SinisterShoreSide

Kurt Seligmann

At the school where I did anything but study
They tried to beat out the boldness
Only to encourage my wild and wicked side,
So they changed tack and instead talked and talked
Attempted to bore me from being bad
But it was of no use, they couldn’t avail
Because I was born sinister, one of the devil’s own;
My sympathy is always for the rogues and rebels,
The wanton and the wayward, waifs and strays,
Those sweet tarts with sickly gold hearts.
Even then my intentions were never honourable
But always and forever criminal, amen.

Let me take you down the left hand path,
Come on angel and crash with me
On the west side with its sinister streets,
Lift up your skirt and part those legs
Let’s ride through the rippling night
I will take you up to where I’m at,
Before showing you what’s down below,
Under the hill and beneath the deep blue.
Then solve et coagula, our reflections
Will refract in an avant garde rehearsal
Then splinter before a final re-con
Figuration on the distant sinister shore.

Horror

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Toyen-Horror 1937

Toyen’s paintings are frequently imbued with a sense of phantasmic horror, fittingly for an artist born and bred in Prague, the city of Leppin, Meyrink and Kafka. Horror was also a frequent theme for her fellow Czech avant-gardists, of whom it has been remarked that they were the horror division of the Surrealist dream factory. Toyen’s first artistic partner Jindrich Styrsky (not to be confused with her second artistic partner Jindrich Heisler) in 1933 said, ‘An unwitting smile, a sense of the comic, a shudder of horror-these are eroticism’s sisters.’  As Strysky had been involved with Toyen in the late 20’s and the early 30’s in the publication of both the Erotic Review, a magazine dedicated to erotica, and Editions 69, strictly limited editions (subscription of 150 only) of famous pornographic novels including the Marquis De Sade and Pierre Louys, with illustrations by Toyen, he had a fair idea of what he was talking about.

At first glance the viewer may wonder why Toyen decided to title this painting Horror. However if T.S Eliot can show ‘fear/in a handful of dust,’  then Toyen can show us horror in a wilted dandelion clock. Again Toyen induces a sense of disorientation with scale, the dandelion is set against a fence that almost fills the horizon, the top of the fence is grasped by five hands, all clinging on, apparently for dear life, though one fears for the possessor of the hand in the centre of the picture, the only hand not part of a pair. Horror hints that beyond the banal facade of the world, there lies a incomprehensible and monstrous reality.

Yet Another Effort

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Imaginary Depiction of Marquis De Sade-H.Biberstein 1912

J.G Ballard once noted that the Marquis De Sade remains the spectre at the feast of European letters and thought. On the rare occasions when anyone decides to let him in from the cold, he leaves bloody footprints on the welcome mat.

A fiercely contrarian spirit, the  Marquis has been variously called, by admirers and detractors alike: revolutionary, radical, reactionary, an anarchist, a socialist. Depending on who you read he is either a much maligned libertarian or he paved the theoretical way for the homicidal tyrants of the 20th century.  No one can quite decide where the Marquis lies  on the political spectrum. The debate is probably fiercest regarding his views on gender and pornography, understandably so as the body in De Sade is always the locus of power and freedom, but even here views diverge. Virulent misogynist whose fiction continually degrade and devalue women, or a radical feminist who, in one of his darkest fictions, Juliette, shows the possibility  of complete female emancipation?

Illumination cannot be found in his life either. Strangely enough for a man who is know for transgression and excess, his behaviour as a free citizen in Republican Paris shows an unexpected moderation. De Sade didn’t avail himself of the unique opportunities present during the Terror, instead he kept a cool head while others were losing theirs.

After his release from prison in 1790 he lived in Paris with his mistress Marie Constant Quesnet and her six year old son. His long suffering wife Renee-Pelagie, after standing by him during the long years of imprisonment had obtained a divorce by this time. De Sade was elected to the National Convention and was appointed to the local Section Des Piques, one of the forty eight administrative divisions in the new Republic. It was in this position that he could have condemned his loathed in-laws, especially his mother-in-law, La Presidente who was responsible for the lettres de cachet that had caused him to be under lock and key for over a decade, to death. But he refrained; the Marquis De Sade had always been a principled opponent of the death penalty. This restraint and his criticism of Robespierre led to the Marquis being detained again in 1793, where he narrowly escaped execution due to a clerical error.

De Sade wrote a number of stirring pamphlets in defence of the Revolution, notably the famous Yet another effort, Frenchman, if you would become Republicans, nestled in his libertine classic La philosophie dans le boudoir (Philosophy in the Bedroom). In this text De Sade gives an outline of his version of Utopia, a minimal state that interferes as little as possible with the rights of the individual. I shall  by reviewing this work in greater depth and further detail in the next post on the Marquis.

At the Chateau La Coste

Au Chateau La Coste-Toyen 1946

In the early 1930’s Jindrich Styrsky, the co-founder of the Czech Surrealist group made a pilgrimage to Provence, to visit the ruins of the Chateau La Coste, the ancestral home of the Sade family. Here he took a number of mysterious photographs of the crumbling walls and overgrown doors which inspired his artistic partner, Toyen, to paint in oils the illusionistic Au Chateau La Coste.  The drawing of the predatory fox seemingly coming to life gives the painting a singular sense of menace which is particularly apt for the place which so inspired the Marquis De Sade.

The Marquis was very attached to La Coste. During  the long years of his confinement in various prisons and asylums he routinely mourned its destruction during the Revolution. It was at La Coste, after all, that the Marquis had first developed his lifelong passion for the theatre, staging lavish productions which he naturally starred in. More ominously it was also at La Coste that the Marquis orchestrated and choreographed, with the aid of his wife, Renee-Pelagie, elaborate orgies that was to serve as the model for the unbridled license afforded his characters in the sinister and oppressive castles in his searingly radical, and horrifying, libertine fictions of the prison years.

Toyen was profoundly influenced by her exposure to Sade. A large majority of Toyen’s work is explicitly sexual in content. She surrounded herself with erotic objects and imagery. Her artistic collaborator, the Surrealist poet, Sadean scholar and cultural theorist Annie Le Brun, whose blistering critique of contemporary society The Reality Overload  I cannot recommend highly enough, commented that Toyen, who was at the time well into her seventies, would visit the movie theatre several times a week to watch X-rated films.

The Queen of the Lesser Lands

Marie Von Bruenchenhein-Eugene Von Bruenchenhein circa 1945
Marie Von Bruenchenhein-Eugene Von Bruenchenhein circa 1945

The self taught artist Eugene Von Bruenchenhein worked in a variety of mediums including painting, drawing, sculpture (using chicken bones) and photography, all of which adorned the modest house in Milwaukee, Wisconsin that he lived in for forty years with his wife and muse, Marie.

Eugene’s marriage to Evelyn Kalka in 1943 (he re-named her Marie) seemed to have ignited a creative spark. Over the next two decades he would photograph Marie thousand of times, as a pin-up girl, tropical tourist, vixen, Madonna. Bedecked with pearls, clunky fetish heels, lurid leopard prints against florid wall coverings, Marie looks wistfully upwards, awkward and gauche. The photographs are simultaneously curiously innocent and charged with an subterranean current of obsessional eroticism. Marie at times seems like a  harbinger of Cindy Sherman, assuming and thereby questioning a number of manufactured female roles.

Eugene was convinced that he was descended from royalty and was the self-styled King of the Lesser Lands. Undoubtedly he saw Marie as his Queen in the fantasy world they had created, she is frequently wearing a crown that he fashioned out of tin cans.