The Secret Life of Edward James

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From the earliest days of YouTube there were two films about Surrealist art that I’d been hoping would one day be posted somewhere so I could watch them again. One was José Montes-Baquer’s collaboration with Salvador Dalí, Impressions de la Haute Mongolie – Hommage á Raymond Roussel (1976), which eventually turned up at Ubuweb; the other was Patrick Boyle’s The Secret Life of Edward James, a 50-minute documentary about the wealthy poet and Surrealist art patron that was screened once, and once only, on the UK’s ITV network in 1978. Boyle’s film, which was narrated by James’ friend and fellow Surrealism enthusiast, George Melly, was my first introduction to a fascinating figure who was one of the last—if not the last—of the many eccentric aristocrats that these islands have produced. I knew James’ name at the time from Surrealist art books where the Edward James Foundation was credited as the owner of paintings by Magritte and Dalí, but had no idea that James was the model for three of Magritte’s paintings, including La reproduction interdite (1937), that he’d abandoned his huge ancestral home to create a Surrealist house at nearby Monkton, and had also commenced the construction of a concrete fantasia, Las Pozas, in the heart of the Mexican jungle at Xilitla. Boyle’s film explores all of this in the calm and uncondescending manner that used to be a staple of UK TV documentaries. I’ve been telling people about this film for years, hoping that somebody might have taped it (unlikely in 1978) but no one ever seemed to have seen it.

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In 1986, two years after James’ death, Monkton was up for sale so Central TV sent George Melly and director Patrick Boyle to revisit the place. Monkton, A Surrealist Dream, was the result, a 26-minute documentary which relied heavily on the earlier film to fill out the details of James’ life. The original resurfaced for me again, albeit briefly, in Brighton in 1998. A Surreal Life: Edward James (1907–1984) was an exhibition at the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery which featured many works from the James art collection, including major pieces by Leonora Carrington (who appears in Boyle’s film), Dalí, Leonor Fini, Magritte, Picasso, Dorothea Tanning, Pavel Tchelitchew and others. A tape of the 1978 documentary was showing on a TV in one part of the exhibition but the people I was with were reluctant to stand around for an hour so all I got to see was a minute or so of Edward in his jungle paradise. Happily we’re all now able to watch this gem of a film since it was uploaded to YouTube earlier this month (my thanks to James at Strange Flowers for finding it!).

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For anyone whose interest is piqued by all of this, two books are worth searching for: Swans Reflecting Elephants, My Early Years (1982) is an autobiography which George Melly compiled from conversations with its subject (and which apparently finished their friendship). James’ propensity for invention means it can’t always be trusted but then that’s the case with many memoirs. A Surreal Life: Edward James (1998) is the 160-page exhibition catalogue which explores James’ life and aesthetic obsessions in a series of copiously-illustrated essays. Both books can be found relatively cheaply via used book dealers.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Las Pozas panoramas
René Magritte by David Wheatley
Soft Self-Portrait of Salvador Dalí
Mongolian impressions
Hello Dali!
Return to Las Pozas
Dirty Dalí
Impressions de la Haute Mongolie revisited
Las Pozas and Edward James

Mongolian impressions

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My phone line problem still hasn’t been resolved but I am able to get online again for longer than two minutes at a time…for now. Posting may remain sporadic for the next few days.

This is the third time I’ve written about Impressions de la Haute Mongolie, a 50-minute film made by José Montes-Baquer in the mid-70s in which Salvador Dalí is our guide on a phantasmic journey through micrographic landscapes. Dalí’s narration covers such diverse subject matter as Raymond Roussel, giant hallucinogenic mushrooms, Outer Mongolia and Adolf Hitler. The film turned up at Ubuweb a few years ago but without English subtitles. (A document with an English translation was added later.) Now YouTube user DrewBadly has added the English translation to a copy of the film he’s posted on his YT channel. It’s essential viewing for Dalí enthusiasts.

Related: A Movable Feast, Raymond Roussel’s extravagant, hermetic universe.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Hello Dali!
Dalí and the City
Dalí’s Elephant
Dalí in Wonderland
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune
Dirty Dalí
Impressions de la Haute Mongolie revisited
Dalí and Film
Salvador Dalí’s apocalyptic happening
Dalí Atomicus
Impressions de la Haute Mongolie

Impressions de la Haute Mongolie revisited

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Impressions de la Haute Mongolie – Hommage á Raymond Roussel (1974-75).

When I wrote a short reminiscence about Impressions de la Haute Mongolie last March I really didn’t expect I’d be watching it again just over a year later having waited thirty years for the opportunity. But now we can all see José Montes-Baquer’s collaboration with Salvador Dalí, thanks to the indispensable Ubuweb. The copy there doesn’t have English subtitles, unfortunately, but the visuals are still beguiling and not too difficult to follow if you can understand some French and Spanish. It was a curious experience seeing this again, some parts I remembered very well, others I’d completely forgotten about. Most surprising was the soundtrack of electronic music, much of it taken from recordings by Wendy Carlos, including a part of her ambient Sonic Seasonings suite and portions of her complete score for A Clockwork Orange. There’s more about this deeply strange film in Tate Etc.

And speaking of surreal landscapes, it’s worth mentioning that I’ve spent the past few weeks working on a new piece of Lovecraft-themed artwork for an exhibition at Maison d’Ailleurs, the Museum of science fiction, utopia and extraordinary journeys in Yverdon-les-Bains, Switzerland. The exhibition of newly-commissioned work based on themes from HP Lovecraft’s Commonplace Book will be launched in October 2007. More details about the event, and my contribution, closer to that date. In the meantime, the European edition of TIME magazine has a short feature about the gallery and its ethos.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Dalí and Film
Ballard on Dalí
Fantastic art from Pan Books
Penguin Surrealism
The Surrealist Revolution
The persistence of DNA
Salvador Dalí’s apocalyptic happening
The music of Igor Wakhévitch
Dalí Atomicus
Las Pozas and Edward James
Impressions de la Haute Mongolie

Impressions de la Haute Mongolie

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Metamorphosis of Hitler’s Face into a Moonlit Landscape with Accompaniment (1958).

Impressions de la Haute Mongolie (1976/Salvador Dali/José Montes-Baquer/Germany)

In any list of films I’d currently most like to see but can’t due to lack of availability, this bizarre “documentary” collaboration between Salvador Dalí and José Montes-Baquer would be near the top of the list. I saw it once, probably shortly after it had been made, when the BBC screened it as part of their Omnibus arts series in the late seventies. By this time I was already very familiar with the Surrealists, Dalí, Magritte and Max Ernst especially, so it was great to see Dalí himself declaring a supposed mission to explore Upper Mongolia in a search for giant hallucinogenic mushrooms. This premise aside, I remember few other details, the whole film was as delightfully confusing as might be expected. The most distinct memory was of the painting above being shown, then the camera pulling back some distance to reveal the full extent of Hitler’s face which is only hinted at in the original. Happily, a web review now provides us with some more details:

Homage to Impressions d’Afrique (1909), is a free-associative poem written by Raymond Roussel (1877-1933), even though he never visited Africa. The film is dedicated to this French author, forefather of the Surrealists, who developed a formal constraint system to generate inspiration from dislocative puns.

Dalí does the very same thing with this chimerical pseudocumentary leading us to the mysterious realm of High Mongolia where a gigantic white soft mushroom grows, many times more hallucinogenic than LSD! From his studio-museum in Cadacès (Spain), he proceeds to report on the alleged scientific expedition sent out by himself to retrieve this precious treasure, with newspaper clips and newsreel. Childhood memories (like the picture above) are the opportunity to explain more thoroughly the source of his inspiration. This bucolic landscape is in fact a close up of Hitler’s portrait (his nose and moustache) turned to the side!

Wholly Dalíesque, this film experiment pieces together astonishing combinations of superimposed images, fading in and out, switching scale with odd perspectives. Dalí invents a filmmaking process and applies his very language to cinematic purposes, bending the rules to serve his desperate need for originality. Travelling through a microscopic close up of paintings or rough surfaces, his voiceover commentary gives sense to the landscapes taking form under his eyes.

Impressions of Africa was also the title of a Dalí painting from 1938, of course:

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It’s probably too much to hope that this will turn up on TV again, so for now I suppose I’ll have to look forward to it appearing on DVD at some point in the future. How about it José?

Update: Ubuweb has a copy!