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)

Continue reading “Chance encounters on the dissecting table”

Weekend links 410

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William Hope Hodgson’s final Carnacki mystery, The Hog, received its first magazine publication in January 1947. The cover art by AR Tilburne may not have been originally created for Hodgson’s tale but it complements the story’s atmosphere of febrile dread.

• It’s still April so that means it’s still the month that saw the 100th anniversary of the death of William Hope Hodgson, bodybuilder, manacler of Harry Houdini, and the author of several novels of weird fiction that continue to entrance new generations of readers. The edition of Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland that I illustrated for Swan River Press would have been on sale this month but print problems have caused delays with the run as a whole; anyone interested is advised to contact the publisher for news. • Meanwhile, Jon Mueller (composer of the book’s accompanying soundtrack CD) and myself talked to Swan River Press about the attractions of Hodgson’s novel. • More Hodgsoniana: Greydogtales acknowledged the Hodgson centenary via a discussion with Hodgson scholar Sam Gafford, while Michael Dirda reviewed the new edition of The House on the Borderland and another SRP title, The Scarlet Soul (whose cover I also designed), for The Washington Post.

• “From the ashes of countless decayed Modernities comes Neo-Decadence, a profaned cathedral whose broken stained glass windows still glitter irregularly in the harsh light of a Symbolist sun. Behind this marvellously vandalised edifice, a motley band of revellers picnic in the graveyard of the Real, leaving behind all manner of rotting delicacies and toxic baubles in their wake.” Drowning in Beauty: The Neo-Decadent Anthology edited by Daniel Corrick & Justin Isis is published this month by Snuggly Books, an imprint whose catalogue of new books and first-time translations will be of interest to anyone who comes here for Decadence, Symbolism or anything related. Related to the above: A Neo-Decadence Day at Dennis Cooper’s.

• “Witches are change-makers. They’re transgressive beings who dwell on the fringes of society, and so they’re the perfect icon for rebels, outsiders, and rabble-rousers, especially those of the female persuasion.” Pam Grossman talks to Grimoire about witchcraft and related arts.

• Mixes of the week: Resident Advisor Podcast 621 by Grouper, and Bacchus Beltane 5: The Owl Service by The Ephemeral Man.

• Back in black: Publisher/translator James Conway and designer Cara Schwartz on the cover designs of Rixdorf Editions.

• I was talking again this week at The Writer’s Corner where JKA Short asked me about working as an illustrator.

All Gates Open: The Story of Can by Rob Young is published next week. The Wire has an extract.

• Delusional Albion: Brad Stevens on how foreign directors saw Britain in the Swinging Sixties.

• “There’s no book I love more than Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature,” says Olivia Laing.

Eden Tizard on Soliloquy For Lilith, the drone album by Nurse With Wound.

Owls (1969) by Ruth White | Decadent & Symmetrical (1995) by ELpH vs Coil | The Owls (2013) by Félicia Atkinson

Weekend links 382

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Raven (2015), a metal sculpture by Taiichiro Yoshida.

• “Lumia: Thomas Wilfred and the Art of Light [at the Smithsonian American Art Museum] restores Thomas Wilfred (1889–1968) to his rightful place in the history of modern art.”

• At Brown Noise Unit: a fascinating, lengthy interview by Philip Kaberry with Stephen O’Malley of Sunn O))) et al, with particular focus on O’Malley’s work with Japanese musicians.

• Erik Davis talks to scholar, writer, and mythographer William Rowlandson about Jorge Luis Borges, magical trees, Yankee mysticism, and the power of the weird and murky.

• The first issue of the world’s first magazine of fantastic art and literature, Der Orchideengarten (previously), has been reprinted in full with additional English translation.

• At Muddy Colors: the month in covers for September/October which includes my cover for Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng (and which is on sale now).

• At 3:AM Magazine: Adam Scovell talks to horror author Ramsey Campbell about the ghost stories of MR James.

Paralysis: Live at Silent Night #8, a new release on (limited) cassette and digital by The House In The Woods.

• At Dangerous Minds: Jozef van Wissem buries the dead in his new video, Virium Illarum.

PKD Files — A podcast about the life and work of Philip K. Dick.

• Russell Cuzner on The Strange World of Nurse With Wound.

Clark Collis on the rise and fall of Fangoria.

• The North Star Grassman And The Ravens (1971) by Sandy Denny | Flight Of The Raven (1979) by Emerald Web | Kill The Great Raven (1979) by Snakefinger

Two albums

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A pair of albums by friends of mine are released this month: the first, Journey to the West (1979–2017) by Watch Repair presents The Mystic Umbrellas, has been gestating for several years; the second, Dreaming Dangerous Rainbows by Albatross Project, came together very quickly earlier this year after song sketches led to an album that none of the participants had originally planned. I designed both releases so I have more than a passing interest.

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The Mystic Umbrellas project will probably be of most interest to regular readers since it evolved from a couple of very minimal organ recordings made in 1979 by Mark Valentine. Mark is well-known today as a writer of weird fiction, and also an editor and publisher of the same, but in the early 1980s he was involved briefly with the British wing of the independent cassette scene, a micro-budget offshoot of the post-punk DIY ethos which spurred many amateur (or non-) musicians to create and release their own musical works on limited-edition cassettes. The UK manifestation of this scene tended either to imitate higher profile post-punk artists (some of the better examples may be heard on the recent Cherry Red compilation, Close To The Noise Floor) or indulge in a very British form of what might be called Low Surrealism, although “absurdity” is probably a more accurate definition. (A UK label of the time was even named Absurd Records.)

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Photocard by Deborah Judd.

Mark’s Mystic Umbrellas pieces—Journey To The West, Radio Dromedary (a short-wave radio capture) and Rainsborough’s Grave 1 & 2—were released on separate cassette compilations, Deleted Funtime (1980) and National Grid (1981). My friend in Watch Repair (who is happy to remain otherwise anonymous) bought both cassettes, and marked out the Mystic Umbrellas pieces as favourites for their qualities of melancholy and restraint; the organ recordings were very different from the post-punk fumblings or the absurdity in evidence elsewhere. The cassettes sat in a box for years until the same friend decided to try using them as source material for some of his sound processing experiments; these experiments eventually yielded a suite of marvellously atmospheric extensions/transmutations which mutate the recordings beyond recognition but which remain faithful to the haunting qualities of the originals. The precedence for this kind of repurposing would include Jon Hassell’s Magic Realism (1983) and some of the recent works of Thomas Köner, but Mystic Umbrellas and Watch Repair are in a territory of their own.

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Photocard by Deborah Judd.

While working on the design for this release I kept ruminating on the curious net of connection and coincidence around these recordings. After buying the Deleted Funtime cassette my Watch Repair friend contacted one of the other artists, “Stabmental”, to ask about similar recordings. Stabmental was a name used by Geoff Rushton for his post-Throbbing Gristle musical experiments and an Industrial music fanzine; a couple of years later he joined Psychic TV and changed his name to John Balance. Geoff/John was later in Coil, of course, and a decade after this was in correspondence with me having been greatly impressed with my Lovecraft art in The Starry Wisdom anthology. My earlier Lovecraft story, The Haunter of the Dark, had been published in a large-format edition in 1988 by Caermaen Books, an imprint run by a pair of Arthur Machen enthusiasts, Roger Dobson and Mark Valentine. It was shortly after my first meeting with Mark and Roger that my Watch Repair friend realised that Mark must be the Mystic Umbrellas person so the Lovecraft artwork helped remind us of the Deleted Funtime cassette. The same cassette surfaced again a few years ago when it was sold to an obsessive Coil collector who wanted it for the Stabmental piece. That sale led to the cassette being digitised before it was let go, and the digitisation process led to these recordings.

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Photocard by Deborah Judd.

Things got even more tangled earlier this year when I was working on the final layout while also reading the expanded edition of England’s Hidden Reverse, David Keenan’s fascinating history of Coil, Current 93 and Nurse With Wound. Keenan discusses the independent cassette scene (and mentions Stabmental) so all the above was circling in my head once more; but I really wasn’t expecting the instance when Keenan goes into David Tibet’s enthusiasm for Arthur Machen by including a page of explanation from a Machen expert…Mark Valentine. In Mark’s notes for the Watch Repair release he describes the origin of the Mystic Umbrellas name which came about during a rainy day-trip to Glastonbury. Somerset’s most mystical town includes Chalice Well among its complement of New Age tourist traps; shortly after finishing England’s Hidden Reverse I was re-reading a typically wild interview with Alejandro Jodorowsky in which he proposes that the humble umbrella is in fact a black chalice, and that the knights of the Round Table are searching for a Holy Grail that’s actually an umbrella. A mystic umbrella, in other words. Elsewhere in the same interview he expounds on the symbolism of the Black Sun, a favourite symbol of Coil’s. (And Coil for a short while had a Chalice record label…) By this point I’d ceased to be surprised, the endless chain of connections seemed inevitable.

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After all the above the album by Albatross Project risks seeming a little mundane, although grounded (one meaning of “mundane”) would be better. The origin this time was a series of poems written by Roger (that’s him on the cover) from 1972 to 1986. These were set to music by Dan of Warper’s Moss and Watch Repair. (Nobody in this group is offering their surnames so you’ll have to accept the circumspection.) Everyone involved was surprised by the quality of the resulting songs, not least Roger who wrote the words sporadically while travelling the world in his youth. Dan and friends have been writing songs and playing in bands since the 1980s which is why they were able to produce such an accomplished album in a matter of months. Musically, this is quite straightforward: well-crafted songs in a rock idiom which had me thinking at times of Pink Floyd circa 1972 (fitting since several of the musicians are from the Floyd-worshipping environs of Merseyside). But it also owes something to the Elektra years of the early 70s (as does my design), and the period flavour harks back to the time and experiences that Roger was writing about.

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Both albums are available via Bandcamp. The hard format of Dreaming Dangerous Rainbows is a CD-R in a jewel case while the Mystic Umbrellas hard format is a lavish hand-crafted package that includes copious notes and four art cards, three of which feature Deborah Judd’s evocative photo montages. The latter package will be strictly limited. Original copies of the Deleted Funtime cassette command high prices among Coil collectors but the curious (or foolhardy) may download a copy at Die or DIY?

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Polarities by Watch Repair
Seven Harps by Warper’s Moss
The Tidal Path by Watch Repair
Watch Repair

Weekend links 364

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Stop-Motion Happening with The Focus Groop is a new album by The Focus Group (now a Groop, apparently, à la Stereolab), and the next release on the Ghost Box label. Design, as always, by Julian House.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Sypha presents…Voyager en Soi-Même: a Tribute to JK Huysmans’ Là-Bas. Related: Henry Chapront’s illustrations for a 1912 edition of Huysmans’ novel.

• At the BFI: Graham Fuller on Penda’s Fen and the Romantic tradition in British film; Pamela Hutchinson and Alex Barrett choose 10 great German Expressionist films.

• The Provenance of Providence: Chris Mautner on the Lovecraftian comic series by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows.

Luke Turner on Sunn O))): the ecstatic doom metallers turning rock concerts into “ritualist experiences”.

• At Dangerous Minds: The homoerotic “needleporn” art of Zachary Nutman.

Conor McGrady on the visual art of Nurse With Wound’s Steven Stapleton.

• Collage and Mechanism: Anita Siegel’s art for Doubleday Science Fiction.

• Mix of the week: My name is Legion: Chapter 1 by The Ephemeral Man.

ChrisMarker.org is asking for small donations to help keep it running.

• 1967 is the year pop came out, says Jon Savage.

Allen Ginsberg’s Howl goes online.

Groupmegroup (1981) by Liquid Liquid | If I Were A Groupie (1995) by Pizzicato Five | Group Four (1998) by Massive Attack