Chance encounters on the dissecting table

maldoror2.jpg

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

maldoror.jpg

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

ray.jpg

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

dali3.jpg

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

dominguez.jpg

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 373

YDKMorimoe.jpg

Untitled (2011) by YDK Morimoe. Via Jim Post at Dennis Cooper’s.

For The Climax Of The Night by Total Leatherette is almost certainly the only album you’ll see this year with autofellatio cover art. Faux Fox gives a taste of the new album, while an earlier piece, Squeeze Hunk, features a Tom of Finland-style video. And speaking of which, Dome Karukoski’s feature film, Tom of Finland, is released in the UK this week. Related: Tom of Finland coffee.

• The death of playwright Joe Orton in 1967 prompted yet more 50th anniversary articles this week. Mentioned here before, and better value than all the textual appraisal, is the BBC’s 70-minute TV documentary from 1982, A Genius Like Us: A Portrait of Joe Orton, which includes interviews with family, friends, colleagues and Orton’s biographer, John Lahr.

• Two skulls, 50,000 postcards and a book that took 50 years to finish: Stuart Jeffries visits artist Tom Phillips.

• New at the Internet Archive: 25,000 78RPM records. You can never go wrong with Duke Ellington.

Lock Your Door and The Reformation of St. Jules: Algernon Blackwood filmed in 1949.

Redemption, an exhibition of art by Fay Pomerance (1912–2001) at Ushaw College, Durham.

• At Dirge Magazine: Daniel Pietersen on the myth of the sunken city.

• Mix of the week: FACT Mix 613 by Aaron Dilloway.

Laetitia Sadier’s favourite albums.

• RIP Hywel Bennett

Sunken City (1961) by Les Baxter | Ys (1971) by Alan Stivell | Atlantis (1971) by Deuter

Weekend links 353

tuke.jpg

The Critics (1927) by Henry Scott Tuke.

• Geeta Dayal talks to ambient musician Midori Takada about Through The Looking-Glass (1983), an album being reissued this month by Palto Flats/We Release Whatever The Fuck We Want Records.

Jacob Brogan reviews The Abominable Mr. Seabrook by Joe Ollmann, a graphic biography of writer, occultist, explorer and determined cannibal, William Seabrook.

• More from the usual suspects (on these pages at least): Jonathan Meades on his new cookbook and a recent bout of heart surgery; and Iain Sinclair on The Last London.

The law only applied to men, but that didn’t mean same-sex relationships between women were immune to opprobrium. Dorothy Todd was hired as the editor of British Vogue in 1922. Under her visionary stewardship, the magazine became a bastion of high modernist style, swapping petticoats and corsets for Picasso, Cocteau, Man Ray and Woolf. Todd lived with her lover, the fashion editor Madge Garland. Sacked in 1926 because of declining circulation, she planned to sue the magazine, but was silenced when the publisher Condé Nast threatened to publicly expose her “morals”.

In such an inimical climate, it’s not surprising that art became a zone of enchantment as well as resistance. The plenitude of camp aesthetics, the lush excess, the cross-pollination of high and low forms might be conceived as a direct response to the paucity and hostility of the culture at large. From the mannered decadence of Aubrey Beardsley’s naughty woodcuts, to Cecil Beaton’s portraits of Stephen Tennant as a radiant boy prince, to the cabaret high jinks of Danny La Rue, to the wickedly doctored library book covers made by the playwright Joe Orton (a crime for which he received a jail sentence), camp offered a way of remaking the world, cutting it down to size and reassembling it in richly strange and strangely rich new forms.

Olivia Lang on the British artists working in defiance of iniquitous laws prior to the (partial) decriminalisation of homosexual acts in 1967.

• Due for publication later this year, You Should Come With Me Now, a new collection of short fiction by M. John Harrison.

Daniel Marner reviews Scarred For Life Volume One: The 70s, a book about the dark side of British pop culture.

Jay Babcock talks to Erik Davis about the end of Arthur magazine and his new life in the Californian desert.

• The nature photography of Nobuyuki Kobayashi and the ruin photography of Gina Soden.

Jon Forss of design team Non-Format on his time designing The Wire magazine.

Mac McClelland on how doctors treat mental illness with psychedelic drugs.

• Mix of the week: Secret Thirteen Mix 216 by WSR.

Hisham Matar on Jorge Luis Borges.

London Boys (1976) by T. Rex | Last Train To London (1979) by Electric Light Orchestra | London (2004) by Patrick Wolf

Weekend links 217

scaphandrier.jpg

Le Petit Journal, June 16, 1912. Via Beautiful Century.

Occult art by Nicomi Nix Turner, Daniel Martin Diaz, Amy Earles and William Crisafi. Related: Illustrations by Ernest M. Jessop for The Witches Frolic by Thomas Ingoldsby.

• “Our definition of ‘Industrial’ then was a very broad one, it’s definitely not so much now.” Chris Carter & Cosi Fanni Tutti on 20 Jazz Funk Greats by Throbbing Gristle.

• At Dangerous Minds: the Amok Assault Video (1988), an hour of the bizarre, the extreme and the outré which will probably get yanked from YouTube before too long.

I’ve always thought the exchange of words for money is no more and no less problematic than any other kind of prostitution—and it’s important that we prostitutes control a certain amount of our production (and reproduction, for that matter). If I’m writing a book and I’m warned, “Oh, this is unsaleable, you need to make it shorter,” or, “It has to be this, or that,” I’m proud to say I don’t pay attention.

Though this is becoming more difficult. As large publishers turn into monopolies, and the MBAs who are running them—maybe editors used to run them before—are steadily tightening the screws, they feel more and more that they get to call the shots.

Writers can do anything, says William T. Vollmann

• Mixes of the week: Over two hours of Coil and other artists sequenced by Surgeon, and Secret Thirteen Mix 122 by DJ Skirt.

Alan Moore calls for a boycott of the “wretched” new Hercules film on behalf of his friend Steve Moore.

Joe Orton‘s first play, Fred and Madge, will receive its world premier in September.

tentacles.jpg

Ned Raggett found the drawing of mine that’s part of the Tentacles exhibition currently showing at the Monterey Aquarium, California. Thanks, Ned! There’s a sepia-toned version of the drawing in my Cthulhu calendar.

• “Weird is a wayward word,” says Erik Davis in an exploration of weirdness old and new.

• More details about the forthcoming Scott Walker + Sunn O))) collaboration.

• A trailer for a reissue of Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).

A history of sex toys in pictures.

Books on Book Covers

Octopus’s Garden (1969) by The Beatles | The River (1970) by Octopus | Octopus (1970) by Syd Barrett

What the Butler Saw by Joe Orton

orton4.jpg

Dr Rance: You can’t be a rationalist in an irrational world. It isn’t rational.

“Lunatic” is a description suited to the frenetic pace and escalating calamities of the stage farce. Here the word gains greater resonance when the farce takes place in a psychiatric hospital. The customary sexual shenanigans are all in place—the play opens with Dr Prentice telling a prospective secretary to remove her clothes so he can see whether she’s suitable for the job—but in place of Carry On-style belly laughs we have another attack against authority, and social ideas of normal behaviour, sexual or otherwise. This is a blacker shade of comedy than you usually find in farce. Joe Orton uses the mechanics of the form whilst undermining the cosy formulas; the ending is a happy one but only after the characters have gleefully overlooked double-incest and an act of rape. Bad taste was Orton’s forte, and that quality is very much in evidence here.

What the Butler Saw was one of several plays shown in the BBC’s Theatre Night strand in 1987. In this production Dinsdale Landen plays Dr Prentice with Prunella Scales playing Mrs Prentice. Timothy West (Prunella’s husband off-screen) perfectly incarnates the monstrous Dr Rance, a character so intoxicated with his own righteousness that he’s prepared to sign a committal order against anyone who crosses his path. (He boasts at one point of having committed his entire family.) It’s a great performance but West is ably matched by Dinsdale Landen and Prunella Scales. Barry Davis is the director. Plays such as this suffer without the involvement of an audience but this production gives an idea of how manic a decent stage production must be. The version on YouTube is in six parts.

What the Butler Saw: part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4 | part 5 | part 6

Previously on { feuilleton }
A Genius Like Us: A Portrait of Joe Orton
Malicious Damage
Joe Orton Online
Joe Orton