Your fingertips glance
Glide press down there
Glissade here yes
Definitely right there
Now your touch
Locks me up
In a prism of colour
Jade hazel verdigris
Slate azure golden
Still-point the centre
Implosion the taste
Of mouths filled
Consumed with star
Light turning inward
The horizon event
Vanilla honeyed tristesse.
The 40 illustrations of the Sapientia Veterum Philosophorum are among the finest and most striking of later (18th Century) alchemical art. Stanislas Klossowski De Rola, Balthus son and resident occult adviser to the Chelsea set in Swinging London, notes that it deserves to be seen in full, however I am unfortunately only able to present a limited number of images.
Reducing the royal art to only essential imagery, (glass vessel, dove, lion, rain, sun and moon), Sapientia shows the process of conjuration and separation of the elements in the ascent and descent of the dove, which occurs seven times in the manuscript. This transmigration of matter where the fixed is rendered volatile and the volatile fixed result in the so-called eagles, of which seven precede the exaltation of the Quintessence.
The German physician and alchemist Michael Maier served as a counsellor to the occult besotted Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II in Prague, Capital of Bohemia, however the forces that would lead to the Thirty Years War were conspiring against the Emperor and Maier was forced to leave, first to England, where he composed a song for the royal wedding of Frederick V of the Palantine to Elizabeth Stuart, the daughter of James I, and then back to Germany in 1616, settling in Frankfurt am Main.
Atalanta Fugiens (Atalanta Fleeing) was published in 1617 by Johann Theodor de Bry in Oppenheim. de Bry published numerous works by authors aligned with the Rosicrucian movement and/or followers of the Swiss physician and occultist Paracelsus (incidentally also known as the ‘father of toxicology’).
An early example of a multi-media project, Atalanta is comprised of 50 discourses, each accompanied with an engraving by Matthias Merian of an alchemical emblem, an epigram, prose, a poem and a musical fugue for three voices.
Atalanta, as suggested by the title, frequently references Classical mythology, especially the story of the virgin huntress Atalanta, in addition to alchemical allegories featuring dragons, lions, the worm ouroboros and eagles..
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.
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).
If you weren’t already aware, my collection Motion No. 69 is now available (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.
Let me show you
The particular exhilaration
Associated with the ultimate
Annihilation of the self.
Yeah you know what I mean
I think you catch my drift
Just come down to me.
Perhaps at one point
We could have made love
Like the angels do:
A profound and absolute
Identification never to be
Sundered or torn apart.
But that moment, alas,
Has long lost past.
Instead I will hold you
And look you in the eyes,
Hoping you glimpse
But it’s not only words
That lie and mislead, looks
Can be very deceptive.
Maybe behind my
Oh-so doting gaze
You won’t see the hellfire
On a dimmer switch
Ready to ignite and rage,
That will consume us
In an orgy of lust.
Yes yes yes yes
Just let yourself get carried away
And scream out a yes and yes again,
In an agony of haste rip off my clothes
As I tear off yours so that I can sink
My teeth into your flawless skin,
Such perfection needs to be marked.
I so desperately long for your succour
But I am the kind that will always
Bite the hand that feeds,
So you better hold me down
Before I tie you up and tease
You with a merciless insolence,
Until we pass the event horizon
Of articulation, going beyond language;
(I am so tired of words,
Of their relentless, never ceasing,
Till we just
Squeal and grunt,
Groan and sigh,
Ourselves finally annihilated.
For if we cannot be angels
We can regain, at least temporarily,
The immediacy of our long lost,
Pristine, animal being.
Although Gnosticism is, on the whole, treated as a phenomenon intimately connected with Christianity, there is evidence that it predates the birth of Jesus in certain heretical Jewish circles. This is unsurprising as Judaism would have been in contact with Babylonian/Persian religious traditions, as well as Hellenic Platonic speculation. Gnosticism certainly gained its first adherents from within the Hellenized Jewish and Jewish-Christian communities, however these would eventually become part of the sphere of Christianity (whether orthodox or heterodox).
Indeed it seems paradoxical, if not downright perverse, to make mention of a Judaic Gnosticism. Gnosticism with its Dualism, distant God in the pleroma, not to mention the Demiurge who creates matter and the habit of turning scripture on its head, seems to be entirely inimical to Judaism with its monotheism and a God who is omnipotent, omnipresent and omnibenevolent. In many respects it is; yet within the mystical system of the Kabbalah there can be seen an attempt to combine strands of Neo-Platonism and Gnosticism with Judaism, albeit with a heavy qualified Dualism.
Theories abound regarding the origins of the Kabbalah. Common to the ancient and medieval world contemporary texts were stated to be of the greatest antiquary, all the better to suggest that it was of divine or prophetic origins. These claims are subject to dispute, though oral transmission undoubtedly has a role to play. Unfortunately such conjecture is unverifiable. What we can be sure of though is that the first great flowering of Kabbalistic literature was in Spain during the 12th Century and 13th Centuries. The political situation of the Iberian peninsula from the time of the Muslim conquest in the 8th Century to the reconquista of 1492 was a time of great flux, however for long period the Jewish population of Spain and Portugal enjoyed prosperity and freedom from persecution by tolerant Muslim and Christian rulers. It was also a time that the Kingdom of Al-Andalus was the centre of the learned world.
The Kabbalah is one of the world’s most complex and richest mystical systems (none-withstanding such recent bastardisations as The Kabbalah Centre) and I couldn’t possibly do its justice in a short post. Instead I will concentrate on a few points that appear to have a significant Gnostic component.
The two concepts of God: the essence of God is infinite, transcendent, unknowable, known as Ein Sof (No End). In contrast there is God that manifests itself to humanity through a series of emanations.
The Sephirot-the ten emanations are attributes of God in which he reveals himself and sustains existence (see the header image showing the Sephirot as the Tree of Life).
Shekhinah-the feminine divine presence, comparable to Sophia in Gnosticism. Often the last of the Sephirot (nearest to matter), referred to as the daughter of God. Shekhinah dwells among the holy but is exiled from her own source. According to the great scholar of Jewish Mysticism, Gershom Scholem, Shekhinah is ‘like the moon reflecting the divine light into the world’.
Sitra Achra-the Other Side, a demonic world of illusion
The Qliphot-the impure metaphorical shells surrounding holiness. To be found in the Sitra Achra, the Qliphot can lead to an self-awareness that is entirely illusory.
The radical notion (but only by some commentators) that evil is the result of an imbalance within the Sephirot.
The importance placed on the esoteric meaning of scripture as opposed to their overt, exoteric meaning.
Life became increasingly difficult for the large Jewish population in Spain by the mid 14th century and when Ferdinard and Isabella completed the reconquista, they announced the Expulsion of all Muslims and Jews. A majority left to Palestine, Italy, Poland and Germany with their books and knowledge. The Kabbalah become known to the learned of Europe who had recently re-discovered Plato and Hermes Tristemegistus (see my post As Above, So Below) and helped advance the Renaissance, though the philosopher-magus interpreted the system in a syncretic fashion, commonly known as Cabala to differentiate it from the Jewish Kabbalah. In Palestine the Kabbalah became of increasing importance within Judaism, but that is beyond the scope of this post.
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.
The poet, trail-blazing feminist and legendary gadfly of the avant-garde, Mina Loy, first collection of poetry was published in 1923 as Lunar Baedecker: the very title, a reference to the immensely popular Baedeker travel guides, was misspelled. Although admired by T.S Eliot, Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein, among others, Loy disappeared somewhat from view until being posthumously resurrected in the 1990’s as a unjustly neglected pioneer of both Modernism and Feminism, when a number of critical editions and previously unpublished works, including her novel Insel, detailing her relationship with the Surrealist Richard Oelze, saw the light of day.
Below is the title poem of the collection (spelled correctly), which employs a jewelled, archaic and Symbolist vocabulary to successfully skewer the sterile affectations of the aesthetes and dandies of the art and literary worlds that she knew so well.
A silver Lucifer
cocaine in cornucopia
To some somnambulists
of adolescent thighs
in satirical draperies
Peris in livery
for posthumous parvenues
with the chandelier souls
from Pharoah’s tombstones
to mercurial doomsdays
in furrowed phosphorous—
the eye-white sky-light
of lunar lusts
“Wing shows on Starway”
of ecstatic dust
and ashes whirl
from hallucinatory citadels
of shattered glass
into evacuate craters
A flock of dreams
browse on Necropolis
From the shores
of oval oceans
in the oxidized Orient
of Eros obsolete
in the museums of the moon
Pocked with personification
the fossil virgin of the skies
waxes and wanes—-