Documents

Documents-1929
Documents-1929

Although I have concentrated on official Surrealism under the leadership of Andre Breton there was another Surrealism: a darker, underground current comprised of renegade and rebel Surrealists that contributed to the magazine Documents under the aegis of the troubling, sinister Georges Bataille.

A librarian and numismatist (a specialist in the study of coins and medals) Bataille in 1928 had written the nightmarish L’histoire de l’oeil (The Story of the Eye), a gruesome work of Surrealist pornography, under the pseudonym Lord Auch (a pun that translates literally as Lord to the Shithouse). In 1929 Bataille launched Documents, a heterodox  journal that featured articles on archaeology, ethnography, art, film and popular culture featuring works by dissident Surrealists including Joan Miro, Andre Masson, Michel Leiris and Jacques-Andre Boiffard. 

Andre Breton, fearing an intellectual rival from within, issued with his customarily vim and gusto the Second Surrealist Manifesto which purged and excommunicated any Surrealist who had shown any sign of heresy from official orthodoxy from the movements ranks. In retaliation Bataille issued the provocative pamphlet Un Cadavre (A Corpse) with a photo-montage of Breton wearing a crown of thorns with essays by Robert Desnos, Raymond Queneau, Jacques Prevert and Alejo Carpentier among others.

Documents ran for 15 issues between 1929 and 1930. With its idiosyncratic look and melding of high and lows registrars it can be viewed as a very early example of a style magazine. The photography by Jacques-Andre Boiffard and Eli Lotar of mouths, masks, slaughterhouses and big toes, combined with the entries written by Bataille under the title Critical Dictionary retain a disturbing, provocative power.

Bataille and Breton would later be reconciled, however their later exploits will be the subject of a further post in this series on the darker aspects of Surrealism.

I have included a short entry on Man from the Critical Dictionary, which gives a taste of Bataille thought-provoking theory of ‘base materialism’. Also included are photographs from the slaughterhouse and big toe articles.

MAN. 1. “An eminent English chemist, Dr Charles Henry Maye, set out to establish in  a precise manner what man is made of and what is its chemical value. This is the result of his learned researches:

“The bodily fat of a normally constituted man would suffice to manufacture seven cakes of toilet-soap. Enough iron is found in the organism to make a medium-sized nail, and sugar to sweeten a cup of coffee. the phosphorus would provide 2,200 matches. The magnesium would furnish the light needed to take a photograph. In addition, a little potassium and sulphur, but in an unusable quantity.

“These different raw materials, costed at current prices, represent an approximate sum of 25 francs.” (Journal des Debats, 13 August 1929).

un_cadavre[1]
Un Cadavre 1930
Documents-Eli Lotar 1930
Documents-Eli Lotar-La Villette Abattoir 1929
Documents-Eli Lotar-La Villette Abattoir 1929
Documents-Eli Lotar-La Villette Abattoir 1929
Documents-Big Toe, Male Aged 30-J-A Boiffard 1929
Documents-Big Toe, Male Aged 30-J-A Boiffard 1929
Documents-J-A Boiffard Untitled 1929
Documents-J-A Boiffard Untitled 1929
Documents-Karl Blossfeldt-Campanula Vidali enlarged 6 times from Bataille's article The Language of Flowers
Documents-Karl Blossfeldt-Campanula Vidali enlarged 6 times from Bataille’s article The Language of Flowers
Documents-J A Boiffard- Renee Jacobi 1930
Documents-J A Boiffard- Renee Jacobi 1930

 

 

 

 

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Berlin Decadence

otto-dix-triptico-Metrópolis-1927-28[1]
Otto Dix-Metropolis-1927-1928
In 1937 the reigning National Socialist party held an exhibition of Degenerate Art (Die Ausstellung “Entartete Kunst) in the Institute of Archaeology in the Hofgarten Munich, featuring Modernist, Expressionist, Dada and New Objectivity work by Grosz, Nolde, Klee, Ernst, Schwitters and others considered decadent by the regime. It was a huge success attracting over a million visitors in its first six weeks before going on tour nationally. Considerably less successful was the concurrent exhibition of Great German Art (Große Deutsche Kunstausstellung) of approved Nazi art that was meant to serve as a contrast and counterpoint to the Degenerate Art. Even Hitler and Goebbels, failed artist and novelist respectively, thought the works on display at the Great German Art Exhibition were weak, however puerility has never got in the way of good propaganda and it allowed Hitler to rail against cultural disintegration and declare war on the ‘chatterboxes, dilettantes and art swindlers‘ of Modernism.

It was a war that the Nazi’s were bound to lose. The art produced by the various Modernists school in Germany during the period of the Weimar Republic is rightly venerated while the work of the official artists with their banal landscapes and monumental sculptures of a blandly idealised male form never rises above the level of monstrous kitsch (with the exception in the field of architecture; Albrecht Speer definitely possessed talent, but then architecture is in a certain sense fascistic, as a walk around Rome shows).

In a good illustration of Orson Welles quote in The Third Man about the chaotic warring Italian city states that produced Michelango, Da Vinci and the Renaissance, in contrast to Switzerland with its 500 year history of peace and brotherly love that has only given the world the cuckoo clock,  the art of the Weimar Republic possesses its strength because of the decadence of the period, not in spite of. The calamitous defeat of Germany in WWI and the heavy reparations demanded by France and Britain, plus the use of right wing Freikorps by the Socialist government to suppress the Spartacist uprising ( see “Everyman His Own Football”) meant that Weimar Republic was unloved by both right and left. Added to the political turmoil was mass unemployment and the staggering hyper-inflation that led to frenzied consumption in the cafes, cabarets, bars and cinemas as the money in your pocket was being reduced in value by the minute. Factor in the war wounded beggars and prostitutes of both sexes lining the streets that must have resulted in the fevered, nightmarish atmosphere of a society in the midst of collapse, yet paradoxically yielding a exhilarating sense of dangerous freedom, especially sexually. Berlin attracted thrill seekers from outside of Germany who could visit one of the  city’s 500 erotic venues, some of which catered exclusively to homosexuals, lesbians, transvestites and aficionados of BDSM (including the young Francis Bacon).

The main currents of art in the Weimar Republic were Expressionism, Dada and the New Objectivity. Expressionism would have a major, lasting influence on graphic design and film. Many of the artists and intellectuals who fled Nazi Germany ended up working in Hollywood where they would have an immeasurable impact upon the development of the horror and film noir genres

Below are just a few examples of the art of Weimar Republic, concentrating on the bold, innovative woodcuts of the outstanding Kathe Kollwitz;  the chilling New Objectivity portraits of Otto Dix and the unsurpassed satirical savagery of George Grosz’s Ecco Homo series, as well as stills from two highly influential German Expressionist movies, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Robert Weine The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.

Berlin was the most decadent city of the 20th Century, as it had two periods of decadence, the Weimar Republic of the 1920’s and 30’s and then the late 70’s in West Berlin, however that is a whole other story.

6._Portrait_of_the_Dancer_Anita_Berber_1925-compressed[1]
Otto Dix-Portrait of Anita Berber 1925
Otto-Dix-stormtroops-gas[1]
Otto Dix-Stormtroopers Advance Under Cover of Gas-1924
dix-portrait-of-the-journalist-sylvia-von-harden-1926[1]
Otto Dix-Portrait of the Journalist Syvlia Von Harden 1926
dix+war+cripples[1]
Otto Dix-War Cripples 1920

Kathe Kollitz-Hunger 1923
Kathe Kollwitz-Hunger 1923
Kathe Kollwitz-Memorial to Karl Liebknecht-1919
Kathe Kollwitz-Memorial to Karl Liebknecht-1919
Kathe Kollwitz-The Widow II
Kathe Kollwitz-The Widow II
George Grosz-Ecco Homo-1923
George Grosz-Ecco Homo-1923
Grosz_Praise_Beauty_1920
George Grosz-Praise Beauty 1920
George Grosz-Ecce Homo 1923
George Grosz-Ecce Homo 1923
franz_m_jensen-8'O Clock
Franz M Jensen 8 O’Clock
Fritz Lang-Metropolis  1927
Fritz Lang-Metropolis 1927
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The Cabinet of Dr Caligari-Robert Weine 1920
Degenerate Art Exhibition 1937
Degenerate Art Exhibition 1937

 

 

 

“Everyman His Own Football”

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“Jedermann Sein Eigner Fussball” February 15 1919
This Dadaist journal, published on February 15th 1919 and selling a remarkable 7,600 copies before being banned and confiscated by the police that very day, shows Berlin Dada and its most aggressively politicized and satirical. This is hardly surprising considering the atmosphere in Berlin; just weeks before the Spartacist uprising was brutally crushed by the majority socialist SPD government who sponsored the use of extreme right-wing para-military Freikorps to suppress the revolt, leading to the subsequent murders of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebnecht whose bodies were unceremoniously dumped in the Landwehr canal.

The title is an exhortation to not allow yourself to be kicked around by others but to do it yourself (excellent advise as pertinent today as it was then). The cover shows the heads of leading SPD figures, including Minister of Defense Gustav Noske who had sanctioned the deployment of the Freikorps, arrayed around an open fan with the caption ‘Prize Competition: Who is the Prettiest?’

Everyman His Own Football is a rare example of the card carrying German Communist Party (KPD) faction Herzfelde-Heartfield-Grosz  and the anarchist contingent of Johnnes Baader and Raoul Hausmann collaborating. The later strained relationship  between the KPD and the Herzfelde-Heartfield-Grosz faction, marked by mutual misunderstanding and occasional contempt foreshadows the difficulties experienced between the Surrealists and the French Communist Party (PFC) in Paris in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s.

The Surreal World: Mexico

The Sun Stone
The Sun Stone

“I don’t know why I came here. Mexico is the most surrealist country in the world.”-Andre Breton

“There is no way I’m going back to Mexico. I can’t stand to be in a country that is more surrealist than my paintings”-Salvador Dali

The above quotes shows how the surreality of Mexico outstripped even the imaginings of the movement’s leading theoretician (see The Pope of Surrealism) and its most famous visual artist (see The Phenomenon of Ecstasy).

They are plenty of factors that contributed to Mexico being conducive to the Surrealists. Politically there was the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920 (Pancho Villa would be honoured as the Magus of Wheels in the Le Jeu De Marseille, the deck of cards designed by the Surrealists) and the Mexican President’s support of the Republican government of Spain during the Spanish Civil War. There was the richness of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican art, mythology and culture. As a group familiar with the ideas of Hegel and Marx the Surrealists would have be aware of the theory that Cortes entry into and conquest of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan represented the true starting point of global capitalism that ushered in centuries of exploitative colonialism, slavery and imperialism. Combine  the Mexican cult of death, exemplified by the Day of the Dead celebrations and its variegated landscape of mountains, desert and jungle to this already heady mix and you end up with a country more Surrealistic than the Surrealists.

The purpose of Breton’s visit in 1938 was to met with Leon Trotsky who was staying at La Casa Azul (The Blue House), the home of  Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Breton declared Kahlo a surrealist and promoted her work, however the respect certainly wasn’t mutual, Kahlo detested Breton and held the Surrealists in contempt. As it appears that Kahlo was having an affair with Breton’s wife Jacqueline Lamba (see Dreams of Desire 16 (Jacqueline and Frida), as well as with Leon Trotsky, maybe the byzantine personal relationships within La Casa Azul influenced her judgement of Breton.

With the defeat of the Republicans in Spain by Franco’s Nationalists and the invasion of France by Nazi Germany, Mexico welcomed a number of artists, including the director Luis Bunuel, the writer and artist Leonora Carrington, her friend the Spanish artist Remedios Varo (again Kahlo wasn’t a fan of either Carrington or Varo, she called them those European bitches), the abstract Surrealist Wolfgang Paalen, Alice Rahon, Bridget Bate Tichenor and the poet Benjamin Peret among others.

It was in Xilitla, Mexico that the eccentric English millionaire and patron of many a Surrealist, Edward James built his extravagant folly house Las Pozas amid the riotously lush fauna and flora of the jungle.

Mexico is certainly well represented in modernist literature. Mexico became the home of the mystery man of modern letters, the German (?) anarchist B. Traven, whose true identity still remains to be resolved. Author of The Treasure of Sierra Madre, which was filmed by John Huston and starred Humphrey Bogart, Traven also wrote The Jungle series about the Mexican Revolution. One of the classics of Modernist literature, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano is set on the Day of the Dead, 1938, in the town of Quaunhnahuac. The Chilean novelist Roberto Bolano’s two major (and monumental) novels The Savage Detectives and 2666 are mainly set in Mexico, particularly Mexico City and the badlands of the Sonora Desert.

Finally a brief note on the image selection; I could post a dozen articles on Mesoamerican art alone. I have confined myself to a few outstanding examples of Pre-Columbian art to allow room for Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and the Surrealists. As I have posted at length on Leonora Carrington (see The Debutante) already, I limited selection of this artist to include work by Varo and Tichenor. As an added bonus there are the splendidly morbid and macabre woodcuts of Artemio Rodriguez and a statue of Santa Muerte, the Mexican folk religion of Most Holy Death.

Mosaic mask of Tezcatlipoca
Mosaic mask of Tezcatlipoca
Coatlicue
Coatlicue
Frida-Kahlos-bath[1]
Frida Kahlo-What The Water Gave Me
Frida Kahlo-Without-Hope 1945
Frida Kahlo-Without-Hope 1945
Diego Rivera=Dream at the Alameda
Diego Rivera=Dream at the Alameda

RemediosVaroTnsito[1]
Remedios Varo-Spiral Transit
Leonora-Carrington-The-Magical-World-of-the-Mayas1964-image-via-tateorg[1]
Leonora Carrington-The Magical World of the Mayans

Leonora Carrington-How Doth the Little Crocodille
Leonora Carrington-How Doth the Little Crocodille-Mexico City
Self Portrait-Bridget Bate Tichenor
Self Portrait-Bridget Bate Tichenor
Edward James-Las Pozas
Edward James-Las Pozas
Artemio Rodriguez-Woodcut
Artemio Rodriguez-Woodcut

rodriguez-hypocrisy-all.400x0[1]
Artemio Rodriguez-Hypocrisy for All
Santa-muerte-nlaredo2[1]
Santa Muerte
 

 

 

The Surreal World: Haiti

Adoration a la Sainte Vierge-Hector Hyppolite-Collection of Andre Breton
Adoration a la Sainte Vierge-Hector Hyppolite-Collection of Andre Breton

Although the presidency of Donald Trump is in a certain sense a bizarrely surreal spectacle, the political aims of the actual Surrealists and the nascent nationalist movement that Trump embodies are polar extremes. Nothing highlights this better than Trump’s insulting and ignorant comments concerning ‘shithole countries’ of which he deems the much maligned island nation of Haiti to be a prime example.

Haiti, however, was a source of enduring fascination and inspiration for the Surrealists. As strident anti-colonialists (for Surrealism there never was or could ever be a case for colonialism, it was always an unalloyed evil that debases the colonised and corrupts the coloniser), Surrealists celebrated the Haitian revolution that resulted in the only successful slave revolt in history and the first black republic in the world. This momentous event and the subsequent defeat of invading French, British and Spanish forces by the Haitians expanded the central concept of the French Revolution of ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’ to include all men, regardless of colour. Unfortunately Haiti has never been forgiven for this piece of temerity.

Of course bound up with the perception of Haiti is Vodou, the syncretic religion that combines elements of West African spirit worship, Roman Catholicism and possibly traces of native Meso-American religion, and the Surrealists were certainly not immune to its spell. Although not technically a Surrealist, the American Lost Generation writer and occultist W.B Seabrook travelled in the same Parisian avant-garde circles (for the curious Man Ray’s series of photographs entitled The Fantasies of Mr Seabrook are still risque) and his sensational, though mainly sympathetic travelogue The Magic Island from 1929, the book that introduced the word zombie to the English language, was positively reviewed in Georges Bataille Documents magazine by the ethnographer Michel Leiris. Bataille himself would write about Vodou in L’Érotisme (Eroticisms) and Les Larmes d’Éros (The Tears ofEros),  as he saw Vodou as the prime modern example of a Dionysian religion.

In 1944 the Martinican poet Aime Cesaire (see Serpent Sun), who credited Surrealism with emancipating his consciousness, spent seven months in Haiti, which at the time was still the only black republic in the Caribbean. This period would inedibly mark Cesaire’s artistic and political thought.

In 1945 Andre Breton and Wilfredo Lam (see Welcome To The Jungle), as  guests of fellow Surrealist Pierre Mabille, the French cultural attache, attended a vodou ceremony where they saw the works of Hector Hyppolite (see Desire in a Different Climate), a third generation Vodou houngan. Breton also gave a series of three lectures that linked the Haitian revolution with Surrealism and that galvanised opposition to the current US backed dictator in power, who promptly fled the country when the insurgency gathered force.

One of the first works of magic realism is Alejo Carpentier’s El reino de este mundo (The Kingdom of This World) published in 1949 that details the events of the Haitian revolution and its immediate aftermath.

Finally a brief word on the avant-garde film-maker Maya Deren marvellous study of Vodou, Divine Horseman: The Living Gods of Haiti, which is available as a  book (excellently written) and a documentary film. Most of the classic studies are written in French and Deren’s 1953 book remains the gold standard in English.

Below are some of Hector Hyppolite’s paintings as well as two other Haiti artists that show Surrealist as well as traditional influences, Rignaud Benoit and Gabriel Alix.

Hector-Hyppolite-Birds-and-Flowers[1]
Hector Hyppolite-Bird and Flowers
Hector Hyppolite-Femme nue avec oiseaux
Hector Hyppolite-Erzulie
Hector Hyppolite-Erzulie
Rignaud Benoit-Wedding Procession
Rignaud Benoit-Wedding Procession
Rignaud Benoit-Ceremony
Rignaud Benoit-Ceremony
Gabriel Alix-The Black Madonna
Gabriel Alix-The Black Madonna
Gabriel Alix-Ceremony Baron Samedi
Gabriel Alix-Ceremony Baron Samedi

The Expectation

the-expectation-1936[1]
The Expectation-Richard Oelze 1935
A masterpiece of visual Surrealism, Oelze’s The Expectationmanages to create the sense of heavy dread that is only found in the kind of dream that doesn’t leave you for hours after waking, oppressing you with the knowledge that all it takes is for you to close your eyes for everything to disappear and be re-arranged in a way that you secretly suspect (although it wouldn’t do to admit it in public) has more real meaning than what you perceive with your five senses in the workaday world.

Oelze was a German Surrealist who studied at the Bauhaus. His relationship with the gadfly of modern art movements, the mysteriously ubiquitous and yet elusive Mina Loy is the subject of her only novel, the posthumously published Insel.

More Illustrated Alice

Peter Blake-Alice In wonderland 1970
Peter Blake-Alice in Wonderland 1970

I previously wrote about the illustrations that have graced the Alice books over the years, with a special emphasis on the Surrealists (see my post Illustrating Alice). However this generated such a large response from readers that I soon realised that I had barely scratched the surface, as Alice has been published in thousands of editions in over a hundred languages, with a myriad of differing artistic interpretations worldwide and therefore a follow up post was very much in order.

Several Australian readers mentioned the paintings of Charles Blackman featuring Alice which certainly possess intensity and verve. Also noted was another artist from the Antipodes, (or the Antipathies as Alice called the Land Down Under during her descent down the rabbit hole),  Donna Leslie and her brilliant illustrations for the bilingual adaption Alitji In The Dreamtime in Pitjantjatjara and Australian English, that drew heavily on her Aboriginal artistic heritage.

Perhaps unsurprisingly Alice is somewhat of a cultural icon in Japan and Yayoi Kusami, one of Japan’s leading contemporary artists  illustrated the recent Penguin Classic edition with over a hundred drawings in her characteristic hallucinogenic dot style.

Sir Peter Blake, the leading exponent of Pop Art in the U.K illustrated the Alice books and also painted watercolours of certain celebrated scenes in a rather groovy, psychedelic style (see header image and my post Glory).

The noted Bulgarian illustrator Iassen Ghiuselev drawings for the Alice books combine a Central European folkloric sensibility with paradoxical perspectives reminiscent of Escher.

Finally featured are two American artists, Barry Moser whose sharp, dark engravings illustrated the Pennyroyal edition of 1982 and the vibrant semi-abstract paintings of Deloss McGraw.

Charles Blackman-Alice 1956
Charles Blackman-Alice 1956
Charles Blackman-Goodby Feet-1956
Charles Blackman-Goodbye Feet-1956
Donna Leslie-Alitji In the Dreamtime 1992
Donna Leslie-Alitji In the Dreamtime 1992
Donna Leslie-Alitji In the Dreamtime 1992
Donna Leslie-Alitji In the Dreamtime 1992
Yayoi Kusama-Alice In Wonderland 2012
Yayoi Kusama-Alice In Wonderland 2012
Peter Blake-Mad Hatter 1970
Peter Blake-Mad Hatter 1970
Iassen Ghiuselev-Alice Through the Looking Glass 2014
Iassen Ghiuselev-Alice Through the Looking Glass 2014
Iassen Ghiuselev-Alice in Wonderland 2000
Iassen Ghiuselev-Alice in Wonderland 2000
Barry Moser-The Queen Sheep 1982
Barry Moser-The Queen Sheep 1982
Deloss McGraw-Wonderland Playing Cards 2001
Deloss McGraw-Wonderland Playing Cards 2001
Deloss McGraw-Alice In Wonderland 2001
Deloss McGraw-Alice In Wonderland 2001

Mirror Images

mirror broken

(This is a post that has previously appeared here, however now with four brand new illustrations by Susanne Rempt).

All mirrors are inherently mysterious and magical. The moment when Narcissus looked into the lake and realised that what he saw reflected was at one and the same time the self and an image was the moment of a great divide, a second Fall, but as certain Gnostic sects argued about the temptation of Eve and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden this recognition was a necessary loss of Innocence.  It was the first experience of a mediated reality. All that was needed was the technical expertise to manufacture mirrors to disseminate this heightened self-awareness to every individual. And from mirrors it was only a matter of time before the camera and then film which led to the media landscape that envelops and dominates our perception today.

Mirrors are mentioned frequently in myth, folk-lore and religion; not to mention in art and literature. In Corinthians Paul says of our knowledge of the divine ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known’. In Vodou, the syncretic religion practised widely in Haiti that combines elements of West African spirit religion, Catholicism and arguably Mesoamerican traditions, the altars of hounfours (temples)voodoo mirror

are decorated with mirrors as they are conduits that the houngan use to contact the spirit world. Many cultures at many times held the tradition of covering all mirrors in the house when in mourning, this custom persists today in Judaism. In connection with a heresy held by one of the numerous Gnostic sects Borges states ‘Mirrors and copulation are abominable, since they both multiply the numbers of men.’

In libertine fiction mirrors play a large part as they increase the pleasure of the moment and enables the libertine to view the erotic scene which they are actively participating in. In the sparkling sophisticated jewel of a tale Point de lendemain (No Tomorrow) by Vivant Denon the artful heroine describes to her paramour the delights of her chamber with its reflective glass covering every wall, when he enters he is enchanted to find a ‘a vast cage of mirrors’ and then states that, ‘Desires are reproduced through their image’.mirror hand

One of the most memorable mentions in fairy-tales of the deceptive nature of the looking-glass is the Magic Mirror of the Evil Queen in Snow White, which is a good illustration of William Blake’s quote ‘A truth told with evil intent beats any lie you could invent.’

However, for me the supreme moment for the mirror in literature is when Alice steps through to the other side of the looking glass. _20180102_164940 (1)Ever since the phrase has been used to describe many different and varying experiences; the transfigured absolute reality glimpsed in insanity; the shifting contours of the nightly dreamscape, the heavens and hells of drug use (the John Tenniel illustration was reproduced on LSD blotters in the sixties) the transcendence achieved in sexual ecstasy, and ultimately death, that unknowing inevitable frontier where we hope that the outward appearance will vanish to be replaced for all eternity by our fundamental essence. For although mirrors are just surface and can deceive, distort and warp, they also always reveal something other than just ourselves.

The Postman Cheval’s Ideal Palace

the-postman-cheval-1932[1]
Le Facteur Cheval-Max Ernst 1932
Max Ernst’s 1932 collage Le Facteur Cheval is a homage to the extraordinary creator of the Ideal Palace, that marvellous folly that the Surrealists so loved: Ferdinand Cheval.

Born in 1836 in the Drome departement of France, approximately 30 miles south of Lyon, Ferdinand Cheval left school at 13 with an apprenticeship to a baker, however he eventually became a postman. One day in 1879 while doing his 18 mile round in the small village of Hauterives where he lived, Cheval in his haste stumbled over a stone. Stopping to examine the cause of his trip, Cheval was stuck by the strange shape and beauty of the stone and it reminded him of a dream that he had fifteen years previously and which he had almost forgotten. In the dream, which he found hard to express in words, he had built a palace or castle or caves. He had told nobody about this dream for fear of ridicule, it felt ridiculous to himself. However the stone had brought back the dream and he put it into his pocket to examine at leisure.

The next day he returned to where he found the stone and to his delight he found many more stones even stranger and more beautiful than the cause of his near fall. Cheval said that the stones “represents a sculpture so strange that it is impossible for man to imitate, it represents any kind of animal, any kind of caricature. I said to myself: since Nature is willing to do the sculpture, I will do the masonry and the architecture.”

For the next thirty-three years Cheval built his Ideal Palace, pushing a wheelbarrow on his postal rounds to carry all the stones he collected. He frequently worked late into the night with the aid of a oil lamp, binding the stones together with lime, mortar and cement. The images of exotic locales that he saw on the postcards and illustrated magazines he delivered on his route inspired his imagination and found expression in the eclectic mix of architecture of the Ideal Palace, where Hindu Temple, Arabic Mosque and Swiss Chalet (among others) styles somehow form a unified whole.

Cheval, as he feared, was scorned by the local community, and his visionary Ideal Palace was derided as the work of a madman. This changed however when the project was featured in national newspapers and tourists started visiting. In 1905 a tourist register was opened. Cheval declared the Ideal Palace finished in 1912 and inscribed on the building ,”The work of one man.” He also stated his desire to be buried underneath the Ideal Palace.

Although Cheval comes across as a charming eccentric he was obviously a man of dogged determination, so when he learnt that French law strictly forbade his burial upon the grounds of the Ideal Palace, he set about building his own mausoleum, at the age of eighty. He spent the next seven years building another fantastical and beautiful structure. One year  after its  completion Ferdinand Cheval died and was buried in the mausoleum that he had constructed.

As well as the Surrealists, who would often embark on pilgrimage to a site which they considered to be a monument to naive art and the transformative powers of the imagination, the Ideal Palace was much admired by Picasso and Anais Nin, who published an essay on Cheval. In 1969 the Minister of Culture, the novelist Andre Malraux declared the Ideal Palace a cultural landmark and later in 1986 the Facteur Cheval was featured on his own postage stamp: a touching and luminous irony.

Today the Palais Ideal Du Facteur Cheval Monument Historique receives 120,000 visitors yearly and is considered one of the most outstanding examples of Art Brut/outsider art in the world.

facade-est[1]
Ideal Palace
palais-ideal-facteur-cheval-4956_w1000[1]
Ideal Palace
facade-sud[1]
Ideal Palace
cheval_exterior1[1]
Ideal Palace

Ideal Tomb
Ideal Tomb

The Red Shoes

red+shoes[1]
The Red Shoes-Powell & Pressburger 1948
The British directorial team Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, known collectively as The Archers had spent WWII producing odd, idiosyncratic propaganda movies for the British war effort, mainly in black and white (a notable exception was The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp of 1942, which Winston Churchill had hated for its civilised, sympathetic portrayal of the German best friend of the Colonel).

With the end of the war The Archers changed direction and produced a series of sensuous fantasies filmed in the most glorious Technicolor by Jack Cardiff, intuiting that the British public, still in the midst of wartime rationing and austerity, longed for something more than the standard dourly realistic fare then be served. This led to the hallucinatory Black Narcissus in 1947, a melodrama full of simmering tension and repressed eroticism, followed by their most famous film a year later, the ballet movie The Red Shoes. As Michael Powell noted , ‘For ten years we had all been told to go out and die for freedom and democracy; but now the war was over. “The Red Shoes” told us to go out and die for art.’

As the above quote illustrates this is a movie about the primacy of art over life. Indeed it could be argued that The Red Shoes is a Symbolist movie, though it is a rather late arrival to the party. Drenched in aestheticism, with a curiously timeless fairy-tale ambience and the  rarefied, hothouse ballet setting, The Red Shoes is valiant attempt at a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art, an important concept in Symbolist aesthetics). However it also owes as much to Hollywood, especially the extravaganzas of Busby Berkeley, as it does to the various European avant-gardes.

The story is simplicity itself. Aspiring, ambitious ballet dancer Victoria Page, (unforgettably played by ballerina Moira Shearer, surely the most gorgeous red-head to ever grace the silver screen), comes under the auspices of Boris Lermontov, (an outstanding performance by Anton Walbrook) the impresario of the Ballet Lermontov who is clearly modelled on the legendary Sergei Diaghliev of the Ballet Russes. At the party where they first meet Lermontov asks Vicky, ‘Why do you want to dance?’ to which Vicky replies, ‘Why do you want to live?’ Quite.

At the same time Lermontov, who has an eye for talent, employs the young composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring). The scene is set for a particularly bizarre love triangle. For Lermontov isn’t just a Svengali, the demands he places upon his company shade into the Mephistophelian. When his current prima ballerina Irina (another ballerina Ludmilla Tcherina) decides to marry he remarks, ‘You cannot have it both ways. A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer. Never.’ 

Irina’s leaving opens the way for Vicky to become prima ballerina in a new ballet that the company is producing, The Red Shoes:

Boris Lermontov: The Ballet of The Red Shoes” is from a fairy tale by Hans Andersen. It is the story of a young girl who is devoured with an ambition to attend a dance in a pair of Red Shoes. She gets the shoes and goes to the dance. For a time, all goes well and she is very happy. At the end of the evening she is tired and wants to go home, but the Red Shoes are not tired. In fact, the Red Shoes are never tired. They dance her out into the street, they dance her over the mountains and valleys, through fields and forests, through night and day. Time rushes by, love rushes by, life rushes by, but the Red Shoes go on.
Julian Craster: What happens in the end?
Boris Lermontov: Oh, in the end, she dies.

Craster is the composer of the score and The Red Shoes premieres in Monte Carlo, Monaco. Daringly The Archers interrupt the narrative to present the centrepiece of the movie, a stunning seventeen minute ballet sequence exactly half-way through the movie. Both expressionistic and surrealistic, with scenery (designed by Hein Heckroth) and effects that could be never replicated in any theatre anywhere at anytime,  the ballet is a phantasmagorical tour-de-force.

Vicky and Craster fall in love while working on the ballet, with dramatic and indeed tragic consequences as life grimly mimics art. During the delirious final scenes Lermontov says to the sobbing Vicky:

Vicky…Little Vicky…There, there. Sorrow will pass, believe me. Life is so unimportant. And from now onwards, you will dance like nobody ever before.

The ending is entirely appropriate for this lush fever dream of a film. For The Red Shoes isn’t just a movie you watch, it is a film to be surrendered too, and once you have surrendered, to luxuriate in.