Weekend links 539

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Fire, Red and Gold (1990) by Eyvind Earle.

Roger Penrose won a Nobel Prize recently for his work in physics. I read one of his books a few years ago, and was intimidated by the “simple” equations, but I always like to hear his ideas. This 2017 article by Philip Ball is an illuminating overview of Penrose’s life and work.

• At Dangerous Minds: Joe Banks on the incidents that led to Lemmy’s dismissal from Hawkwind in 1975, an extract from Hawkwind: Days of the Underground. The book is available from Strange Attractor in Europe and via MIT Press in the USA.

• “Not married but willing to be!”: men in love (with each other) from the 1850s on. It’s always advisable to take photos like these with a pinch of salt but several of the examples are unavoidably what they appear to be.

Most of all, this resolutely collaborative production stood against the vanity and careerism of individual authorship; Breton called it the first attempt to “adapt a moral attitude, and the only one possible, to a writing process.” The text itself is peppered with readymade phrases, advertising slogans, twisted proverbs, and pastiches of such admired predecessors as Rimbaud, Apollinaire, and Lautréamont, whose pluralistic credo, “Poetry must be made by all. Not by one,” anticipates the sampling aesthetic by a century. But the intensity was draining, and as the book moves toward its final pages and the writing becomes increasingly frenetic, you can almost feel the burnout taking hold. After eight days, fearing for his and Soupault’s sanity, Breton terminated the experiment.

Mark Polizzotti reviews a new translation by Charlotte Mandell of The Magnetic Fields by André Breton and Philippe Soupault

• The hide that binds: Mike Jay reviews Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin by Megan Rosenbloom.

• “A photographer ventures deeper into Chernobyl than any before him.” Pictures from Chernobyl: A Stalker’s Guide by Darmon Richter.

John Van Stan’s reading of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley uses my illustrations (with my permission) for each of its chapters.

Susan Jamison, one of the artists in The Art of the Occult by S. Elizabeth, talks to the latter about her work.

William Hope Hodgson: The Secret Index. A collection of Hodgson-related posts at Greydogtales.

Gee Vaucher talks to Savage Pencil about her cover art for anarchist punk band, Crass.

Weird, wacky and utterly wonderful: the world’s greatest unsung museums.

Tom Cardamone chooses the best books about Oscar Wilde.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Jean-Pierre Melville Day.

You by The Bug ft. Dis Fig.

Magnetic Dwarf Reptile (1978) by Chrome | Magnetic Fields, Part 1 (1981) by Jean-Michel Jarre | Magnetic North (1998) by Skyray

The Execution of the Testament of the Marquis de Sade by Jean Benoît

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Hommage au Marquis de Sade (1959) by Jean Benoît.

BENOÎT Jean (Quebec, 1922). In Paris, 1949, he undertook a strange enterprise called The Execution of the Testament of the Marquis de Sade which kept him busy for two years. It is a very complicated costume, made up of superimposed coverings and accompanied by important accessories. Each element of the ensemble (medallion, tights, crutches, panels, mask, boots, wings, tomb, push-chair, membrum virile, codpiece, chastity-belt, with tattooing thrown in) transposes some aspect of Sadian thought into plastic terms. The work was to be worn during a special ceremony which took place December 2, 1959, at Joyce Mansour’s, the evening preceding the International Exhibition of Surrealism (“Eros”) in Galerie Daniel Cordier. In 1965 Benoît completed another work for carrying round as a tribute to Sergeant Bertrand, a famous nineteenth-century necrophile, The Necrophile, and a sculpture, The Bulldog of Maldoror, which he presented at the international surrealist exhibition “L’Ecart absolu”, Galerie L’Oeil, in the same year, 1965.

José Pierre, A Dictionary of Surrealism, 1975

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But it is the Execution of the Last Testament of the Marquis de Sade, finally staged in 1959, that lies at the heart of Benoît’s oeuvre. Often cited but rarely analysed, it is one of the most significant works of post-war surrealism. On December 2, at the home of the surrealist poet Joyce Mansour, attended by around a hundred invited guests. the event began with the crescendo of a volcano—a sound recording of street noises made by Radovan Ivsic—followed by a second recording of Breton reading out the Marquis’ last testament, specifying de Sade’s (never heeded) desire for his body to be treated and laid to rest in an anonymous grave. Benoît’s detailed notes specifying every element of his complex and extensive dress and accoutrements were read out loud as [Mimi] Parent helped Benoît, arrayed in this extraordinary costume, slowly remove each item one by one. Layered suits, masks, crutches, panels, ornaments, and accessories made from diverse materials laden with symbolic images and signs evoked intense masked tribal ceremonies and rituals; no photographs of the event were permitted, but Benoît staged its elements for a haunting series of images by Gilles Ehrmann taken in an abandoned building. At the culmination of the ceremony, Benoît revealed himself naked save for a wooden phallus incorporating an hourglass, his body entirely painted and with arrows pointing to the spot over his heart at which he then proceeded to brand himself with the word “SADE.” This performance represented an intense and irrevocable stripping bare of the self in order to restore lost powers, to release de Sade from his incarceration, to seal a community, and to cut through the poverty of contemporary existence in the most dramatic but unrepeatable terms; it is consistent with this sense of a unique and all-powerful gesture that Benoît would not seek to reprise such an event again.

Krzysztof Fijalkowski, The International Encyclopedia of Surrealism, 2019

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All photographs are by Gilles Ehrmann.

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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)

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The Marvellous

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The marvellous is always beautiful. Anything marvellous is beautiful. In fact only the marvellous is beautiful.

George Melly (above) quoting André Breton’s declaration from the first Surrealist Manifesto, 1924

Two posts in one week—quelle surprise. This is partly because I’m trying to get WordPress to post updates to Twitter, something that hasn’t been possible for many years without going through the long-winded process of signing up as a Twitter developer. Anything that limits my involvement with Twitter’s burning café feels like a positive thing at the moment, so thoughts that I previously cast into the flames may find their expression here instead.

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The two screengrabs are from recent re-viewings. George Melly’s short guide to Surrealism for the BBC’s Arena, and Jan Svankmajer’s equally short BBC profile have both been featured here in the past, but my recent purchase of a box of blu-rays from Svankmajer’s shop has prompted a journey back into the Surrealist praxis via whatever books and videos I have to hand. It’s been interesting looking again at René Passeron’s Encyclopedia of Surrealism (1975), a book which for many years was more interesting for the 24-page section devoted to the precursors of Surrealism, all the artist-eccentrics, architects, illustrators, Mannerists, and (especially) the Symbolists whose works I spent most of the 1980s pursuing. Today there are more threads to be followed in the Surrealist section of Passeron’s study so I’m looking forward to seeing where they lead. As for The Marvellous, the Svankmajer discs are this with and without the capital “M”. I recommend them.

Update: And the post didn’t announce itself at Twitter which isn’t so surprising; I’ll keep working at this behind the scenes. Social media is the anti-Marvellous.