The Process of Perfection

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Etant Donnes: 1 La Chute D’Eau 2 Le Gaz  D’Eclairage-Marcel Duchamp (1946-1966)
After WWII the enigmatic Marcel Duchamp, arch avant-gardist and art world provocateur was widely have believed to have turned his back on art to dedicate himself to competitive chess. However for the next twenty years  Duchamp would work in secret on his tableau Etant Donnes: 1 La Chute D’Eau 2 Le Gaz D’Eclairage (Given: 1 The Waterfall 2 The Illuminating Gas), it was to be his final work. The tableau was only installed after Duchamp’s death in 1968 in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

It immediately caused a sensation. The tableau is only visible through two tiny peep holes which presents a mysterious scene whose meaning remains elusive. In the foreground against the painted sylvan landscape is a naked female (comprised of parchment, hair, glass, paint, cloths-pegs, and lights). Her head is hidden, all that is visible above the torso is strands of blonde hair. The posture of the body is extremely disturbing, the immediate impression is of violence against the supine figure. The model for most of the figure was Duchamp’s lover from 1946 to 1951, the Brazilian sculptor Maria Martins. After meeting Martins Duchamp increasingly introduced the erotic into his previously cerebral art and he would obsessively draw her voluptuous figure. Duchamp’s second wife Alexina (Teeny) was the model for the arm. Duchamp consulted extensively with both women during the artistic process.

A work as opaque as Etant Donnes invites all manner of interpretations. For me several features are highly suggestive of alchemy and Hermeticism. The oil lamp could be alluding to the alchemical fire that accelerates the process of perfection in the Great Work. The headless women was a frequent symbol of Mother Nature in early cultures and her position could be taken as someone ready for either childbirth or sexual intercourse. If this is the case then the spring would refer to the womb where new life is formed and nourished. Is Etant Donnes an alchemical allegory on artistic creation?

Bring On The Night

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Bring on the Night
For the Night is the time
The only time there is
For the likes of you and me
Only in the Night
With its compulsions
And its repetitions
Of obsessive desires
Can we be truly ourselves
Because in the vulgar glare
Of the censorious daylight
We are exposed to the
Prying eyes of simulacra
Of cold unfeeling automata
Bring on the Night
Let the black Sun
That absorbs all radiance
Stay high in the sky
And never set again
So that I can play
My bizarre childish games
While you work away
At your women’s work
For during the night
Magic and Alchemy
Are living realities
First the Alchemy
Of the holy word,
Word into deed,
Deed into actuality
Then the Alchemy of
Our bodies as we turn
Each other inside
Out to transmute
Our base natures into
The stuff of spiritual gold
With the admixture
Of saliva and blood
We will greedily swallow
Each other’s essence
The elixir necessary
To achieve the intensity
Required to slow
This shit right down
So that the sacred
Unholy night never ends.

The Visionary Eye

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Walking down the street I entered one of those passageways that are created when a city block is undergoing renovation. It was longer than usual and I was starting to feel hemmed in. Finally it ended and I had a view of the open sky again between the buildings. It was even greyer than usual, the clouds were pregnant with rain. As I carried walking along I kept on staring at the sky, I had this anticipation of some kind of inauguration. The clouds coalesced into an eye enclosed within a triangle inside a double circle. I saw the workings of the system, all the letters and words and symbols revealed their latent content to my new self. The weight of the revelation overwhelmed me and I passed out.

In fact I was sleeping on the bus driving through the countryside, the whole vision had been a dream. I looked out of the window and saw up ahead a massive sprawling council estate that seemed oddly out-of-place in the valley that was hundreds of miles away from any urban area. The ominous feeling that everything was off-kilter only increased as the bus inched closer to the development and I could see the smoke rising from the burning buildings. The bus pulled to a halt at a bus stop even though a riot was in full swing and it was being pelted with bricks and Molotov cocktails. A stone shattered the window and hit me on the temple and I immediately lost consciousness.

But I was actually under sedation the whole time and I was lying in a hospital bed. Coming too I briefly remembered my dream within a dream, before going back to sleep.

Then I woke up for real but it felt like those Russian dolls, you open it and inside is an identical smaller doll that opens to reveal yet another identical doll only smaller and so on. A nausea inducing object lesson in infinity.

 

Surrealist Women: Ithell Colquhoun

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Ithell Colquhuon-Man Ray 1932
Although Ithell Colquhoun distanced herself from the London Surrealist Group in 1940 she considered herself a Surrealist for the rest of her life. The schism occurred when Colquhoun was unwilling to submit to the group’s leader E.L.T Mesens dictates that any member was forbidden to belong to a secret society: Colquhoun was a serious occultist and was a member of several lodges and organizations including the Typhonian O.T.O, an order that had fallen under Aleister Crowley’s sway and which he had re-directed towards the practice of his own Thelemaic sex-magic. Colquhoun had her run-ins with the Great Beast, one time when she had rejected his advances Crowley chased her around his house.

As well as being a painter and occultist, Colquhoun was a gifted writer. Published by Peter Owen, the same independent firm that published Anna Kavan, Colquhoun wrote two idiosyncratic travel books on Ireland and Cornwall respectively; a brilliantly sustained Surrealist narrative dealing with alchemy,  The Goose of Hermogenes (with what must be the only description in literature of a Green-Light district, like a Red-Light district but with the important difference that the clientèle are phantoms) and a biography of MacGregor Mathers, one of the founder members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn which numbered among it’s distinguished literary members Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Gustav Meyrink,  Arthur Machen and W.B Yeats.

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Ithell Colquhuon-Song of Songs 1933

Melencolia I

Melencolia I (B. 74; M., HOLL. 75)*engraving  *24 x 18.8 cm *1514
Albrecht Durer-Melencolia I-1514
The most famous of the many outstanding works by the genius of the Northern Renaissance, Albrecht Durer’s etching Melencolia I (Melancholy I), is replete with esoteric and alchemical  references and has been the subject of much debate and interpenetration. The title is taken from the German occultist Cornelius Agrippa’s theory of melancholy, in his influential book  On the Occult Philosophy he states that in artists Melencolia Imaginativa predominates over both mind and reason.

A winged figure, Lady Melancholy sits slumped surrounded by symbolic objects. In Medieval and Renaissance medicine, melancholy was a humour caused by an excess of black bile and her posture suggests the  contemplative attitude and the mental anguish produced in people who suffer with this temperament. Artists, philosophers, theologians and craftsmen were thought to particularly susceptible to melancholy and were often said to have a Saturnine nature, that is to be under the influence of the planet Saturn. Further allusions to Saturn can be found in the purse and keys which are traditional attributes of the patron god of melancholy.

Directly above Melancholy’s head is an hourglass showing the passing of time, and a magic square that adds up to 34 every which way. Additional references to alchemy can be found in the darkened countenance of the brooding figure, the so-called facies nigra, pointing to the adept that the first stage of the Great Work is nigredo (blackness), the putrefaction necessary for all creation. The geometric tools are symbols of various other stages of the magistery, leading up to the six-sided prism (imprinted with a faint human skull) which represents Prime Matter and the seven steps of the ladder, each rung a phrase in the Magnum Opus. The blazing comet in the sky and the rainbow heralds its final completion.

Contrary to the contemporary belief that melancholy has to be banished at all costs, either by chemical means or positive thinking, the Renaissance view of melancholy was that it was the necessary, preliminary stage of all creativity.  Without the putrefaction of melancholy you cannot take the first step on the journey that will led to a transformation of matter and, more importantly, the self. Only art can produce this metamorphosis.

Surrealist Women: Leonora Carrington

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Paul Eluard, Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst-Photo by Lee Miller 1937

An exceptional artist and in my opinion an even better writer Leonora Carrington was the inspiration for many of Max Ernst masterpieces, notably The Robing Of the Bride (see A Week of Max Ernst: Friday) and was in many aspects the archetypal Femme-Enfant of Surrealist desire; a dubious honour that Carrington, as one of the founding members of the Women’s Liberation Movement in Mexico in the 1970’s, found galling.

Daughter of a English industrialist and an Irish mother, Leonora identified closely with her  Celtic heritage which was to play an important part in her art. She was a rebellious child and was expelled from two private boarding schools for her unruly behaviour, subsequently she was sent to Florence to study art. In 1936 at the age of her 19 her mother gave her Herbert Read’s book Surrealism and she was intrigued. When the International Surrealist Exhibition came to London Carrington visited and was struck most forcibly by Ernst’s work. Shortly after she met Ernst at a party, they were immediately besotted and so began one of the most passionate and productive of all Surrealist love affairs. The 46-year-old Ernst immediately left his second wife for the 20-year-old Carrington; however a divorce wasn’t immediately granted and a torrid love triangle ensued until the outbreak of WWII which changed the situation dramatically. Ernst was interned twice first by the French as a German national and then by Gestapo as a degenerate artist. He managed to escape with the aid of Peggy Guggenheim who later became his third wife for a short period. Leonora suffered a mental breakdown that resulted in her being institutionalised in a Madrid psychiatric hospital; a period she characterised as  living on The Other Side of the Mirror. Later Andre Breton encouraged her to set down her experiences and the result was published as Down Below.

Leonora and Max met again later in New York but their wartime experiences had been too intense for their affair too continue, however they carried a candle for each other till the end of their days despite their respective marriages. Carrington ended up in Mexico City where she was good friends with Benjamin Peret’s wife and  fellow Surrealist artist who shared her occultist affinities, Remedios Varos (though Frida Kahlo wasn’t impressed, she referred to them as ‘those European bitches’) and would get occasional visits from Luis Bunuel, who speaks of  Carrington with genuine fondness in his autobiography My Last Sigh as well as highly praising her marvellous Surrealist novel The Hearing Trumpet.  Another friend from this period was the maverick film-maker Alejandro Jodorowsky who frequently stopped by to discuss the Tarot and alchemy. Carrington remained in Mexico City producing art and sculpture up until the first decade of the 21th century, becoming in the process something of a Mexican National Living Treasure until her death in 2011 at the grand old age of 94

 

 

A Week of Max Ernst: Saturday

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The Stolen Mirror-Max Ernst 1941
Saturday’s A Week of Max Ernst is a lesser known work from the incredibly fertile period of 1940-1942. Painted in California while living with Peggy Guggenheim whom he was soon to marry, the dual female figures would again appear to be Leonora Carrington. He had recently learnt that after leaving her behind in France, Carrington had suffered a severe mental breakdown that had resulted her being institutionalized in a Madrid mental asylum, a period she recorded in Down Below, an account of what Carrington called her adventures ‘on the other side of the mirror.’ Legend has it that when her wealthy industrialist father learnt of Leonora’s fate that he despatched her beloved nanny to rescue her in a submarine.

The Stolen Mirror has a particularly limpid quality. Decalcomania was again a major component, especially in the  wounded, diminished figure on the left, a warped, petrified reflection of the towering female on the right with her regal furs and attendant creatures. In between a rampart skirts the water’s edge leading off into the vast distance, past small islands and man-made mounds crowned with mythological monuments.

A Week of Max Ernst: Friday

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The Robing of the Bride-Max Ernst 1940
Friday’s Ernst is a gorgeous, grotesque erotic fantasy. Ernst’s art is always cryptic and open to a wide range of interpretations but any interpretation of The Robing of the Bride will fall woefully short before this magnificent, sumptuous masterpiece.

The long-legged, small breasted  Bride is robed in spectacular, vivid red feathered cloak which also completely covers the face with the exception of a pair of owl eyes and a beak. To the left is a bird warrior/attendant whose spear (surely the symbolism is deliberate) is broken before the sexual glory of the Bride-Queen. To the right is a tiny weeping four-breasted hermaphroditic monster. Behind is an enraptured pale-skinned naked women with a stunning headdress that Ernst fashioned using decalcomania. The picture on the wall of another bride of another time amidst classical ruins also uses decalcomania for her robes.

Of all Ernst paintings The Robing of the Bride has the most visible alchemical and esoteric elements. The Bride is generally accepted as being inspired by Ernst’s lover and fellow Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington. Ironically the painting can be seen in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice. Both Guggenheim and Carrington were involved in a bitter rivalry for Ernst’s affectation. Guggenheim would become Ernst’s third wife in 1942 but the union was short lived. Ernst married his fourth wife Dorothea Tanning in 1946, they were to remain married until Ernst’s death in 1976

Recurrence

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Max Ernst

It’s a repetition of the recurrence
Don’t believe the hype
This ain’t no singularity
Nowt new beneath
The gaudy painted disk
That meanders monotonously
Against the banal backdrop
The Ingenue is always searching
In other people’s bathroom cabinets
And the Melancholy Lieutenant
Is eternally on the verge
Of nodding off, drifting away
To a place that only exists
Within the confines of his skull
While the Rebel is forever swerving
Just a fraction too late
On the rain slick Parisian street
The serpent eats it tails
So that whatever happens
Happens again just so
Everything returns
Exactly as it was
And there is no end in sight
Because there was never
A starting point to begin with
It’s the recurrence of a repetition

 

A Week of Max Ernst: Wednesday

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Rendezvous of Friends-Max Ernst 1922
On seeing this imaginary group portrait in Cologne recently I was struck immediately by the self portrait of Ernst, who is number 4 in the painting’s key and is sitting on Dosteyevsky’s (number 6) knee. Although Ernst is left of centre and has no special prominence in the composition the striking features, luminescent hair and pale skin draw your attention. Perhaps this explains the fascination that Ernst exercised over a number of beautiful, talented women throughout his life, including number 16 in the painting, Gala Eluard (late to become Gala Dali). For 1924 to 1927 Ernst was to be involved in a menage-a-trois with Gala and her husband, Paul Eluard, the poet responsible for the unforgettable Surrealist poem ‘The World Is Blue As An Orange’. Eluard is also represented in the painting, number 9 in the key, standing next to Raphael.

Atop a craggy cliff, under snowy peaks during a solar eclipse (signifying revolutionary change in art, politics and society) the members of the mouvement flou and their artistic forebearers gather. Andre Breton (number 13) wearing a red magician’s cape and touching the apparition in the sky is clearly the leader of the group and therefore assumes the role of  psycho-pomp guiding his followers through the previously uncharted realm of the unconscious, where they will emerge from to create a new reality, the SUR-REALITY.