Claude Cahun

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The artist-writer Claude Cahun was born Lucy Renée Mathilde Schwob in 1894. She grew up in a middle-class family in Nantes. In some respects her childhood was conventional – financial security, good education – but Cahun (as she called herself from 1919 onwards) felt disturbed by undercurrents at home, which intensified over the years. Her father was Jewish at a time when the Dreyfuss affair was dividing the nation. Her mother was mentally ill and for some of the time confined a mental asylum.  Her mother was finally committed to an asylum permanently, with family visits forbidden. She and her brother were moved between relatives who were not always affection or considerate towards them.

Slight of build, not pretty, burdened with a Jewish surname at a time of anti-Semitism, disturbed by the emotional extremities of her parents and troubled by the spectre of hereditary madness, Cahun developed feelings of inadequacy. She found refuge in books. She had access to the books in her father’s office (a journal publication house) and read the classics to her blind grandmother, which gave her unusually broad exposure to literature. She began to write fiction. While a teenager she began a lifelong love affair with Suzanne Malherbe, who later changed her name to Marcel Moore (called Moore hereafter). The two women would be inseparable companions and collaborate in the production of books, photographs and artistic projects. Despite certain misgivings, their families tacitly approved of the unconventional relationship.

Cahun went to study philosophy and letters at the Sorbonne and Moore studied fine art in Nantes. Cahun conceived of herself as a failure in any of the available roles open to women of the time. In 1919 she changed her name to Claude Cahun partly to use as a nom de plume but also as a way of breaking with femininity. She shaved her head. She took as her heroes the Symbolist and Decadent writers, as well as André Gide. Their subjects of forbidden homosexual love, the morbid and grotesque, the renegade and flâneur, struck a chord in her. Her admiration for Oscar Wilde, Lord Alfred Douglas and John Addington Symmonds was related to her Anglophilia. The family holidayed in Jersey, she was schooled in England for a time and spoke English fluently. (When, a few later, Malherbe adopted the name “Moore” it may have been a conscious expression of affiliation for non-French culture.) Moore’s illustrations for Cahun’s first book (a restrained, stylised story about forbidden love) are derived from Aubrey Beardsley.

Moore was providing illustrations to journals and Cahun at that time was writing journalism. Cahun was following the Dada movement, which blew away the cultivated cobwebs of decadence. She dabbled in Buddhism and Eastern spirituality, something that was particularly current in the inter-war period, when people disgusted with the horrors of war turned their back on the traditions of their parents. Cahun became friends with Henri Michaux, René Crevel and André Breton. She met Gertrude Stein, Natalie Barney and Chana Orloff, as well as visiting Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare & Co.

The most important work of the 1920s was the commencement of a series of photographs of Cahun by Moore. It is this for which Cahun has become recognised posthumously. It seems that both Cahun and Moore worked to arrange the striking images, with Cahun alone as the subject in various incarnations: as a marionette, schoolgirl, clown, androgyne, mime, swimmer, dancer, Buddhist nun, scientific exhibit and other less identifiable types. Most of the photographs were only seen after Moore’s death, found as unprinted and untitled negatives. Some prints were marked with crop lines, others exist in unedited sequences. Some were published and displayed during Cahun’s lifetime – some in collage form – but it seems closer to a private project that occasionally bore fruit only to be exposed selectively. How serious are these works? What degree of importance did Cahun and Moore accord to them? The very fact that these questions are so important yet so unanswerable makes the asking significant.

The authorship issue is pertinent. Whose work is this: the subject’s or the photographer’s? Who came up with the ideas? Cahun and Moore are given joint credit but it is Cahun’s name on the book. Shaw points out that in early publications and posthumous exhibitions Cahun was credited as sole creator. “The perception that Disavowals [Aveux non avenus] and all of the photographic work associated with Cahun were the product Cahun’s singular vision was, for a long time, reinforced by the fact that the photomontages and photographs were attributed solely to Cahun in museum entries, catalogues and essays.”

More elaborate photo-collages (using original photographs, found photographs and handwritten texts) from the Aveux non avenus (1930) Shaw attributes to Cahun and Moore together, though she acknowledges that other experts believe Cahun was the principal creator. Shaw attributes to Cahun solely the photographs of temporary assemblages and miniature dioramas. They show serio-comic figures, toys, trinkets, plants and so forth in improvised settings. The photographs are jaunty and unsettling, adding a touch of the uncanny to assemblages that are childish. Other than photographs and photo-collages, the only other art Cahun produced were a few drawings and objects.

As the 1930s progressed greater political engagement was demanded of alert artists. Impelled by political commitment and artistic proclivity, Cahun became ever more closely involved in the Surrealist movement, specifically the circle around Breton. In 1932 Cahun and Moore joined the Association des Écrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires, an organisation for Communist-supporting writers and artists. AEAR was anti-Fascist, pro-Communist and non-Surrealist. Relations between the PCF and the Surrealists were complicated and shifting. The Surrealists could not fully reconcile their search for freedom with the PCF and the USSR’s increasingly conservative artistic policy. Over the next few years the division between Trotsky and Breton’s position of free creativity by politically alert artists and the PCF and USSR’s directives enjoining adherence to Socialist Realism. Cahun found it difficult to align herself with a political organisation, as she admitted, and left in 1933.

In 1935 the group Contre-Attaque was co-founded by Cahun, alongside Breton, Bataille and others. It was an attempt to provide a unified front of Surrealists against Fascism. Breton and Bataille had different temperaments. Bataille has been characterised as a proponent of “Left Fascism” – essentially Socialism achieved through Fascist methods of force, not dissimilar to Strasserism – whereas Breton was a more conventional Marxist. Breton was also an authoritarian who saw Surrealism as his personal fiefdom and he mistrusted the group centred on Bataille’s Documents journal. Cahun, Moore and Breton resigned from Contre-Attaque due to the group’s “super fascist tendencies”.

Cahun seems to have been omitted from early retrospective monographs on Surrealism due to multiple reasons. First, much of her photography was unpublished and unexhibited, thus unknown to historians. The public works – seen in isolation and detached from the body of her work – might have seemed slight to critics. Second, with the exception of Man Ray, photographs have been assigned a supplementary role in histories of visual Surrealism behind paintings, sculpture and the graphic arts. Third, she did not sign many manifestoes, therefore is easy to overlook in compilations of official documents.

In 1937 Cahun and Moore moved to Jersey. In 1940 the British government demilitarised the Channel Islands as indefensible and evacuated much of the population. Cahun and Moore remained in the expectation of German occupation, with the intention of performing active resistance. Their house was requisitioned by the German army, yet still they engaged in small acts of subversion which carried a severe penalty. They distributed written propaganda to undermine occupiers’ authority and confidence; they smuggled food to starving slave labourers building defences. They retained a radio after a ban was imposed and passed on war news.

The couple were arrested whilst carrying anti-German propaganda. They attempted suicide but their overdoses were non-fatal. Their deportation to the continent was forestalled by the Allied victory in Saint-Malo. The German occupiers were now cut off from mainland Europe. They both attempted suicide again, believing the other to be dead. They were tried for listening to the radio, having a weapon and camera and distributing anti-German propaganda. Found guilty, they were sentenced to death. It seems that the Germans did want to carry out the execution and that there was no expectation that so late in the war two elderly women would be executed.

Much of the personal archive and collection of art, books and letters were burned by the Gestapo. Disillusioned by the perceived passivity of islanders to the occupation, the couple lived on in Jersey, with Cahun health failing. She died in 1954. Moore died in 1972.

Shaw is thoroughly familiar with her subject and intelligently guides us through the writing, art and life of Cahun and Moore. She is careful not to adduce an autobiographical reading of the photographs and does not over interpret the writings. She draws parallels between Cahun’s ideas and later gender theory without interpreting Cahun through that lens, though she has been and will be subject to such treatment. She summarises Cahun’s writings, which are not widely available in English. Appendices include translations of selections from Cahun’s writing. The book is thorough, sensitive, informative and absorbing. Shaw’s Exist Otherwise makes an important addition to Surrealism studies.

Cahun has in recent decades become one of the most influential photographers for a generation of artists and it is easy to see why. Alongside Francesca Woodman and Cindy Sherman, Cahun is seen as the supreme exponent of the ambiguous, elusive, disruptive photographic featuring the artist as subject. Cahun is a lodestar for women photographers, the ultimate trickster. Her collaborative mode of art creation is a very current concern, with more and more artists seeking to sublimate their identities in partnerships. Her roleplaying seems grist to the mill of gender-studies students and professors concerned with Judith Butler’s ideas of gender as performance.

Cahun’s work is liminal. It crosses boundaries between the performative and autobiographical, private and public, male and female, art and documentation, personal and political, singular and collaborative, serious and humorous, professional and amateur. It is unstable and unclear, sometimes existing in binary states simultaneously. This is why it appeals to artists and critics in the Post-Modernist age with its insistent fetishisation of boundary-breaking and genre-bending. What makes Cahun’s art better than the art that emulates it is a lack of affect, a genuine fascination with ambiguity and an absence of self-consciousness. There is a real question about whether this is art or not, whereas the knowing art students of the 1990s never intended anything other of their activities, realising that everything could be fed into the voracious, undiscriminating, unobjecting, uncritical maw of art exhibition and publication. Cahun’s art has a magical risk that is missing from the activities of the 1990s. It also has that now mocked attribute of originality.

 

Jennifer L. Shaw, Exist Otherwise: The Life and Works of Claude Cahun, Reaktion Books, 2017, hardback, ISBN 978 1 78023 728 2

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

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Seduction of Unreason: Post-Modernism and Fascism

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The introduction to the original 2004 edition of Richard Wolin’s study of Post-Modernism’s intimate relationship with fascist-related philosophy of the 1920s to the 1940s (newly re-published) has a puzzlingly premature obituary for Post-Modernism.

Today the postmodern juggernaut seems to have run aground. Outside of the parochial climate of contemporary academe, its program of a “farewell to reason” failed to take root. Its bold proclamation concerning the end of “metanarratives” of human emancipation also failed to gain widespread acceptance.

In recent years we have seen empirical reasoning assaulted by political activists who declare that human sex difference is a scientific falsehood and that Western science itself is a tool of racist oppression. Scientific data is considered “too upsetting” to be published and contentious ideas are so dangerous they cannot be publicly discussed (even to debunk them). It is demanded by students that public institutions must institute racial quotas and that authors should be stripped of their place in reading lists due to skin colour. Language “is violence” and speech can legitimately be met with actual violence. The cult of victimhood holds sway over national broadcasters, political parties and judicial systems. Post-Modernism has expanded to touch every aspect of discussion as ad hominem attacks and emotional grandstanding threaten to overwhelm reason and evidence.

Post-Modernism and Post-Structuralism may have fallen from favour in philosophy and English faculties at leading universities 15 years ago, but since then Post-Modernist relativism has powerfully undermined rational discourse as graduates have entered the wider world, eager to dispense social justice. Wolin observes that Post-Modernism has been co-opted in a recent resurgence in nationalism, while suggesting that as a line of academic inquiry it is discredited. Post-Modernism is often spurned by supporters of Neo-Marxism as politically unsound, reliant on philosophy that is tainted by obscurantism and authoritarianism. Yet the combination of Neo-Marxism and Post-Modernism – contradictory though they may be – is what has given the New Left intellectual traction in its attack on the pillars of the West: family, church, capitalism, science, nationhood.

The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism From Nietzsche to Postmodernism presents the kernel of Post-Modernism in the opposition of the Counter-Enlightenment to the humanism of the Enlightenment. The overlap between philosophy and politics is apparent in the way philosophy was used to justify political prejudices and the way politicians adopted philosophy to provide their positions with intellectual fibre. At the outset, Wolin writes that he does not wish to tar Post-Modernism with guilt by association, but rather to examine how principles that the Fascists advanced became embedded in Post-Modernism.

Friedrich Nietzsche’s aristocratic and anti-democratic proclivities steered his writing towards the espousal of elitism and the necessity of inspired might over consensus – the antithesis of liberal democracy. Nietzsche’s dictum “There are no facts, only interpretation,” is a favourite with teachers of gender and race studies, who use it to bolster the relativism of “personal truth”. Foucault found in Nietzsche support for the idea of power shaping knowledge. Claude Levi-Strauss saw the horrors of Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries as an inevitable extension of humanism. This correlates with Nietzsche’s prophecy of totalitarian regimes dominating a post-Christian Europe. Framing knowledge in terms of power becomes a tenet of Post-Modernism. “Jean-Francois Lyotard attained notoriety for his controversial equation of “consensus” with “terror”. The idea of an uncoerced, rational accord, argues Lyotard, is a fantasy. Underlying the veneer of mutual agreement lurks force.”

Carl Jung is conceived of as the Post-Modernist antithesis of Modernist Freud. Jung’s intuitive understanding of man’s eternal internal struggles to reconcile archetypes of the unconscious stood in stark contrast to Freud’s quasi-scientific teasing out of friction between conscious and subconscious. Jung posited a racial dimension to archetypes and went on to contrast the cerebral nature of Jews with the youthful vigour of Aryans. Fascism seemed to align well with Jung’s collective racial thinking and the idea of a Nietzschean shamanic figure taking command. In an interview in 1939, Jung nominated Hitler as such a figure. Jung was recipient of the Nazi state’s patronage through work with German institutions. Despite Jung subsequently distancing himself from Fascism, there is no doubting the sympathy between Jungian psychoanalytic theory, National Socialist racial ideology and Post-Modernist anti-rationalism.

Philosophers Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer were both sympathetic towards Nazism’s claims of Germanic intellectual and biological superiority, at times guardedly supportive (or more) in public actions and statements. Heidegger’s involvement in National Socialism is well documented. Here Wolin describes Gadamer’s propositions regarding the role of prejudice within judgment and his support for Plato’s anti-democratic Republic as advocacy of the unreason inherent in the Nazi Weltanschauung.

Georges Bataille, informed by study of history and ethnography, proposed an aesthetics of violent spectacle; his dwelling upon (and celebration of) degradation, perversion, suffering and destruction mark him as a precursor of Post-Modernist Post-Structuralists intent on destabilising a society founded on complacent materialism. Sexual libertinism (apparent in his erotic novel The Story of the Eye as well as his theoretical writing) is revolutionary because it returns sex to the sacramental function to be found in pagan societies of recent history and pre-history. The cult of primitivism is an alternative to the fallacy of rationalism which debilitates and denatures man. Transgression of the utilitarian law will give rise to the establishment of irrational laws of pre-Enlightenment culture, religious in essence. Advancing paganism, sacrifice (up to and including human sacrifice), the sovereignty of the mystical leader and communal bonding through observation and participation in the grand spectacle all distance Bataille equally from Enlightenment reason and Socialist materialism. Wolin situates Bataille (and his associates in the College of Sociology and the quasi-pagan Acéphale brotherhood) in the group of Left Fascism. Left Fascism, as Wolin describes it, is a rejection of liberalism, democracy and Enlightenment ratiocination and the adoption of Fascist methods for the advancement of the left. Many of Bataille’s associates of the 1930s and 1940s considered him a covert Fascist and thought his commitment to leftism was a cover for infatuation with Fascism. The final rupture between Bataille and André Breton’s Surrealists was a manifesto which included praise of Hitler. Bataille had included as signatories Breton and other Surrealists without consulting them.

Maurice Blanchot’s anti-Semitic and pro-Fascist journalism is cited as evidence of this thinker’s political sympathies. His post-war literary theories were influential on Post-Structuralists due to “the need to account for the rhetorical dimension of language, the focus on the perplexing ambiguities in literary texts, the problematic nature of citations, and the transfer of linguistic structures to the study of literature, psychology, cultural phenomena, history, and metaphysics.” “Literature’s essential characteristics are absence, silence, meaninglessness, and death.” Aside from their content, it was the deep seriousness and density of Blanchot’s texts which left a deep impression on intellectuals.

Jacques Derrida’s metaphysical word-games deconstruct philosophy and language yet also undermine themselves. A hermetic circularity is commenced, one that fails to offer anything but banal generalities, playful mischief and pervasive mistrust. Buoyed by a comforting wave of nihilism, followers of Derrida’s ideas are insulated from correction and refinement, free in the knowledge that political engagement was not only unnecessary but impossible. If “there is nothing outside the text” one might as well retreat into discourses on linguistic riddles and slippages in meaning. Foucault and Edward Said (among others) lambasted Derrida as a purveyor of weighty minutiae and of adopting the status of an oracular authority. Wolin quotes Michèle Lamont who observes that Derrida has gained credibility in the USA – and to a lesser extent, the UK – which have weak native traditions of leftism, but been rejected by European countries with strong leftist intellectual schools. Derrida’s link with Fascism is his criticism of law based on determinant certitude and legal positivism derived from logos, a set of positive firm attributes which he sees as fundamentally fallacious. In contrast, he stresses the deep irrationality of justice and the need for a mystical authority.

While Wolin’s assessment of influence of Fascist thinkers on Post-Modernism is accurate, he fails to fully identify Fascism as a variant of Socialism. (This is despite Wolin’s nuanced description of Mussolini’s syncretic adaptation of Marxism through the lens of Nietzsche and a discussion of Left Fascism.) Nazi National Socialism and Italian Fascism share many characteristics of Socialism, were allies of Socialist countries and adopted the forms and language of Socialism. Socialism is not the least component of Fascism. Wolin is in error conceiving of Fascism as irrational rightism in opposition to rational leftism, rather than identifying Fascism and leftism as two warring siblings sharing many traits. Wolin takes leftism at face value. “Historically, the left has been staunchly rationalist and universalist, defending democracy, egalitarianism, and human rights.”[v] Sporadically, yes. Yet it is Socialist regimes which were founded on opposition to democracy and the underlying motivation of leftist politics is sentiment not rationality. In Socialist states, human rights apply selectively, to be strategically withdrawn from opponents. Leftists support free speech when they are a dissident minority; when in power, leftists oppose free speech. Wolin fails to adequately highlight the utopian authoritarianism in the Old Left and the sectarianism in the New Left; his conflation of liberalism with leftism is a common error.

On the question of left unreason, Wolin seems a prisoner to the conception that unreason is primarily the prerogative of the political right. Yet it was the positioning of Neo-Marxists such as Gramsci, Horkheimer and Marcuse who dismissed the idea of reason as a tool to critique society. Facing a Late Capitalist society – with its privileges so entrenched in traditional forms and well defended with its weapons of capitalism, consumer goods, mass entertainment and representative democracy – was it not the Neo-Marxist thinkers who determined to avoid persuasion and instead infiltrate institutions to occupy key positions? Was the unreason of the New Left not an admission that tradition, capitalism and democracy could not be overcome by discussion alone and that force and terror may be necessary to combat these axes of oppression? Once these positions had been taken, was not the worm of unreason hollowing out the Western institutions over half a century as much a creation of the left as of the right?

In short, the rise of nationalist populism across the Western world is a reaction to neoliberal social and economic policies – a reaction which has taken the form of identity politics partly due to the legitimisation of the New Left, which has abandoned universalism.

Notwithstanding the reservations outlined above, The Seduction of Unreason is an informative, thoughtful and admirably clear dissection of the ties of Post-Modernism to Fascist thought and identifies Post-Modernist as essentially sceptical towards political liberalism and parliamentary democracy. Anyone wishing to study the intellectual origins of Fascism – and intellectual support for and collaboration with Fascism – will find The Seduction of Unreason a valuable guide.

 

Richard Wolin, The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism From Nietzsche to Postmodernism, second edition, Princeton University Press, 2019, paperback, $29.95/£24, ISBN 978 0 691 19235 2

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

 

Le Cabaret de l’informe: The Sculpture of Medardo Rosso

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[Image: Medardo Ross, Ecce puer (Beyond the Child) (1906), plaster coated with sealant, Museo Medardo Rosso]

The current exhibition of art Medardo Rosso (1858-1928) is staged like an intimate cabaret performance. (Medardo Rosso: Sight Unseen, Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London, closes 10 February 2018; full catalogue) With the velvet curtains across the door, no natural light and the spotlighting from above, it could be an exclusive brothel or a scene from a David Lynch film. The few heads on display are beautiful, peculiar, delicious and troubling. In this exclusive and luxurious setting (and high-end location, in a street known for its super-expensive boutiques selling jewellery, watches and clothing), we come to commune with something hidden and rare that combines the beautiful and disconcerting.

The display uses lighting carefully. Contemporary writers noted Rosso’s obsession with controlling lighting to increase the impact of his sculptures.[i] The exhibition comprises ten heads and two groups of sculpture, with two vitrines of drawings and photographs of drawings. The photographs are largely vintage prints of drawings, which Rosso printed to exhibit in place of the drawings – a novel decision at the time. The plinths are rough and worn, echoing the rugged and weathered character of the casts they display. It is commendable that the exhibition designers have chosen not to put all behind glass. With such delicate and valuable objects that must have been a conscious gamble to refrain from using glazing. (NB: Images show all the works without glazing.)

[Images: installation view, courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London . Paris . Salzburg. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates]

The selection of work, some of which is borrowed from Museo Medardo Rosso, Barzio, Italy, (including some of his best-known heads) is assembled in London. The early Carne altrui (The Flesh of Others) (1883-4) shows the head of a sleeping prostitute. It falls in line with the work of the Impressionists, with their interest in the anonymous members of the urban under-class, realistic subject matter and a desire to forge non-naturalistic styles to capture effects seen in life. A roughly modelled sculpture of a baby at a breast plays with illegibility, so strong are the marks of Rosso’s tools and fingers. Rosso was one of the few Italian artists who expressed an interest in the recent developments in French art. This played a part in Rosso’s decision to move to Paris, the centre of the avant-garde, in 1889.

The deep purple-mahogany woodgrain effect of Ecce puer (1906), cast in plaster stained with sealant, gives it an organic-mineral character. The impression of worn stone is common in Rosso’s heads. Features of anonymous figures are eroded or blurred as if by water or frost. We can also consider the sculpture of a veiled woman by Raffaelle Monti (1818-1881) especially in relation to Madame Noblet (c. 1897-8).

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[Image: Raffaelle Monti, Veiled Vestal (1847), marble]

Viewing statues of laughing figures is a curious experience in a way that it is not with paintings. Maybe it is the lack of pictorial distance and the existence of the insistent physical presence of an object sharing space with the viewer that makes sculpture more disconcerting to us. We are under the apprehension of being with a person and not having got the joke. Perhaps we are the subject of mockery or are in the presence of a hysteric. That freezing of a momentary action that is one of the more powerful and relatable instance of human contact we experience is significant. It is a joke we can never draw any amusement from, only observe in incomprehending alien fashion. Another unsettling aspect is the way figures are shown in motion, often close to toppling over. This adds to Rosso’s reputation as an Impressionist in that he captured transitory moments.

Rosso used colour in a manner that broke with the monochrome tradition of Italian statuary established in the Renaissance and furthered by Bernini. His colour choices depart from the monochromy of plain material, the tinting of stone by Canova and the polychromy of religious figures. He uses colour in an Impressionist manner – strong, non-naturalistic, roughly blended. In the wax cast of Bambino ebero (Jewish Boy) (c. 1892-4) is an assertively artificial yellow. This is an aspect of his art that is often overlooked.

Rosso produced only around 50 unique sculptures and nothing new after 1906. Most of these compositions were cast by the artist multiple times in different materials. He manipulated each cast, preferring to use fragile plaster and wax instead of bronze. Rosso became known in Paris for his theatrical casting, which privileged insiders, critics and collectors could witness. Rosso used casting as performance and photographs of his studio and his casts were sent by Rosso as postcards and published.

The vitrines contain drawings and vintage prints of photographs of drawings and sculptures which Rosso exhibited, distributed and published. Some of the drawings were made on scraps of hotel stationery, including envelopes. The drawings of figures and street scenes are small, rough, provisional and tonal. They are somewhat similar to Seurat’s, whose drawings Rosso should have known. As drawings they are not especially strong. The practice of using photographs of art as art is innovatory on a conceptual level and worthy of discussion.

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[Image: installation view, courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London . Paris . Salzburg. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates]

The impression of viewing a form which fluctuates between being and not being is characteristic of Rosso’s late sculpture. This quality of extreme mutability generates a type of anxiety we may associate with Georges Bataille’s definition of l’informe. The form before us evades exact classification and calls into question our certitude regarding all categories by being simultaneously of a member of exclusive sets and not of any single one. The informe indicates chaos and entropy and breaches the human ambiguity-discomfort threshold. Thinking about it does not help: the horror of chaos only impinges further. As an animal which evolved to crave the certainty of discerning the edible from the inedible and the spoor of the prey animal from that of the predator animal, homo sapiens seeks certainty above all else. Humans are not developed for dwelling upon the boundary-crossing and profoundly ambiguous. Yet think we must, for as problem-solvers we are drawn to the ambiguous and seek to either resolve the problem or at least grade it as an insoluble or unimportant problem so it can be set aside (however temporarily).

The idea of the informe was broached by Bataille in 1929 in the Surrealist journal Documents; it was revived by art theorists in the 1990s, who put it forward as a historical precursor to one strand of Late Modernist practice and Post-Modernist theory, namely the entropic. Artists such as Jackson Pollock, Allan Kaprow, Richard Serra, Eva Hess, Lynda Benglis and others used techniques which harnessed unpredictable physical properties of objects and substances to generate art they could not control in a fine manner, thereby violating one of traditions of art: that of the artist as a maker with supreme control of his materials. These artists did have some control over their materials in the way they selected and manipulated materials but this did not afford full control.

The informe of Rosso gives us material that resolutely refuses to subordinate itself to the designated form. It gives us the human form in fragmentary fashion but much of it remains unshaped; sometimes a majority of the material is unformed. In comparison to the quantity if figural matter, the proportionately large quantity of the unformed superfluous matter challenges the idea that the matter is in the service of representation. The unformed excess, the ostensible setting, takes on an importance by dint of its quantity. The lack of detail and degree of ambiguity in Rosso’s later heads give the impression of matter in the process of making form and form on the verge of returning to primordial matter. Rosso was known in his day for allowing the imperfections of his casts to remain and not be subject remedial post-casting processes. Thus rips, bubbles and cracks in casts, the prominent nails and sprues of the casting process and the excess slurry that would ordinarily have been removed or ameliorated remained as part of the final state of object.[ii] It is true that Rosso’s sculptures do display pure entropic formlessness but they infuse likenesses made in the consummate realistic Western tradition of modelled sculpture with the repugnant presence of unformed matter. Viewed retrospectively, these sculptures stand as precursors to both the abstraction of the Abstract Expressionists and the artful deformations of the Expressionists, Soutine and Francis Bacon.

Read a full review of three books about Rosso here: https://3rd-dimensionpmsa.org.uk/reviews/2019-02-06-medardo-rosso-sculpture-as-impressionism

 

6 February 2018

[i] Sharon Hecker, Medardo Rosso: Experiments in Light and Form, 2018, Pulitzer , p. 19

[ii] We should not neglect the aspect of debasement that Bataille mentioned in his definition. Semi-liquid slurry – especially when seen in conjunction with the human form – has the connotation of bodily waste and internal bodily substance which we abhor seeing openly, as this associated with injury and death. More broadly, such indistinct matter reminiscent of excreta and internal bodily substance is repellent and horrible to us as dangerous, filthy or irredeemable (that is, an injury so extreme that substantial internal matter was exposed was almost invariably fatal and thus literally unredeemable or unrepairable).

A Dictionary of Untranslatables

“Everyone who speaks a foreign language will have experienced the frustration of not being able accurately to translate a word of their native tongue, as well as the delight of encountering a new word which explains something not manifest in their own language. When the latter instance proves useful or common enough, it results in a loan word being introduced into another language. This occurs when the word describes something specific to a place or culture: kangaroo, kayak, manga, teepee, tsunami, typhoon.

“Loan words can also succinctly express something that is burdensomely complicated to describe: Gesamtkunstwerk (a complete work of art combining disciplines generally considered discretely); a portmanteau-word (a neologism which fuses two existing words and combines their meaning, for example ‘smog’ from ‘smoke’ and ‘fog’); and so forth. A further order is loan words which describe abstractions that are specific to a culture or are neologisms coined by writers to express particular concepts. In these cases, the very meaning of the words is difficult to translate; hence we get loan words such as Dasein, kitsch and nous.

“Just as there are no exact synonyms, there is no exact translation, as every word has different origins, connotations and usage. Beyond that, there are philosophical problems with the use of language itself…”

Read the full review on SPIKED, 11 July 2014 here:

http://www.spiked-online.com/review_of_books/article/blueprints-of-babel/15367#.Vd-CWvldU5k