In the apocryphal Book of Judith, the beautiful, daring young widow Judith (feminine form of Judah), distressed by her fellow Jews lack of faith in God to deliver them from the Assyrian conquerors, ingratiates herself with the General Holofernes. Having gained his trust she is admitted into his tent where he is lying in a drunken stupor. With the help of her loyal maid she proceeds to decapitate Holofernes and shows the severed head to an awe-struck crowd of her fellow-countrymen. The Assyrians demoralised by the loss of their leader retreat and Israel is liberated from the foreign threat.
The story of Judith was a popular source of art from the Middle Ages to the Baroque. The Symbolists interpenetration brought the perverse and sadistic elements to the forefront. The great Austrian Symbolist painter and Viennese Secessionist Gustav Klimt’s (The Succubus) JudithI of 1901 was the cause of considerable scandal when first exhibited. The focus of the painting is Judith, only a part of the decapitated head of Holofernes is shown and even that is regulated to the bottom right-hand corner, beneath the exposed breast of Holofernes. With an expression of rapt depravity Judith caresses the head, all set against a ornately gilded, Art Nouveau decorative background.
An interesting comparison with Klimt’s Judith is with two masterpieces from the Baroque period on the same subject, Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes circa 1599 and Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes 1614-1620. Here the paintings are concerned with the act of murder itself. Caravaggio who led a tumultuous life and would die on the run after killing Ranuccio Tomassoni, manages to convey with his trademark chiaroscuro all the tension and ambivalence Judith must have felt as she saws through the neck of Holofernes, while Gentileschi’s Judith surpasses Caravaggio (she was the most famous of the Caravaggisti, followers of Caravaggio) in showing the bloodiness and sheer physicality of the scene. It has been interpenetrated as a vivid rape revenge fantasy.
The German born photographer and artist Raoul Ubac settled in Paris in the early 1930’s and under the influence of Man Ray promptly embraced Surrealism and its techniques, particularly solarisation and collage. During the course of the 1930’s Ubac explored the boundaries of experimental photography with his bold and radical innovations. In The Battle of the Amazons and The Triumph of Sterility (featured below) Ubac took a solitary female nude figure and created a photo-montage before subjecting the print to the technique of virage (toning: where different chemicals are substituted for the silver salts during the development) to achieve startlingly different results from a single source image, some verging on the edge of abstraction and in the process subverting the notion of photography’s unquestioned realism.
Erwin Blumenfeld was one of the most celebrated fashion photographers of the 20th Century, renowned for his vivid and innovative colour photography that graced the cover of Vogue more times than any other photographer before or since. He was also a member of the German avant-garde, a close friend of the savage Berlin Dadaist Georg Grosz (see Eclipse of the Sun) whose techniques of photo-montage and collage he used throughout his career. His discovery of Man Ray shaped his earlier black and white nude photography leading Blumenfeld to experiment with solarisation and double exposure.
With Hitler’s rise to power, Blumenfeld, a Jew, moved to Paris in 1936 where he was discovered by Cecil Beaton who got him a job at French Vogue, however he was soon on the move again with the Nazi invasion of France, this time to America. In the United States he continued his connection with Vogue which allowed him to pursue his lifelong obsession with photographing beautiful women away from the genocidal horror of a war-torn Europe. It has been remarked that Blumenfeld found shame thrilling and he certainly instilled that sense of illicit eroticism into his images.
The French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson was another giant of the field who, although not an official member of the Surrealism movement, socialized with the Surrealists and fruitfully applied their ideas in his own work.
This can be seen clearly in his important and influential theory of ‘the decisive moment’, which further develops Andre Breton’s doctrine of ‘objective chance’. Cartier-Bresson argued that, “There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment”, and for the photographer to be truly creative they have to recognise that moment; because once you miss it, the moment is gone forever.
A striking example of the decisive moment can be found in his 1934 photograph, The Spider of Love, Mexico City. While attending a party in that city, he felt a little worse for wear and went upstairs to the bathroom. Passing by a bedroom he heard a noise and upon opening the door he discovered two women making love. He later described the event as a miracle of sensuality, which could never be duplicated by posed models.
Quite by chance (regulars readers will know how highly I regard thar particular concept, after all a throw of the dice will never abolish chance) I came upon this beautiful work by Leon Ferrari, a photograph embossed in Braille with one of my favourite poems, Andre Breton’s magnificent Free Union (click link to view English translation). The photograph with the mirror reflecting is reminiscent of Man Ray ( Dreams of Desire 25 (Return to Reason), Brassai (Dreams of Desire 47 (Brassai) and the many photographers who engaged with Golden Age Surrealism: at once sensual, elusive and utterly mysterious.
On the 9th of March 1960, Yves Klein, one of the founders of the Nouveaux Realistes art movement and creator of the paint shade IKB (International Klein Blue) which he had used in a number of large-scale monochrome paintings, staged a unique event. At the International Gallery of Contemporary Art in Paris, before an audience consisting of the cream of the Parisian art world all decked in evening wear and an orchestra of nine musicians playing his own piece, The Monotone Symphony (which consisted of a single chord played for twenty minutes followed by twenty minutes of silence) Klein painted three nudes models in IKB, and using them as living paintbrushes precededto give instructions as to where to place their bodies on the canvases that lined the floor and walls. The models positioned themselves, rolled around and dragged each other producing the paintings above and below, which Klein entitled Anthropometries. As this was first and foremost a work of Performance Art, photographs were taken of the show, also shown below.
Personally I love IKB which is deeply suggestive of eternity: unsettling and yet serenely blissful. To do it justice however it has to be seen it up close at a gallery, no computer screen can fully capture its vivid intensity.
One of the greatest of 20th century photographers, Brassai’s reputation rests largely on the iconic images of Parisian street and night life he captured in his 1933 book Paris de nuit (Paris by night), which with its noir, atmospheric depiction of fog bound streets, bustling cafes and brothel scenes populated by lovers, prostitutes, pimps and other coldly calculating seekers of pleasure, forever sealed in the popular imagination the myth of Paris as the quintessential bohemian city. Considering the milieu he portrayed it is maybe no surprise that Brassai was also a master of the nude study. Many of his more abstract and experimental nudes of the 1930’s were featured in the Surrealist magazine Minotaure.
Born Gyula Halasz in Brasov, Transylvania, at the time part of Hungary, later Romania, in 1899, Brassai studied in Budapest and Berlin before moving to Paris in 1924, where he would live for the rest of his life. Here he adopted his pseudonym Brassai, taken from the name of his home town. He took up photography initially only to supplement his income, however he soon realised that it was the perfect medium to capture the nocturnal essence of Paris. He was a friend to many of the artists and writers of the period, including Henry Miller, Salvador Dali, Picasso, Henri Matisse and Alberto Giacometti.
I have including below a mixture of his experimental and documentary studies of the female form.
Simone Kahn, pictured above with a Vanuatu figure was the first Mrs Breton (for details of Andre Breton second marriage see Dreams of Desire 16 (Jacqueline and Frida), was born into a wealthy Jewish family in Peru in 1897.
She married Andre in 1921 and was involved in the trance events that was instrumental in the formation of Surrealism. Andre Breton remarked that she was a living encyclopedia and was the only one of the Surrealists who had read Marx’s Das Capital in full.
Their marriage which lasted ten years was rather turbulent, as although both believed in the idea of a Free Union, the reality was somewhat different and neither was immune from jealously. However after their divorce in 1931 and despite further marriages they continued to correspond for the next three decades.
As regulars visitors will know, I have an unending fascination with the romance and creative collaboration between Man Ray and Lee Miller. I recently discovered this wonderful and wittily titled photograph of Lee taken by Man Ray in The Lives of Lee Miller written by her son Antony Penrose.
Man Ray work frequently featured the technique of light patterns upon the body and face, a striking way to render the familiar unfamiliar and by doing so adding an extra erotic allure, which was the essence of the Surrealist attitude to desire.
Of the many femme fatales that haunted the imagination of the late 19th century, Lilith reigns supreme, the only other serious contestant being the murderous temptress Salome with her Dance of the Seven Veils (see Dreams of Desire 22 (The Apparition).
Lilith is a character from Jewish mythology, and like most mythological creatures the legends surrounding her are confusing and even contradictory. She is alternatively Adam’s first wife, a lustful female demon or the wife of Samael. She is barely mentioned in the Old Testament but she features more prominently in the Zohar and other Kabbalistic works. In the Kabbalah she is a type of succubus who is responsible for nocturnal emissions and is associated with the Qlippoth. The one thing that all sources agree on however is that Lilith is supremely beautiful and deadly dangerous.
The above representation by the English Pre-Raphaelite John Collier follows the tradition of having Lilith enjoying the sensuous en-coiling of her naked body by a snake, presumably the same snake that would tempt Adam’s second wife Eve. Unlike Eve though, Lilith actively embraces the independence offered by the emissary of evil.