One of the most prominent artists of his time, the German Symbolist Max Klinger is now predominantly remembered for his series of ten etchings entitled Paraphrase über den Fund eines Handschuhs (Paraphrase on the Finding of a Glove) first completed in 1877-1878, then revised in a mixed technique of engraving, etching and aquatint in 1881.
AGloveis widely considered to be an important link between Symbolism and Surrealism with it dream-like narrative, changes in size and scale and its symbolic fetishism. It is hard to deny the sexual significance of A Glove and it definitely lends itself to a Freudian interpenetration, though it predates Freud by nearly two decades.
Here is the entire series which I hope you enjoy and I would also be very interesting in what ‘A Glove’ suggests to my readers.
While I was enjoying my usual 3AM snack of Pot Noodle (heavy on the Tabasco) and a wee glass or three of Absinthe (absolutely with the sugar-cube) before retiring, I did a little more research on Gaspar Noé new movie, Climax, the subject of my last post, and as well as discovering the reason why he decided to set the movie in 1996, (because 96 is the opposite of 69 and is therefore the year of collective impossibility, whereas 69 was the year of, yes you guessed correctly, coming together), I was delighted to find the complete playlist of the soundtrack, and oh boy, it is definitely killer.
This is to be expected, however, as whatever faults Noé possesses, his soundtracks have always shown impeccable taste. The opening credit sequence of Enter The Void combines elements of the soundtrack of Noé’s 2002 movie Irréversible, composed by regular collaborator Thomas Bangalter of Daft Punk, with LFO’s Freak to produce a dazzling marriage of sound and flashing graphics that was immediately imitated in the music video field.
The stand out track of the above-mentioned soundtrack from Irréversibleis Rectum, which takes its title from the hellish nightclub featured in the movie. Rectum is an aural distillation of pure dread; nervy, queasy and ever building, a perfect realisation of the demented Boschian world portrayed.
As Climax is a dance movie set in 1996, electronic, house, techno and industrial music from the 80’s and 90’s naturally features heavily, including songs by Gary Numan, Aphex Twin, Daft Punk and Giorgio Moroder as well as the Rolling Stones. I have included below two tracks, Lil Louis’s seminal Chicago House track French Kiss, which includes some of the heaviest and sexiest deep breathing on record since Serge Gainsborough’s Je t’aime, and Soft Cell’s combined cover of two Northern Soul classics Tainted Love and Where Did Our Love Go.
Please note that the clip for Enter the Void contains flashing images and I hope you enjoy, though probably best to avoid if you have been drinking Sangria.
Regular readers may have noticed that I tend to be somewhat fixated on the art, literature and film of the past, rarely does anything post-1980 featured on these pages, and certainly not movies that I haven’t even seen yet. However, as the premise of Gaspar Noé‘s new movie, Climax, which recently premiered in Cannes, actually made me pause during my favourite early afternoon breakfast of Black Forest Gateau and original Irn-Bru, I decided to make an exception this one time.
Billed as a dance-horror movie (who knew there was such a thing?), Climax, which is apparently based on true events, tells the story of a young street dance troupe’s descent into collective madness after drinking the LSD-laced Sangria during the final rehearsal party, all filmed in Noé’s seizure inducing visual style and with his trademark horror-porno aesthetic. Described as The Red Shoes on literal acid, Step Up meets Salo and a Satanic DJ set, any minuscule reservations I had about leaving Chateau Du Cake to see this in the movie theatres when released are dispelled by the trailer, featured below.
I am delighted to present once again one of my stories illustrated by my good friend Susanne Rempt. With her noirish, expressionistic illustrations that, for this story, border on the hallucinatory, Ms. Rempt contributes to the blackly comic atmosphere I was seeking to convey in this horror phantasmagoria.
Anna felt nervous about today. She was determined to make a good impression. O.K it was only a P.A’s position, but the pay was excellent, and it would take away some of the pressure. Without the constant worry about money she could concentrate on her real calling. True to recent form however, things had gone wrong from the moment she woke late after being up most of night rehearsing the upcoming interview. Filled with heavy dread she rushed around cramped studio trying to make up for time lost, but of course wasted hours could never be got back and her frantic efforts threw her into more of a panic. Indeed, things went from bad to worse as she bolted towards the front door, taking final swig of coffee to keep her focused and it spilt over best suit she’d picked up from dry cleaners only yesterday, at considerable expense given finances at present time. She had nothing else suitable to wear, the only thing remotely business-like was a white cotton suit set, jacket and blouse, but it was the nearly the end of November. There was nothing for it now apart from making do. She searched around for an umbrella before remembering that she’d left it in a taxi a couple of nights ago, but at least she had a raincoat, Thank God for small blessings.
Outside it wasn’t just raining, no this was different, a new angle on the ever-present rain, every drop left a yellow smear on her white clothes. This must have been the dirty rain she’d vaguely heard them forecasting on the news. Something about sand from the Sahara being absorbed by storm clouds, pushed across the Atlantic by an ominous low front before letting loose over London. Or something like that she wasn’t entirely sure because she hadn’t really listened but whatever else it was, it was nasty. There were no taxis anywhere to be had, she waited and waited, soon saturated to the skin. Being an attractive girl, she usually had no problem flagging down a cab but today every taxi was filled with their shadows and ghosts being carried forward to their nebulous destinations, so when a bus came she hopped on even though she never caught buses
As the bus slithered slowly though the sparsely haunted streets she remembered why she never caught buses. They were always so slow, taking too long. And how would she get from the bus stop to where her appointment was? She knew that the bus stopped at High Street Kensington and that the address for Reynolds Corporation was in W8, but where exactly? The 86 Fascination Street couldn’t be that hard to find however. Maybe she would have better luck getting a taxi in Kensington, if worst came to worst she could always go into a shop and buy a street atlas, another unwanted expense to be sure, but she had saved on taxi fare. One good thing you can say about the buses, at least they’re cheap.
Finally, the bus stopped at a sodden High Street Kensington. She got off and looked around for a taxi, but it was a total no go. Unfortunately, she would have to walk, her clothes were half way ruined by now, but surely they would understand about the rain. Why hadn’t she got better directions? Why did she expect everything to fall in her lap? She knew that she mustn’t think about her run of misfortune right this minute, must concentrate on what had to be done. Namely getting to the interview so that she could get work so that she might be finally able to get some organisation in her life. Then she would not have to think of all the things that set her apart.
She wandered around for a little while but very quickly she realised it was of no use, there was no way she would ever find Reynolds Corporation in this manner, so she went into Waterstones to buy a street atlas. First sensible idea I’ve had for a long time she thought. Inside the bookstore it was quite crowded with people sheltering from the rain, all standing hunched up over their paperbacks, little pools of heavy rain congealing around their ankles. Soon they would be immobilized, set fast.
She knew that she had to act quickly, time was running out, somewhere along the way she had lost her watch (where, when?) but she knew that the interview was due soon if she wasn’t actually already late, and who knew what other obstacles she would met today? After all it was a Wednesday. Street maps and atlases were supposed to be on the second floor according to the flashing neon finder board but the icy assistant, offended that she was being asked about atlases and not Kafka told her that they were on the third floor. This was odd as the building seemed to be only two storeys’ high but in unspoken answer to her unstated question the frigid intellectual pointed to the far-left corner where there was a rickety, unbanistered staircase. She nodded her head and climbed the wooden steps, counting as she went up as she always did for superstitions sake, one hundred, one hundred and one, one hundred and two and would it ever end and where was this decrepit staircase leading her? One hundred and seven, one hundred and eight, nearly there now surely. Are we yer vet, are we yer vet, she whispered to herself like a child been ferried to god knows where by sullen, silently seething parents, their holiday so carefully planned and longed for already turned into a domestic Stalingrad. No, not yet, but we‟re nearly there now. One hundred and ten, one hundred and eleven, as last, and the third floor lay before her, vast vistas of aisles and shelving stretching onwards towards a terrible infinity of nothing but books, books, books as far as the eye could see. A labyrinth of books where you would forget everything about yourself and your existence, a maze of books where you would lose yourself in other peoples lives and other people’s words, a prison of books from whence you could never escape from the dream of others and from the tyranny of your own consciousness. She turned and fled down the one hundred and eleven steps.
She didn’t slow down until the first floor, hadn’t wanted to see the icy assistant who had misdirected her so cruelly again, or the petrified browsers, but she still needed a street map, searched on the first floor but there was none, descended to the ground floor and there, right by the cash till saw a fold-out map entitled, “The Impractical Girl’s Guide to Kensington’s Streets and Byways” surely the very thing for her. She took a copy and gave it to the old crone at the counter and handed over the money. Then she left right quick.
The vile rain had intensified, drowning the streets in filth and stalling the traffic in its tracks. She stood under the doorway of an electrical goods shop and unfolded the map, which proved tricky as it was much bigger than was practical, obviously trying to live up to its title.
Before her eyes, on the map at least, was presented a Kensington transfigured, no longer Church Street and Abingdon Road, instead there was Desolation Row and Dreamside, Paradise Heights and Easy Street, Nightmare Alley and Morningstar Crescent. Fascination Street she found easily enough, on the corner of Glimmer Road, which ran adjacent to the High Street, which thankfully was still represented otherwise it would have been completely hopeless.
She ran from shop awning to shop awning the length of High Street Kensington trying not to get any wetter, but it was coming down in torrents and as there were few shops on Glimmer Road she gave over and started walking an even pace.
She found Fascination Street and was looking out for a stainless-steel tower or the suchlike but was surprised to see that it was a quiet residential street of rather grand late Victorian mansions. Nothing looked remotely like the European headquarters of a large multi-national publishing company. Just the secluded homes of London’s more moneyed inhabitants. Be that as it may be, 86 must be here somewhere, there can’t be another Fascination Street in Kensington can there? Out of the question and Reynolds was definitely on Fascination Street. It was difficult to see what the house numbers of the houses were as they were each well set off the pavement, so she opened the gate of one and went to the colonnaded entrance. She was in luck, for the first time she thought, about time too, it was no. 86, but the brass nameplate said “Dr. Dee’s Institute for the Perpetually Perplexed and Terminally Twitchy” she knew it must be some mistake, so she pressed down the buzzer. Reynolds Corporation must be a very secretive organisation to hide its presence so rigorously, really I mean, she almost laughed to herself.
She heard heels clicking on the presumably marble floor, they were that loud, and the door was opened by a nurse in stiff starched uniform. The nurse’s depth-less agate eyes gave her a searching once over and a knowing smile hovered on her red tainted lips.
“Hello I’m…” she began.
“Miss Anna Ferguson, I know. You’re late; Doctor Dee has been waiting for you. We couldn’t begin until you arrived.” the nurse interrupted.
“I’m awfully sorry, what with the rain and everything there were no taxis to be had.” she replied.
“No need to apologise Miss Ferguson, please do not concern yourself with such trivialities, the doctor certainly doesn’t. If you would kindly follow me.”
The nurse spoke perfect English but the phrasing of her sentences and her oddly precise pronunciation, vaguely American like she’d learnt English from the telly and movies, suggested that she was of Scandinavian or maybe Germanic origin, a suggestion borne out by her glacial blondness and her full, fleshy, heavy boned figure. She certainly had a strong grip, and long sharp nails. As she had stepped over the threshold of Dr Dee’s establishment the nurse had encircled her left wrist with her right hand, she had no choice but to follow. Not that she had any inclination not to. Everything was so off kilter that she had decided to adopt a policy of complete passivity in the face of whatever occurred from here on out. Certainly, questions kept plying her mind, as she didn’t have answers she tried to dismiss them, but she couldn’t but help thinking. Was this the right place? The address was right, but it certainly wasn’t like what she was expecting. Maybe she had mixed up the details and she was interviewing for the position of medical secretary. And who was this Dr. Dee? Maybe this was some new bizarre interview process, she had heard of the bigger companies using unconventional techniques to screen out applicants, but this seemed too idiosyncratic even by today’s corporate standards.
Where was the nurse leading her? Across hallways with intricate Italian marbling, past many mirrors, down stairwells and though empty offices.
The nurse finally let go of her wrists to open large double doors.
“Here we are Miss Ferguson,” the nurse said at the entrance at what appeared to be an auditorium from the tiered stage, podium, and seating, “I hope you will enjoy the lecture. Dr. Dee is such a wonderful speaker. Unfortunately, I have some work to do now, however I will join you later. Dr. Dee and I are so much looking forward to talking to you. That is, of course, if you will join us afterwards.”
“Lecture? I’m here for the position, Nurse…?”
“Nurse Woods. I do realise that Miss Ferguson. Do not concern yourself with details, the merest formalities. The process will commence in its own time. In the meanwhile,” she gestured towards the seats with a vague wave, “I suggest you find a place for yourself.”
What did this have to do with the position she was applying for? Nurse Woods was staring at her, no not at all kindly either but rather with a detached anticipation. A subdued but distinct murmur of expectancy rose from the unseen audience. She was decidedly uneasy but the feeling of passivity that had taken hold upon entering the building was even stronger now, overwhelming her into a resigned acceptance of whatever fate may have in store.
She entered the auditorium, after she had advanced in the dim ambient lighting sufficiently she heard the stab of Nurse Woods’s stilettos receding down the hallway from where they had entered.
Only two seats were empty out of about fifty, next to each other at the end of the third row, all others taken by an audience comprised entirely of women and girls, not a man to be seen. She felt wildly inconspicuous in her white clothes, as all the others were wearing impeachable black. Obviously, the new black was black for the fashionably insane and the insanely fashionable.
She hesitated for what seemed an inordinately long time before sitting down on the second to last seat. She was obviously an object of considerable attention. The middle-aged lady seated next to her turned and smiled, if a permanent rictus can be called a smile. Indeed, her face, sculpted away by excessive dieting, botox injections and the surgeons knife was no longer a face, it was a skull precariously perched on top of an elongated skeletal structure fashioned by Giacometti in his later anorexic period. She was a triumph of a morbidly decadent science over a barely breathing nature. She didn’t smile back, hugged her damp coat tight over her chest and watched the stage for any signs of the lecturer.
She didn’t have to wait long; soon the hubbub of sophisticated chitter-chatter gave way to a low, admiring “ohhhh’s and ahhhh’s” as the Doctor made his grand entrance. She knew now why the audience was made up entirely of neurotic ladies and hysterical girls, the good Doctor was obviously a bit of a lady-killer, a suave silver fox.
“Welcome ladies, I see many familiar faces today and a newcomer.” he was obviously referring to herself because he stared right through her, his cruel, sensual, thick lips curving into an asymmetrical, she could only call it wicked, smile. She shivered; this was a man who could make her come just by looking at her. “For the benefit of all those who do not know me and are unacquainted with my work here, I am Dr John Dee resident psychologist at the Home. My methods and theories are in their early stages and, I will be the first to admit, shall we say of a somewhat experimental nature but not without their successes.” He paused to let the fact of his modesty sink in. The ladies obviously found it charming. “Today I’m going to discuss, not about the why, but the how. The methodology, if you like, the methodology of suicide. As an act, suicide is redolent with symbolism, obviously as it is the grand, ultimate gesture of narcissism. Consider, for instance a particularly masculine form of self-dispatch, shooting oneself. Brutal, but instantaneous. Quite unladylike. This form of deliverance is much favoured by military and civilian police personnel, who eat their service issue revolvers; those who live by the gun must die by the gun, one way or another. Hanging is a different matter altogether, the favoured form of execution of criminals for centuries it clearly reveals a strong strain of self-loathing, the only thing to be said in it’s defence is that it is quick and apparently painless, but who would want to be found dead like that, with your tongue lolling out idiotically. A blatant and very unsubtle approach may be found in the people who choose to kill themselves by jumping in front of tube trains on the Circle and District line, a gesture that screams the fact that London kills.
“Suicides of artists and writers are of particular interest in this matter, as artists are egotistical in an extreme degree and are also highly aware of the symbolic importance of all thoughts and actions, and suicide is a rare instance of the unity of decision and deed. By definition not one suicide is an accident, but neither are there spontaneous or surprising suicides, all are pre-meditated and signified.
“My first example would be Sylvia Plath. Imagine the scene, unwashed dishes in the sink, the unattended children crawling around in soiled nappies, her head in the oven. Of course, her husband is out seducing any lady willing. Given this, the content of her death is glaringly manifest. Her appalling husband, a representative of the patriarchal society that reduces women to little more than indentured servants, subjected her to the indignities of childrearing and keeping house, killing her with neglect and his desire to impose his overwhelmingly masculine personality upon her. Let us not forget her dear Nazi Daddy either, with his jackboots and concentration camps and gas ovens… If I may inject a word of warnings here ladies, it would be this; try not to marry your fathers. The oven is hugely significant, just as a soldier in dishonor turns his own gun on himself; it was only fitting, no, more than fitting…it was the only possible means for her end, the symbolic importance of which could escape no interested party, ensuring in the elimination of her own life that a legend would be born.
“For my next example the symbolism is rather more convoluted, indeed torturous, rather like his writings. I’m referring to the highly public death of the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima. His death by ritual seppuku, physically appalling as it involves self-disembowelment and then de-capitation was supposedly motivated as a protest at the westernisation of Japan, but you cannot seriously buy that for a moment. His suicide has an intentional iconographic quality, not surprising as he was much given to Saint Sebastian. In this final scripted and staged moment of his life, a death that he had foretold and rehearsed many times beforehand, Mishima managed to satisfy his many contrary impulses and desires. His love of death, his aesthetic masochism, his mania for self-promotion and his militaristic fantasies were fused together and gratified in the act of seppuku, where he also hoped to gain a kind of immortality by notoriety, as he was probably cognisant of the fact that then current source of his fame, his novels and plays, would not stand the test of time.
“However, one must be on one’s guard against over-generalisation. Every suicide is a uniquely personal drama; no amount of statistics or analysis could reach the root cause. Why exactly did Van Gogh choose to blow his brains out? Weapons had played no part in his life thus far, apart from the ear-slicing knife. I like to think that he was releasing the demons that had tormented him for so long from within the confines of his skull. Or perhaps…”
So engrossed was she with the bizarre lecture and by the low, sonorous voice of the macabre doctor she failed to notice that Nurse Woods was sitting next to her until her knee touched her leg. She turned around, considerably startled.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb you; I can see that you find the lecture fascinating.” Nurse Woods voiced buzzed in her ear.
“No need to apologise, I just didn’t hear you join me is all.” Anna answered nervously.
“You are quite jumpy, do not worry, the Doctor is nearing the climax of his lesson. Listen,” she nodded towards the stage and her fleshy hand gripped Anna’s arm lying on the armrest.
“Well, my words are all very fine and good, but as they always say, a picture is worth a thousand words. So, let me give you illustrated examples.”
The pressure of the nurse’s hand against her hand was opening up new areas of anxiety and unease. The audience of the sophisticated ladies and what she had earlier taken to be their daughter‟s but now she wasn‟t sure seemed to be alternatively concentrating on the stage where a slide projector had been brought out and herself.
The doctor stepped aside near to the wings.
Images were projected on the screen. At first, she couldn’t make them out; they seemed to be highly conceptualised pictures of imaginary events. Only after the third still did she recognise herself.
Her mutilated body the star of an atrocity exhibition to sate the jaded tastes of these sinister strangers who clapped appreciatively after every new still of her death at her own hand.
How many times could one person die?
In a bathtub full of blood; hanging from a tree, black tongue between blue lips; face down on a table, gun in limp hand, her blood and brains a tachist explosion on the dulled yellowed walls; in a disturbed bed flecks of foam on her mouth; in the compacted driver’s seat of a car involved in a head-on collision; in a nightclub toilet empty syringe on the floor, an exclamation point to a life!
She couldn’t avert her eyes even though she felt sick to death. She moved to throw up, but she was restrained from all sides. Nurse Woods and the death’s head lady gripped her wrists tighter, hurting her. They didn’t say anything, not that they had to by this stage. She leaned back, closed her eyes, and hoped that they, her persecutors, would disappear.
But, of course they didn’t.
Instead Nurse Woods was tightening her grip. “The Doctor is coming to see you now, Miss Ferguson, it’s not the time to fall asleep. First impressions are very important, wouldn’t you say?”
“I wasn’t going to sleep. I would appreciate it if you let go of me, please.”
“I think we had better leave that decision to the Doctor, don’t you, Miss Ferguson?”
Doctor Dee approached, descending the steps of the stage, right towards her. He towered over her, his penetrating eyes restlessly looking her over. She would have liked to kick him or do something to break the awful spell, but felt completely powerless beneath his stare.
“Anna, it is a pleasure to meet you, though the circumstances are hardly conducive,” he sighed. “So, few things are as we wish them to be. One can only hope that the next world is an improvement on this one. Though I, for one, hold little hope of that. Oh well, we just have to make do, really, don’t you agree?” he paused for her agreement, but none was forthcoming. “You have been under a strain, lately, I know, I know. Life can be hard, unfortunately, most unfortunate really. You are not the only one. However, the thing is… well we had better discuss that later. At the moment you are tired and wet, and I don’t doubt, just a little confused. Now is not the time to formally start the interview process, I realise, though of course everything is being taken into consideration, maybe after you have changed and rested for a while we can begin, but for now I think you need a little something to make you relax.”
Out of his pocket he pulled out a hypodermic needle, he tossed the cap onto the floor and tapped the needle a few times. Her restrainers held her down as she began to struggle. She kicked and thrashed her body trying to escape or at least avoid the oncoming needle, but no use. The needle sank into her vein and she desisted as she lost control of her muscles.
“Now now Anna, what was the good of resisting, you are a clever girl you should have realised it would get you nowhere. And of course, the authorities will have to be informed. I will try to put in a good word, but still…” he trailed off.
She was trying not to think, to escape to a point outside the confines of her body, to a distance away from the imprisoning dimensions of space and time. Who knew what fresh horror lay in store next. What additional twists and turns could this nightmare take?
“Well it is obvious to me that you can’t prepare for the interview in the present surroundings. Nurse Woods, if you would kindly show Miss Ferguson to her quarters and arrange for her a change of clothes, as you’ll catch your death in those damp ones, and I will look in on you soon. Then we can initiate the procedure. I look forward to seeing you soon, Miss Ferguson.”
Nurse Woods dragged her out of her chair. Her legs were gone, she knew that they were there, but she couldn’t feel them, and they were of no use to her. Her eyelids kept on drooping closed and her head felt imponderably heavy on her neck, every time she nodded off into half-unconscious she roused herself with an effort, she knew that she mustn’t fall asleep, no no she mustn’t, not here, in this place with that doctor and his nurse and those women licking their lips in anticipation of…what, fresh meat? No, she mustn’t, but the law of gravity was proving to be almost irresistible.
She was taken to a room bereft of furniture apart from an old rusted folding chair, like one she used to sit in and look out of the window at school and a coarse fibred blanket. They were no windows and the walls were painted a dingy cream color. The sole source of light was an unshaded bare light bulb. Nurse Woods let her fall onto the chair, picked her up as she sprawled onto the floor and proceeded to undress her with a sadistic methodicalness, she dimly suspected in drugged state that here was a woman who enjoyed her work. Was it really necessary to remove her bra and underwear so that she was totally naked? She tried to voice her concerns but only a feeble croak escaped her lips.
“I will be back with some clothes. Miss Ferguson, I suggest that you proceed to make yourself comfortable. I will return shortly, however a good attitude is vital within the interview context. Good luck, Miss Ferguson.”
How long ago did the nurse leave? She had no way of knowing, no clocks were on the walls, no light penetrated the room. However, her lucidity had returned, and she was aware of that she was shivering, and naked. She was reluctant to cover herself with the blanket, who knew where it had been? The cold of the chair was uncomfortable against her bottom but the floor was hardly inviting. She knew that the door was a dead-end it would be locked, and it would go against her later, she tried not to look at it too much, because she knew that they were watching, somewhere they were watching her. She scanned the room for peepholes or camera lens, apertures or mirrors. She hadn’t managed to find any yet, but she knew that they were there.
She just wanted her clothes back, but who knew when the nurse would return? When she did she would ask to leave, as she felt that she was, given the circumstances, unsuitable for the position offered
You want to know the truth?
There are so many different kinds:
A truth for you and a truth for me;
If you ask me the truth of the matter
It’s that there is too much truth.
If only you would realise
The truth of what I say
Things might go a little easier
But if you really want the truth
You could find it in the empties
And lipstick stained glasses
Littering every surface…
So it a different order of truth
That you are looking for…
Well, if you must insist upon
Searching for the truth
Wherever and whatever
You will have to hear me out
As I tell you a little story
So that I can whisper
Into the shell of your ear
The whole truth and nothing
But the truth;
In between the sweet nothings,
Sweeter than any truth
That I could possibly tell you.
It is true that I was the kind,
To fall asleep at their desk
Always at the very back,
Roused only by the exasperation
Of the weary teachers
As the lesson descended
Into a chaos that was
My unconscious objective,
Quietly disruptive and
Rubbing the sleep away
I would glimpse some
Sarah or Cathy or Lisa staring
Before quickly averting their eyes
Causing me to grin
Like a cat with spilled cream,
While the teacher would rant
About taking that look off,
But I couldn’t help myself
I never could, then or now
After all how can I help my face?
Besides maybe here was
My potential partner in crime,
A willing accomplice
Someone to share, finally,
In all my myriad punishments.
All this is all very fine and gospel :
But it isn’t the whole story
Not by a long chalk.
If you want to hear everything and all
Hold me tight and look into my eyes.
Would I lie to you?
The truth is that you are not the only one
Who doesn’t know what to make of me;
Sometimes I was the class rebel,
Sometimes the comedian
But only occasionally,
Because I was really
The boy that wasn’t there
If you met me on the stairway
You might have breezed past
If I was waiting there at all,
Instead of loitering
On corners and stores
Pocketing and lifting
Whatever lay in reach
If the opportunity arose
And if not there then
Receiving my true education
In the somnolent suburban home
While rifling through the contents
Of drink and medicine cabinets,
Purses caked with make-up,
Locked draws and hidden chests
Before watching the old flick:
A world of stark black and white,
The body in the swimming pool,
The perpetually shuttered blinds,
In the decaying mansion
High in the lush Hills,
Far above the city
Blanched bone white, way down below,
Where the shadows are deeper
And the nights are oh so longer,
For the hero inescapably doomed
By a sinister fatal figure
Out of a past that refuses
To either forgive or forget.
Here then, is my eye witness
Testimony. For sure, it contains
Discrepancies, lapses, omissions
And perhaps evasions,
Even downright fabrications.
But the truth of any story
Lies in the telling;
And that, my tender, dearest one
Is the simple truth of the matter.
In the mid-eighteenth century, the would be Venetian architect, etcher of Roman views and manufacturer of hybrid artefacts, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, produced a remarkable series of prints entitled Carceri d’invenzione (Imaginary Prisons). The Imaginary Prisons can be classed as capricci, architectural fantasies, however these astounding visions would have an impact far beyond the narrow limits of this particular genre.
The first plate of fourteen prints was published between 1745-1750 and later revised with two additional etchings in 1761. It’s most obvious and immediate influence was upon the craze for the Gothic novel that swept throughout Europe in the late 18th Century. The Prisons would also exercise a considerable hold upon the imagination of the English Romantics. Not only do we find the two original gentleman junkies, Thomas De Quincey and Samuel Coleridge, discussing Piranesi at length in De Quincey’s classic autobiography and drug memoir, Confessions of an English Opium Eater, but De Quincey’s entire writing style can be seen as an attempt to replicate Piranesi within literature. Critics have found echoes of the Prisons in the works of Byron, Shelley and Victor Hugo.
In the 20th Century, the Surrealists saw in the Imaginary Prisons a visual metaphor of the mind and hailed them as an important precursor of their own explorations of the unconscious. Aldous Huxley linked Piranesi to Kafka and certainly such stories as In the Penal Colony seem to be set in the world of the Prisons.
In the visual arts Piranesi direct heir was M.C Escher, complete with paradoxical geometry and labyrinthine structures that offer a vertiginous glimpse of an infinity that may well also be infernal. For the most terrifying aspect of Piranesi’s Imaginary Prisons, is the suggestion, re-enforced by the fact that we are only seeing a section of the whole and that the buildings are never fully enclosed, that the portrayed Prison is conterminous with the world, or indeed the universe.
I have always been intrigued by the bizarre landscapes of the French Surrealist Yves Tanguy, paintings that demand a creative response far beyond the standard art historical entry. With this in mind I approached the enigmatic Mia, aka Copper Cranes, one of the finest poets that I know, who constantly crafts verses that are elusive and hermetic, dense yet delicate, if she would compose a piece on the above painting, Je Vous Attends (I’m Waiting for You), that played such an important part in the personal mythology of Tanguy and his wife Kay Sage.
I am delighted that Miss Cranes not only agreed but produced such an outstanding and haunting poem as Last Call Before You Go, which is published below. My contribution to this collaboration is a brief essay on Tanguy, Sage and the concept of the chance encounter within Surrealist aesthetics.
Last Call Before You Go
Within a blinding sanguine flash
Escaping the unbridled muzzle of destiny
I find myself riding a scorching bullet,
The train of deliverance, to a place of remains:
Human cairns, les piles de vertèbres
Unrecognizable, yet familiar skinless parts
In this: historic, prehistoric, futuristic,
With perpetual dinner parties’
Sunsetting shadows: 7 pm
All in search of the multifaceted singular you
Chasing craggy friction, smooth from tracing
A longing desire for all your bigness:
That which fills the heat of any room,
Your fanfare flames a come-hither awareness:
Clarity: the drive for scorn:
Perfection that leads me here
I sense your startling presence
Larger than life, surrounding, smothering
A gyration of hovering stillness
With its annihilating posture: verbal trysts:
Cruelty and misunderstandings:
The heaven on earth I cannot live without:
Effortless drunken brush strokes:
Wire and bullets, forever holding us together
Alas, I have found you: a gaping hole of loss
Collecting plundered eons
And inconsequential landmarks:
The keys to nothing — home to everything
The Dictates of Chance
The concept of chance was of vital importance to Surrealist aesthetics. Taking as a starting point the beautiful chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella upon an operating table of the Comte De Lautreamont and Stephane Mallarme’s enigmatic dictum that ‘a throw of the dice will never abolish chance’, the Surrealists came to believe that chance was the force necessary to change art, life and indeed transform the world.
Maybe because they were finely attuned to its workings and therefore always on the look-out for its unexpected arrival that chance encounters do seem to have played a disproportionally large role in many a Surrealist biography, especially in the life and works of the two best exemplifiers of Surrealist scorched earth strangeness, Yves Tanguy and Kay Sage.
In 1923 Yves Tanguy was an ex-Merchant Seaman from Brittany leading a rather aimless Bohemian lifestyle in Paris. One day he passed a shop window displaying a painting by Giorgio De Chirico, Le Cerveau L’Enfant (The Child’s Brain). This random, chance encounter had an electrifying, galvanising effect upon Tanguy. He there and then decided to become a painter, despite the fact that he had no formal training whatsoever. It was an inspired decision. Tanguy was possessed of a unique, singular vision that defies all explanation and would greatly influence later Surrealists (especially Dali) and the Abstract Expressionists, notably Pollack and Rothko.
Tanguy’s great contribution was to paint irreal figures that are neither animal, vegetable or mineral, in a painstaking, precise naturalistic fashion, therefore adding to the illusionism of the extra-terrestrial landscapes with their depthless horizons. He would render this strange realm that could be interpenetrated as either a collective memory of the pre-organic origins of life or as a prophecy of the distant future or maybe a mental photograph of the unconscious, obsessively throughout the rest of his career.
In 1938, the wealthy American Kay Sage, who had recently, began to pursue an artistic career after the failure of her marriage visited the International Surrealist Exhibit in Galerie Beaux-Arts. She was so taken by another one of De Chirico paintings, La Surprise, that she brought it and it would remain in her possession until her death. Another painting she noticed and admired immensely was, ‘I’m Waiting For You’, by Yves Tanguy. This exposure to the works of De Chirico led Sage to change her artistic direction from semi-abstraction to Surrealism. This change of direction led to a solo exhibition that Tanguy attended and he was so moved by the paintings that he decided to seek Sage out. A meeting was arranged through mutual friends, the result of a series of chance encounters that led to their marriage in 1940 in Reno, Nevada.
They moved to Woodbury, Connecticut shortly afterwards. Their marriage was by all accounts difficult and tempestuous; however Tanguy’s death in 1955 from a stroke devastated Sage. She almost completely stopped painting her own eerie, dread-filled and depopulated surreal landscapes, instead making small sculptures out of wire and bullets.
In 1963 Kay Sage left this poignant and heart-rending suicide note: “The first painting by Yves that I saw, before I knew him, was called ‘I’m waiting for you.’ I’ve come. Now he’s waiting for me again-I’m on my way.” She shot herself through the heart. Tanguy’s friend, the art dealer and brother of Henri, Pierre Matisse scattered their mixed ashes on a beach in Tanguy’s beloved Brittany.
The Swedish abstract painter Hilma af Klint frequently divided her Paintings for the Temple into thematic groups, including The Swan, The Dove, Altarpieces and Primordial Chaos. One of the most stunning groups is The Ten Largest, so called because of their truly monumental size, each canvas is over 10 foot tall. The Ten Largest is an abstract, spiritual rendition of a persons life from Childhood to Old Age.
The Ten Largest with their bold colouring and joyful unfettered line displays an exuberance reminiscent of Matisse, yet Hilma’s mediumistic work painted in secret preceded the acknowledged modern master by a year. Thankfully her canvases survived being stored in frozen Swedish attics for decades and we can now marvel at the splendour of Hilma’s esoteric creations.
Hilma af Klint raises many questions concerning the history of modern art. Wassily Kandinsky’s untitled watercolour of 1910 was long considered to be the first abstract painting, a turning point in the course of Modernism. Abstraction was to influence, and at times dominate the art of the entire 20th Century. Yet this tidy version of events was upset to a certain extent by the discovery of the private abstract paintings of Hilma af Klint, some of which predate Kandinsky’s watercolour by 4 years.
Hilma af Klint was born into a naval family in the Karlberg Palace just outside of Stockholm, Sweden in 1862. After an idyllic childhood she studied at Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm where she graduated with honours and as a post graduate scholarship was awarded an atelier. She made a living as a conventional landscape and portrait artist, occasionally supplanted by botanical and technical drawings
af Klint had developed an abiding interest in Spiritualism and the Theosophy of Madame Blavatsky at an early age after the death of her younger sister in 1880. She formed a group called ‘the Five’ with four other women artists with the expressed intention of contacting the ‘High Masters’. The group met weekly to conduct seances and in 1896 experimented with automatic drawing and writing, a full twenty years before the Surrealists. During one seance in 1905 she received instructions from a spirit named Amaliel that she was to execute the’Paintings for the Temple’. af Klint said she had no idea what the Temple was but from 1906 to 1915 (with a four year hiatus between 1908-1912) she completed 193 large scale paintings , some as large as 10 foot tall, a remarkable work rate, especially considering her petite stature (she was 5ft on the dot).
af Klint was in no doubt that she was receiving assistance from the beyond. Commenting on the Temple paintings she noted, “The pictures were painted directly through me, without any preliminary drawings, and with great force. I had no idea what the paintings were supposed to depict; nevertheless I worked swiftly and surely, without changing a single brush stroke.”
In 1915 the guiding spirit left, but af Klint continued painting in the abstract vein, though on smaller canvases. The paintings of this period show the marked influence of the ideas of Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Anthroposophy. Upon meeting Steiner, Hilma showed him the Temple paintings, however he said that the world wasn’t ready to see them for at least another fifty years, which may have influenced her decision to stipulate that the 1,200 paintings and many notebooks (which explains in depth the complex letter and colour symbolism of the paintings) wouldn’t be made public until twenty years after her death.
After her death in 1944 her nephew Erik af Klint, Vice-Admiral of the Swedish Royal Navy complied with her wishes. He offered the Swedish Moderna Museet Hilma’s complete archive in 1970 but they declined. In wasn’t until 1986 that an exhibition of her work was held. af Klint’s work is held in by a foundation so none of her work is on the market or held by museums. There are plans however for an exhibition centre dedicated to af Klint just south of Stockholm.
The question whether af Klint or Kandinsky was the first abstract painter is largely academic. af Klint abstracts were created in isolation and remained private until 80 years after they were painted. They show an urgent spiritual need to fashion a personal mythology in the manner of Blake or Goya’s Pinturas Negras. Interestingly the recognised pioneers of abstraction, Kandinsky, Malevich and the unknown af Klint were all immersed in esoteric and Theosophical doctrine.
In upcoming posts I will discuss the symbolic system as outlined by af Klint to shed further light on these mysterious paintings as well as a feature on her major series, The Ten Largest.
Although there are a few instances of self-portraits in Western Art before Albrecht Dürer, most notably Jan Van Eyck’s Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?) from 1433, Dürer was the first artist to prolifically produce self-portraits throughout their career, ushering in a new conception of the artist who could also be the very subject matter of art.
Dürer’s first self-portrait is a silver-point drawing from 1484 produced when he was only thirteen. At the time he was learning the basics of goldsmithing and drawing from his father, however such was his precocious artistic talent that he became apprentice to Nuremberg’s leading artist, Michel Wolgemut, at the age of fifteen. Notice the flowing locks of hair and the long, slender, artistic fingers which would be repeatedly emphasised in a number of subsequent self-portraits.
Dürer’s first painted self-portrait is the Portrait of the Artist Holding a Thistle completed when he was 22 and probably intended as a betrothal present to his fiance Agnes Frey. The thistle was a sign of conjugal fidelity and also thought to have aphrodisiac properties.
The second painting is the Self-Portrait at 26, painted after his first journey to Italy. Here Dürer portrays himself as a man of the world and also a man of fashion. His presence dominates the setting and the landscape seen through the window and his knowing, ironic gaze stares out at the viewer with more than a hint of arrogance.
Dürer’s final and most famous painted self portrait is the powerful Self-Portrait at Twenty-Eight Years Old Wearing a Coat with Fur Collar from 1500. Here Dürer is unmistakably portraying himself as Christ. The muted tones and the fingers raised in a sign of blessing belong to the traditional depictions of Christ, as well as being half-length and frontal as opposed to the three-quarters length favoured for secular portraits. It is undoubtedly the most complex and introspective of all his self-portraits with an unprecedented psychological depth.
The rest of Dürer’s self-portraits are mainly confided to cameo appearances in other works. However in 1509 he would draw a remarkable Self-Portrait in the Nude, submitted the whole of his body to a merciless self scrutiny that wouldn’t be matched in art again until the advent of Modernism in the early 20th Century.