Figures of Mortality: Lawrence versus Dalí

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Famous Fantastic Mysteries (August, 1946).

Salvador Dalí and Philippe Halsman popularised the image of a human skull created by an arrangement of bodies in Halsman’s 1951 photo-portrait of the artist, In Voluptas Mors. The assemblage, which was based on a sketch by Dalí, has been imitated by photographers and poster designers but I’ve yet to see any mention of this painted precursor by illustrator Lawrence Sterne Stevens (or “Lawrence” as he was always credited) for Famous Fantastic Mysteries in August, 1946. I’d assume the similarity is a coincidence. The subliminal skull in painting and drawing goes back at least as far as the 1890s (see this post), while Dalí was always very adept at finding and creating visual rhymes. Variations on the skull-from-figures motif appear in paintings throughout his career, one of the earliest being a minor work, Dancer – Skull, from the 1930s. Another painting, a commission for a wartime poster warning US soldiers about the hazards of venereal disease, features a pair of women, and predates Lawrence’s cover by four years.

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In Voluptas Mors (1951).

Lawrence deserves credit, however, for having created a more successful arrangement of bodies than Halsman and Dalí managed, although it’s easier to do this in a painting than it is to arrange a group of women in a studio. Some of the limbs of Lawrence’s figures are extended or foreshortened, while the contrast between light and shade has been reduced to aid the composition. Lawrence painted a further variation on the subliminal skull in a cover for Famous Fantastic Mysteries the year after the Dalí/Halsman portrait, while Dalí himself returned to the theme with Skull of Zurbarán in 1956.

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Famous Fantastic Mysteries (June, 1952).

Previously on { feuilleton }
Être Dieu: Dalí versus Wakhévitch
Chance encounters on the dissecting table
Salvador Dalí’s Maze
Dalí in New York
Dalí’s discography
Soft Self-Portrait of Salvador Dalí
Mongolian impressions
Hello Dali!
Dirty Dalí
The skull beneath the skin
Impressions de la Haute Mongolie revisited

Être Dieu: Dalí versus Wakhévitch

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Or should that be Wakhévitch versus Dalí? The so-called “Dalí opera”, recorded in 1974, is more an opera by Igor Wakhévitch (music) and Manuel Vázquez Montalbán (libretto) which is interrupted from time to time by Salvador Dalí’s shouts, squeaks, impromptu lectures and even occasional snatches of song. (Dalí couldn’t sing.)

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Être Dieu has always been the least accessible of the Wakhévitch compositions, difficult to find and an uneven listening experience that sprawls over three discs. But the (deleted) Eurostar reissue looks very nice: three gold CDs and a thick booklet with a translation of the rambling cosmic scenario, all packaged in a blue felt box. I’ve been rewatching the best of the Dalí documentaries over the past couple of weeks so I’ve felt more accommodating towards Être Dieu than usual; I’m a Wakhévitch cultist, so any Wakhévitch is good Wakhévitch, but I still need to be in the mood for this one. The immediate pleasures are mostly peripheral: Igor’s synthesizers, Delphine Seyrig as one of the celestial components of Dalí’s “divine” character, plus Didier Batard and François Auger from Richard Pinhas’s rock outfit, Heldon, on bass and drums. The Heldon duo get to rock-out properly on the third disc. Buried somewhere in the intersection between this recording, Jean-Christophe Averty’s Soft Self-Portrait of Salvador Dalí (1970) and José Montes-Baquer’s Impressions de la Haute Mongolie (1976) is an intimation of how Dalí might have appeared (or misbehaved) as the Emperor in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s unmade film of Dune.

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Previously on { feuilleton }
Dalí’s discography
The music of Igor Wakhévitch

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 522

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Self-Portrait (1935) by Johannes Hendrikus Moesman.

• At Bibliothèque Gay, René Bolliger (1911—1971), an artist whose homoerotica is being celebrated in an exhibition, Les Beaux Mâles, at Galerie Au Bonheur du Jour, Paris, next month. There are more beaux mâles in a new book of photographs, Hi, Hello!, by Roman Duquesne.

• The summer solstice is here which means it’s time for Dennis Cooper‘s favourite fiction, poetry, non-fiction, film, art and internet of the year so far. As before, I’m flattered to be listed in the internet selection. Thanks! Also at DC’s, Michael Snow Day.

• “I hope Roger Corman is doing okay,” I was thinking last week while rewatching one of Corman’s Poe films. He’s been overseeing the production of three new features during the lockdown so, yes, he’s doing okay. I loved the Cries and Whispers anecdote.

• “Unsettling and insinuating, fabulously alert to the spaces between things, Harrison is without peer as a chronicler of the fraught, unsteady state we’re in.” Olivia Laing reviewing The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again by M. John Harrison.

The original Brain label release of Aqua (1974), the first solo album by Tangerine Dream’s Edgar Froese, had a different track list and different mixes from the Virgin releases. The album has never been reissued in this form.

• New music at Bandcamp: Without Thought, music for an installation by Paul Schütze; and Hatching Under The Stars, songs by Clara Engel.

Deborah Nicholls-Lee on Johannes Hendrikus Moesman (1909–1988), “the erotic Dutch surrealist you should have heard of”.

Kate Solomon on where to start with the Pet Shop Boys. I’d also recommend Introspective.

• Dalí in Holographic Space: Selwyn Lissack on Salvador Dalí’s contributions to art holograms.

• At Spoon & Tamago: An obsession with retro Japanese round-cornered windows.

John Boardley on the “writing mistresses” of the calligraphic golden age.

Mark Duguid recommends Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General (1968).

• The favourite music of Crammed Discs boss, Marc Hollander.

• Occult/erotic prints by Eleni Avraam.

Aqua: Every Raindrop Longs For The Sea (Jeder Tropfen Träumt Vom Meer) H2O (1973) by Achim Reichel | Aqua (1979) by Dvwb | Aqua (1981) by Phew