A l’occasion de l’exposition en 2001 d’oeuvres de Salvador Dalì nouvellement acquises


Chris Will, curator of the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam


The Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum owns a number of works of art that are closely linked with the name and work of the French writer Isidore Ducasse. The makers of these works (two illustrated books, a set of prints and an object) - Salvador Dali, René Magritte and Man Ray - were all representatives of the surrealist movement. Who was this unknown nineteenth-century author, and why did the Surrealists regard him as a cult figure?

Les Chants de Maldoror

Lice of remarkable beauty that crawl like aspiring philosophers from cherished eggs; pubic hairs conversing in a brothel; sharks preparing duck-liver paté and cold soup from victims of drowning; a human-faced toad, as sad as the universe and as beautiful as suicide; covetous fingers prodding the lobes of innocent brains in order to smilingly prepare an effective unguent for the eyes; how Man. applauded by the crablouse and the adder, shits on the Creator's uplifted face for three days; devouring your mother's arms with gusto while she is still alive by tearing them off and cutting them into snippets...!
A random selection from a hallucinatory tissue of words, and there are plenty more in one of the most bizarre books of all time. Entitled Les Chants de Maldoror, it was published in 1869 by the Comte de Lautréamont, the`noble' pseudonym adopted by the Uruguayan-born Frenchman IsidoreLucien Ducasse (1846 - 1870). Ducasse died in 1870, aged 24, in the chaos of the siege of Paris during the Franca-Prussian war. His provocative ideas are presented in two books, Les Chants de Madoror (1869) and Poésies (1870), from which the author emerges as a man apparently deranged, possessing instinctive cruelty, nihilistic humour and extraordinary sexual prowess. The romantic epic of the anti-hero Maldoror consists of six `songs'. It is difficult to fathom. Rife with bombastic clichés, crazy Homeric epithets, absurd comparisons, unexpected banalities and pseudo-profundities, the work has a style entirely its own which is mystifying to the reader. One gets the feeling that absolutely everything is undermined, and that every passage is therefore questionable. Maldoror's overriding preoccupation is to combat God and humanity. The book is a swingeing onslaught on and total invalidation of Western society, the social system, institutions and ideologies. Often resorting to extreme parody, grotesquery and burlesque. cynicism and black humour, Ducasse brazenly takes up arms against the church, state and morals. In a letter to his Belgian publisher Verboeckhoven, Ducasse wrote: 'I have sung the praise of evil.' And indeed, his literary hero's name derives from evil: 'Mal d'Aurore' means the Dawn of Evil.

Embraced by the Surrealists

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the goal of the Dadaists and Surrealists was absolute freedom. They could identify with Ducasse's world of ideas, for imagination runs riot in Les Chants. Like Ducasse, these artists flouted convention, ridiculed values and standards, and launched their weapons of provocation and untrammelled imagination against the dictatorship of reason. The writer Louis Aragon came across Les Chants by chance in 1917. In 1918 he told the writer and physician André Breton, who was to pioneer the surrealist movement, about the book. Les Chants proved to be a mine of inspiration, and Isidore Ducasse became the Surrealists' hero. To the Surrealists his nihilistic 'poetry in prose' was pure écriture automatique. An example is the now famous comparison of a sixteen-year-old youth's beauty with 'the retraction of the claws of birds of prey, or the uncertainty of muscular spasms caused by wounds in the soft parts of the back of the throat... and above all the chance encounter of a sewing-machine and an umbrella on a dissecting-table.' André Breton regarded the last phrase in particular as a classic example of surrealist thought. The statement might be called a metaphor for one of the most important principles of the surrealist aesthetic: the enforced juxtaposition of two totally alien realities.

Series of Dali prints

In 1999 the museum acquired an unusual edition of Les Chants de Maldoror. Illustrated by Salvador Dal! (1904 - 1989), it was published in 1934 in Paris by Albert Skira, who was also the publisher of the surrealist magazine Minotaure (1933 - 1939). The new edition of Les Chants was a substantial volume of 207 pages, with 42 etchings by Dali: 30 full-page and 12 vignettes. The book is accompanied by a so-called 'suite': a looseleaf set of the same 42 etchings, many of whose lower margins show scribbled motifs that are missing in the book. Skira had planned 120 'suites' but due to financial problems only 40 were printed, on Vélin d'Arches paper. The book was not printed in the originally planned edition of 80 either, only 60 copies being produced. It was Pablo Picasso who proposed that Lautréamont's inspiring 'cult' book should be illustrated by his compatriot Dali, who has been introduced to it by the writer René Crevel. Dalì embarked on the task in 1932, drawing preliminary studies for some of the illustrations. He was approximately 28 years old when he made the series, about the same age as the 19th-century author of the bizarre texts who died so young. Dali deployed the entire arsenal of his characteristic imagery in his illustrations to Les Chants. The etcher's tool transformed the poet's satanic deluge of words into a paradigm of the artist's own 'criticalparanoid' method. In the like-minded artist, Les Chants evoked associations, hallucinations and deliriums which are linked with his 'personal myths'. For example, Dali quoted Jean-Francois Millet's popular painting The Angelus here for the first time. The well-known figures of the farmer and his wife sunk in prayer, standing in a potato field, appear in four etchings with items from Dal!'s typical vocabulary, such as flaccid parts of the body supported by crutches and distorted bones.
The museum's collection boasts another edition of Les Chants de Maldoror. In 1945 René Magritte (1898 - 1967) drew a remarkably humorous series of 13 fullpage illustrations and vignettes in a caricatural style for a Brussels edition of the book (1948). An object by the Surrealist Man Ray (1890 - 1976) shows quite a different approach. His works are often based on puns, and such is the case with L'Enigme d'Isidore Ducasse. Man Ray designed The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse in 1920, an unidentifiable object wrapped in a horse-blanket and secured with a piece of rope. The vague form of the object concealed by the blanket suggests a sewingmachine. Man Ray made the object for the express purpose of photographing it. The photograph appeared in Breton's introduction to the first number of the magazine La Révolution Surréaliste, which appeared in December 1924. The original object has been lost. In 1971 Man Ray made a reconstruction, which was issued as a multiple in an edition of ten by the Galleria Schwarz in Milan. In 1972, however, the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum purchased the object directly from the artist. The title and the object refer to Ducasse's comparison, quoted above, of beauty with the 'chance encounter of a sewingmachine and an umbrella on a dissectingtable'. Man Ray's object is a kind of portrait of this metaphor. He approaches the writer's work in an ironic but realistic fashion, while Ducasse's literature both attacks and denies reality. Man Ray brilliantly juggles with the words in the title and the form and content of his 'simple' object.

European review of modern prints, books and paper art

1rst issue 2000

[Reproduit avec l'aimable autorisation de Chris Will]

[De bonnes reproductions des illustrations de Dali sont disponibles sur le site de la
Weinstein Gallery
de San Francisco]