Where have you been?
I lost you for so long.
Are you leaving already?
Must your destination
Always remain a mystery?
Are you to be forever
An unknown quantity?
All these questions
Make life a dull dream
If only I could wake up
I might regress to relive
Our assignation in deep time,
A day and age aeons ago.
The clocks run slow there,
Erasing the crime of identity:
Your hands shaped my body
Annealing the raw material
Bringing forth the potential
Defining me in relation to you:
An enigma that makes no concessions.
The figure of Jean-Jacques Lequeu, with his bizarre architectural fantasies, disconcerting self portraits and obscenely lascivious figures is an enigma. In some respects Lequeu seems very much of his time, a Utopian Neoclassical architect working in the tradition established by his more famous revolutionary contemporaries Claude-Nicholas Ledoux and Étienne-Louis Boullée, whose visions also largely existed only on paper, forever unbuilt, and yet also strangely Modern, indeed Post-Modern. This Proto-Surrealist aspect of Lequeu led one art critic to conjecture that Marcel Duchamp himself altered Lequeu’s work while working in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, in order to create a suitable precursor as well as enacting some form of recondite revenge on Le Corbusier. Unfortunately for this rather droll conspiracy theory, Duchamp worked at the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève and not at the Bibliothèque nationale.
The little we do know about Lequeu does nothing to dispel the mystery. Born in Rouen he worked under several architects in that city, carrying out projects on civil and religious buildings. He won a scholarship to study in Paris where he remained for the rest of his life, living above a brothel. He prepared a book that was to remain unpublished, Architecture Civile; however the projected buildings and gardens with their phantasmagorical blending of Classical, Egyptian and Chinese styles, monstrous Rococo excesses of ornamentation and wanton disregard of expense bore no relation to prosaic reality and Lequeu’s career stalled. He found work in the civil service as a surveyor and cartographer until his retirement in 1815. During the Revolutionary period he entered competitions organised by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where the various architects out-did each other in envisaging ever more grandiose schemes.
Towards the end of his life Lequeu, finding himself broke tried to sell his drawings without success and decided to donate 800 works to the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Dying in penury in 1826 it is discovered that his wardrobe contains a large collection of expensive women’s clothing, quite in keeping as Lequeu had produced two self portraits in drag.
The more explicit pornographic material mouldered in the the Enfer (Hell) section of the library. The Petit Palais, Paris recently held the first ever retrospective and the website of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Gallica, has the entire Lequeu oeuvre online.
I have below some of the mind melting architectural drawings, a few of the startling self portraits and a little of the explicit erotica, though in a sense almost everything, especially architecture, is erotic and libertine in Lequeu’s work.
A superbly disturbing painting by De Chirico that had an immeasurable impact upon the Surrealists, The Disquieting Muses presents us with the proverbial riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. But is there a key? If so, do we really want to open the blue box (a version of which is at the heart of the conundrum in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr, see Dreams of Desire 6 (Mulholland Dr.), for fear of what it may be contained inside?
Painted during WWI in the Italian town of Ferrara where De Chirico lived, it features a piazza bordered by the imposing medieval fortress of the Castello Estense and industrial brick chimneys. The only figures within the square are faceless mannequins; the muses of tragedy and comedy, Melpomene and Thalia with their traditional attributes scattered around, and the God Apollo on a pedestal in the shadow. The perspective and the long shadows add to the air of frozen stillness and uneasiness.
Several Surrealists were directly inspired by exposure to De Chirico’s early metaphysical work including Max Ernst (see the series of posts starting with A Week of Max Ernst: Sunday), Yves Tanguy (Time and Again), and Kay Sage (Surrealist Women: Kay Sage). Sylvia Plath also wrote a poem of the same name that was inspired (in part) by the painting and which is included below.
The Disquieting Muses
Mother, mother, what illbred aunt
Or what disfigured and unsightly
Cousin did you so unwisely keep
Unasked to my christening, that she
Sent these ladies in her stead
With heads like darning-eggs to nod
And nod and nod at foot and head
And at the left side of my crib?
Mother, who made to order stories
Of Mixie Blackshort the heroic bear,
Mother, whose witches always, always,
Got baked into gingerbread, I wonder
Whether you saw them, whether you said
Words to rid me of those three ladies
Nodding by night around my bed,
Mouthless, eyeless, with stitched bald head.
In the hurricane, when father’s twelve
Study windows bellied in
Like bubbles about to break, you fed
My brother and me cookies and Ovaltine
And helped the two of us to choir:
“Thor is angry: boom boom boom!
Thor is angry: we don’t care!”
But those ladies broke the panes.
When on tiptoe the schoolgirls danced,
Blinking flashlights like fireflies
And singing the glowworm song, I could
Not lift a foot in the twinkle-dress
But, heavy-footed, stood aside
In the shadow cast by my dismal-headed
Godmothers, and you cried and cried:
And the shadow stretched, the lights went out.
Mother, you sent me to piano lessons
And praised my arabesques and trills
Although each teacher found my touch
Oddly wooden in spite of scales
And the hours of practicing, my ear
Tone-deaf and yes, unteachable.
I learned, I learned, I learned elsewhere,
From muses unhired by you, dear mother,
I woke one day to see you, mother,
Floating above me in bluest air
On a green balloon bright with a million
Flowers and bluebirds that never were
Never, never, found anywhere.
But the little planet bobbed away
Like a soap-bubble as you called: Come here!
And I faced my traveling companions.
Day now, night now, at head, side, feet,
They stand their vigil in gowns of stone,
Faces blank as the day I was born,
Their shadows long in the setting sun
That never brightens or goes down.
And this is the kingdom you bore me to,
Mother, mother. But no frown of mine
Will betray the company I keep.
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.