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Toe to Head: Magritte and Bataille

04/26/2014 11:09 AM | Deleted user

One of the first wall labels we encounter at the recent Museum of Modern Art show, Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary aligns us upon a certain trajectory for thinking about surrealism’s project. The painting, Entr’acte (1927), we are told, vis Magritte,  “shows his preoccupation with bodily fragmentation.” And, for sure, there it is scattered all around the galleries of MOMA, a body in pieces; morselized limbs and feet, torsos minus heads, arms as cudgels and orphaned skulls, breasts, legs and feet. The dates of the works in the show range from the late 1920s when Magritte was living and working in Paris, and was at his closest to André Breton and the Paris group of surrealist artists and writers, up through the 1930s when he had returned to the more parochial scene of Brussels. And given those dates there is no doubt the human and psychological detritus of World War 1 foreshadows this “preoccupation” of Magritte’s. Unsurprisingly, it was not a lonely preoccupation. Many a contemporary of his, on either side of the now defunct –but soon to be rehabilitated– Western front would attest in their own work to this same preoccupation. In Germany, Otto Dix cornered the field for rendering  “war cripples.” In France the traumatized body surfaces –merely staying within the surrealist group– in photographs by Brassai, and Jacques Andre Boiffard, in the collages of Max Ernst and the assemblages of Hans Bellmer, to name only the most obvious. This same figuration deformed, or is it re-formed, human body executed by many of the most notable of the surrealists including Magritte would later adorn the covers of the surrealist journal  Minotaure.  And importantly, as our concerns will develop here, within said journal we will find essays by a youthful Lacan; especially one on the notorious crime of the Papin sisters, wherein aforementioned sisters murdered and gruesomely dismembered their employers. Indeed Lacan was attentive to and “inspired” by, as Elizabeth Rudinesco offers (1990, p 26), the “encounter between the Freudian unconscious, language and the decentering of the subject” that he witnessed in his various outings with of the Surrealist group. In short, while war cripples inhabited the paintings and the streets of Europe, it is fair to say that the disorganized body is everywhere in surrealism. For the surrealists this was not mere reportage of the recent hostilities. Indeed, in the shadow of and very much contrary to the nation’s loudly promoted “Return to Order” (Lyford, p7) the Surrealist project sought to disorganize the very social body of the good bourgeoisie of France.The Paris that Magritte found himself in in the interwar years was one of the centers of the European avant-gardes. Dada’s moment of doubt and fame had passed in Zurich. Founder Hugo Ball was already eying a return to Catholicism, co-conspirator Richard Hulsenbeck, back in Berlin as early as 1919, was organizing a Dada cell there while by the 1920s many of the other originals had moved to sundry European cities –and Europe’s North American outpost, New York– to establish the heterodox future of their movement. In Paris Tristan Tzara author of the first published Dada manifesto, (the prior Dada manifesto by Ball had been read out but not published) was eagerly embraced by Breton’s circle. Though Breton allied himself with Tzara and Dada, he also sought to shift the center of gravity toward his own concerns with the legacies of Arthur Rimbaud, and Guilliame Apollinaire. In the former he identified a poetry that most prefigured the surrealist cannon-to-be, while from the latter he borrowed, and rode to apotheosized heights, the word surrealism. Thus, if Breton was to ultimately be in charge, and he surely was –he was dubbed the Pope of Surrealism– the mantle of Dada was to be shared with those of Rimbaud, and Apollinaire.

The missing player in this coalition, thus far, is Freud. As read by Breton and Co., psychoanalysis –its particular version of an unconscious, its techniques of word association– was little short of the muse to all future poetry. It is often said that Freud came late to France. He lacked an invitation on grounds both anti-German and anti-Semitic is the frequent conceit. Roudinesco argues somewhat differently that Freud was there in clinicians’ minds as early as 1914. But he was there less as a clinical technique she argues and more as psychobiograpical tutor, a way of conceptualizing a conflated picture of pathology and personality. (Roudinesco 1990, p12) However, Freud’s most open invitation to France is not medical –though not exactly not clinical (see below)– but literary. Breton and Louis Aragon friends, surrealists in the making and medical students during World War 1, tried their hands at psychoanalytic technique. 1917 finds medical student Breton as an orderly in a psychiatric unit in Saint Dezier. His population is the ‘war cripples’ of many a painting to be. Flush with rudimentary psychoanalytical knowledge Breton interviews the patients, “able” one biographer attests, “to try out experimentally on the patients the process of psychoanalytical investigation.” (Balakian, p27)

We do not know of Breton’s clinical acumen, or indeed true details of his clinical practice. The scene is perhaps most important as a prologue to the fudged boundaries between the clinical and the literary that he is already courting. 1920’s French attitudes toward insanity, despite the efforts of dynamic psychiatry remained hungover with notions of degeneracy. The Freudian unconscious, as Breton et. al read it, was not a withering away from some ideal non-degenerate form of good European, who knew his place in class and nation  –and would return to that place in class and nation post- hostilities. It was rather a potential, an access point to The Marvelous: that magical philosopher’s stone of Surrealism where the quotidian abruptly became extraordinary, surreal. Appropriated thusly this theory of the unconscious sanctioned a part of human existence that was neither rational nor constrained by reason. In doing so it undid the whole logic of degeneracy. In 1920s Europe reason itself seemed as a swindle, if nothing else Verdun and the Somme showed that. In this context the Freudian unconscious was neither a moment of pathology, nor a sign of degeneracy; it was rather at work relentlessly undoing the reasoning subject. Though it was neither Bolshevik, nor Spartacist, in Surrealist hands psychoanalysis was certainly not going to be part of France’s return to order. In this manner two largely German accents –Freud and Dada– arrive in Paris via the proto-surrealists.

T.J. Clark has recently offered that, “It is very hard for us . . . to conjure back the feeling of the circumstances in which, for much of the 20th century, modern art got made.” (Clarke, 2000, p.6)  A world war round the corner behind them, a world war round the corner ahead of them, incipient or actual fascism afoot, artists across Europe were reimagining a social form as much as the form of the work itself. Dada artists had abandoned national affiliations (albeit temporarily) by reclusing themselves in Zurich. Breton and the other surrealists were busily abandoning the coordinates of their bourgeois caste: Breton ditched medical school, there were relentless public excoriating attacks upon the clergy and the venerated cultural elite and most individual surrealists sought a close affiliation with the communist party. It was as if an identity that would not go along with the low dishonesty of the times was the task of modernism itself.  And so, writing with Louis Aragon in 1928, Breton valorized ‘madness’ itself announcing that, “hysteria was the greatest poetic discovery of the latter part of the century.” (Roudinesco 1990, p7)  In this embrace of madness Breton et al genuflected before Augustine, Charcot’s young hysteric of much photographic fame from The Salpêtrière. They saw the hysteric’s body as “a supreme vehicle of expression.” (Roudinesco 1990, p6). In its way –Breton fulminated– hysteria was not pathology at all but a form of poetic utterance. And in its way this argument of Breton’s is the struggle of modern art, of modernism; it is the struggle to find the right form.  Breton and the poets and painters he gathered around him were struggling to find, through automatism, the right form for a poetry of 1920s Europe. With automatic writing, with free association, with dream imagery it seemed to them that they had learned their lessons from ‘madness’ and from psychoanalysis.

In this image rich history of the Salpêtrière, which was embraced by the surrealists, and with Magritte’s “preoccupation,” we see the infirm and broken body as a nodal point of that struggle.  Whatever form it is that the body will deploy, it is not a voluntary body. Rather it is impelled by trauma in its amputations or contortions and by unconscious impulses in its desires. What shall the evolving social subject of a destroyed Europe wear as its outer skin or form? How will the mutileés return to being French men? Split and riven by trauma, by trench warfare or rape, as in the case of many of Charcot’s hysterics, the body, the subject of an evolving European modernity, was in need of renegotiation.

Against this interwar chaos it can be said that Magritte has a style of painting, of rendering, wherein the rendered object is visually clear and recognizable (his style has ungenerously been referred to as a ‘paint by numbers’ style). Yet the dynamic at play within the painting, either between elements within the canvas or in the dynamic of reading set up between canvas and viewer, hinges upon visual or linguistic misrecognition. “This is not a pipe,” Magritte assures us. Neither the image painted nor this word “this” is a pipe. Such semiotic mischief generically undoes representation, but also, and more importantly for our concern here, such images as The Titanic Days(1928) or The Acrobat’s Ideas (1927) present a non-congruent rendering of a human form. A human form not bounded and not delimited, even though at first glance it appears to be so. Imaginary misrecognitions such as these abound in the work, alongside doppelgangers in bourgeois bowler hats and mutilated, wounded human bodies. Formally his painting is bland, unimaginative, pedestrian but the bodies formed and the sense of identity formation that they convey is of the monstrous, the deformed or the un-forming. Notwithstanding the clichéd presence of Magritte posters in sophomore dorm rooms the imaged human forms he deploys are unsettling and disorienting.

Two registers then; the visually seen and the affectively known. I see clearly and I feel haunted. I see clearly, yet I feel an uncanny presence. Magritte is exploiting a certain aspect of rendering, to wit resemblance. Despite their style his paintings never, of course, achieve the status of photographic verisimilitude. And yet their proxy style for realistic rendering toys with and courts a certain truth-value that photography claims as its own. In the inevitable Magritte twist, that truth claim is torqued beyond tolerance. The contract come swindle Magritte’s paintings propose is that what you are seeing exists beyond the canvas’ rectangle in the world. This proposition is not believed exactly, but the viewer’s grasp of what they see toggles back and forth in some imprecise space of knowledge and disavowal.

In appropriating this terrain of rendered visibility –resemblance– the paintings also invoke a quality of the viewer. If there is a coherence to what the viewer sees, is there not surely a coherence to the viewer, a unified coherent form of identity lurking somewhere in the proximity of the spectator. By proposing this and pulling the rug out from under said contract Magritte spikes this imaginary formation of identity. It is here, on the far side of the failed proposition of coherent identity that the affectively known is found.

Rosalind Krauss, in writing about surrealist photography, nails this psychic operation that Magritte is negotiating on the far side of this imaginary contract. After invoking Lacan’s theory of the imaginary constitution of subjectivity, or more accurately his theory of the failure to constitute a coherent subjectivity. (Which is in turn an attempt to rethink Freud’s failed proposition of a coherent ego.), Krauss offers:

“To produce the image of what one fears in order to protect oneself from what one fears is the strategic achievement of anxiety, which arms the subject in advance against the onslaught of trauma, the blow that takes one by surprise.” (Krauss 86)

The blows, the traumas, are many and varied. And indeed Surrealism saw itself, at least in part, as in the business of administering such blows to the French social body already on its knees from WW1. It is Krauss who offers a thread to follow here through the bewildering maze of traumas.  Against the modernist quest of finding a form she invokes, in her words, “renegade surrealist Georges Bataille.”(p57) It is Bataille’s motif of the formless or, in Krauss’s rendering the unformed, that is to be mobilized to hold the renegade line. Formless arises in Bataille’s journal Documents. The journal, his “war machine against received ideas,” was published between 1929 and 1930 and was a precursor to the already mentioned, much more well known, more highly produced and far less war-machine like Surrealist journal Minotaur. Over its brief existence Documents was a heterogeneous container of essays and images. Its masthead offered that it contained a formidable grab bag of “Doctrines, Archaeology, Fine Arts, Ethnography.” Contents that ranged from Eli Lotar’s photographs of the Paris slaughter-houses to an essay on S.M. Eisenstein’s films by expelled Surrealist poet Robert Desnos. There were images of Juan Miro’s painting, a photo essay on the Chicago Gang wars of the 1920s, reproductions of lurid covers from detective fiction and a full-page images of the Roman catacombs chock full of human skulls. Bataille’s Formless comes to life as a relatively brief entry in a subset of the journal, The Critical Dictionary. This ‘Dictionary’ was something of a cabinet of intellectual and cultural curiosities even by Documents’ standards, its most frequent contributors were Bataille’s closest circle, ex-Surrealists and writers associated with Paris Dada.

The entry for Formless gives that the word is “a term serving to declassify.” A word to undo the already done because, as Bataille conceived it, “A dictionary would begin when it no longer provided the meanings of words, but their tasks.” And what was to be undone? The “academics’” need for “the universe to take on a form.” Because the “universe resembles nothing at all and is formless, which amounts to saying that the universe is something akin to … a gob of spittle.” Resemblance then, a noted identity between things, or its noted absence, is jettisoned, spat out we might say. Clearly The Dictionary’s entries were not limited to definitions, nor to revealing words’ “tasks.” There was also –the occluded truth of all dictionaries– an ideological battleground to contest. (Bataille, 1985 p31)

Krauss, in her essay on surrealist photography, Amour Fou, allies with Bataille’s Formless to examine the usurpation of photographic verisimilitude; that is, its formal undoing or un-forming.  Scanning photographs of the human body shot by Surrealist photographers Man Ray, Brassai, Lotar, or Boiffard –many of which were to be found in Documents– she notes that the body is made strange, “unfamiliar.” Strategies for this vary. Sometimes through what amounts to a system of anamorphosis, where the rotation of the camera’s point of view and a deep plunging sight line, or an extreme foreshortening of the photographed subject, the body appears as a “beast.” Photography, surrealist photography, creates monsters. In this body of work the human body becomes a never fully and stably recognizable form. The human body coheres into view and slips away again. Or, perhaps the body is mis-recognizable; it is a body in-becoming, but becoming what? In this photographic work there is never to be a fully achieved identification. Identification is always unachieved, underachieved or undone.

Anamorphosis sets up a point of view of an‘Other’ within the seen scene. It is as if what I am seeing is seen from another subject-position simultaneously. My authority, my uniqueness, my constitution of and by the scene is brought into question by the possibility of another point of view for whom the scene is organized. Indeed, if we return to Lacan, he goes further. Lacan references, on numerous occasions, Hans Holbein’s painting, The Ambassadors with its famed anamorphic rendering of a deaths-head, asserting that in Holbein anamorphosis guarantees that the “ subject is annihilated”. (Lacan, 1988, p88). Thus, moreover, when the entire image’s point of view is shaped by anamorphosis it is I who is out of place, in the wrong position –annihilated, as Lacan has it. He, who is seeing from the other point of view which, it is implied, is not anamorphic, is seeing the clear organized picture which is organizing him as a subject for whom this scene is clearly laid out. Anamorphosis sacrifices human congruity and uniqueness in much the same way as Magritte does in The Titanic Days or Entr’acte.

And perhaps, in more than a punning association, we could wonder if that word sacrifice, or that word annihilation,have a more resonant tone than they at first signals. As Neil Cox (Ades, p106) has pointed out, though there is no entry in Documents, nor The Critical Dictionary, for sacrifice itself, its presence nonetheless abounds therein. And, throughout his work, Bataille turned his eye, mind and pen toward sacrifice again and again and again. InDocuments, Lotar’s already mentioned images of the Paris slaughterhouses are commissioned to accompany Bataille’s dictionary entry on animal sacrifice, Abattoir. It is Bataille who is most often credited as the author of the polemical attack upon Breton, published as the pamphlet Cadvre, (1930) wherein Breton’s image crowned with thorns, is given as an obituary for the very much still living Surrealist leader. Later, in 1930, Bataille will write of Van Gogh’s severed ear as animist sacrifice. As early as 1926, wearing an ill-fitting anthropologist’s hat, Bataille will write of Aztec sacrificial rituals. Images interpreted by him as depicting Aztec sacrifice, though now said to depict birth, will appear in Documents from Codex Borgia. (Bataille, 1985). Into the 1940s Bataille continues to research and write about the same in Sacrifices and Wars of the Aztecs. (Bataille, 1985).  From whence he will move on to Marcel Maus’ theorization of Potlatch, elaborating upon same as the practice of senseless waste, expenditure and sacrifice. And most notoriously, later, in the secret society Acephale, it is rumored that Bataille eagerly planned for this group to actually carry out a human sacrifice. (Bataille, 1985. Pxx)).

Beginning in 1925 and for a little over a year Bataille was in analysis with Adrien Borel.  Paths crisscross many times over here, and provenance regarding knowledge, regarding image, becomes hazy. According to Roudinesco, at the beginning of the treatment, Borel handed to Bataille an infamous photograph by Louis Carpeaux. (Roudinesco 1977, p12). The image was of a Chinese man being executed by the, probably apocryphal, process of ‘death by a thousand cuts’, but described by Roudinesco as a man being “cut into a hundred pieces.” Michel Surya, Bataille’s biographer, places Borel himself at the scene of the execution taking the photograph that he later ‘sent’ to Bataille. (p93) The victim of the far from apocryphal actual execution has, it is reported by both writers, been injected with opium to prolong rather than to anesthetize the process. Said opium is presumed to account in part for the presumed ecstatic countenance on the victim’s face.

With Surya the photographs inexplicably become plural and we are told that they “obsessed” Bataille; “he spoke of them often and always kept them.” (p94) For Surya, “The photographs Bataille discovered in 1925 and published a year before his death, in 1961, . . . welled up in his work like one of its essential springs.” (p94) We are perhaps in the presence of a devotional act on Bataille’s behalf. But, there is too an act of interpretation or –and perhaps this is the same thing– empathy. Bataille regards the cuts, the tortured body, but also the face of the victim. He writes of the victim, “The young and seductive Chinese man . . . communicated his pain to me.” (Bataille, 1988 p120) For Bataille, looking into the face of this victim, there is an ecstasy of empathic connection. Bataille’s ecstatic reverie collides with Magritte’s “preoccupation.”  And yet Magritte’s undergirding device — resemblance — is ambushed and undone. Bataille reaches out to the sacrificial victim, he strains for resemblance, identification. Yet the body is being literally undone, unformed; literally it is being put asunder. No resemblance, no form, little more than a ‘gob of spittle.’

There is a particular figure, the acephale, which after the mid 1930s comes to be the cypher for Bataille’s thought. And though it is never named as such, this figure is relentlessly at work in Magritte’s oeuvre. Indeed, it is blatantly there in Entr’acte the painting where Magritte’s “preoccupation” is first noted at MOMA. It is there in The Lovers(1928), the painting that is often cited as referencing Magritte’s suicided mother. Indeed this headless or faceless figure recurs again and again throughout Magritte’s career. For Bataille it is Andre Masson’s drawing, published on the cover of the first edition of Bataille’s eponymous magazine, that illustrates the acephale. Masson’s drawing gives a human(ish) figure, based upon Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. It is a headless figure, a body minus its locus of rational thought. The head has become a skull and has been displaced southward to become as a fig leaf. The acephale, the headless man, is seen as representing thusly, the end of reason (which is certainly one way to think of the surrealist goal.) This is also perhaps the best proposition of the inter-war years, European social subject coming into being. Lost to reason, not in control of motivations and action, locus of identity banished or displaced, traumatized and scarred, acephalic man is the prototypical, mid-century subject shared by psychoanalysis and Surrealism. Indeed it is at mid century proper –1951-52, a full twenty years after Bataille– that Lacan, in addressing Freud’s Mass Psychology and the analysis of the Ego, will work out his own theory of the polysephalic and ultimately acephalic subject. For Lacan, “If there is an image that could represent for us the Freudian notion of the unconscious, it is indeed that of the acephalic subject” (Lacan 1974, p166)

Whether Lacan’s debt to Bataille is acknowledged or not it is of note that heads, lost, gone, switched and crowned with thorns populate Bataille’s Arcanum –and so too do other body parts. In Documents, Boiffard’s images of the big toe accompany Bataille’s article of the same name. Boiffard’s images offer the body part rising out of its pitch dark, dismembering background; grotesque, anonymous but labeled male and female. Bataille’s essay is littered with a vocabulary of violence and death. Toes are “hideously cadaverous,” they give “shrill expression to the disorder of the human body.”  The toe is “always, more or less tainted and humiliating.” (Bataille, 1985 p22). Thus big toes are gendered, poised, loaded and here staged rather melodramatically upon their dark grounds. Bataille ponders the seductiveness of this fetishized part-object. Yet his words arrive at the irreducible base materialism of this particular body part, “with their feet in the mud but their heads somewhat approaching the light, men obstinately imagine a tide that will elevate them . . .” (Encyclopedia Acephalica, p87) The tide is far, far out is Bataille’s conclusion. And if it ever arrives we should expect it to be fouled with our own abject flotsam.

Many of Boiffard’s other images in the magazine drive to the far north of the body.  There is a suite of four photographs of anonymous men dressed in regular street clothes but with heads obscured –in their way gone– by grotesque carnival masks. The trickster photographer gives us street clothes that beckon, but the grotesque masks repel all possibility of identity, resemblance or empathy; the soul is missing in action with the head. Masks acephalize their wearer and the unformed body becomes the totemic figure of Surrealism’s historical moment.

Perhaps it is important to acknowledge that there are divergent readings of Freud to be disinterred in surrealist circles. At one remove Lacan is reconstructing Freud according to his own architecture of psychoanalysis. While Breton and Bataille are all but competitively reading Freud hot off the translator’s press.

And it becomes increasingly apparent that each of the latter read Freud through in his own way. Sometimes it feels as if Bataille reads Freud contra Breton almost as part of their ongoing feud. Breton valorizes, in Walter Benjamin’s phrase, the “magical realm of words” (p232). With words Breton can translate trauma. Trauma is legible, transcribable and knowable. The hysteric’s language can be joined. It is an utterance that can be responded to rather than a babble written off as degeneracy. With Bataille trauma is revered, it is all but sacred. In Magritte, as in Dix et al cited at the top of the essay, there is too an ironic reverence for the war injured. But for Bataille trauma is all but an aspirational moment. Bataille, seemingly entranced, genuflects before trauma. He is impaled by a shared ecstasy of the victim.  There is a reverence but also a joining with the victim’s body. Breton reads Freud and finds a world of liberated signs. Bataille reads Freud and finds the tortured body. Torn, traumatized and base, but nonetheless a body.

In Bataille’s response to the other’s trauma there is something beyond the moment of empathy that might connect two persons, an analyst and analysand, say. Borel and Bataille, say. There is an experience of communitas. Communitas is to be taken as a moment of vanishing or dissolution of unique identity. Often communitas is achieved around some shared rite of passage. The traumatized body, empathically embraced, is for Bataille that rite of passage. There is a debt owed by Bataille to “the young and seductive Chinese man” in the photograph. His trauma allows Bataille an intense moment of joining with the other’s torn body; like a jump-cut from my point of view to your point of experience. As with the dissolution of identity engendered by the anamorphic point of view the look upon the victim’s face in Borel/Carpeux/Bataille’s photograph seems, for Bataille, to transcend the recognition of an individuated self across the gap between observer and seen.



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Bataille, G. (1988) Inner Experience. SUNY Press. New York

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