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?

Rituals

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Fabian Marti-Komposition fur eine Rhombus-2008
While researching the rather sinister figure of Georges Bataille, the author of the infamous surrealist pornographic novel The Story of the Eye, originator of the theory of base materialism and the leading light of the journal Documents (see Dreams of Desire 13 (Serene Beauty) which was the home for several major expelled and dissident Surrealists, I chanced upon the above stunning and intriguing photographic study Komposition fur eine Rhombus (Composition for a Rhombus).

Fabian Marti is a Zurich based artist and Komposition fur eine Rhombus was part of an exhibition in Bordeaux on Secret Societies and the Occult in modern and contemporary art. Apart from its purely formal considerations it certainly possesses a heavy, ritualistic feel that Bataille, himself the founder of the secret society Acephale, would have appreciated. It also brings to mind Maya Deren’s (with a little help from Marcel Duchamp) experimental film The Witch’s Cradle (see Alpha & Omega).

Halcyon Days

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Halcyon days indeed;
The dragged down moments
The spaced out seconds
Our inert bodies
On the unmade
Mussed up bed
A grimy idyll in a rented flat;
Love without bounds
You bruise so easily
I like that about you,
I’ll smoke and drink incessantly
Nurse you into illness
I prefer you that way
With a haunted look
Around your grey eyes
Fever suffusing your sallow skin
Your breath sweet with distemper
Just for once you will have need of me
Of course I am going
To catch your sickness
Be rendered immobile
By this delirium
We know what is coming next
Once I recover you are gone
Out into the cold
Harsh light of day
Never to return, never to experience
Premonitions of indivisible diversity
Again never no never again
Manners forbade you leave just yet
You have to return
All my favours
Like for like
Wound for wound
I also bruise easily;
You shave me so gently
Watching you watching yourself
In the mirror
I would ask you
To murder me the whole while
Slit me from ear to ear
Give me a second grin
Just like a Cheshire Cat
To die at your hands
Release indeed
What other alternative exists
When you no longer need my love
Whatever hurt I had ever caused
Could never equal the pain
You inflict on me so lovingly
As you walk away forever,
With a smile on your lips
And a kiss on your fingertips.

The Colossus of Dada

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Arthur Cravan
Arthur Cravan remains an elusive figure. A tireless self-promoter he caused a scandal and generated legends wherever he landed up and as he led a wandering peripatetic existence this meant he was infamous on both sides of the Atlantic. However what is not in doubt is that his exploits were an inspiration to the Dada movements in Europe and New York, leading to his canonisation by the Surrealists.

Born in Lausanne, Switzerland he had fond memories of his uncle, Oscar Wilde, ‘I adored him because he resembled a huge beast’ (he later perpetuated a hoax in his self-published magazine Maintenant in 1913 that he had recently had met up with Wilde, that was taken up by The New York Times; Wilde had been dead for over a decade). He was expelled from an English boarding school for spanking his teacher, certainly not the last of his anarchic provocations. He travelled throughout Europe on documents and passports he had forged himself and could convincingly pass himself off as German, French, English or Swiss depending on the locale. While in Paris he give an announcement that he would hold a talk which would culminate in his suicide. When the hall filled up in expectation he then accursed the spectators of vulgar voyeurism and proceeded to bore them with a lecture on entropy instead. Proud of his imposing physique (he was 6’4) and his boxing prowess he managed to become the French Heavyweight Champion without winning a single fight and would later go on to fight the World Champion Jack Johnson in the Canary Islands. He lasted a respectable six rounds although Johnson later noted in his autobiography that Cravan seemed out of training.

Dodging the draft he went to New York, where through the agency of Francis Picarbia, his partner-in-crime from his Barcelona days he fraternized with the future Dadaists Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray and would meet his future wife Mina Loy, who nick-named him Colossus. While in New York Cravan also indulged his taste for provocation; upon giving a lecture on humour he turned up dead drunk and proceeded to strip while berating the crowd, the police were promptly called and he was dragged off to the cells.

To once again  avoid military service Cravan and Loy went to Mexico where they were married. As I  wrote in my previous post  Surrealist Women: Mina Loy, Cravan set off in his small sailing boat never to be seen again, leading to all sorts of rumours and reported sightings, further sealing the legend of the anarchic poet-boxer provocateur.

Surrealist Women: Mina Loy

 

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Mina Loy
The Forrest Gump of the international avant-garde, Mina Loy had the unerring knack of being in the right place at just the right time. Born in London in 1882 to an Hungarian Jewish father and an English Protestant mother Loy caught the tail-end of the fin-de-siecle in Jugendstil infatuated Munich in 1899. She moved to Paris in 1903 and entered the circle of writers and artists centred around Gertrude Stein. 1907 saw her de-camping to Florence where she spouted Futurist aphorisms with Marinetti and his cohorts. 1916 saw Loy sail for New York where she promptly made the acquaintance of Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray.

It was in New York that she met and fell in love with the love of her life, the heavyweight champion of the Dada-verse and nephew of Oscar Wilde, the poet-boxer Arthur Cravan. They were married in Mexico City in 1918. Afterwards they intended to move to Argentina; however lack of funds and the fact that Loy was pregnant with Cravan’s child meant that only Loy took the commercial liner while Cravan set off in a small sail boat with the intention that they would met again in Buenos Aires. Cravan was never seen or heard of again; presumably the boat capsized and he drowned in the Pacific, however his disappearance has led to some wild and improbable theories, my favourite being that Arthur Cravan became the mysteriously reclusive, anarchist novelist B.Traven, famous for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre that was made into a film of the same name by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart.

The twenties saw Loy in the thick of modernist Paris. She published her collection of poems Lunar Baedeker and with the backing of Peggy Guggenheim opened a shop selling decorated lamp-shades. In 1933 she begin her close friendship with the German Surrealist Richard Oelze (see The Expectation) which resulted in her posthumously published Surrealist novel Insel, with its insightful (though disguised) portraits of Andre Breton, Max Ernst and Salvador Dali. Loy states that there is something ‘fundamentally black-magicky about the surrealists.’

Loy moved to America in 1936, this time for good. She settled in the Bowery district of New York City which was soon to become the world’s art capital. Here she made collages out of the rubbish she collected around her home and be-friended the shy Surrealist artist of Utopia Parkway, Joseph Cornell.

Proverbs of Hell

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William Blake-The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun 1805-1810
William Blake was possessed by a strange genius. A combination of painter, poet and prophet, no other artist manages to convey such visionary intensity as Blake. All his life Blake experienced visions of angels and apparitions, one of which, The Ghost of a Flea (see below), he was persuaded to paint by his friend the painter-astrologer John Hayley. He also claimed that his writing was directly inspired by outside agencies as the following quote illustrates, Thirteen years ago I lost a brother, and with his spirit I converse daily and hourly in the spirit, and see him in my remembrance, in the region of my imagination. I hear his advice, and even now write from his dictate.

Central to Blake’s work is The Marriage of Heaven & Hell, which contains a distillation of his revolutionary philosophy in the Proverbs of Hell. This work has been subject to numerous studies with many theories advanced as to what exactly its meaning is, however like all truly great works it eludes a final, concrete definition, operating as it does on many different levels, that include. but are not limited to: the alchemical, satirical, religious, artistic, mystical and revolutionary. I have included below the incendiary and paradoxical Proverbs of Hell in full to illustrate the importance that Blake placed upon desire and sexuality

As well as The Ghost of a Flea, I have selected the astonishing, hallucinatory  The Great Red Dragon series of watercolours that Blake painted from 1805-1810 based on the Book of Revelations and Blake’s death mask that adorned the painter Francis Bacon’s study. For more information please refer to my previous post The Marriage of Heaven & Hell.

Proverbs of Hell

In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.
Drive your cart and your plough over the bones of the dead.
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
Prudence is a rich, ugly old maid courted by Incapacity.
He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.
The cut worm forgives the plough.
Dip him in the river who loves water.
A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.
He whose face gives no light, shall never become a star.
Eternity is in love with the productions of time.
The busy bee has no time for sorrow.
The hours of folly are measur’d by the clock; but of wisdom, no clock can measure.
All wholesome food is caught without a net or a trap.
Bring out number, weight, and measure in a year of dearth.
No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings.
A dead body revenges not injuries.
The most sublime act is to set another before you.
If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.
Folly is the cloak of knavery.
Shame is Pride’s cloak.
Prisons are built with stones of Law, brothels with bricks of Religion.
The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.
The lust of the goat is the bounty of God.
The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God.
The nakedness of woman is the work of God.
Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps.
The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword are portions of eternity too great for the eye of man.
The fox condemns the trap, not himself. 53
Joys impregnate. Sorrows bring forth.
Let man wear the fell of the lion, woman the fleece of the sheep.
The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.
The selfish, smiling fool, and the sullen, frowning fool shall be both thought wise, that they may be a rod.
What is now proved was once only imagin’d.
The rat, the mouse, the fox, the rabbit watch the roots; the lion, the tiger, the horse, the elephant watch the fruits.
The cistern contains: the fountain overflows.
One thought fills immensity.
Always be ready to speak your mind, and a base man will avoid you.
Everything possible to be believ’d is an image of truth.
The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn of the crow.
The fox provides for himself; but God provides for the lion.
Think in the morning. Act in the noon. Eat in the evening. Sleep in the night.
He who has suffer’d you to impose on him, knows you.
As the plough follows words, so God rewards prayers.
The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.
Expect poison from the standing water.
You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.
Listen to the fool’s reproach! it is a kingly title!
The eyes of fire, the nostrils of air, the mouth of water, the beard of earth.
The weak in courage is strong in cunning.
The apple tree never asks the beech how he shall grow; nor the lion, the horse, how he shall take his prey.
The thankful receiver bears a plentiful harvest.
If others had not been foolish, we should be so.
The soul of sweet delight can never be defil’d.
When thou seest an eagle, thou seest a portion of Genius; lift up thy head!
As the caterpillar chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys.
To create a little flower is the labour of ages.
Damn braces. Bless relaxes.
The best wine is the oldest, the best water the newest.
Prayers plough not! Praises reap not!
Joys laugh not! Sorrows weep not!
The head Sublime, the heart Pathos, the genitals Beauty, the hands and feet Proportion.
As the air to a bird or the sea to a fish, so is contempt to the contemptible.
The crow wish’d everything was black, the owl that everything was white.
Exuberance is Beauty.
If the lion was advised by the fox, he would be cunning.
Improvement makes straight roads; but the crooked roads without improvement are roads of Genius.
Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.
Where man is not, nature is barren.
Truth can never be told so as to be understood, and not be believ’d.
Enough! or Too much.

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William Blake-The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun 1805-1810
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William Blake-The Great Red Dragon and the Beast from the Sea 1805-1810
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William Blake-The Number of the Beast is 666-1805-1810

The Ghost of a Flea c.1819-20 by William Blake 1757-1827
William Blake-The Ghost of a Flea 1819-1820
NPG 1809; William Blake by James Deville
William Blake’s Death Mask

 

Dreams of Desire 56 (Bob Carlos Clarke)

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Bob Carlos Clarke-Vanessa and Vicky Kissing 2002
Born into a fading aristocratic dynasty in Cork, Ireland, Bob Carlos Clarke was frequently referred to as ‘Britain’s answer to Helmut Newton’  (see Dreams of Desire 55 (Helmut Newton) for his provocative nude portraits which often featured the subjects wearing rubber and latex and involved in scenes suggestive of sado-masochistic ritual. Along with Newton he is the best exemplifier of what was known disparagingly as ‘porno-chic’.

After an unhappy childhood spent in boarding school in England Clarke had a hard time re-adjusting to 60’s Ireland, as he wryly noted in the introduction to his book Shooting Sex  (2002), “The first decade was OK, but later it was no place for a libidinous adolescent, particularly a withdrawn Protestant boy in a land where all the hot talent was Roman Catholic and strictly off-limits” and he moved to England in 1970 where he became a photographer quite by chance. When he discovered that the girl at college whom he had an unbearable crush on was a model he brought a camera so that she could pose for him. It worked and he would later marry the model Sue Frame, however the union didn’t survive Clarke’s constant infidelities.

He would later marry for a second time to another one of his models, Lindsay, with who he had a daughter Scarlett. As well as his overtly sexual photographs Clarke also took extraordinary and voyeuristic documentary style photographs of drunken debutantes balls and images of found objects discovered on the banks of the river Thames.

In 2006 at the age of 56, Clarke, depressed with growing older in a world where the models remained forever 21 and by the emergence of digital photography of which he said made everyone think they were the next Cartier-Bresson (Dreams of Desire 50 (The Decisive Moment) threw himself beneath an oncoming train.

The Art of Provocation II

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Papin Sisters Before, After-Le Surrealisme au Service de la Revolution May 1933
A dramatic subversion of a convention even before it had become a commonplace. The Papin sisters were responsible for one of the most sensational murder cases in 1930’s France. After seven years exemplary service as domestics in the Lancelin household they killed and mutilated Madame Lancelin and her daughter when a blown fuse threw the house into darkness. The sisters promptly confessed, however it was revealed during the brief trial that they were locked in an incestous lesbian relationship.

This wasn’t the first time nor would it be the last that the Surrealists venerated criminals. Earlier in the first issue of La Revolution Surrealiste they had placed mugshots of themselves around a photograph of Germaine Berton, an anarchist who had assassinated the leader of a far right party organization. Later they would advocate for Violette Noziere who poisoned both of her parents and whose subsequent spectacularly deranged testimony gripped the nation.

The Art of Provocation 

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Our colleague Benjamin Peret in the act of insulting a priest-La Revolution Surrealiste December 1926
Being born out of anarchic Dada, the Surrealists delighted in provoking shock and outrage. The targets were the traditional representatives of bourgeois society; the law, the army and politicians. However they reserved their greatest contempt for the Church and never missed an opportunity in attempting to scandalize an institution that would frequently rise to the bait.

Is the above photograph an example of a chance encounter, an event so beloved by the Surrealists, that Peret found too tempting to pass up; or is rather a more calculated, stage-managed affair? Either way it remains a provocation.

The Semblance of a Better World

 

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William Blake-Newton 1795

The apple never falls far
We are fashioned in the image
Residents of this sham slum
An unfashionable outlier
Enmeshed in illusions
Deceived by the shadow-play
Made pliable and compliant
By the distant promise
Of transitory pleasures
And the uncertainty
Of imagined Utopias
Even our revelations
Of reality across the universe
Under a more fortunate star
Maybe the twin suns of Arcturus
Led us into a labyrinth
Of cunning devised stage
Settings and funhouse mirrors
A parody of a homage
To the semblance of a better world
That we never really hope for
Anyway for anyone at any time
Instead we only desire
To inflict the affliction
That we suffer onto others
A communication of the virus
Of life and existence
Whose whole and sole purpose
Is to feed the malignant entity
With the accumulation of pain.