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.

Dreams of Desire 67 (Lucien Clergue)

Lucien Clergue-Zebra Nude
Lucien Clergue-Zebra Nude

Despite the fact that Surrealism was involved in literature, illustration, painting, film, architecture, philosophy and politics, the area where it achieved its greatest impact and subsequent influence is undoubtedly the field of photography (see Dreams of Desire 2, 3, 21Angel and many others for examples of Surrealist and Surrealist inspired photography).

This influence can be seen in the nudes of the French photographer Lucian Clergue, who at the age of 21 in 1955 struck up a friendship with Picasso that was to last until the great modern master’s death in 1973. Clergue’s nude photographs often feature the zebra effect which creates a distancing coolness and abstraction to the exposed flesh. The model (or models) are defined by the interplay of light and shadow. In other studies the model is placed in natural surroundings where the body merges into the landscape in the manner of Magritte.

Double Take

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Anna Di Mezza-Birth of Currency
The intriguing work of Australian artist Anna Di Mezza achieves a synthesis of disparate styles and techniques that requires a double take from the viewer. Collages of found images from vintage magazines are taken out of their original context and then rendered in a meretricious photo-realist manner using a largely mono-chromatic colour palette, with, as Anna notes ‘occasional pops of colour.’

Di Mezza stages strange tableau of suspended narratives. Gigantic women recline or roam across mountain ranges; people emerge from bar-codes; sets of well coiffured ladies gather around mysterious crystals or point excitedly to a lone astronaut while on the moon. Di Mezza’s paintings suggest stories that fascinate while ultimately eluding explanation.

Di Mezza cites influences as diverse as the Surrealists, especially Magritte and De Chirico, Pop Art, filmmakers David Lynch, Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick and the classic fifties TV series The Twilight Zone. While her art clearly references her influences Di Mezza skilfully creates her own unique otherworldly vision.

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Anna Di Mezza-Memory’s Persistence
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Anna Di Mezza-Matter of Time
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Anna Di Mezza-The Three Graces
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Anna Di Mezza-The Visit
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Anna Di Mezza-Lucy
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Anna Di Mezza-Memory Portal
 

 

 

 

Dreams of Desire 38 (Night Train)

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Paul Delvaux-Night Train 1947
Paul Delvaux the obsessive painter of nudes was briefly associated with the Surrealist movement in the mid 1930’s and the dream-world presented in his canvases shows the influence of De Chirico (the originator of so many Surrealist careers) and his fellow Belgian Rene Magritte in the use of a dry academic painterly style and bizarre juxtapositions. However his vision of a silent Belle Epoque city frozen in time and filled with statuesque nudes reclining or walking down colonnaded streets past skeletons or bowler hatted men is uniquely his own and produces a vague sensation of unease and anxiety.

A Fevered Mind’s Master Stroke

The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke
The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke-Richard Dadd 1855-1864
As well as attacking the current prevailing psychiatric view of madness (Breton’s Nadja was a call to arms in this respect, stated that if he was institutionalised he would take advantage of his madness and kill someone, preferably a doctor) the Surrealist’s championed the art of the insane. As has often been stated, madness and dreams share an affinity in that they both posit a convincing alternative reality, at least while a person is under the spell.

I am not sure that the Surrealists had any direct knowledge of one of the most extraordinary examples of art produced by an inmate of an asylum (as he was a professionally trained artist his work cannot be classified as what is now known as outsider art) Richard Dadd’s The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke, however the hyper-realism of the fairy scene and the remarkable detail in every obsessive brush-stroke pre-figures the work of Dali and Magritte.