Monday, June 27, 2016

For the Love of Old Books (Part 2) - The Poètes Maudits & an Artiste Maudit

(From left to right) Das törichte Herz - Vier Erzählungen (The Foolish Heart - A Collection of Essays) by Paul Zech, paperback,1925; Une Saison en Enfer  (A Season in Hell) by Arthur Rimbaud - galley proof (uncut), 1944; Les Fleurs Du Mal - Les Épaves (The Flowers of Evil - The Scraps) by Charles Baudelaire - galley proof (uncut), illustrated by Maurice Mixi-Bérel, 1945.
(All images in this post can be clicked-on for enlarged views.)

"Symbolism was a late nineteenth-century art movement of French, Russian and Belgian origin in poetry and other arts. In literature, the style originates with the 1857 publication of Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal. The works of Edgar Allan Poe, which Baudelaire admired greatly and translated into French, were a significant influence and the source of many stock tropes and images. The aesthetic was developed by Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine during the 1860s and 1870s. In the 1880s, the aesthetic was articulated by a series of manifestos and attracted a generation of writers. The name "symbolist" itself was first applied by the critic Jean Moréas, who invented the term to distinguish the symbolists from the related decadents of literature and of art.

Distinct from, but related to, the style of literature, symbolism of art is related to the gothic component of Romanticism."

- Introduction for the Wiki entry regarding the Symbolists.

"If there is one central tenet held by Symbolist artists, it is that life is fundamentally mysterious, and the artist must respect and preserve this mystery. Thus they insisted on suggestion rather than explicitness, symbols or equivalents rather than description, in both painting and poetry. Choosing music as their model, Symbolists found the creation of a mood to be as important as the transmission of information, and sought to engage the entire mind and personality of the viewer by appealing to the viewer's emotions and unconscious mind as well as intellect. The recognition that there was a major portion of mental activity that is closed to the conscious mind confirmed the Symbolists conviction that there was more to life than could be explained through positivist science."

- Excerpt from the New World Encyclopedia regarding the Symbolist philosophy.

"In terms of specific subject matter, the Symbolists combined religious mysticism, the perverse, the erotic, and the decadent. Symbolist subject matter is typically characterized by an interest in the occult, the morbid, the dream world, melancholy, evil, and death."

- Excerpt found on the following Art Story "Symbolist" page. For information about Symbolist literature in Spain, Germany and America try here (in English only).

"My originality consists in bringing to life, in a human way, improbable beings and making them live according to the laws of probability, by putting - as far as possible - the logic of the visible world at the service of the invisible."

- Quote attributed to French Symbolist painter, Odilon Redon.

Coquille - pastel - 1912, Odilon Redon (Musée d'Orsay)


It's been hot and humid in New Mexico for over a week now, but without a drop of rain in my general vicinity. While there may have been flooding elsewhere on the planet in recent months (including the States), in the American southwest the threat is fire - uncontrollable fires. Happily, my neighborhood has not had to evacuate, but if the dryness continues... well.

But, I can clearly remember the summer's day I bought the three paperbacks shown above. It was a sunny day, possibly in June, but much cooler. I was, after all, still living in New England at the time, and had just been bitten by the antiquated-book-collecting bug. So, when I heard about a book sale being sponsored by a nearby retirement community, well, it was a no-brainer; off I went. 

The books were sitting in a small box on the ground under a tent with other books in foreign languages... dejectedly, as if they were considered less desirable than the American titles lined up on the folding tables above them. I think the first title I saw was Les Fleurs Du Mal, and my heart skipped a beat; Baudelaire (inset, right), Godfather of the Symbolist poètes maudits! And, lying right beside the work of the master, was an inconspicuous (and fragile) little paperback by Rimbaud - the younger of the "accursed" poets - who would have been honored to have his Une Saison en Enfer side by side with Les Fleurs Du Mal. It was too magical; I couldn't believe my luck.  Because, as it was, my first, and most sacred influences as a young artist (and, secretly, a poet) were the Symbolist artists and writers of the turn of the (last) century.

I was yet to realize the books were galley proofs; I just grabbed them, along with a few others - including a German paperback with a bold red and black graphic on the jacket - paid for my treasures, and left. Cradling the books in my arms as I walked to my car was an almost religious experience. Imagine finding such foreign treasures under a tent in Connecticut on a summer day! I drove home in a daze...

In reality, only the German paperback was published during the author's lifetime - so, the books were not of the sort prized by high-end collectors, but then my motivation was never money, it was love. Just to see the titles of these books written in their native language was a thrill for me.

Anyway, I'd like to add a bit of background information on the books... in the order they're shown in the photograph, but, keep in mind that all three were found in the same box, and very likely had (originally) belonged to the same person. So, this, in itself, probably reflects someone else's personal history. As the books were all published around (or before) 1945, one possibility is that they may have been brought home by an American serviceman in the aftermath of WWII. It's impossible to know for certain, but, that's my guess.

The first, with the almost lurid - and very powerful - graphic on the cover (inset, right) was the most enigmatic to me. I almost feared it was a Nazi publication, but, happily - for me, at any rate - Paul Zech was, a poet, writer, and pacifist, who was forced to flee Germany before things got ugly.


Paul Zech

Junge Witwe

Der Krieg hat ein Schwert durch mein Herz getrieben,
ich bin wie der Schnee so weiss gefroren. 
Doch du bist so glühend in mir geblieben,
als hätte ich nur deinen Namen verloren.

Ich habe den Spiegel zerbrochen,
denn du warst in dem Spiegel noch immer
und kamst durch die Tür in das Zimmer
und hast mich laut angesprochen.

Ich habe die Türen verschlossen, 
denn ohne dich sind es ja keine;
nur Häuser mit hundert Geschossen
und ich in den Raümen alleine...

Young Widow

The war has driven a sword through my heart,
I am frozen as white as the snow.
But you still glow as hot inside me
as if I lost only your name.

I have broken the mirror,
because you were always still in it
and you came through the door into the room
and spoke to me aloud.

I have locked all the doors,
because without you there is no one;
only houses with a hundred floors
and I in the rooms alone...

- Excerpt from the poem Young Widow by Paul Zech, 1924, found on this page (in its entirety).

"Zech was a controversial character and had the habit of manipulating his curriculum vitae at will. He was a prolific writer and poet from an early age. He wrote poetry from 1901, when he still lived in Wuppertal. In 1912 he moved to Berlin, where he joined the literary circles and also met the writer Franz Werfel. In 1913 he worked on his first translations of Émile Verhaeren, who was venerated by Stefan Zweig. Soon after the outbreak of the First World War, Zech enlisted voluntarily. His early enthusiasm for the war soon gave way to scepticism. His injuries by a poison gas grenade affected him for the rest of his life...

In March 1933, Zech was fired from the post of librarian due to his proximity with the Social Democratic Party. Soon afterward, he was investigated in a case of book theft. He fled to Vienna and Trieste, and then to Montevideo and Buenos Aires. There, he lived in poverty – he worked as pianist in a bar in Boca, night-watchman, and peddler – assisted by Zweig and the film-maker William Dieterle, in exile in Hollywood, until his death in 1946."

- Biographical note for Paul Zech found here.


Sadly, I have very little to add about Paul Zech apart from the one poem and the article (quoted above). Finding any further information about him online (in English) proved to be too challenging. Not even the Wiki article had an English translation. You can however, read more about him here (in English), although the full article is by paid-subscription-only. He was not precisely an "accursed" poet, but I believe he may have sympathized with them. Interestingly, he wrote a monograph about Rimbaud... and, apparently before he fled to South America in 1933 he had been held in Spandau prison. He was born in West Prussia (an area which is now Poland) in 1881. Note: the photo (to your right) of a youthful Paul Zech can be found here, along with another of his poems (scroll past André Breton).


Arthur Rimbaud

A drawing of Rimbaud by Jean-Louis Forain found
on this wonderful Rimbaud site (in both French and English).

"The year is 1873 and the spectral holocaust of the Prussian war still hangs over and haunts the half-ruined and bombed-out facades of the buildings of Northern France. With the publication of this scorching book no attempt should be made by a reviewer to understand its contents by any means of a perspicacious or conventional critical approach, nor should anyone try to enlighten the reader on the author’s compulsion to embark on what can only be described as a ‘spiritual hunt’.

The book is constructed and welded together in nine sections, all of which are contained within their own imaginative eco-systems. Imagine a giant iron gate before each section with the same inscription as at the entrance to Dante’s Hell: ‘Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’intrate’ (‘All hope abandons ye who enter in’.) For very soon we are witness to the first derisive scene where the author tells us:
‘One evening I sat Beauty on my knees—And I found her bitter—And I reviled her.’
(Un soir, j’ai assis la Beauté sur mes genoux. – Et je l’ai trouvée amère. – Et je l’ai injuriée.)"

- Excerpt from Paul Stubbs' web article: Rimbaud and the New Inquisition.

"So, my grief endlessly renewed, finding myself even more bewildered in my own eyes – as in all those eyes that would have wished to stare at me, had I not been condemned to be forgotten forever by all! – I became ever hungrier for his kindness. With his kisses and loving embraces, it was truly heaven, a sombre heaven, which I entered, and where I would gladly have been left, poor; deaf, dumb, blind. I was already used to it. I saw us as two good children, free to wander in the Paradise of sorrow. We were well suited. Deeply stirred, we toiled together. But, after a penetrating caress he would say: “How odd it will seem to you, when I’m no more, all you have been through. When you no longer have my arms beneath your neck; nor my heart to rest on, nor this mouth on your eyes. Because I must go far away, one day. And then, I must help others: it’s my duty. Though that’s scarcely appealing...dear soul...” Suddenly I saw myself, with him vanished, in the grip of vertigo, hurled into the most frightful darkness: death. I made him promise never to leave me. He gave it twenty times, that lover’s promise. It was as frivolous as my telling him: “I understand.”

- Arthur Rimbaud from Une Saison en Enfer: Délires I: Vierge Folle, L’Époux Infernal (A Season in Hell, Ravings I - Foolish Virgin, Infernal Spouse); A. S. Kline's English translation. Note: this passage was mostly likely inspired by Rimbaud's love affair with poète maudit Paul Verlaine.

To understanding this work you must put it into the context of Rimbaud’s life. Stylistically, he had finished with his earlier, lyric verse style, and had begun to experiment with prose poems. Personally, he was at the end of his stormy relationship with Paul Verlaine. They had started out by travelling together and living in Belgium and London, and ended with Verlaine shooting Rimbaud in the wrist after a violent argument. Verlaine went to prison for two years. Professionally, Rimbaud was shunned by his literary friends in Paris because of his outrageous behaviour and his affair with Verlaine. He borrowed money from his mother to have A Season in Hell printed in Belgium. It was to be the only one of his works printed during his lifetime, and then only a handful of copies were created. After this, he broke with poetry, left France, and effectively ended his literary career. He was only nineteen years old."

- Excerpt from LitKicks' With Rimbaud in Hell.

"Loin des oiseaux, des troupeaux, des villageoises,
Que buvais-je, à genoux dans cette bruyère
Entourée de tendres bois de noisetiers,
Dans un brouillard d'après-midi tiède et vert ?

Que pouvais-je boire dans cette jeune Oise,
- Ormeaux sans voix, gazon sans fleurs, ciel couvert ! -
Boire à ces gourdes jaunes, loin de ma case
Chérie ? Quelque liqueur d'or qui fait suer.

Je faisais une louche enseigne d'auberge.
- Un orage vint chasser le ciel. Au soir -
L'eau des bois se perdait sur les sables vierges,
Le vent de Dieu jetait des glaçons aux mares ;

Pleurant, je voyais de l'or - et ne pus boire."

- Arthur Rimbaud, a poem from Une Saison en Enfer - Délires II: Alchimie du Verbe (Ravings II - Alchemy of the Word)... from the original French text.

"Far from flocks, from birds and country girls,
What did I drink within that leafy screen
Surrounded by tender hazlenut trees
In the warm green mist of afternoon?

What could I drink from this young Oise
- Toungeless trees, flowerless grass, dark skies! -
Drink from these yellow gourds, far from the hut
I loved? Some golden draught that made me sweat.

I would have made a doubtful sign for an inn.
- Later, toward evening, the sky filled with clouds…
Water from the woods runs out on virgin sands,
And heavenly winds cast ice thick on the ponds;

Then I saw gold, and wept, but could not drink."

From this English translation of the poem (above).

"The poet talks about being of an inferior race, a pagan, un negre (a nigger). Rimbaud sees himself as a true outcast who no longer fits (or never did fit) into the Western mold based on Christianity and bourgeois mores. He has reviewed his options, and decided to make a break with the West. This section foreshadows his eventual move to Africa: 'I am leaving Europe. The air of the sea will burn my lungs; lost climates will turn my skin to leather'."

Another excerpt from LitKicks' With Rimbaud in Hell.


Painting of Rimbaud by Alfred-Jean Garnier
There's a phrase: "lost in translation"... and, nowhere is this sad fact more evident than in the translation of poetry. In theory it might be plausible, but, in reality, It is not possible to authentically reproduce a poem in any other language apart from the language in which it was written. After all, we're not talking about a simple arrangement of words;  in poetry there is music implied in the internal and external rhymes and rhythms... very often a precise composition that may take years to fine-tune. In other words, every sound and every syllable is crucial to the art.

So, unfortunately, it's unlikely that any of the poetry translated into English in this post is even a satisfactory representation, let alone one that is spot-on. To read a poet's words in the way the poet meant, one needs to (fluently) speak their native language. And, nowhere is this more true than when reading a poem (or prose poem) by Rimbaud!

That being said, well, those of us limited to the languages other than French can still appreciate Rimbaud's mad, youthful spirit; poetry is, after all, at best when it's mad and youthful. Poems are somehow more inspired when unaltered by the burden of age-related baggage. In other words - and this may only be my opinion - in the realm of poetry "wisdom" is over-rated; it's the smack in the face that counts... the ability to passionately sing.

I've little else to say about Rimbaud that hasn't already been said; I suggest you use the links already provided, or read his work for yourself in whatever form you find it. After all, he had such a short life as a poet, and a short life for a man as well.

After his affair with Verlaine (inset, right) in 1875 - an affair "spiced by absinthe and hashish" - he turned his back on poetry and led a vagabond's life; even becoming a Dutch soldier before he deserted his post and made his way to Africa, the land of his dreams. Shortly thereafter, when all else failed, he found some success - believe it or not - in the coffee trade! From the (very translatable) Wiki article:
"He was, in fact, a pioneer in the business, the first European to oversee the export of the celebrated coffee of Harar from the country where coffee was born. He was only the third European ever to set foot in the city, and the first to do business there..."

Sadly, this state of affairs was not to last, and the former poet - the youthful libertine and enfant terrible - died from bone cancer at the age of 37. He was buried next to his favorite sister, Vitalie, in his hometown of Charleville-Mézières, France.

"I say that one must be a seer, make oneself a seer. The poet makes himself a seer by a long, prodigious, and rational disordering of all the senses. Every form of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he consumes all the poisons in him, and keeps only their quintessences. This is an unspeakable torture during which he needs all his faith and superhuman strength, and during which he becomes the great patient, the great criminal, the great accursed—and the great learned one!—among men.—For he arrives at the unknown! Because he has cultivated his own soul—which was rich to begin with – more than any other man! He reaches the unknown; and even if, crazed, he ends up by losing the understanding of his visions, at least he has seen them!"

- Arthur Rimbaud, from a 1871 letter to his friend, Paul Demeny. Rimbaud was 16 years of age at this time... and in the early days of his relationship with Verlaine.

Inset (above, right) painting of Paul Verlaine by Gustave Corbet,1871.


Charles Baudelaire

A spread from my 1945 galley-proof of Les Fleurs Du Mal,
illustrated by Maurice Mixi-Bérel.* 

"You know that I have always considered that literature and the arts pursue an aim independent of morality. Beauty of conception and style is enough for me. But this book, whose title (Fleurs du mal) says everything, is clad, as you will see, in a cold and sinister beauty. It was created with rage and patience. Besides, the proof of its positive worth is in all the ill that they speak of it. The book enrages people. Moreover, since I was terrified myself of the horror that I should inspire, I cut out a third from the proofs. They deny me everything, the spirit of invention and even the knowledge of the French language. I don't care a rap about all these imbeciles, and I know that this book, with its virtues and its faults, will make its way in the memory of the lettered public, beside the best poems of V. Hugo, Th. Gautier and even Byron."

- Charles Baudelaire from a letter to his (beloved) mother after the publication of Les Fleurs Du Mal.

La Muse malade

Ma pauvre muse, hélas! qu'as-tu donc ce matin?
Tes yeux creux sont peuplés de visions nocturnes,
Et je vois tour à tour réfléchis sur ton teint
La folie et l'horreur, froides et taciturnes.

Le succube verdâtre et le rose lutin 
T'ont-ils versé la peur et l'amour de leurs urnes?
Le cauchemar, d'un poing despotique et mutin
T'a-t-il noyée au fond d'un fabuleux Minturnes?

Je voudrais qu'exhalant l'odeur de la santé
Ton sein de pensers forts fût toujours fréquenté,
Et que ton sang chrétien coulât à flots rythmiques,

Comme les sons nombreux des syllabes antiques,
Où règnent tour à tour le père des chansons,
Phoebus, et le grand Pan, le seigneur des moissons.

- Charles Baudelaire, from Les Fleurs Du Mal.

The Sick Muse

Alas, poor Muse, what ails you so today? 
Your hollow eyes with midnight visions burn, 
And turn about, in your complexion play 
Madness and horror, cold and taciturn.

Green succubus and rosy imp — have they 
Poured you both fear and love into one glass? 
Or with his tyrant fist the nightmare, say, 
Submerged you in some fabulous morass?

I wish that, breathing health, your breast might nourish
Ever robuster thoughts therein to flourish:
And that your Christian blood, in rhythmic flow,

With those old polysyllables would chime, 
Where, turn about, reigned Phoebus, sire of rhyme, 
And Pan, the lord of harvests long ago.

- Translation by poet Roy Cambell. Both it and Baudelaire's original (above) can be found here, along with several other translations.

Another spread, showing Mixi-Bérel's illustration for "Lesbos", one of the pièces condamnées (condemned poems) and Les Épaves (scraps). The poem itself is inside
the illustrated and uncut page (which may have been an error in the proof).

"The author and the publisher were prosecuted under the regime of the Second Empire as an outrage aux bonnes mœurs ("an insult to public decency"). As a consequence of this prosecution, Baudelaire was fined 300 francs. Six poems from the work were suppressed and the ban on their publication was not lifted in France until 1949. These poems were "Lesbos"; "Femmes damnées (À la pâle clarté)" (or "Women Doomed (In the pale glimmer...)"); "Le Léthé" (or "Lethe"); "À celle qui est trop gaie" (or "To Her Who Is Too Gay"); "Les Bijoux" (or "The Jewels"); and " Les "Métamorphoses du Vampire" (or "The Vampire's Metamorphoses"). These were later published in Brussels in a small volume entitled Les Épaves (Scraps or Jetsam)."

- From the Wiki entry for Les Fleurs Du Mal.


Mère des jeux latins et des voluptés grecques,
Lesbos, où les baisers, languissants ou joyeux, 
Chauds comme les soleils, frais comme les pastèques, 
Font l'ornement des nuits et des jours glorieux, 
Mère des jeux latins et des voluptés grecques,

Lesbos, où les baisers sont comme les cascades 
Qui se jettent sans peur dans les gouffres sans fonds, 
Et courent, sanglotant et gloussant par saccades, 
Orageux et secrets, fourmillants et profonds; 
Lesbos, où les baisers sont comme les cascades!

Lesbos, où les Phrynés l'une l'autre s'attirent, 
Où jamais un soupir ne resta sans écho, 
À l'égal de Paphos les étoiles t'admirent, 
Et Vénus à bon droit peut jalouser Sapho!
Lesbos où les Phrynés l'une l'autre s'attirent,

Lesbos, terre des nuits chaudes et langoureuses, 
Qui font qu'à leurs miroirs, stérile volupté! 
Les filles aux yeux creux, de leur corps amoureuses, 
Caressent les fruits mûrs de leur nubilité; 
Lesbos, terre des nuits chaudes et langoureuses...

- Excerpt from Lesbos, Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs Du Mal.


Mother of Grecian joys and Latin games,
Lesbos, where kisses, languishing or gay,
As melons cool, or warm as solar flames,
Adorn alike the glorious night and day:
Mother of Grecian joys and Latin games,

Lesbos of kisses reckless as cascades 
That hurl themselves to bottomless abysses, 
Stormy and secret, myriad-swarming kisses, 
That cluck and sob and gurgle in the shades. 
Lesbos of kisses reckless as cascades!

Lesbos where Phrynes each to each are plighted,
Where never yet unanswered went a sigh,
Where Paphos with a rival is requited,
And Venus with a Sappho has to vie!
Lesbos where Phrynes each to each are plighted,

Lesbos, the land of warm and languid night,
Where gazing in their mirrors as they dress
The cave-eyed girls, in barren, vain delight,
The fruits of their nubility caress.
Lesbos, the land of warm and languid night...

- Excerpt of Lesbos translated by Roy Campbell, found here.


Once again, my words are few - too few! - and I will let the quotes and poems (and links) stand by themselves.

Arthur Rimbaud once referred to Baudelaire as "the king of poets, a true God". What could I possibly add to that? ;-)

* On the other hand, there is the identity of the artist and illustrator, Maurice Mixi-Bérel, to conjure with... of whom I could find very little information on the internet. So little that you might assume "Maurice" was a woman! I did find this data page which lists the various books   illustrated by "Mixi" (another alias), but, there was possibly a Maxime Mixi-Bérel as well. In any case, one was listed here as a comic book ("Max Sunder") artist... and here, with the dates: 1850 - 1999...?!


Two Symbolist Women

Siren - bronze sculpture - Camille Claudel, before 1905.

"One of the things we associate with the symbolist movement is the creation of new iconic images. Women were an important part of the symbolist iconography although the female image, not surprisingly, was not easy to decipher. Was she a threat or the object of desire? This question was largely the result of another "question" -- the issue of women or the "new woman."  Conservative and radical women's movements were in place by the 1880s, and women were making inroads into labor markets and the attainment of greater rights in marriage and divorce. There was a "new woman" in France, in England, in the U.S., and probably elsewhere at this time, and the problem with the new woman was that she didn't want to stay home."

- Excerpt from the article The Symbolist Movement: To Make the Invisible Visible; under the subheading: Symbolism and the "woman question."

"To counteract this threat to traditional values, the mainstream definitions of femininity in late-nineteenth-century European culture denied woman the possibility of "genius." And individual women who pursued intellectual or professional activities were described as "masculine." Artistic representations of woman's proximity to nature counteracted women's demands for intellectual pursuits by reinforcing the boundaries between intellectually endowed virile masculinity and body-bound femininity. Patricia Matthews argues that the masculinity of the intuitive artist-seer was ultimately protected by the exclusion of women from the category of genius. Like the primitives, women might experience intuition, spirituality, or a loss of the boundaries of self, but because they lacked genius, they would never be able to transform those experiences into an understanding of higher truths; nor could they communicate those truths through art. One rare exception to this general belief was the sculptor Camille Claudel, whose works were praised by several symbolist critics. Nevertheless, many of them still related the power of Claudel's works to her instinctual femininity. Other successful women artists and writers were said to have lost some of their femininity in expressing their genius."

"The relationship between symbolism and sexuality was not always degrading to women. For some Russian symbolists, including the woman writer Zinaida Gippius and the male writers Ivanov and Merezhkovsky, sex was a source of liberation with the potential to unite humanity with God. Furthermore, many male symbolists conceived of their own projects in feminized terms. Intuition, spirituality, emotionalism, loss of intellectual control - all these were characteristics commonly aligned with the feminine. Many symbolists (Sâr Péladan is the most obvious example) enacted the role of feminized aesthete in their public lives, constructing personae that rejected bourgeois norms of masculinity. The British aesthete and writer Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) also assumed the role of the unconventional dandy (though in a less extreme form than Péladan). In the early twentieth century, many lesbians, including Romaine Brooks and Claude Cahun, would take the image of the male dandy as a model for their alternative visions of female sexuality."

- Two separate excerpts from the online article: Symbolism, Gender, And Sexuality. Inset image is a sculpture by Camille Claudel entitled "The Prayer."

The Seamstress

For three days now I’ve spoken with no one…
My thoughts are greedy and malicious.
My back hurts. Everywhere I look,
I see only sky-blue patches.
The church bell was droning. It stopped.
I am alone with myself.
Silk of scarlet creaks and bends
Beneath the clumsy needle.
A seal lies over all phenomena.
It is as though they are fused, one to another.
Having taken one in, I try to divine
The other behind it—that which is hidden.
And this silk seems Fire to me.
And now no longer Fire, but Blood.
And blood is but a sign of that which we
Call, in our poor language, Love.
Love is but a sound… At this late hour,
What comes next I can’t reveal.
No, not fire, nor blood, but only satin
Creaks beneath the timid needle.

- A poem by Zinaïda Gippius, Russian Symbolist, 1902.


While it's all well and good to praise the (overwhelmingly male) Symbolist poets and artists of 19th and early 20th centuries - the Fin de Siècle, a period of "emotionalism, irrationalism, subjectivism, and vitalism"- for a woman of the 21st century, a problem remains. In the same way one has to ferret out the presence of women artists and writers in the previous centuries - see my medieval Green Women posts - one has to work just has hard to find them in this period; most especially in Symbolist circles. In my attempts to find female Symbolist artists online I very often was presented with articles very much like the one from which the first quote (above) was taken: Symbolism and the "woman question." in other words, the analysis of women is limited to their roles as subject (object), or muse, as opposed to contributor to the Symbolist movement.

Moreover, in researching this new group of "Invisible Women" I opened a new "can of worms." It's like this: in the 17th and 18th centuries, an unconventional woman faced the possibility of being tortured or burnt at the stake as a "witch". In the 19th and 20th centuries, however, that same woman might face being thrown into a madhouse. While the latter might seem more humane, in reality, it was not.

But, before we "enter the madhouse," I'd like to introduce you to another poète maudit*: the Russian Symbolist, Zinaïda Gippius. Unlike (what might be interpreted as) the misogynistic tendencies of Symbolists elsewhere in Europe, the Russian Symbolists made a dedicated effort to incorporate more feminine qualities and characteristics into their lives and their oeuvre. In fact, their goal was to transcend gender stereotypes - in their eyes the bedrock of a bourgeois (and banal) society - recognizimg that the key to any true revolution in the human psyche was found, not by condemning the feminine, but by embracing it.

Zinaïda Gippius (or Hippius, as she preferred to be called) was an imposing figure. With masses of brilliant red hair and "mermaid" green eyes, she often dressed in men's clothing (inset, right) - a method of empowerment made infamous earlier in the century by French novelist George Sand. Hippius was specifically inspired by the attire of the "dandy" made popular by Oscar Wilde, the Irish poète maudit.

As it was, most often her intellectual companions were male. And, the males she was most often attracted to were effeminate and androgynous. This should not be surprising; artists (and poets) of both genders are often attracted to beauty in its more delicate, elegant (and ambiguous) form; and the androgynous male - and his equally as androgynous female counterpart - represented for Hippius: "the illusion of possibility" and "of a love not of this world."

Then again, Hippius and her husband, poet and writer Dmitry Merezhkovsky, developed their own religious philosophy around the central idea of a Third Gender, and the "holy" number 3 in general. Metaphysically, they conceptualized a "New Church" based on the third entity of the Christian trinity, the Holy Spirit, which they defined as the feminine nature of the Godhead. The believed that the Holy Spirit's "Kingdom come"  would herald a "Third Testament;" a future epoch in which the schism between the genders - both psychologically and spiritually - would be healed, and "whereby all erotic love, homosexual, heterosexual or other, was...sanctified and thus permissible..." Interestingly this was represented by the geometrical symbol of the triangle (something I discussed at great length in The Philosopher Stone), representing a "triangulated Eros that transcends gender." Then again, the number 3 was central to Hippius's and Merezhkovsky's lives in more ways than one for instance, for a time there was a third partner, Dmitry Filosofov, in their marriage! In 1919, however, in the wake of the Russian Revolution, the Merezhkovskys - sans Dmitry Filosofov - emigrated to Paris, along with a number of Russian notables, eventually hosting the émigré literary salon, “Zelenya Lampa” (the Green Lamp), in 1927.

Regarding the poetry of Hippius, while very much in the Symbolist vein, hers seems more confessional, introspective and mystical than those of her Symbolist counterparts; she seems haunted by a premonition of metaphysical realities hidden beneath the surface of daily affairs, such as in The Seamstress (quoted above) in which "A seal lies over all phenomena."

More of her poetry - translated by James McGavran - can be found in 3 Poems by Zinaïda Gippius, although one should keep in mind the relativity of translations. I will leave you with this, however, found here:

"Poetry was also a space in which Gippius could escape gender expectations. She often adopted a male persona in her work, and was criticized for using the masculine endings of verbs and personal pronouns. In response she asserted that she wanted to “write poetry not just as a woman but as a human being."

Incidentally, and amusingly, one of her pseudonyms was Anton Krainy, or "Anton the Extreme."

(Source articles can be found here and here.)

* Note: Regarding feminine poètes maudits, there was also one other found: Alice De Chambrier (in French).


Into the Madhouse

Profonde pensée (Deep Thought) - bronze and onyx - 1905, Camille Claudel.
More of Claudel's work can be found on this excellent page.

"Camille’s father died on March 2, 1913. As soon as this last support was gone, the Claudel family quickly moved to have Camille committed. On March 10 Camille was forcibly interned in an asylum near Paris. Her diagnosis was paranoid psychosis. Some of her supporters voiced objections, but these came to naught. When the war began Camille was transferred to the Montdevergues asylum in the south of France, where she remained until she died in 1943.

...She wrote in 1934 to Eugène Blot, the owner of the gallery where she had exhibited her work:
'Je suis tombée dans le gouffre. Je vis dans un monde si curieux, si étrange. Du rêve que fut ma vie, ceci est le cauchemar.  (I have fallen into the abyss. I live in a world so curious, so strange. Of the dream that was my life, this is the nightmare)'."

- Excerpt from the online article: Camille Claudel.

"In the 18th to the early 20th century, women were sometimes institutionalized due to their opinions and unruliness. The men who were in charge of these women, either a husband, father or brother, could send these women to mental institutions stating that they believed that these women were mentally ill because of their strong opinions...  In 1887, journalist Nellie Bly had herself committed to the Women's Lunatic Asylum in New York City in order to investigate conditions there. Her account was published in the New York World newspaper and in book form as Ten Days in a Mad-House."

- Excerpt from a Wiki entry sub-heading: Women in Psychiatric Institutions.

"What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment? Here is a class of women sent to be cured. I would like the expert physicians who are condemning me for my action, which has proven their ability, to take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, shut her up and make her sit from 6 a.m. until 8 p.m. on straight-back benches, do not allow her to talk or move during these hours, give her no reading and let her know nothing of the world or its doings, give her bad food and harsh treatment, and see how long it will take to make her insane. Two months would make her a mental and physical wreck."

- Excerpt from the Wiki entry for Nellie Bly, taken from her journalistic exposé on institutions.

"An important example of the questionable institutionalizations of women was the plight of Mrs. Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard. Mrs. Packard was a teacher in Jacksonville, Illinois, and the mother of six children when her husband committed her to the state hospital. He admitted her because she disagreed with his religious beliefs as a pastor. By having her own opinion, Mrs. Packard stepped out of the boundaries of what was allowed for a woman. After experiencing two years in a state mental hospital as a sane person, Mrs. Packard took her case to trial to prove her sanity. The court agreed with her and in freeing her from the hospital, led to her efforts to divorce her controlling husband."

of America by Katherine Pouba and Ashley Tianen. (.pdf)

"In her 2006 novel The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, Maggie O'Farrell tackles the Bedlam model of the asylum. In a fictional framework, O'Farrell movingly describes what was the reality more often than we like to think: a young woman in the 1930s committed as a "lunatic" because she wouldn't toe the conventional line. Her book accurately mirrors real reasons for certification, found in asylum archives: "Unwashed dishes, and unswept floors, of never wanting marital relations or wanting them too much or not enough or not in the right way... Daughters who just don't listen".


In my recent search for female Symbolists, the very first name I came across was sculptor, Camille Claudel (1864-1943), (inset, left). At first I was mystified. I had never heard of her before. But, how could this be? Symbolism had been one of my earliest inspirations. Then, I remembered Surrealist painter Kay Sage and all the many Surrealistic women who had fallen through the cracks of time; silly me!. Obviously, if the predominately male art historians of the past - who steadfastly maintained that women could not create art - made a point of ignoring those Surrealists of the "accursed" sex in the mid-twentieth century, then, of course this would've held true regarding artistes maudits existing slightly prior to that time. But, more to the point, it's significant that I should mention Kay Sage in the same paragraph as Claudel. After all, they shared a common handicap. That is, they were either married to, or romantically connected with, a Famous Male Artist. Sage had her Yves Tanguy, and Claudel had Auguste Rodin, with whom she shared a studio as his student, model and lover. Needless to say, Sage's identity became absorbed into the celebrity of Tanguy, and Claudel - until recently - became a footnote in Rodin's his-story.

Although Claudel is the only female artist I found specifically labeled a Symbolist, I soon discovered that she, in fact, was not the only female Symbolist. Much of the problem lies in the tumultuous Fin de Siècle itself. There were a number of movements existent at the time - Pre-Raephelite, Impressionism, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Arts & Crafts, Symbolism, Surrealism, and Expressionism, etc. - that tended to merge into each other, with one artist stylistically occupying more than one movement. So, unless an artist was a member of a group of like-minded artists, art historians didn't know where to place them. And, as most women artists were very often solitary and not part of any of the "boy's clubs," the lone woman was especially easy to misidentify, under-appreciate, and/or dismiss altogether. Besides which, historians - and perhaps the male Symbolists themselves - were dead bent on keeping the genre exclusively male... you might say the movement's decadent philosophy - and allure - was dependent upon the possession of a Y chromosome.

But, that can of worms is not the one I opened when I read the nightmarish tale of doomed artist, Camille Claudel. Her failed relationship with Rodin was the least of it.* Regardless of how cheaply he may have misused her - he was 24 years her senior and long involved with another woman - or how deeply she may have suffered for it, the real crime was perpetrated by her family, and the society in which she lived; a family and a society so firmly, and so myopically entrenched in false gender stereotypes that one is tempted use the word "evil." Regardless of whether family dynamics or societal conventions were the culprit, the end result was that a gifted artist and a woman of genius was discarded as if she were no more than unwanted trash.

And, that was Camille Claudel's fate. In spite of the success she achieved in her working years, and the support she won from her father whom she dearly loved, all hope faded with her father's passing. I suspect she was a "fly" in her mother's and brother's "ointment" all along; Camille's unorthodox presence and lifestyle must have posed a mighty threat to Paul Claudel's literary and diplomatic career. So, the minute the senior Claudel passed away, mother and son took action. One day Camille Claudel was a free woman, loved by her father, while the very next week she was imprisoned in a mental institution with the love of no one.** Was she paranoid and delusional... or merely insightful and prescient? Because, there she would remain for the rest of her life, against the advice of the doctors who observed her, and against the opinions of the friends who visited her. And Rodin? Several years after Camille's incarceration he married his mistress of over 20 years (Note: a year later both he and his new wife would be dead). I believe Camille Claudel may have suffered depression, but she was technically sane. Inhumanely, neither her mother nor sister acknowledged her existence after they had her locked away, and her guilty brother paid her a only few token visits in the 30 years that remained of her "vanished" life.***

And the happy ending? There is none. Not one family member was present at her burial... and, in the end, her remains were transferred to a communal grave. In short, the only memorial to Camille Claudel is her work, wherever it is found. Her bother, Paul, on the other hand, went on to win a Nobel Prize in Literature in six different years! One wonders what might have happened had dear old Mama expired before Claudel's misfortunate Dad. In any case, in reference to Camille Claudel, well, regardless of the truth, the deed was done. I only wish the "communal grave" which contains her remains could be located, and some memorial - possibly listing her name and the names of her companions - could be erected there; that is, something that might serve to jointly remind us of Camille, her sad plight, and of all the other invisible women who shared her fate.

* We have this quote from Rodin from a letter he wrote to Claudel:
"Have pity, cruel girl, I can’t go on, I can’t spend another day without seeing you. Otherwise the atrocious madness. It is over, I don’t work anymore, malevolent goddess, and yet I love furiously. My Camille be assured that I feel love for no other woman, and that my soul belongs to you. … Ah! Divine beauty, flower who speaks and loves, intelligent flower, my darling. My dear one, I am on my knees facing your beautiful body which I embrace."

As he was lying with the words "no other woman," I suspect the rest may have been no more than an impetuous man's bit of melodrama (and infatuation). Some say they were both deeply in love and when they broke up Camille started her downward spiral. Others say she created her best work. That being said, the romance between Rodin and Claudell fueled the modern public's imagination... how about "Camille Claudell... (are you ready?)... the musical!

** As I mentioned earlier, and if you've read the quotes above, Camille Claudel's fate was not unusual at the time. While accusations of "witchcraft' became a thing of the past, "madness" became its replacement. After reading various accounts, I composed a list of "offenses" that were used to commit women into madhouses a mere hundred years ago. They are as follows (read and weep):

12 Reasons Women Were Committed to Mental Asylums in the 19th/20th Century:

  • "Insanity" due to overwork and domestic trouble (this may refer to no more than an unswept floor by the mother of 8 children)
  • "Insanity" due to "suppressed menses" (menopause in older women)
  • "Insanity" due to having an abortion (an illegal offense, depending upon your location)
  • "Insanity" due to epilepsy (presumably, there was no anti-seizure medications at the time)
  • "Insanity" due to anxiety over the loss of property (this was especially useful for husbands who controlled a wife's property to begin with)
  • "Insanity" due to mental excitement (anxiety in general)
  • "Insanity" due to childbirth (postpartum depression)
  • "Insanity" due to loss of interest in sexual relations (specifically with one's husband)
  • "Insanity" due to nymphomania (another alternative was imprisonment)
  • "Insanity" due to heredity (if mom, dad, or uncle George happened to be insane, chances are, you were, too)
  • "Insanity" due to religious matters (religious beliefs other than those of family, church or community)
  • "Insanity" due to unknown causes (when all else failed...)

On the other hand, there are parts of world under religious fundamentalist regimes today in which some of the "offenses" listed above might lead to torture, imprisonment or execution.

*** In reference to Paul Claudel, we have this paragraph from the article, Burnt By the Sun,
another article about Camille Claudel:

"Reine-Marie Paris, grand-daughter of the poet Paul Claudel – Camille’s brother – defied half a century of family taboos after she was handed a box of old papers that had belonged to Paul. She discovered letters from Camille to Paul, who though he had been extremely close to her, had allowed her to be sent to an asylum and languish there, even ignoring doctors’ suggestions that she return to her family. “Camille seemed cursed by the family, condemned to total oblivion by a pitiless censorship,” Reine-Marie explained to Le Figaro journalist Julia Baudin, in a special issue of the magazine celebrating the artist."

Apart from the source links elsewhere in this section, here are two more: a dedicated website (French), Some Beautiful (If Tortured) Works of Camille Claudel (English).

In reference to the 3 inset images of sculptures, all of them examples of Claudel's work, in the order of which they appear: another view of the Siren, two views of La Valse (The Waltz), 1891-1905. (Note: Apparently there were a number of these cast. The delightful story behind them, is that purportedly Camille gave one of them to a man she considered a friend, the Symbolist (and Expressionist) composer Claude Debussy, who apparently kept it atop his piano!) Lastly, is another version of Profonde pensée (Deep Thought), 1905. You'll note in this version, the back of the fireplace has been ripped out. The fireplace seems, in a way, an odd metaphorical reference to a unfinished piece by Rodin that he was still working on when he first met Camille - The Gates of Hell.

A large sculpture of Claudel's, The Mature Age, 1894-1900 can be found here.

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