The Desire to Reach for The Stars

A Star Caresses the Breast of a Negress (Painting Poem),  Joan Miró, 1938

 
 

Joan Miró’s ‘painting-poems’ combine painted and written elements. This work was built around the first line of an erotic poem, balancing words and signs. The two touching triangles represent a woman in Miró’s language of signs, and the bulbous outline with hairs relates to his usual sign for the female sex. The star appears only as a word, although the ladder alludes to the desire to reach for the stars. This exemplifies Miró’s ability to combine simple imagery with ancient symbolism and make contact with deeply held instincts.

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Mirroring the Spanish Civil War

Femme nue montant l’escalier (Naked Woman Climbing a Staircase), Joan Miró, 1937

 
 

Miró created Naked Woman Climbing a Staircase during the Spanish Civil War. He was living in Paris when he started to attend life drawing classes at the school of the Grande Chaumiere. Miró returned to constructing the human figure to represent the drama that was then taking place in Catalonia. This feeling can be made out in the shapes used to draw this tortured nude woman climbing a staircase.

According to the Joan Miró Foundation, “Miró’s despondency brought about by the moral tragedy of the war can be seen in the violent metamorphosis of the figure, in her heavy limbs and in the effort involved in climbing.” At the top right is a kind of window or box where light rays can be seen entering the room. The woman is using her right arm to try to grab a ladder – this was a symbol that Miró used in several of his works to represent evasion or escape. The external genitals of the woman are similar to those of the woman in Man and Woman in Front of a Pile of Excrement as they are exaggerated in size. This work is said to be related to Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, made by Marcel Duchamp, although here the woman is ascending. The distortion and effort of the figure are interpreted as mirroring the Spanish Civil War.

Gifts To A High Class Ecdysiast

Photo by Fred Palumbo, 1956

 
 

The performer with stage name Gypsy Rose Lee was born in Seattle, Washington, on February 9, 1911, as Rose Louise Hovick. She died of lung cancer in Los Angeles in 1970. June Havoc was her only full sibling.

In response to a request from Gypsy Rose Lee for a “more dignified” way to refer to her profession, and trying to describe what she was (a “high-class” stripper), H. L. Mencken coined the word “ecdysiast” – from “ecdysis”, meaning “to molt”.

 
 

 
 

She was also an actress, author, and playwright whose 1957 memoir was made into the stage musical (Gypsy: A Musical Fable by Arthur Laurents) and film Gypsy (Mervyn LeRoy, 1962) starring Rosalind Russell, Natalie Wood and Karl Malden.

While she worked at Minsky’s Burlesque, Gypsy Rose Lee had relationships with an assortment of characters, from comedian Rags Ragland to Eddy Bruns. In Hollywood, she married Arnold “Bob” Mizzy on August 25, 1937, at the insistence of the film studio. Gypsy was at one time in love with Michael Todd and in 1942, in an attempt to make him jealous, she married William Alexander Kirkland; they divorced in 1944. While married to Kirkland, she gave birth on December 11, 1944, to a son fathered by Otto Preminger; he was named Erik Lee and has been known successively as Erik Kirkland, Erik de Diego, and Erik Preminger. Gypsy Lee was married for a third time in 1948, to Julio de Diego, but they also eventually divorced.

 
 

Gypsy Rose Lee, Max Ernst, 1943

 
 

The walls of her Los Angeles home were adorned with pictures by Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, and Dorothea Tanning, all of which were reportedly gifts to her by the artists themselves. Like Picasso, she was a supporter of the Popular Front movement in the Spanish Civil War and raised money for charity to alleviate the suffering of Spanish children during the conflict. “She became politically active, and supported Spanish Loyalists during Spain’s Civil War.

Honey is Sweeter Than Blood

“! O friendship, how piercing are your darts..”

Virginia Woolf

The Waves

 
 

We know from correspondence with Federico García Lorca and other friends of the painter such as Sebastià Gasch that Salvador Dalí used to refer to the now-disappeared painting as the Apparatus Forest, while on this oil painting we can clearly read in the lower left-hand corner: Etude pour “Le miel est plus douce que la sang” [sic]. The highly poetical expression of the title takes its inspiration, as Dalí explains in The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, from words used by Lídia de Cadaqués: “[…] Lídia began to pluck it, and soon the whole room was covered in feathers. When this operation was over, she cleaned the chicken, and with her fingers dripping with blood, she began to pull out its viscera which she arranged neatly on a separate dish on the crystal table, where I had laid a very expensive book of facsimiles of the drawings of Giovanni Bellini. Observing that I jumped up anxiously to remove the book against the possibility of splashing, Lydia smiled bitterly, and said, “Blood does not spot” and then she immediately added this sentence, which a malicious expression in her eyes charged with erotic hidden meanings, “Blood is sweeter than honey. I,” she went on, “am blood, and honey is all the other women! My sons…” (this she added in a low voice) “at this moment are against blood and are running after honey.’”

 
 

The Rotting Donkey, Salvador Dalí,  1928

 
 

This work is also of great interest due to its being the study for a now-disappeared painting called Honey is Sweeter than Blood, dating from 1927. In the Study we might particularly note the same iconographic features that make the finished work so special: the apparatuses, the severed head, the blood, the rotting donkey, etc., features that refer us back to the painter’s “new aesthetic” and in which we can observe the first clear references to Surrealism. This “new aesthetic” is the one formally announced in some of his articles published in L’Amic de les Arts, such as Sant Sebastià or La meva amiga i la platja, and also discussed with his friend the poet García Lorca in the letters they exchanged over that period.

We are likewise aware that Dalí’s pictorial work cannot be separated from his written work. This characteristic trait of the painter’s trajectory arose at this very time, while he was gestating Honey is Sweeter than Blood and therefore engaged in this study for that work. These paintings and the text are indicative of a turning point in Dalí’s art following a period of several years in which he had been experimenting with a broad diversity of modern and contemporary styles.

 
 

Study for Honey is Sweeter than Blood, Salvador Dalí, 1926. Dalí placed a likeness of Lorca’s head, with its neck severed, eyes wide open, and a trickle of blood seeping from its mouth near the donkey.

 
 

Apparatus and Hand (1927)

It is a landmark work that, along with Little Ashes and Apparatus and Hand represents Dalí’s first mature articulation of the neurotic dream-like imagery for which he is best known.

 
 

Honey is Sweeter than Blood (1926)

 
 

Aside from Parisian Surrealism and Brueghel however, the primary, overriding and determining influence on both Honey is Sweeter than Blood and Study for Honey is Sweeter than Blood was that of Dalí’s closest friend and confidant at this time, the poet Frederico Garcia Lorca. Lorca had spent the month of July with Dalí in Cadaqués and it was he who gave these works their original title of The Wood of Gadgets while also seeming to have inspired their later title writing to Dalí about the headless female corpse that appears in both paintings that, ‘the dissected woman is the most beautiful poem about blood you can create’ (Frederico Garcia Lorca, letter to Dalí quoted in Félix Fanés Salvador Dalí: The Construction of the Image 1925-1930 , London, 2007, p. 67).

As stated before, Honey is Sweeter than Blood and the study for it are thus works that mark a process of stylistic change in which there appear some elements from the previous period, such as the severed heads that reveal to us the stamp of his new classicism, and particularly the influence of Pablo Picasso (Table in front of the Sea, 1926; Still Life by Moonlight, 1926; Composition with Three Figures;  Neo-Cubist Academy, 1926) ; objects that become “pieces of apparatus” and that show Dalí’s interest in “machinism”.  We also have the initial influences of other contemporary artists such as Joan Miró, Yves Tanguy and particularly Giorgio de Chirico.

The phrase ‘honey is sweeter than blood’ is one that seems to have haunted Dalí at this time. It crops up in numerous instances in his life, its most notable appearance perhaps being in his book The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí where as Dawn Ades has pointed out, Dalí describes the solitary pleasure of masturbation as ‘sweeter than honey’ while Lorca is said to have regarded sexual intercourse as a fearful ‘jungle of blood’ (D. Ades, Dalí, The Centenary Retrospective, London, 2005, p. 90). Fear of sex and the female along with the guilt, pleasure and addiction of masturbation are constant themes running through much of Dalí’s work of this period culminating in his 1929 paintings The Lugubrious Game and The Great Masturbator. Here, in Study for Honey is Sweeter than Blood such fetishistic motifs appear to be being born on the grey sandy beach-like plain cutting across the picture plain after the mutilation of a female corpse. It is Lorca’s face too that appears in this work as a decapitated double-sided head split in two and dissecting its mysterious diagonal borderline of sea-bed/plain and sea/sky.

At the heart of Lorca’s influence on these paintings however, stands his and Dalí’s shared obsession with Saint Sebastian. Already having informed much of Dalí’s work, the poet and the painter had developed a kind of coded language of association about the Saint, both recognising a part of themselves and each other in the story of this agonised martyr. Here, the cold, geometric machine-like needles or eye tacks puncturing the skin-like surface of the plain echo the nature of Sebastian’s martyrdom, while the split head seems to indicate a notion of a one-person duality in the form of Dalí and Lorca. In the final painting Dalí’s own visage appears on the head lying near the headless female corpse, while here, the sleeping head simultaneously bordering land and sky seems to anticipate the later soft sleeping heads able to transcend different realms and realities that Dalí frequently depicted in his work of the late 1920s and early ’30s. The veins and blood vessels visible in the top half of this head are echoed elsewhere in the picture on other truncated limbs, sprouting like a forest and also in what appears to be a small shoal of red fish swimming in the sky-like sea. This predisposition towards diagrammatic tree-like veins appears, like most the elements of this painting, in different but extended form in Apparatus and Hand and are derived from Dalí’s fascination with an illustration in an advertisement for a cure for varicose veins. With their coral-like forms, they also echo the use of red coral as a symbol of Christ’s blood in much Spanish religious painting.

Continuing the pervasive theme of a painful collusion between cold hard-edged mechanical form and soft, blood giving flesh, the central image of this picture is a decapitated female corpse with truncated arms and legs pouring blood into the soil which elsewhere seems to sprout into vein-like trees. This, along with the fetishistic image of a pair of disembodied breasts, perhaps another symbol of martyrdom referring to that of Saint Agatha, is also seemingly attacked by metallic needles and shown floating in the sky, while the arms of the corpse are seemingly depicted in a dual state of growth and decay on the beach. Reminiscent of a number of ‘headless women’ created by Max Ernst at this time, the mutilation of the female nude is a clear anti-art act and symbol, but also one celebrated here as an apparent source of life-blood and creativity. Nearby and in direct contrast, lies another anti-art symbol: one of the quintessential Dalínean images of putrefaction: the rotting donkey.

Perhaps most familiar now from its appearance in Dalí and Luis Buñuel‘s shocking first feature film Le Chien andalou, the image of the rotting donkey carcass surrounded by flies was a staple of many of Dalí’s pictures in the 1920s. A symbol of horror and repulsion and of the ugliness of reality with which avant-garde artists wished to challenge the complacency and bourgeois values of the traditional society they abhorred, the rotting donkey invokes a rich seam of satire known as ‘the putrefact’, that, as Dawn Ades has pointed out, was ‘mined in numerous drawings by the group in the Residencia de Estudiantes in Madrid which included Dalí, Lorca and Pepin Bello who was credited with inventing the term… The origin of the ‘putrefying’ donkey itself lies in a sentimental tale by the ‘arch putrefact’ as Dalí called him, the poet Juan Ramon Jiménez (whose) Platero y Yo recounts the life and death of a beloved donkey’ (ibid, p. 92). Here, as it was to appear in numerous other Dalí works, the artist has depicted this donkey decomposing into the soil of the painting surrounded by flies – another hard and horrifying anti-artistic symbol of the dark, nightmarish side of life, not usually associated with fine art.

As Dalí was also at pains to point out in an article he wrote about these works in 1928 however, all this horror takes place not in the real world, but within the magical realm of the picture plane. ‘We can verify,’ he wrote, ‘that the decapitated figures live their perfect, organic life, they rest in the shadow of the bloodiest vegetation without getting bloodstained, and they go on stretching out naked on the sharpest, spikiest surfaces of very special marble, without risk of death’ (Salvador Dalí, ‘Nous limits de la pintura’, 1928, quoted in Feliz Fanés Salvador Dalí: The Construction of the Image 1925-1930, London, 2007, p. 67).

The Sculptor of Images

Originally published on February 11, 2013

 
 

Self-Portrait. Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002)

 
 

“On the stormy New Year’s Eve of 1925, the liner Versailles reached Halifax from Beirut. After a voyage of twenty-nine days, her most excited passenger in the steerage class must have been a seventeen-year-old Armenian boy who spoke little French, and less English. I was that boy.

My first glimpse of the New World on a steely cold, sunny winter day was the Halifax wharf, covered with snow. I could not yet begin to imagine the infinite promise of this new land. For the moment, it was enough to find myself safe, the massacres, torture, and heartbreak of Armenia behind me. I had no money and little schooling, but I had an uncle, my mother’s brother, who was waiting for me and recognized me from a crude family snapshot as I stepped from the gangplank. George Nakash, whom I had not seen before, sponsored me as an immigrant, guaranteed that I would not be a “public charge,” and traveled all the way from his home in Sherbrooke, Quebec, for our meeting — the first of his many great kindnesses.

We went up from the dock to the station in a taxi, the likes of which I had never seen — a sleigh-taxi drawn by horses. The bells on their harnesses never stopped jingling; the bells of the city rang joyously to mark a new year. The sparkling decorations on the windows of shops and houses, the laughing crowds — for me it was an unbelievable fantasy come true. On the two-day journey to my uncle’s home, I marveled at the vast distances. The train stalled in a deep snowdrift; we ran out of food; this situation, at least, was no novelty for me.

I was born in Mardin, Armenia, on December 23, 1908, of Armenian parents. My father could neither read nor write, but had exquisite taste. He traveled to distant lands to buy and sell rare and beautiful things — furniture, rugs, spices. My mother was an educated woman, a rarity in those days, and was extremely well read, particularly in her beloved Bible. Of their three living children, I was the eldest. My brothers Malak and Jamil, today in Canada and the United States, were born in Armenia. My youngest brother, Salim, born later in Aleppo, Syria, alone escaped the persecution soon to reach its climax in our birthplace.

It was the bitterest of ironies that Mardin, whose tiers of rising buildings were said to resemble the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and whose succulent fruits convinced its inhabitants it was the original Garden of Eden, should have been the scene of the Turkish atrocities against the Armenians in 1915. Cruelty and torture were everywhere; nevertheless, life had to go on — albeit fearfully — all the while. Ruthless and hideous persecution and illness form part of my earliest memories: taking food parcels to two beloved uncles torn from their homes, cast into prison for no reason, and later thrown alive into a well to perish; the severe typhus epidemic in which my sister died, in spite of my mother’s gentle nursing. My recollections of those days comprise a strange mixture of blood and beauty, of persecution and peace.

I remember finding brief solace in my young cousin relating her Thousand and One Nights tales of fantastic ships and voyages and faraway people, and always, solace in the example of my mother, who taught me not to hate, even as the oppression continued.

One day, I returned from school, my forehead bleeding. I had been stoned by Turkish boys who tried to take away my only playthings, a few marbles. “Wait,” I told my mother defiantly, “from now on I am the one who will carry stones.” My mother took me in her arms and said, “My son, they do not know what they are doing. However, if you must retaliate — be sure you miss!”

My mother’s generosity, strength, and hope sustained our family. She took into our home a young Armenian girl, shared our few morsels of food with her, and encouraged her to use her hands instead of her eyes, which had been cruelly mutilated. My mother herself seemed tireless. She had to go every day to the distant mountain spring which was the one source of water for the whole community. Allowed only one small pail, she would wait patiently in line for hours to get enough water for her children. Running water, to me, is still a great blessing.

In 1922, our family was allowed to flee. We had to leave our doors open — with us we took no baggage, only our lives. And we had to flee on foot. During our month-long journey with a Bedouin and Kurdish caravan, which would have taken only two days by the forbidden train, my parents lost every valuable they had managed to save. My father’s last silver coin went to rescue me after I was caught foolishly making a sketch of piled-up human bones and skulls, the last bitter landmark of my country.

In the safety of Aleppo, Syria, my father painstakingly tried to rebuild our lives. Only those who have seen their savings and possessions of a lifetime destroyed can understand how great were the spiritual resources upon which my father must have drawn. Despite the continual struggle, day after day, he somehow found the means to send me to my Uncle Nakash, and to a continent then to me no more than a vague space on a schoolboy’s map.

Uncle Nakash was a photographer of established reputation, still a bachelor when I went to live with him, and a man of generous heart. If my first day at Sherbrooke High School proved a dilemma for the teachers—in what grade did one place a seventeen-year-old Armenian boy who spoke no English, who wanted to be a doctor, and who came armed only with good manners? — the school was for me a haven where I found my first friends. They not only played with me instead of stoning me, but allowed me to keep the marbles I had won. My formal education was over almost before it began, but the warmth of my reception made me love my adopted land.

I roamed the fields and woods around Sherbrooke every weekend with a small camera, one of my uncle’s many gifts. I developed the pictures myself and showed them to him for criticism. I am sure they had no merit, but I was learning, and Uncle Nakash was a valuable and patient critic.

It was with this camera that I scored my first photographic success. I photographed a landscape with children playing and gave it to a classmate as a Christmas gift. Secretly, he entered it in a contest. To my amazement, it won first prize, the then munificent sum of fifty dollars. I gave ten dollars to my friend and happily sent the rest to my parents in Aleppo, the first money I could send to them.

Shortly afterward my uncle arranged my apprenticeship with his friend John H. Garo of Boston, a fellow Armenian, who was recognized as the outstanding portraitist in the eastern states. Garo was a wise counselor; he encouraged me to attend evening classes in art and to study the work of the great masters, especially Rembrandt and Velázquez. Although I never learned to paint, or to make even a fair drawing, I learned about lighting, design, and composition. At the Public Library, which was my other home in Boston, I became a voracious reader in the humanities and began to appreciate the greater dimensions of photography.

My interest lay in the personalities that influenced all our lives, rather than merely in portraiture. Fostered by Garo’s teachings, I was yearning for adventure, to express myself, to experiment in photography. With all my possessions packed in two suitcases, I moved to Ottawa. In the capital of Canada, a crossroads of world travel, I hoped I would have the opportunity to photograph its leading figures and many foreign international visitors.

My life had been enriched by meeting many remarkable personalities on this photographic odyssey, the first of many, to record those men and women who leave their mark on our era. It would set a pattern of working away from my studio. Any room in the world where I could set up my portable lights and camera—from Buckingham Palace to a Zulu kraal, from miniature Zen Buddhist temples in Japan to the splendid Renaissance chambers of the Vatican — would become my studio.”

 
 

Tennessee Williams

 
 

Wystan Hugh Auden

 
 

Albert Camus

 
 

Sir George Bernard Shaw

 
 

Ernest Hemingway

 
 

Vladimir Nabokov

 
 

Sir John Buchan, Governor of Canada

 
 

Jacques Cousteau

 
 

Martin Luther King Jr.

 
 

Muhammad Ali

 
 

Nelson Mandela

 
 

Albert Einstein

 
 

Jackie & John Fitzgerald Kennedy

 
 

Queen Elizabeth II & Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh

 
 

Rainier III Grimaldi, Prince of Monaco & Princess Grace Kelly

 
 

Audrey Hepburn & Mel Ferrer

 
 

Humphrey Bogart

 
 

Lauren Bacall

 
 

Audrey Hepburn

 
 

Grace Kelly

 
 

Anita Ekberg

 
 

Ana Magnani

 
 

Brigitte Bardot

 
 

Jacqueline Lee Bouvier

 
 

Elizabeth Taylor

 
 

Joan Crawford

 
 

Sophia Loren with her son Edoardo

 
 

Martha Graham

 
 

Alberto Giacometti

 
 

Max Ernst

 
 

Alexander Calder

 
 

Isamu Noguchi

 
 

Josef Albers

 
 

Henry Moore

 
 

Man Ray

 
 

Joan Miró

 
 

Andy Warhol

 
 

Georgia O´Keeffe

 
 

Pablo Picasso

 
 

Norman Rockwell

 
 

Walt Disney

 
 

Frank Lloyd Wright

 
 

Mies van der Rohe

 
 

Charles Édouard Jeanneret-Gris (Le Corbusier)

 
 

Alfred Hitchcock

 
 

Christian Dior