The poet, trail-blazing feminist and legendary gadfly of the avant-garde, Mina Loy, first collection of poetry was published in 1923 as Lunar Baedecker: the very title, a reference to the immensely popular Baedeker travel guides, was misspelled. Although admired by T.S Eliot, Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein, among others, Loy disappeared somewhat from view until being posthumously resurrected in the 1990’s as a unjustly neglected pioneer of both Modernism and Feminism, when a number of critical editions and previously unpublished works, including her novel Insel, detailing her relationship with the Surrealist Richard Oelze, saw the light of day.
Below is the title poem of the collection (spelled correctly), which employs a jewelled, archaic and Symbolist vocabulary to successfully skewer the sterile affectations of the aesthetes and dandies of the art and literary worlds that she knew so well.
A silver Lucifer
cocaine in cornucopia
To some somnambulists
of adolescent thighs
in satirical draperies
Peris in livery
for posthumous parvenues
with the chandelier souls
from Pharoah’s tombstones
to mercurial doomsdays
in furrowed phosphorous—
the eye-white sky-light
of lunar lusts
“Wing shows on Starway”
of ecstatic dust
and ashes whirl
from hallucinatory citadels
of shattered glass
into evacuate craters
A flock of dreams
browse on Necropolis
From the shores
of oval oceans
in the oxidized Orient
of Eros obsolete
in the museums of the moon
Pocked with personification
the fossil virgin of the skies
waxes and wanes—-
In 1937 the reigning National Socialist party held an exhibition of Degenerate Art (Die Ausstellung “Entartete Kunst) in the Institute of Archaeology in the Hofgarten Munich, featuring Modernist, Expressionist, Dada and New Objectivity work by Grosz, Nolde, Klee, Ernst, Schwitters and others considered decadent by the regime. It was a huge success attracting over a million visitors in its first six weeks before going on tour nationally. Considerably less successful was the concurrent exhibition of Great German Art (Große Deutsche Kunstausstellung) of approved Nazi art that was meant to serve as a contrast and counterpoint to the Degenerate Art. Even Hitler and Goebbels, failed artist and novelist respectively, thought the works on display at the Great German Art Exhibition were weak, however puerility has never got in the way of good propaganda and it allowed Hitler to rail against cultural disintegration and declare war on the ‘chatterboxes, dilettantes and art swindlers‘ of Modernism.
It was a war that the Nazi’s were bound to lose. The art produced by the various Modernists school in Germany during the period of the Weimar Republic is rightly venerated while the work of the official artists with their banal landscapes and monumental sculptures of a blandly idealised male form never rises above the level of monstrous kitsch (with the exception in the field of architecture; Albrecht Speer definitely possessed talent, but then architecture is in a certain sense fascistic, as a walk around Rome shows).
In a good illustration of Orson Welles quote in The Third Man about the chaotic warring Italian city states that produced Michelango, Da Vinci and the Renaissance, in contrast to Switzerland with its 500 year history of peace and brotherly love that has only given the world the cuckoo clock, the art of the Weimar Republic possesses its strength because of the decadence of the period, not in spite of. The calamitous defeat of Germany in WWI and the heavy reparations demanded by France and Britain, plus the use of right wing Freikorps by the Socialist government to suppress the Spartacist uprising ( see “Everyman His Own Football”) meant that Weimar Republic was unloved by both right and left. Added to the political turmoil was mass unemployment and the staggering hyper-inflation that led to frenzied consumption in the cafes, cabarets, bars and cinemas as the money in your pocket was being reduced in value by the minute. Factor in the war wounded beggars and prostitutes of both sexes lining the streets that must have resulted in the fevered, nightmarish atmosphere of a society in the midst of collapse, yet paradoxically yielding a exhilarating sense of dangerous freedom, especially sexually. Berlin attracted thrill seekers from outside of Germany who could visit one of the city’s 500 erotic venues, some of which catered exclusively to homosexuals, lesbians, transvestites and aficionados of BDSM (including the young Francis Bacon).
The main currents of art in the Weimar Republic were Expressionism, Dada and the New Objectivity. Expressionism would have a major, lasting influence on graphic design and film. Many of the artists and intellectuals who fled Nazi Germany ended up working in Hollywood where they would have an immeasurable impact upon the development of the horror and film noir genres
Below are just a few examples of the art of Weimar Republic, concentrating on the bold, innovative woodcuts of the outstanding Kathe Kollwitz; the chilling New Objectivity portraits of Otto Dix and the unsurpassed satirical savagery of George Grosz’s Ecco Homo series, as well as stills from two highly influential German Expressionist movies, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Robert Weine The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.
Berlin was the most decadent city of the 20th Century, as it had two periods of decadence, the Weimar Republic of the 1920’s and 30’s and then the late 70’s in West Berlin, however that is a whole other story.
This Dadaist journal, published on February 15th 1919 and selling a remarkable 7,600 copies before being banned and confiscated by the police that very day, shows Berlin Dada and its most aggressively politicized and satirical. This is hardly surprising considering the atmosphere in Berlin; just weeks before the Spartacist uprising was brutally crushed by the majority socialist SPD government who sponsored the use of extreme right-wing para-military Freikorps to suppress the revolt, leading to the subsequent murders of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebnecht whose bodies were unceremoniously dumped in the Landwehr canal.
The title is an exhortation to not allow yourself to be kicked around by others but to do it yourself (excellent advise as pertinent today as it was then). The cover shows the heads of leading SPD figures, including Minister of Defense Gustav Noske who had sanctioned the deployment of the Freikorps, arrayed around an open fan with the caption ‘Prize Competition: Who is the Prettiest?’
Everyman His Own Football is a rare example of the card carrying German Communist Party (KPD) faction Herzfelde-Heartfield-Grosz and the anarchist contingent of Johnnes Baader and Raoul Hausmann collaborating. The later strained relationship between the KPD and the Herzfelde-Heartfield-Grosz faction, marked by mutual misunderstanding and occasional contempt foreshadows the difficulties experienced between the Surrealists and the French Communist Party (PFC) in Paris in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s.
A little known masterpiece of deadpan absurdity, What A Life! is a delightfully curiosity from 1911 by Edward Verrall Lucas and George Morrow. It has been called a proto-Dadaist satire and would influence Surrealist collage techniques. It was displayed at the landmark MOMA exhibition in New York of 1936 entitled ‘Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism’.
The illustrations that the text are built around are taken entirely from the general catalogue of Whiteleys, a fashionable London department store of the time. Below is the entire work for those with a passion for obscure oddities
What a Life!
E. V. L. and G. M.
Illustrated by Whiteley’s
As adventures are to the adventurous, so is romance to the romantic. One man searching the pages of Whiteley’s General Catalogue will find only facts and prices; another will find what we think we have found — a deeply-moving human drama.
In Paris, the former members of Dada mainly gravitated to the Surrealist movement under the leadership of Andre Breton, including the German artist Max Ernst who had been active in Cologne Dada. For the Dadaists in Germany, however, the reality on the ground was much starker. Faced with the political and economic chaos of the Weimar Republic, notably the hyper-inflation that had resulted in the erosion of the middle class; rapid and unprecedented social changes and the unbridled excess and decadence of the cities, as well as a purely artistic reaction against the prevailing style of Expressionism in German art circles led to the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity). Different interpretations of the New Objectivity can be found in the various regions of Germany, however it was the verists tendency predominant in Berlin who have shaped the popular conception of the Weimar Republic, notably Rudolf Schlichter, Christian Schad, Otto Dix and especially George Grosz (see also Eclipse of the Sun), all of whom were involved in the highly politicised Berlin Dada (see “Everyman His Own Football”).
Grosz’s early paintings, although painted in the manner of German Expressionism, possess a ferocity that is all together new, notably in 1916’s fevered and over-saturated Suicide and the hellish city-scape of The Funeral (Dedicated to Oscar Panizza) from 1917. After the war Grosz was one of the leading figures of Berlin Dada which was by far the angriest of all the various Dadas. A photograph from 1918 shows Grosz as Dada Death and with his friend John Heartfield he invented the technique of photo-montage. His engagement with Dada lent a sharpened satiric edge in his work of this period, including Panorama (Down with Liebknecht) from 1918 and the collage influenced Daum marries her pedantic automaton George in May 1920, John Heartfield is very glad of it and Republican Automatons both from 1920.
The Verists emphasis on a new kind of clinical, detached portraiture suited Grosz’s style of savage caricature and enabled him to memorably lay bare the ugly and sordid metropolis of prostitutes, politicians and profiteers. Along with Eclipse of the Sun the 1926 painting Pillars of Society is one of Grosz’s most stinging critiques of the corruption inherent in the upper, ruling strata of society.
Grosz was also a brilliant draughtsman and his street scene drawings retain a compelling immediacy. His erotic work ranks amongst the finest of the century (I will post separately on this topic).
Grosz, a vehement critic of Hitler emigrated to America in 1933 when the National Socialists came to power. The New Objectivity was unsurprisingly declared ‘degenerate art’ by the Nazi regime. Grosz abandoned his previous subject matter after his move to America and his style softened considerably (with a few occasional exceptions) and in the process lost most of its brutal energy. He returned to Berlin in 1954 where he died in 1959.
In 1963 the Pasadena Art Museum held the first major retrospective of the works of arguably the most important artist of the twentieth century, Marcel Duchamp (see The Process of Perfection). Involved with (though never a full member of) Cubism, Dada and Surrealism, Duchamp’s readymades and dismissal of ‘retinal art’ was to have a profound influence on Conceptual Art and Pop Art.
At the opening Duchamp met the 20 year old writer Eve Babitz who had gate-crashed the event naked, an act of revenge against her married boyfriend Walter Hopps who had neglected to invite her to the party. The subsequent chess match was photographed by Julian Wasser, the chronicler of the West Coast art scene.
Duchamp was a serious chess player and after effectively retiring from art in 1923 devoted himself to the game, playing in the French Championships and writing a weekly chess column.
Eve Babitz was a seminal figure of 60′ and 70’s Hollywood, a West Coast counterpart to Edie Sedgwick. Her famous lovers include the Pop Artist Ed Ruscha and his brother Paul, Jim Morrison, Steve Martin and Harrison Ford. Her novels detailing the LA milieu include Eve’s Hollywood, L.A Woman and Slow Days, Fast Company are undergoing a resurgence of interest and are the basis of a TV series currently in production by Tristar Television.
Artworks including in the photograph are TheBride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) and Chocolate Grinder.
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?
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.
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.
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.