With Dada it is hard to know where the humour ends and the mystification begins. This is certainly the case with one of its most notorious succès de scandale, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain from 1917.
Fountain is a ready-made sculpture, a porcelain urinal signed by R.Mutt. It was submitted to the Society of Independent Artists for exhibition at the inaugural show in The Grand Central Palace, New York. The committee, of whom Duchamp was a member, decided to ‘suppress’ Fountain by hiding it behind a partition, as the rules of the society meant that any artwork presented by a fee-paying artist had to be accepted. After the show Duchamp retrieved Fountain from its hiding place, got Alfred Stieglitz of the 291 gallery to photograph the sculpture, which was then published with accompanying essays in The Blind Man magazine. Shortly after the original Fountain was lost (probably thrown out into the garbage, a fate of a many a ready-made as the peripatetic Duchamp liked to travel light), though in the 1950’s and 1960’s Duchamp made a number of reproductions that can be seen in museums across the world.
Part of the text in The Blind Man in defense of Fountain would arguably have a greater impact on Modernist and Post-Modernist aesthetic theory than the actual work.
Whether Mr Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.
After half of century of Conceptual Art we are wearily familiar with this view and lose sight of how genuinely revolutionary such a concept would have been in 1917. It also shows how little art and aesthetics have progressed since the high water marks of Modernism. I have never really been sure if Duchamp’s assault on art and taste was anything more than an elaborate piss-take, but by God nobody, not even Warhol, has ever done it better.
The self taught artist Eugene Von Bruenchenhein worked in a variety of mediums including painting, drawing, sculpture (using chicken bones) and photography, all of which adorned the modest house in Milwaukee, Wisconsin that he lived in for forty years with his wife and muse, Marie.
Eugene’s marriage to Evelyn Kalka in 1943 (he re-named her Marie) seemed to have ignited a creative spark. Over the next two decades he would photograph Marie thousand of times, as a pin-up girl, tropical tourist, vixen, Madonna. Bedecked with pearls, clunky fetish heels, lurid leopard prints against florid wall coverings, Marie looks wistfully upwards, awkward and gauche. The photographs are simultaneously curiously innocent and charged with an subterranean current of obsessional eroticism. Marie at times seems like a harbinger of Cindy Sherman, assuming and thereby questioning a number of manufactured female roles.
Eugene was convinced that he was descended from royalty and was the self-styled King of the Lesser Lands. Undoubtedly he saw Marie as his Queen in the fantasy world they had created, she is frequently wearing a crown that he fashioned out of tin cans.
Full of startling and vivid imagery, Andre Breton’s 1931 poem Free Union is one of the finest examples of Surrealist poetry as well as a magnificent and powerful declaration of love. It was a major influence on the Beats, particularly Allen Ginsberg.
A free union is a romantic bond between two or more people without legal, civil or religious regulation.
My wife whose hair is a brush fire Whose thoughts are summer lightning Whose waist is an hourglass Whose waist is the waist of an otter caught in the teeth of a tiger Whose mouth is a bright cockade with the fragrance of a star of the first magnitude Whose teeth leave prints like the tracks of white mice over snow Whose tongue is made out of amber and polished glass Whose tongue is a stabbed wafer The tongue of a doll with eyes that open and shut Whose tongue is an incredible stone My wife whose eyelashes are strokes in the handwriting of a child Whose eyebrows are nests of swallows My wife whose temples are the slate of greenhouse roofs With steam on the windows My wife whose shoulders are champagne Are fountains that curl from the heads of dolphins over the ice My wife whose wrists are matches Whose fingers are raffles holding the ace of hearts Whose fingers are fresh cut hay My wife with the armpits of martens and beech fruit And Midsummer Night That are hedges of privet and resting places for sea snails Whose arms are of sea foam and a landlocked sea And a fusion of wheat and a mill Whose legs are spindles In the delicate movements of watches and despair My wife whose calves are sweet with the sap of elders Whose feet are carved initials Keyrings and the feet of steeplejacks My wife whose neck is fine milled barley Whose throat contains the Valley of God And encounters in the bed of the maelstrom My wife whose breasts are of night — And are undersea molehills And crucibles of rubies My wife whose breasts are haunted by the ghosts of dew-moistened roses Whose belly is a fan unfolded in the sunlight Is a giant talon My wife with the back of a bird in vertical flight With a back of quicksilver And bright lights My wife whose nape is of smooth worn stone and white chalk And of a glass slipped through the fingers of someone who has just drunk My wife with the thighs of a skiff That are lustrous and feathered like arrows Stemmed with the light tailbones of a white peacock And imperceptible balance My wife whose rump is sandstone and flax Whose rump is the back of a swan and the spring My wife with the sex of an iris A mine and a platypus With the sex of an alga and old-fashioned candles My wife with the sex of a mirror My wife with eyes full of tears With eyes that are purple armour and a magnetized needle With eyes of savannahs With eyes full of water to drink in prisons My wife with eyes that are forests forever under the axe My wife with eyes that are the equal of water and air and earth and fire
After much consideration,
I have come to the conclusion,
That you are not
Who you say you are.
You have always been here,
Not a visitor seeking shelter
From the winter’s storm,
This is your residence
Right here, with Hell
Just around the bend
In the depth-less sunless valley,
With Heaven just a vague rumour,
A distant, insincere promise:
This gimcrack structure,
Aging and weathered
In urgent need of repair
With its endless corridors
And cracked silvered mirrors
A dull pastiche of infinity,
Home to dismal phantoms,
Downwardly mobile angels,
Degraded coarse Demiurges,
Is your eternal abode
Where you wearily survey
With a monstrous apathy,
The chaos of creation,
The loop da loops of time,
This maze of memories.
I’m sure that there’ll come a time
When I’ll forget exactly…
…Who I’m supposed to be.
You see it’s a matter of quantity,
(Quality no longer enters into it)
All manner of obscure equations,
Metrics of analyzing othering,
With its multiplication of voices
And sub-division of selves;
While the host of personalities
Residing parasitically within
The remote fortress of my mind
Stake their claim,
Plant the flag.
For all the world
And its interlopers to see ;
Then identity will be little more
Than a possession
By outside forces unknown,
Be they alien, spectral or angelic:
But by then I will be passed caring,
For my empty hallucinating eyes
Will focus on the apparition
Hidden behind the revelation
Of the rent and torn veils:
Our glistening bodies glamorous,
All shimmering and stardusted.
Chambre Close is the collaboration between the writer Serge Bramly and the photographer Bettina Rheims. The elegant and cultured tone of the confessions of Mister X, an amateur photographer and voyeur who lures models back to shabby hotel rooms to engage in acts of ‘visual adultery’ is contrasted against the clinical detachment and raw intimacy of Rheims colour images.
Rheims is justly renowned for her studies of female nudes. As she herself notes, “I love flesh. I am a photographer of the skin.”
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).
It hadn’t stopped raining for a moment since his arrival in Eden Falls. The days (if the pale pearl grey light could be classified as day) and the white, starless nights were considerably longer than in most standard regions, clocking in around 36 hours, undoubtedly controlled by decanates and/or Janus-faced daemons. Looking out from one of the innumerable windows, the Melancholy Lieutenant automatically defined the constant drizzle and mizzle as culchie soft rain, however in his attempts at surveying the territory he soon realised that the very sky looked to deceive. Drenched to the skin and bone he would beat a hasty retreat long before reaching the end of the drive that appeared to lead nowhere, crazy zig-zagging across the arsenic green fields to suddenly stop against a lone oak, a lookout for the massed ranks of its brethren in the faraway forest.
So the Melancholy Lieutenant would while away the time investigating Eden Falls. Up stairs and through corridors he walked, opening doors that led to rooms of angled mirrors or vast chandeliered ballrooms empty apart from a solitary upright piano, past endless colonnades interrupted by the regular statuary procession of mounted tyrants, down steps that finished in mid-air. Somewhere in this maze there must be a clue to the exit, he thought doggedly, determined to be re-united with the Ingénue.
He discovered a room full of globes and atlases, a Map Room of a Victorian gentleman. However the maps were just diagrams and architectural plans with a scale of 1:1, of no longer existing wings and hastily abandoned extensions of Eden Falls. The library seemed to contain a hint of promise, but most of the books were written in Chaldean or Etruscan or Babylonian, or even Agarthaen or Enochian or Lemurian. The pop-up books contained only cleverly designed miniature 3D versions of rooms he had already trudged through.
That left the jigsaw puzzles that every drawer in the building (be it palace or sanatorium or mental asylum or hotel) seemed to contain. The picture on the outside of the box was always misleading, unsurprisingly enough, he thought. It was never a street or circus scene, never a Cezanne or a Monet, it was forever the labyrinth of Eden Falls. He had almost given up hope when he found a puzzle that appeared to have a pattern on both sides, though the backside was just two-tone black & white. At least it won’t be another illustration of a prison, he thought, as he began to pierce the ten thousand and one pieces together.
With mounting excitement and dread he realised, as the pieces fall into place, that this was the message he had been waiting for. But what if he didn’t like what it had to say? Perhaps it was a trap set by Le Bateleur? No matter, he had to carry on.
As soon as the Melancholy Lieutenant triumphantly slotted the last tile into place and began to scan the writing, he heard a phone ring out. He hadn’t seen or heard a phone during the entire duration of his time in Eden Falls. Trying to quell his panic he decided to concentrate on the message contained in the puzzle, because something was definitely now happening and what other options did he have?
X marks the spot
You are here
But where you should be
Is the other side
Don’t pick up Run run double quick
That is that then, he decided, though he never had any intention of picking up the incessantly ringing phone anyway. The warning of the message posed further disturbing questions, but those could wait. It was time to go. He located and grabbed his kit-bag (always packed in case of emergencies and sudden departures) and ran out into the rain.
He kept on running until he had reached the oak that marked the end of the pointless driveway. Pausing for a moment he couldn’t resist a look back at the building, which flickered briefly out of focus, before fading away totally. That gig was up, the nixer nixed, Eden Falls was 86’ed.
The Melancholy Lieutenant, turning his collar to the cold and damned, headed towards the forest, searching for the deepest cover.
Do I need to spell it out for you?
These words of mine are meant
As a spell neither more or less,
A charm to persuade your sweet self
To surrender in absentia and toto,
Give me the power and I promise,
In fact, swear on all that is unholy
To abuse the privilege you
Have so graciously granted, heedlessly,
Recklessly rushing through all
Of love’s myriad delights and mystery,
Imputing a whole lexicon of desire
In the sections of your shadow
Outlined against the bedroom wall,
In the jutting angles of your legs
For I seek the centre, a still point
Where all yearnings will cease
And desist from transmitting
This urgent ungovernable need
To translate the will divine,
This damnable demonic occultistry
That devours yet is never sated.
The words that I say don’t mean a thing,
Except for their inherent suggestiveness.
They are an attempt at hypnotizing you,
My intention is to bewitch and enthral
Before slowly, ever so slowly, then finally,
Seducing you in just such a fashion.
Understanding will elude you for now,
Only long afterwards can you begin
To understand that rapture, this bliss,
The rupture and the event changing
Everything and consuming the parts
That formerly constituted the whole;
The heavenly body bruised and bitten,
Your lunar skin a palimpsest upon
Which I have scrawled in marker
Every wayward impulsive craving
And deepest innermost desiring:
Across your most intimate territories,
Swell of breast, slope of thigh I write
The text of my tyrannical longings
To feel your heart beat fast, faster
Suffusing every inch of you with heat
Because I want to not only feel
The flame within you burn brightly,
I want to see, hear, taste and smell
Your essence, then I may possess all;
2 become 1
U & I.
The words that I say don’t mean a thing,
Except for their ritualistic significance.
They are an attempt at an invocation,
My intention is to enthral and bewitch,
Make desire a reality through the will.