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June 06, 2006

Christie Davies tries to come to grips with a tradition of serious French rubbish: Undercover Surrealism: Picasso, Miró, Masson and the vision of Georges Bataille at the Hayward Gallery

Posted by Christie Davies

Undercover Surrealism: Picasso, Miró, Masson and the vision of Georges Bataille
Hayward Gallery, London
11th May - 30th July 2006
Daily 10am - 6pm (Tuesdays & Wednesdays until 8pm, Fridays until 9pm)

Undercover Surrealism is an exhibition built around the journal Documents, master-minded by Georges Bataille in Paris in 1929-30. He was not himself a surrealist but surrealism was part of his "war against received ideas", his view that everything is but "the parody of another or the same thing in a deceptive form". Indeed Bataille was anathema to and anathematised by André Breton, the leader and nudger of the surrealists, a group who were, in the same sense as psychoanalysts or Trotskyites, a secular sect with manifestos, orthodoxies, schisms and periodic expulsions.

Those who had been expelled often gravitated to the journal Documents where Bataille held forth about Salvador Dali's links to crime and perversion and the violence and cruelty of Picasso to the human body.

Georges Bataille, a spoiled priest, was a Roman Catholic pornographer trapped in a dialectic of purity and pollution, in an endless and rapid succession of sin, confession, sin, confession, sin, confession, sin … and once more from the top. Bataille worked in the numismatics section of Biblioteque National where his office was conveniently close to L'Enfer, the room where the forbidden French grapes of filth are stored. As at the University Library in Cambridge the porn room is placed next to an otherwise unneeded central chimney, so that if the Paris or Cambridge mob should storm the building, it can be instantly burned before anyone can be corrupted.

Bataille would sneak away from his coins and medals to read the works of de Sade, whistling "Every little Breeze seems to Whisper Marquise". Under the pseudonym Lord Auch, Bataille wrote L'Histoire de l'oeil with illustrations by André Masson. In one scene a woman confesses to the priest that she is stimulating herself to orgasm; she then invades his side of the confessional and forces the same on the priest. In one of the illustrations (or maybe an illustration of de Sade) a nude woman farts in the face of a man with the head of a pig as he buggers a skeletal priest in a biretta. Better stick to L'Histoire d'eau, you get a better class of milord and you can wear Newfoundland long rubbers when reading it. Bataille's fantasies remind one irresistibly of the Roman Catholic Graham Greene's penchant for having sex with his God-daughter Catherine Walston on or behind the altar of a Tuscan church, an act of simultaneous defiling of the sacred, medieval incest and double adultery. Purity begets pollution, for without it who would even dream of doing such things.

The ideas come through into Bataille's theory of art. For Bataille flowers have petalled beauty but the rest of them is fixed in the dirt of the ground. Likewise our big toe is the essence of our being human, for it enables us to stand upright and in consequence to fall down and be laughed at. Who ever saw a gorilla or a chimp have a disastrous encounter with a banana skin? The pratfall is the heart and origin of all laughter, endlessly refined in John Cleese' Ministry of Silly Walks, Giles' colliding guardsmen, and the Prussian goosestep. And yet the big-toe is hidden away as inelegant, as the link with the dust from which we were made and to which we will return, as opposed to our noble head looking up at the heavens. For Bataille we oscillate "from ordure to ideal and back to ordure".

Bataille wrote an entire Essay on the Big Toe in Documents 6, 1929 with a full page reproduction of a blown up photo of that toe. On the wall of the exhibition hangs an even bigger big-toe-photo, its coarse nail inviting trimming with a monster clippers like a hedge trimmer. Bataille added that

no collector could ever love a work of art as much as a fetishist loves a shoe.
No wonder his wife Sylvie left him and married the evil destructive psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan under whose ministrations Althusser strangled his wife.
Oh, toe! Oh toe! Oh Froggy nonsense, high and low! Oh foot and shoe both forbidden and fetish! Oh shoe and foot both hid and coquettish! Oh twaddle!
Bataille was convinced that the origins of art lie in our wanting to spoil a surface. Give children a sheet of paper and they scribble on it, give adolescents a wall and they graffiti it, give singing Neanderthals a cave and they cover it in musical notes. Placed adjacent to examples of all of these is the work of the Catalunyatic Joan Miró who wanted "to kill painting" and as Bataille says [Document 7, 1930]
leaving only the trace of who knows what disaster.
Miró's art is placed alongside graffiti done on the walls of candle-sooted Ethiopian churches by children bored by the endless ritual-crammed religious services, so well described by Evelyn Waugh. The scrawling children risked - or perhaps sought - the humiliation of a public spanking as an escape from the tedium. No doubt they copped it.

So we all doodle and squiggle like Miró. But how can we know whether Miró had had a good day or a bad one? By contrast the daubs of André Masson's daughter Lili Masson, aged 9, are highly conventional, child conventional, for all her suns have smiles. Why should a child wish to deface the surface of the bright, round and perfect sun with a scribbled face? There are marks on the face of the rocky moon that could be construed as a face but Lili Masson will never have seen sun spots. Is it because faces precede the sun? They are the first thing the child sees and is programmed to smile back at and chuckle at – even a face painted on a balloon will do.

Smiles are as essential to the child's survival as screaming for food. Fledglings or kittens cheep and mew but even in Cheshire no kitten smiles. Screams produce adult attention and remedies but smiles are the source of attachment. Even in rich families the mother goes Gucci-Gucci-Goo to get a response to her own smile or strokes the side of the baby's mouth to induce it to return the smile of a stranger. Smiles precede suns and anything round is a fit place in which to inscribe a smile. Look at your own doodles and see how many faces you have produced. All nonsense you may say, mere speculative evolutionary psychology, survival of the smileyest. But shall we take Bataille more seriously than this, merely because he is part of a French tradition of serious rubbish, of weird forms of a priori reasoning on the basis of an intuitive but untestable assumption.

In my own specialist field, the study of humour, I have had to suffer Bergson's Le Rire that reduces humour to social control through ridicule. As an empirical description of how humour is used on some occasions in some societies this is unexceptionable; to use it as the basis of a theory is misleading, pointless and French. Lest French readers feel more hurt than I intended, let me add that I find the British evolutionary biological theory of laughter as beginning with pratfalls and farts equally foolish. For the British, farts like falls, are the result of our coming down from trees, walking and taking to a diet of whole-grain seeds. In Britain Belloc-bad children chant:

Eat brown bread
Shit like lead
Fart like thunder
No bloody wonder
There are always simpler social explanations. Farts and falls are involuntary breaches of the etiquette of societies that emphasise order, control, decorum, boundaries. The key question rather is a comparative one – why are falls and farts funnier in some societies than others? When the Japanese showed John Cleese' films, they excised the Ministry of Silly Walks as being disrespectful to and of civil servants. The humour of farts differs between England (unmentionable), France (Joseph Pujol, Le Petomame, Le Fartiste) and Germany. Why the differences? Ask the ghosts of Emile Durkheim, the last clear Gallic thinker and Alan Dundes the only clear psycho-analytic one.

Yet children may well draw faces on a sun because it pays. The nine year old Lili Masson sold her daubs to adult friends of her artist father which is why they have been preserved. Perhaps they were willing to pay more for a sun with a smiling shining morning face.

Following Miró comes a humorous presentation of Picasso, to whom an entire loving issue of Documents was devoted. Here is Picasso's L'Oiseau (Bird on a Tree), 1928, a surreal blackbird with a red beak that was to prove the inspiration for the USAF's most advanced and deadly plane. Next to it is the poem Humorage a Picasso.

Ces cheveux poussant dans un pot
Cet oeil pareil aux culs de oiseaux
Ce marétal porte-marcheau
C'est Picaplo

That hair growing in a pot
Those eyes like birds' arses
Pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag
It is Peek-a-boo, Pissaco.

Close at hand is Juan Gris' Le Fumeur (The Smoker), 1913 whose face falls apart as he sucks a cigar in the manner of Monica Lewinsky. What we see is the speeding up of time; the instant crumbling of a portrait into segments as long term tobacco-induced peripheral neuritis hits it in an instant, a disease that would have begun with Bataille's symbolic big toe. The furthest away, the first to rot. The centre cannot hold, toes fall apart.

The best of Bataille was when he linked his scholarly work on coins with his art-critical ideas as in his essay Le Cheval Academique for which he deserved to become a Chevalier of Academic Palms. Bataille showed how the drachma of the Ancient Greeks with its Elgin-classical image of the "perfect" horse was elevated to a "frightful burlesque frenzy" in the coins of the Celts who copied it; a wonderful riposte to the "platitudes and arrogance of the idealists". A man who despises Classical Greece must have a bottom of good sense. The coins are there on display - go and judge for yourself.

The exhibition ends with a section on masks in which beautiful African ritual masks are placed next to the crude modern carnival masks you can buy in a joke and costume shop for a silly party. I stopped and looked at one very life-like pair and then realised it was George Melly being interviewed by a handsome young black woman and that I was blocking the television camera. Melly in a black eye patch like a pirate with that absurd squashed face we know so well from the covers of his rollicking books of memoirs was the perfect carnival offset for her exquisite African features. It was appropriate that Melly, surrealist, jazz and blues man and author of that unforgettable memoir, Rum, Bum and Concertina should be there. Just as this exhibition does, Melly embodies anarchic, almost surreal absurdity, the very antithesis of his 1960s New Statesman pal, Paul Johnson.

Christie Davies is the author of The Mirth of Nations, 2002, a comparative study of humour and of Dewi the Dragon, 2006, a collection of surreal humorous stories.


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