The Art of Provocation 

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Our colleague Benjamin Peret in the act of insulting a priest-La Revolution Surrealiste December 1926
Being born out of anarchic Dada, the Surrealists delighted in provoking shock and outrage. The targets were the traditional representatives of bourgeois society; the law, the army and politicians. However they reserved their greatest contempt for the Church and never missed an opportunity in attempting to scandalize an institution that would frequently rise to the bait.

Is the above photograph an example of a chance encounter, an event so beloved by the Surrealists, that Peret found too tempting to pass up; or is rather a more calculated, stage-managed affair? Either way it remains a provocation.

The Semblance of a Better World

 

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William Blake-Newton 1795

The apple never falls far
We are fashioned in the image
Residents of this sham slum
An unfashionable outlier
Enmeshed in illusions
Deceived by the shadow-play
Made pliable and compliant
By the distant promise
Of transitory pleasures
And the uncertainty
Of imagined Utopias
Even our revelations
Of reality across the universe
Under a more fortunate star
Maybe the twin suns of Arcturus
Led us into a labyrinth
Of cunning devised stage
Settings and funhouse mirrors
A parody of a homage
To the semblance of a better world
That we never really hope for
Anyway for anyone at any time
Instead we only desire
To inflict the affliction
That we suffer onto others
A communication of the virus
Of life and existence
Whose whole and sole purpose
Is to feed the malignant entity
With the accumulation of pain.

Tempting Fate: Part One

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Andre Masson-Card Trick  1923

I

There inevitably comes a point in every gambler’s career when he is compelled to call upon the aid of unseen powers. Because they instinctively follow the smart money, which these days is laid heavily against God, a gambler need only make dubious entreaties to these shadowy entities. But then a true gambler will do anything to win, consequences be damned.

So it was with Max Chasm, who in the early hours of June 23rd of an ill-starred year, was seated at the roulette table in the casino on the 33rd floor of The Very Heaven Heavenly Hotel by Hilton-Tetragrammaton™ in Paradise, Nevada.  At 1 am, when his young wife Catherine —always a Cinderella— had left him for their suite and their bed, he found himself ahead and on a streak which he was determined to pursue.

As the hours passed, the tide had slowly but perceptibly turned against him. Where once there had been mountains of chips, there was now a vast plateau of green baize dotted with scattered, eroding hills. How on earth could he explain to Catherine, in the unforgiving morning light, that he had lost all that money in such a short period of time? And once he started, he would have to reveal the true state of affairs, something which he was loath to contemplate. Max had refused to acknowledge, even in passing, the utter, absolute mess he had created.

Of late, his gambling had become all-consuming, he had lost his job two weeks ago and still hadn’t dropped that bomb on Catherine, and the debts…. oh yes, the debts for which he had borrowed £15,000 from his Grannie. And bless her, the dear soul thought it was a bridging loan to help him start-up a restaurant. Of course, once he had the wad in his hot hands, the idea of turning it over to Harry Diamond and all the rest of the piranhas seemed a lot less attractive than going to Vegas and winning a pile. Besides, it would be a nice treat for Catherine —it hadn’t been easy for her lately and she deserved a little spoiling.

“What was I thinking?” Max reproached himself. All his callow dreams were rapidly evaporating and soon he would be forced to confront the unavoidable reality. If Harry didn’t get his money upon Max’s return then Harry would not be best pleased…and you always wanted to stay on the right side of Harry. His experiences growing up a Jew in Belfast during the Troubles, had taught Harry the importance of making examples. This knowledge had served him well in his various careers as landlord, nightclub owner, bookmaker, debt collector and other assorted enterprises that you couldn’t put down on paper. Max knew that Harry would never abandon the tried and true methods that served him so well. Mr Diamond was the perfect embodiment of his name: flashy and very, very hard.

As he watched the croupier rack up yet more of his money, Max toyed with the idea of never returning to England. That would be, at best, a temporary solution inevitably leading to more problems, since Harry had his tentacles everywhere and undoubtedly had enough information about him —like the names and addresses of his friends and family— to make life even more difficult and dangerous than it already was.

It would also mean having to persuade Cathy to stay out here, which actually wasn’t that far outside the realm of possibility, since he’d already convinced her to marry him against her beloved father’s strong objections. Nevertheless, it wouldn’t be an easily won argument. For a start, what would they do for money? For a moment he considered that if worst came to worst, he could put her on the game. Cathy would definitely make a killing looking the way she did. Now that was a thought, if it came to the last resort.

Max decided to sit the next few turns out to give himself time to think. He had to hit upon a strategy to come back from underneath. He ordered a gin and tonic from the kimono-clad cocktail waitress and resolved that he wouldn’t bet again until she returned.

All the while, as Max waited nervously, he fingered the lucky dice in his jacket pocket as he ran through a half-crazed litany of desperation and desire addressed to vaguely remembered deities.

“O Fortuna,” he muttered, “do not desert your loyal servant in the hour of his greatest need. Eris, give me one last chance to make my life right, and I’ll give you anything you want in return. Lady Luck, please look down upon me with your blessed smile. And Kali, use your immutable power to change my destiny, I beg of you.”

He vowed everlasting allegiance to Chymerica and the Secret Illuminati Sisters for a taste, just a whiff of success. Hell, he was prepared to strike a bargain with the Devil Himself, if that’s what it would take.

When the waitress appeared with his drink, he tipped her with a precious chip from his diminished pile. Lighting up yet another cigarette and sipping slowly on the syrupy gin and tonic, he looked across the roulette table and studied the assortment of late night revellers, searching for some sort of omen.

“My God, what a crew,” thought Max. Shrill-voiced working girls draped themselves over the bloated bodies of middle-aged businessmen and egged them on to ever greater excesses with their childish shrieks and giggles. And that was just the winners. More numerous by far, were the sullen-faced losers —chancers with their all-nighter flesh tones illuminated by the sickly, unchanging, artificial light, who wouldn’t have been out-of-place in some nightmarish canvas by Grosz or Bacon or even Bosch.

Who was he to judge, though? Deep down, he knew this was where he belonged; these were his kind of people. Max briefly returned to staring into the depths of the glass before downing the rest of the viscous liquid. As he set about looking for the waitress again, he noticed that a newcomer had taken a seat at the table directly opposite him. Max blinked and looked again. Max wondered how it was possible to look so fresh at this ungodly hour, as he watched the serene figure accept chips from the croupier. No one else at the table, absorbed as they were in play, paid her the slightest bit of attention. Max, however, was entranced.

She was slender and even seated, Max could tell that she was very tall, possibly as tall or even taller than he was, measuring in at a good 6’1. Her shoulder-length, raven-black hair was the same colour as her satiny dress —a striking contrast with the lustrous porcelain of her skin. Most mesmerizing of all though, were her green, shining cat’s eyes, which matched the emerald necklace around her exquisite neck. Max guessed that she was around his own age, 35 or so, but really it was impossible to tell —she was simultaneously youthful and mature.

Max managed to attract the waitress’s attention and he ordered two gin and tonics. He needed to fortify himself for the following few moments. Because this was definitely it. His life could go one of two ways and he had to be prepared for whatever fate threw at him.

The waitress brought over the drinks. Max glanced over the top of his glass at the woman again. Never before had he seen the like. She was an angel in human form: a perfect ten. For Max, that was as good a sign as any. So, after a quick calculation of his remaining chips which amounted to a little over a thousand dollars, he thought, “fuck it,” and placed the whole lot on black ten.

As the croupier placed the ball in the wheel and told the punters that no more bets were allowed, Max raised his glass and silently toasted the newcomer, hoping she was the harbinger of some much needed luck. Then, of course, he watched the wheel.

This was definitely it now —his last chance. It was now or never, do or die. With this crazy bet, it really had come to that. As the ball did its usual mad dance, he asked himself why? Why had he just risked it all with odds of exactly 37 to 1, stacked in the house’s favour?

He could barely watch, yet there was no question of turning away or closing his eyes. No way. The ball continued to bounce. Max just wanted it to land so it would be over and he could start reconciling himself to his drastically straitened circumstances. One more bounce and then it settled.

“That’s it then, I’m finished,” Max thought, not registering the fact that the ball had landed in the slot numbered ten. Ten? Ten. Yes, it was definitely ten!

“Yessssssssss, thank you, thank you Sweet Lord above or whoever controls such matters!” Max prayed, as the knowledge sank in and became a reality. It was nothing less than a miracle. He’d been saved at the eleventh hour and fifty-ninth minute.

As the croupier pushed over pile after pile of chips, Max calculated that he over $40,000 dollars and with the current rate of exchange, it worked out to between 24,000 and 25,000 pounds. With that money, he could pay off Harry Diamond and the other loan sharks, and still have some change left over. Of course, it wouldn’t be enough to pay off Gran, which was a shame, but she was hardly likely to take a baseball bat to his kneecaps or a meat cleaver to his little finger.

All things considered, this was a result and he decided to cash the chips in right then and there. But when he looked over at the blessed newcomer who had been the inspiration for his life changing win and saw a faintly ironic smile play on her deep red lips, it occurred to him that he should stay a little longer to see how everything played out. After all, why not? Why leave when the luck was starting to go his way? Who knows where it could all end? Yes, why not indeed?

Max went for the maximum of ten grand on red. That would still leave him with enough to clear his major debts. Twenty three red came up. Another result. He glanced again at the woman. She reached out with her immaculate hand, manicured nails painted the same shade of red as her lipstick, to grasp her drink. Max took his winnings and left his original bet to ride.

The ball landed in lucky number nine. Red again. “How long could this streak last?” Max thought, anxiously. With a deep breath, he decided that as long as she was there he would just roll with it. He was surprised she hadn’t noticed him staring at her. Then again, she probably had and wasn’t letting on. Elegant ladies always played it cool. When she ran her fingers though her glossy hair, he switched his bet to black. Black thirteen.

Surely morning had broken by now, but Max didn’t care as his run showed no sign of ending. Before every turn, he would watch the raven-haired angel, taking her every movement as an augury that infallibly came true.

Max’s success was generating excitement at the table as the other players, including the enigmatic stranger, who was the source of this good fortune, followed his bets. After the string of chances on red and black paid off, Max changed tack and started playing the odds and evens, taking his cues from the positioning of her hands on the baize.

As she began dreamily stroking the emerald necklace circling her throat —a throat worthy of a Mannerist masterpiece— Max didn’t hesitate and put ten thousand on zero. And after everything that had gone before, he wasn’t the least surprised when the ball nestled cosily in the green slot.

Max realised that if he carried on at this rate, it was entirely possible that he could break the bank. With his 24th consecutive win, he had amassed over $600,000 and his fellow gamblers were raking it in, too. Heady with this prospect, Max ordered half a dozen bottles of champagne for the table from the chatty, flirtatious waitress just starting her shift.

While his attention was diverted, Max failed to notice that his charm had collected her winnings and had left the table, disappearing into the recesses leading to the massed banks of slot machines. He would have liked to thank her and maybe gotten to know her better —a lot better, actually— but it was already too late. She was lost to the casino and by the time he cashed in, he knew she could be anywhere.

He gave a tip of a thousand dollars to the croupier, ignored the pleas of his fellow gamblers (for once, he was going to quit while still ahead) and headed for the elevator to take him up to his suite. He was going to wake Catherine. She would be furious that he had stayed out all night long, but at least he felt sure he could sweeten her mood.

II

That night marked the start of a new beginning for Max and Catherine. With the money Max had won, he paid off the loan sharks and cleared all his other debts. With that unpleasant task behind him, he vowed never gamble again and to do something worthwhile with his life. Most importantly of all though, he vowed to start treating Catherine right.

Max lived up to his promises admirably. They put a large deposit down on an inter-bellum, three-story, semi-detached in an up-and-coming borough. Then, after a few months of drawing up a business plan and searching for the ideal location, they opened a restaurant which Max, in an homage and a farewell gesture to the game that had made their dream a reality, named Noir Et Rouge.

With Max working the front of the house and Catherine crafting her unique creations in the kitchen, the restaurant was such a success that Max gave no thought to having an occasional flutter or buying a lottery ticket on a Saturday night.

As the present was just so and the future looked exceedingly bright, Max chose not to dwell on the past. Whenever a stray memory from his gambling days did surface, he instantly suppressed it. He was no longer that person — the degenerate gambler, staring ruination in the face, yet still only thinking of the next bet. What possible connection could exist between that man and the successful businessman with a beautiful, talented and loving wife?

This is the revised, edited and improved version of a story/start of a novel that I have previously posted. Dr Meg Sorick  (https://drmegsorick.com/)has once  again kindly taken the time to review the material and has waved her magician’s wand and pulled a rabbit of the hat. Please visit her site. The next instalment will be next Saturday May 20th.

My Evil Is Stronger

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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 dubious charm,
An uncertain smile
A cheeky grin
But when nobody’s watching
The smile instantly fades
From your too full
Sensual lips licking,
Cat-like in anticipation
Of a kill tonight,
Fresh meat indeed;
Your eyes glazing over
Thousand yard lasered
Hypnotic death stare
Causing electro-magnetic
Disturbances in the immediate
Field of vision and effect;
In the unnerving darkness
Echoes your stoned
Satanic laughter
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,
Annihilating Angels.
Our ways 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.

Mirror Image

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Helmut Newton 1973

I look at you and all I can see
Is myself
Encased in the feminine form
My long lost imaginary twin
And I know that when you stare
So deeply into me
You are looking
Through a glass darkly
So that when we touch
We make love in a mirror
Dissolving on the other side
The place where all polarities
Are resolved, indeed
Made redundant.

Sun and Moon
Female and Male
Day and Night
Cease to exist

And there is no longer
A discrepancy between
Desire and decision
For our bodies
Is a binary code of attraction
A series of
OOOOO’s and IIIII’s
Eyes and oh’s,
Combined to complete
A sequence of absolute pleasure
Breathing the heavy musky scent
A smile of weighted lust
Plays on our devouring lips
As our bodies yield and the flesh merges
Together as identities blur and fade
Into the suggestive sculpture
Of an unmade bed

Visions from the Other Side

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Alfred Kubin-Le Saut de la Mort (The Jump of Death) 1902
One of the most important of the Austrian Symbolists, Alfred Kubin was the master of macabre art and the morbid image, who in his insistence upon portraying all the horrors lurking just beneath the surface in the unconscious mind can be said to have anticipated the Surrealists.

His life reads like a cross between a Freudian case study and a decadent fiction. He didn’t meet his father until he was two and afterwards he only felt, ‘hate, hate, hate’ towards him. His beloved mother died when he was ten and the following year he lost his virginity to a pregnant friend. This unhappy childhood led to his abortive suicide attempt on his mother’s grave when he was nineteen. He joined the army but that resulted in a nervous breakdown.

After discovering the works of Odilon Redon (Visionary Noir), Edvard Munch (Madonna and Self-Portraits), James Ensor (The Entry),  and Felicien Rops (Les Diaboliques) Kubin decided to devote his life to art. Other major influences were the works of Max Klinger and Goya (The Sleep of Reason), especially in their use of aquatint.

Kubin worked primarily as a book illustrator, mainly of Gothic and fantastic fiction, notably Edgar Allen Poe, E.T.A Hoffman and Gustav Meyrick. In 1906 he married the half-Jewish heiress Hedwig Grundler and they moved to an isolated 12th century castle in Upper Austria, where he was to remain to his death. The marriage was a success, much to everyone’s surprise as Hedwig had a heavy morphine dependency that required frequent hospitalizations.

Kubin was a friend of both Paul Klee and Vasily Kandinsky and did show with their Blauer Riter group, however his avant-garde involvement ended by the time of the WWI.

Kubin was also a talented writer and his brilliant proto-surrealist novel The Other Side  of 1909 (which I intend to write about in detail at some point) was much admired by his friend Franz Kafka and also by that troubling genius of German letters, Ernst Junger.

Island In the Sun

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A succession of balconies
The series of hotel rooms
At the cruciform sun staring
Sinking beyond depthless sea
Sipping slowly sweet drinks
And swallowing bitter pills
We succumb to the dreams
That engender existence
And surrender our identity
To counter-poised influences;
Our desires equidistant
Beneath the giant fronds
Amidst this lunar landscape
With its cratered valleys
Among the cankered beaches
Away from the horror
Of our unremembered home
This sun-scorched skin
Is a torrid equatorial zone.

Visionary Noir

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Haunted-Odilon Redon 1896
From 1870 to the turn of the century the French Symbolist artist Odilon Redon worked almost exclusively in the medium of charcoal drawing and lithographs. Redon called this extraordinary body of work his noirs. Throughout his career Redon’s expressed intent was to place ‘the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible’,  an aesthetic doctrine that strongly resonated with the Surrealists. Straddling that perilous hinterland between dream, hallucination and otherworldly visions, the noirs present a haunting, nocturnal world that is forever sliding into nightmare.

It was the publication of the bible of Decadence A Rebours by JK Huysmans  in 1884 that Redon found fame. The archetypal world-weary Decadent Des Esseintes collects and describes in great detail Redon’s lithographs. After 1900 Redon turned to pastels and oils in paintings that reflected his interest in Buddhism and Japanese art and that became increasingly abstract in his latter years.

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Dreams of Desire 55 (Helmut Newton)

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Catherine Deneuve-Helmut Newton 1976
Known as the ‘King of Kink’ and the ’35mm Marquis De Sade’ , Helmut Newton was the most influential fashion photographer of the twentieth century. Famous for his highly stylised black and white photographs of beautiful statuesque women in perverse narrative scenarios, Newton has alternatively been hailed as a true original or vilified as a fetishist who presents the ultimate in the objectification of women.

Born Helmut Neustadter  to a wealthy German-Jewish family in Berlin, Newton was an apprentice to the fashion and advertising photographer Yva (see my previous post Yva) from the ages  of 16 and 18. Fleeing the worsening situation in 1938 Newton went first to Singapore where he led a playboy lifestyle, before moving to Australia where he served in the Australian Army for 5 years. It was in Australia that he met his wife of 55 years, June, who was also a photographer known as ‘Alice Springs’.

Newton rose to fame in the 1960’s where his photographs frequently appeared in the French Edition of Vogue. The startling fetishtic glamour shots of the seventies are charged with eroticism and a ritualistic, sado-masochist atmosphere. During the 1980’s and 90’s Newton was one of the most in-demand celebrity photographers, anyone who was anyone during that time had a portrait taken by Newton. As Newton was obsessed by glamour, celebrity and decadence (after all he grew up in the Weimar Republic) it was a perfect fit and his photographs define that image conscious era.

Newton died in a car crash after leaving Chateau Marmont Hotel in Los Angeles, which served as his winter residence for many years, at the age of 83. It was, as Karl Lagerfeld noted, ‘his last picture, taken by himself.’

Yva

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Yva
Else Ernestine Neulander-Simon, known simply by her professional pseudonym, Yva, was a pioneering female photographer of  the Weimar Republic. She set up her first studio  in 1925 and briefly collaborated with the experimental photographer Heinz Hajek-Halke (see Dreams of Desire 54 (Written on the Body) before a copyright dispute led them to part ways. Initially focused on nude, portrait and fashion photography, Yva was one of the first photographers to fully realise the commercial application of the field to advertising. Her Berlin atelier was one of the most successful of its days and employed 10 assistants by the time Hitler came to power.

Yva and her husband Alfred Simon, who managed the financial affair of the studio, were both Jewish and considered for some time whether to emigrate from Germany, especially when she was forced to ‘Aryanize’ the business in 1936 (a law had come into effect that forbade Jews from owning businesses, necessitating the transfer of the company to her friend, the art historian Charlotte Weider). There was the possibility of a fresh start as Life magazine  had informed her that a job was waiting for her when she came to America. However Alfred was unwilling to start over again in a country where they didn’t even speak the language and thought maybe the situation in Germany would improve. Things certainly didn’t and the business was closed for good by 1938. Yva went to work as a radiographer in the Jewish Hospital in Berlin until 1942 when she was arrested, along with her husband, by the Gestapo and deported to Majdanek concentration camp where they were murdered shortly after.

As an interesting aside one of Yva’s apprentice’s from 1936 to 1938 was a young Jewish boy named Helmut Neustädter, who after escaping Germany would later change his name to Helmut Newton, creator of some of the most iconic fashion photography and celebrity portraits of the twentieth century.