Chance encounters on the dissecting table

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In times of great uncertainty about our mission, we often looked at the fixed points of Lautréamont and De Chirico, which sufficed to determine our straight line.

André Breton, Surrealism and Painting, 1928

1: The metaphor, 1869

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You can’t read the history of Surrealism for very long before encountering some variation of the most famous line from Les Chants de Maldoror by the Comte de Lautréamont/Isidore Ducasse: “beautiful as a chance encounter on a dissecting table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella”. Translations vary, as do misquotations; the page above is from the Alexis Lykiard translation where you can also read the surrounding text. The context of the description is seldom mentioned when the quote is used, and reveals that the words are describing the attractiveness of an English schoolboy living with his parents in Paris. The insipid Mervyn is stalked, seduced and finally murdered by the villainous Maldoror. Lautréamont’s metaphor, like so much else in the book, carries a sting in its tail.

2: The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse, 1920

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Man Ray, like Mervyn, was a foreigner living in Paris when he created this artwork. The “enigma” may be taken as referring both to the wrapped object (a sewing machine sans umbrella) as well as to the mysterious author of Les Chants de Maldoror, who died at the age of 24 after writing his explosive prose poem, and about whose life little is known. I first encountered Ducasse’s name in art books showing pictures of this piece which is one of the earliest works of Surrealist art. For a young art enthusiast the enigma was more in the name itself: who was this Ducasse, and why was he enigmatic? The original of Man Ray’s piece was subsequently lost, like many of his pre-war sculptures, but may be seen inside the first issue of La Révolution Surrealiste. Editions of the work that exist today are recreations made in the 1970s.

3: An illustration for Les Chants de Maldoror, 1934

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Salvador Dalí created 30 full-page etchings and 12 vignettes for an illustrated edition of Lautréamont’s work published by Skira in Paris in 1934. Dalí must have seemed an ideal match for a book whose prose descriptions offer copious atrocities and mutations but, as with many of Dalí’s illustrations, the pictures owe more to his obsessions than to Lautréamont’s text, and could easily be used to illustrate something else entirely. Plate 19 does, however, feature a sewing machine.

4: Electrosexual Sewing Machine, 1935

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A Surrealist painting by Oscar Dominguez which emphasises the sexual nature of Lautréamont’s metaphor, or at least the Freudian interpretation of the same. Breton and company took the sewing machine for a female symbol, while the umbrella was male; the dissecting table where their encounter takes place is, of course, a bed.

[In Electrosexual Sewing Machine] the dissection appears to be under way. There is a strange abusive surgery being undertaken, the thread of the sewing machine replaced with blood which is being funnelled onto the woman’s back. The plant itself may even echo de Lautréamont’s umbrella. Domínguez has taken one of the central mantras of Breton’s Surreal universe and has pushed it, through a combination of painterly skill and semi-automatism, in order to create an absorbing and haunting vision that cuts to the quick of the movement’s spirit. (via)

Continue reading “Chance encounters on the dissecting table”

Weekend links 522

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Self-Portrait (1935) by Johannes Hendrikus Moesman.

• At Bibliothèque Gay, René Bolliger (1911—1971), an artist whose homoerotica is being celebrated in an exhibition, Les Beaux Mâles, at Galerie Au Bonheur du Jour, Paris, next month. There are more beaux mâles in a new book of photographs, Hi, Hello!, by Roman Duquesne.

• The summer solstice is here which means it’s time for Dennis Cooper‘s favourite fiction, poetry, non-fiction, film, art and internet of the year so far. As before, I’m flattered to be listed in the internet selection. Thanks! Also at DC’s, Michael Snow Day.

• “I hope Roger Corman is doing okay,” I was thinking last week while rewatching one of Corman’s Poe films. He’s been overseeing the production of three new features during the lockdown so, yes, he’s doing okay. I loved the Cries and Whispers anecdote.

• “Unsettling and insinuating, fabulously alert to the spaces between things, Harrison is without peer as a chronicler of the fraught, unsteady state we’re in.” Olivia Laing reviewing The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again by M. John Harrison.

The original Brain label release of Aqua (1974), the first solo album by Tangerine Dream’s Edgar Froese, had a different track list and different mixes from the Virgin releases. The album has never been reissued in this form.

• New music at Bandcamp: Without Thought, music for an installation by Paul Schütze; and Hatching Under The Stars, songs by Clara Engel.

Deborah Nicholls-Lee on Johannes Hendrikus Moesman (1909–1988), “the erotic Dutch surrealist you should have heard of”.

Kate Solomon on where to start with the Pet Shop Boys. I’d also recommend Introspective.

• Dalí in Holographic Space: Selwyn Lissack on Salvador Dalí’s contributions to art holograms.

• At Spoon & Tamago: An obsession with retro Japanese round-cornered windows.

John Boardley on the “writing mistresses” of the calligraphic golden age.

Mark Duguid recommends Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General (1968).

• The favourite music of Crammed Discs boss, Marc Hollander.

• Occult/erotic prints by Eleni Avraam.

Aqua: Every Raindrop Longs For The Sea (Jeder Tropfen Träumt Vom Meer) H2O (1973) by Achim Reichel | Aqua (1979) by Dvwb | Aqua (1981) by Phew

Remedios Varo’s recipe for erotic dreams

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Visita Inesperada (1958) by Remedios Varo.

Ingredients:
One kilo black radishes; three white hens; one head of garlic; four kilos honey; one mirror; two calf’s livers; one brick; two clothespins; one whalebone corset; two false moustaches; two hats of your choice.

Pluck the hens, carefully setting aside the feathers. Boil in two quarts of unsalted distilled water or rainwater, along with the peeled, crushed garlic. Simmer on a low fire. While simmering, position the bed northwest to southeast and let it rest by an open window. After half an hour, close the window and place the red brick under the left leg at the head of the bed, which must face northwest, and let it rest.

While the bed rests, grate the black radishes directly over the consommé, taking special care to allow your hands to absorb the steam. Mix well and simmer. With a spatula, spread the four kilos of honey on the bedsheets, sprinkle the chicken feathers on the honey-smeared sheets. Now, make the bed carefully…

And so on. If you want to read the rest then you’ll have to find a copy of Surrealist Women: An International Anthology (1998), edited by Penelope Rosemont. (Extract translated by Walter Gruen.)

Weekend links 521

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Au Lion d’or (1965) by Mimi Parent.

• After the recent announcement of Jon Hassell’s health issues it’s good to see he has a new album on the way at the end of July. Seeing Through Sound (Pentimento Volume Two) follows the form of the first volume, Seeing Through Pictures (2018), in reworking elements of earlier recordings into new forms. Not remixes, more reimaginings, and a process that Hassell has been applying to his own work for many years, most notably on his collaboration with Peter Freeman, The Vertical Collection (1997). The latter is an album which is impossible to find today and really ought to be reissued, together with more scarcities from the Hassell catalogue.

• Death of a typeface: John Boardley on Robert Granjon’s Civilité, a type design intended to be the national typeface of France but which fell out of favour. It wasn’t completely forgotten however; I was re-reading Huysmans’ À Rebours a couple of weeks ago, and Civilité is mentioned there as being a type that Des Esseintes chooses for some of his privately-printed books.

• At Plutonium Shores: Kurosawa versus Leone in A Fistful of Yojimbo. Christopher Frayling makes a similar analysis in his landmark study, Spaghetti Westerns (1981), but I didn’t realise that Leone had based so many of his shots on Kurosawa’s film.

• More lockdown art: Seen from Here: Writing in the Lockdown is a collection of new writing edited by Tim Etchells and Vlatka Horvat. A PDF book whose sales will go to support the Trussell Trust, a UK food bank charity.

• The week’s culture guides: Ben Cardew on where to start with the back catalogue of Miles Davis, and Hayley Scanlon on where to begin with the films of Yasujiro Ozu.

• “We can no longer ignore the potential of psychedelic drugs to treat depression,” says Robin Carhart-Harris.

• At Dangerous Minds: Laraaji returns with a new album, Sun Piano, and a preview of the same, This Too Shall Pass.

• Mixes of the week: The Ivy-Strangled Path Vol. XXI by David Colohan, and XLR8R Podcast 647 by The Orb.

Penelope Rosemont on the humorous Surrealism of Mimi Parent.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Jeff Jackson presents Free Jazz Day.

The Golden Lion (1967) by Lomax Alliance | Dread Lion (1976) by The Upsetters | Gehenna Lion (1982) by Chrome

The Heat of a Thousand Suns by Pierre Kast

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In an earlier post I mentioned how invaluable I’d found Philip Strick’s Science Fiction Movies, a large-format study published in 1976. Like Denis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Movies (1973), the book was intended as a cheap introduction to a popular genre but Strick wasn’t content to limit himself to familiar titles, offering instead a remarkably eclectic list of films, many of which are barely science fictional at all: Last Year at Marienbad, The Saragossa Manuscript, The Hour of the Wolf, Teorema, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and so on. For my teenage self, and no doubt many other readers, this was my first encounter with these and other titles, and it was Strick’s descriptions that kept me on the lookout for them for many years (over 20 in the case of Saragossa). Strick’s equanimity treated cinema as a global medium, not one where Hollywood dominates the marketplace and all the conversation. Other films under discussion were definitely SF but unviewable to those of us who without access to an arts cinema, and little hope of ever seeing them on TV, European obscurities such as La Jetée, Fantastic Planet, Je t’aime, je t’aime and The End of August at the Hotel Ozone. Despite the book’s age, and the relative ease with which anyone can now see films such as these, a few scarcities remain, one of which I watched for the first time last week.

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The Heat of a Thousand Suns/La Brûlure de Mille Soleils (1965) is a 25-minute animated film written and directed by Pierre Kast that Strick not only describes but further tantalises the reader with a pair of stills, which may account for its title having lodged in my memory all this time. Strick discusses the film between two other animations that are now very familiar: The Green Planet, an early work by Piotr Kamler, and Les Jeux des Anges by Walerian Borowczyk. (If all this sounds like wilful obscurantism on Strick’s part, on the previous page he discusses a pair of classic Hollywood features, This Island Earth and Forbidden Planet.) Kamler’s film is a humorous one, while Borowczyk’s is strange and disturbing; Kast’s film is pitched somewhere between the two:

A young man in the far future becomes bored with the solar system he knows too well and goes for an unrepeatable trip to the stars, in the company of his robots and his cat. On a remote planet he encounters a tranquil civilization where something has only to be wished for, and it happens; he meets a girl, they fall in love, and their romance is frustrated by his complete inability to recognize the different standards of her society where sexual groups of eight comprise a family. Put together from paintings by a Spanish surrealist artist, Eduardo Luiz, whose suffused landscapes and delicate tapering figures provide the perfect balance to the gentle melancholy of the hero’s monologue, the film has the same touch of scorn at its centre as was evident in Kast’s other science-fiction works, Amour de Poche (1957) and Les Soleils de l’Ile de Pâques (1971), although its twinkling conclusion is more in keeping with his romantic comedy Vacances Portugaises (1961). It’s one of the most effective screen versions so far of science fiction’s crusade not so much for a better world as for better people on it.

Strick also mentions a detail about the production that I’d forgotten, namely the editing being the work of La Jetée director, Chris Marker. The latter’s credit makes the inclusion of a space-faring cat both funny and fitting although the animal is unconcerned by interstellar travel, and spends most of its time asleep. Another notable name is electronic composer Bernard Parmegiani who provided the score for this and other films by Kast; he also scored several shorts by Piotr Kamler and Borowczyk’s Jeux des Anges.

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Now that I’ve finally seen Kast’s film I wouldn’t say it was worth the wait but it was definitely worth watching. The animation is very minimal, with most of the shots being still images that the camera wanders over. The SF scenario is very conventional, as are the trappings: a pointed rocket, bleeping robots, aliens that look and behave like Earth people even if they do have eight sexes. The film distinguishes itself much more with its design, the Giacometti-like figures, and the interior of the spacecraft which pre-empts Barbarella with its lavish chambers filled with period decor and artwork. Despite Strick’s praise, Kast’s conventionality seems a missed opportunity when animation can do so much more than ape live-action cinema. Piotr Kamler’s films, in particular Labyrinth (1969) and Chronopolis (1983), offer science-fiction scenarios that are remote from our own lives and preoccupations; so too with Borowczyk’s Jeux des Anges, a film whose industrial nightmare is closer to David Lynch than Barbarella. Kast does have a late surprise, however, although this may only mean anything to those familiar with Chris Marker’s photography.

The Heat of a Thousand Suns is on YouTube but with no subtitles for its French narration. The copy I watched was from this page which includes a subtitle file. I suspect this may be a DVD rip, and therefore immoral, but the same probably applies to the YouTube version as well. The choice is yours.

Previously on { feuilleton }
A Pictorial History of Horror Movies by Denis Gifford
Saragossa Manuscript posters
Marienbad hauntings
Chronopolis by Piotr Kamler
Les Jeux des Anges by Walerian Borowczyk