Art on film: Crack-Up


Continuing an occasional series about artworks in feature films. The Dark Corner (1946) was the subject of the last entry which ended with the words “I’ve been wondering what other Dalínean references might be hiding in American feature films from this time”. This post is one answer, being a further example of a reference to Salvador Dalí’s painting in a film from the 1940s. Crack-Up was written by John Paxton, Ben Bengal and Ray Spencer, and directed by Irving Reis. Like The Dark Corner this is another film noir from the noir-heavy year of 1946, with both films concerning mysteries set in the New York art world.


The crack-up in question is a mental collapse sustained by art curator George Steele (Pat O’Brien) who believes he’s been involved in a rail crash even though there’s no physical evidence of the disaster. The film has an intriguing Twilight Zone quality for a while although this evaporates once the machinations of the plot show themselves. The Dalí reference occurs in a flashback to the events that lead to the psychotic episode when we see Steele giving a lecture to members of the public at the museum where he works. His talk demonstrates his authority on artistic matters while also reassuring the film-going audience that he isn’t one of those egghead types with a taste for “incomprehensible” modern paintings.


Steele’s aesthetic conservatism is confirmed when he reveals this Dalínean item which summons derisive laughter from the assembly, and which he admits he doesn’t like. As with The Dark Corner, the critical dice are loaded against Dalí (and against modern art in general) by showing a deliberately poor pastiche. Crack-Up goes further by setting the faux Dalí next to The Angelus by Jean-François Millet, a painting which Steele has shown the audience a few moments before, and which prompts sighs of appreciation.


This comparison between Millet and Dalí threw me out of the story for a few seconds while I wondered whether the choice of The Angelus was a deliberate one by the writers and director, or merely coincidental. Anyone with a more than cursory knowledge of Salvador Dalí’s work will know that Dalí was obsessed with The Angelus for most of his life, frequently borrowing the figures for his own paintings and even creating new variations on the original. In 1938 he wrote a book-length analysis of the picture, The Tragic Myth of The Angelus of Millet, although the text was lost for many years and wasn’t published until the 1960s. There’s a further curious detail here, in that Dalí believed that Millet had originally shown the couple mourning the death of a child, and that a child-sized coffin had been painted over to make a more generally religious scene. Dalí’s insistent claims about the absent coffin eventually prompted an X-ray examination of the painting. The results were inconclusive but the investigation adds a further layer of coincidence to the Crack-Up lecture when Steele moves his discussion to the technique of X-ray analysis which he says can reveal the earlier stages of a painting or even expose forgeries. This turns out to be a crucial plot element later in the film.


Before the lecture ends there’s a further dig at modern art when a small man with a Hitler moustache and a foreign (Germanic?) accent loudly complains about the dismissive tone of the discussion before being forcibly removed from the hall. If the heckler’s moustache is supposed to connect Modernism with the recently-deceased Führer then this is another calumny on the part of the film-makers, the Nazis having been forthright in their loathing of what they called “entartete kunst“, or “degenerate art”. New York in the 1940s was filled with exiled European artists, Dalí among them.


The heckler’s outburst leads Steele to end his lecture with a joke at the expense of the art movement which had until this moment gone unnamed. One of the ironies of the film’s dismissal of the Dalí-like painting and the consequent dig at the Surrealists is that André Breton and his American acolytes were equally dismissive of Salvador Dalí. The Crack-Up audience could at least laugh then turn their attention to other things, but the Bretonites had to watch Dalí promote his own brand of Surrealism, unable (or unwilling) to admit that it was his abilities and attention-seeking antics that gave the word “Surrealist” its popular currency outside the galleries and art magazines. Without that provocative persona Surrealism in America would never have been newsworthy enough to be mentioned in a film such as this.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The Surrealism archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Art on film: The Dark Corner
Art on film: Je t’aime, Je t’aime
Art on film: Space is the Place
Art on film: Providence
Art on film: The Beast

Weekend links 721


Incomparable Pleasure (1952–3) by Judit Reigl.

• Steven Heller’s Font of the Month is Atol. Heller’s other haunt, The Daily Heller, looked this week at the incredible calligraphy and illuminated graphics of Arthur Szyk.

Okashi, an exhibition of Japanese art and photography at the Michael Hoppen Gallery in London. Hoppen talks about the exhibition here.

• At Unquiet Things: A Vibrant Rascality of Shenanigans: The Fantasticalicizm of Anna Mond.

• At Public Domain Review: Signs and Wonders: Celestial Phenomena in 16th-Century Germany.

• New music: Alchemia by Scanner, and Disconnect by KRM And KMRU.

• Mix of the week: Artificial Owl Recordings Mix by Niko Dalagelis.

• At Bandcamp: Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Luminous Sounds.

• DJ Food found some Victor Moscoso poster originals.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Luis Buñuel Day.

Alchemistry (1991) by Jon Hassell | Surrealchemist (1992) by Stereolab | Alchemagenta (1996) by Zoviet France

Weekend links 720


The Poet and the Siren (1893) by Gustave Moreau.

• “Some books become talismans. Because they are strange, wildly different to the common run of literature; because they are scarce, and only a few precious copies are known to exist; because, perhaps, they liberate by transgressing the moral limits of the day; because their authors are lonely, elusive visionaries; because, sometimes, there is an inexplicable glamour about the book, so that its readers seem to be lured into a preternatural reverie. This book possesses all those attributes.” Mark Valentine in an introduction he wrote for a 1997 reprint of The Book of Jade (1901) by David Park Barnitz. The book’s author was an American writer who died at the age of 23 after publishing this single volume, a collection of poetry inspired by his favourite Decadent writers. Praise from HP Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith and Thomas Ligotti has since helped maintain the book’s reputation. The Book of Jade turned up recently at Standard Ebooks, the home of free, high-quality, public-domain texts. Also the home of an increasingly eclectic list of publications.

• At n+1: The Dam and the Bomb by Walker Mimms, a fascinating essay about the entangling of Cormac McCarthy’s personal history with his novels which makes a few connections I didn’t expect to see. Also a reminder that I’ve yet to read McCarthy’s last two books. Soon…

• The latest installation from teamLab is Resonating Life which Continues to Stand, an avenue of illuminated eggs on the Hong Kong waterfront.

• At The Wire: Symphony of sirens: an interview with Aura Satz, David Toop, Elaine Mitchener, Evelyn Glennie and Raven Chacon.

• At Unquiet Things: The Art of Darkness presents The Sleeper May Awaken: Stephen Mackey’s Unrestful Realms.

• RIP Marian Zazeela. There’s a page here with a selection of her beautiful calligraphic poster designs.

• At Spoon & Tamago: Tomona Matsukawa’s realistic paintings reconstruct fragments of everyday life.

• At Public Domain Review: Thom Sliwowski on The Defenestrations of Prague (1419–1997).

Trinity (2024), a short film by Thomas Blanchard. There’s a lot more at his YouTube channel.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Lotte Reiniger’s Day.

Sirens (1984) by Michael Stearns | Sirens (1988) by Daniel Lanois & Brian Eno | Siren Song (2009) by Bat For Lashes

Sibylle Ruppert: Frenzy of the Visible


La Bible du Mal (1978).

I’m late to this but it’s worth passing on the news about an exhibition of paintings, drawings and collages by Sibylle Ruppert (1942–2011) which is currently running at Project Native Informant in London. Ruppert’s art has been mentioned here many times, she’s one of my favourite artists, so it’s great to see her receiving more recognition, and in London as well, not Paris as I would have expected. I ought to go and see this but finishing the Bumper Book of Magic book took longer than I expected so I’ve had scheduled work backed up which I’m dealing with at the moment. I also don’t fancy taking another chance with Britain’s failing rail network, not when the last experience a few weeks ago was a bad one. But if you’re closer to London I’d recommend this exhibition which Artforum says is Ruppert’s first solo show in the UK.


Ma Soeur Mon Epouse (1975).

It’s tempting to connect the exhibition to this year’s 100th anniversary of Surrealism but I’ve never seen Ruppert’s name mentioned in Surrealist circles. She isn’t referred to in Penelope Rosemont’s wide-ranging Surrealist Women, for example, but then neither is Leonor Fini, possibly because Fini tried to maintain some distance from groups and movements. Was Ruppert the same? Without further information it’s hard to say. She was friends with HR Giger, however, and pictures by both artists may be seen in Providence (1977), the Alain Resnais film, as I noted a couple of years ago.

Frenzy of the Visible will be running until 20th April.


Le Sacrifice (1980).

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The fantastic art archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Art on film: Providence
Hans by Sibylle
Sibylle Ruppert revisited
Sibylle Ruppert, 1942–2011

Weekend links 719


The Decoy (1948) by Edith Rimmington.

• “Among other things, [Dalí’s] storyboards involved [Ingrid] Bergman turning into a statue that would then break up into ants.” Tim Jonze talks to film scholar John Russell Taylor about the storyboards for Alfred Hitchcock’s films, including the ones for Spellbound which Taylor found in a bric-a-brac sale.

• “Of all the pop acts that proliferated in the early 80s, it was Soft Cell who retained punk’s sharp, provocative edges.” Matthew Lindsay on 40 years of Soft Cell’s This Last Night In Sodom.

• Coming soon from White Rabbit books: Futuromania: Electronic Dreams, Desiring Machines and Tomorrow’s Music Today by Simon Reynolds.

Anathema to many philosophical systems, or perhaps philosophy itself, Lovecraft’s philosophical project fundamentally holds that contemplations of higher reality or the nature of things can never be fully realised. Ultimately, the search for knowledge does not constitute some telos, some purpose, for humankind, but rather leads to the violent dissolution of the self. Higher reality is that which the limited human psyche can never fully comprehend.

Sam Woodward on the cosmic philosophy of HP Lovecraft

• At Public Domain Review: Grotesqueries at Gethsemane: Marcus Gheeraerts’ Passio Verbigenae (c.1580).

• “Here is a remarkable form of popular heraldry.” Mark Valentine on the mystique of old inn signs.

• At Bandcamp: Brad Sanders on where to begin with Lustmord’s cosmic ambient.

• New music: Eleven Fugues For Sodium Pentothal by Adam Wiltzie.

• At Aquarium Drunkard: Jason P. Woodbury talks to Roger Eno.

Gomorrha (1973) by Can | Sodom (1978) by Can | Spellbound (1981) by Siouxsie And The Banshees