Robert Desnos was in many ways the archetypal surrealist spirit. Involved in Paris Dada he was in the literary vanguard of Surrealism and possessed an extra-ordinary talent for automatic writing during the Trance Period, rivalled only by Rene Crevel. Desnos, like many others, fell out with Andre Breton and joined the group centred around Georges Bataille and his magazine Documents and he was one of the signers of the anti-Breton polemic Un Cadavre.
During WWII Desnos was an active member of the French Resistance and he was captured by the Gestapo in 1944. He was deported to Auschwitz, then Buchenwald and finally Theresienstadt where he would die a few weeks after the camp’s liberation from typhoid.
I Have So Often Dreamed Of You
I have so often dreamed of you that you become unreal.
Is it still time enough to reach that living body and to kiss
on that mouth the birth of the voice so dear to me?
I have so often dreamed of you that my arms used as they are
to meet on my breast in embracing your shadow would
perhaps not fit the contour of your body.
And, before the real appearance of what has haunted and ruled
me for days and years, I might become only a shadow.
Oh the weighing of sentiment,
I have so often dreamed of you that there is probably no time
now to waken. I sleep standing, my body exposed to all the
appearances of life and love and you, who alone still
matter to me, I could less easily touch your forehead and
your lips than the first lips and the first forehead I
might meet by chance.
I have so often dreamed of you, walked, spoken, slept with your
phantom that perhaps I can be nothing any longer than a
phantom among phantoms and a hundred times more shadow
than the shadow which walks and will walk joyously over
the sundial of your life.
In 1936 the painter and art dealer Roland Penrose (also later the husband of Lee Miller) and the art critic Herbert Read, who were organising the International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries, decided to pay a visit to the studios of the Irish born painter Francis Bacon in Chelsea. Bacon showed them four large canvases but the visitors were underwhelmed, to say the least. Penrose declared that they were insufficiently surreal to be included and is reported to have told Francis, “Mr. Bacon, don’t you realise a lot has happened in painting since the Impressionists?”.
However much this must have stung, Francis Bacon apparently agreed with Penrose’s assessment as he would later, when very famous, ruthlessly suppress any pieces that pre-dated his breakthrough painting Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion of 1944; that is to say, that any painting produced before he had engaged, assimilated and felt in a position to response in a highly personal way to the great Continental European avant-garde currents (including, naturally enough, Surrealism), were to be excluded from his oeuvre. Quite rightly so, as the critic John Russell noted, “there was painting in England before the Three Studies, and painting after them, and no one…can confuse the two,” which of course extended to Bacon’s own work.
Painted on Sundeala boards, a cheap alternative to canvas, used frequently by Bacon as he was often short of money due to his heavy drinking and lifelong gambling habit, Three Studies presents three nightmarish figures, Bacon’s horror take on Picasso’s biomorphs, with elongated necks and distended mouths, against a lurid, harsh, burnt orange background. Christ and the two thieves crucified have been transformed into the Furies. Bacon admitted to having been obsessed by the phrase in Aeschylus, “the reek of human blood smiles out at me”, and in a sense Three Studies is a raw, visceral, pictorial actualisation of such a striking and terrifying line. After all, Bacon was the best exemplifier of the Bataillean aesthetic in the visual arts; the body as meat, the world as an abattoir, the endless scream of being.
Calm it, calming
Calming, calm it.
-Talk to me
-I wish I could talk—
But easier said;
A few issues remain unresolved,
In fact permanently outstanding.
I have always been afflicted,
If Memory serves,
(Not me though,
Bitch is thoroughly self-serving
With her insidious insinuations,
Rosey sepia’d projections,
Flat-out brazen taunting,
Wince inducing comparisons;
The future ain’t what it used to be
But was the past so very hot?)
By a stuttering reluctance
To showtell, that would be an act,
Stripping myself bare to tease,
Besides what if there is nothing
Beneath to reveal, could I stand
The disappointment turning
To anger and then inevitably,
As night turns to day, to hatred?
So I crouched my sentences
In an invented, inverted argot
Of my own twisted devising,
A cunning linguistic cant
Impenetrable and dense
Filled with allusions, elisions,
Strewn with the slang and jargon
Of restless haunted journeys;
The most I could hope for
Was an odd sensation of frisson,
The occasional moment of fusion,
Before the dissolution of an imagined unity;
Fracturing, splintering, fragmenting,
Sending me back into my private
Realm where I can babble away,
In my nonesuch nonsense language,
Or just remain silent if I wished,
(and therefore, be true?)
Lee Miller’s haunting Portrait of Space qualifies as one of the most enigmatic of Surrealist images. While married to her wealthy Egyptian husband in Cairo in the mid 1930’s Miller felt the need to escape to the desert where the photograph was taken. It is not a portrait of a person but the desert landscape, however in true Surrealist fashion parts of the landscape bear a resemblance to facial features. Uncannily the clouds look like the floating lips in Man Rays painting The Lovers (see Dreams of Desire 12 (The Lovers)) from 1934 which are of course modelled on Miller’s own lips. The hillock on the right could be the Eye atop the pyramid on the dollar bill and the gaping hole in the fly screen is the eye that reveals and illuminates the scene for us.
One of the most disturbing articles in the provocative Surrealist magazine Documents is Michel Leiris essay The ‘Caput Mortuum’ or the Alchemist’s Wife, which details Leiris encounter with the American Lost Generation travel writer and occultist William Buehler Seabrook.
Leiris had favourably reviewed Seabrook’s book on Haiti, The Magic Island for Documents and he readily agreedto a meeting. Leiris was very impressed with Seabrook, who narrated a story about a man who had come face to face with God. Shortly afterwards Leiris received some startling photographs from Seabrook of a woman in a leather mask. Leiris meditations on the photographs form the body of the essay which raises disquieting questions regarding identity and desire.
The American photographer Man Ray also met Seabrook in Paris around the same period and Man Ray tells several anecdotes concerning Seabrook in his autobiography Self Portrait. Man Ray shot several photographs of tableaux arranged by Seabrook, as well as the photographs of Seabrook with the marvellous Lee Miller.