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.
A succession of balconies
The series of hotel rooms
At the cruciform sun staring
Sinking beyond depthless sea
Sipping slowly sweet drinks
And swallowing bitter pills
We succumb to the dreams
That engender existence
And surrender our identity
To counter-poised influences;
Our desires equidistant
Beneath the giant fronds
Amidst this lunar landscape
With its cratered valleys
Among the cankered beaches
Away from the horror
Of our unremembered home
This sun-scorched skin
Is a torrid equatorial zone.
Else Ernestine Neulander-Simon, known simply by her professional pseudonym, Yva, was a pioneering female photographer of the Weimar Republic. She set up her first studio in 1925 and briefly collaborated with the experimental photographer Heinz Hajek-Halke (see Dreams of Desire 54 (Written on the Body) before a copyright dispute led them to part ways. Initially focused on nude, portrait and fashion photography, Yva was one of the first photographers to fully realise the commercial application of the field to advertising. Her Berlin atelier was one of the most successful of its days and employed 10 assistants by the time Hitler came to power.
Yva and her husband Alfred Simon, who managed the financial affair of the studio, were both Jewish and considered for some time whether to emigrate from Germany, especially when she was forced to ‘Aryanize’ the business in 1936 (a law had come into effect that forbade Jews from owning businesses, necessitating the transfer of the company to her friend, the art historian Charlotte Weider). There was the possibility of a fresh start as Life magazine had informed her that a job was waiting for her when she came to America. However Alfred was unwilling to start over again in a country where they didn’t even speak the language and thought maybe the situation in Germany would improve. Things certainly didn’t and the business was closed for good by 1938. Yva went to work as a radiographer in the Jewish Hospital in Berlin until 1942 when she was arrested, along with her husband, by the Gestapo and deported to Majdanek concentration camp where they were murdered shortly after.
As an interesting aside one of Yva’s apprentice’s from 1936 to 1938 was a young Jewish boy named Helmut Neustädter, who after escaping Germany would later change his name to Helmut Newton, creator of some of the most iconic fashion photography and celebrity portraits of the twentieth century.
On James Joyce’s 40th birthday, February 2nd 1922, the Paris based American owner of Shakespeare and Company Sylvia Beach published Joyce’s controversial novel Ulysses, excerpts of which had already been the subject of obscenity trials in the United States. It was immediately banned in both the US and the UK, a ban that was to remain in force for over a decade. However in France, where the book was printed and published, Ulysses was freely available as the French authorities had decided that they couldn’t possibly rule on the possible obscenity and artistic merits of a book in a foreign language.
Jack Kahane, born into a wealthy industrialist family of Jewish origin in Manchester, England and living in Paris with his French wife saw a business opportunity. Kahane was himself a novelist of mildly racy lightweight novels, however he had bigger ambitions and so he founded the Obelisk Press (with a suitably phallic logo).The business model was simple; he would buy out the rights of a novel that was encountering legal difficulties at a bargain basement price and then issue his own edition, with half the cover emblazoned with a BANNED IN…thus ensuring healthy sales from the prurient and/or curious travellers passing through Paris. Mixed in with the heavyweight avant-garde novels that included works by Cyril Connolly, Lawrence Durrell, Anais Nin and re-issues of the D.H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Radclyffe Hall’s early lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness were novels of a much more dubious literary pedigree, in other words pornography. Kahane’s greatest succes de scandale however was undoubtedly the publication in 1934 of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, with its bold language and sexually explicit descriptions.
Kahane whose health was ruined by his experiences in WWI died on the day that WWII was declared. His son Maurice stayed in Paris and changed his name from the Jewish Kahane to his mother’s maiden name Girodias and took over the family business of publishing DBs (dirty books). It is not sure how he survived the war in occupied Paris, though it was probably a combination of his wily charm and his instincts as a born survivor, instincts that there were to serve him well in his eventful and strife-filled life.
After the war Girodias expanded operations of the Obelisk Press, however the publication of Henry Miller’s Sexus set off a storm of outrage in France that resulted in obscenity trials and imprisonment. Although he managed to get out of jail Girodias was bankrupt and he had to surrender control of Obelisk. This setback, however, only spurred Girodias on and soon he was launching a new venture entitled Olympia Press, so-called because of its similarity to the name of his father’s Obelisk Press and the famous Manet painting of 1863 (see above) of a courtesan whose bold stare confronts the viewer that caused such a sensation on its first showing.
After a particularly cold and difficult winter Girodias came across a group of hungry British and American expatriates writers for the literary review Merlin. He suggested that the best way for them to earn a crust was to write DBs (under preposterous pseudoymns) for his new series the Traveller’s Companion. The group included the brilliant Scottish writer and later Situationist Alexander Trocchi, John Stevenson, Iris Owens and Christopher Logue. Girodias would pay $500 upfront and a further $300 if the title was reprinted. There was no question of the author getting royalties.
Following in the tradition established by his father Girodias also published avant-garde fiction. As well as works by Henry Miller he published Samuel Beckett, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, William Burrough’s The Naked Lunch, Pauline Reage’s (pseudonym of Sadean scholar Jean Paulhan’s lover Anne Desclos) The Story of O which is undoubtedly the classic text of sado-masochism, Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg’s erotic romp Candy, Jean De Berg’s (a pseudoymn of Catherine Robbe-Grillet, wife of the founder of the nouvelle roman Alain Robbe-Grillet) The Image. The OlympiaPressalso commissioned the first English translations of De Sade’ s 120 Days in Sodom and Philosophy in the Boudoir ( see my post Philosophy in the Boudoir).
Unsurprisingly, given the incendiary, explicit and subversive nature of the work published and Girodias’s unfortunate habit of failing to pay his authors resulted in numerous, ruinous legal difficulties. He was involved in protracted disputes with Nabokov, Terry Southern and the author of The Ginger Man, J.P Donleavy who eventually brought the Olympia Press after a twenty year legal battle in a supposedly closed auction. The collusion of the French, British and American authorities led to his prosecution in 1964 for publishing The Story of O that led to a year in prison, a $20,000 fine and a ban from publishing for twenty years, the most severe penalty ever imposed in France.
After a brief spell as a nightclub owner he moved operations to New York where he holed up in the Chelsea Hotel (where else) and published Valerie Solanas radical feminist pamphlet the S.C.U.M Manifesto. Solanas became convinced that Girodias and Warhol were in a plot together to screw her out of money and on the day she shot Warhol she first appeared at the Chelsea Hotel intending to shot Girodias, but as he was out she then went in search of Warhol (this is at least Girodias’s account, however as a natural self-promoter and consummate con-man it is not necessarily to be believed).
Girodias was 71 when he was given an interview on Jewish Community Radio in Paris when he suffered a heart attack and died on air. Although Girodias undoubtedly was a deeply flawed individual, he published books no other publisher would even look at and he dared to take on the courts and the censors. Girodias, carrying on the work of his father changed the cultural landscape of the mid-twentieth century inexorably.
The German photographer Heinz Hajek-Halke concentrated almost entirely on montage techniques. Influenced by the great Dada and Surrealist innovators of the 1920’s and 30’s he experimented with solarisation and camera-less photographs. During WWII he turned to photographing small animals for scientific publications. The 1950’s however saw Hajek-Halke returning to experimental photography; he joined the fotoform group and participated in two of the groups subjektive fotografie exhibitions, becoming one of the few photographers to be involved in the avant-garde of different generations.
The question asked by the Caterpillar of Alice, surely the most fundamental question of them all, which Alice truthfully admits that she cannot answer in any definitive manner, must have seemed especially pertinent to Anna Kavan whose wavering sense of self necessitated her to create a whole other persona . Continue reading →
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 ConcentrationCity, 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 BorgesianReport 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.
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.
Later, as he sat on the balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months. Now that everything had returned to normal…
J.G Ballard High-Rise 1975
Surely one of the darkest yet funniest openings to a novel in English fiction, J.G Ballard’s cautionary tale on civilisation and its discontents shows, in typically ambiguous fashion, that our inner natures could revolt against the conveniences of modern existence and the alienation implicit in our sanitised, mediated (un)reality.
Written in the hard-edged concrete-and-glass style of the late sixties and early seventies and hot on the heels of the experimental and spectacularly deranged The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash, High-Rise, is with Concrete Island from the same period a return to a more traditional narrative framework. Eschewing the fractured, clinical and compressed ‘novels’ of The Atrocity Exhibition and the hallucinatory cadences of Crash (a prose poem of twisted metal, broken glass and wound patterns), High-Rise follows the three main characters, Dr. Robert Laing (a reference to the author of The Divided Self) who lives on the twenty-five floor; Richard Wilder a documentary film-maker down near street level on the second floor and the buildings architect Anthony Royal who lords it over them all in the fortieth floor penthouse as the amenities within the luxurious, self-contained high-rise block starts to break down, causing the affluent, well educated residents to wilfully and joyfully participate in the destruction of the building and revert to tribalism and barbarism. Always subversive, Ballard wickedly suggests that the only possible way to be free is to regress, discarding all civilised constraints and acting upon our deviant impulses and innate cruelty.
Royal detested this orthodoxy of the intelligent. Visiting his neighbours apartments, he would find himself physically repelled by the contours of an award-winning coffee-pot, by the well modulatedcolour schemes, by the good taste and intelligence that, Midas-like, had transformed everything in these apartments into an ideal marriage of function and design….Royal would have given anything for one vulgar mantelpiece ornament, one less than snow-white lavatory bowl, one hint of hope. Thank God that they were at last breaking out of this fur-lined prison.
Ben Wheatley’s stylish film version of High-Rise, starring Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons and Sienna Miller and produced by Jeremy Thomas who was responsible for David Cronenberg’s film version of Crash was released in 2015.
Some of my favourite artworks of the present century are the marvellous collages created by the Belgian artist Sammy Slabbinck. Using found images from magazines dating from the 1950’s to the 1970’s that he collects from flea markets, Slabbinck skilfully re-combines the elements to create wryly humorous, slyly subversive and sometimes unsettling, subtly horrifying works.
Citing influences from Pop Art, Dada and Surrealism, in particular fellow Belgian Surrealist giant Rene Magritte (The Object of the Eye, The Human Condition and Pleasure), Slabbinck’s frequently colour-saturated collages play with size and scale: magnified parts of female bodies form part of a landscape which tiny men journey towards or galaxies are contained within cereal bowls which the perfect 60’s mother and daughter is sitting down at the breakfast table to consume. The resultant images are startlingly lush with a trippiness that achieves the defamiliarization that is the aim of all Surrealist art.