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.
The Situationist International was the bastard child of Dada and Surrealism. Determined to resolve the contradiction that was at the heart of those movements, namely that though they were resolutely anti-art they ended up (through the process of recuperation) being a chapter in art history, they jettisoned art altogether to concentrate on ‘The Revolution of Everyday Life‘. Oh, and Liberation Marxist theory, a lot of Liberation Marxist theory.
But as its members all started as artists in various avant-garde micro movements (the movement was formed by the coalition of the Lettrist International, an offshoot of the Lettrist movement, the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus, an offshoot of COBRA and the London Psychogeographical Association, I kid you not), talents had to be put to use. Guy Debord, top theoretician and de facto leader of the Situationists developed the practise of detournement (examples of detourned art above and below) which consisted of ‘turning expressions of the capitalist system against itself’. Personally I find these comic strips with their earnest Marxist dialectic speech and thought bubbles very funny, though I am not sure that is their main intention.
The Situationist International and Enrages (whom they influenced) played an important part in the May 1968 uprising in Paris. The walls were daubed with Situationist and Surrealist slogans, Luis Bunuel in his autobiography My Last Sigh comments on his shock of seeing painted everywhere ‘All power to the imagination’ and ‘It is forbidden to forbid’.
There are fewer paintings that fully convey the peculiar quality of dreams. The clever incorporation of painted wood effects further enhances the uncanny atmosphere.
An open gate invites us in. Against a backdrop of De Chirico-esqe classical ruins and under a cloudless summer sky that is somehow too vast we see a young girl brandishing a knife to see off a nightingale, meanwhile her companion has fallen into a swoon. Dwarfing the entire landscape is a wooden shed where a strange faceless figure is clutching another young girl while reaching for the knob attached to the picture frame.
Ernst said that during a fevered hallucination the wood grain panelling took on “successively the aspect of an eye, a nose, a bird’s head, a menacing nightingale, a spinning top, and so on.”
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.