Kenneth Anger’s Maldoror

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Kenneth Anger, Topanga Canyon, Composite with Gustave Doré Engraving (1954) by Edmund Teske.

Les Chants de Maldoror, 1951–1952.
16mm; black and white; filmed in Paris and Deauville.

With a hand-held 16mm camera I shot my first series of short haiku. This was my apprenticeship in the marvels that surround us, waiting to be discovered, awake to knowledge and life and whose magical essence is revealed by selection. At 17, | composed my first long poem, a 15 minute suite of images, my black tanka: Fireworks.

I had seen this drama entirely on the screen of my dreams. This vision was uniquely amenable to the instrument that awaited it. With three lights, a black cloth as décor, the greatest economy of means and enormous inner concentration, Fireworks was made in three days.

An example of the direct transfer of a spontaneous inspiration, this film reveals the possibilities of automatic writing on the screen, of a new language that reveals thought; it allows the triumph of the dream.

The wholly intellectual belief of the “icy masters” of cinema in the supremacy of technique recalls, on the literary level, the analytical essays of a Poe or the methods of a Valéry, who said: “I only write to order. Poetry is an assignment.”

At the opposite pole to these creative systems there is the divine inspiration of a Rimbaud or a Lautréamont, prophets of thought. The cinema has explored the northern regions of impersonal stylization; it should now discover the southern regions of personal lyricism; it should have its prophets.

These prophets will restore faith in a “pure cinema” of sensual revelation. They will re-establish the primacy of the image. They will teach us the principles of their faith: that we participate before evaluating. We will give back to the dream its first state of veneration. We will recall primitive mysteries. The future of film is in the hands of the poet and his camera. Hidden away are the followers of a faith in “pure cinema.” even in this unlikely age. They make their modest “fireworks” in secret, showing them from time to time, they pass unnoticed in the glare of the “silver rain” of the commercial cinema. Maybe one of these sparks will liberate the cinema….

Angels exist. Nature provides “the inexhaustible flow of visions of beauty.” It is for the poet, with his personal vision, to “capture” them.

Kenneth Anger—Modesty and the Art of Film, Cahiers du Cinéma no. 5, September 1951

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Little is known about Anger’s activities during the mid-1950s. By 1958 he still had not been able to complete any films in Paris. He held on to his hope of completing Maldoror. His stack of preproduction notes and sketches had grown larger and he had plans to photograph nudes in a graveyard. Several Parisian Surrealists threatened to hand Anger’s head to him if he shot Maldoror. The book’s fluid, dreamlike imagery had been one of the trailblazers of Surrealism, and his detractors felt that a gauche American with a reputation for pop iconography and bold homosexual statement would debase a sacred text.

Bill Landis—Anger: The Unauthorized Biography of Kenneth Anger, 1995

* * *

I discovered the book when I was quite young. I loved it, put a lot of passion into it. I found people to play the parts. I found settings, gaslit corners, places still had the romantic look of a Second Empire. It was a terrific ambition to make this epic film-poem. I found ways to translate the text’s extraordinary images. I planned to film a mid-nineteenth century story taking place in twentieth century Paris. I filmed “the hymn to the ocean” on the beach at Deauville, with Hightower and members of the Marquis de Cuevas Ballet. They danced in the sea; tables were placed beneath the water line so the dancers could stand on their points. It looked as though they were standing on waves. The people who called themselves “Surrealists” were furious—this group of punks threatened me—they didn’t want a Yank messing round with their sacred text. I just told them to go to hell! I also managed to film the war of the flies and pins. I put bags of pins and dozens of flies into a glass container; revolved the container and filmed in close-up. As the pins dropped the flies zigzagged to escape. In slow motion an impressive image.

Kenneth Anger—Into the Pleasure Dome: The Films of Kenneth Anger, edited by Jayne Pilling & Michael O’Pray, 1989

* * *

The sections of the film that were completed [are] stored in the Cinémathèque Française, but [their] exact whereabouts in the archive is unknown, with no images from the film being currently available for reproduction.

Alice L. Hutchinson—Kenneth Anger, 2004

Previously on { feuilleton }
Donald Cammell and Kenneth Anger, 1972
My Surfing Lucifer by Kenneth Anger
Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome: The Eldorado Edition
Brush of Baphomet by Kenneth Anger
Anger Sees Red
Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon
Lucifer Rising posters
Missoni by Kenneth Anger
Anger in London
Arabesque for Kenneth Anger by Marie Menken
Edmund Teske
Kenneth Anger on DVD again
Mouse Heaven by Kenneth Anger
The Man We Want to Hang by Kenneth Anger
Relighting the Magick Lantern
Kenneth Anger on DVD…finally

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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Santiago Caruso’s Maldoror

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Continuing an occasional series in which illustrators of Lautréamont’s baleful masterwork are noted. Santiago Caruso’s paintings provide suitably grotesque embellishments to a Spanish edition of Maldoror which was published in 2016 by Valdemar. The book is part of their Gótica collection which includes many fine works of weird fiction including titles by contemporary writers such as Clive Barker and Thomas Ligotti. Caruso’s illustrations are among the best I’ve seen for Lautréamont’s novel, and make the book worthy of purchase even for those who can’t read Spanish. See the full set here.

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Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The illustrators archive

Previously on {feuilleton }
Jacques Houplain’s Maldoror
Hans Bellmer’s Maldoror
Les Chants de Maldoror by Shûji Terayama
Polypodes
Ulysses versus Maldoror
Maldoror
Books of blood
Magritte’s Maldoror
Frans De Geetere’s illustrated Maldoror
Maldoror illustrated

Jacques Houplain’s Maldoror

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This is more like it. In 2008 when I posted one of Jacques Houplain’s etchings for a 1947 edition of Les Chants de Maldoror there were none of the other pictures in the series to be found. Now there’s a website devoted to Houplain’s work which features a page of his Maldoror illustrations. There’s a crude vigour to these pieces that gets much closer to Lautréamont’s fervour and viciousness than do the illustrations by Houplain’s famous contemporaries. Houplain is also one of the few illustrators to pay some attention to Lautréamont’s frequent digressions into the animal kingdom. The artist’s other work is worth a look; Legendes is a series of prints of medieval demons.

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Hans Bellmer’s Maldoror

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Les Fleurs du Mal.

That favourite novel of the Surrealists receives the attention of yet another Surrealist artist. Dalí and Magritte both made their own attempts to illustrate Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror, a book that many people would consider beyond the reach of easy pictorial representation. I tend to think that the novel’s delirious, dream-like prose offers endless interpretations; this earlier post managed to haul one paragraph in the direction of the Cthulhu Mythos.

Hans Bellmer’s series of 33 intaglio prints were produced from 1967 to 1971, and use the book as a mirror for the artist’s erotic obsessions. Not an unwarranted point of view but Bellmer makes the novel seem much more overtly erotic than it is. The images here aren’t the best quality. Better copies and a complete set of the prints may be viewed at a larger size here.

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Ecstasy.

Continue reading “Hans Bellmer’s Maldoror”