Brassaï’s close-ups of graffiti carved and painted on Parisian city walls were first seen in the Surrealist magazine Minotaure in 1933, however he would continue to photograph images of graffiti for the next three decades, culminating in the publication of the book, Graffiti, in 1961.
With this project, ‘the eye of Paris’ as he was called by his great friend Henry Miller, detects and captures the secret language of the walls and how the city itself is subject to alteration, defacement and obliteration by any passing hand or the vagaries of time.
Francis Picabia constantly perplexes and undermines artistic expectations. A wealthy, hedonistic playboy with great personal charm, Picabia also possessed a notoriously acerbic wit and personified the savage negation at the heart of Dada.
Picabia’s career spanned many movements across continents, but is best remembered for his involvement with Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and Arthur Craven in the creation of New York Dada and his mechanomorphic drawings from 1915 onwards. Always on the move and with entry to every fashionable social circle, Picabia moved to Barcelona then to Zurich for the remainder of WWI. Asked to describe his impressions of the War, Picabia remarked that he was bored to hell. After WWI he moved back to Paris and participated in further Dada shenanigans with Tristan Tzara and Andre Breton, contributing ferocious manifestos for Dada events which he watched from private boxes with the mistress of the time.
With a nature both aristocratic and anarchic, Picabia rapidly lost patience with the various groups and movements and would denounce Dada and later Surrealism. From 1925 he returned to painting with a vengeance after a ten year hiatus, working on the Transparencies series which involved multiple images confusingly superimposed. Then in the forties came the nudes copied from girlie mags; astonishingly unaesthetic, these paintings are so appalling that you cannot stop looking and in a certain respect represent the culmination of Picabia’s anti-art stance.
Dada Cannibalistic Manifesto
You are all indicted, stand up! It is impossible to talk to you unless you are standing up. Stand up as you would for the Marseillaise or God Save the King.
Stand up, as if the Flag were before you. Or as if you were in the presence of Dada, which signifies Life, and which accuses you of loving everything out of snobbery if only it is expensive enough.
One dies a hero’s death or an idiot’s death – which comes to the same thing. The only word that has more than a day-to-day value is the word Death. You love death – the death of others.
Kill them! Let them die! Only money does not die; it only goes away for a little while.
That is God! That is someone to respect: someone you can take seriously! Money is the prie-Dieu of entire families. Money for ever! Long live money! The man who has money is a man of honour.
Honour can be bought and sold like the arse. The arse, the arse, represents life like potato-chips, and all you who are serious-minded will smell worse than cow’s shit.
Dada alone does not smell: it is nothing, nothing, nothing. It is like your hopes: nothing like your paradise: nothing like your idols: nothing like your heroes: nothing like your artists: nothing like your religions: nothing.
Hiss, shout, kick my teeth in, so what? I shall still tell you that you are half-wits. In three months my friends and I will be selling you our pictures for a few francs.
The Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun remains a controversial figure. Isaac Bashevis Singer said of Hamsun “the father of the modern school of literature in his every aspect—his subjectiveness, his fragmentariness, his use of flashbacks, his lyricism. The whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Hamsun. They were all Hamsun’s disciples: Thomas Mann and Arthur Schnitzler…and even such American writers as Fitzgerald and Hemingway.” Henry Miller, whose literary tastes were somewhat idiosyncratic but perceptive, idolised Hamsun’s work and according to Charles Bukowski he was the greatest writer that ever lived. He is one of the four Scandinavian writers from the 19th/early 20th century (the other three being Ibsen, Strindberg and Undset) to have an impact outside of, and far beyond, Scandinavia.
Yet this is the man who presented his Nobel Prize for Literature to Joseph Goebbels, had a private audience with Hitler (though the deaf Hamsun keep on shouting over Hitler, who not used to been interrupted, was left in a rage that lasted three days), and whose books were burned in Norway at the end of the war while he was committed to a psychiatric hospital awaiting trial for treason. The charges were eventually dropped due to “impaired mental abilities”, but he was left financially ruined by a civil liability suit brought against him for membership of Nasjonal Samling (the Norwegian Fascist party) and the moral support he gave to the German cause, though he was cleared of any direct Nazi affiliation. Hamsun denied belonging to any political party and of being anti-semitic (to be fair there cannot be found in his novels any evidence that he was), yet his actions during the war pose a huge question mark, in Norway and beyond, as to the value of his writing, particularly the radical early novels.
Hamsun’s first and most famous novel Hunger (Sult) was published in 1890. It has been describes as, “one of the most disturbing novels in existence” and is rightfully considered the first work of 20th Century Modernism despite its publication date. Most English translations include as an introduction the long and laudatory essay The Art of Hunger by the American post-modernist writer Paul Auster.
The novel opening’s reads and feels surprisingly contemporary, not at all like a work written in the last decade of the 19th Century:
It was in the those days when I wandered about hungry in Kristiania, that strange city which no leaves before it has set its mark upon him…
The novel follows the unnamed narrator (who it is tempting to see as a fictionalised version of the author, as Hamsun was destitute for a good decade before the breakthrough came), a struggling writer as he wanders across Kristiania (present day Oslo), hungry and frequently homeless. He is literally the starving artist. However Hamsun is not concerned with social or class injustice, it is pointed out early on that all he has to do to solve his present predicament is to get work on one of the numerous ships in Kristiania harbour. Yet he doesn’t, he chooses to starve. Frequently when he comes into some money, he recklessly gives it away, or when he does eat, he throws it up.
As the novel progresses the narrator follows every bizarre whim and becomes increasingly deranged. Every single interaction with another human being involves him brazenly lying, even in one instant becoming incensed when the victim of his outrageous fabrications shows signs of believing him too readily. The deeper we go into the novel the physical and mental deterioration caused by the prolonged starvation becomes more and more apparent in each harrowing scene. The narrator is nameless because he has become alienated from his self.
Hamsun has frequently been compared to his acknowledged influence Dostoevsky, yet he goes further in showing the grandiose egotism, irrational impulses and wildly fluctuating unconscious drives of his characters. He explodes the idea of a consistent and stable identity. He also goes further in exploring the themes of debasement and humiliation. Humiliation and self mortification of the flesh usually point toward the possibility of salvation, yet in Hamsun there is no transcendence or redemption.
In Hunger Hamsun achieved what all writers long to do, present a new way at looking at the world. Its psychological insights, bleakness and nihilism beckoned towards the new century and an art that radically diverged from all previous manifestations.
I will close with a passage from Hunger that details the narrator’s night in a cell where he has been given temporary shelter by a policeman and which demonstrates Hamsun mastery in portraying the inspired twists and illogical turns of the disordered mind:
Suddenly I snap my fingers several times and laugh. What the hell was this! Ha! I imagined I had found a new word. I sit up in bed and say, It doesn’t exist in the language, I invented it-Kuboaa. It does have letters like a word-Christ, man, you have invented a word…Kuboaa…of great grammatical importance.
The word stood out sharply against the darkness before me.
I sit with open eyes, amazed at my find and laughing for joy. Then I start whispering; they might be spying on me, and I intended to keep my invention a secret. I had passed over into the sheer madness of hunger; I was empty and without pain and my thoughts were running riot. I debate with myself in silence. With the oddest jumps in my line of thought, I try to ascertain the meaning of the new word. It didn’t have to mean either God or amusement park, and who said it should mean cattle show? i clench my fist angrily and repeat once more, Who said that it shall mean cattle show? all things considered, it wasn’t even necessary that it should mean padlock or sunrise. It wasn’t difficult to make sense of such a word. I would wait and see. Meanwhile i would sleep on it.
The poet, trail-blazing feminist and legendary gadfly of the avant-garde, Mina Loy, first collection of poetry was published in 1923 as Lunar Baedecker: the very title, a reference to the immensely popular Baedeker travel guides, was misspelled. Although admired by T.S Eliot, Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein, among others, Loy disappeared somewhat from view until being posthumously resurrected in the 1990’s as a unjustly neglected pioneer of both Modernism and Feminism, when a number of critical editions and previously unpublished works, including her novel Insel, detailing her relationship with the Surrealist Richard Oelze, saw the light of day.
Below is the title poem of the collection (spelled correctly), which employs a jewelled, archaic and Symbolist vocabulary to successfully skewer the sterile affectations of the aesthetes and dandies of the art and literary worlds that she knew so well.
A silver Lucifer
cocaine in cornucopia
To some somnambulists
of adolescent thighs
in satirical draperies
Peris in livery
for posthumous parvenues
with the chandelier souls
from Pharoah’s tombstones
to mercurial doomsdays
in furrowed phosphorous—
the eye-white sky-light
of lunar lusts
“Wing shows on Starway”
of ecstatic dust
and ashes whirl
from hallucinatory citadels
of shattered glass
into evacuate craters
A flock of dreams
browse on Necropolis
From the shores
of oval oceans
in the oxidized Orient
of Eros obsolete
in the museums of the moon
Pocked with personification
the fossil virgin of the skies
waxes and wanes—-
The first truly Modernist painting (though change had been in the air for some time), the radical break constituted by Pablo Picasso 1907’s study of a Barcelona brothel, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, led to Cubism and sharply divided critics.
Never before or after did Picasso spend so long on one painting as Les Demoiselles, drawing hundreds of preparatory sketches over a period of nine months. The innovation doesn’t lie with the content; the courtesan had long been a covert subject of Western Art before being explicitly identified as a prostitute by Edouard Manet’s Olympia, to becoming somewhat of a Bohemian cliche by the time of Toulouse-Lautrec in the 1890’s. Picasso’s claim to blazing, revolutionary originality lie in the form. First of all he throws five hundred years of accepted practise out of the window by abolishing perspective, then instead of the traditional curves we have the harsh angular, geometric poses of the women. Picasso signifies his reaching back in time and across continents with the Iberian mask (the figure on the far left) and the African masks (the two figures on the right) which lend a further disconcerting effect to an already confrontational, provocative painting. The bowl of fruit surrounded by the women seems ripe for Freudian interpretation, just one of many that the painting has been subjected to, including formal, feminist and esoteric.
Although at first Picasso only showed the painting to friends and fellow artists in his (quite extensive) immediate circle, it had a galvanising effect. George Braque further developed Cubism as a response to Les Demoiselles and it intensified the rivalry between Picasso and Matisse, who realised that the Spaniard had wrestled the crown of Modern Art from him with this incendiary work, never again to be relinquished. Andre Breton, who for all his flaws had a very keen eye for art (see my series The Surreal World for further information on his collection, Rapa Nui, Papua New Guinea, Haiti and Mexico) recognised in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon the definitive Modernist masterpiece, a harbinger of the violent, revolutionary menace of the unconscious and he arranged for its first publication in Europe in La Révolution surréaliste.