Félix Labisse
Portrait de Jean-Louis Barrault (Portrait of Jean-Louis Barrault), 1947

  • Félix Labisse (Marchiennes, 1905 - Neuilly-sur-Seine, 1982)
  • Portrait de Jean-Louis Barrault (Portrait of Jean-Louis Barrault), 1947
  • Oil on canvas, 73,5 x 92 cm
  • Acquisition, 2020
  • Inv. 2020-108
  • © Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne

In 1940, André Gide sat down to re-read Kafka’s 1925 novel The Trial, recounting the arrest of Josef K., a bank clerk caught up in a legal nightmare and sentenced for a crime that is never named. For Gide, the novel was “eludes all rational explanation” for its realism that is “constantly encroaching upon the imaginary” and the “unerring audacity of its lurches into the strange”.

Post-war Paris saw a gathering of artists put forward a new existentialist reading of Kafka’s masterpiece. Gide’s stage adaptation was premiered on October 10, 1947 at the Théâtre Marigny. The great French stage actor Jean-Louis Barrault played Josef K., while Madeleine Renaud took the role of Leni. The music was by Joseph Kosma and Pierre Boulez. The sets and costumes were by Félix Labisse, an artist Barrault had considered as a “bosom brother” since their first meeting in 1932.

Félix Labisse was a self-taught painter who had caught the eye of James Ensor in Ostend. He moved to Paris, where he was on the fringes of the Surrealist movement and produced paintings influenced by René Magritte. His stage sets for The Trial were a sensation: the twenty panels in various hues of grey rose and fell to create nightmarish spaces. This portrait of Jean-Louis Barrault, made up and dressed as Josef K., is a striking record of this key event in theatrical history. The green-tinged canvas stirs Gide’s “lurches into the strange” in the blend of a hyper-realist portrait and a background that seems to have come straight from a dream, where the empty chairs, arranged along a tunnel leading to a light-filled staircase, are like stations on man’s absurdist journey from life to death.

Exposé actuellement

The Collection


Félix Labisse 1905-1982. Exposition rétrospective du centenaire de sa naissance, exh. cat. Douai, Musée de la Chartreuse, Carcassonne, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Gand, Éditions Snoeck, 2005, p. 120-123, n° 33.

Félix Labisse. Catalogue de l’œuvre peint. 1927-1979, Bruxelles, Isy Brachot Éditeur, 1979, n° 230.