American Thought Today: Krauss, *The Optical Unconscious* (1994)

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Jeffrey Rubard

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Aug 22, 2020, 12:52:52 PM8/22/20
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Rosalind E. Krauss, *The Optical Unconscious* (1994)

And how do we imagine Theodor Adorno as he “looks back at surrealism,”
looking back in 1953, even though Andre Breton, very much alive, is still
looking forward? For it’s true that very few people in 1953 are looking
Breton’s way. Surrealism’s import lies, now, in the past. Even so, Adorno’s
glance is somewhat jaundiced, we notice. He can’t quite share Walter
Benjamin’s old enthusiasm for those “energies of intoxication” that Benjamin saw surrealism placing in the service of freedom. Adorno finds much
of surrealism’s claims, Breton’s claims, absurd. “No one dreams that way,”
he snaps.
And yet. A dialectical image begins to form for him. Its ground is a series
of white, geometrical planes, the stark, streamlined architecture of Bauhaus
rationalism. Sacblichkeit. The new objectivity. Technology as form. “Ornament,” Adorno remembers Loos having said, “is a crime.” And gleaming
and new, this architecture will admit of no crime, no deviation. It will be
a machine stripped down for work, a machine to live in. But there, suddenly, on the stretch of one of its concrete flanks, a protuberance begins
to sprout. Something bulges outward, pushing against the house s skin.
Out it pops in all its nineteenth-century ugliness and absurdity, a bay
window with its scrollwork cornices, its latticed windows. It is the house’s
tumor, Adorno thinks. It is the underbelly of the prewar technorationalism,
the unconscious of the modernist Sachlichkeit. It is surrealism, connecting
us, through the irrational, with the other side of progress, with its flotsam,
its discards, its rejects. Progress as obsolescence.
Perhaps this is why Adorno looks back at surrealism with a copy of La
femme 100 tetes spread across his knees. He muses over these images
collaged “from illustrations of the later nineteenth century, with which the
parents of Max Ernst’s generation were familiar,” but which Ernst as a
child must already have sensed as archaic, and strange, and wonderful.
And if the child stirs in the images, if the memory of having been so little
is nudged into being by them, then that is something potentially powerful
working against the abstracted, flattened uniformity of a technologized
world, a world from which time is all but erased. Adorno has no patience
for the psychoanalytic conception of history—with its constant refrain of
Oedipus. The history he is interested in is not that of the privatized individual but instead the history of modernity, or the fact that it even had a
history, that it too was young. History working against the grain of an
abstracted, bureaucratized uniformity, of a technologically rationalized
world, surrealism’s shock, Adorno muses, while he looks at these pictures,
is to put us in touch with that history, as our own.
“One must therefore trace the affinity of surrealistic technique for psychoanalysis,” Adorno decides, “not to a symbolism of the unconscious, but
to the attempt to uncover childhood experiences by blasting them out.
What surrealism adds to the pictorial rendering of the world of things is
what we lost after childhood: when we were children those illustrations,
already archaic, must have jumped out at us, just as the surrealistic pictures
do now. The giant egg out of which the monster of the last judgment can
be hatched at any minute is so big because we were so small when we for
the first time shuddered before an egg.”
Adorno is looking at the first plate of Femme 100 tetes, or perhaps, since
they are identical, the last. “Crime or miracle,” the initial caption reads,
“a complete man.” In its second, final, appearance the image is titled simply
“End and continuation.” But in each of the two identical plates, Blake s
angel Gabriel, minus his trumpet, collaged against a stormy sky, is falling
from the center of the large, egglike form of something that could be an
ascending balloon. Or is he, too, like the souls he is calling forth on the
last judgment, rising? The tiny men huddled below, in the windswept space
of the nineteenth-century wood engraving, resemble indeed the populations
of awakened dead from medieval tympana. At least in the grip of Adorno’s
associations, they do.
And in the grip of the art-historical imagination? That imagination is
determined to “read" Ernst’s novel, to narrativize it, to give it a shape, a
story line. It has chapters, after all, does it not? It is a Bildungsroman,
goes one explanation. Conception, infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, senescence. The life cycle patiently traced, elaborated, returned to
its beginnings. Each of Ernst’s novels is mined for its “compositional
principle.” Une semaine de bonte is seen as following Sade’s 120 Days of
Sodom or Lautreamont’s Les chants de Maldoror, all of this itself woven
on the loom of the seven days of creation. “It’s an alchemical novel, ” one
of them insists. To which another rejoins that the only alchemy in question
is Rimbaud’s “Alchimie du verbe,” since the designation of a different hue
for each section of the book recalls the poet’s imperious coloristic baptism
of the vowels—“A noir, E blanc, I rouge, O bleu, U vert.”
The art historian thinks with the mind of a scholastic. Typologies. Recensions. The world seen through old men’s eyes, looking with that fixedly
backward stare that intends to find ladders of precedent, ladders by means
of which to climb, slowly, painfully, into the experience of the present.
Into a present that will already have been stabilized by already having been
predicted.
The child’s eyes through which Adorno is looking as he turns the pages of
Ernst’s novel is not seeing John Ruskin’s pattern, his conjuring of form.
This child, far from deprived, is peering into a variety of fabulous spaces.
These are the spaces constructed through the nineteenth-century wood
engravings used to illustrate magazines of popular science, like La Nature,
or of commerce, like Magazine pittoresque, or illustrated fables, like Amor
und Psyche, or dime novels, like Les damnes de Paris. Their style is
unquestionably archaic, passe, outmoded, as they configure these spaces
of laboratories, pampas, pool halls, train cars, war-torn streets, stormtossed seas, cargo-laden boats . . . ; spaces that are inhabited by a variety
of personages too numerous to name. But as the dust settles around their
flurry of activity, the child begins to sense a recurrence, both exciting and
soothing. Presented to him but not to them is an immense body, or more
often a part of that body, that floats within the otherwise quotidian space.
They are oblivious to it. But there it is, like a large, welcoming pillow,
strangely soft and usually whiter than its surrounds. In the fourth plate it
emerges from the laboratory apparatus two scientists are manipulating:
two white legs voluptuously self-entwined, ten times life-size. Ravishing,
ravishing part-object.
It is recumbent, languid. An arm, a leg, a torso. Nearly always nude, it is
nearly always female. Since it is never noticed by the actors in this or that
scene, its place seems to be at the very front of the stage, closest to the
eyes of the viewer. But since this body, this part-object, this femme sans
tete, is experienced as recurrence, it becomes the thread on which the
scenes themselves are strung. And in this sense it is more like background,
the single, grand surface on which everything else is supported. A foreground, then, that is also a background, a top that is clearly a bottom.
His habit had been to show her picture ... to his intimates, but also to
people he was meeting for the first time, people to whom he was beginning
to take a liking. He would indicate this by extracting his wallet and lifting
a photograph from its folds, which he would proffer between the index
and middle finger of his frail, aristocratically boned hands. But then his
whole appearance, from the high, wide forehead and ardently sculpted
nose to the elegant slouch with which he wore his clothes, was a monument
to controlled languor. “This is Gala," he would say, “my wife.” And in
his vibrant voice that emanated carelessness one could hear an undercurrent
of something else, something always, somehow, insinuating.
It would have been hard not to gasp, and wonder, even in that company
priding itself on its license, on its contempt for propriety, for bourgeois
manners and morals. “What is it about,” some of them would ponder. “Is
it simple pride? Just like that? Or is it some kind of solicitation? And for
her? Or for himself?"
And the photograph of Gala Eluard, eloquently wanton in its display of
her nakedness, with her high breasts, the dizzying length of her torso, and
the delicate articulations of knees, ankles, and wrists, could tell them
nothing. Except that she was beautiful. And carried her body like a perfectly understood weapon of seduction.
Would he have shown the photograph to Ernst, I wonder? After all, that
early November day in Cologne when they finally met, after what felt like
so many months of anticipation, so many postponements, so many near
misses, Gala was there, along with Paul Eluard, both of them having come,
Max Ernst, La femme 100 fetes, 1929: “Crime or wonder; a complete man.
Or is he, too, like the souls he is calling forth on the last judgment,
rising? ... (p. 35J
Max Ernst, La femme 100 tetes, 1929: “Continuation.”
A recurrence, both exciting and soothing . . . (p. 35)
Max Ernst, La femme 100 tetes, 1929: “Continuation of morning, twilight, and night games.”
Presented to him but not to them ... (p. 35)
Max Ernst, La femme 100 tetes, 1929: “Here is the thirst that resembles me.”
A part of that body that floats within the otherwise quotidian
space ... (p. 35)
expressly for this meeting, from Vienna. No need to show the copy in the
presence of the original.
Given what happened next, I think he probably did show Ernst the photograph. And that the gesture carried with it all the motivations that could
have been suspected: that it was pride and solicitation; for himself and for
her. And that he showed him the photograph so that there would be no
more near misses. But then he had always been extremely manipulative
and here he could play with at least three lives, or four, or more.
The other reason to think he did was that the work Ernst made late in
1921 to commemorate the beginning of that relationship between the three
of them, the onset, as he would say—through its title—of his puberty, was
based on the photograph of a naked woman. Not her, to be sure. But he
inscribed the work “to Gala, ” a work which, from the point of view of
its sexual axis, can of course be read as extremely ambivalent.
Tzara had been in Paris since January 1920, spreading dada. Spreading it,
among other places, in the review Litterature. Breton, the magazine’s editor
(along with Soupault and Aragon), both fascinated and repelled by dada,
was biding his time. Tzara filled the year with various dada demonstrations.
Readings from the newspaper accompanied by the clanging of bells. And
all of that. Renting the Salle Gaveau in order to play fox-trots on the
celebrated organ, performing his Vaseline symphonique while the audience
hurled veal cutlets. And all of that. Yet somehow behind the provocation,
the constant mondainite. There was for example the opening of Picabia’s
exhibition. An affair whose elegance offended Breton’s sense of rigor. So,
early the next year, Breton made his move, which was to write to Ernst.
He had seen Ernst’s work in dada reviews and had read about it in various
press reports of an exhibition in Cologne. If Breton hoped for something
different from Ernst, something at an angle to dada, Ernst himself was
nonetheless swearing his most devoted fealty to Tzara at just that time.
His letter to Tzara dated December 28, 1920, containing a picture of his
wife Louise (whom he had renamed the dada Rosa Bonheur) and his son
Jimmy, and asking if Tzara could arrange a show of his graphic work, of
which thirty to sixty items could be sent to Paris, ends with:
Who greets Tzara? The Rosa Bonheur of the dadas
^ Who greets Tzara? Baargeld
Who greets Tzara? Job
Who greets Tzara? Jimmy
3 Who greets Tzara? Max Ernst
the dada Maid of Orleans is missing
But it was from Breton that the invitation Ernst was seeking came, for
indeed a show had been organized for May 1921 at the bookstore Au Sans
Pareil. Whatever it was Breton had bargained for, he got it.
Fifty-six collages by Ernst had been shipped to Paris. It was at Picabia s
house that the unpacking of the works took place. Andre Breton describes
the encounter with these objects as revelatory, a kind of originary moment,
almost, one could say, surrealism’s primal scene. For here was a group of
objects through which nascent surrealism would understand something of
both its identity and its destiny. Breton explains:
In fact surrealism found what it had been looking for from
the first in the 1920 collages [by Ernst], which introduced
an entirely original scheme of visual structure yet at the
same time corresponded exactly to the intentions of Lautreamont and Rimbaud in poetry. I well remember the day
when I first set eyes on them: Tzara, Aragon, Soupault and
myself all happened to be at Picabia’s house at the very
moment when these collages arrived from Cologne, and
we were all filled immediately with unparalleled admiration. The external object had broken with its normal environment, and its component parts had, so to speak,
emancipated themselves from it in such a way that they
were now able to maintain entirely new relationships with
other elements, escaping from the principle of reality but
retaining all their importance on that plane.
Was it because Ernst had served in the German army, or because, a
notorious dada, he was labeled Bolshevik by the British authorities in
charge in Cologne, that they denied him a passport? In any event he missed
his own explosive vernissage at the Au Sans Pareil, held in the basement
with the lights out, with Breton chewing matches and Aragon meowing
continuously and someone shouting insults at the guests from inside a
cupboard. But lights out or no, the effect of his work was palpable. Breton
was stunned. So that in September on his way to Vienna to visit Freud he
went first to the Tyrol to meet Ernst. To pay him homage or to reassert
his, Breton’s, own authority? For bringing his volume of Lautreamont with
him, Breton insisted on reading the Chants de Maldoror for hours at a
time at a disconcerted Ernst.
Eluard had not been at Picabia’s for the unpacking of the collages. He only
saw them at the opening of Ernst’s exhibition. But his excitement reached
a pitch that was even higher than the others’. “Eluard was the most
Max Ernst, La femme 100 tetes, 1929: “And her phantom globe will track us down . .
A foreground, then, that is also a background . (p. 36)
Max Ernst, La puberte procbe . . . , 1921.
But he inscribed the work “to Gala”. . . (p. 41)
affected,” his biographer tells us. “He suddenly understood that a brother
had just been given to him.” Indeed, so strong was Eluard’s experience
that by summer’s end he did not wait to meet Breton in Vienna as planned,
but hurried to the mountains to encounter Ernst. But Ernst had, along with
the Rosa Bonheur of the dadas, already returned to Cologne.
Eluard launched a series of frantic postcards at the retreating artist. And
he wrote to Tzara:
The 1st of next month we will leave for Munich where
we’ll spend two or three days, and from there for Cologne.
I want to be sure that Ernst will be there then. Would you
ask him? . . . We’re only going to Cologne to see Ernst.
Naturally. I haven’t any answer to my cards and I’m afraid
he hasn’t received them. I have no reason to deny myself
what gives me pleasure. Please give me his address again.
I LEAVE IN 9 DAYS.
On November 4 Gala and Paul arrived in Cologne. They left the 13th.
Ernst registered the fact to Tzara:
Cher Tzara (bis) Cher Tzara (bis)
The two Eluards gone, the two Ernsts have regressed to
childhood. Who now will wear for us the flamboyant flag
in her hair, which will attract the idyllic deer etc. etc. da
capocaspar. With their departure they have left a growing
sadness . . .
Could the Rosa Bonheur of the dadas really have been sad to see them
go? Is it possible that, in the excitement of their foursome’s frenetic gaiety,
the frolicking at amusement parks, the gyrations through dance halls, the
early morning poetry readings soaked in eau de vie, she could have missed
what was so palpably there for the other three, making the air in every
room seem to rustle with the sharp static of sexual excitement? Where was
she when Gala, entering Max’s studio late one night, placed herself squarely
in the luminous beam of both men’s most attenuated desire as, removing
her clothes with the swift agility that marked all her movements, she took
up once again the pose of the photograph? Or did Gala never do that?
There are only imaginary documents to say she did. Ernst’s achingly beautiful overpainting called La puberte proche, dedicated to her and executed
during the six weeks between the time she left and the turn of the year, is
a monument to her nakedness, real or fantasized. And Eluard’s poem “Max
Ernst, ” written during the same period as the new work that would open
his collection Repetitions, ends by “describing” that scene: “In the glow
of youth/ Lamps lighted very latel The first shows her breasts, killed by
red insects. ” But was he remembering, or anticipatingf
To make La puberte proche Ernst found himself turning to the medium
he had invented two years earlier, the technique sometimes referred to by
the term collage but which Ernst himself called Ubermahlung, overpainting.
Although a few of the works unpacked by Breton at Picabia’s house that
day had been conventional collages, most of them in fact were overpaintings. Which is to say that instead of collage’s additive process, in which
disparate elements are glued to a waiting, neutral page, the overpaintings
work subtractively. They delete; they take away. In order to make them,
Ernst had selected a commercially printed sheet, and with the aid of ink
and gouache, he had opaqued out various elements of the original to
produce a new generation of image. As the matrix or substructure of what
is subsequently seen in the work, this sheet underlay what was to fascinate
both Breton and Aragon. It was this that directed what they had to say
about the overpaintings at the time they first encountered them. Aragon’s
report, written in 1923, notes that “Max Ernst borrows his elements above
all from printed drawings, advertisements, dictionary images, popular images, newspaper images.” And in his 1927 essay “Surrealism and Painting,”
Breton agreed that Ernst proceeded “from the inspiration that Apollinaire
sought in catalogues.” But the term that Breton had originally used for
this element is the far more suggestive word “readymade,” as, in his text
for the 1921 exhibition at Au Sans Pareil, he notes that the collages are
built on grounds constituted by “the readymade images of objects,” adding
parenthetically, “(as in catalogue figures).”
Now, late in 1921, for this monument to Gala, the page from an illustrated
catalogue or some other kind of book did not seem to have satisfied Ernst.
Instead his readymade ground had had to have been a photograph ... of
a nude woman, lying stretched out upon a couch, her arched body supported by one elbow, the other arm reaching for her head.
It had floated into his view from out of the vast commercial production of
turn-of-the-century erotica. He now remade it, in order to dedicate it anew.
First he attacked it with a glutinous layer of cobalt blue gouache, severing
the body from the entirety of its context, detaching it from the space in
which it had originally appeared, from the accoutrements of the room,
from the couch, from the supporting arm, and finally, from the body’s own
face. Strangely headless and contextless, the naked form acquires a pecu­
liarly streamlined look, seems, to use an almost unimaginable term for this
object, bald.
But then he had also turned it, the photograph and hence, by the same
token, the body; so that, swiveled 90 degrees, it had been made newly
pendent, a weightless vertical suspended in the strangely material, velvety
ether of the gouache that covers the surface of the photograph like a
hardened skin. Upright and headless, the nude now appears from within
this thickened field as having been transmuted into the very image of the
phallus—as having become, that is, the object and subject of that unmistakably Oedipal fantasy of both having and being the sex of the mother.
And in the inscription with which Ernst frames this space, the froth of
pleasure is invoked by the words “la grace tenue de nos pleiades”: as the
idea of the Milky Way summons up the old iconography of the body’s
secretions writing themselves over the page of the heavens.
If this suspended, weightless, phallic body-of-the-woman, both a part of
her setting and at some kind of remove from it, was to anticipate that
thread on which the images of the collage-novel Femme 100 tetes would,
at the end of the decade, be strung together, it also must be seen as looking
backward. In fact its whole import and structure was about looking backward. Which is to say that the temporal displacement of desire back to
adolescence, effected through the notion of “puberty,” is only one link in
an implied series of temporal displacements, of an origin steadily receding
under the artist s gaze. For Gala entered Ernst’s imagination accompanied
by the words “perturbation, my sister,” the name of a collage he had made
at the same time as Puberte proche. This was the phrase that would more
and more clearly emerge as evoking the adolescent fantasies that had arisen
in relation to his very young sister Loni, and which he would inscribe
many times in Femme 100 tetes. But just as Gala is a screen for Loni, Loni
is a screen for even earlier feelings. The woman-as-phallus clothes these
feelings with a kind of excited radiance even as she locates them at the
point of awakening to the fact of sexual difference.
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