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 nightingale echo

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Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale (1924) by Max Ernst.

Another discovery from Charles Henri Ford’s View: Parade of the Avant-Garde. Sidney Janis devotes several pages to one of the earliest Surrealist paintings by Max Ernst, Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale. After describing the picture in detail he makes this comparison:

In 1935, Dalí painted a Nostalgic Echo, obviously of this very picture by Max Ernst. Eleven years divided the two paintings; still the lapse of time has not interrupted a continuity of idea which takes place between them. For now we have the next sequence of events. Ernst’s adolescent with the knife appears again in the Dalí, her gesture identical but free of her earlier emotional tension. We find her contentedly skipping rope, her contour and movement echoed in the belfry as a ringing bell. And here it is the nightingale that is menaced. It alights, and as it does, a shadow moves toward it in the form of a snare. This shadow-snare is thrown by the girl and the rope. Finally, the nimble-footed man no longer leaps the rooftops—he is brought to earth to brood in the shadow of his own senility. Relegated to a humble corner of the foreground portal, he is a sorry sight, while in the belfry-tower which repeats the image of the portal, the feminine form triumphantly dominates the aperture, swinging against the sky. The play of ideas in the two pictures is like a Surrealist game in which one participant carries on where the other leaves off.

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Nostalgic Echo (1935) by Salvador Dalí.

Dalí’s paintings frequently quoted other artists but seldom, if ever, the work of his contemporaries so I’m sceptical that Nostalgic Echo is a response or a sequel to the Ernst. But paranoiac-critical-Sherlock Holmes would agree that the comparison is a suggestive one.

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Nostalgic Echo (detail).

A more obvious echo for Dalí is Giorgio de Chirico’s The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street (below), where we find a similar girl at play among plastered walls, arched portals and elongated shadows. Three paintings, and three stages in a narrative whose events rearrange themselves depending on the order in which they are viewed.

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The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street (1914) by Giorgio de Chirico.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Max Ernst’s favourites
Viewing View
Max Ernst album covers
Maximiliana oder die widerrechtliche Ausübung der Astronomie
Max and Dorothea
Dreams That Money Can Buy
La femme 100 têtes by Eric Duvivier

Max Ernst’s favourites

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The cover for the Max Ernst number of View magazine (April, 1942) that appears in Charles Henri Ford’s View: Parade of the Avant-Garde was one I didn’t recall seeing before. This was a surprise when I’d spent some time searching for back issues of the magazine. The conjunction of Ernst with Buer, one of the perennially popular demons drawn by Louis Le Breton for De Plancy’s Dictionnaire Infernal, doubles the issue’s cult value in my eyes. I don’t know whether the demon was Ernst’s choice but I’d guess so when many of the De Plancy illustrations resemble the hybrid creatures rampaging through Ernst’s collages. Missing from the Ford book is the spread below which uses more De Plancy demons to decorate lists of the artist’s favourite poets and painters. I’d have preferred a selection of favourite novelists but Ford was a poet himself (he also co-wrote an early gay novel with Parker Tyler, The Young and Evil), and the list is still worth seeing.

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Poets: Charles Baudelaire, Friedrich Hölderlin, Alfred Jarry, Edgar Allan Poe, George Crabbe, Guillaume Apollinaire, Walt Whitman, Comte de Lautréamont, Robert Browning, Arthur Rimbaud, William Blake, Achim von Arnim, Victor Hugo, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, William Shakespeare, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lewis Carroll, Novalis, Heinrich Heine, Solomon (presumably the author of the Song of Solomon).

Painters: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Giovanni Bellini, Hieronymus Bosch, Matthias Grünewald, Albrecht Altdorfer, Georges Seurat, Piero della Francesca, Paolo Uccello, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Hans Baldung, Vittore Carpaccio, Leonardo Da Vinci, Cosimo Tura, Carlo Crivelli, Giorgio de Chirico, Henri Rousseau, Francesco del Cossa, Piero di Cosimo, NM Deutsch (Niklaus Manuel), Vincent van Gogh.

I’ve filled out the names since some of the typography isn’t easy to read. Some of the choices are also uncommon, while one of them—NM Deutsch—is not only a difficult name to search for but the attribution has changed in recent years. The list of poets contains few surprises but it’s good to see that Poe made an impression on Ernst; the choice of painters is less predictable. Bruegel, Bosch and Rousseau are to be expected, and the same goes for the German artists—Grünewald, Baldung—whose work is frequently grotesque or erotic. But I wouldn’t have expected so many names from the Italian Renaissance, and Seurat is a genuine surprise. As for Ernst’s only living contemporary, Giorgio de Chirico, this isn’t a surprise at all but it reinforces De Chirico’s importance. If you removed Picasso from art history De Chirico might be the most influential painter of the 20th century; his Metaphysical works had a huge impact on the Dada generation, writers as well as artists, and also on René Magritte who was never a Dadaist but who lost interest in Futurism when he saw a reproduction of The Song of Love (1914). Picasso’s influence remains rooted in the art world while De Chirico’s disquieting dreams extend their shadows into film and literature, so it’s all the more surprising that this phase of his work was so short lived. But that’s a discussion for another time.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Viewing View
De Plancy’s Dictionnaire Infernal
Max Ernst album covers
Maximiliana oder die widerrechtliche Ausübung der Astronomie
Max and Dorothea
Dreams That Money Can Buy
La femme 100 têtes by Eric Duvivier

1918

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The Dying Dandy by Nils Dardel.

Wishing you all a happy new year with a small selection of art from a century ago.

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Schicksal by Fritz Baumann.

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Black Still Life by Genrich Matveevich Blumenfeld.

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Two Heads by Giorgio de Chirico.

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