The Birthday

dorothea-tanning-birthday-1942[1]
The Birthday-Dorothea Tanning 1942
Max Ernst was intrigued when he first saw Dorothea Tanning’s enigmatic self-portrait, which he suggested should be called The Birthday; she agreed that it was an apt choice. After playing chess they fell in love, as Surrealist’s were wont to do. They married in 1946 in a joint wedding with Man Ray and Juliet Browner. They remained together until Ernst’s death in 1976. She would outlive Ernst by a further 36 years, living to the grand old age of 102, the last of the Surrealists.

A writer as well as a painter, Tanning’s memoir is entitled Birthday.

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.

Church of Love & Wrath

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The possessor of the violently violet aura glided past the mirror towards the dim booths in the dark, escorted by a well dressed man and a couple of standard issue heavies. Agent Lee was assaulted by the smell of brown paper envelopes bulging with notes of a large denomination. The kind of money paid to those that had access to power and who sat in secret council meetings to decide the fate of billions who didn’t even suspect that such forces existed. Agent Lee realised that all his caution and unique talents would have to utilised if he wanted to emerge out of this subterranean realm still breathing.
It was going to be difficult in the extreme to approach violet aura, who he had a perception was named Vivienne, surrounded by such company. It would surely alert one of the warring factions or The Angle, maybe even the controlling authorities who would in turn report  higher up to command. He could guess what view they would take if he blew deep cover.
Agent Lee turned over the case in his mind as he downed his drink and signalled to the dead-eyed blonde for another. Every aspect was ambiguous verging on mindfuckery. Nothing was certain and hinted darkly that somewhere someone was being played.
Well at any given moment someone somewhere was getting played, just as long as it wasn’t him. If it was then he would make sure of a sizeable body count before he was put into the bag himself.
What did he know, Agent Lee thought, nothing really, in fact less than nothing.
Al the Angle, real name unknown, as was his date of birth, age, nationality and profession. He was either from Birmingham UK or perhaps Birmingham AL, though some sources suggested his origins could in fact be Black Irish or even Argentinean. It seemed relatively certain that he probably worked for a time as a croupier in The Very Heaven Heavenly Hotel by Hilton-Tetragrammaton ™, Paradise, NV, before becoming a small time grifter and pimp in various European countries. But how much credence could be granted to claims that he had also been a mesmerist, a psychologist, as well as a stage illusionist?
Even more perplexing was how he made the jump from petty conman to being involved in the manufacture and distribution of both Black Acid and Nu-Phoria, which led to expansion of his activities into Centralia and other territories? Even murkier was his apparent involvement with the Selenites and other factions sympathetic to the aims of the Rapturous Ascendancy. Did he really pioneer the hype-gnosis technique and found the Church of Love & Wrath?
Of course the massive elephant in the rather bijou room was how on earth had he circumvented the controlling authorities and set up operations in Agartha itself?
Unsurprisingly given the mass of contradictory evidence rogue elements had suggested that no such person as The Angle ever existed, he was a conflation of ne’er do wells, bugbears and hobgoblins. One agent had remarked to Lee that The Angle was nothing more than a character dreamed up by Special Agent Red who was currently residing in a private clinic outside of Trondheim, Norway. He had written a report which was taken as factual and then through bureaucratic accumulations the nebulous figure had acquired an actuality to the authorities.
He had to get to Vivienne to get to The Angle. But he couldn’t get to her here; he had to get her alone. And for that he would have to rely on patience and chance, only then he could use his magic to get the necessary information and perhaps, just perhaps, even more. The best approach, Lee decided,  was to track her leaving the bar from the hotel across the street. Nobody noticed his departure and five minutes after he had checked into a shabby room with a view of the entrance of the Cafe Rouge et Noir the strung out receptionist had forgotten his existence. Looking out of the grubby window Agent Lee watched and waited.

The Debutante

Leonora Carrington-Self Portrait (The Inn of the White Horse) 1937-1938
Leonora Carrington-Self Portrait (The Inn of the White Horse) 1937-1938

I have chosen for the third in the series of Surrealist short stories a deliciously macabre tale by the wonderful English artist, writer and eccentric Leonora Carrington, who was also the subject of Max Ernst’s masterpiece, The Robing of the Bride.

In a reversal of a classic fairy tale theme, The Debutante tells of the lengths our heroine is prepared to go to in order to not attend a ball.

The Debutante

WHEN I was a debutante I often went to the zoo. I went so often that I knew the animals better than I knew girls of my own age. Indeed, it was in order to get away from people that I found myself each day at the zoo. The animal I got to know best was a young hyena. She knew me too. She was extremely intelligent, I taught her French and she, in return, taught me her language. In this way we passed many pleasant hours.

My mother was arranging a ball in my honour on the first of May. During this time I was in great distress for whole nights. I’ve always detested balls, especially when they are given in my honour.

On the morning of the first of May, 1934, very early, I went to visit the hyena.

“What a bloody nuisance,” I told her. “I’ve got to go to my ball tonight.”

“You’re very lucky,” she said. “I would love to go. I do not know how to dance, but at least I could make small talk.”

“There’ll be a great many different things to eat,” I told her. “I’ve seen truckloads of food delivered to our house.”

“And you complain!” replied the hyena, disgusted. “Just think of me, I eat once a day, and you can’t imagine what a heap of bloody rubbish I’m given!”

I had a audacious idea, and I almost laughed. “All you have to do is to go instead of me!”

“We do not resemble each other enough, otherwise I’d gladly go,” said the hyena, rather sadly.

“Listen,” I said. “No one sees too well in the evening light. If you disguise yourself, no one will notice you in the crowd. Besides, we are practically  the same size. You are my only friend, I beg you to do this for me.”

She thought this over, and I knew that she really wanted to accept.

“Done,” she said all of a sudden.

There weren’t many keepers about, it was so early in the morning. Quickly I opened the cage and in a moment we were in the street. I hailed a taxi; at home, everyone was still in bed. In my room, I brought out the dress I was to wear that evening. It was a little long, and the hyena found it difficult to walk in my high-heeled shoes. I found some gloves to hide her hands which were too hairy to look like mine. By the time the sun was shining into my room, she was able to make her way around the room several times—walking more or less upright. We were so busy that my mother almost opened the door to say good morning before the hyena had hidden under my bed.

“There’s a bad smell in your room,” said my mother, opening the window. “You must have a scented bath before tonight, with my new bath salts.”

“Certainly,” I said.

She did not stay long. I believe the smell was too strong for her.

“Don’t be late for breakfast,” she said and left the room.

The greatest difficulty was to find a way of disguising the hyena’s face. We spent hours and hours looking for a way, but she always rejected my suggestions. At last she said, “I think I’ve found a solution. Have you got a maid?”

“Yes,” I said, puzzled.

“There you are then. Ring for your maid, and when she comes in we’ll pounce upon her  and tear off her face. I’ll wear her face this evening instead of mine.”

“That’s not practical,” I said to her. “She will probably die if she hasn’t got a face. Someone will surely find the corpse and we’ll go to prison.”

“I am hungry enough to eat her,” the hyena replied.

“And the bones?”

“As well,” she said. “So, its on?”

“Only if you promise to kill her before tearing off  her face. It’ll  hurt her too much otherwise.”

“All right.  It’s all the same to me.”

Not without a certain amount of nervousness I rang for Mary, my maid. I certainly wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t hate having to go to a ball so much. When Mary came in I turned to the wall so as not to see. I must admit that it didn’t take long. A brief cry, and it was over. While the hyena was eating, I looked out the window. A few minutes later, she said, “I can’t eat anymore. Her two feet are left over still, but if you have a little bag, I’ll eat them later in the day.”

“You’ll find in the wardrobe a bag embroidered with fleurs de lys in the cupboard. Empty out the handkerchiefs you’ll find inside, and take it.” She did as I suggested. Then she said: “Turn around now and look how beautiful I am.”

In front of the mirror, the hyena was admiring herself in Mary’s face. She had nibbled very neatly all around the face so that what was left was exactly what was needed.

“You’ve certainly done that very well,”  I said.

Toward evening, when the hyena was all dressed up, she declared: “I really feel in tip-top form. I have the feeling that I shall be a great success this evening.”

When we had heard the music from downstairs for quite some time, I said to her,  “Go on down now, and remember, don’t stand next to my mother. She’s bound to realise that it isn’t me. Apart from her I don’t know anybody. Best of luck.” I kissed her as I left her, but she did smell very strong.

Night fell. Tired by the day’s emotions, I took a book and sat down by the open window, giving myself up to peace and quiet. I remember that I was reading Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. About an hour later,  I  noticed the first signs of trouble. A bat flew in at the window, uttering little cries. I am terribly afraid of bats, I hid behind a chair, my teeth chattering. I had hardly gone down on my knees when the sound of beating wings was overcome by a great noise at my door. My mother entered, pale with rage.

“We’d just sat down at table,” she said, “when that  thing sitting in your place got up and shouted, ‘So I smell a bit strong, what? Well, I don’t eat cakes.’ Whereupon it tore off its face and ate it. And with one great bound, disappeared through the window.”

Leonora Carrington-1939

Translation: Marina Warner & Katherine Talbot

Uneasy City

Paul Delvaux-La Ville Inquiete 1941
Paul Delvaux-La Ville Inquiete 1941

Every nerve ending in her body told the Ingénue that she had to get the hell out of dodge. Time. To. Leave. Right quick in fact right now if not sooner like yesterday preferably. The vague anxiety that was the hallmark of life in Uneasy City had deepened into nothing less than sharply defined dread and terror. Terror and dread.
The clocks, never the fastest in Uneasy City, had slowed down to a crawl during the blistering summer of the Fourth Decadency. Although resistant to change the City couldn’t deny that something wicked was coming this way, the very air was charged with potent change. In the streets the horse’s hooves would shatter and grind down the already splintered bones and skulls that lined the cobblestones. Several virulent viruses had taken hold of the panicking populace, but even with the rampant mortality overcrowding was severe, as a constant swell from the war-torn provinces and drought stricken territories filled the Uneasy City to bursting point.
The sense of imminent catastrophe generated a sinister erotic tension that was evident everywhere. One of the few jobs the Ingénue had been offered lately was a bit part in a dubious movie about the orgies that were so fashionable during the period of the Black Death. Billed as a certain kind of historical fiction it could have been shot as a straightforward documentary during these uncertain times. She could this feel eroticising current coursing all throughout the City; in the hesitant country girls with their jaunty hats embracing each other in doorways, in the fleshy middle aged divorcees reclining naked in the lobbies of faded hotels, in the society ladies somnambulating at night through the arcades and alcoves of the station where the train never stops; but most of all in the calculating glances of be-suited men who could no longer be bothered to conceal their predatory inner selves.
Through a contact of a contact the Ingénue had heard about a train that would almost connect to a boat that could take her away from this whole benighted region of Centralia. She packed in a hurry, barely pausing to rifle through the medicine cabinets. Along with four days worth of outfits she concealed a little heat, just in case she had to put someone on ice to get where she was going.