In late 1929-early 1930 the poet, photographer, theoretician and co-founder of the Belgian Surrealist Group Paul Nougé created a series of 19 photographs that were collected and published as Subversion des Images in 1968. The series lives up to the title, subverting and questioning perception in the manner of his friend and fellow co-founder Rene Magritte, who is featured in several of the images.
In my previous post on Irish photographer Bob Carlos Clarke (see Dreams of Desire 56 (Bob Carlos Clarke), I briefly mentioned his documentary series of photographs of drunken, loved up teenagers making out at debutantes balls in London in the mid-nineties. The photographs are now on exhibition in London’s The Little Black Gallery until May 26th, 2018, under the collective title The Agony & the Ecstasy, so now seemed like the right time to share these remarkable images which so vividly capture ‘the decisive moment‘, (in the terms of his hero Henri Cartier-Bresson) of these heedlessly hedonistic youths and, on occasion, their passed over friends.
As a photographer Clarke appears to be obsessed with the mediums ability to preserve a fleeting instance from the inexorable passage of time, which, as everyone knows (though we spend most of our time avoiding this unpleasant fact), destroys all things. Hence the undeniably voyeuristic obsession with the intensely transitory phenomena of beauty and youth, which decidedly adds to the poignancy and pathos of these images of ghosts from nightlife past.
Lee Miller’s haunting Portrait of Space qualifies as one of the most enigmatic of Surrealist images. While married to her wealthy Egyptian husband in Cairo in the mid 1930’s Miller felt the need to escape to the desert where the photograph was taken. It is not a portrait of a person but the desert landscape, however in true Surrealist fashion parts of the landscape bear a resemblance to facial features. Uncannily the clouds look like the floating lips in Man Rays painting The Lovers (see Dreams of Desire 12 (The Lovers)) from 1934 which are of course modelled on Miller’s own lips. The hillock on the right could be the Eye atop the pyramid on the dollar bill and the gaping hole in the fly screen is the eye that reveals and illuminates the scene for us.
The ground-breaking, innovative American photographer and painter Man Ray was another Surrealist affiliated artist who constantly referenced the life and work of the Marquis De Sade (see Illustrating the Divine Marquis for further examples of art inspired by the Divine Marquis).
As well as the art that explicitly points to the Marquis as a source, notably 1933’s witty and scandalous Homage to D.A.F De Sade, the brilliant Imaginary Portrait of 1936 and the geometric surrealism of Aline et Valcour (a nod to Man Ray’s favourite novel by De Sade), there are pieces that invoke the spirit of De Sade, especially the photograph Prayer from 1930.
As always with Man Ray’s photographs, Prayer is brilliantly composed with stark contrasts between the absolute, hushed and sacred darkness that frames and throws into sharp relief the lunar luminosity of the body ‘praying’ on the grubby bed. Wilfully blasphemous and perversely sacrilegious, Prayer highlights the still radical proposition of De Sade’s that the body, and the body alone, is the nexus of desire and the locus of all human motivation.
A sumptuously shimmering erotic photograph by the one of the greats of 20th Century photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson (previously featured in this series, see Dreams of Desire 50 (The Decisive Moment) of the Argentinian Surrealist painter, illustrator, fashion designer and writer, Leonor Fini. A fiercely independent woman renowned for her unorthodox personal life, Fini is credited with being the first woman artist to paint a male nude.
One of the most disturbing articles in the provocative Surrealist magazine Documents is Michel Leiris essay The ‘Caput Mortuum’ or the Alchemist’s Wife, which details Leiris encounter with the American Lost Generation travel writer and occultist William Buehler Seabrook.
Leiris had favourably reviewed Seabrook’s book on Haiti, The Magic Island for Documents and he readily agreed to a meeting. Leiris was very impressed with Seabrook, who narrated a story about a man who had come face to face with God. Shortly afterwards Leiris received some startling photographs from Seabrook of a woman in a leather mask. Leiris meditations on the photographs form the body of the essay which raises disquieting questions regarding identity and desire.
The American photographer Man Ray also met Seabrook in Paris around the same period and Man Ray tells several anecdotes concerning Seabrook in his autobiography Self Portrait. Man Ray shot several photographs of tableaux arranged by Seabrook, as well as the photographs of Seabrook with the marvellous Lee Miller.
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).
My fourth (and final, well for the moment anyway) recording from my recently published collection Motion No. 69. My other recordings The Answer, My Evil is Stronger and Curvature can be heard by following the links. Of course to get the full works you will have to buy the collection available from Amazon.
Happy Christmas and Holiday Season to all my lovely, loyal readers.
More Beautiful Still
You are the bride
stripped bare by the
vestal bachelors, even.
I would strip you down
to the very bone,
to burn myself
on the upside-down flame
that is your heart.
For you, to me
are as beautiful as
a lipstick-stained cigarette
held between trembling fingers;
More beautiful still
than the parted legs
of an architect’s divider
bisecting a wearying,
unwavering straight line.
Even more beautiful
than a roiling dark cloud
pregnant with heavy rain.
As beautiful as
a string of zeros and O’s.
Still more beautiful
than the city in summer—
festering like an open wound.
Still as beautiful, even
as the angle
between two walls.
Will the conjunction
in the heavenly zones
between your beauty
and my uncertain,
result in a happy ending?
Despite the fact that Surrealism was involved in literature, illustration, painting, film, architecture, philosophy and politics, the area where it achieved its greatest impact and subsequent influence is undoubtedly the field of photography (see Dreams of Desire 2, 3, 21, Angel and many others for examples of Surrealist and Surrealist inspired photography).
This influence can be seen in the nudes of the French photographer Lucian Clergue, who at the age of 21 in 1955 struck up a friendship with Picasso that was to last until the great modern master’s death in 1973. Clergue’s nude photographs often feature the zebra effect which creates a distancing coolness and abstraction to the exposed flesh. The model (or models) are defined by the interplay of light and shadow. In other studies the model is placed in natural surroundings where the body merges into the landscape in the manner of Magritte.
If you weren’t already aware, my collection Motion No. 69 is now available as an e-book (just click on the Author Page link). If you haven’t already decided to buy (for shame), maybe the little taste below will persuade you. I have also included audio, read by yours truly.
My Evil is Stronger
That look on your face?
Take it off, wipe it away.
I know you.
You and your kind,
always taking advantage
of every situation.
With a disarming smile,
a cheeky grin, a dubious charm.
But when nobody’s watching,
the smile instantly fades
from your too-full, sensual lips,
in anticipation of a kill tonight.
Fresh meat indeed…
Your eyes glazing over:
causing electro-magnetic fluctuations
in the immediate field
of vision and effect;
In the unnerving darkness,
your stoned, Satanic laughter echoes.
Yes, your evil is strong.
You know a thing or two.
Read between the lines of Faust.
Hold Prometheus as the burning example.
A dollar-store De Sade,
with a stable of Justines and Juliettes.
But my evil is stronger.
You could never begin to comprehend
the ways of me and my kind:
Contractors for the Apocalypse,
we are elemental and pan-universal.
Your evil is strong.
No love lost
within your small, black heart,
but I am darkness incarnate—
the isolate of terror.
My evil is stronger,
as you will find out right quick.
Unless you take
that damnable look
off your face.