My Nurse

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Meret Oppenheim-My Nurse 1936

One of the best examples of the Surrealist ‘cult of the object’ which transformed everyday found objects in strange, suggestive ways by placing them into unlikely convergences and chance juxtapositions, My Nurse by the Swiss artist Meret Oppenheim, famous for her fur-lined tea-cup is a disturbing, subversive work with marked fetishistic overtones.

An up-turned pair of white leather high-heeled shoes are placed on a platter, bound and trussed up like a turkey. Oppenheim commented on this work that ‘…it evokes for me the association of thighs squeezed together in pleasure. In fact, almost a “proposition”. When I was a little girl, four of five, we had a young nursemaid. She was dressed in white (Sunday Best?). Maybe she was in love, maybe that’s why she exuded a sensual atmosphere of which I was unconsciously aware.’  

Oppenheim’s comments and the fact that it is shoes bound in such a manner shows that she was fully aware of Freudian psychology. Another, quite clear implication, is that women are not supposed to move.

Georges Bataille in the article Big Toe in Documents magazine outlined his view on shoe and foot fetishes. Because the foot is what treads on the ground and connects us to base reality it is despised, whereas the head, which is nearest to the sky and clouds is venerated. Of course some people will take the contrary view and worship what is generally held in contempt. Luis Bunuel took a rather more straight-forward delight in his shoe fetish as can be witnessed in the extraordinary tracking shot of Catherine Deneuve’s elegant black pumps as she climbs the stairways to Madame Anais brothel for the first time in Belle Du Jour.

Documents

Documents-1929
Documents-1929

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).

un_cadavre[1]
Un Cadavre 1930
Documents-Eli Lotar 1930
Documents-Eli Lotar-La Villette Abattoir 1929
Documents-Eli Lotar-La Villette Abattoir 1929
Documents-Eli Lotar-La Villette Abattoir 1929
Documents-Big Toe, Male Aged 30-J-A Boiffard 1929
Documents-Big Toe, Male Aged 30-J-A Boiffard 1929
Documents-J-A Boiffard Untitled 1929
Documents-J-A Boiffard Untitled 1929
Documents-Karl Blossfeldt-Campanula Vidali enlarged 6 times from Bataille's article The Language of Flowers
Documents-Karl Blossfeldt-Campanula Vidali enlarged 6 times from Bataille’s article The Language of Flowers
Documents-J A Boiffard- Renee Jacobi 1930
Documents-J A Boiffard- Renee Jacobi 1930

Another World

Un Autre Monde-Grandville 1844
Un Autre Monde-J.J Grandville 1844

One of the acknowledged precursors of Surrealism, the work of French caricaturist J.J Grandville was featured in Documents magazine and is discussed at length in Walter Benjamin’s vast and fragmentary study of the urban redevelopment of Paris by Baron Haussmann, The Arcades Project (Passagen-Werk). He rose to fame in 1828 with Les Métamorphoses du jour, a book with seventy illustrations of animal heads transposed upon human bodies. However the book that really grabbed the Surrealists attention is Un Autre Monde (Another World), a strange and outlandish satire whose principal target would appear to be the ideas of the Utopian Socialist Charles Fourier.

His influence can be seen in another Surrealist favourite, John Tenniel, the political cartoonist for Punch magazine who famously illustrated the Alice books.

Below are a selection of illustrations from Un Autre Monde and other works.

Un Autre Monde-J.J Grandville-1844
Un Autre Monde-J.J Grandville-1844
Un Autre Monde-J.J Grandville 1844
Un Autre Monde-J.J Grandville 1844
Dream of Crime and Punishment-J.J Grandville 1847
Dream of Crime and Punishment-J.J Grandville 1847
Second Dream: A Stroll in the Sky-J.J Grandville 1847
Second Dream: A Stroll in the Sky-J.J Grandville 1847

Un Chien Andalou

French Poster for Un Chien Andalou-1929-Luis Bunuel & Salvador Dali
French Poster for Un Chien Andalou-1929-Luis Bunuel & Salvador Dali

In 1929 the young Spaniard Luis Bunuel, who was working in Paris as assistant director to Jean Epstein met with his compatriot and Madrid University friend, the painter Salvador Dali. Over lunch Luis Bunuel recounted a dream he had about a cloud slicing through the moon like a razor blade slicing through an eye. Dali in turn told about his dream of a hand crawling with ants. Instantly inspired Bunuel stated to Dali, “There’s the film, let’s go make it.”

While they worked on the script, Bunuel and Dali had only one rule: “No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted.” The resulting film Un Chien Andalou (The Andalusian Dog) has been called the most famous silent movie ever by Roger Ebert. Its influence upon music videos and low budget independent films is immeasurable.

Un Chien Andalou was immediately successful, (though it led to an irreparable break  with their friend, the poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who took the title and the movie as a personal affront). Both Bunuel and Dali were admitted to the Surrealist movement who enthusiastically welcomed the film’s Sadean shock tactics and unfettered automatism, which were in keeping with the stated aims of the movement. Georges Bataille unsurprisingly,  given his own obsession with the symbolism of eyes recounted at length in the elegantly horrific L’histoire de l’oeil (The Story of the Eye), mentioned the controversial opening scene in his article on Eyes in Documents, under the subtitle Cannibal Delicacy. On a more practical level Bunuel and Dali gained the financing for their next movie from the Vicomte and Vicomtesse De Noailles, two of the most important avant garde art patrons of the interwar period. The resulting film  L’Age D’or was even more of a succès de scandale, leading to right wing riots in protest and its withdrawal from commercial distribution and public exhibition for over forty years. Most of the shocked reaction was to the infamous coda featuring Jesus Christ as one of the four libertines of the Chateau de Silling, the setting of the Marquis De Sade darkest novel, 120 Days in Sodom. Incidentally the Vicomtesse De Noailles was a descendant of the Marquis and the couple possessed the original manuscript of 120 Days which they kept in a specially designed phallus shaped box.

Here is a link to the complete movie with the original score featuring two tangos and Wagner’s Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. Interpretations are always welcome.

The Lugubrious Game

The Lugubrious Game-Salvador Dali 1929
The Lugubrious Game-Salvador Dali 1929

Salvador Dali’s breakthrough Surrealist work of 1929, The Lugubrious Game (also known as the Dismal Sport) was the subject of a long, laudatory mediation by Georges Bataille, published in the seventh issue of Documents. Bataille declares that he lifts his heart to Dali as his paintings causes the viewer to grunt like a pig.

In many respects Dali was a perfect fit for Documents and Georges Bataille. In his early work Dali dredged his unconscious with its scatological and masturbatory obsessions and combined them with his pathological need to shock to create an over-lit nightmare world riddled with anxieties and phobias. However Dali, always with a keen eye for self promotion, defected over to the Breton camp of official Surrealism, for a while at least.

The titles of the painting is a reference to masturbation, a recurring theme of this period for Dali. Also featured below is The Great Masturbator and the later Young Virgin Auto-Sodomized by the Horns of Her Own Chastity.

The Great Masturbator-Salvador Dali 1929
The Great Masturbator-Salvador Dali 1929
Young Virgin Auto-Sodomized by the Horns of Her Own Chastity-Salvador Dali 1954
Young Virgin Auto-Sodomized by the Horns of Her Own Chastity-Salvador Dali 1954