The Fantasies of Mr Seabrook

Lee Miller-William Seabrook-Man Ray 1930
Lee Miller & William Seabrook-Man Ray 1930

One of the most disturbing articles in the provocative Surrealist magazine Documents is Michel Leiris essay The ‘Caput Mortuum’ or the Alchemist’s Wife, which details Leiris encounter with the American Lost Generation travel writer and occultist William Buehler Seabrook.

Leiris had favourably reviewed Seabrook’s book on Haiti, The Magic Island for Documents and he readily agreed to a meetingLeiris was very impressed with Seabrook, who narrated a story about a man who had come face to face with God. Shortly afterwards  Leiris received some startling photographs from Seabrook of a woman in a leather mask. Leiris meditations on the photographs form the body of the essay which raises disquieting questions regarding identity and desire.

The American photographer Man Ray also met Seabrook in Paris around the same period and Man Ray tells several anecdotes concerning Seabrook in his autobiography Self Portrait. Man Ray shot several photographs of tableaux arranged by Seabrook, as well as the photographs of Seabrook with the marvellous Lee Miller.

The Fantasies of Mr Seabrook-Man Ray ca 1930
The Fantasies of Mr Seabrook-Man Ray ca 1930
The Fantasies of Mr Seabrook-Man Ray ca 1930
The Fantasies of Mr Seabrook-Man Ray ca 1930
The Fantasies of Mr Seabrook-Man Ray ca 1930
The Fantasies of Mr Seabrook-Man Ray ca 1930
Documents-1930 attributed J.A Boiffard?
Documents-1930 attributed J.A Boiffard?
Lee Miller & William Seabrook-Man Ray 1930
Lee Miller & William Seabrook-Man Ray 1930

 

27 thoughts on “The Fantasies of Mr Seabrook

    1. Very much so. The current series is on the darker strains of Surrealism centred around the magazine Documents. Does transgression equal transcendence? I am not convinced but for the sake of balance I am featuring the rebel Surrealists.

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  1. How exceedingly normal and respectable Mr. Seabrook appears in the Lee Miller photos. Aside from the pose, that is. It makes for a startling contrast and suggests that perhaps the appearance of normal hides the darker soul within. Regarding the mask, a two fold idea: one that identity is voluntarily concealed, giving the wearer the freedom to act upon secret desires OR: two to rob the wearer of her identity, and objectify her. I can imagine the designer’s intention was the latter, nevertheless… a mask can be a protection in some instances as well.

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    1. A lot of the avant garde back in the day were quite conservatively attired, some rebels prefer to hide in plain sight. As for the mask (Seabrook gave instructions for the designer, the same with the collar that Miller is wearing…Man Ray gave the recommendation for the designer to Seabrook), Leiris was of the opinion that it was to rob the wearer of identity. The little story that Seabrook is, I suspect important. For the renegade Surrealists, transgression is transcendence and there is mysticism in abasement.

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      1. She becomes no more than a receptacle. The objectified woman, that is. Lee Miller was a good sport, I’d say. And transcendent perhaps… but not to any better or more elevated state, the same for the mystic nature – a truly dark and malignant sort.

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      2. Well Bataille would argue that the only revelation possible is negative revelation, as Burroughs would later call it The Naked Lunch moment, when you realise what is at the end of the fork. Besides the Christian mystics and other mystics besides would have believed that the world is a deceptive illusion and the first priority would be to see the world as it really is. You only have to think about the early Christian fathers in the desert, St Simon upon his tower of shit. Bataille didn’t believe in a better , more elevated state, he believed in base materialism.

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      3. Indeed, this world, this life with its suffering to be endured on the pathway to heavenly reward. The greater the suffering, the better chance to experience the grace of god at the end of the days. These more nihilistic philosophies make me wonder how one could drag themselves out of bed in the morning…

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    1. Lee Miller was Man Ray lover at the time, but Seabrook was very taken with her (so was everyone). The collar was designed by Seabrook for his wife, Marjorie. There does seem intimacy in the photograph. Man Ray seemed to lead a charmed life when it came to his risqué photographs, you would think they would cause an uproar but not that I know of. The photographs of the mask were published without incident in Documents, astoundingly.

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  2. Splendid post on William Seabrook, Mr. Cake. For art’s sake the photos are brilliant, and yes I adore Man Ray, however for me they are close to unnerving, only because there is a disturbing undertone of… this is only the surface of the gentleman we know as Mr. Seabrook. The Documents photo, leather mask, takes the sexual intent to another level, holding hands with horror! That’s not something everyone wants to get in bed with! Haha. Do you think with another post you might elaborate on “Mr. Seabrook Exposed”, and all the other stuff he dabbled in and where he finally ended up? In a strange way he’s fascinating. Enjoy the rest of your day and week ahead. ~ Miss Cranes

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    1. I share your fascination with Mr Seabrook, undoubtedly a rogue and a reprobate but would also enliven the dullest dinner party, as long as you kept him away from too much liquor and beautiful women. I have the full Leiris article in the Surrealist Reader and it is extremely disturbing, both the article and the photographs, horror indeed. I did mention Seabrook in my Haiti post, as for his other exploits, well I probably will in time. My main sources for this piece are the Leiris article and the section American and English Writers in Man Ray’s autobiography, which has some quite hair raising anecdotes regarding Seabrook. Both Man Ray and Leiris spoke very highly of Seabrook. Thank you for the lengthy comment and watch out for more Documents related material.

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      1. Thank you, Mr. Cake for a wonderful reply. I will watch for more Documents related material. I don’t want to spoil or give away some of his exploits for your other readers, but they are most definitely cringe-worthy, BUT still fascinating, in the sense that you almost can’t look away and want to know more. Hmm, what does that make me? Sick or what?

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    2. Here is the link to the Haiti post that mentions Seabrook, which is part of a larger series called the Surreal World (the other countries are Rapa Nui, Papua New Guinea and Mexico, based on the Surrealist Map of the World).

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