The Surreal World: Papua New Guinea

Andre Breton Apartment , 42 Rue Fontane
Andre Breton Atelier , 42 Rue Fontane-Gilles Ehrmann 1968

Andre Breton’s apartment at Rue Fontane, above the strip clubs and clip joints of the Pigalle red light district was by most accounts almost a work of art in its own right. In 2003 the French auctioneers Calmels Cohen put over 5,300 lots under the hammer from Breton’s vast collection of books, manuscripts, works of art and objects at Drouot-Richelieu; the catalogue alone extends to 8 volumes. The sale included 150 items of Oceanic art, the most important being the magnificent Uli statue from Central New Ireland, Papua New Guinea that graced his desk for many years.

Once again it is instructive to look at the Surrealist Map of the World (reference my previous post Redraw the Map, Re-Write History and Re-Invent Reality) to see the importance official Surrealism attached to the islands of the Pacific. In this idealised rendering of how the world should be according to the Surrealists, Papua New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago is centrally located and larger than both Europe and Africa and truly dwarfs Australia.

Central to Papua New Guinea artistic reputation within Surrealist circles were the Uli, ancestor figures used for rites and endowed with immense magical powers. When a chieftain died his skull was buried and a tree planted on top of the burial place. After the tree had matured it was then cut down and the Uli was fashioned from the wood. The Uli are often bearded with protruding jaw and phallus to represent the traditional masculine attributes of strength and protection, while also possessing breasts as the ideal chieftain must maternally nurture and provide. When the Uli wasn’t participating in fertility, initiation and funerary rituals it would be kept in its own special enclosure away from prying eyes.

Breton was very taken with the Uli, naming a beloved Skye terrier Uli and dedicating a poem which I have included below. I have also included photographs for some of the most outstanding examples of this figure that Breton calls Grand Dieu, as well as the Future Sound of London’s seminal dance track Papua New Guinea, the video of which doesn’t include either the Uli or Papua New Guinea much as far as I can see, but does have some magic squares.

ULI

Surely you are a great god
I have seen you with my own eyes like no one else has
You are still covered with earth and blood you have just created
You are an old peasant who knows nothing
To recover you have eaten like a pig
You are covered with the stains of man
One sees that you have stuffed yourself to the ears
You listen no more
You leer at us from the bottom of a seashell
Your creation tells you hands up, and you still threaten
You frighten, you astonish.

Andre Breton 1948

Uli-previously of the collection of Andre Breton
Uli-Previously of the collection of Andre Breton
Uli-Central New Ireland Papua New Guinea
Uli-Central New Ireland Papua New Guinea
Uli Statue-Central New Ireland Papua New Guinea
Uli Statue-Central New Ireland Papua New Guinea
Statuettes Uli
Uli Statues

The Occultation of Surrealism

005l14122_7kjsm1
Toyen-Portrait of Andre Breton 1950

In the Second Manifesto of Surrealism from 1930, among all the excommunications and score settling, Andre Breton calls for the ‘…THE PROFOUND, THE VERITABLE OCCULTATION OF SURREALISM,’ which is suitably followed up by quotes from Cornelius Agrippa’s Third & Fourth (spuriously attributed) Books of Magic. This interest in the occult, hermeticism and alchemy can also be evidenced by the set of playing cards the surrealists designed during WWII, which features another Renaissance occultist, Paracelsus, as the Magus of Locks.

However  it wasn’t until after WWII and Breton’s return to France from exile in New York that this hermetical tendency become dominant. The realities of the Cold War political landscape meant that the Breton placed ever less hope in the achievement of a Marxist Utopia, shifting  his focus towards the idiosyncratic mystical Socialist thinker Charles Fourier.

As can be seen from the above portrait (crayon, charcoal, oil and glitter on linen) Toyen embraced the change of direction enthusiastically. Painted as a birthday present and presented to Breton on the eve of his birthday, this idealised portrait places Breton in the centre of three triangles (one equilateral and two isosceles triangles) and surrounded by the four traditional elements, water and air, earth and fire.

Around this time Toyen had been working on the drawing series Neither Wings Nor Stones; Wings and Stones which has strong alchemical references. Also from this period Toyen painted At the Golden Wheel, At the Black Sun and At the Gold Tree inspired by  signs that were ‘luminious on the inside, not the outside’ of the Alchemist Street in Old Prague, magical capital of Europe since the days of Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia. The importance of the androgyne in alchemical literature and art would also have surely been noticed by Toyen, who purposefully chose an ungendered pseudonym.

Toyen’s unwavering devotion towards Breton and Breton’s respect and veneration of Toyen was such that, after his death in 1966, Breton’s widow Elisa insisted that Toyen move into his original studio at 42 Rue Fontaine, where she lived until her death in 1980. She was buried in Paris des Batignolles cemetery; close to her friends Jindrich Heisler and Andre Breton.

I will leave the last word on this exceptional artist to her friend Benjamin Peret, also buried in Paris des Batignolles;

The entire work of Toyen aims at nothing other than the correction of the outside world in accordance with a desire that feeds and grows on its own satisfaction.

The Sinuous Curve

Aubrey_Beardsley_-_The_Climax[1]
The Climax-Aubrey Beardsley 1894
Along with the Irish writer and wit Oscar Wilde, whose play Salome he illustrated to astonishing effect, Aubrey Beardsley is the key figure in the English 19th Century fin-de-siecle.

In his precocious, short lived yet immeasurably influential career Beardsley started out as a follower of Aestheticism, England’s anaemic version of the international Symbolism/Decadent movement. At the age of twenty his art implicitly rejected the insipid romantic cliches of the Pre-Raphaelites, which Aestheticism was still in thrall to, and concentrated on the grotesque and the erotic. Inspired by Japanese woodblocks and the poster art of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, he was one of the first artists to exploit the new process of ‘line-block’, which enabled unlimited prints to be made without losing the clarity of the original drawing. Beardsley’s most important contribution to the history of drawing was, however, the value he attached to line. Beardsley noted that artists “are in the habit of using thin lines to express backgrounds, and thick lines to express foregrounds.” His simple yet revolutionary idea was that he could achieve a greater effect if  “the background and foreground are drawn with lines the same thickness.”  The importance of Beardsley on the sinuous curve of the then nascent Art Nouveau style is hard to over-estimate.

Beardsley’s first commission in 1893, at the age of twenty-one, for the Everyman edition of Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur caused quite a stir with its languid atmosphere of androgyny and perversion. He was a co-founder of The Savoy magazine, where parts of his unfinished erotic novel Under the Hill (with illustrations) were published, and the first art editor of TheYellow Book. Beardsley is credited with the distinctive yellow cover, daringly associating it with the tradition of bounding illicit, pornographic books in that colour in France. Along with the illustrations for Salome, this would prove to be problematic for Beardsley at the time of Wilde’s trial for gross indecency in 1895 and the publishers of The Yellow Book gave in to demands for his dismissal.

Beardsley would continue to illustrate books, notably Lysistrata, Pope’s The Rape of the Lock and selected tales of Edgar Allan Poe, before moving to the South of France in 1897 due to his deteriorating health. He died the following year at the age of 25 from tuberculosis.

Beardsley
Le Morte d’Arthur-Aubrey Beardsley 1894
Solomeya[1]
The Dancer’s Reward-Aubrey Beardsley 1894
salome
The Burial of Salome-Aubrey Beardsley 1894
peacock skirt
The Peacock skirt-Aubrey Beardsley 1893
Lysistrata[1]
Lysistrata-Aubrey Beardsley
venus and tannhauser
Frontispiece of Venus and Tannhauser-Aubrey Beardsley

A Week of Max Ernst: Friday

ernst-robing-of-the-bride[1]
The Robing of the Bride-Max Ernst 1940
Friday’s Ernst is a gorgeous, grotesque erotic fantasy. Ernst’s art is always cryptic and open to a wide range of interpretations but any interpretation of The Robing of the Bride will fall woefully short before this magnificent, sumptuous masterpiece.

The long-legged, small breasted  Bride is robed in spectacular, vivid red feathered cloak which also completely covers the face with the exception of a pair of owl eyes and a beak. To the left is a bird warrior/attendant whose spear (surely the symbolism is deliberate) is broken before the sexual glory of the Bride-Queen. To the right is a tiny weeping four-breasted hermaphroditic monster. Behind is an enraptured pale-skinned naked women with a stunning headdress that Ernst fashioned using decalcomania. The picture on the wall of another bride of another time amidst classical ruins also uses decalcomania for her robes.

Of all Ernst paintings The Robing of the Bride has the most visible alchemical and esoteric elements. The Bride is generally accepted as being inspired by Ernst’s lover and fellow Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington. Ironically the painting can be seen in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice. Both Guggenheim and Carrington were involved in a bitter rivalry for Ernst’s affectation. Guggenheim would become Ernst’s third wife in 1942 but the union was short lived. Ernst married his fourth wife Dorothea Tanning in 1946, they were to remain married until Ernst’s death in 1976

A Week of Max Ernst: Monday

of-this-men-shall-know-nothing-1923[1]
Of This Men Shall Know Nothing-Max Ernst 1923
HE 2nd of April  (1891) at 9:15 a.m. Max Ernst had his first contact with the sensible world, when he came out of the egg which his mother had laid  in an eagle’s nest and which the bird had brooded for seven years. Some Data on the Youth of M.E , As Told by Himself.1942

Ernst had a talent for self-mythologising as the above quotes shows. At various times he was Dadamax or Loplop, the Superior of the Birds. His work retains to a remarkable degree a sense of mystery, we feel like we are on the verge of understanding yet we pause and begin to doubt; the answer to the enigma has escaped us and remains as elusive as ever.

Monday’s Ernst, the 1923’s Of This Men Shall Know Nothing (Ernst had a talent for titles) is a excellent example of the cryptic nature of Ernst’s art. Is it a pictorial representation of a Freudian case study, an illustration of alchemical and esoteric doctrine, or a prophetic declaration of the coming of Surrealism? The inscription on the back of painting, ‘This painting is curious because of its symmetry. The two sexes balance one another.’ would seem to point to esotericism, as one of the key tenets of the occult world-view is the reconciliation of opposites; Sun and Moon, Day and Night, Male and Female. Yet the partial eclipse where the moon seems to be gaining ascendancy could signify the rise of Surrealism and the reclamation of the rights of the unconscious and irrationality. Loplop, the Superior of the Birds, sings the answer to the riddle, but although we admire the beauty of the song, remain none the wiser.