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.

Moving Images

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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’.

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A Week of Max Ernst: Thursday

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Two Children are Threatened by a Nightingale-Max Ernst 1924
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.”

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.

A Week of Max Ernst: Tuesday

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Europe After the Rain II-Max Ernst 1940-1942
‘On the first of August M.E died. He was resurrected on the eleventh of November 1918’ was how Max Ernst referred to his time in the army during the WW1. Hitler’s rise in Germany  and the start of WW2, which led to several detentions and internments  (see my post Le Jeu Du Marseille-A Surrealist Pack of Cards) must have seemed to Ernst like he had died for a second time.

Out of the traumatic experiences of internment, flight and exile Ernst produced arguably the masterpiece of pictorial automatism Europe After The  Rain II. Using the technique pioneered by Oscar Dominguez (see Chance Encounters 1), decalcomania, Ernst created a haunting post apocalyptic landscape with sinister petrified (yet seemingly alive, or on verge of becoming so) mineral formations. A helmeted bird headed figure menaces a woman in a baroque version of  Edwardian dress lost in this inimical, alien world. A chilling vision of the future if we persist in our never-ending folly.