The Surreal World: Haiti

Adoration a la Sainte Vierge-Hector Hyppolite-Collection of Andre Breton
Adoration a la Sainte Vierge-Hector Hyppolite-Collection of Andre Breton

Although the presidency of Donald Trump is in a certain sense a bizarrely surreal spectacle, the political aims of the actual Surrealists and the nascent nationalist movement that Trump embodies are polar extremes. Nothing highlights this better than Trump’s insulting and ignorant comments concerning ‘shithole countries’ of which he deems the much maligned island nation of Haiti to be a prime example.

Haiti, however, was a source of enduring fascination and inspiration for the Surrealists. As strident anti-colonialists (for Surrealism there never was or could ever be a case for colonialism, it was always an unalloyed evil that debases the colonised and corrupts the coloniser), Surrealists celebrated the Haitian revolution that resulted in the only successful slave revolt in history and the first black republic in the world. This momentous event and the subsequent defeat of invading French, British and Spanish forces by the Haitians expanded the central concept of the French Revolution of ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’ to include all men, regardless of colour. Unfortunately Haiti has never been forgiven for this piece of temerity.

Of course bound up with the perception of Haiti is Vodou, the syncretic religion that combines elements of West African spirit worship, Roman Catholicism and possibly traces of native Meso-American religion, and the Surrealists were certainly not immune to its spell. Although not technically a Surrealist, the American Lost Generation writer and occultist W.B Seabrook travelled in the same Parisian avant-garde circles (for the curious Man Ray’s series of photographs entitled The Fantasies of Mr Seabrook are still risque) and his sensational, though mainly sympathetic travelogue The Magic Island from 1929, the book that introduced the word zombie to the English language, was positively reviewed in Georges Bataille Documents magazine by the ethnographer Michel Leiris. Bataille himself would write about Vodou in L’Érotisme (Eroticisms) and Les Larmes d’Éros (The Tears ofEros),  as he saw Vodou as the prime modern example of a Dionysian religion.

In 1944 the Martinican poet Aime Cesaire (see Serpent Sun), who credited Surrealism with emancipating his consciousness, spent seven months in Haiti, which at the time was still the only black republic in the Caribbean. This period would inedibly mark Cesaire’s artistic and political thought.

In 1945 Andre Breton and Wilfredo Lam (see Welcome To The Jungle), as  guests of fellow Surrealist Pierre Mabille, the French cultural attache, attended a vodou ceremony where they saw the works of Hector Hyppolite (see Desire in a Different Climate), a third generation Vodou houngan. Breton also gave a series of three lectures that linked the Haitian revolution with Surrealism and that galvanised opposition to the current US backed dictator in power, who promptly fled the country when the insurgency gathered force.

One of the first works of magic realism is Alejo Carpentier’s El reino de este mundo (The Kingdom of This World) published in 1949 that details the events of the Haitian revolution and its immediate aftermath.

Finally a brief word on the avant-garde film-maker Maya Deren marvellous study of Vodou, Divine Horseman: The Living Gods of Haiti, which is available as a  book (excellently written) and a documentary film. Most of the classic studies are written in French and Deren’s 1953 book remains the gold standard in English.

Below are some of Hector Hyppolite’s paintings as well as two other Haiti artists that show Surrealist as well as traditional influences, Rignaud Benoit and Gabriel Alix.

Hector-Hyppolite-Birds-and-Flowers[1]
Hector Hyppolite-Bird and Flowers
Hector Hyppolite-Femme nue avec oiseaux
Hector Hyppolite-Erzulie
Hector Hyppolite-Erzulie
Rignaud Benoit-Wedding Procession
Rignaud Benoit-Wedding Procession
Rignaud Benoit-Ceremony
Rignaud Benoit-Ceremony
Gabriel Alix-The Black Madonna
Gabriel Alix-The Black Madonna
Gabriel Alix-Ceremony Baron Samedi
Gabriel Alix-Ceremony Baron Samedi

Rituals

118e85ee32c975dad4819a47ff77fdba1
Fabian Marti-Komposition fur eine Rhombus-2008
While researching the rather sinister figure of Georges Bataille, the author of the infamous surrealist pornographic novel The Story of the Eye, originator of the theory of base materialism and the leading light of the journal Documents (see Dreams of Desire 13 (Serene Beauty) which was the home for several major expelled and dissident Surrealists, I chanced upon the above stunning and intriguing photographic study Komposition fur eine Rhombus (Composition for a Rhombus).

Fabian Marti is a Zurich based artist and Komposition fur eine Rhombus was part of an exhibition in Bordeaux on Secret Societies and the Occult in modern and contemporary art. Apart from its purely formal considerations it certainly possesses a heavy, ritualistic feel that Bataille, himself the founder of the secret society Acephale, would have appreciated. It also brings to mind Maya Deren’s (with a little help from Marcel Duchamp) experimental film The Witch’s Cradle (see Alpha & Omega).

Alpha & Omega

tumblr_lx7dq2xuL41qah9gwo1_1280[1]
The Witch’s Cradle-Maya Deren 1943
Experimental film-maker and Vodou priestess Maya Deren, with the help of the Big Daddy of modern and contemporary art Marcel Duchamp crosses over into the world of ritualistic magic where the nights are longer and the shadows deeper (oh so much deeper) in 1943’s The Witch’s Cradle. The text around the pentagram and enclosed within the double circle says ‘The Beginning Is The End Is’; of course as it is circular you could read it as ‘The End Is the Beginning Is’ or any other variant, depending upon whether the glass is half-full or empty. The phrase refers to Christ’s assertion in the Book of Revelations that ‘I am the Alpha and Omega’, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, it is usually further clarified  with the additional phrase ‘the beginning and the end.’

Maya Deren’s work was a marked influence on the similarly occult inclined 60’s underground film-maker Kenneth Anger, director of such ceremonial extravaganza’s as Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome and Lucifer Rising.