Robert Desnos was in many ways the archetypal surrealist spirit. Involved in Paris Dada he was in the literary vanguard of Surrealism and possessed an extra-ordinary talent for automatic writing during the Trance Period, rivalled only by Rene Crevel. Desnos, like many others, fell out with Andre Breton and joined the group centred around Georges Bataille and his magazine Documents and he was one of the signers of the anti-Breton polemic Un Cadavre.
During WWII Desnos was an active member of the French Resistance and he was captured by the Gestapo in 1944. He was deported to Auschwitz, then Buchenwald and finally Theresienstadt where he would die a few weeks after the camp’s liberation from typhoid.
I Have So Often Dreamed Of You
I have so often dreamed of you that you become unreal.
Is it still time enough to reach that living body and to kiss
on that mouth the birth of the voice so dear to me?
I have so often dreamed of you that my arms used as they are
to meet on my breast in embracing your shadow would
perhaps not fit the contour of your body.
And, before the real appearance of what has haunted and ruled
me for days and years, I might become only a shadow.
Oh the weighing of sentiment,
I have so often dreamed of you that there is probably no time
now to waken. I sleep standing, my body exposed to all the
appearances of life and love and you, who alone still
matter to me, I could less easily touch your forehead and
your lips than the first lips and the first forehead I
might meet by chance.
I have so often dreamed of you, walked, spoken, slept with your
phantom that perhaps I can be nothing any longer than a
phantom among phantoms and a hundred times more shadow
than the shadow which walks and will walk joyously over
the sundial of your life.
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.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Francesca Woodman’s astounding photographs that she produced between the ages of 13 to 22 is that it forms such a cohesive body of work. There is no juvenilia (in the sense of immature work that shows future potential), no false starts or dramatic u-turns. It appears that as soon as she took her first self-portrait at 13 that she had her own unique vision which she followed for the next nine years, never wavering and never deviating from once.
Growing up in an artistic household, both her parents are artists, the precocious Francesca had a thorough grasp of Dada and Surrealism by the age of 11. Francesca acknowledged the influence of Surrealism on her work, particularly Man Ray’s portraits of Meret Oppenheim and Andre Breton’s seminal Surrealist novel Nadja which was accompanied by photographs by J. A Boiffard. One of her early photographs features herself dressed up as Alice In Wonderland, the influence of which upon the Surrealists cannot be over-estimated. Also evident is the influence of the Gothic novel. Francesca favoured slow shutter speeds and long exposures which resulted in a blurry, ghostly images inhabiting the ominous, decrepit buildings where she set her photographs.
The above photograph was taken during her student year in Rome. A stunningly stage-managed yet otherworldly self-portrait, her posture hanging from the door lintel suggests both an ascending angel and a crucifixion. This is not the only question this magnificently enigmatic photograph raises; every object in the room seems to hold a coded significance.
Tragically Francesca, suffering from depression which was exacerbated by a broken relationship and the lack of recognition that her work had received, committed suicide by jumping from a New York loft window at the age of 22.
This was the phrase that was produced when the Surrealists first sat down to play the game that was to later be christened Exquisite Corpse. It was one of those happy accidents so beloved of the Surrealists and seemingly dictated by the collective unconscious mind ready to reclaim its rights.
The most celebrated of Surrealists techniques, it tied in nicely with several key tenets of Surrealism; namely artistic collaboration and the belief that was first stated by Lautreamont that “Poetry should be made by all.” Originally played with words it soon become apparent that the technique could extend to drawing and collages. The examples from the Golden Age of Surrealism are numerous and feature some of the most illustrious names in 20th Century art and letters.
Below are some of the most notable Exquisite Corpses from that era. I have also included work from the YBA artists the Chapman Brothers who have produced a number of drawings using the technique.
Born into a wealthy colonial family with roots in the French aristocracy and which included several Rosicrucians and Swedenborgians, the writer, painter and visionary Malcolm De Chazal (1902-1981) spent his whole life on the island of Mauritius, with the exception of six years in Baton Rouge, where he completed his secondary education before attending Louisiana State University as an engineering student. Upon his return to the island he worked as an agronomist in the sugar plantations before quitting the field after he published a scathing critique on the methods and economy of the industry. He then worked as a civil servant before retiring at the age of 55. From 1940 however he increasingly dedicated himself to writing and later painting.
His most famous work is Sens-Plastique, a collection of thousands of aphorisms. The work was suggested after a visionary encounter with an azalea. While out for a walk, de Chazal observed the flower and then realised that the azalea was looking at him. He was then struck with the revelation that: “I became a flower while being myself all the time“, and that everything in the universe, be it animal, vegetable, mineral or human, was analogous. The aphorisms is Sens-Plastique are a riot of poetic analogy and concrete, visual metaphor. It was hailed by the Surrealists; Andre Breton, Jean Paulhan, Georges Bataille and the originator of the term Art Brut, Jean Dubuffet all lauded de Chazal as a genius. Outside of French artistic circles the poet W.H Auden also championed Sens-Plastique.
In the 1950’s De Chazal took up painting at the suggestion of Georges Braque. His paintings are charmingly emblematic images of the landscape, flora and fauna of his beloved island home, the bold colours blazing with a visionary intensity.
An early supporter of Mauritian independence and the dismantling of a racial caste system that allowed vast inequalities to exist, de Chazal also wrote a ‘spiritual history’ of the rocks and mountains of the island. He became increasingly reclusive in his later years
Below are a selection of aphorisms from Sens-Plastique and a slideshow of his fauvist flavoured paintings.
A fish in fear of its life turns into water. In the mutual pursuit of sexual pleasure—the fear of joy and the joy of fear—our bodies liquefy each other in the waters of the soul, becoming so spiritual that hardly any corporal self is left. When we wake up after love, we look around desperately for our lost body.
If our five senses didn’t serve as brakes to slow us down and filter our sensations, sexual pleasure would strike us like lightning and electrocute our souls.
We see a friend’s eye as one and indivisible. A stranger’s eye we take in part by part: the white, the iris, and the pupil.
Silence is a lawyer who pleads with his eyes.
A flowing river is an infinity of superimposed production belts.
The sunflower keeps its eye on the sun with its back turned to the shade. We die facing life with our backs to death, as if we were walking out of a room backwards.
Petals are a plant’s eardrum. Distant sounds make them quiver like the needle of a seismograph.
The kiss ends at the point of a needle. Sex ends fanning out. The kiss is an arrow. Sex is a fountain.
All the colours ‘rot’ in maroon, the rust of all rusts, the putrefying corpse of all dead colours, the sun’s humus, earth-color, resurrection’s winding-sheet, the shroud of life itself, the mound of eternity, the tomb of Light, Eternity’s burial vault.
Look too intensely at blue and your eye sees indigo. Look too intensely at red and you see garnet. If you look too intensely at yellow it turns green. A hypnotic stare injects blue into everything.
Water meanders on a completely smooth surface and toboggans down the glossiness of leaves.
The idealist walks on tiptoe, the materialist on his heels.
Ah is the shortest of human cries, Oh the longest. Man is born in an Ah and dies in an Oh, for birth is immediate and death is like an airplane taking off.
I am the owner of my shoulders, the tenant of my hips.
No matter how much leaves are fixed face to face they always look at each other aslant, whereas all fruits end up head-on however carelessly jumbled. A bunch of flowers is a house of coloured cards. A heap of fruit is a hive of coloured bees.
The flower has no weekday self, dressed as it always is in Sunday clothes.
The light would reach us more quickly in the morning and fade more slowly at night if the whole earth were divided into vast flower beds that called forth the light at dawn and clutched it longer at nightfall. Nature instituted summer for flowers long before man took summer over for his own uses.
To ‘hang on every word’ means to suck the eyes of the speaker.
The diamond scintillates less brilliantly when the fingers move rapidly than when they undulate and pivot. Glossy leaves throw off less light in a high wind than under the calm wavering of a breeze. Brusque movements of the eye cast a single gleam, and slow movements add a thousand others.