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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Weekend links 494

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Aurora Borealis (1865) by Frederic Edwin Church.

• December is over-stuffed with enervating cultural lists, most of them reminding you of things which received enough attention earlier in the year. Better value than these—and always unpredictable—is John Waters‘ choice of favourite films; unpredictable and enlightening are the Secret Satan selections at Strange Flowers which come in two flavours: books originally published in English and books translated from other languages.

Flash Of The Spirit (1988), a collaboration between Jon Hassell and African group Farafina (with production by Hassell plus Brian Eno & Daniel Lanois), receives its first ever reissue on double-vinyl and CD next year. The last piece on the album is the 11-minute Masque (Strength).

• “In 1968, Federico Fellini decided he was going make the greatest homosexual movie ever made. What he meant by a homosexual movie, no one was quite sure, but it was going to be great.” Paul Gallagher on Federico Fellini’s delirious (and distinctly homosexual) Satyricon.

• “Here’s the typography of the next decade; the age of font minimalism is coming to a close,” says Rachel Hawley. I’ve been using Didones for the past decade so I’ll carry on happily ignoring the trends.

• More obituaries for comic artist Howard Cruse: Justin Hall at The Comics Journal; Trudy Ring at The Advocate; and Richard Sandomir at the New York Times.

• “Cowley records a kind of utopian sleaze that’s breathtaking.” Brett Josef Grubisic reviews Patrick Cowley’s sex journal of the 1970s, Mechanical Fantasy Box.

• At the BFI: Carmen Grey on where to begin with Sergei Parajanov, and Matthew Thrift on 10 essential Fritz Lang films.

A promo video by Julian House for Paul Weller’s In Another Room EP which is released in January by Ghost Box.

• At Aquarium Drunkard: San Francisco Radical Laboratory and the Mysterious Moogist of Altamont.

• Mix of the week: Through A Landscape Of Mirrors Vol. V – France III by David Colohan.

Aurora Australis (2005) by Émilie Simon | Iceblink (Aurora Borealis Mix) (2011) by Netherworld | Aurora Liminalis (2013) by William Basinski & Richard Chartier

Weekend links 421

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The Death of American Spirituality (1987) by David Wojnarowicz.

Dau: “Art imitating life on an unprecedented scale”. Siddhant Adlakha on a colossal Russian feature-film project that sounds like a real-life equivalent of Synecdoche, New York. Adlakha’s piece, which claims that Dau is finished, was written a year ago but there’s still no sign of the film itself. Wikipedia has more details and links.

Metropolis Magazine from Phantasm Press is a facsimile republication of the 32-page theatre programme produced for the UK premier of Fritz Lang’s feature film.

Children Of The New Dawn is a preview of the score for Mandy by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson. From last year: The Drowned World (live) by Jóhann Jóhannsson.

Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ’Round the World (1848) by Benjamin Russell & Caleb Purrington is the longest painting in North America.

• “This summer, there is only one book to take to the Terminal Beach”: Applied Ballardianism: Memoir from a Parallel Universe by Simon Sellars.

• “La série des Fredi en trois volumes est une étude sincère et consciencieuse de l’inversion sexuelle.”

• “The Book was Mallarmé’s total artwork, a book to encompass all books,” says Sylvia Gorelick.

• At BLDGBLOG: Graphic Inferno, art by Rico Lebrun based on Dante’s Divine Comedy.

• Mixes of the week: XLR8R Podcast 549 by Hólmar, and FACT Mix 661 by Kelly Lee Owens.

• “Dealing with creative block? A deck of cards might help,” says Abigail Cain.

The Instagram account archiving exquisite interiors from vintage porn.

Polish composers report from Outer Space

Wind From Nowhere (1994) by Uzect Plaush | Slolooblade : The Drowned World (1994) by Mo Boma | Inner Space Memorial for JG Ballard (2014) by Janek Schaefer

Weekend links 323

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Mescaline Woods (1969) by Gage Taylor.

• The soundtrack to The Man Who Fell to Earth will be released for the first time next month in a double-disc set (CD & vinyl). This isn’t, as some people have hoped, David Bowie’s unheard music for the film, but a collection of the pre-existing songs and other pieces, plus the original compositions by John Phillips. Consequence of Sound has a track list.

• At Scream Addicts: Joe R. Lansdale talks about the only film adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House that you need to see: the 1963 version directed by Robert Wise.

• The new wave of new age: How music’s most maligned genre finally became cool by Adam Bychawski.

• Transmissions From The Abyss: Dark ambient music for the perfect headspace by S. Elizabeth.

Jason Farrago reviews Art Aids America, an exhibition at the Bronx Museum, New York.

Curse Go Back: a limited reissue of tape experiments by William Burroughs.

Samuel Wigley on Notorious at 70: toasting Hitchcock’s dark masterpiece.

Toyah Willcox remembers working with Derek Jarman on The Tempest.

• “Why are musicians so obsessed with David Lynch?” asks Selim Bulut.

• Read the original 32-page programme for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

David Parkinson chooses 10 essential films starring Oliver Reed.

• Mixes of the week: The Sounds of the Dawn NTS radio shows.

Keith Haring envisions Manhattan as a kingdom of penises.

Frank Guan on Massive Attack’s Blue Lines, 25 years on.

Honky Tonk Pts 1 & 2 (1956) by Bill Doggett | I’ve Told Every Little Star (1961) by Linda Scott | I’m Deranged (1995) by David Bowie

In Germany before the war

1: Fritz Haarmann (1879–1925)

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Arrow shows Haarmann’s attic residence in Rote Reihe, Hanover.

Haarmann was one of several serial murderers haunting Weimar Germany, variously nicknamed “the Butcher of Hanover”, “the Vampire of Hanover”, “the Wolf Man”, etc. for his sexual assault, murder and dismemberment of at least 24 boys and young men between 1918 and 1924. Haarmann also sold meat on the black market which led to rumours that some of the mince and other produce he sold was human flesh.

2: M (1931), a film by Fritz Lang.

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Thea von Harbou’s script for M is based in part on the Haarmann case although Lang’s child-killer is shown preying on girls rather than boys. Peter Lorre is superb in his first major role as the murderer, while Lang’s use of the new sound technology is remarkably inventive when compared to his stagey contemporaries in Hollywood.

3: M (1953), a film by Joseph Losey.

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Lang’s masterwork reworked as a Los Angeles film noir by Joseph Losey before McCarthyism sent him to Europe. This is one noir I still haven’t seen even though a major sequence takes place in that cult location, the Bradbury Building.

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