The entire text of the spell dedicated to Roger Blin (recto and verso) reads; ‘All those who have gotten together to keep me from taking HEROIN all those who have touched Anne Manson because of that Sunday May 1939 I will have them pierced alive in a Paris square and I will have them perforated and their intestines burned. I am in a Mental Asylum but this dream of a Madness will be enacted and enacted by ME-Antonin Artaud.’
In 1937 the French writer, actor and dramatist Antonin Artaud landed in Cobh, Ireland with a letter of introduction from the French Embassy. Without that letter the Irish officials would have denied Artaud admittance. From Cobh he travelled to Galway where he holed up in a hotel room he couldn’t pay for. The purpose of this strange odyssey was to return a walking stick he had acquired which he believed was the staff of St Patrick, as well as being previously owed by both Jesus Christ and Lucifer. After a brief stint in Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison Artaud was deported as a ‘destitute and undesirable alien’. On the return ship voyage he attacked two crew members and had to be restrained and put in a straitjacket.
The previous decade Artaud had been one of the leading lights of the first phrase of Surrealism, writing addresses to the Pope, Chancellors of the European Universities, the Dalai Lama and the Buddhist Schools. In January 1925 Andre Breton announced that Artaud was assuming direction of the Bureau of Surrealist Enquiries, cryptically commenting that ‘The Central Bureau, more alive than ever, is henceforth behind closed doors, but the world must know that it exists.’ However after the bitter criticisms Breton levelled against Artaud (along with many, many others) in the Second ManifestoArtaud left the movement, aligning himself somewhat with the renegade Surrealists who published in Georges Bataille’s Documents.
The return from Ireland brought about for Artaud a period of confinement in different asylums which ended only with his death in 1948 from an overdose of choral hydrate. 1938 saw the publication of his most famous work The Theatre and Its Double where he outlined his vision for the Theatre of Cruelty but he wrote little again until 1946, instead concentrating on writing up spells, casting horoscopes and drawing disturbing pictures.
But then Artaud would have doubtless have approved of Mick Jagger’s character Turner’s paraphrase of the central tenets of the Theatre of Cruelty in the 1970 movie Performance, ‘The only performance that makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness. Am I right?’ Judging by those lights Artaud made it all the way.
In 1931 the Armenian born (though he often told people he was Russian, his age also varied upon his mood) American painter Arshile Gorky saw Giorgio De Chirico’s 1914 painting The Fateful Temple. De Chirico’s painting featuring a portrait of his mother next to a head with a dissected brain which resonated with Gorky, who was working at the time on a mother and child portrait, and over the next three years he would produce two paintings and over eighty drawings in his variant series of The Fateful Temple; Nighttime, Enigma and Nostalgia.
Gorky and his mother had fled the genocide of Armenians instigated by the Ottoman Empire to Russia, where she died of starvation in 1919. He subsequently escaped to America and after experimenting with different styles embraced Surrealism in the 1940’s. His increasingly abstract paintings were a major influence on the Abstract Expressionists. In 1946 his studio barn burnt to the ground, he was diagnosed with cancer and his wife had an affair with the Chilean Surrealist painter Roberto Matta. In 1948 Gorky was involved in a car crash that broke his neck and left his painting arm temporarily paralysed. His wife left with the children and Gorky hanged himself at his Connecticut home at the age of 44 (or 42 or 46).
I am bored with symmetry, logic, systems, and rationales
Please don’t bother yourself to explain the why where or how,
Whatever happened to losing ourselves in some threatening city?
The thrill of taking a wrong turning and sensing the shadows shift-
Shape into lives that only in this moment have any relation to our own:
Becoming unmoored from our painstakingly constructed personas,
Thinking acting dying in the vertigo inducing deep instance.
Please don’t tell me where I am going or where you have been,
The only maps I read fringe the expanse of blank space with monsters:
I have always searched for a location with ill defined co-ordinates,
A place where the boundaries are frangible or porous,
Here I can stage the break out, the break in, the break through,
A clue to the exit, entrance, waiting room or maybe terminus,
It’s been said before but I will say it again: existence is elsewhere;
In the recessed wardrobe in some forgotten attic spare room;
Down a rabbit hole in a field or through a silvered looking glass;
At the opening of the hidden eye or the tingle at the base of the spine;
A broken lift stuck between floors high up in some sink estate;
In the pressure on the solar plexus, in the hollow nexus of flesh;
Or a graffitied toilet cubicle in some abstract hotel of the future;
The cellar of a church scrawled with incantations, exorcisms and veves;
In an abandoned concrete bunker on a desolate stretch of shoreline;
Beneath an island of black sand and volcanic glass in a complex of caves;
Or the receding house in the borderlands shifting in the distance;
Somewhere or there if you say the right words at the appointed time
You could find yourself in some subterranean underworld or Wonderland,
To re-encounter all the savageries of childhood games and innocence,
Meet the chthonic deities, secret rulers, invisible masters, sovereigns
Of all they survey in these latter days of the Fourth Decadency.
I have heard a rumour that they are hiring, press-ganging, shanghaiing,
Suitable personages, help is always wanted, space can sure be found
For lieutenants and officers of a studious and introspective disposition;
Rehabbing Ingénues resting in between a succession of difficult roles;
Be-bop gynaecologists smoking before inserting a fist into localized wombs;
Free-styling surgeons coming hard and fast as they make the cut into flesh,
But remember that incision is always first, anaesthesia only ever after:
For Sisters of the Immaculate Silk Stocking and Perpetual Pain
Raptly murmuring well sorry but you to me are just a pigeon;
Purveyors of all kinds of reprocessed filth and high spin deviation;
Hard noise volatilized followers of sinister charismatic cult leaders;
Aberrationist lexicographers in league with heretical cartographers;
Natty dogs with polka dot ties telepathically communicating weather reports;
Architects and designers specializing in the style of the Neo-New Brutalism
Or are actively working towards the Retro-Chaldean-Rococo-Monstrosity;
Procurers of contraband urine analysis and recondite pharmacopeia;
Contortionist courtesans of a pan-dimensional renown and fame;
Deep cover agents that have forgotten that they are in fact agents
Subverting the suburban norms that they ostensibly embody.
In the presence of the sublime and the grotesque our eyes will dilate
As we experience the miserable miracle beyond all artificial paradises;
But it is the only destination worth setting out for so let’s carry on
Without lodestones or compass, no navigation aid beyond still beating hearts.
My room is strewn with the detritus
Of my attempted past lives:
The deadmens suits of discarded personas,
Soiled with sweat and stained at the crotch;
On the floor lie at succession of cracked masks,
Obscuring chalk drawings of circles and pentagrams,
The walls are lined with shattered mirrors
A procession of refracted images
Which if superimposed would reveal
To everyone interested a detailed confession
Of my life as a Gothic novel:
The sad eyes heavy with unquiet sleep
Stare back at me unfocused,
People used to say I was bleakly handsome
And though I couldn’t quite see it myself
I took them at their word,
Ran with this perception and granted it half a reality
But is this any excuse for such overweening vanity,
Because looks are always waving goodbye
In the darkening glass as the autumnal light fades.
The rain is soon to set in,
I doubt it will stop until after journey’s end.
In 1936 the painter and art dealer Roland Penrose (also later the husband of Lee Miller) and the art critic Herbert Read, who were organising the International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries, decided to pay a visit to the studios of the Irish born painter Francis Bacon in Chelsea. Bacon showed them four large canvases but the visitors were underwhelmed, to say the least. Penrose declared that they were insufficiently surreal to be included and is reported to have told Francis, “Mr. Bacon, don’t you realise a lot has happened in painting since the Impressionists?”.
However much this must have stung, Francis Bacon apparently agreed with Penrose’s assessment as he would later, when very famous, ruthlessly suppress any pieces that pre-dated his breakthrough painting Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion of 1944; that is to say, that any painting produced before he had engaged, assimilated and felt in a position to response in a highly personal way to the great Continental European avant-garde currents (including, naturally enough, Surrealism), were to be excluded from his oeuvre. Quite rightly so, as the critic John Russell noted, “there was painting in England before the Three Studies, and painting after them, and no one…can confuse the two,” which of course extended to Bacon’s own work.
Painted on Sundeala boards, a cheap alternative to canvas, used frequently by Bacon as he was often short of money due to his heavy drinking and lifelong gambling habit, Three Studies presents three nightmarish figures, Bacon’s horror take on Picasso’s biomorphs, with elongated necks and distended mouths, against a lurid, harsh, burnt orange background. Christ and the two thieves crucified have been transformed into the Furies. Bacon admitted to having been obsessed by the phrase in Aeschylus, “the reek of human blood smiles out at me”, and in a sense Three Studies is a raw, visceral, pictorial actualisation of such a striking and terrifying line. After all, Bacon was the best exemplifier of the Bataillean aesthetic in the visual arts; the body as meat, the world as an abattoir, the endless scream of being.