The figure of Jean-Jacques Lequeu, with his bizarre architectural fantasies, disconcerting self portraits and obscenely lascivious figures is an enigma. In some respects Lequeu seems very much of his time, a Utopian Neoclassical architect working in the tradition established by his more famous revolutionary contemporaries Claude-Nicholas Ledoux and Étienne-Louis Boullée, whose visions also largely existed only on paper, forever unbuilt, and yet also strangely Modern, indeed Post-Modern. This Proto-Surrealist aspect of Lequeu led one art critic to conjecture that Marcel Duchamp himself altered Lequeu’s work while working in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, in order to create a suitable precursor as well as enacting some form of recondite revenge on Le Corbusier. Unfortunately for this rather droll conspiracy theory, Duchamp worked at the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève and not at the Bibliothèque nationale.
The little we do know about Lequeu does nothing to dispel the mystery. Born in Rouen he worked under several architects in that city, carrying out projects on civil and religious buildings. He won a scholarship to study in Paris where he remained for the rest of his life, living above a brothel. He prepared a book that was to remain unpublished, Architecture Civile; however the projected buildings and gardens with their phantasmagorical blending of Classical, Egyptian and Chinese styles, monstrous Rococo excesses of ornamentation and wanton disregard of expense bore no relation to prosaic reality and Lequeu’s career stalled. He found work in the civil service as a surveyor and cartographer until his retirement in 1815. During the Revolutionary period he entered competitions organised by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where the various architects out-did each other in envisaging ever more grandiose schemes.
Towards the end of his life Lequeu, finding himself broke tried to sell his drawings without success and decided to donate 800 works to the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Dying in penury in 1826 it is discovered that his wardrobe contains a large collection of expensive women’s clothing, quite in keeping as Lequeu had produced two self portraits in drag.
The more explicit pornographic material mouldered in the the Enfer (Hell) section of the library. The Petit Palais, Paris recently held the first ever retrospective and the website of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Gallica, has the entire Lequeu oeuvre online.
I have below some of the mind melting architectural drawings, a few of the startling self portraits and a little of the explicit erotica, though in a sense almost everything, especially architecture, is erotic and libertine in Lequeu’s work.
With Dada it is hard to know where the humour ends and the mystification begins. This is certainly the case with one of its most notorious succès de scandale, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain from 1917.
Fountain is a ready-made sculpture, a porcelain urinal signed by R.Mutt. It was submitted to the Society of Independent Artists for exhibition at the inaugural show in The Grand Central Palace, New York. The committee, of whom Duchamp was a member, decided to ‘suppress’ Fountain by hiding it behind a partition, as the rules of the society meant that any artwork presented by a fee-paying artist had to be accepted. After the show Duchamp retrieved Fountain from its hiding place, got Alfred Stieglitz of the 291 gallery to photograph the sculpture, which was then published with accompanying essays in The Blind Man magazine. Shortly after the original Fountain was lost (probably thrown out into the garbage, a fate of a many a ready-made as the peripatetic Duchamp liked to travel light), though in the 1950’s and 1960’s Duchamp made a number of reproductions that can be seen in museums across the world.
Part of the text in The Blind Man in defense of Fountain would arguably have a greater impact on Modernist and Post-Modernist aesthetic theory than the actual work.
Whether Mr Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.
After half of century of Conceptual Art we are wearily familiar with this view and lose sight of how genuinely revolutionary such a concept would have been in 1917. It also shows how little art and aesthetics have progressed since the high water marks of Modernism. I have never really been sure if Duchamp’s assault on art and taste was anything more than an elaborate piss-take, but by God nobody, not even Warhol, has ever done it better.
In 1922 Rene Crevel told his friend and mentor Andre Breton about a visit he had made to a Spiritualist seance. It was the time of the mouvementflou, the increasingly nihilistic Dada had negated itself out of existence and Surrealism was yet to come into being. Breton was intrigued and arranged an event with his friends. The results were startling; and this was the beginning of the Period of the Sleeping Fits. Crevel and Robert Desnos were particularly susceptible to falling into the trance state and answering questions that was put to them by the group, sometimes with unnerving effect. Each day they would spend longer in a trance, Desnos even had the ability to write while asleep. Both Crevel and Desnos began to rapidly lose weight and Desnos became convinced that he was possessed by Rrose Selavy, Marcel Duchamp’s female alter ego, even though he had never met Duchamp. Events began to spiral out of control and the experiment with trance states was abandoned completely when Crevel led a group suicide attempt.
Desnos loved to sleep (most photographs show him asleep) and his poetry vividly evokes that universal yet nebulous state Below is his 1926 poem SleepSpaces, translation by Mary Ann Caws.
In the night there are naturally the seven marvels of the world and greatness and the tragic and enchantment.
Confusedly, forests mingle with legendary creatures hidden in the thickets.
You are there.
In the night there is the nightwalker’s step and the murderer’s and the policeman’s and the streetlight and the ragman’s lantern.
You are there.
In the night pass trains and ships and the mirage of countries where it is daylight. The last breaths of twilight and the first shivers of dawn.
You are there.
A tune on the piano, a cry.
A door slams,
And not just beings and things and material noises.
But still myself chasing myself or going on beyond.
You are there, immolated one, you for whom I wait.
Sometimes strange figures are born at the instant of sleep and disappear.
When I close my eyes, phosphorescent blooms appear and fade and are reborn like carnal fireworks.
Unknown countries I traverse with creatures for company.
You are there most probably, oh beautiful discreet spy.
And the palpable soul of the reaches.
And the perfumes of the sky and the stars and the cock’s crow from two thousand years ago and the peacock’s scream in the parks aflame and kisses.
Handshakes sinister in a sickly light and axles screeching on hypnotic roads.
You are most probably there, whom I do not know, whom on the contrary I know.
But who, present in my dreams, insist on being sensed there without appearing.
You who remain out of reach in reality and in dream.
You who belong to me by my will to possess you in illusion but whose face approaches mine if my eyes are closed to dream as well as to reality.
You in spite of an easy rhetoric where the waves die on the beaches, where the crow flies in ruined factories, where wood rots cracking under a leaden sky.
You who are at the depths of my dreams, arousing my mind full of metamorphoses and leaving me your glove when I kiss your hand.
In the night there are stars and the tenebral motion of the sea, rivers, forests, towns, grass, the lungs of millions and millions of being.
In the night there are the marvels of the world.
In the night there are no guardian angels but there is sleep.
In the night you are there.
In the day also.
The connection between Surrealism and magic realism, the narrative genre that first developed in Latin America in the mid twentieth century before becoming popular the world over, has always been hotly disputed. The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, one of the giants of magic realism, viewed Surrealism with a great measure of disdain, and other Latin American were suspicious of the European Surrealists exoticising tendencies. However one of the first magic realist novels, El reino de este mundo (The Kingdom of this World), was written by Alejo Carpentierwho was actively involved in the Surrealist Movement in the 1920’s. Mexico was to prove fertile soil for several leading emigre Surrealists, notably Wolfgang Paalen, Leonora Carrington, Benjamin Peret and Remedios Varos. The strongest link however was undoubtedly the other great Argentine writer of the Latin American Boom, Julio Cortazar.
Cortazarwrote a spirited defence of Surrealism in 1949, refuting the constant claims that Surrealism was dead, insisting that on the contrary that it was ‘Un cadaver viviente’ (a living corpse). His 1966 novel Rayuela (Hopscotch) is a landmark in Post-Modernism in its hyper-textuality (take a look at the table of instructions to see all the possible ways to read the novel), which clearly references Andre Breton’s Nadja and the artwork of Marcel Duchamp. Later in the sixties Cortazar would produce two outstanding collage books with almost infinite permutations. The greatest writer of the 21st Century, Roberto Bolano, acknowledged his debt to Cortazar, and indeed to the underground Surrealist current that he kept alive, in his writings and interviews.
Besides such Surrealist experimentation, Cortazar is one of the undoubted masters of the fantastic short story. Below is Axolotl, a Kafkaesque story of a man’s obsession with the Axolotl, the Mexican salamander, who with their Aztec faces, devour with their eyes in a cannibalism of gold.
Included as a bonus is The Veils song Axolotl. Not sure if they are familiar with the story, but it was featured on David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return recently and that is enough objective chance for me.
There was a time when I thought a great deal about the axolotls. I went to see them in the aquarium at the Jardin des Plantes and stayed for hours watching them, observing their immobility, their faint movements. Now I am an axolotl.
I got to them by chance one spring morning when Paris was spreading its peacock tail after a slow wintertime. I was heading down tbe boulevard Port-Royal, then I took Saint-Marcel and L’Hôpital and saw green among all that grey and remembered the lions. I was friend of the lions and panthers, but had never gone into the dark, humid building that was the aquarium. I left my bike against tbe gratings and went to look at the tulips. The lions were sad and ugly and my panther was asleep. I decided on the aquarium, looked obliquely at banal fish until, unexpectedly, I hit it off with the axolotls. I stayed watching them for an hour and left, unable to think of anything else.
In the library at Sainte-Geneviève, I consulted a dictionary and learned that axolotls are the larval stage (provided with gills) of a species of salamander of the genus Ambystoma. That they were Mexican I knew already by looking at them and their little pink Aztec faces and the placard at the top of the tank. I read that specimens of them had been found in Africa capable of living on dry land during the periods of drought, and continuing their life under water when the rainy season came. I found their Spanish name, ajolote, and the mention that they were edible, and that their oil was used (no longer used, it said ) like cod-liver oil.
I didn’t care to look up any of the specialized works, but the next day I went back to the Jardin des Plantes. I began to go every morning, morning and aftemoon some days. The aquarium guard smiled perplexedly taking my ticket. I would lean up against the iron bar in front of the tanks and set to watching them. There’s nothing strange in this, because after the first minute I knew that we were linked, that something infinitely lost and distant kept pulling us together. It had been enough to detain me that first morning in front of the sheet of glass where some bubbles rose through the water. The axolotls huddled on the wretched narrow (only I can know how narrow and wretched) floor of moss and stone in the tank. There were nine specimens, and the majority pressed their heads against the glass, looking with their eyes of gold at whoever came near them. Disconcerted, almost ashamed, I felt it a lewdness to be peering at these silent and immobile figures heaped at the bottom of the tank. Mentally I isolated one, situated on the right and somewhat apart from the others, to study it better. I saw a rosy little body, translucent (I thought of those Chinese figurines of milky glass), looking like a small lizard about six inches long, ending in a fish’s tail of extraordinary delicacy, the most sensitive part of our body. Along the back ran a transparent fin which joined with the tail, but what obsessed me was the feet, of the slenderest nicety, ending in tiny fingers with minutely human nails. And then I discovered its eyes, its face. Inexpressive features, with no other trait save the eyes, two orifices, like brooches, wholly of transparent gold, lacking any life but looking, letting themselves be penetrated by my look, which seemed to travel past the golden level and lose itself in a diaphanous interior mystery. A very slender black halo ringed the eye and etched it onto the pink flesh, onto the rosy stone of the head, vaguely triangular, but with curved and triangular sides which gave it a total likeness to a statuette corroded by time. The mouth was masked by the triangular plane of the face, its considerable size would be guessed only in profile; in front a delicate crevice barely slit the lifeless stone. On both sides of the head where the ears should have been, there grew three tiny sprigs, red as coral, a vegetal outgrowth, the gills, I suppose. And they were the only thing quick about it; every ten or fifteen seconds the sprigs pricked up stiffly and again subsided. Once in a while a foot would barely move, I saw the diminutive toes poise mildly on the moss. It’s that we don’t enjoy moving a lot, and the tank is so cramped—we barely move in any direction and we’re hitting one of the others with our tail or our head—difficulties arise, fights, tiredness. The time feels like it’s less if we stay quietly.
It was their quietness that made me lean toward them fascinated the first time I saw the axolotls. Obscurely I seemed to understand their secret will, to abolish space and time with an indifferent immobility. I knew better later; the gill contraction, the tentative reckoning of the delicate feet on the stones, the abrupt swimming (some of them swim with a simple undulation of the body) proved to me that they were capable of escaping that mineral lethargy in which they spent whole hours. Above all else, their eyes obsessed me. In the standing tanks on either side of them, different fishes showed me the simple stupidity of their handsome eyes so similar to our own. The eyes of the axolotls spoke to me of the presence of a different life, of another way of seeing. Glueing my face to the glass (the guard would cough fussily once in a while), I tried to see better those diminutive golden points, that entrance to the infinitely slow and remote world of these rosy creatures. It was useless to tap with one finger on the glass directly in front of their faces; they never gave the least reaction. The golden eyes continued burning with their soft, terrible light; they continued looking at me from an unfathomable depth which made me dizzy.
And nevertheless they were close. I knew it before this, before being an axolotl. I learned it the day I came near them for the first time. The anthropomorphic features of a monkey reveal the reverse of what most people believe, the distance that is traveled from them to us. The absolute lack of similarity between axolotls and human beings proved to me that my recognition was valid, that I was not propping myself up with easy analogies. Only the little hands . . . But an eft, the common newt, has such hands also, and we are not at all alike. I think it was the axolotls’ heads, that triangular pink shape with the tiny eyes of gold. That looked and knew. That laid the claim. They were not animals.
It would seem easy, almost obvious, to fall into mythology. I began seeing in the axolotls a metamorphosis which did not succeed in revoking a mysterious humanity. I imagined them aware, slaves of their bodies, condemned infinitely to the silence of the abyss, to a hopeless meditation. Their blind gaze, the diminutive gold disc without expression and nonetheless terribly shining, went through me like a message: “Save us, save us.” I caught myself mumbling words of advice, conveying childish hopes. They continued to look at me, immobile; from time to time the rosy branches of the gills stiffened. In that instant I felt a muted pain; perhaps they were seeing me, attracting my strength to penetrate into the impenetrable thing of their lives. They were not human beings, but I had found in no animal such a profound relation with myself. The axolotls were like witnesses of something, and at times like horrible judges. I felt ignoble in front of them; there was such a terrifying purity in those transparent eyes. They were larvas, but larva means disguise and also phantom. Behind those Aztec faces, without expression but of an implacable cruelty, what semblance was awaiting its hour?
I was afraid of them. I think that had it not been for feeling the proximity of other visitors and the guard, I would not have been bold enough to remain alone with them. “You eat them alive with your eyes, hey,” the guard said, laughing; he likely thought I was a little cracked. What he didn’t notice was that it was they devouring me slowly with their eyes, in a cannibalism of gold. At any distance from the aquarium, I had only to think of them, it was as though I were being affected from a distance. It got to the point that I was going every day, and at night I thought of them immobile in the darkness, slowly putting a hand out which immediately encountered another. Perhaps their eyes could see in the dead of night, and for them the day continued indefinitely. The eyes of axolotls have no lids.
I know now that there was nothing strange, that that had to occur. Leaning over in front of the tank each morning, the recognition was greater. They were suffering, every fiber of my body reached toward that stifled pain, that stiff torment at the bottom of the tank. They were lying in wait for something, a remote dominion destroyed, an age of liberty when the world had been that of the axolotls. Not possible that such a terrible expression which was attaining the overthrow of that forced blankness on their stone faces should carry any message other than one of pain, proof of that eternal sentence, of that liquid hell they were undergoing. Hopelessly, I wanted to prove to myself that my own sensibility was projecting a nonexistent consciousness upon the axolotls. They and I knew. So there was nothing strange in what happened. My face was pressed against the glass of the aquarium, my eyes were attempting once more to penetrate the mystery of those eyes of gold without iris, without pupil. I saw from very close up the face of an axolotl immobile next to the glass. No transition and no surprise, I saw my face against the glass, I saw it on the outside of the tank, I saw it on the other side of the glass. Then my face drew back and I understood.
Only one thing was strange: to go on thinking as usual, to know. To realize that was, for the first moment, like the horror of a man buried alive awaking to his fate. Outside, my face came close to the glass again, I saw my mouth, the lips compressed with the effort of understanding the axolotls. I was an axolotl and now I knew instantly that no understanding was possible. He was outside the aquarium, his thinking was a thinking outside the tank. Recognizlng him, being him himself, I was an axolotl and in my world. The horror began—I learned in the same moment —of believing myself prisoner in the body of an axolotl, metamorphosed into him with my human mind intact, buried alive in an axolotl, condemned to move lucidly among unconscious creatures. But that stopped when a foot just grazed my face, when I moved just a little to one side and saw an axolotl next to me who was looking at me, and understood that he knew also, no communication possible, but very clearly. Or I was also in him, or all of us were thinking humanlike, incapable of expression, limited to the golden splendor of our eyes looking at the face of the man pressed against the aquarium.
He returned many times, but he comes less often now. Weeks pass without his showing up. I saw him yesterday, he looked at me for a long time and left briskly. It seemed to me that he was not so much interested in us any more, that he was coming out of habit. Since the only thing I do is think, I could think about him a lot. It occurs to me that at the beginning we continued to communicate, that he felt more than ever one with the mystery which was claiming him. But the bridges were broken between him and me, because what was his obsession is now an axolotl, alien to his human life. I think that at the beginning I was capable of returning to him in a certain way—ah, only in a certain way—and of keeping awake his desire to know us better. I am an axolotl for good now, and if I think like a man it’s only because every axolotl thinks like a man inside his rosy stone semblance. I believe that all this succeeded in communicating something to him in those first days, when I was still he. And in this final solitude to which he no longer comes, I console myself by thinking that perhaps he is going to write a story about us, that, believing he’s making up a story, he’s going to write all this about axolotls.
In 1963 the Pasadena Art Museum held the first major retrospective of the works of arguably the most important artist of the twentieth century, Marcel Duchamp (see The Process of Perfection). Involved with (though never a full member of) Cubism, Dada and Surrealism, Duchamp’s readymades and dismissal of ‘retinal art’ was to have a profound influence on Conceptual Art and Pop Art.
At the opening Duchamp met the 20 year old writer Eve Babitz who had gate-crashed the event naked, an act of revenge against her married boyfriend Walter Hopps who had neglected to invite her to the party. The subsequent chess match was photographed by Julian Wasser, the chronicler of the West Coast art scene.
Duchamp was a serious chess player and after effectively retiring from art in 1923 devoted himself to the game, playing in the French Championships and writing a weekly chess column.
Eve Babitz was a seminal figure of 60′ and 70’s Hollywood, a West Coast counterpart to Edie Sedgwick. Her famous lovers include the Pop Artist Ed Ruscha and his brother Paul, Jim Morrison, Steve Martin and Harrison Ford. Her novels detailing the LA milieu include Eve’s Hollywood, L.A Woman and Slow Days, Fast Company are undergoing a resurgence of interest and are the basis of a TV series currently in production by Tristar Television.
Artworks including in the photograph are TheBride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) and Chocolate Grinder.