‘Art from the Beyond’: The Spiritual Work of Austin Lesage and Finding Sacredness in the Absurd
“One day, you will be a painter.”
Is life a product of prophecy and pre-determinism? Does talent find an individual or do they discover it within themselves? There is no proven answer to either question. But one thing is certain: if a person’s “calling” is rooted in personal devotion, it will guide them for the rest of their lives. And in extraordinary cases, the stories of these lives will be passed down like folklore.
So goes the chronicle of art brut painter Augustin Lesage, whose spiritual guidance steered him towards the path of an artist. From childhood to his mid-thirties, he worked as a coal miner in a small mining commune. One fateful day, however, unknown voices from the dark tunnels called out to him: you will paint.
He followed the voices with pious obedience despite his doubts and naiveté. With time, Lesage’s skepticism turned into genuine faith and devotion, and he went on to produce over eight hundred works of art until his death in 1954.
He had written to his friends: “My only merit is sincerity. May men not tear that away from me.”
Lesage is moved by ‘blind’ faith
In 1876, Lesage was born in Rue Saint-Pierre, Auchel, a small industrial community in northern France. His life, though fairly mundane, was stable. He started working as a coal miner like the rest of his family at the tender age of fourteen. He would persevere for over two decades, although he briefly served in the military for some of those years.
In 1911, his life would change after a most peculiar circumstance. Deep within the dark mines of Pas-de-Calais, 35-year-old Lesage hears voices with a message: “Un jour, tu seras peintre.” One day, you will be a painter. The voices came from nowhere.
The incident was bizarre enough, but the revelation itself was just as curious. As a man who lived his entire life in a tiny, uneventful mining town, Lesage had never taken an interest in art. His only encounter with it had been a brief visit to a municipal museum called Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille when he was serving in the military.
Perturbed, Lesage had feared going and being labeled as insane. He kept the ordeal to himself for months. His curiosity, however, drove him to seek seances and healers that could help him explain it.
This turned out to be a pivotal moment in his life. During a spiritualist session that involved the practice of automatic writing, a shaken Lesage encounters the words on paper:
“The voices that you heard were real. You will be a painter. Fear not and heed our advice. Your mission will accomplish itself… do not try to understand.”
Lesage was convinced that the words were from significant spirits: one of which was his late sister Marie, who died at three years old. Among those spirits, he believed, included Leonardo da Vinci and Marius of Tyana.
From the mining caves to the painting canvas
The encounter did not answer most of the questions. Why Lesage? Why pursue art? What will he paint? How will he paint? And yet, in wholehearted duteousness, Lesage heeded the call. They’d said to him that very first time: Do not try to understand.
Thus began the course of his life as an artist. Still guided by the voices, he went to the store to buy colored pencils and a canvas ten times bigger than he’d intended. Despite being daunted by this, the spirit voices reassured him that all was well.
Lesage would draw repetitive patterns, such as lines and spirals, under the command of these “spirits.” He did not know what they meant and, listening to the voices, he did not attempt to find out. Over time, Lesage would shift from using pencils to oil paint, as his guides would tell him.
He began as an artist wholly untrained in the field, having only ever encountered a single insignificant trip to a museum. But despite his lack of talent—or so he thought—Lesage painted and painted. Do not try to understand.
“Before I start to create, I never have any idea as to what I will portray. I take a tube of paint; I do not know what color it is… I never have an overview of the work at any point of the execution. The spirits tell me: ‘Do not try to find out what you create. We are the ones tracing through your hand.’”
Kaleidoscopic patterns, hieroglyphic symbols, and architectural imagery became Lesage’s signature streak. French philosopher Christian Decalampagne described his work as “one of the most daring in modern art.” His technique was geometric, symmetrical, and repetitive.
“[It] explores almost all possibilities of abstraction—lyrical as well as geometric—at a time when the latter, among professional artists, was still in its infancy,” Decalampagne wrote, according to a translation by artist and historian Emily Pothast.
Lesage signed his pieces with ‘Leonardo Da Vinci,’ though he began to use his name after some years. In 1923, he gained a patron named Jean Meyer, who directed a spiritualist journal called La Revue Spirite. He then left his job at the mines and moved to Paris with his family, devoting the rest of his life to painting.
Spiritual art at its rawest
Lesage’s story had grown popular in his community, and his influence as an artist would turn crucial in art movements. Art brut, which translates to ‘outsider art’ in French, is characterized by “raw emotion.” This was coined by artist and collector Jean Dubuffet. (Incidentally, most of Lesage’s work now resides in Dubuffet’s Collection de l’Art Brut in Switzerland.)
Art brut is attributed with ambiguousness and, to an extent, secular abstraction. Graffiti and art made by the marginalized—prisoners, people with mental illnesses, children, primitive artists, and the like—fall under this movement.
The work of Lesage is considered “naïve art,” a concept that included artists with no professional training in the field. It is often regarded as “uncomplicated and simple.” But there is more to it than meets the eye: Lesage’s art, despite its equivocacy, had fully spiritual nuances. He was moved by what he believes are spirits, and he created through the means of these spirits.
Spirituality—no matter how absurd—is ubiquitous in the modern and contemporary art movement, from art brut to surrealism. It is expressed in more personal ways than the genres of centuries ago. “Spiritual” moved from tradition to individual, from convention to personal.
In 2019, the Museum of Everything curated The Medium’s Medium, an exhibition that displayed the work of artists who were said to be moved by spiritual influence. “Spiritualist art-making is revealed as a new pathway into our understanding of 20th century Modernism, and a lateral entry-point for contemporary artists today,” the gallery description reads.
Few others demonstrate this as profoundly as Lesage does, who allowed himself to be guided by unexplained forces at the dawn of secular thought and movement. His art continues to hold meaning, as absurd and ambiguous as they—and their sources—are.
In a time where cynicism and pragmatism rule as kings, people like Lesage remind us that the value of art lies in its incongruity. From the overt to the abstract, this is what art is: an expression of the intangible.
Augustin Lesage, a man transformed
In the book of Exodus, God called Moses through a burning bush. “Do not be afraid,” said the voice. Though initially shaken with fear, Moses had listened, and his story became one of the greatest tales of miraculous hope. Was Lesage’s spiritual awakening similar to that of Moses’? Were the voices in the darkness higher powers calling him for a mission?
The answer is unknown. Perhaps there might be more rational ways to explain Lesage’s extraordinary process. Perhaps he was simply schizophrenic—as many believed—and those “spiritual voices” were symptoms.
Yet we remember that spirituality lies beyond reason, and whether Lesage had been moved by higher powers or a mental condition, he was, regardless, inspired. The details of it remain ambiguous and need no further explanation.
Lesage’s story reminds us that spirituality is transformative. When his fear, doubt, and suspicion dissipated, it transformed into something far more valuable: faith and confidence. If doubt were at the forefront of his mind, Lesage would have regarded the voices as demons. But his faith allowed him to listen to them as blessings, and they prompted him to strive for a life of transcendence.
In the same journal, he had written: “I understand that it is unbelievable, but my guides tell me, ‘Do not try to understand.’ I surrender to their impulse.”
Had he chosen to submit to reason, Lesage would have continued working as a coal miner. It would have been a life of ease, honesty, and determination, as an individual of his background would have had. Yet as valued as an honest life is, Lesage’s ‘blind’ faith allowed him to go beyond.
So goes the remarkable account of a humble miner to a devout spiritualist: with faith as his raison d’être, Lesage created, shared, and inspired monumental works of art for posterity.