One of the best examples of the Surrealist ‘cult of the object’ which transformed everyday found objects in strange, suggestive ways by placing them into unlikely convergences and chance juxtapositions, My Nurse by the Swiss artist Meret Oppenheim, famous for her fur-lined tea-cup is a disturbing, subversive work with marked fetishistic overtones.
An up-turned pair of white leather high-heeled shoes are placed on a platter, bound and trussed up like a turkey. Oppenheim commented on this work that ‘…it evokes for me the association of thighs squeezed together in pleasure. In fact, almost a “proposition”. When I was a little girl, four of five, we had a young nursemaid. She was dressed in white (Sunday Best?). Maybe she was in love, maybe that’s why she exuded a sensual atmosphere of which I was unconsciously aware.’
Oppenheim’s comments and the fact that it is shoes bound in such a manner shows that she was fully aware of Freudian psychology. Another, quite clear implication, is that women are not supposed to move.
Georges Bataille in the article Big Toe in Documents magazine outlined his view on shoe and foot fetishes. Because the foot is what treads on the ground and connects us to base reality it is despised, whereas the head, which is nearest to the sky and clouds is venerated. Of course some people will take the contrary view and worship what is generally held in contempt. Luis Bunuel took a rather more straight-forward delight in his shoe fetish as can be witnessed in the extraordinary tracking shot of Catherine Deneuve’s elegant black pumps as she climbs the stairways to Madame Anais brothel for the first time in Belle Du Jour.
Once the grave has been filled in it shall be sown over with acorns so that afterwards the ground of the said grave having been replanted and the thicket being overgrown as it was before, the traces of my tomb will disappear from the surface of the earth, as I flatter myself that my memory will be effaced from the minds of men, except none the less from those of the small number of people who have been pleased to love me up to the last moment, and of whom I carry into the grave a most tender recollection.
Marquis De Sade-Last Will and Testament
Regardless of your opinion of the Divine Marquis, it has to be admitted that he got it spectacularly wrong in his prediction that his memory would be effaced from the minds of men. Although he certainly didn’t invent the sexual pathology that bears his name, he does hold the world trademark rights. Rarely has a writer, and a writer so rarely read, achieved such lasting notoriety far beyond the narrow confines of literature and philosophy. Sadism is an important concept in psychology, jurisprudence and is a boon to journalists, not to mention has given rise to an increasingly visible sub-culture, of which Fifty Shades of Grey is the most prominent and commercially succesful.
The pioneering sexologist Krafft-Ebing introduced the term Sadism in 1890 based on the content of his works. In many ways De Sade anticipated both Krafft-Ebing and Sigmund Freud by placing sexual desire and sexuality as the prime, motivating factor in human behaviour, and furthermore categorising all the possible aberrations inherent in humanity. It was another German psychiatrist Ewan Bloch who first published The 120 Days of Sodom, De Sade’s most extreme and surely the darkest book ever to be written, in 1904, further spurring interest in his work.
Although it was the psychiatrists who brought De Sade back to public attention in the 20th century, it was the poets who venerated him as the ultimate rebel . Apollinaire proclaimed him ‘the freest spirit to have ever lived’, and in the First Manifesto of Surrealism Andre Breton noted that ‘De Sade is surrealist in sadism.’ Georges Bataille entire oeuvre is a marriage of Sade and Nietzsche. Barthes and Foucault wrote extensively (and infuriatingly) about a figure they saw as an important post-modern predecessor.
Outside of France, Henry Miller was an early champion and a number of Beats either translated his work or produced Sadean erotica for the Olympia Press. In recent years biographies have proliferated (with good reason, De Sade’s life reads better than most novels, no matter how imaginative) and Penguin Classics just issued a new translation of The 120 Days of Sodom, the original manuscript of which was recently sold for 7 million euro at auction.
The Marquis or characters from his novels has made many a cameo in movies as well. In L’Age D’or by Luis Bunuel the coda contains the blasphemous suggestion that Jesus Christ was one of the libertines of the Chateau de Silling. Bunuel would later feature a vignette of De Sade in La Voie Lactee. A sardonic De Sade is the main character of Peter Weiss’s Brechtian film Marat/Sade, while more recently the Philip Kaufman directed Quills re-imagines the Marquis’s time in Charenton in gothic horror fashion. And one shouldn’t forget Pasolini’s highly controversial Salo or his influence upon the pornographic and sexploitation genres, especially Jesus De Franco.
Two centuries after his death it is safe to say that De Sade isn’t going away any time soon. Whether he is viewed as the destroyer of traditional values or the apostle of radical liberty, his vision of a total, impossible freedom will continue to haunt the imagination.
In 1929 the young Spaniard Luis Bunuel, who was working in Paris as assistant director to Jean Epstein met with his compatriot and Madrid University friend, the painter Salvador Dali. Over lunch Luis Bunuel recounted a dream he had about a cloud slicing through the moon like a razor blade slicing through an eye. Dali in turn told about his dream of a hand crawling with ants. Instantly inspired Bunuel stated to Dali, “There’s the film, let’s go make it.”
While they worked on the script, Bunuel and Dali had only one rule: “No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted.” The resulting film Un Chien Andalou (The Andalusian Dog) has been called the most famous silent movie ever by Roger Ebert. Its influence upon music videos and low budget independent films is immeasurable.
UnChien Andalou was immediately successful, (though it led to an irreparable break with their friend, the poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who took the title and the movie as a personal affront). Both Bunuel and Dali were admitted to the Surrealist movement who enthusiastically welcomed the film’s Sadean shock tactics and unfettered automatism, which were in keeping with the stated aims of the movement. Georges Bataille unsurprisingly, given his own obsession with the symbolism of eyes recounted at length in the elegantly horrific L’histoire de l’oeil (The Story of the Eye), mentioned the controversial opening scene in his article on Eyes in Documents, under the subtitle Cannibal Delicacy. On a more practical level Bunuel and Dali gained the financing for their next movie from the Vicomte and Vicomtesse De Noailles, two of the most important avant garde art patrons of the interwar period. The resulting film L’Age D’or was even more of a succès de scandale, leading to right wing riots in protest and its withdrawal from commercial distribution and public exhibition for over forty years. Most of the shocked reaction was to the infamous coda featuring Jesus Christ as one of the four libertines of the Chateau de Silling, the setting of the Marquis De Sade darkest novel, 120 Days in Sodom. Incidentally the Vicomtesse De Noailles was a descendant of the Marquis and the couple possessed the original manuscript of 120 Days which they kept in a specially designed phallus shaped box.
Here is a link to the complete movie with the original score featuring two tangos and Wagner’s Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. Interpretations are always welcome.
On a trip to Rome I visited the Balthus retrospective at the Scuderie del Quirinale. Although frequently included in books on Surrealism, Balthus was never affiliated with the Surrealists. However as an art world insider he was friends with several prominent figures including the sculptor Giacometti and the writers Artaud and Bataille. More importantly he shared with Surrealism a preoccupation with the oneiric state and the same literary influences, particularly Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and Lewis Carroll’s Alice books.
The exhibition includes the 14 remarkable ink illustrations for Wuthering Heights. Emily Bronte’s classic was much admired by Bataille and Bunuel, who filmed his own idiosyncratic version set in Colonial Mexico as well as quoting the novel at length in his excellent autobiography My Last Sigh. It is not hard to see why the novels would appeal to the Surrealists with its tempestuous romanticism and its insistence on the primacy of childhood and nature against civilisation and maturity. And, of course, it is the culmination and pinnacle of the Gothic novel which Breton placed above all other literature in the Manifestos. Balthus perfectly captures the intense and sombre atmosphere of the novel which he clearly identified closely with as his Heathcliff is also a self-portrait.
The influence of Alice is even more marked. The exhibition includes several witty anthropomorphic drawings and absurdist caricatures that show the influence of both Tenniel’s illustrations and the Alice books. However it is the unsettling, decidedly ambiguous paintings of young girls often sleeping and frequently observed by slyly inscrutable cats that spanned his career that show the depth of the fixation with Alice. In 1933 Balthus painted Alice Dans le miroir and a quarter of a century later he returned to Alice to paint Golden Afternoon.
Balthus paintings have aroused considerable controversy for their subject matter and its not hard to see why. A previous exhibition was titled Cats and Girls and that neatly sums up his twin obsessions. However saccharine sounding there is nothing cutesy about Balthus eerily frozen and silent domestic universe. The knowing cats, that together with the very young girls that populate his paintings appear to be stand ins for the artist; after all he was the self proclaimed King of Cats, therefore placing himself squarely within the frame of his paintings, adding a further disturbing voyeuristic subtext.
The Situationist International was the bastard child of Dada and Surrealism. Determined to resolve the contradiction that was at the heart of those movements, namely that though they were resolutely anti-art they ended up (through the process of recuperation) being a chapter in art history, they jettisoned art altogether to concentrate on ‘The Revolution of Everyday Life‘. Oh, and Liberation Marxist theory, a lot of Liberation Marxist theory.
But as its members all started as artists in various avant-garde micro movements (the movement was formed by the coalition of the Lettrist International, an offshoot of the Lettrist movement, the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus, an offshoot of COBRA and the London Psychogeographical Association, I kid you not), talents had to be put to use. Guy Debord, top theoretician and de facto leader of the Situationists developed the practise of detournement (examples of detourned art above and below) which consisted of ‘turning expressions of the capitalist system against itself’. Personally I find these comic strips with their earnest Marxist dialectic speech and thought bubbles very funny, though I am not sure that is their main intention.
The Situationist International and Enrages (whom they influenced) played an important part in the May 1968 uprising in Paris. The walls were daubed with Situationist and Surrealist slogans, Luis Bunuel in his autobiography My Last Sigh comments on his shock of seeing painted everywhere ‘All power to the imagination’ and ‘It is forbidden to forbid’.