Marcel Duchamp, Henri-Pierre Roche, Beatrice Wood
3 New York Dadas + The Blind Man
The main text here is the first English translation of Roché’s “novel” Victor, an account of his friendship with Duchamp (nicknamed Victor by his close friends at that time). Although unfinished, Roché’s text offers a unique first-hand account of New York Dada, all of whose principal characters and events duly make an appearance: Francis Picabia, Arthur Cravan, the Arensbergs and their soirées, the Blind Man’s Ball and the scandal of Duchamp’s Fountain and its rejection from the Independents exhibition, a pivotal moment in modern art. There are also interesting insights into the sexual politics of the period, when a woman could be arrested, or blackmailed, for spending the night with a man to whom she was not married.
Victor is followed by a complete facsimile of the Dada magazine produced by these three: The Blind Man, the second issue of which was devoted to the controversy surrounding the Fountain. Beatrice Wood’s account of these events is taken from her memoirs.
Marcel Duchamp needs little introduction, being one of the most influential artists of the last century. Roché, a lifelong friend of his, appears to have been something of a devotee of triangular relationships; he wrote a rather more famous autobiographical novel on the topic, Jules et Jim, which became an emblematic film by François Truffaut. Wood went on to become a celebrated ceramicist, dying in 1998, aged 105.
The introduction and commentary is by Dawn Ades, the well-known scholar of Dada and Surrealism.
Michel Leiris, Aurora and Cardinal Point
In a novel of extremes, whose disgust with “things as they are” includes the whole idea of “novels”, Michel Leiris pursues his heroine, Aurora, through a visionary landscape shot through with catastrophes — and his lucid yet baroque language, with its incredible descriptions and ever more extravagant metaphors, is only just able to keep pace. Leiris himself, looking back on this novel from his youth, exactly described its tone:
… despite the “black” or “frenetic” style of its blustering prose, what I like about this work is the appetite it expresses for an unattainable purity, the faith it places in the untamed imagination, the horror it manifests with regard to any kind of fixity — in fact, the way almost every page of it refuses to accept that human condition against which some will never cease to rebel, however reasonably society may be ordered.
Aurora is one of the high-points of literary Surrealism, and Leiris was an early member of the group. Close to Georges Bataille, Picasso and Jean-Paul Sartre, he was a pivotal figure in post-war Paris. A director of the Musée de l’Homme, Leiris wrote important studies in the fields of ethnology and anthropology, as well as a sequence of autobiographical works regarded as classics of modern French literature.
George Melly, Don't Tell Sybil
George Melly was a character impossible to ignore in London cultural circles between the 1950s and 1990s. He first came to attention as a jazz singer, notable for risqué songs performed with verve rather than with great technical ability. An arresting personality, Melly also dressed the part: his outrageous suits became a trademark, and his talents as a raconteur soon brought him fame as a TV talkshow guest, though usually late-night for reasons of propriety… His three-volume autobiography is a classic that seems unlikely ever to go out of print, and the cheerful bisexualism it describes first scandalised, then delighted a public whose own sexual attitudes changed over the course of these decades.
Don’t Tell Sybil is a supplementary volume of autobiography which treats in more detail Melly’s youthful and long-lasting attraction to Surrealism, and his equally lengthy friendship with the contradictory character who headed up the English Surrealist group: E.L.T. Mesens. Their adventures and vicissitudes form the core of this book (adventures ELT was keen should not get back to his wife, Sybil, hence the book’s title). Mesens was a perfect subject, an extravagant prankster who could nevertheless be as punctilious and stingy as the most respectable bourgeois. Anecdotes of the artists who showed at Mesens’s gallery — especially Schwitters and Magritte — pepper the narrative, a hugely affectionate memoir by a character who was truly larger than life…
This new edition is augmented with previously unpublished photographs relating to Melly and to English Surrealism.