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

The Anna Kavan Smile Part One—Ice

Anna-Kavan[1]Anne Kavan is inevitably smiling in photographs. It was that smile which initially intrigued me. I was browsing through My Madness when I saw the photo that served as the frontispiece. It shows a rather smart
middle-aged woman beaming away at the camera. The contrast between the blurb which alluded to drug addiction, mental breakdown and confinement in psychiatric institutions and the photograph of a lady who obviously lunched at expensive Kensington restaurants was too incongruous.  Here, I felt, was a mystery. I brought the book and went home to found out something about the enigmatic Anna Kavan.

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The Enormous Space

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Chul Hyun Ahn-Emptiness 2002
I have concentrated in my previous J. G Ballard posts on his influential and highly controversial ‘Concrete and Glass’ experimental novels of the late sixties and early seventies that included The Atrocity Exhibition ( see Stars of The Atrocity Exhibition: Marilyn Monroe), Crash (Always Crashing In The Same Car) and High-Rise (Living The High Life). However in addition to his eighteen novels Ballard produced hundred of short stories throughout his lengthy career. Ballard was truly a master of this unjustly neglected art-form and several of his stories rank among the world’s greatest in my (admittedly biased) opinion.

Ballard’s first published work was the short story Prima Belladonna which was set in the decadent, futuristic desert resort of Vermillion Sands where several of his early stories are based. Ballard is mainly known for his  dystopian visions of the near future and among his most chilling prophecies are The Concentration City, about a metropolis that encompasses the entire world and The Subliminal Man which is surely one of the most prescient criticisms of advanced capitalism ever penned. Other stand out stories include the sublime, elegiac fantasy The Garden of Time which surely contains a nod to the great symbolist drama Axel by the otherworldly aristocrat Villers De l’Isle-Adam (To the Dreamers, To the Deriders), the Freudian psychodrama Mr F is Mr F, the Borgesian Report on an Unidentified Space Station and the terrifying existential drama of Minus One.

Probably my favourite is a later story, The Enormous Space from 1989. It’s theme is quinessential Ballard; an unhappy middle aged professional in the midst of a divorce surrenders to an internal logic in the hope of finding a more ‘real’ life. His solution is simple, he decides to never leave his suburban house again. Obviously this being Ballard this means more than just becoming a mere shut-in, and in the darkly humorous and unnervingly demented pages that follow Ballard shows exactly how far the narrator is prepared to go to in his desire to remain marooned from society.

The following passage is a perfect illustration of a mind beguiled by irrationality:

Without doubt, I am very much better. I have put away the past, a zone that I regret ever entering. I enjoy the special ease that comes from no longer depending on anyone else, however well-intentioned.

Above all, I am no longer dependent upon myself. I feel no obligation to that person who fed and groomed me, who provided me with expensive clothes, who drove me about in his motor car, who furnished my mind with intelligent books and exposed me to interesting films and art exhibitions. Wanting none of these, I owe that person, myself, no debts. I am free at last to think only of the essential elements of existence-the visual continuum around me, and the play of air and light. The house begins to resemble an advanced mathematical structure, a three-dimensional chessboard. The pieces have yet to be placed, but I feel them forming in my mind.

What I Believe by J.G Ballard

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Paul Delvaux-The Mirror 1939 (Reproduction by Brigid Marlin from a commission by J.G Ballard)
The incantatory prose poem What I Believe from 1984 is a crystallised distillation of Ballard’s artistic credo. Here are all the signature trade-marks and obsessions: car crashes, deserted beaches and abandoned hotels as well as his extraordinarily odd musings on the real appeal of celebrities. It is, as always with Ballard, idiosyncratic, bizarre and strangely beautiful.

The above image is Brigid Marlin’s reproduction of Paul Delvaux’s 1939 painting The Mirror that was destroyed in WWII. After the commercial and critical success of Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun and the subsequent film adaption by Steven Speilberg, he commissioned Marlin to copy two of Delvaux’s lost paintings for his home in the London suburb of Shepperton.

What I Believe

I believe in the power of the imagination to remake the world, to release the truth within us, to hold back the night, to transcend death, to charm motorways, to ingratiate ourselves with birds, to enlist the confidences of madmen.

I believe in my own obsessions, in the beauty of the car crash, in the peace of the submerged forest, in the excitements of the deserted holiday beach, in the elegance of automobile graveyards, in the mystery of multi-storey car parks, in the poetry of abandoned hotels.

I believe in the forgotten runways of Wake Island, pointing towards the Pacifics of our imaginations.

I believe in the mysterious beauty of Margaret Thatcher, in the arch of her nostrils and the sheen on her lower lip; in the melancholy of wounded Argentine conscripts; in the haunted smiles of filling station personnel; in my dream of Margaret Thatcher caressed by that young Argentine soldier in a forgotten motel watched by a tubercular filling station attendant.

I believe in the beauty of all women, in the treachery of their imaginations, so close to my heart; in the junction of their disenchanted bodies with the enchanted chromium rails of supermarket counters; in their warm tolerance of my perversions.

I believe in the death of tomorrow, in the exhaustion of time, in our search for a new time within the smiles of auto-route waitresses and the tired eyes of air-traffic controllers at out-of-season airports.

I believe in the genital organs of great men and women, in the body postures of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Princess Di, in the sweet odors emanating from their lips as they regard the cameras of the entire world.

I believe in madness, in the truth of the inexplicable, in the common sense of stones, in the lunacy of flowers, in the disease stored up for the human race by the Apollo astronauts.

I believe in nothing.

I believe in Max Ernst, Delvaux, Dali, Titian, Goya, Leonardo, Vermeer, Chirico, Magritte, Redon, Durer, Tanguy, the Facteur Cheval, the Watts Towers, Boecklin, Francis Bacon, and all the invisible artists within the psychiatric institutions of the planet.

I believe in the impossibility of existence, in the humour of mountains, in the absurdity of electromagnetism, in the farce of geometry, in the cruelty of arithmetic, in the murderous intent of logic.

I believe in adolescent women, in their corruption by their own leg stances, in the purity of their disheveled bodies, in the traces of their pudenda left in the bathrooms of shabby motels.

I believe in flight, in the beauty of the wing, and in the beauty of everything that has ever flown, in the stone thrown by a small child that carries with it the wisdom of statesmen and midwives.

I believe in the gentleness of the surgeon’s knife, in the limitless geometry of the cinema screen, in the hidden universe within supermarkets, in the loneliness of the sun, in the garrulousness of planets, in the repetitiveness of ourselves, in the inexistence of the universe and the boredom of the atom.

I believe in the light cast by video-recorders in department store windows, in the messianic insights of the radiator grilles of showroom automobiles, in the elegance of the oil stains on the engine nacelles of 747s parked on airport tarmacs.

I believe in the non-existence of the past, in the death of the future, and the infinite possibilities of the present.

I believe in the derangement of the senses: in Rimbaud, William Burroughs, Huysmans, Genet, Celine, Swift, Defoe, Carroll, Coleridge, Kafka.

I believe in the designers of the Pyramids, the Empire State Building, the Berlin Fuehrerbunker, the Wake Island runways.

I believe in the body odors of Princess Di.

I believe in the next five minutes.

I believe in the history of my feet.

I believe in migraines, the boredom of afternoons, the fear of calendars, the treachery of clocks.

I believe in anxiety, psychosis and despair.

I believe in the perversions, in the infatuations with trees, princesses, prime ministers, derelict filling stations (more beautiful than the Taj Mahal), clouds and birds.

I believe in the death of the emotions and the triumph of the imagination.

I believe in Tokyo, Benidorm, La Grande Motte, Wake Island, Eniwetok, Dealey Plaza.

I believe in alcoholism, venereal disease, fever and exhaustion.

I believe in pain.

I believe in despair.

I believe in all children.

I believe in maps, diagrams, codes, chess-games, puzzles, airline timetables, airport indicator signs.

I believe all excuses.

I believe all reasons.

I believe all hallucinations.

I believe all anger.

I believe all mythologies, memories, lies, fantasies, evasions.

I believe in the mystery and melancholy of a hand, in the kindness of trees, in the wisdom of light.

Stars of The Atrocity Exhibition: B.Traven

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Presumed Portrait of B. Traven
In a Technical Sense. Webster’s hand hesitated on Karen Novotny’s zip. He listened to the last bars of the Mahler symphony playing on the radiogram extension in the warm bedroom. ‘The bomber crashed on landing,’ he explained. ‘Four members of the crew were killed. He was alive when they got him out, but at one point in the operating theatre his heart and vital organs failed. In a technical sense he was dead for about two minutes. Now, all this time, it looks as if something is missing, something that vanished during the short period of his death. Perhaps his soul, the capacity to achieve a state of grace. Nathan would call it the ability to accept the phenomenology of the universe, or the fact of your own consciousness. This is Traven’s hell.’

J.G Ballard-The Assassination Weapon-The Atrocity Exhibition 1966

Talbot. Another face of the central character of The Atrocity Exhibition. The core identity is Traven, a name taken consciously from B.Traven, a writer I’ve always admired for his extreme reclusiveness-so completely at odds with the logic of our own age, when even the concept of privacy is constructed from publicly circulating materials. It is now almost impossible to be ourselves except on the world’s terms.

Annotations-The Atrocity Exhibition 1990

 

Stars of The Atrocity Exhibition: Elizabeth Taylor

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Liz Taylor-Richard Avedon 1956
The Atrocity Exhibition. Entering the exhibition, Travis sees the atrocities of Vietnam and the Congo mimetized in the ‘alternate’ death of Elizabeth Taylor; he tends the dying film star, eroticizing her punctured bronchus in the over-ventilated veranda of the London Hilton, he dreams of Max Ernst, superior of the birds; ‘Europe after the Rain’; the human race-Caliban asleep across a mirror smeared with vomit.

J.G Ballard-The Atrocity Exhibition 1966

Elizabeth Taylor , the last of the old-style Hollywood actress, has retained her hold on the popular imagination in the two decades since this piece was written, a quality she shares (no thanks to myself) with almost all the public figures in this book…A unique collision of private and public fantasies took place in the 1960’s, and may have to wait some years to be repeated, if ever. The public dream of Hollywood for the first time merged with the private imagination of the hyper-stimulated 60’s TV viewer…our perception of the famous has changed-I can’t imagine writing about Meryl Streep or Princess Di, and Margaret Thatchter’s undoubted mystery seems to reflect design faults in her own self-constructed persona. One can mechanically spin sexual fantasies around all three, but the imagination soon flags. Unlike Taylor, they radiate no light.

Annotations-The Atrocity Exhibition 1990

 

Stars of The Atrocity Exhibition: Ronald Reagan

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Ronald Reagan
The motion picture studies of Ronald Reagan Reagan’s hairstyle. Studies were conducted on the marked fascination exercised by the Presidential contender’s hairstyle. 65 percent of male subjects made positive connections between the hairstyle and their own pubic hair. A series of optimum hairstyles were constructed.

J.G Ballard-Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan-The Atrocity Exhibition 1968

At the 1980 Republican Convention in San Francisco a copy of my Reagan text, minus its title and the running sideheads, and furnished with the seal of the Republican Party, was distributed to delegates. I’m told it was accepted for what it resembled, a psychological position paper on the candidate’s subliminal appeal, commissioned from some maverick think-tank.

Annotations-The Atrocity Exhibition 1990

Stars of The Atrocity Exhibition: Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn Diptych 1962 by Andy Warhol 1928-1987
Andy Warhol-Marilyn Diptych 1962
The ‘Soft’ Death of Marilyn Monroe. Standing in front of him as she dressed, Karen Novotny’s body seemed as smooth and annealed as those frozen planes. Yet a displacement of time would drain away the soft interstices, leaving walls like scraped clinkers. He remembered Ernst’s ‘Robing’; Marilyn’s pitted skin, breasts of carved pumice, volcanic thighs, a face of ash. The widowed bride of Vesuvius.

J.G Ballard-You:Coma: Marilyn Monroe-The Atrocity Exhibition 1966

Marilyn Monroe’s death was another psychic cataclysm. Here was the first and greatest of the new-style film goddess, whose images, unlike those of their predecessors, were fashioned from something close to the truth, not from utter fiction. We know everything about Marilyn’s sleazy past-the modest background, the foster homes and mother with mental problems, the long struggle as a starlet on the fringes of prostitution, then spectacular success as the world embraced her flawed charm, loved by sporting idols, intellectuals and, to cap it all, the US President. But she killed herself, slamming the door in the world’s face.

A kind of banalisation of celebrity has occurred; we are now offered an instant, ready to mix fame as nutritious as packet soup. Warhol’s screen-prints show the process at work. His portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy drain the tragedy from the lives of these desperate women, while his day glow palette returns them to the innocent world of the child’s colouring book.

Annotations-The Atrocity Exhibition 1990

 

 

 

Always Crashing In The Same Car

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Andy Warhol-Red Car Crash 1963
J. G Ballard’s 1970 collection of interlinked ‘condensed’ novels, The Atrocity Exhibition had been the cause of considerable controversy. One of the short stories, Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan was issued as a separate booklet that had resulted in the prosecution for obscenity of the publisher. The American edition of The Atrocity Exhibition had been printed by Doubleday & Co when the company’s president Nelson Doubleday, Jr. ordered the entire run pulped as he feared potential legal action from the many celebrities featured within its pages.

Undeterred Ballard wrote Crash, a novel even more controversial and transgressive. One publisher’s reader verdict was simply, “This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do Not Publish!” As Ballard express intention in writing Crash was to, “rub the human face in its own vomit and force it to look in the mirror” and considering its extreme and disturbing content, the reader’s comment is understandable.

The narrator of Crash is an advertising executive named James Ballard (a bold, daring move: no authorial distancing to be seen here) who after being involved in a serious traffic accident that causes the death of the driver of the other vehicle, becomes obsessed with the sexual possibilities inherent in car crashes. He meets Vaughan, a rogue scientist and former television presenter, the ‘nightmare angel of the expressways’, who is the leader of a clique of similarly affectless crash devotees. Vaughan has one over-riding ambition: to stage the ultimate sex death with the actress Elizabeth Taylor.

The style of Crash is hypnotically detached. As I noted in my previous post on J. G Ballard Living The High Life its hallucinatory cadences render it a prose poem of twisted metal, broken glass and wound patterns, as can be seen from the following quote. It is also, without doubt, spectacularly deranged.

I think now of the other crashes we visualised, absurd deaths of the wounded, maimed and distraught. I think of the crashes of psychopaths, implausible accidents carried out with venom and disgust, vicious multiple collisions contrived in stolen cars on evening freeways among tired office workers. I think of the absurd crashes of neurasthenic housewives returning from their VD clinics, hitting parked cars in suburban streets. I think of the crashes of excited schizophrenics colliding head-on into stalled laundry vans in one-way streets: of manic-depressives crushed while making pointless U-turns on motorway access roads; of luckless paranoids driving at full speed into brick walls at the ends of known cul-de-sacs; of sadistic charge nurses decapitated in inverted crashes on complicated interchanges; of lesbian supermarket manageress burning to death in the collapsed frames of their midget cars before the stoical eyes of middle-aged firemen; of autistic children crushed in rear-end collisions, their eyes less wounded in death; of buses filled with mental defectives drowning together in roadside industrial canals.

The novel soon achieved cult status in France, unsurprisingly as the French have a long tradition of intellectual, transgressive pornography dating back to De Sade (see Philosophy in the Boudoir) and carrying on through Bataille to The Story of O. Most editions include the Introduction to the French Edition which carries Ballard’s spirited defence of pornography, as he notes “pornography is the most political form of fiction, dealing with how we use and exploit each other in the most urgent and ruthless way.”

Crash was later filmed by David Cronenberg in 1996 and was itself the subject of further controversy.