Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Nadja, or the Surrealist City.

When Andre' Breton starts to write his illustrated short novel 'Nadja'  in 1928 Paris still looks very much like Eugène Atget had documented it: quite drab and deserted, very far from the dizzy atmosphere of Tolouse Lautrec, and the pageant of the Crazy Horse, and the Belle Epoque.

 WWI and its millions deaths had transformed and emptied the suburbs and the neighborhoods of the poor. Among the opening pictures in Nadja is that of a statue, a military called Eugène Dolet, of which Breton says that it both attracted and repelled him. 

To the reader the authoritarian statue  seems very much in contrast with the poetical style of writing, except that perhaps it establishes some ominous expectation which is in contrast with it.

Breton uses a symbolist style of the earlier generation of poets, Mallarme' and Rimbaud, but the photos are  describing an ordinary stroll in Paris, and the reader/onlooker expects something to develop out of the contrast. The next photo is 'Bois & Charbons' the picture of a ordinary shop of wood and coal, but with a cavernous aspect, as if an ogre dwelt there.

Breton is establishing a net of personal meaningful places that defines both a theatre set for the novel, and an interior landscape where an action is going to take place.
At first it will be the meeting with an actress friend who relates a lurid, Grand-Guignol show Les Detraquées, (The Cranks) based on serial assassinations in a college of young girls, made by the head mistress, with the complicity of her lesbian friend. Again the reader is shown the picture of a real scene.

Here again photography is used to confer reality to what might otherwise seems a series of fantasies. But in so doing the text  establishes the city as a country of imagination, where one can expect both crime and love. 

The surrealist group headed by Breton was soon to use the camera as a mechanical artifact to play with chance and evoke the unconscious. Man Ray used cut ups and 'rayographs'  made directly on sensitive paper in the  darkroom. William Burroughs and Brian Gysin later invented the Dream Machine projecting  hypnotic rays of light. The Camera Obscura saw its uses expanded . Here, however, it is used used in a simple mimetic way, but in an enigmatic way, in relation to the text.

Back to the novel, Breton progresses to a fleamarket where he finds a strange phallus-like white sculpture with coloured lines, which he later understands to be a three dimensional statistic of a city. It's a typical 'objet trouvé',  whose meaning has been displaced by the mind in a perverted way - he says. It is the birth of Détournement, symbolic displacement, which will have a central role in Surrealism, when becoming deliberate.

In fact the poet is establishing his own inner theatre where  a momentous happening is going to take place. In the street he crosses and stops  an attractive blonde with an unfinished make up, and a poor dress, who expresses herself by riddles: Nadja "whose name in Russian means hope, but it only the beginning of it" she says.

By coincidence Breton just a moment earlier was thinking of the Russian revolution, but also noting that ordinary work, that of the people leaving the offices, had very little to do with imagination. 

Nadja, who is looking for work,  nevertheless appears as a  messenger, the Angel of Revolution, coming to drab Paris, as if she had wanted to meet in person the poet, instead of being stopped by him.

It is as if there was a collapse of the inner expectation and outside reality,  between the subjective and the objective, which is brought about by desire.

Of Nadja however we will know little of her external appearance.  Instead we get some riddles  and some extraordinary drawings that she gives to Breton. 

They are the  the  token of her visions, like a flower  with a double set of petal-eyes, a symbol of inner beauty and  Love. "la fleur des amants". 

 Nadja is  a seismograph, telling Breton  she sees him as being drawn to a Bright Star, which is like 'the heart of a flower without a heart'. Breton is very moved.

Later  we learn that Breton, who at the time was married  had at the same time an affair with the actress Blanche Derval who had played in the Grand Guignol piece mentioned earlier in the novel. 

Of her we have a portrait,  which acts like a more material incarnation of Nadja. It is as if a photo, an objective correlative, wouldn't be able to catch Nadja's otherworldly nature. So the  portrait of Blanche must act as a displacement of Nadja. Breton compares the makeup of the two women, mentioning that one is too light for theatre and the other too heavy for the street -  and so makes an equivalence.

Nadja instead is only evoked by her  her 'regard de fougère' her 'fern look' while she meets the author in  ominous places, like the Sphinx Hotel, or the square of the Mazda Light billboard. 

She draws the author as a fierce cat with flaming hair and folded eagle wings along the sides, and herself as Melusine, a water nymph, whose lower body is made by a fish tail. It is clearly a figure of the Unconscious, but also of European legends. Melusine predicts the future and is a fairy queen of the inner world.

We are given  some other drawings of Nadja, : Le bouclier d'Achille, le Reve du chat, le Salut du Diable.
The drawing here at the top of the post, will be used as a cover for the book - it is the portrait of a  a fortune teller, a seer who is perhaps Nadja herself.

 Indeed she is able to interpret correctly some of the most complex paintings by De Chirico or Max Ernst, which hang at Andre's home.

 The drawings of Nadja operate on a different level from realistic photographs. They are 'apparitions', dream-like material of the Unconscious. Photography however documents them as real as the Paris' statues.

Some, like Le Reve du Chat,  a fugitive cat with the tail held by the wick of an invisible oil lamp (The Lamp of Wisdom?) , are cut ups of ordinary appearances  united in a paradoxical way, which suggests a further meaning. Cut ups  were to become typical of Surrealist art, as in Man Ray or Max Ernst.

Ordinary life reclaims  its rights, however.  The way Breton and Nadja separate each other only after a few days of acquaintance is an object of comment by  Katharine Conley's The Automatic Woman. Not only was Breton married, but he also ignored that Nadja was mad. Suddenly we are reminded of the stark facts of life.

Nadja was to return to the province she came from, Lille, presumably to solve her money problems, but was instead hospitalized.. When Breton discovered it he simply mentions that the hospital  probably did her more evil than good, by making a prisoner of her.

She had made him a seer and confirmed him to be an artist with a higher destiny, (The Bright Star)  but he never took the trouble to go and visit  her, preferring to make her the central character of a novel which was an immediate success - Conley comments sardonically. 

In an amazing displacement  of desire, Breton  shows instead of Nadja a portrait of actress Blanche Derval, who differently from Nadja, was resisting  his desire. The reader will never know what the real Nadja looked like.

Curiously Blanche in the Detraquées  abducted  an innocent schoolgirl. But it is as if Breton who performed an Identity Theft by substituting portraits.

Now, what is my relationship to surrealism? Although I am rather Post-avantgarde, and therefore eclectic, Surrealism is part of my culture, especially in the sense of Psychogeography: I am driven both by uncanny and the Sublime, but also the very simple, and the unexplainable.

I met some of the last surrealists, like Arturo Schwarz, the critic and collector of Marcel Duchamp -  I invited to Rome William Burroughs and Bryan Gysin, the writer and artist friends, who invented the Dream Machine. I missed by a hair Francesca Woodman, the photographer, who had sent me an illustrated postcard of her. They all switched a trigger, by alerting me to the imagination gap in Realism, which is the current ideology in photography. Any image is more than what it purports to be.

There is a photograph in 'Nadja' of which I have by coincidence a precise equivalent: Breton says:  'Devant nous fuse un jet d'eau, dont elle parait suivre la courbe'. 'Before us springs a water jet, whose curve she seems to follow'


 What is the attraction they have in common? To me they are both mimetic and enigmatic, although they lack the optical tricks of later Surrealist imagery.

The conclusion of the book is Breton's famous sentence, which seems a sad epitaph to Nadja's madness: 'La beauté' sera convulsive ou ne sera pas' 'Beauty will be convulsive, or will not be at all'.

Strangely the closing photo of  the novel is that of Becque, another authoritarian military bust in a square of Paris,  like the one in the beginning of the book. It is as if the drab postwar reality had reasserted  its role, by closing the doors of Imagination. Hence beauty must be convulsive, to shake off  the smothering  of Repression.

That was a lesson learned by the time of the revolution of May '68, when the walls of hospices crumbled down, and imagination was again 'au pouvoir'.
Sexual liberation met social criticism, as it had done first in the Surrealist Movement.

It took more to liberate women, however.  That is why it will be interesting to dedicate another post in the future to Francesca Woodman, the 'Rimbaud of Photography', who used her own body to create surrealist photography in the 1970s.


 According to the legend Melusine can't be watched  in her private rooms possibly because of her animal  fish tail.  Her noble husband who peeps at her while she begets her three daughters. will be punished by them, and be prevented to reign.
I recently learned with surprise that Melusine was the begetter of the House of Lusignan, kings of Portugal, and of the two kings of Jerusalem, Amalric I and II, of whom I carry the name by mere chance. The  nick had attracted me, for no other reason that it was neither English, nor Latin.
  So it is again a strange coincidence that I was to cross the path of Melusine, such a strong protectress of imagination.
A Melusine  was also Queen of Cyprus, which she defended successfully against  the hordes of Saladdin's sons in the 1400s. She was reputed as a beautiful, cultivated woman.

In the end, despite the efforts at occultation of Breton, a family portrait of Nadja (Leona Delcourt) has finally been unearthed in 2009 by her biographer, HESTER ALBACH.

Here she is:

She was indeed a sweet child, with 'un regard de fougère' - and yet a 'force multiplier' for the Surrealist Movement.The finding of her portrait settles the debt of the first visual novel of Modernism.

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