The Surreal World: Rapa Nui

Moai-Susanne Rempt 2017
Moai-Susanne Rempt 2017

As I noted in a previous post, Redraw the Map, Re-Write History and Re-Invent Reality concerning the Surrealist Map of the World, Easter Island and its mysterious, magnificent moai held a special place in the Surrealist imagination. The Pope of Surrealism, Andre Breton began collecting Easter Island moai kavakava (small wooden statuettes) and masks from the age of 15 and had amassed a major collection by the time of his death. The heads of the moai featured in the Thursday section of Max Ernst’s collage novel Une Semaine de Bonte, which also feature prominently bird-headed humans. Given Ernst’s marked obsession with birds and hybrid birds figures, (Loplop, Superior of Birds) it is tempting to think that he was familiar with the Rapa Nui’s Birdman cult and its representations found in petroglyphs across the island.

Easter Island also featured in Surrealist literature, not least this deceptive tale of longing and imagination by Jean Ferry (see Kafka, Or “The Secret Society”) that is included below, as well as examples of Rapa Nui art and selections from Une Semaine de Bonte. The header image is by S.R of Blackpenart, of a moai that has seemingly lost its way and ended up in a tree-lined city park in Germany.

Rapa Nui

I reached Easter Island on February 13th 1937. For thirty years, I have been waiting for this moment; for thirty years of my life and times I have been thinking of my immense desire to see Easter Island, I thought I’d never get to go, that it was too difficult, that it was a wild dream. And since things must be desired so stubbornly that they come true, on that day- February 13th 1937 – I set foot on the soil of Easter Island.

Since I had been thinking about it for thirty years, you would think I’d worked out my schedule in advance. Besides, I had no time to lose, as the Chilean training ship that had brought me was only putting in at port for two days. I am not lying when I say I was trembling with emotion under a strange, pale sun; I had a very hard time convincing myself this wasn’t the same old dream again, the dream where I dream I’ve reached Easter Island, trembling with emotion under a strange, pale sun. But no, it was all real; the wind, the black cliff, the three rippling volcanoes. There really were no trees, no springs. And, faithful to a date set at the dawn of time, the great statues awaited me on the slopes of Rano Raraku.

I know that at this point, to avoid disappointing anyone, I should describe the dreadful bitterness of dead desire, desire fulfilled. I should say that, face to face with the sisters of Hoa Hakananai’s, I realised that it wasn’t worth waiting so long, coming so far for something so simple, so real. I should complain about the insects, the Rapa Nui who kept pushing on me hollow-bellied statuettes clearly made the night before. Too bad for those born to despair. Who I was in the depth of the crater is nobody’s business but my own. Quite simply, I knew why I was there, why for thirty years I’d so stubbornly wanted to be here someday. And I was. At last…

Not a line of the above is true, except that for thirty years, I’ve wanted to go to Easter Island, where something awaits me. But I’ve never yet been, and I probably never will.

Jean Ferry-1950

Sur_Map[1]
An over-sized Easter Island (Ile de Paques) on the Surrealist Map of the World-1929
Moai_Rano_raraku[1]
Moai-Rano Raraku

Moai at Ahu Tongariki
Moai at Ahu Tongariki

ma-32922-WEB[1]
Moai kavakava
AN00667097_001_l[1]
Moai Kavakava
petroglifos-de-rapa-nui-moai-birdman-de-la-isla-de-pascua-18061544[1]
Moai with Birdman petroglyphs
rongorongo[1]
Rapa Nui-Rongorongo script

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Max Ernst-Une Semaine du Bonte
Max Ernst-Une Semaine du Bonte
Max Ernst-Une Semaine du Bonte

Art, Pleasure and Gardening

Max Ernst Convolvulus 1941
Max Ernst Convolvulus! Convolvulus! 1941

While Surrealism is usually associated with the visual arts, in particular painting, photography, collage and films, the initial impetus was literary. As well as the many manifestos and polemics, Surrealists also produced poetry (translations of which can be found on this site, see Free UnionThe Spectral AttitudesSleep Spaces, Serpent Sun and I Have So Often Dreamed Of You), and fiction. There are Surrealist novels, but as Andre Breton disapproved of the form as the medium of literary careerists the majority of Surrealist fiction tend to be in the short story format.

As most Surrealist short stories tend to be hidden away in hard to find collections and obscure periodicals, this facet of the Surrealist imagination has been unjustly ignored. 

In an effort to remedy this situation, I am pleased to post Alain Joubert’s delightful fable Art, Pleasure and Gardening, one of several Surrealist short stories to be found here (see The Debutante, AxolotlThe Garden of Time, Kafka, Or “The Secret Society” and Rapa Nui. In Art, Pleasure and Gardening, Joubert shows how desire, passion and pleasure can transform the world.

Art, Pleasure and Gardening

He was sick of living within four walls grey with dust in the tiny two-roomed flat with kitchen washbasin and toilet on the landing in the tenth district which a lucky (?) chance (and a little help from his sister) had provided him with the opportunity to invest in a couple of years earlier. While lying in a more or less collapsed spring mattress which was set out on a level with the floor, he let his gaze linger on those miserable grey walls with torn wallpaper on which it was still possible to discern, here and there, a few bunch of grapes trying vainly to serve as decoration, but which had been definitively devoured. In this way the minutes were drawn out and by degrees were turned into hours without the slightest desire having passed through his mind. But suddenly , when twilight had ceased eating away what little light appeared to him through the dirty windows that opened onto another wall without windows (it was six in the evening and February had never been the most cheerful month) he decided that what he would do would be to buy a plant. That was the first day.

*

On the second day, he went to the flower market on the Ile de la Cite. After some dreadful hesitations and a titanic internal struggle, he finally chose a Monstera deliciosa of the Araceae family, whose leaves, twelve inches long and ten inches across, stretched out in the form of a heart and deeply cut between the secondary veins, threw many strange shadows on his walls when he installed lateral lighting.

Passion then overcame him. an Aechmea fascianta, some Bromeliaceae, a Cissus antartica, some Vitaceae, Diffenbachia,Fatshedera, a Peperomia together made their appearance in the flat and something tropical began to rise up from between their foliage. That was the the third day.

*

On the fourth day, as he scrutinised the hothouse at the Botanical Gardens seeking new species, he had an encounter. In front of a Sciandapus Aursus, which originally came from the Solomon Islands and whose heart-shaped leaves very much intrigued him, his gaze met that of a charming young woman, whose long hair lightly flowed and who appeared to be – like him- fascinated by the plant world. Later, as they lay on the spring mattress, which as discreetly as possible had accompanied their amorous journey, they decided to turn the two-roomed apartment into an enchanted place in which the plants would occupy pride of place in the room as they already did in their lives.

*

No sooner said than done. They bought a quantity of peat and wood hummus and spread it far and wide over the floor and took the plants they had already brought out of their pots and, after unpotting them, planted them in open ground, together with a good dozen newcomers they had spent the day collecting in more or less the usual way. in the evening, exhausted but happy, they slept together, naked, on a bed of palm leaves after having refreshed themselves with fruits. That was the fifth day.

*

On the sixth day, they were surprised to see that the plants had sprung up in a way that had nothing natural about it. From morning, a tangle of branches, leaves and liana prevented them from moving about the flat easily and by noon they had to become resigned to tracing out a route with a machete if they wanted to get from one room to the other. They found this extremely poetic and were pleased with the astonishing humid heat which reigned in the rooms, something which encouraged them to dispense with the slightest clothing on their radiant bodies. Water streamed down the walls, serving to complete the illusion but completely ruining the wallpaper! Dozens of birds came in through the window and mingled their songs with the sighs of our two young savages, who were more in love than ever!

*

The next day passed as if in a dream. Strange and succulent fruits had appeared on some of the plants – which soon turned into trees – and they even saw an iguana, which sprang up from who knows where and took a trip around the room before vanishing into the undergrowth. They spent their time savouring its flow, caressing one another and re-discovering the pleasures of forgotten senses – or the meaning of forgotten pleasures. In short, they weren’t bored! That was the seventh day.

*

At dawn on the eighth day, there was a knock on the door. an old man with a long white beard, flanked by a tipstaff and a policeman, read out a declaration printed on official paper that announced that they were being evicted forthwith, failing which they would suffer a severe penalty. And this is how they were ignominiously thrown out of Paradise Road for having tried to create it there again! Since then he has worked for the Social Security, while she became a teacher. As for the flat, they say no one has ever been able to get inside, so intensely has the vegetation grown. But then they say so many things.

Alain Joubert 1984

Translation: Michael Richardson

 

The Flight of the Cranes

Bernard Buffet-Les Chants de Maldoror
Bernard Buffet-Les Chants de Maldoror 1952

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

First Canto

1,

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.

The Answer

Max Ernst-Un Chant d'Amour 1958
Max Ernst-Un Chant d’Amour 1958

Here is another teaser, read by myself, from my recently published collection Motion No. 69 which can be purchased in both paperback and e-book formats here and across  Amazon regional sites. If you want to buy directly from myself just drop me a line signifying your interest and I am sure we can come to some arrangement.

The Answer

Whatever the question,
I probably have the answer,
for I have my tricks and techniques.
I know how to entrance and enthrall,
to hypnotize and bewitch,
to persuade and seduce.
Just come over here,
and look into my eyes.
Bend down and I will whisper
softly into your ear,
everything I know,
everything I’ve ever learned
about want and need,
and about the desire born
in the darkness of a heart
filled with a hate more vast and compelling
than the night before the Last Judgement.
This ravening appetite can never be sated,
though I long to return to the primal source
and its pristine innocence.
Drink me and I will eat you —consume you—
and you gorge on me and my love,
for love is rapture—
a rupture between Heaven and Earth.
Love is ecstasy—
a nerve flaying glimpse of dizzying possibilities.
Love is an acid, corroding the identity,
dissolving the ego.

Acid is the answer.

Loplop, Superior of Birds

Loplop
Loplop Introduces Loplop-Max Ernst 1930

The German Surrealist Max Ernst was one of the most outstanding artists and personalities of the Surrealist movement. Notable for the invention of a number of automatic artistic techniques, his body of work is also remarkable for its creation of a densely rich personal mythology.

Central to that mythology is Ernst’s alter ego, Loplop, Superior of Birds. As I noted in my previous post A Week of Max Ernst: Monday, Ernst wrote that he hatched from an egg which his mother had laid in an eagle’s nest. He traced the figure of Loplop to a traumatic childhood event: his beloved pet bird had died on the same day that his younger sister was born and he consequently conflated the two events to the point that he confused birds with humans.

As well as referencing Freudian psychoanalytic theory, Ernst, whose art is drenched in alchemy and esotericism, would surely have been familiar with the idea of the language of the birds; the perfect, divine language found in mythology and the occult sciences that can only be understood by the initiated.

Loplop first appeared  in his ground-breaking collage novels La Femme 100 Têtes  and Une semaine de bonté. Birds are a recurring feature in Ernst’s artwork in various media (see A Week of Max Ernst: TuesdayA Week of Max Ernst: Thursday & A Week of Max Ernst: Friday). I have also included a photo of Ernst’s striking, and it has to be admitted, birdlike visage.

Loplop and the Mouse's Horoscope
Loplop and the Mouse’s Horoscope-1929
Loplop et la Belle Jardinière-Max Ernst, 1929
Loplop et la Belle Jardinière= Max Ernst, 1929
Une Semaine de Bonté, Max Ernst, 1934
Une Semaine de Bonté, Max Ernst, 1934
Une semaine de bonté-Max Ernst 1934
Une semaine de bonté-Max Ernst 1934
birds-also-birds-fish-snake-and-scarecrow[1]
Birds also Birds, Fish Snake and Scarecrow-Max Ernst 1921
La colombe avait raison,-Max Ernst 1926
La colombe avait raison,-Max Ernst 1926
Max Ernst-Man Ray 1934
Max Ernst-Man Ray 1934