In 1940 and 1941 André Breton, widely considered the founder of Surrealism, and a group of like-minded individuals (René Char, Oscar Dominguez, Victor Brauner, Max Ernst, Jacques Hérold, Wilfredo Lam, André Masson, Benjamin Péret) decided to design their own deck of tarot cards. The deck they finally came up with was executed in a remarkably pleasing, almost ligne claire style. In accordance with the mindfuckery inherent to Surrealism, the group rejected the courtly/medieval theme of the traditional deck and nominated their own heroes to represent the face cards, including Hegel, Freud, the Marquis de Sade, Baudelaire, and so on.
(A quick clarification: It seems evident that this is a deck of playing cards or possibly a hybrid of tarot and playing cards. Sources seem unequivocal in describing the deck as a tarot deck, and so that’s what we’re going with too.)
The Surrealist deck of cards suggests a kind of post-Enlightenment, left-wing, revolutionary, intellect-based cosmology. So the royal hierarchy of King, Queen, and Jack was replaced with “Genius,” “Siren,” and “Magus,” this last word accentuating the occult roots of the project. Rejecting the traditional clubs, hearts, spades, and diamonds as well as the traditional tarot suits (wands, cups, swords, and discs), the group invented its own symbolism, with flames and wheels constituting the red suits and locks and stars being the black ones. Flames represented love and desire; wheels represented revolution; stars represented dreams; and locks represented knowledge.
Brilliantly, for the joker, the group selected Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi (bottom).
I wonder: did André Breton enjoy housework? He must have spent many an hour cleaning and tending to the dust that surely gathered on all the 5,300 artifacts he kept, at one time or another, in his Parisian apartment. (Or maybe he hired someone.)
Father of Surrealism, poet, and writer, Breton moved into number 42 rue Fontaine in the 9e arrondissement on January 1, 1922, and lived there until his death in 1966. During his tenancy, he filled his rooms with thousands of “paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs, books, art catalogs, journals, manuscripts, and works of popular and Oceanic art,” all of which would require considerable domestic maintenance. Of course he may have been entirely indifferent to the dust and allowed it to beard his belongings and fur the shelves, as Quentin Crisp and J. G. Ballard were said to have done.
Artists and writers’ studios are, by their very nature, fascinating places, as they are the workshops where the real creative toil is won. And the clutter of belongings, books, and pictures reveals at first hand the sources, inspirations, and fascinations that produced the work.
Fabrice Maze created this beautiful short film on André Breton’s apartment in 1994, in which the camera takes the viewer on a tour through all the accumulation of art works, books, and dust.
Sadly, three years after Breton’s third wife Elsa died in 2000, the French government proved unable or unwilling to buy the apartment and its collection. This led to an auction of the “largest single record of the Surrealist movement.” The Pompidou Center in Paris purchased a wall from Breton’s former home, together with 255 works of arts and objects, which are now on display at the museum.
Leonor Fini is one of the few women to be closely associated with the Surrealist Group, although Fini herself did not see her self as a Surrealist at all and rejected membership. Still she remained a fellow traveler of the Surrealists throughout her career, although in many ways her work—a sensuous celebration of female sexuality—tweaks the misogynistic and homophobic tendencies of movement, especially its founder Andre Breton (who was all for lesbianism). Her work has been represented in nearly every major Surrealist exhibition.
Much is made of the artist’s good looks and upfront sexuality. Fini was famously photographed naked—and clean shaven—floating in a pool by Henri Cartier-Bresson. (This photograph sold for over $300,000 in 2007). Fiercely bohemian, she also lived in not one, but two menage-a-trois relationships. When she died her obituaries were as much about famous men she’d slept with as her own career, but Fini kowtowed to no man, she lived life completely on her own terms, a feminist long before the term existed.
Hurry, Hurry, Hurry, My Dolls Are Waiting (1975)
It has been said of Fini, that she was a “female Dali” and in many ways this is true. The narcissistic artist was an imposing presence in any room with her beauty and flamboyant fashions. And like the Divine Dali, her art came from a place deep inside her, as she was forced to develop a inner vision during extended teenage bouts with an ocular ailment that saw her eyes bandaged shut for months at a time. When the bandages came off, she wished to document what she had been inwardly visualizing and declared herself an artist.
The self-taught Fini began to exhibit her art at the age of seventeen and she knew anyone worth knowing in Paris and internationally. She also designed clothing and ballet and opera sets. Her design for the bottle of Elsa Schiaparelli’s Shocking perfume is considered iconic. She is one of the most photographed people of the 20th century and famously attended dozens of costume balls in elaborate costumes. She was always in magazines. During her lifetime she was quite a big name, although by the time of her death in 1996, she’d become a bit obscure. The French government even refused to take paintings in lieu of back taxes owed by her estate, although she was called “...the most undervalued artist of the 20th Century” by the Art Dealers Association of America.
A reappraisal of her work seems due and this appears to be happening with the publication of a monograph/biography of Fini titled Sphinx: The Life and Art of Leonor Fini, written by her friend, art critic Peter Webb. It is an absolutely superb and beautiful volume—it’s sitting beside me as I type this—truly it’s one of the finest crafted objects I’ve seen in some time. If you’re looking for a nice coffee table book that will knock someone’s socks off for a gift, this is it.
The idea of a film had its germination during a house party given by Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles at Hyeres in 1929. Georges Auric, Cocteau’s lifelong musical collaborator, surprised his hosts by announcing that he wanted to compose the score for an animated cartoon. Cocteau was asked on the spot to provide a scenario. After some discussion, the Noailles agreed to give Cocteau a million francs to make a real film with a score by Auric. This became The Blood of a Poet, still one of the most widely viewed of all Cocteau’s screenworks. Cocteau described its disturbing series of voyeuristic tableaux as “a descent into oneself, a way of using the mechanism of the dream without sleeping, a crooked candle, often mysteriously blown out, carried about in the night of the human body.”
Blood of a Poet can’t even be classed as the first Surrealist film, as Entr’acte had been made by René Clair, in 1924; The Seashell and the Clergyman (La Coquille et le clergyman) arguably the first true Surrealistic film, directed by Germaine Dulac, and written by Antonin Artaud, was made in 1928; and Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí had made two landmark Surrealist films, Un Chien Andalou (1928) and L’Âge d’Or (1930), by the time Cocteau was ready to put his thoughts on celluloid.
While there are undoubted references to Surrealist imagery (i.e. the lips on the artist’s hand), The Blood of a Poet shouldn’t be tied into any group or movement, for it is a film very much centered in Cocteau’s artistic sensibilities:
The Blood of a Poet like so much of what Cocteau created, abounds in autobiographical motifs: the macho Dargelos and the snowball fight, the opium smoker, the poet with his sexual stigmata, and the gunshots that, intentionally or not, echoed his father’s suicide long before.
Like all great artists, Cocteau sourced ideas from what was around him, what was new, to create his own distinct artistic vision. Of course, such magpie instincts left him open to the criticism of dilettantism, which was unfair, when considered against the range and diversity of his output as artist, writer, film-maker, designer, poet and man-about-town.
It was while out on the tiles at his favorite hot-spot “Le Boeuf sur le Toit” that Cocteau met the model, and later photographer, Lee Miller. Cocteau was casting for his film, and Miller breathlessly volunteered her services. It was her only film, and she would later describe the difficulties in making the film:
Feral Benga, the black jazz dancer who played the angel, sprained his ankle and became an angel with a limp. Cocteau put a star on Enrique Riviero’s back to cover an old bullet wound from the pistol of some cuckolded husband. The mattresses used to soundproof the studio walls were, unfortunately for the cast, infested with ravenous fleas and bedbugs. When the “bull” (really an ox) rented from an abattoir arrived at the studio with only one horn, Cocteau made a second one himself.
The film was financed by Charles, Vicomte de Noailles at a cost of one million francs. The Vicomte and his wife agreed to appear in the film, a scene where they talked amongst themselves and, on cue, began applauding. However, Cocteau intercut this footage with a another sequence, which ended in a suicide. Upon seeing the completed film, they refused to let Cocteau release it with their scene included. It was therefore re-shot with Barbette, the well-known female impersonator, and some extras.
Prior to its release, there was further controversy when it was rumored the film was filled with hidden symbolism:
Cocteau himself always denied the presence of hidden symbolism in the film, but word got about that it had anti-Christian undercurrents. This greatly distressed the Noailles. After the scandal caused the Viscount to be expelled from the elegant Jockey Club, and even brought threats of excommunication from the Church, they forbade Cocteau to allow public release of The Blood of a Poet for over a year.
It is often said that The Blood of a Poet is a surrealist film. However, surrealism did not exist when I first thought of it. the interest that it still arouses probably comes from its isolation from the works with which it is classified. I am speaking of the works of a minority that has opposed and unobtrusively governed the majority throughout the centuries. This minority has its antagonistic aspects. At the time of Le sang d’un poète, I was the only one of this minority to avoid the deliberate manifestations of the unconscious in favor of a kind of half-sleep through which I wandered as though in a labyrinth.
I applied myself only to the relief and to the details of the images that came forth from the great darkness of the human body. I adopted them then and there as the documentary scenes of another kingdom.
That is why this film, which has only one style, that, for example, of the bearing or the gestures of a man, presents many surfaces for its exegesis. Its exegeses were innumerable. If I were questioned about any one of them, I would have trouble in answering.
My relationship with the work was like that of a cabinetmaker who puts together the pieces of a table whom the spiritualists, who make the table move, consult.
The Blood of a Poet draws nothing from either dreams or symbols. As far as the former are concerned, it initiates their mechanism, and by letting the mind relax, as in sleep, it lets memories entwine, move and express themselves freely. As for the latter, it rejects them, and substitutes acts, or allegories of these acts, that the spectator can make symbols of if he wishes.