Fire

yves_klein_fremissement1
Yves Klein-MG17- 1960

There is an anecdote about the young Yves Klein (see Dreams of Desire 48 (Blue) lying on a beach in the South of France with his friends, the artist Arman and the poet Claude Pascal, where they decided to divide up the universe between themselves.  Arman wanted the riches of the earth and tangible, material things, while Pascal claimed words and language itself. Klein chose ‘le vide’, the void, ethereal space empty of all matter.

Klein spent his career, cut short by his early death at 34, giving pictorial representation to the void, most famously in his blue monochromes using his own patented colour International Klein Blue, but also in the fire paintings, painted in his last years. Klein was something of an esotericist and was familiar with Rosicrucian and alchemical doctrine. As he noted ‘…fires burn in the heart of the void as well as in the heart of man.

The above golden monochrome is part of a triptych (the other colours are blue and pink) that represents the colours seen in the heart of a flame. In a lecture given at the Sorbonne, Klein further elaborated on the transformative and unifying  nature of fire . ‘Fire is both intimate and universal. It resides in our hearts; it resides in a candle. It rises up from the depths of matter, and it conceals itself, latent, contained, like hate or patience. Of all phenomena it is the only one that so obviously embodies two opposite values: good and evil. It shines in paradise, and burns in hell. It can contradict itself, and therefore it is one of the universal principles.’  Such comments are reminiscent of the patron philosopher of occultists, the gnomic Heraclitus who remarked that ‘everything is fire.’

Klein made his fire paintings using a flame thrower on specially treated cardboard. Supplementary techniques were also involved to evoke a synthesis of the four classic elements, for example a nude model would be moistened with water and directed to leave an imprint on the surface before Klein applied the flame.

Savage Negation

Francis Picabia-Women with Bulldog 1941-1942
Francis Picabia-Women with Bulldog 1941-1942

Francis Picabia constantly perplexes and undermines artistic expectations. A wealthy, hedonistic playboy with great personal charm, Picabia also possessed a notoriously acerbic wit and personified the savage negation at the heart of Dada.

Picabia’s career spanned many movements across continents, but is best remembered for his involvement with Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and Arthur Craven in the creation of New York Dada and his mechanomorphic drawings from 1915 onwards. Always on the move and with entry to every fashionable social circle, Picabia moved to Barcelona then to Zurich for the remainder of WWI. Asked to describe his impressions of the War, Picabia remarked that he was bored to hell. After WWI he moved back to Paris and participated in further Dada shenanigans with Tristan Tzara and Andre Breton, contributing ferocious manifestos for Dada events which he watched from private boxes with the mistress of the time.

With a nature both aristocratic and anarchic, Picabia rapidly lost patience with the various groups and movements and would denounce Dada and later Surrealism. From 1925 he returned to painting with a vengeance after a ten year hiatus, working on the Transparencies series which involved multiple images confusingly superimposed. Then in the forties came the nudes copied from girlie mags; astonishingly unaesthetic, these paintings are so appalling that you cannot stop looking and in a certain respect represent the culmination of Picabia’s anti-art stance.

Dada Cannibalistic Manifesto

You are all indicted, stand up! It is impossible to talk to you unless you are standing up.
Stand up as you would for the Marseillaise or God Save the King.

Stand up, as if the Flag were before you. Or as if you were in the presence of Dada, which signifies Life, and which accuses you of loving everything out of snobbery if only it is expensive enough.

One dies a hero’s death or an idiot’s death – which comes to the same thing. The only word that has more than a day-to-day value is the word Death. You love death – the death of others.

Kill them! Let them die! Only money does not die; it only goes away for a little while.

That is God! That is someone to respect: someone you can take seriously! Money is the prie-Dieu of entire families. Money for ever! Long live money! The man who has money is a man of honour.

Honour can be bought and sold like the arse. The arse, the arse, represents life like potato-chips, and all you who are serious-minded will smell worse than cow’s shit.

Dada alone does not smell: it is nothing, nothing, nothing.
It is like your hopes: nothing
like your paradise: nothing
like your idols: nothing
like your heroes: nothing
like your artists: nothing
like your religions: nothing.

Hiss, shout, kick my teeth in, so what? I shall still tell you that you are half-wits. In three months my friends and I will be selling you our pictures for a few francs.

Francis Picabia 1920

After the Falls

Grosz-Ecce-Homo
Grosz-Ecce-Homo

After, (for there is always an after, the story goes on, there is neither resolution or finality, even death is only a pause, a quick breather in-between, a brief respite, a stage), the unstable reality of Eden Falls had been snuffed out like a candle-flame, the Melancholy Lieutenant had found himself, in a certain sense only because he knew that he was well and truly lost, on the streets of some Northern city in winter. He didn’t look at all out of place though, the avenues and boulevards were crowded with shell-shocked and war-wounded soldiers just returned from some calamitous battle; hungry, cold and bitter their talk was all of sedition, revolution, uprisings and coup d’états.
After the third night of rioting the authorities had cracked down and began to round up suspected trouble-makers and imposed a curfew at nightfall. The Melancholy Lieutenant was caught up in the dragnet and taken to a grim faux Gothic government building that had been converted into a temporary prison to deal with the influx of detainees. He was put inside a small room along with four other morose veterans.
Time passed by slowly, nobody spoke or moved, apart for the times somebody had to relieve themselves in the bucket wedged into the corner. Occasionally a guard would open the door, point toward someone and signal for them to follow. The person never returned to the room, instead a new inmate would take their place.
After three others had left the room with the guard it was his turn. He walked a short distance behind the guard, up narrow stairs and through dusty corridors that contained numerous offices. The guard stopped before a wooden door that had been painted a dim shade of burgundy sometime in the last century and searched through the numerous keys on the ring attached to his belt. He opened the door for the Melancholy Lieutenant and closed it immediately behind him.
He was alone, though he guessed this is where he would be questioned, perhaps interrogated. There were no windows, naturally, and the bare room was devoid of furniture apart from a flimsy trestle table and three rickety looking wooden chairs. The only light source was an old fashioned lamp, without a shade, that rested on the floor. Somehow the dull light emitted seemed to intensify the sombre gloom rather than dispelling it, which was obviously the intention of the police or the secret services or whoever was running the show here.
Though he doubted that a cat could find comfort in this derelict hole he was truly exhausted so he sat himself down in one of the two chairs facing the door. Obviously the single chair facing the wall was where he was meant to sit, but the hell with that. Sleeping with his eyes wide open he waited for his accusers to make their grand entry.

(This is the further adventures of The Melancholy Lieutenant, a recurring figure in my fiction. The previous installments are Eden Falls and X Marks the Spot. To make matters even more confusing these are just part of a larger series of loosely linked experimental surrealistic science fiction noirs starting with Showtime, though there can be read in any order.)

Documents

Documents-1929
Documents-1929

Although I have concentrated on official Surrealism under the leadership of Andre Breton there was another Surrealism: a darker, underground current comprised of renegade and rebel Surrealists that contributed to the magazine Documents under the aegis of the troubling, sinister Georges Bataille.

A librarian and numismatist (a specialist in the study of coins and medals) Bataille in 1928 had written the nightmarish L’histoire de l’oeil (The Story of the Eye), a gruesome work of Surrealist pornography, under the pseudonym Lord Auch (a pun that translates literally as Lord to the Shithouse). In 1929 Bataille launched Documents, a heterodox  journal that featured articles on archaeology, ethnography, art, film and popular culture featuring works by dissident Surrealists including Joan Miro, Andre Masson, Michel Leiris and Jacques-Andre Boiffard. 

Andre Breton, fearing an intellectual rival from within, issued with his customarily vim and gusto the Second Surrealist Manifesto which purged and excommunicated any Surrealist who showed signs of heresy from official orthodoxy from the movements ranks. In retaliation Bataille issued the provocative pamphlet Un Cadavre (A Corpse) with a photo-montage of Breton wearing a crown of thorns with essays by Robert Desnos, Raymond Queneau, Jacques Prevert and Alejo Carpentier among others.

Documents ran for 15 issues between 1929 and 1930. With its idiosyncratic look and melding of high and lows registrars it can be viewed as a very early example of a style magazine. The photography by Jacques-Andre Boiffard and Eli Lotar of mouths, masks, slaughterhouses and big toes, combined with the entries written by Bataille under the title Critical Dictionary retain a disturbing, provocative power.

Bataille and Breton would later be reconciled, however their later exploits will be the subject of a further post in this series on the darker aspects of Surrealism.

I have included a short entry on Man from the Critical Dictionary, which gives a taste of Bataille thought-provoking theory of ‘base materialism’. Also included are photographs from the slaughterhouse and big toe articles.

MAN. 1. “An eminent English chemist, Dr Charles Henry Maye, set out to establish in  a precise manner what man is made of and what is its chemical value. This is the result of his learned researches:

“The bodily fat of a normally constituted man would suffice to manufacture seven cakes of toilet-soap. Enough iron is found in the organism to make a medium-sized nail, and sugar to sweeten a cup of coffee. the phosphorus would provide 2,200 matches. The magnesium would furnish the light needed to take a photograph. In addition, a little potassium and sulphur, but in an unusable quantity.

“These different raw materials, costed at current prices, represent an approximate sum of 25 francs.” (Journal des Debats, 13 August 1929).

un_cadavre[1]
Un Cadavre 1930
Documents-Eli Lotar 1930
Documents-Eli Lotar-La Villette Abattoir 1929
Documents-Eli Lotar-La Villette Abattoir 1929
Documents-Eli Lotar-La Villette Abattoir 1929
Documents-Big Toe, Male Aged 30-J-A Boiffard 1929
Documents-Big Toe, Male Aged 30-J-A Boiffard 1929
Documents-J-A Boiffard Untitled 1929
Documents-J-A Boiffard Untitled 1929
Documents-Karl Blossfeldt-Campanula Vidali enlarged 6 times from Bataille's article The Language of Flowers
Documents-Karl Blossfeldt-Campanula Vidali enlarged 6 times from Bataille’s article The Language of Flowers
Documents-J A Boiffard- Renee Jacobi 1930
Documents-J A Boiffard- Renee Jacobi 1930

Berlin Decadence

otto-dix-triptico-Metrópolis-1927-28[1]
Otto Dix-Metropolis-1927-1928
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.

6._Portrait_of_the_Dancer_Anita_Berber_1925-compressed[1]
Otto Dix-Portrait of Anita Berber 1925
Otto-Dix-stormtroops-gas[1]
Otto Dix-Stormtroopers Advance Under Cover of Gas-1924
dix-portrait-of-the-journalist-sylvia-von-harden-1926[1]
Otto Dix-Portrait of the Journalist Syvlia Von Harden 1926
dix+war+cripples[1]
Otto Dix-War Cripples 1920

Kathe Kollitz-Hunger 1923
Kathe Kollwitz-Hunger 1923
Kathe Kollwitz-Memorial to Karl Liebknecht-1919
Kathe Kollwitz-Memorial to Karl Liebknecht-1919
Kathe Kollwitz-The Widow II
Kathe Kollwitz-The Widow II
George Grosz-Ecco Homo-1923
George Grosz-Ecco Homo-1923
Grosz_Praise_Beauty_1920
George Grosz-Praise Beauty 1920
George Grosz-Ecce Homo 1923
George Grosz-Ecce Homo 1923
franz_m_jensen-8'O Clock
Franz M Jensen 8 O’Clock
Fritz Lang-Metropolis 1927
Fritz Lang-Metropolis 1927
cabinet_of_dr_caligari_poster_shop_new_2-1024x819[1]
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari-Robert Weine 1920
Degenerate Art Exhibition 1937
Degenerate Art Exhibition 1937