The Grand Œuvre of the Oupeinpo1

Translation : Jean-Jacques Poucel

This text is the edited transcription of a recording made during the resuscitation of the Oupeinpo. It is a brief excerpt of the many founding propositions declared on that occasion and has been tidied up for general use. In fact, François Le Lionnais wanted to make more decisive changes that would have presented his thinking in a more rigorous light. He died before doing so.

What I propose to call the great work of the Oupeinpo is a tableau; not however a painting realized by a painter, but rather a painting with lines and columns, which would not, furthermore, be the equivalent of the Quenelyev’s Table.2

Under the heading of lines—the horizontals—let’s place what I call the specific scientific elements of pein. Pein; that is, painting, graphics, visual media, in short, that which is neither li (literature), nor mu (music). The specific elements: already a mighty feat; nonetheless, by far the simplest and easiest. Simply put, it’s a gigantic job. It is, shall we say, this list, which I hereby initiate, as banal as it may seem, of those elements that enter into pein: form, color, line, surface, media, etc., etc.

This list is fundamental. It must be completed, and yet this is not so easily done. That’s what we realized in the Oulipo with regards to the Quenelyev table. Queneau composed it from that which arises from language: the letters in the alphabet, syllables, rhyme, accent, numbers, etc. And then we realized that in literature one must also account for all that has been termed, in the meanwhile, semantics: sentiment, for example.

Must one invest painting with sentiment? Figurative painters will say yes; but perhaps not abstract painters, or perhaps so, depending on the painter. In literature, there are characters and sensations. Likewise, in painting there are all kinds of elements exterior to what animates the artist’s gaze, but elements that the painter wishes to include in his painting. Those elements speak of sensibility, not merely of the painter’s personal sensibility, but of a common, collective sensibility. The nineteenth-century history painters, for example, wanted to infuse their works with something that was not of the painter’s own personality, but to some extent that of the troubadour’s style.

This list of constitutive elements of pein is therefore more delicate to draw up than it might seem. It is not even certain that it would be rationalizable. If it is, things are simple: it must be rationalized. It is not, an arbitrary order must be chosen. This list is the very first task—the foundation.

Under the column heading—vertical—some simple structural elements. In the Oulipo book, I proposed several mathematical structures that are possible column headings. Going further, one could enumerate approximately one thousand headings. At the outset, the headings that will become most useful remains unforeseeable. There are extremely simple headings, such as: belonging, inclusion, linking, intersection, complementarity, order, tangency, symmetry, reflexivity, asymmetry, proximity, open/closed, boundary, adherence…

(6 January, 1981)


  1. 1. From Oupeinpo: Du potentiel dans l’art (Paris: Seuil, 2005), 13-14. Also translated in Oulipo Compendium (London: Atlas Press, 1998), 287.
  2. 2. “Queneleyev’s Table is the name given to a provisional attempt made by Raymond Queneau to classify [Oulipian constraints]. The name is a portmanteau combination of Queneau and Mendeleyev (1837-1907), the Russian scientist whose formulation of the periodic table of elements revolutionized chemistry” (OC 213). The first version of this table was published in Atlas de littérature potentielle (Paris: Gallimard, 1981); reproductions of Quenelyev’s Table and the Oupeinpo’s Grand Œuvre are printed in Oulipo Compendium, 214 and 288 respectively.