The Landscape of the Body

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Some of my favourite artworks of the present century are the marvellous collages created by the Belgian artist Sammy Slabbinck (featured image for Showtime and Living the High Life). 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 EyeThe Human Condition, 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 defamiliarisation that is the aim of all Surrealist art.

Hunger

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Edvard Munch-Evening on Karl Johan Street-1892

The Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun remains a controversial figure. Isaac Bashevis Singer said of Hamsun  “the father of the modern school of literature in his every aspect—his subjectiveness, his fragmentariness, his use of flashbacks, his lyricism. The whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Hamsun. They were all Hamsun’s disciples: Thomas Mann and Arthur Schnitzler…and even such American writers as Fitzgerald and Hemingway.” Henry Miller, whose literary tastes were somewhat idiosyncratic but perceptive, idolised Hamsun’s work and according to Charles Bukowski he was the greatest writer that ever lived. He is one of the four Scandinavian writers from the 19th/early 20th century (the other three being Ibsen, Strindberg and Undset) to have an impact outside of, and far beyond, Scandinavia.

Yet this is the man who presented his Nobel Prize for Literature to Joseph Goebbels, had a private audience with Hitler (though the deaf Hamsun keep on shouting over Hitler, who not used to been interrupted, was left in a rage that lasted three days), and whose books were burned in Norway at the end of the war while he was committed to a psychiatric hospital awaiting trial for treason. The charges were eventually dropped due to “impaired mental abilities”, but he was left financially ruined by a civil liability suit brought against him for membership of Nasjonal Samling (the Norwegian Fascist party) and the moral support he gave to the German cause, though he was cleared of any direct Nazi affiliation. Hamsun denied belonging to any political party and of being anti-semitic (to be fair there cannot be found in his novels any evidence that he was), yet his actions during the war pose a huge question mark, in Norway and beyond, as to the value of his writing, particularly the radical early novels.

Hamsun’s first and most famous novel Hunger (Sult) was published in 1890. It has been describes as, “one of the most disturbing novels in existence” and is rightfully considered the first work of 20th Century Modernism despite its publication date. Most English translations include as an introduction the long and laudatory essay The Art of Hunger by the American post-modernist writer Paul Auster.

The novel opening’s reads and feels surprisingly contemporary, not at all like a work written in the last decade of the 19th Century:

It was in the those days when I wandered about hungry in Kristiania, that strange city which no leaves before it has set its mark upon him…

The novel follows the unnamed narrator (who it is tempting to see as a fictionalised version of the author, as Hamsun was destitute for a good decade before the breakthrough came), a struggling writer as he wanders across Kristiania (present day Oslo), hungry and frequently homeless. He is literally the starving artist. However Hamsun is not concerned with social or class injustice, it is pointed out early on that all he has to do  to solve his present predicament is to get work on one of the numerous ships in Kristiania harbour. Yet he doesn’t, he chooses to starve. Frequently when he comes into some money, he recklessly gives it away, or when he does eat, he throws it up.

As the novel progresses the narrator follows every bizarre whim and becomes increasingly deranged. Every single interaction with another human being involves him brazenly lying, even in one instant becoming incensed when the victim of his outrageous fabrications shows signs of believing him too readily. The deeper we go into the novel the physical and mental deterioration caused by the prolonged starvation becomes more and more apparent in each harrowing scene. The narrator is nameless because he has become alienated from his self.

Hamsun has frequently been compared to his acknowledged influence Dostoevsky, yet he goes further in showing the grandiose egotism, irrational impulses and wildly fluctuating unconscious drives of his characters. He explodes the idea of a consistent and stable identity. He also goes further in exploring the themes of debasement and humiliation. Humiliation and self mortification of the flesh usually point toward the possibility of salvation, yet in Hamsun there is no transcendence or redemption.

In Hunger Hamsun achieved what all writers long to do, present a new way at looking at the world. Its psychological insights, bleakness and nihilism beckoned towards the new century and an art that radically diverged from all previous manifestations.

I will close with a passage from Hunger that details the narrator’s night in a cell where he has been given temporary shelter by a policeman and which demonstrates Hamsun mastery in portraying the inspired twists and illogical turns of the disordered mind:

Suddenly I snap my fingers several times and laugh. What the hell was this! Ha! I imagined I had found a new word. I sit up in bed and say, It doesn’t exist in the language, I invented  it-Kuboaa. It does have letters like a word-Christ, man, you have invented a word…Kuboaa…of great grammatical importance.

The word stood out sharply against the darkness before me.

I sit with open eyes, amazed at my find and laughing for joy. Then I start whispering; they might be spying on me, and I intended to keep my invention a secret. I had passed over into the sheer madness of hunger; I was empty and without pain and my thoughts were running riot. I debate with myself in silence. With the oddest jumps in my line of thought, I try to ascertain the meaning of the new word. It didn’t have to mean either God or amusement park, and who said  it should mean cattle show? i clench my fist angrily and repeat once more, Who said that it shall mean cattle show? all things considered, it wasn’t even necessary that it should mean padlock or sunrise. It wasn’t difficult to make sense of such a word. I would wait and see. Meanwhile i would sleep on it.

Hexentexte

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Hexentexte-Unica Zurn 1954

In 1953 the German writer and artist Unica Zurn met a fellow German artist who was intimately connected with the Surrealists, Hans Bellmer. Ominously Bellmer reportedly remarked on first seeing Zurn, “Here is the doll,” a reference to the extremely disturbing series of photographs Bellmer had taken during the thirties and forties of an articulated mannequin of his own creation. The image of the Doll appear to be more of a crime scene reconstruction of some imaginary act of horrific violation than traditional works of art.

Zurn who had been barely been able to make ends meet in Berlin as a short story writer re-located to Paris to be with Bellmer. Here she socialised with the Surrealists and other artists who along with Bellmer encouraged and nurtured her writings and drawings, most notably in the anagrammatic poems and automatic drawings of Hexentexte (Witches Writing) from 1954.She also collaborated with Bellmer on a series of explicit sado-masochistic images that featured her tightly bound with rope.

During the sixties Zurn experienced a number of mental breakdowns that led her to be institutionalised. In 1967 her short semi-autobiographical coming of age novel Dark Spring was published. Dark Spring is an unbearably intense novel, astounding in its misogyny and masochism. It also foreshadows her own suicide by jumping out of a window three years later in 1970.

Bellmer died in 1975 and at his request was buried next to Zurn in Pere Lachaise Cemetery in a tomb marked Bellmer-Zurn. Posthumous writings of Zurn include the truly remarkable The Man of Jasmine which is a highly stylised account of her friendship with the writer Henri Michaux (author of the Miserable Miracle).

Below are some examples of her anagrammatic poetry and automatic drawings that Zurn produced throughout her career.

AND IF THEY HAVE NOT DIED

I am yours, otherwise it escapes and
wipes us into death. Sing, burn
Sun, don’t die, sing, turn and
born, to turn and into Nothing is
never. The gone creates sense – or
not died have they and when
and when dead – they are not.

for H.B.Berlin 1956

YOU’LL FIND THE SECRET IN A YOUNG CITY

Youth sings: now the sea is your harbor. Is
dream and hunt, the spirit’s inner feast, that send
him into dark, stony days, yes, you! – and he’s
immune from hand and serious sense – yes, You! Victories are
found forebodings. You travel to the city of Jim-Sing.
Go into the youngest street and find Amin, the Ti.
He says: yes, no, once, never, enemy, courage, it, are, you, D,H,G.
Secret signature? Jade stone? You’ll find the meaning.

Ile de Ré 1964

WILL I MEET YOU SOMETIME?

After three ways in the rain image
when waking your counterimage: he,
the magician. Angels weave you in
the dragonbody. Rings in the way,
long in the rain I become yours.

Ermenonville 1959

Art, Pleasure and Gardening

Max Ernst Convolvulus 1941
Max Ernst Convolvulus! Convolvulus! 1941

While Surrealism is usually associated with the visual arts, in particular painting, photography, collage and films, the initial impetus was literary. As well as the many manifestos and polemics, Surrealists also produced poetry (translations of which can be found on this site, see Free UnionThe Spectral AttitudesSleep Spaces, Serpent Sun and I Have So Often Dreamed Of You), and fiction. There are Surrealist novels, but as Andre Breton disapproved of the form as the medium of literary careerists the majority of Surrealist fiction tend to be in the short story format.

As most Surrealist short stories tend to be hidden away in hard to find collections and obscure periodicals, this facet of the Surrealist imagination has been unjustly ignored. 

In an effort to remedy this situation, I am pleased to post Alain Joubert’s delightful fable Art, Pleasure and Gardening, one of several Surrealist short stories to be found here (see The Debutante, AxolotlThe Garden of Time, Kafka, Or “The Secret Society” and Rapa Nui. In Art, Pleasure and Gardening, Joubert shows how desire, passion and pleasure can transform the world.

Art, Pleasure and Gardening

He was sick of living within four walls grey with dust in the tiny two-roomed flat with kitchen washbasin and toilet on the landing in the tenth district which a lucky (?) chance (and a little help from his sister) had provided him with the opportunity to invest in a couple of years earlier. While lying in a more or less collapsed spring mattress which was set out on a level with the floor, he let his gaze linger on those miserable grey walls with torn wallpaper on which it was still possible to discern, here and there, a few bunch of grapes trying vainly to serve as decoration, but which had been definitively devoured. In this way the minutes were drawn out and by degrees were turned into hours without the slightest desire having passed through his mind. But suddenly , when twilight had ceased eating away what little light appeared to him through the dirty windows that opened onto another wall without windows (it was six in the evening and February had never been the most cheerful month) he decided that what he would do would be to buy a plant. That was the first day.

*

On the second day, he went to the flower market on the Ile de la Cite. After some dreadful hesitations and a titanic internal struggle, he finally chose a Monstera deliciosa of the Araceae family, whose leaves, twelve inches long and ten inches across, stretched out in the form of a heart and deeply cut between the secondary veins, threw many strange shadows on his walls when he installed lateral lighting.

Passion then overcame him. an Aechmea fascianta, some Bromeliaceae, a Cissus antartica, some Vitaceae, Diffenbachia,Fatshedera, a Peperomia together made their appearance in the flat and something tropical began to rise up from between their foliage. That was the the third day.

*

On the fourth day, as he scrutinised the hothouse at the Botanical Gardens seeking new species, he had an encounter. In front of a Sciandapus Aursus, which originally came from the Solomon Islands and whose heart-shaped leaves very much intrigued him, his gaze met that of a charming young woman, whose long hair lightly flowed and who appeared to be – like him- fascinated by the plant world. Later, as they lay on the spring mattress, which as discreetly as possible had accompanied their amorous journey, they decided to turn the two-roomed apartment into an enchanted place in which the plants would occupy pride of place in the room as they already did in their lives.

*

No sooner said than done. They bought a quantity of peat and wood hummus and spread it far and wide over the floor and took the plants they had already brought out of their pots and, after unpotting them, planted them in open ground, together with a good dozen newcomers they had spent the day collecting in more or less the usual way. in the evening, exhausted but happy, they slept together, naked, on a bed of palm leaves after having refreshed themselves with fruits. That was the fifth day.

*

On the sixth day, they were surprised to see that the plants had sprung up in a way that had nothing natural about it. From morning, a tangle of branches, leaves and liana prevented them from moving about the flat easily and by noon they had to become resigned to tracing out a route with a machete if they wanted to get from one room to the other. They found this extremely poetic and were pleased with the astonishing humid heat which reigned in the rooms, something which encouraged them to dispense with the slightest clothing on their radiant bodies. Water streamed down the walls, serving to complete the illusion but completely ruining the wallpaper! Dozens of birds came in through the window and mingled their songs with the sighs of our two young savages, who were more in love than ever!

*

The next day passed as if in a dream. Strange and succulent fruits had appeared on some of the plants – which soon turned into trees – and they even saw an iguana, which sprang up from who knows where and took a trip around the room before vanishing into the undergrowth. They spent their time savouring its flow, caressing one another and re-discovering the pleasures of forgotten senses – or the meaning of forgotten pleasures. In short, they weren’t bored! That was the seventh day.

*

At dawn on the eighth day, there was a knock on the door. an old man with a long white beard, flanked by a tipstaff and a policeman, read out a declaration printed on official paper that announced that they were being evicted forthwith, failing which they would suffer a severe penalty. And this is how they were ignominiously thrown out of Paradise Road for having tried to create it there again! Since then he has worked for the Social Security, while she became a teacher. As for the flat, they say no one has ever been able to get inside, so intensely has the vegetation grown. But then they say so many things.

Alain Joubert 1984

Translation: Michael Richardson

 

The Ten Largest

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Hilma af Klint-The Ten Largest Childhood No 1 1907

The Swedish abstract painter Hilma af Klint frequently divided her Paintings for the Temple into thematic groups, including The Swan, The Dove, Altarpieces and Primordial Chaos. One of the most stunning groups is The Ten Largest, so called because of their truly monumental size, each canvas is over 10 foot tall. The Ten Largest is an abstract, spiritual rendition of a persons life from Childhood to Old Age.

The Ten Largest with their bold colouring and joyful unfettered line displays an exuberance reminiscent of Matisse, yet Hilma’s mediumistic work painted in secret preceded the acknowledged modern master by a year. Thankfully her canvases survived being stored in frozen Swedish attics for decades and we can now marvel at the splendour of Hilma’s esoteric creations.

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Childhood No 2
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Youth No 3
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Youth No 4

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Adulthood No 5
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Adulthood No 6
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Adulthood No 7
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Adulthood No 8
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Old Age-No 9
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Old Age-No 10