind and his ideas the images depicted on the screen.

As was mentioned above, the colours also seem to be endowed with a certain symbolic. The red flame seems to stand for the artists creativity the outburst of energy. Lighter and cooler colours are either used as a natural background or to depict the steady strength of a well-thought-out plans as opposed to a sudden outburst of energy. The creative ideas are represented by swiftly moving spiral or sea-shell shapes, slowly rolling heavy shapes with metallic texture seem to be a kind of obsessive thoughts that are in the way of the creative process. The spiral and organic shapes, however, seem to “win” over the technical ones. Leaves of grass shaped lines cover a rotating metal plate, turning sea-shell launches a creative mental process in the artist’s head. The creative wins over the destructive.

4.5.3 Genre

In spite of the fact that it contains figurative elements, The Imprints are undoubtedly a piece of abstract animation. The heads depicted are not abstract but they are not involved in as characters. Rather than that they are employed as containers for the ideas, the disparate objects that enter, grow and disappear in the human vessels. It could be argued that there actually is a story that describes the origin of a work of art. Yet the story also belongs to the realm of the “abstract” as the artwork is born from ideas. Ideas have not shape, weight, texture, mostly these are abstract concepts. Abstraction is thus present in the ideological as well as visual level of the film. Visually as well as conceptually, it is not story of the complex world of human ideas but a clear artist’s statement. It is an open disclosure of the artistic process and a kind of love-song to the pin-board. It is a visual concert. More than anything it is a celebratory ode on the two artist’s chief instruments: the creative mind and the pinboard.

Ideologically, it follows Drouin’s masterpiece The Mindscape (1976), which depicts the creative process of a landscape painter. Here the idea is taken a bit further. One cannot help thinking of Marshall McLuhan’s medium theory. In Mindscape the medium of painting was substituted by the medium of animation. In imprints it is a medium within a medium. In Mindscape the art of painting was the subject of animated film, in The Imprints the subject of animation is the art of animation itself. The painter from Mindscape is replaced by animator, the canvas is replaced by the pinboard. Not only that the opening scene shows that author while working but the tool itself, the pinboard is openly acknowledged at the end of the film. In this very last scene, the dreamlike mildly colourful images suddenly shrink on nothing more that thousands of pins pierced though a flat board. This approach consciously disrupts the psychological space created between the viewers and the film as it does not offer an alternative reality of the film but deliberately confesses the illusory nature of the film. Despite being aware that what one sees is just a visual trick of shadows, the viewer is soon taken in by the imagery and forgets that what s/he sees is just a play of light and not real objects appearing in front of the camera.

The crucial factor for the editing and timing was of course the music. Interestingly, the music was not chosen to accompany the film but the film was inspired by the song Les Barricades mystérieuses by Francois Couperin. Again, it revives the tradition of Norman McLaren’s abstract jazz improvisations. The originality of the expression, innovation in the technique and most importantly the open disclosure of the animation process, tool and technique used and persona of the artist are the core of the concept. As well as in McLaren’s abstractions the contribution lies in visual and most importantly conceptual originality of the work.

4.5.4 Technique

The technique used called pinscreen animation is absolutely unique. It is an extremely time consuming and challenging form of animation. The technique is based on working with a white board containing as many as 240 000 metal pins that are being pushed closer to the vinyl board by various tools. Interestingly, it is a combination of 2D and 3D techniques. The board itself is flat like a canvas but the pins protrude from the board in space creating the third dimension in what basically is a bas-relief. When lit from a side, the pins cast shadows, which create the desired images. The closer the pin, the shorter the shadow and the shorter the shadow the lighter the shade it produces. The pins are pushed with various tools; usually it is a stick. Creating an image on the pinboard looks almost as if paint were dashed on canvas with a brush. Thanks to the vast number of pins the board offers numerous possibilities of artistic expression because of the advantage of extremely precise and gentle shading. The spectre reaches from hyperrealist forms to dreamlike images.

Drouin is positively one of the two living animators using this technique. Many have tried but since the technique was invented by Russian Alexander Alexeieff and his American wife Claire Parker in 1933 for their film Night on Bald Mountain based on Modest Mussorgsky’s symphonic poem Night on a Bald mountain but Drouin was the only one who not only mastered the technique but also managed to make considerable improvements in it. In his masterpiece Mindscape (1976), he uses close-up, shot reverse shot and camera movements, which were not used before in connection with pinscreen animation. Gentle shading, and 3D-like imagery created by the shadows multiply the dreamlike qualities of the story of a landscape painter, who gets thoroughly absorbed in his own painting, in fact, in the landscape of his mind.

Originally, it has been used only for creating black and white films, and in 1986 also colour was added. Drouin invented the colourful effects by experimentation with filtered light while working together with well known Czech puppet animator Břetislav Pojar. In their narrative film Nightangel (in Czech Romance z temnot, 1986) telling a story of a man who suddenly goes blind they combined puppet and pinscreen animation.

The innovation did not stop with The Imprints, on the contrary. Besides using colourful lightning and camera movements, Drouin decided to make the board rotary. This enables to use both sides of the board at the same time. Because of that one can see not only the “positive” side of the image but also the reverse as if “negative” depiction of the same object if the pinboard is turned 180 degrees. Being faithful to the title of the film Drouin not only “draws” his images by pushing the pins with a stick, but places various objects to the pinboard pushing the pins covered by the objects. The size, shape and texture of the object are thus “imprinted” on the pinboard.

In Sofia Coppola‘s 2006 film Marie Antoinette, the Couperin piece is played, visibly, in the background of a party scene, in the early part of chapter 20 (“Count Firsen”). The soundtrack for the film, released on CD, has the piece played by Patricia Mabee. Here is a capture from about 1 hr 32 mins:


For more of the Marie Antoinette association, see also the photo by Sarah Loven on the Visual Arts page, and the reference in Kathryn Davis’s Versaille: A Novel, quoted on the Fiction page.

The British film-maker and digital video artist Stuart Pound has made a short film, “Les Barricades Mysteriéuses” (2010) about which he writes:

François Couperin’s “Les Barricades Mystérieuses” is the starting point for this video. The loudness of each note struck on the harpsichord controls the size and superimposition of the unfolding numbers which display the time code and duration of the piece.






(Performance of the music is by Carlos Rodriguez. Video posted with permission of the artist.)

In 2011, Terrence Malick used Couperin’s piece in his film The Tree of Life. Here is the excerpt from the film that includes the music:

In 2014, the artist Georgia Ward Dyer made a short film of a machine for molding plaster, using Couperin’s music as an integral part. She writes (in personal communication):

The machine is functional but has been designed to be aesthetically pleasing as an object in itself. It extrudes a (modifiable) metal profile through wet plaster in a movement 360 degrees around a central pivot. This is based on a traditional technique for running decorative mouldings which were popularised for interiors in the Georgian period. The film demonstrates use of the machine in a light-hearted, instructional style inspired by shopping channel promo films and restoration enthusiasts’ home videos.

I don’t think I started out intending to make a film – it was more a case of being intrigued by an object, then by how a particular manufacturing process could produce it through an action, then by the making of a machine that could do that manufacturing, then making a film that could convey that machine! So for me it’s about utility and uselessness, about decoration, function, process; a mystique around how things are made and what they are for.  But that’s making everything very explicit – I would always prefer people to have a response unfettered by reading too much of what I’ve said about it!

I wonder whether now I have said something about the film it may seem clear to you why, from its rondo form to its enigmatic title, les BM is perfect for it (and indeed I consider it a necessary, irreplaceable part of it).
It seems to be at the surface level a beautiful-sounding piece of music but of course… is so much more than that. I always remember Adès saying that the piece is a better composition lesson than he’d ever had from his teachers.  Writing about it makes me want to go and play it immediately – not because I’m a particularly accomplished pianist but because of that delightful feeling of solving and analysing it in endless different ways without it ever really revealing itself to you.
Here is the movie (courtesy of the artist):






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