You’re either Dada or you’re not. Given that chance doesn’t belong to anyone, no more than the privilege of the absurd, I cover my eyes when I pick a book; it’s quite appropriate. Les Propos amorphes [Amorphous Remarks] by Jacques Rigaut … I could have done worse by letting my gloved hand float along the library shelves. I read the incipit right away, drunk with impatience: ‘Crouched on top of my piano, I am the Antichrist crowned with the funnel of a gramophone.’ Good old Rigaut, the crucified friend of Drieu, both of whom took the greatest delight in Rimbaud. Dada can lead to Dada: here’s the proof (1). The text, one of the few by this poet without a body of work, appeared in July 1920 … It was a time when visual artists, whether from laziness, satire or fertile whim, were perfecting the détournement of everyday objects and their conversion into reliquaries of a holy ideal uselessness. With nihilists there are always these unacknowledged yearnings after sanctification. Dada was no slouch in the matter of these transfers of value and these plays on forms, after the fashion of plays on words. Breton and his gang saw it as an inexpensive way of making themselves Freudians. Other masters of thought and subjugation fitted out Dadaist humour – Alfred Jarry, for example … In a little publishing gem, which accompanies an exhibition held up by the virus (which we can’t wait to see in Barcelona), Emmanuel Guigon and Georges Sebbag have carried out a fine exploration of the poetic uses of the gramophone prior to the one that ignited, in January 1938, the Exposition internationale du surréalisme: I’m talking about Jamais by Óscar Domínguez (2). Jarry belongs, in fact, among the forerunners, and perhaps among the forgotten sources, of this strange readymade, adapted, and above all, as we shall see, triply feminized. Phonographs and gramophones were bound to have fascinated the author of The Supermale and stimulated his bottomless tropism of sexual associations (3). Jarry first came across these little machines for reproducing sound and especially the human voice in 1889: the Exposition Universelle made Edison’s invention known to its millions of visitors. No one could believe their ears. But it was Jarry who immediately humanised its mechanisms, accessories and swirling curves to pour into it, in an astonishing text, the possibility of voicing more directly the amorous carnal relationship. When the black disc started to spin to the rhythm of the new avant-gardes of the 20th century, it amplified the erotic potential of this sound magic. Rigaut, an erotomaniac highly sensitive to the object, grabbed hold of it here and there, his black pen in his hand. In similar fashion the very combustible Óscar Domínguez (who also committed suicide, like Rigaut) conquered the Surrealists, from 1934-36, with his ‘objective’ assemblages, as funny as they were sadistic, and chic too: perfect, in short (4).
From the mid-1920s on, the audience for the group’s manifestations was very much gentrified, something the doxa still struggles to admit, clinging as it does to the idea that Breton and his friends despised money and the society on which they depended. In fact, these valiant knights of sovereign subversion essentially lived off the trade in paintings and colonial objects, a most honourable livelihood, as Simone Kahn was fond of recalling. Breton’s first wife, who certainly didn’t come from the gutter, had seen them at work, our dreamers with the soft white hands! The joyous mess of the 1938 exhibition at the Galerie des Beaux-Arts (owned by Georges Wildenstein) was a high point of fantasy and worldliness; and the press, as Guigon and Sebbag make clear, applauded the care with which Duchamp, Man Ray, Max Ernst, Dalí and Paalen orchestrated the 500 works and documents in the show, strewn in profusely among the dead leaves on the floor and the coal sacks that blackened the ceiling (5). At the very least, as we can see, the scenography mimicked the dark clouds that were gathering over the heads of those generations. This failed to dampen the good humour of the reviewers, of all stripes and colours. Let’s start with the most authoritative. The painter André Lhote, a freelance writer for Aragon’s communist evening paper Ce soir, did not hate this exhibition, which was hardly made for the paper’s readers; indeed, he said he was ‘bewitched’ by Domínguez’s Jamais, ‘where a hand caresses revolving breasts in the shadow of a phonograph horn engulfing a woman’s body’. Not much about class struggle in any of that, and not very Catholic … Otherwise, to scrutinize the opening with the more than caustic eye of Voilà, the 1938 show was fishing in waters other than the Volga red: ‘The All-Paris of rancid snobbery, art pederasty, lesbian bars and avant-garde aperitifs chattering in a kind of Musée Grévin for sad old students.’ Être belle, very possibly a sexist publication, also saluted, with accompanying caricature, the All-Paris that had responded so well to ‘the call of the Surrealists’. Domínguez’s object, more enticing than ever, stands out in the foreground of the illustration, as it does in the more vulgar Le Rire (our photo). We have kept the best for last: in Marianne, a centre-left cultural weekly edited by an old friend of Drieu’s, Emmanuel Berl, Maurice Henry, formerly with Le Grand Jeu and close to the Surrealists, signed a notice of Fénéon-like brevity: ‘On an all-white gramophone, the shadow of a hand relentlessly caresses plaster breasts: it is an object by Domínguez, absolutely real, with no optical illusion. One no longer knows where the imaginary begins.’ From Hoffmann on, the fantastic good has demanded this kind of disturbing porosity.
Yes, Jamais is a real Pathé 1906 gramophone metamorphosed by the pair of silk-encased legs being sucked into the horn, to which are added the hand in place of the pick-up and the pair of breasts rotating under its insistent caresses. The whole, very effusive, was coated in a virgin shade which clinically counterbalanced this blowing arabesque of membra disjecta. The horn looks less like Rigaut’s funnel than a woman’s skirt, and indexes not madness so much as the irrepressible impetus of two beings towards each other. Evidently, the caress is more a reference to auto-eroticism. Unconsciously, let’s dare to use the word, Jamais would hesitate between oneirism and onanism. Beyond the ‘Nevermore’ of Poe, Mallarmé and Manet, the title more likely resonates with the air of the cheap romance, a genre which delighted Lautrec, Jarry, the whole of the Revue blanche phalanx, Satie, Apollinaire, Max Jacob, the Cubists … Guigon and Sebbag have documented this paper trail with a re-reading of Breton’s Mont de piété, from 1919, a time when the poet set Ingres and Derain (who drew the book’s frontispiece) above all others. One of the poems refers to the vow of lovers inseparable ‘forever’. This was in the days when our Ariel didn’t really know what to do with the ladies (as Simone was to testify). What is more, in Anicet, the novel by Aragon which drapes a transparent veil over certain figures of the moment – in which Drieu, in his review (NRF, July 1921), saw a Dadaist act of liquidation still ensnared in the idealism it was supposed to overthrow – André Breton is baptised Baptiste Ajamais. We also meet Max Jacob, Cocteau and Picasso here, quite naively made-up. An amusing coincidence, scoop even, Guigon and Sebbag recently managed to track down Jamais, long thought to be lost, with their discovery that it came into Don Pablo’s possession shortly after the 1938 exhibition … at which Picasso, moreover, had shown two paintings of figures, including a famous tonic embrace. Domínguez and he, united forever, were digging the same furrow.
(1) On the subject of Dada versus Surrealism, see ‘Lachez tout’, Moderne, 11 August 2014 /// (2) Emmanuel Guigon and Georges Sebbag, Jamais. Óscar Domínguez and Pablo Picasso, Museu Picasso Barcelona (forthcoming). The Museu Picasso has restored this finally exhumed object, which belongs to Catherine Hutin, and will present it as a counterpoint to a beautiful selection of jewellery by Picasso, another new subject, another postponed exhibition. /// (3) As for Jarry, Bonnard, Eros and the Revue blanche spirit of circa 1900, see my forthcoming reissue of Verlaine’s sublime Parallèlement, Vollard edition (Hazan, October 2020). See also: ‘Jarry entre amis’, Moderne, 16 March 2014 /// (4) See Didier Ottinger (ed.), Dictionnaire du object surréaliste, Gallimard / Musée national d’art modern–Centre Pompidou, 2013 // / (5) On the commercial unthinking of the Surrealist enterprise and the idealising bashfulness of art history, see my cursive development (‘Apothéose inutile’) in L’Art en péril. Cent œuvres dans la tourmente 1933-1953, Hazan, 2015, p. 44-45.
Author: Stéphane Guégan