Exquisite Corpsing (a surrealist poem)

Latent gospel plucked from slumber

Writhing as seething logic tears asunder

These retinal confessionals which drawn

From the tattered slacks of droning hacks whose dawn

Is borne from fleeting mania amongst ceaseless cognitive curfews

Where spontaneous poetic passions percolate like zeppelins doing corkscrews

Where cubist contortions reign and the blighted blatherings of historians

Wither into stony columns of drivel and whitespace – trivial emporiums

Which shy away from the kaleidoscopic sensorium of surreality

An exclusive realm of poets and purveyors of psyche, far beyond mere animality

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NB: featured image is Max Ernst’s ‘triumph of surrealism’ (1937)

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China Mieville – The Last Days of New Paris (2016) BOOK REVIEW

This alternative history/fantasy novella is set in Paris in the year 1950, in which WW2 is still ongoing, and in which Surrealist artworks or ‘manifs’ (short for ‘manifestations’) have come to life and are reaping havoc across the capital. As if that wasn’t enough the Nazis have also managed to summon a demonic horde using Aleister Crowley’s occult magic. So as demons and artworks stalk the city streets it is down to Thibaut – a member of the intellectual resistance, the ‘main a plume’, and one of only a few veterans learned in the ways of Surrealist doctrine – to find a way to stop them. Whilst the premise is daring, original and wicked fun, this novella is let down by an underdeveloped plot and characters, but perhaps most glaringly, by the bustling pit of empty Surrealist allusions. Whilst it is somewhat enjoyable for the first dozen or so pages to try and identify the various artworks from Mieville’s descriptions without using the notes/art appendix/answers at the back of the book, this enthusiasm quickly ebbs as you become conscious of the fact that you are missing countless references which are coming at you rapidly and from all directions. As a student who specialises in Surrealism and other art movements in post-war literature I can tell you, the references in here are not in any way accessible to the everyday reader, and unless you have a significantly above average knowledge of Surrealist art you will find yourself frequently flitting to the appendix for help (or you could do what I did and open up the handy ‘graphic annotations’ guide by Nicky Martin of medium.com which includes all the referenced Surrealist images).

Hardback cover edition of the book featuring one of Breton’s most famous ‘exquisite corpse’ images.  This ‘figure’ also stars as the protagonist’s unlikely sidekick.

One redeeming aspect of this novella however is that it does induce you to track down these incredible artworks, to find the source material for the manifs, many of which were new to me (I’ve included some of my favourite allusions intermittently throughout this review). It’s interesting to consider that we as readers are being given the choice to either go out and view these works in their original form or instead rely on the literary descriptions – which could be seen as a Surrealist move in that we are being given the choice, and are subjectively empowered in this respect. The main problem however is that these artworks are utterly leeched of any of their original intent. This is a text about Surrealist art, and as the Surrealists were concerned with psychical redemption in the wake of the upsurgence of the omnipotent spectacle, it seems antithetical to the movement to have these artworks stripped of their significance – not to mention the subjective narratives unique to their creator – and instead have them warped and twisted into the story of another’s making.

However, if we consider the Afterword as a crucial constituent part of the whole narrative, then perhaps this ideological sterilisation can be, at least in some part, forgiven.

p. 17 – ‘sagelands, smoothed alpine topographies like sagging drapes’ – we are told in the notes that this description alludes to the painting “Danger, Construction Ahead” by Kay Sage (1940)

In fact, I’d argue that it is only upon reading the Afterword as (meta)narrative that we are truly moved into Surrealist spheres. In the Afterword Mieville presents us with a choice. He does this by revealing that the entire narrative was originally told to him by a mysterious friend of a friend, an elderly war veteran who claimed to be the real-life Thibaut (the central character). This real-life Thibaut is said to have told the entire story to Mieville, who acted as nothing more than what we might call his literary vessel. So now we must consider the crucial question as to whether this mysterious unseen narrator is indeed fictitious or not? If we choose to view this ‘final scene’ as a part of the internalised story then we must therefore view Mieville as character. But if we choose to view the text as having been told to Mieville by a real-life Thibaut then we are being asked to view the story as metaphor or perhaps more intriguingly as a coping mechanism for Thibaut’s traumatic experiences during the war.

In such a reading the demons become emblematic of his religious beliefs, whilst the Surrealist artworks becomes manifestations of the torments of war on his unconscious mind; phantasms brought about through the horrors of Nazi Germany. Now we’re in true Surrealist territory. Viewed in this respect, it is hard not to be reminded of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, and the similar revelation that Pi’s zoological story could in fact be a fantasy (or more aptly ‘phantasy’) rendering of a truly harrowing tragedy which he has formulated as a means to cope with the horrors of reality (though again, this is left ambiguous). On the whole, whilst there were sparks of satisfaction in reading this story, I expected much more, and whilst still a fan of Mieville (Perdido Street Station, The Scar and Embassytown are hugely entertaining and original reads), I feel he has much more to offer than this wobbly and hollow testament to one of the greatest art movements of the twentieth century.

Below are a few more of my favourite allusions and their coinciding artworks:

Ernst’s Celebes stomps through the streets of Paris. “The Elephant Celebes” by Max Ernst (1921)
‘Smoke figures wafting in and out of presence’ (p. 58), these figures are said to imitate “Grand Fumage” by Wolfgang Paalen (1930s)
‘weeds grow through old cars and the floors of newspaper kiosks’ (p. 10). Many of the allusions referred to are compiled by Mieville but not all. This is one such not compiled in his list but seems to recall one of Dali’s cars, perhaps ‘the special automobile’ (1941).
‘the Surrealists had drawn new suits, a cartographic rebellion’ (p. 88). The characters featured are said to wander Paris, characters which echo the Marseille face cards, by various artists (1943)
‘A man in a coat watches eyelessly from a chessboard head’ (p. 125). This man is in fact “René Magritte with a Chessboard Over His Face” by Paul Nougé (1937)

Continue reading “China Mieville – The Last Days of New Paris (2016) BOOK REVIEW”

Salvador Dali’s Adventures in Advertising

What sets Dali apart from the majority of the surrealists was his willing suffusion into the consumer landscape, a move which infuriated many of his fellow surrealists including the founder of the movement, Andre Breton. Breton dubbed Dali ‘Avida Dollars’, an anagram of Dali’s name which translates as ‘eager for dollars’. Dali took centre stage in many advertising campaigns of the 60s and 70s including Brainiff airlines in 1968, Lanvin chocolate in 1969, Nissan and Iberia airlines in 1972, Alka Seltzer pharmaceuticals in 1974.

Dali’s Lanvin chocolat ad, 1969

He also designed the cover for various issues of Vogue in the 40s.

Vogue cover, 1944
Vogue cover, 1939

He even updated the now iconic design logo for Chupa Chups logo in 1969 which remains relatively unaltered to this day.

Dali advertising Chupa Chups, 1969

Dali’s art continues to influence advertisers in and around the twenty-first century, in the form of global brands like Lipton Ice Tea, who produced a Russian ad in 1998 inspired by his soft self-portraits:

Dali inspired Lipton’s ad, 1998

Volkswagen also released a Dali inspired ad in 2008 to promote their new Polo Bluemotion:

Dali inspired Volkswagen ad, 2008

Although one of the main aims of the surrealists was to contest the post-war consumer-capitalist spectacle by reinvigorating the imagination, Dali was attuned to the overwhelming power of the capitalist machine. Ideologically, he perhaps preempted the later Pop artists whose popularity peaked in the 60s, who understood that the only way to tackle the spectacle was to become a part of it – thus the very form of art became the means by which people were able to perceive the truth of modernity and their total subsumption by the spectacle.

Dali’s involvement in advertising was thus far more than a mere capital-led endeavour, rather, it was demonstrative of an artist wholly in tune to the subconscious forces at play within Western society.

Continue reading “Salvador Dali’s Adventures in Advertising”

J G Ballard surrealist book cover art

A selection of surrealist book covers from Ballard novels/short story collections.

Crash (1973)

(above, Croatian cover 1988)

(above: Mad Max vibes?)

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The Atrocity Exhibition (1970)

(above: featuring Dali’s ‘anthropomorphic cabinet’ (1936)

(above: comic-stylized pictorial version of the text done for RE Search. Check out the images inside too, really interesting. With the progression of the novel the pictures move internally through the human body, which gradually morphs into images of the concretised landscape.)

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High Rise (1975)

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Concrete Island (1974)

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Hello America (1981)

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The Unlimited Dream Company (1979)

 (above: my favourite novel by Ballard, and my favourite cover too. This book is phenomenal in every way. Loooove it)

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Other/short story collections

(above 4 images (including the 4-piece) are all by David Pelham, who created some of the most iconic science fiction book covers of all time. Check out his work)

 

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May ’68 and the Power of Art

Almost half a century ago in the city of Paris, occured one of the most incredible moments in modern history. It was the moment where class society crumbled, and where the ideological foundations of capitalist rule collapsed. Student unrest reached a climax in the early months of ‘68, this the result of a culmination of ‘opposition to the Vietnam war; dissatisfaction with the bureaucratic and authoritarian structures of the university; critique of the alienated and isolated character of student life; a suspicion of all organisation, all hierarchy, of the traditional Left; … and a confused equation of social and of sexual repression… which led to the critique of a whole mode of social organisation [and in turn urged its followers] towards the affirmation of spontaneous action and self-expression’ (Sylvia Harvey). Empowered by the credo of Guy Debord and the Situationist International – a group of prominent avant-garde artists, intellectuals and political theorists – who were driven by a unified want for a rigorous critique of advanced capitalist hegemony, the students began their revolution against Gaullist oppression.

(above: “be young and shut up”)

Debord extended Marx’s theory of alienation (grossly oversimplified as the deterioration of the essence of humanity as a result of mechanised functioning brought about by social class) and elaborated that the debilitating circulation of such forced labour and consumption on the working class gave rise to what he called ‘the society of the spectacle’. Debord defines the spectacle as ‘the concrete inversion of life… the autonomous movement of the non-living… the present model of socially dominant life… [it] is capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image’ (Debord, Society of the Spectacle). There are very few means of bypassing the spectacle, so deeply is it embedded within the societal unconscious. However, The SI isolated art as a powerful means of spectatorial liberation, taking cue from the surrealist empowerment of the psyche in an increasingly repressed modernity. But the art they endorsed was a crucially paradoxical one: as high art and academic art is one which they believed to be dead and buried (‘DO NOT CONSUME ITS CORPSE!’). Instead the art they championed was one of spontaneity, achieved through the creation of situations: events driven by authentic desires, free of the invisible omnipresent influence of capitalist subversion.

 

As student demonstrations mounted at the Sorbonne (University of Paris), on May 3 the French riot police (CRS) turned hostile. They encircled the Sorbonne and tried to arrest students for having the courage to say enough is enough. The CRS fired tear gas into the crowds and beat students, and within minutes the crowds grew as students across the university ran to aid their fellows and tried to keep them from the brutality of the police. The tussle went on for hours, and after the first night, 72 riot police were injured, as well as hundreds of students – many of whom were fearful to go to the hospital – and over 600 students were arrested. The university quickly transformed into a makeshift concentration camp, with hundreds of riot police patrolling its spaces, blocking its entrances, and stopping any small groups at all from forming. Soon the student’s union called for a nationwide strike, and the lecturer’s union was also quickly involved, dismayed at the government’s forceful approach towards university affairs.

(above: “CRS = SS”)

Over the next week Students in the tens of thousands gathered in Paris to demand the release of their fellow students and an end to such prolonged repression. But violence escalated, and the endless reports of police brutality resulted in considerable public sympathy for the students. The strength of the student movement boomed, the students stood beside teachers, lecturers and newly joined masses of young workers, and DeGaulle’s government became more and more detached: they were no longer a force of rule, but an enemy using brute force against its people. The government attempted to channel the view that the protests were down to just a small few unhappy troublemakers, shaken but smugly confident that their control over the media would sway the majority. Soon they found a target, Daniel Cohn Bendit, a flamboyant and popular Nanterre student who quickly became the face of the events, and someone who the government could accuse. The government-led media began their onslaught, branding Cohn-Bendit a ‘German Jew’ which bolstered the students and their views further – the chants soon became ‘we are all German Jews!’.

(above: Daniel Cohn Bendit, “We are all undesirables”)

This was an incredibly powerful turning point in the events of May ‘68, as the media now became seen for what it was – a one-sided platform for mass manipulation: it had demonstrated outright one of the principle critiques that May ‘68 stood for. With this quick expulsion of the mass media, the Parisian people needed a truthful, visual form of expression to replace the absence of the media, and so in came the art of the people – the situation had arrived, and images started to plaster the walls of the city streets, and repressions at last found a means of materialisation. The corruption of the media became the primary visual focus at first, this in response to their deplorable, fascistic presentation of Cohn-Bendit. The media had caused an upsurgence of Nazi orientated images which became a very powerful pathological mover, uprooting the repressed events of World War 2, and solidifying an iconic image representative of the ideological power of DeGaulle and his government over the people. The Nazi allusions in no way foregrounded race, and unlike the race-propelled imagery used in Hitler’s Germany, the protesters made it very clear that race, ethnicity, gender or religion is irrelevant, that this is a class affair. And so these particular images become even more paramount, in that they rather served to expose a return to the peak of ideological control in that Hitler’s Germany exemplifies, in its most extreme and catastrophic form, the power of media and visual cultures as the driving force of ideology and repression.

(above: “civil action: fascist vermin”)

Any hopes by DeGaulle that the students would eventually be deterred were destroyed on the Night of the Barricades (May 10) when an all out assault by the police ensued and the students attempted to resist. At around 2.15a.m. the police began their charge – blitzing the streets with tear gas and baton charging the groups of students as they choked in the mist. The few students who came prepared donned motorcycle helmets, used dustbin lids as shields, and tried to fight back by hurling paving stones, molotov cocktails and a few fought back with wooden sticks and makeshift clubs. After four intense hours of bloody violence, and hundreds wounded, some severely (though miraculously none were killed), the battle subsided, and the next day the footage hit the TV screens of millions. The devastation left was catastrophic: charred husks of cars like upturned beetles littered the streets; the pavements like Tetris grids, torn up and misaligned; thousands of teargas canisters and a Banksy-blitz of frantic images covering every walled surface. The government had gone too far, enough was enough. As Sylvia Harvey notes ‘the extensive and extremely violent rout of the students on the night of the barricades… secured both a moral victory and a tactical advantage. It established beyond doubt the seriousness of their opposition to de Gaulle’s government… [and brought about the] weighty support of the CTG [one of France’s biggest labour trade unions], which could no longer ignore the extent and severity of Gaullist repression’. And so, in came the working-class.

(above: “the struggle continues”)

Within less than 24 hours almost every trade union in the country was involved, calling for a massive strike and national demonstrations. Just a few days later (May 13th) close to a million demonstrators marched through Paris and from then on the strikes expanded outside of unions, migrating to major factories, and soon enough came the factory occupations. Titans of car manufacture including renault and peugeot were rendered immobile. The car, one of the immovable and sacrosanct icons of consumer culture was a prime target, and quickly ascended as one of the central symbolic enforcers of the ideological collapse. By May 24 around 10 million workers were on strike across the country. What began with a few students questioning the ailed organisation and structure of their education had evolved into a country wide questioning of the very building blocks of their lives and what they were worth in class society: De Gaulle’s government ‘one of the most powerful and stable governments of Europe was on the verge of collapse’ (Sylvia Harvey). After what many of the students and workers described as 2 weeks of sheer jubilance, of freedom as never before, DeGaulle’s government threatened a country wide state of emergency. Soon enough, all was back as before, the ideological cataracts of the spectacle floated back into place…

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Roger Dean’s Fantasy-Surrealist Album Art

Roger Dean is an English artist, designer, architect and publisher who is best known for his album art designs for various English rock bands. His vibrant fantasy landscapes are often reminiscent of Rousseau and Ernst. Below I’ve collected some of what I believe to be his best work. Hope you like

cover from Yes’s album ‘Relayer’ (1974)

 

album cover for Yes’s ‘Yes Songs’
cover for Dave Greenslade’s ‘Cactus Choir’ (1976)

cover for Gentle Giant’s ‘Octopus’ (1972)

cover for Yes’s ‘tales from topographic oceans’ (1973)

cover for Osibisa’s ‘Osibisa’ (1971). This one recalls Dali… Surrealists sure love their elephants

Walking Circles, Midnight Sun (1972)
cover for Midnight Sun’s ‘Walking Circles’ (1972)

Squawk, Budgie (1972)
cover for Budgie’s ‘squawk’ (1972). I think this is my favourite of Dean’s work, simplistic but powerful. (Though it’s probably because the aviation/avian mergence seems distinctly Ballardian 😀 )

cover for Gun’s ‘Gun’ (1968). His first ever cover and one of the best

cover for London Philharmonic Orchestra titled ‘Symphonic muse of yes’ (1993). I love the psychedelic colours in this one.

cover for Paladin’s ‘Charge’ (1972). Another favourite, loving the SF vibes in this one.

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