This was the phrase that was produced when the Surrealists first sat down to play the game that was to later be christened Exquisite Corpse. It was one of those happy accidents so beloved of the Surrealists and seemingly dictated by the collective unconscious mind ready to reclaim its rights.
The most celebrated of Surrealists techniques, it tied in nicely with several key tenets of Surrealism; namely artistic collaboration and the belief that was first stated by Lautreamont that “Poetry should be made by all.” Originally played with words it soon become apparent that the technique could extend to drawing and collages. The examples from the Golden Age of Surrealism are numerous and feature some of the most illustrious names in 20th Century art and letters.
Below are some of the most notable Exquisite Corpses from that era. I have also included work from the YBA artists the Chapman Brothers who have produced a number of drawings using the technique.
The startlingly titled and utterly bizarre photo-series Ode to Necrophilia by Hungarian-Mexican photographer Kati Horna, featuring as a model the brilliant Leonora Carrington, was published in the short lived but innovative Mexican avant-garde magazine S.NOB in 1962.
Born into a wealthy Jewish family in Hungary in 1912, Horna lived in Berlin and Paris before moving to Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War where she was empoyed as the official photographer for the CNT-FAI. Her groundbreaking war photographs that intimately portrayed the effects of the conflict on the civilian population was frequently featured in Spanish Anarchist journals Umbral and Tierra y Libertad as well as internationally. In 1939 she fled with her husband the Spanish anarchist José Horna, first to Paris then to Mexico. Mexico was the first choice for a number of left-leaning artists and intellectuals escaping Europe’s nightmare slide into fascism. It was here that she met Remedios Varo, the wealthy art patron Edward James, Benjamin Peret and later Leonora Carrington.
S.NOB was founded by literacy radicals Salvador Elizondo and Juan Garçia Ponce and featured works by the Mexican avant-garde and European emigres with Edward James helping with funding to ensure artistic freedom. It ran for seven issues in 1962.
Below is a selection of images from the series. A quick note regarding the umbrella, which would appear to refer not only to Lautreamont’s famous dictum in Les Chants De Maldoror, ‘As beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table’, but also to one of her many outstanding photographs of the Spanish Civil War, Rally at Via Durutti, which I have also included.
Although the nightmarish Les Chants de Maldoror by Comte de Lautréamont (pseudonym of Isidore Ducasse) was first published in 1868/69, more than fifty years before Paris Dada began to re-form as Surrealism, it was such a major precursor and influence upon a number of Surrealist artists that it can be considered as the movement’s black Bible. Indeed the work’s most famous line, the bizarre and striking simile, ‘As beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table’, is about as neat a summation of the Surrealists stated aim of juxtaposition and dislocation as you could possibly wish for.
As well as the stylistic innovation and the macabre subject matter, a visionary and sensationalist take on the already sensational Gothic novel, the utter anonymity of Ducasse must have appealed to the Surrealists. Facts and details regarding his life are scarce to say the least. We know that he was born in Montevideo, Uruguay in 1846 and that he came to Paris at the age of twenty one to complete his education, though he soon dropped out to work on Chants de Maldoror. After its publication, under the pseudonym Comte de Lautréamont, chosen after a Satanic anti-hero in an Eugene Sue novel, Ducasse published under his own name a short volume entitled Poems in June 1870, though the material contained aren’t actually poems, rather re-worked maxims. In November of the same year, Ducasse was dead at the age of twenty-four, causes unknown. His passing went unnoticed, not surprising considering that Paris was under siege by the Prussians; food was very scarce and sickness and mortality was rampant.
He would be discovered by the modernists and Surrealists. Andre Gide said that reading Lautréamont made him ashamed of his own work and Modigliani always carried a copy of Maldoror with him. Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte both illustrated the text, while Max Ernst, Man Ray, Victor Brauner, Roberto Matta,Oscar Dominguez and Joan Miro among others produced work inspired by Maldoror.
The opening passages of the first canto addresses the reader a la Baudelaire before introducing a sustained simile involving the flight of cranes, remarkable for its ornithological accuracy and descriptive power.
Les Chants de Maldoror
May it please heaven that the reader, emboldened, and having for the time being become as fierce as what he is reading, should, without being led astray, find his rugged and treacherous way across the desolate swamps of these sombre, poison-filled pages; for, unless he bring to his reading a rigorous logic and a tautness of mind equal at least to his wariness, the deadly emanations of this book will dissolve his soul as water does sugar. It is not right that everyone should read the pages which follow; only a few may savour this bitter fruit with impunity. Consequently, shrinking soul, turn on your heels and go back before penetrating further into such uncharted, perilous wastelands. Listen well to what I say: turn on your heels and go back, not forward, like the eyes of a son respectfully averted from the august contemplation of his mother’s face; or, rather, like a formation of very meditative cranes, stretching out of sight, whose sensitive bodies flee the chill of winter, when, their wings fully extended, they fly powerfully through silence to a precise point on the horizon, from which suddenly a strange strong wind blows, precursor to the storm. The oldest crane, flying on alone ahead of the others, shakes his head like a reasonable person on seeing this, making at the same time a clack with his beak, and he is troubled (as I, too, would be, if I were he); all the time his scrawny and featherless neck, which has seen three generations of cranes, is moving in irritated undulations which fore-token the quickly-gathering storm. Having calmly looked in all directions with his experienced eyes, the crane prudently (ahead of all the others, for he has the privilege of showing his tail-feathers to his less intelligent fellows) gyrates to change the direction of the geometric figure (perhaps it is a triangle, but one cannot see the third side which these curious birds of passage form in space) either to port or to starboard, like a skilled captain, uttering as he does so his vigilant cry, like that of a melancholy sentry, to repulse the common enemy. Then, manoeuvring with wings which seem no bigger than a startling’s, because he is no fool, he takes another philosophic and surer line of flight.
I have always been intrigued by the bizarre landscapes of the French Surrealist Yves Tanguy, paintings that demand a creative response far beyond the standard art historical entry. With this in mind I approached the enigmatic Mia, aka Copper Cranes, one of the finest poets that I know, who constantly crafts verses that are elusive and hermetic, dense yet delicate, if she would compose a piece on the above painting, Je Vous Attends (I’m Waiting for You), that played such an important part in the personal mythology of Tanguy and his wife Kay Sage.
I am delighted that Miss Cranes not only agreed but produced such an outstanding and haunting poem as Last Call Before You Go, which is published below. My contribution to this collaboration is a brief essay on Tanguy, Sage and the concept of the chance encounter within Surrealist aesthetics.
Last Call Before You Go
Within a blinding sanguine flash
Escaping the unbridled muzzle of destiny
I find myself riding a scorching bullet,
The train of deliverance, to a place of remains:
Human cairns, les piles de vertèbres
Unrecognizable, yet familiar skinless parts
In this: historic, prehistoric, futuristic,
With perpetual dinner parties’
Sunsetting shadows: 7 pm
All in search of the multifaceted singular you
Chasing craggy friction, smooth from tracing
A longing desire for all your bigness:
That which fills the heat of any room,
Your fanfare flames a come-hither awareness:
Clarity: the drive for scorn:
Perfection that leads me here
I sense your startling presence
Larger than life, surrounding, smothering
A gyration of hovering stillness
With its annihilating posture: verbal trysts:
Cruelty and misunderstandings:
The heaven on earth I cannot live without:
Effortless drunken brush strokes:
Wire and bullets, forever holding us together
Alas, I have found you: a gaping hole of loss
Collecting plundered eons
And inconsequential landmarks:
The keys to nothing — home to everything
The Dictates of Chance
The concept of chance was of vital importance to Surrealist aesthetics. Taking as a starting point the beautiful chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella upon an operating table of the Comte De Lautreamont and Stephane Mallarme’s enigmatic dictum that ‘a throw of the dice will never abolish chance’, the Surrealists came to believe that chance was the force necessary to change art, life and indeed transform the world.
Maybe because they were finely attuned to its workings and therefore always on the look-out for its unexpected arrival that chance encounters do seem to have played a disproportionally large role in many a Surrealist biography, especially in the life and works of the two best exemplifiers of Surrealist scorched earth strangeness, Yves Tanguy and Kay Sage.
In 1923 Yves Tanguy was an ex-Merchant Seaman from Brittany leading a rather aimless Bohemian lifestyle in Paris. One day he passed a shop window displaying a painting by Giorgio De Chirico, Le Cerveau L’Enfant (The Child’s Brain). This random, chance encounter had an electrifying, galvanising effect upon Tanguy. He there and then decided to become a painter, despite the fact that he had no formal training whatsoever. It was an inspired decision. Tanguy was possessed of a unique, singular vision that defies all explanation and would greatly influence later Surrealists (especially Dali) and the Abstract Expressionists, notably Pollack and Rothko.
Tanguy’s great contribution was to paint irreal figures that are neither animal, vegetable or mineral, in a painstaking, precise naturalistic fashion, therefore adding to the illusionism of the extra-terrestrial landscapes with their depthless horizons. He would render this strange realm that could be interpenetrated as either a collective memory of the pre-organic origins of life or as a prophecy of the distant future or maybe a mental photograph of the unconscious, obsessively throughout the rest of his career.
In 1938, the wealthy American Kay Sage, who had recently, began to pursue an artistic career after the failure of her marriage visited the International Surrealist Exhibit in Galerie Beaux-Arts. She was so taken by another one of De Chirico paintings, La Surprise, that she brought it and it would remain in her possession until her death. Another painting she noticed and admired immensely was, ‘I’m Waiting For You’, by Yves Tanguy. This exposure to the works of De Chirico led Sage to change her artistic direction from semi-abstraction to Surrealism. This change of direction led to a solo exhibition that Tanguy attended and he was so moved by the paintings that he decided to seek Sage out. A meeting was arranged through mutual friends, the result of a series of chance encounters that led to their marriage in 1940 in Reno, Nevada.
They moved to Woodbury, Connecticut shortly afterwards. Their marriage was by all accounts difficult and tempestuous; however Tanguy’s death in 1955 from a stroke devastated Sage. She almost completely stopped painting her own eerie, dread-filled and depopulated surreal landscapes, instead making small sculptures out of wire and bullets.
In 1963 Kay Sage left this poignant and heart-rending suicide note: “The first painting by Yves that I saw, before I knew him, was called ‘I’m waiting for you.’ I’ve come. Now he’s waiting for me again-I’m on my way.” She shot herself through the heart. Tanguy’s friend, the art dealer and brother of Henri, Pierre Matisse scattered their mixed ashes on a beach in Tanguy’s beloved Brittany.
This strange and disturbing Surrealist text, with its frenzied sexual connotations and violent imagery was written by Georges Bataille in 1927 and published in 1931 with illustrations by longtime collaborator Andre Masson (alas I have been unable to find the drawings so I have chosen a colour lithograph by the same artist instead).
L’Anus solaire is a riot of analogy and allusion, and as it mentions both a sewing machine and an umbrella would seem to be clearly indebted to the Black Bible of Surrealism, Les Chants de Maldoror by the mysterious Uruguayan Comte de Lautréamont. Other touchstones are the Marquis De Sade, William Blake and Friedrich Nietzsche.
A quick word about the Jesuve mentioned in the text. Bataille elsewhere notes that “The Jésuve is not only Jesus, which in France is both a saviour and a sausage, but also sève, the sap of Dionysos; the Jesuve is both the volcano, Vésuve, and the goddess, Vénus; it is the je suis of Descartes …”
It is clear that the world is purely parodic, in other words, that each thing seen is the parody of another, or is the same thing in a deceptive form.
Ever since sentences started to circulate in brains devoted to reflection, an effort at total identification has been made, because with the aid of a copula each sentence ties one thing to another; all things would be visibly connected if one could discover at a single glance and in its totality the tracings of Ariadne’s thread leading thought into its own labyrinth.
But the copula of terms is no less irritating than the copulation of bodies. And when I scream I AM THE SUN an integral erection results, because the verb to be is the vehicle of amorous frenzy.
Everyone is aware that life is parodic and that it lacks an interpretation. Thus lead is the parody of gold. Air is the parody of water. The brain is the parody of the equator. Coitus is the parody of crime.
Gold, water, the equator, or crime can each be put forward as the principle of things.
And if the origin of things is not like the ground of the planet that seems to be the base, but like the circular movement that the planet describes around a mobile center, then a car, a clock, or a sewing machine could equally be accepted as the generative principle.
The two primary motions are rotation and sexual movement, whose combination is expressed by the locomotive’s wheels and pistons.
These two motions are reciprocally transformed, the one into the other.
Thus one notes that the earth, by turning, makes animals and men have coitus, and (because the result is as much the cause as that which provokes it) that animals and men make the earth turn by having coitus.
It is the mechanical combination or transformation of these movements that the alchemists sought as the philosopher’s stone.
It is through the use of this magically valued combination that one can determine the present position of men in the midst of the elements.
An abandoned shoe, a rotten tooth, a snub nose, the cook spitting in the soup of his masters are to love what a battle flag is to nationality.
An umbrella, a sexagenarian, a seminarian, the smell of rotten eggs, the hollow eyes of judges are the roots that nourish love.
A dog devouring the stomach of a goose, a drunken vomiting woman, a slobbering accountant, a jar of mustard represent the confusion that serves as the vehicle of love.
A man who finds himself among others is irritated because he does not know why he is not one of the others.
In bed next to a girl he loves, he forgets that he does not know why he is himself instead of the body he touches.
Without knowing it, he suffers from the mental darkness that keeps him from screaming that he himself is the girl who forgets his presence while shuddering in his arms.
Love or infantile rage, or a provincial dowager’s vanity, or clerical pornography, or the diamond of a soprano bewilder individuals forgotten in dusty apartments.
They can very well try to find each other; they will never find anything but parodic images, and they will fall asleep as empty as mirrors.
The absent and inert girl hanging dreamless from my arms is no more foreign to me than the door or window through which I can look or pass.
I rediscover indifference (allowing her to leave me) when I fall asleep, through an inability to love what happens.
It is impossible for her to know whom she will discover when I hold her, because she obstinately attains a complete forgetting.
The planetary systems that turn in space like rapid disks, and whose centers also move, describing an infinitely larger circle, only move away continuously from their own position in order to return it, completing their rotation.
Movement is a figure of love, incapable of stopping at a particular being, and rapidly passing from one to another.
But the forgetting that determines it in this way is only a subterfuge of memory.
A man gets up as brusquely as a specter in a coffin and falls in the same way.
He gets up a few hours later and then he falls again, and the same thing happens every day; this great coitus with the celestial atmosphere is regulated by the terrestrial rotation around the sun.
Thus even though terrestrial life moves to the rhythm of this rotation, the image of this movement is not turning earth, but the male shaft penetrating the female and almost entirely emerging, in order to reenter.
Love and life appear to be separate only because everything on earth is broken apart by vibrations of various amplitudes and durations.
However, there are no vibrations that are not conjugated with a continuous circular movement; in the same way, a locomotive rolling on the surface of the earth is the image of continuous metamorphosis.
Beings only die to be born, in the manner of phalluses that leave bodies in order to enter them.
Plants rise in the direction of the sun and then collapse in the direction of the ground.
Trees bristle the ground with a vast quantity of flowered shafts raised up to the sun.
The trees that forcefully soar end up burned by lightning, chopped down, or uprooted. Returned to the ground, they come back up in another form.
But their polymorphous coitus is a function of uniform terrestrial rotation.
The simplest image of organic life united with rotation is the tide. From the movement of the sea, uniform coitus of the earth with the moon, comes the polymorphous and organic coitus of the earth with the sun.
But the first form of solar love is a cloud raised up over the liquid element. The erotic cloud sometimes becomes a storm and falls back to earth in the form of rain, while lightning staves in the layers of the atmosphere.
The rain is soon raised up again in the form of an immobile plant.
Animal life comes entirely from the movement of the seas and, inside bodies, life continues to come from salt water.
The sea, then, has played the role of the female organ that liquefies under the excitation of the penis.
The sea continuously jerks off.
Solid elements, contained and brewed in water animated by erotic movement, shoot out in the form of flying fish.
The erection and the sun scandalize, in the same way as the cadaver and the darkness of cellars.
Vegetation is uniformly directed towards the sun; human beings, on the other hand, even though phalloid like trees, in opposition to other animals, necessarily avert their eyes.
Human eyes tolerate neither sun, coitus, cadavers, nor obscurity, but with different reactions.
When my face is flushed with blood, it becomes red and obscene.
It betrays at the same time, through morbid reflexes, a bloody erection and a demanding thirst for indecency and criminal debauchery.
For that reason I am not afraid to affirm that my face is a scandal and that my passions are expressed only by the JESUVE.
The terrestrial globe is covered with volcanoes, which serve as its anus.
Although this globe eats nothing, it often violently ejects the contents of its entrails.
Those contents shoot out with a racket and fall back, streaming down the sides of the Jesuve, spreading death and terror everywhere.
In fact, the erotic movements of the ground are not fertile like those of the water, but they are far more rapid.
The earth sometimes jerks off in a frenzy, and everything collapses on its surface.
The Jesuve is thus the image of an erotic movement that burglarizes the ideas contained in the mind, giving them the force a scandalous eruption.
This eruptive force accumulates in those who are necessarily situated below.
Communist workers appear to the bourgeois to be as ugly and dirty as hairy sexual organs, or lower parts; sooner or later there will be a scandalous eruption in the course of which the asexual noble heads of the bourgeois will be chopped off.
Disasters, revolutions, and volcanoes do not make love with the stars.
The erotic revolutionary and volcanic deflagrations antagonize the heavens.
As in the case of violent love, they take place beyond the constraints of fecundity.
In opposition to celestial fertility there are terrestrial disasters, the image of terrestrial love without condition, erection without escape and without rule, scandal, and terror.
Love then screams in my own throat; I am the Jesuve, the filthy parody of the torrid and blinding sun.
I want to have my throat slashed while violating the girl to whom I will have been able to say: you are the night.
The Sun exclusively loves the Night and directs its luminous violence, its ignoble shaft, toward the earth, but finds itself incapable of reaching the gaze or the night, even though the nocturnal terrestrial expanses head continuously toward the indecency of the solar ray.
The solar annulus is the intact anus of her body at eighteen years to which nothing sufficiently blinding can be compared except the sun, even though the anus is night.