Svankmajer’s cats

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Down to the Cellar.

“Black cats are our unconscious,” says Jan Svankmajer in an interview with Sarah Metcalf for Phosphor, the journal of the Leeds Surrealist Group. I’ve spent the past few weeks working my way through Svankmajer’s cinematic oeuvre where black cats were very much in evidence, although for a director who describes himself as a “militant Surrealist” there are fewer than you might imagine.

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Jabberwocky.

The first feline appearance is in Jabberwocky (1973), a difficult film for animal-lovers when almost all the cat’s appearances seem to have involved throwing the unwilling animal into a wall of building blocks. Each “leap” that the cat makes through the wall interrupts the progress of an animated line being drawn through a maze; when the line finally escapes the maze, childhood is over. Our final view of the cat is of it struggling to escape the confines of a small cage: the unconscious tamed by adulthood.

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Down to the Cellar.

The black cat in Down to the Cellar is not only the most prominent feline in all of Svankmajer’s films, it’s also carries the most symbolic weight in a drama replete with Freudian anxiety. The cat guards the entrance to the subterranean dark where its growth in size corresponds to the mounting fears of a small girl sent by a parent to collect potatoes.

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Faust.

The cat seen at the beginning of Faust (1994) appears very briefly but nothing is accidental in Svankmajer’s cinema. Two separate shots show the cat in the window watching Faust on his way to meet Mephistopheles. As with Down to the Cellar, the cat oversees the threshold to another world, in this case the doorway to a labyrinthine building filled with malevolent puppets and the temptations they offer. The cat may also be the traditional symbol of ill fortune. Faust at this point in the story still has the option to turn back but he goes on to meet his fate. (I think there may also be another cat later in the film but I was too lazy to go searching for it. Sorry.)

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Little Otik.

The cat that appears in the early scenes of Little Otik (2000) is a child substitute for a childless couple, its status reinforced by the scene of Bozena holding the animal like a baby. The arrival of the monstrous Otik usurps the cat’s position as the family favourite. Consequences ensue.

Svankmajer’s later features are catless. Insects (2018) is more concerned with arthropods and their human equivalents, while Surviving Life (2010) spends so much time inside the unconscious of its protagonist it doesn’t require a symbol. Lunacy (2005), on the other hand, is a combination of a story by Edgar Allan Poe—The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether—and the philosophical views of the Marquis de Sade. Svankmajer had already adapted two of Poe’s stories prior to this but The Black Cat wasn’t among them. Given the cruelties in Poe’s story and many of Svankmajer’s films, Lunacy in particular, this may be just as well.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Jan Svankmajer: The Animator of Prague
Lynch dogs
Jan Svankmajer, Director
Don Juan, a film by Jan Svankmajer
The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope
Two sides of Liska

The Execution of the Testament of the Marquis de Sade by Jean Benoît

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Hommage au Marquis de Sade (1959) by Jean Benoît.

BENOÎT Jean (Quebec, 1922). In Paris, 1949, he undertook a strange enterprise called The Execution of the Testament of the Marquis de Sade which kept him busy for two years. It is a very complicated costume, made up of superimposed coverings and accompanied by important accessories. Each element of the ensemble (medallion, tights, crutches, panels, mask, boots, wings, tomb, push-chair, membrum virile, codpiece, chastity-belt, with tattooing thrown in) transposes some aspect of Sadian thought into plastic terms. The work was to be worn during a special ceremony which took place December 2, 1959, at Joyce Mansour’s, the evening preceding the International Exhibition of Surrealism (“Eros”) in Galerie Daniel Cordier. In 1965 Benoît completed another work for carrying round as a tribute to Sergeant Bertrand, a famous nineteenth-century necrophile, The Necrophile, and a sculpture, The Bulldog of Maldoror, which he presented at the international surrealist exhibition “L’Ecart absolu”, Galerie L’Oeil, in the same year, 1965.

José Pierre, A Dictionary of Surrealism, 1975

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But it is the Execution of the Last Testament of the Marquis de Sade, finally staged in 1959, that lies at the heart of Benoît’s oeuvre. Often cited but rarely analysed, it is one of the most significant works of post-war surrealism. On December 2, at the home of the surrealist poet Joyce Mansour, attended by around a hundred invited guests. the event began with the crescendo of a volcano—a sound recording of street noises made by Radovan Ivsic—followed by a second recording of Breton reading out the Marquis’ last testament, specifying de Sade’s (never heeded) desire for his body to be treated and laid to rest in an anonymous grave. Benoît’s detailed notes specifying every element of his complex and extensive dress and accoutrements were read out loud as [Mimi] Parent helped Benoît, arrayed in this extraordinary costume, slowly remove each item one by one. Layered suits, masks, crutches, panels, ornaments, and accessories made from diverse materials laden with symbolic images and signs evoked intense masked tribal ceremonies and rituals; no photographs of the event were permitted, but Benoît staged its elements for a haunting series of images by Gilles Ehrmann taken in an abandoned building. At the culmination of the ceremony, Benoît revealed himself naked save for a wooden phallus incorporating an hourglass, his body entirely painted and with arrows pointing to the spot over his heart at which he then proceeded to brand himself with the word “SADE.” This performance represented an intense and irrevocable stripping bare of the self in order to restore lost powers, to release de Sade from his incarceration, to seal a community, and to cut through the poverty of contemporary existence in the most dramatic but unrepeatable terms; it is consistent with this sense of a unique and all-powerful gesture that Benoît would not seek to reprise such an event again.

Krzysztof Fijalkowski, The International Encyclopedia of Surrealism, 2019

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All photographs are by Gilles Ehrmann.

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Continue reading “The Execution of the Testament of the Marquis de Sade by Jean Benoît”

Weekend links 424

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Black Sun (1953) by Alexander Calder.

• “But Berlin Alexanderplatz transcends its genre elements, largely because of Döblin’s deep lack of hope about what can be expected of human beings.” Adam Kirsch on Alfred Döblin’s Berlin.

• “I occasionally dream of finding books that do not seem to exist (yet), and sometimes remember their titles,” says Mark Valentine.

• “I don’t read fiction.” He does, however, own 11,000 books. Alan Garner on writing a memoir of his wartime childhood.

What is it that I really like? I mean that’s the question that I think every musician and artists and everybody actually, is asking themselves; what they really like. And that means the emphasis is on REALLY like, meaning how do you push aside what you’ve been told, what you’ve been taught, what your friends like, and how much you like something because your friends like it or because it’s socially popular at the moment, or your girlfriend likes it or any of those ideas.

Jon Hassell (again) in an interview at Ableton

• How Alexander Calder sparked a modern fascination with mobiles (sculptures, that is, not telephones).

• Deep in Italy, one man’s Surrealist mini-city sleeps: Francky Knapp on Tomaso Buzzi’s La Scarzuola.

• “Even before electricity, robots freaked people out”: Lisa Hix on the history of clockwork automata.

Nicolas Winding Refn’s website devoted to neglected/abandoned films was launched this week.

• Mixes of the week: FACT Mix 664 by Lucy, and XLR8R Podcast 552 by Thomas Fehlmann.

Jean-Paul Goude‘s best photograph: an androgynous Grace Jones.

Marquis de Sade: 112 pages, 100 erotic illustrations.

The world’s most beautiful libraries

Sade Masoch (1968) by Bobby Callender | I’ve Seen That Face Before (Libertango) (1981) by Grace Jones | Black Sun (2011) by Demdike Stare

Weekend links 335

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The Expectation (1936) by Richard Oelze.

Richard Oelze, 1900–1980 is an exhibition of paintings and drawings at the Michael Werner Gallery, London, which runs until January 2017. More Surrealist works by Oelze may be seen at But Does It Float and Ubu Gallery.

Will McMorran on the problems of translating the Marquis de Sade’s most obscene work. Related: Jay Sina on Sexistential Horror: HP Lovecraft and the Marquis de Sade as perverse peers.

• Mixes of the week: More Halloween horror at No Condition Is Permanent, Secret Thirteen Mix 200 by JK Flesh, and a mix for The Wire by Botany.

The Chronicles of Clovis (1911), a story collection by Saki (HH Munro) who died 100 years ago this week.

• “Jack is 24, sometimes he’s a drag queen named Sabrina.” The Queen (1968).

• The Mindset of the Macabre: An interview with Abigail Larson.

• “The world is full of bloviators,” says MAD cartoonist Al Jaffee.

Ginette Vincendeau on how the French birthed film noir.

• How to throw a dinner party like Salvador Dalí.

Sastanàqqàm, another new song by Tinariwen.

• At A Year In The Country: more Quatermass.

• Photographs by Klaartje Lambrechts.

Paul Bailey on Pasolini’s lost boys.

Adam Shatz on Leonard Cohen.

Subterranean London

Joan Of Arc (1986) by Jennifer Warnes with Leonard Cohen | Who By Fire (1986) by Coil | The Future (1992) by Leonard Cohen

Weekend links 330

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Summer Passing (2013) by Laura Battle.

• The Marquis de Sade’s enduringly contentious The 120 Days of Sodom has been republished by Penguin Books in a new translation by Will McMorran and Thomas Wynn. “[De Sade] described his novel as ‘the most impure tale ever written since the world began’ and, for all the hyperbole, his description still holds true even now,” says Will McMorran, exploring the history and reputation of the book.

• From the Cutting Room Floor: Rick Klaw talks to Bruce Sterling about the current state of US (and world) politics. Sterling’s Futurist novel Pirate Utopia (which I’ve designed and illustrated) will be published by Tachyon next month.

• New from Strange Attractor: In Fairyland: The World of Tessa Farmer, edited by Catriona McAra, and Of Shadows: One Hundred Objects from The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic by Sarah Hannant and Simon Costin.

• Mix of the week: Programme No. 16 in the long-running Radio Belbury series is a guest presentation by The Pattern Forms (Jon Brooks, Edward Macfarlane and Edward Gibson).

The Book of Three Gates by Simon Berman, “An Esoterica of HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos”, is seeking funding.

• Occultist Phil Hine discusses Richard Payne Knight and phalluses at the Conway Hall, London, later this month.

• “My goal is to make music that is transcendent and isn’t specific of a certain time,” says Earth’s Dylan Carlson.

• Kiss the sky: psychedelic posters of the 60s and 70s from the collection of the late Felix Dennis.

Radionics Radio: An Album Of Musical Radionic Thought-Frequencies.

Madeleine LeDespencer on the occult bookshops of London.

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Sade Masoch (1968) by Bobby Callender | Confessional (Give Me Sodomy Or Give Me Death) (1991) by Diamanda Galás | The Sodom And Gomorrah Show (2006) by Pet Shop Boys