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.
While watching Paul Schrader’s excellent, and underrated biopic of the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, I was struck by how contemporary and up to date a figure Mishima seems, in fact far more relevant today than when the movie was first released. Of course certain individuals tend to be ahead of their time, however, as Mishima was a narcissistic nihilist who espoused a highly individualistic form of extreme right-wing nationalism for the most dubious of reasons, this is more of a reflection on the perilous state of current affairs than an inspirational story of a heroic touch bearer from the past lighting the path to a better world for present and future generations. Regardless of this disturbing fact, Mishima remains one of the better of the twentieth century’s right-wing writers (not exactly a crowded field, but still) with a lucid self awareness, fanatical determination and fatalistic steeliness that warrants a closer look through the glass, however darkly.
A sickly and isolated child who wasn’t permitted by his grandmother to play with other boys or even go outside in the sunlight, Mishima became aware of his sado-masochistic and homosexual tendencies at an early age while leafing through a book and discovering a reproduction of a Renaissance painting of St Sebastian. In his first, breakthrough novel Confessions of a Mask, Mishima describes the occasion for his first orgasm in decadent prose,’The arrows have eaten into the tense, fragrant, youthful flesh, and are about to consume his body from within with flames of supreme agony and ecstasy,’ and he would later pose as St Sebastian for a photograph, one of a series of aggressively stylised portraits published in the book Torture By Roses.
This strain of theatrical narcissism and exhibitionism that Mishima displayed time and time again shows a profound lack of a core identity. He would pose as St Sebastian, a yakuza gangster, a bodybuilder, a samurai and as a soldier. Particularly as a soldier. Along with this addiction to his own image adopting various roles, he obsessively cultivated a cult of the body. One of the requirements placed for his arranged marriage was that his wife couldn’t encroach on the time he spent either writing or body-building.
Along with the inherent masochism required to achieve the perfect body, body-building enabled Mishima to indulge his fixations on virility, health and purity, but also conversely on their opposites, sterility, decay and perversion. In a particularly convoluted example of self-loathing (a speciality of his, and one that he undoubtedly derived a perverse pleasure from) Mishima adopted a fierce anti-intellectualism but which was defended purely on intellectual grounds.
Given Mishima’s inveterate ability to aestheticize every facet or experience in his life, not only experiences that are typically aestheticised like art and the body, but also action, violence and death itself, perhaps it is no surprise that Mishima adopted fascism* as his ideology. After all, as Walter Benjamin shrewdly noted, one of the hallmarks of fascism is that it is the aestheticization of politics. It’s theatricality, militarism and not so coded homo-eroticism and rituals of dominance and submission seem tailor-made for Mishima, with the added bonuses that its nihilistic emphasis on ‘blood, fire and the night’ gave him the opportunity to write the perfect ending to his life, achieving his desired aim of writing a line of poetry with a splash of blood.
During the last years of his life Mishima became increasingly pre-occupied with politics. He published essays about fascism, wrote a play called My Friend Hitler and founded a private militia called Takenokai (English: Shield Society-or the SS-as Mishima was fluent in both English and German the coincidence doesn’t seem so coincidental) comprised entirely of handsome university students, with the express purpose of defending the abstract ideal of the Emperor’s dignity. Mishima increasingly desired to be seen as a man of action, noting that both Lord Byron and the Italian decadent writer and one of acknowledged originators of Fascism, Gabriele D’Annunzio had both commanded their own private armies.
Mishima is most famous for his spectacular suicide in 1970 by seppuku after the failed coup d’etat,, which Schraderrightly centres his movie around. This act was the culmination of Mishima’s solipsistic vision; a fusion of life, art and action and a expression of fascistic aesthetics: Mishima’s Gesamtkunstwerk.
When this movie was first released, fascism seemed spent as a living force, rightly confided to the trash heap of history. Subsequent events have proved how wrong this assumption is with virulent nationalist movements sweeping across the world. Although Mishima nationalism was a somewhat idiosyncratic affair, it does highlight certain aspects of fascist aesthetics and the appeal it may possibly possess beyond the merely economic factors that are always tepidly cited as its chief cause of its spread.
Fascism is a purely reactionary force, and is best viewed in the light of everything it opposes and seeks to cure; namely modernity. Tradition is seen as a bastion of lost greatness, with gender roles set in stone, rigid conformity and static hierarchy. With its cult of the strongman who personifies the state, its staged presentation of might and the quasi-mystical emphasis on symbolic talismans (the flag, uniforms, anthem, rallies and parades) fascism is in itself a decadent response to decadence and in a certain respect the very essence of the modernity that it rejects so vehemently.
* I use the term fascism with caution. Please note that in the above article I am not labelling Mishima a fascist in the lazy pejorative sense, of say, a leftist from the 80’s towards anyone who was slightly centre-right, or indeed present day hard right apologists who indulge in verbal gymnastics by claiming that it is, in fact the liberals who are the actual fascists; but in the sense that fascism is understood as a term in classical political philosophy.
Anna Di Mezza is an Australian artist featured in my previous post Double Take. Anna graduated from Billy Blue Design School and worked as an illustrator for Disney Studios before setting out as an independent artist.
I contacted Anna who very kindly agreed to be interviewed and forwarded me a photograph of her new painting The Elevator (see above). For further information and examples of her work please visit her website Anna Di Mezza and her representatives Saatchi Art .
AS) In your Saatchi artist bio you unassumingly state that your primary subject matter is realistic portraits and the odd landscape or two. Although you paint in the photo-realistic manner, the collage like compositions and the Alice-In-Wonderland variations in size and scale completely subvert the conventions of pictorial realism. So when you say that what you paint are realistic portraits are you having some mischievous fun or are they accurate portrayals of your subjective vision? AM) When I first started with Saatchiart my paintings were more in line with conservative renderings of people and landscapes. Later on, I started to evolve as an artist and experimented with conceptual work, which was around three years ago which brings me to where I am now.
AS) How do you select the found images that you incorporate into your paintings? AM) Most of the images I work with are found on the internet. If I am lucky, an image may come by easily, otherwise I have to work hard to look and forage through hundreds of old photos until I find the right one that would work best for my objectives. I try to look for images of anonymous people going on about their daily lives. I want to celebrate their anonymity and uproot the setting for them so they are involved in some sort of narrative that is the fine line between reality and dreams.
AS) A lot of your paintings have a limited mono-chromatic palette yet others have bold, vibrant Pop Art colours. What dictates your use of colour? AM) The photos I paint from are usually in black and white so that usually dictates the reason why I go for these monochromatic colours. I like the occasional use of colour as I enjoy colour too for added visual interest. I would like to experiment a lot more with colour in the near future.
AS).You mention Magritte and De Chirico as influences. Have other surrealists influenced you, if so, who? AM) I’m not sure they would class themselves as Surrealists, but definitely the contemporary painters Paco Pomet and Gottfried Helnwein.
AS) Is the Surrealist influence upon you confined to the works of the figurative, pictorial school or does the other aspects of Surrealism, the abstract, collage and film bear upon your paintings? AM) There is a lot of collage work by contemporary artists I have seen that I admire. They mostly make their art digitally. Some examples are Eugenia Loli and Sammy Slabbinck. Their works are to what I am doing except I paint the images. I admire a lot of left of centre films that have surreal aspects to them. Films from David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick in particular.
AS) In your painting closeencountersmashpotato there is a glitch smear in the bar-code design. Was this deliberate or ‘objective chance’. AM) The glitch smear was an experiment in design rather than an accident. It started out as an aesthetic more than anything else. What was interesting about it was hearing people’s interpretations of the work. As the glitches reminded some people of bar-codes, the painting would be about mass consumerism or tuning a TV to the correct channel until one comes upon a random image.
AS) Does the Surrealist theory of objective chance play a part in your paintings? AM) Yes, most of my work is about juxtaposing people with unrelated backgrounds to create an element of surprise so the theory is prevalent in that way. According to the concept of objective chance, it involved the most powerful imagery which caused the greatest surprise. In order to create marvelous images, Surrealist poets juxtaposed two terms that appeared to conflict with each other but were secretly related. The power of the resulting imagery was directly proportional to their apparent dissimilarity.
AS )Your paintings present a retro vision of the future that never came to pass. Do you experience (as I do) a nostalgia for a time before you were alive? AM) I definitely feel nostalgic for a time that precedes my life. The music, the fashion, the culture, the industrial design from the mid-century to me are the ideal aesthetic therefore I am attracted to this era and keep returning to it for inspiration
AS) David Lynch is quoted as saying that the fifties where a time of tremendous optimism and energy, yet frequently his films show the dark underbelly hidden beneath the shiny surface. What is your view on the immediate past (and its vision of the future) that is frequently displayed in your paintings? AM) What he says is true. At the same time the 50’s were a time when women’s roles were diminished and women were being expected more and more to stay home and be housewives. African-Americans in the South, meanwhile, were living under conditions of segregation. There will always be negative and dark aspects whenever human nature is involved. The space age era would have been a tremendously exciting time to live in thinking about the possibilities of how far humans could go thanks to the power of technology. It is also the idea of the unknown that fascinates me.
AS) Your paintings frequently feature inaccessible and inhospitable landscapes: mountains, Polar Regions and the Moon. Is this conscious romantic symbolism? AM) Inhospitable, yes and even claustrophobic. These people all seem to be caught in a moment in time that they cannot escape and are forever trapped in. The paintings make them appear as if they were meant to be there due to their seeming lack of concern . I am trying to tap into dreamlike states of consciousness in using these places one could not survive in.
AS) Finally what is your favourite movie? AM) There are several films that are superlative. My favourite movie growing up was The time machine (the original 60’s one). I was completely blown away by that film with its fantastic possibilities of ideas of fast forwarding time and the vision of the Eloi future. Other films I love are Antonioni’s “Blow up”, Kubrick’s “Space Oddyssey”, Hitchcock’s “The Birds” and “Rope”, Lynch’s “Mulholland Dr”, and more recently “Under the skin” by Jonathan Glazer.
Quite by accident (a happy accident, I hope) this site has been mainly concerned with Surrealism. There have been detours into Decadence, Symbolism and the Situationists and I have occasionally veered into original fiction, poetry and the esoteric; but on the whole Surrealism has always been hovering in the wings when it hasn’t been firmly centre-stage.
There is one name that recurs more than any other in my posts and yet not one post (until now) has been sorely concerned with Andre Breton. The authoritarian and charismatic Andre Bretonis inseparable from Surrealism. Surrealism as a movement was the creation of Breton and the terminus of ‘official’ Surrealism is always given as the time of his death in 1966. He laid down the theoretical premises of the movement in the First Surrealist Manifesto published in 1924, organised the publications, provocations and exhibitions that made Surrealism a truly international phenomenon; recruited and cultivated many bright artistic talents who, although they may have left or been expelled never really ceased being Surrealists. In the Second Surrealist Manifesto of 1930 he maintained the ideological purity of Surrealism by a mass purge of members who showed a lack of sufficient zeal for the cause, earning Breton the dubious honorific ‘The Pope of Surrealism’. It was Breton, and Breton alone, who determined whether a poem, painting or person was Surrealist.
A full biography of the eventful life of such a forceful personality, who was at the centre of the international avant-garde for over four decades is beyond the scope of a short post. Apart from the Manifestos he published the Surrealist novel Nadja, a collection of automatic writings The Magnetic Fields (with Phillippe Soupault), numerous volumes of poetry including the magnificent Free Union and the book of art criticism Surrealism and Painting. He owned galleries and was a dealer in art and artefacts as well as being a keen and discerning collector.
It is only fitting that I close with Breton’s definition of Surrealism from the First Manifesto. Whatever his personal faults and the ultimate failure of his vision, Breton never wavered in his commitment to the movement that he originated:
SURREALISM, noun. Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express-verbally, by means of the written word or in any other manner-the actual function of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.