Convulsive Beauty: A Fabricated Lecture with Illustrations
This is the text version of a ‘fictional lecture’ delivered at Nottingham Contemporary’s symposium Shimmering, Shining, Vomiting, Glitter: The Poetics and Politics of Disgust on November 14th 2013, part of the public programme around the Asco exhibition No Movies. Video from the live stream of the presentation can be found here.
Before I begin, I would like to point out that approximately 60% of the material used to support the case I am about to make is fictional. Then again, since the case I intend to make is for ambiguity, fluidity and the blurring of accepted categories – particularly, in this case, our tendency, in ‘objective’ encounters, to find beauty in material we might otherwise have been conditioned to find disgusting or repellent – perhaps it’s appropriate that the ground on which the case for confusion and ambiguity has been built is itself, like those substances we tend to find repellent (vomit, blood, flesh, decay) extremely slippery. The notion of disgust itself often seems linked to ambiguous substances and spaces where mutations and slippages happen, where the borders separating the inside and outside of bodies blur, where the literal ‘bad taste’ of kitsch asserts itself in some context where it doesn’t fit: is it ‘in bad taste’ to fabricate evidence and draw fictional conclusions? Perhaps this paper’s form could provoke disgust as well as provide a framework for a discussion of its ambiguities.
To establish the ground rules of this talk, I’d like to show a short film in which it seems the unsettling inhabits the hypnotic and the abject conceals itself inside the appealing: Robert Holcombe’s Film Strip (1966). The original version of this exists only as a one-off book work, in the form of a concertina storyboard, which was speculatively reconstructed with permission from his estate in the summer of 2012, an idea largely justified by Holcombe’s notes outlining an intention “that this collage book might already be, or could one day become, a film of some sort…something haunting, formally precise, but entirely random in its patterning” [Holcombe: Unpublished Letter to Eduardo Paolozzi, September 1967]. If it achieves nothing else today, Film Strip should at least help us to enter the mood of slight unreality and blatant artifice appropriate for the paper that follows and is, in its own way, a small Asco-style ‘No Movie’ of its own.But that’s by the way. We begin our real discussion with a review of the Polish sculptor Alina Szapocznikow’s MoMA retrospective earlier this year, in which one writer, Yevgeniya Traps, points out that that during her training in Paris in the immediate aftermath of the war – a war in which she had survived the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto and internment in three concentration camps, Theresienstadt, Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz – Szapocznikow did not respond to her experiences in the way we might expect, with self-conscious high-humanitarian seriousness and solemnity, but through a darkly playful and at times Pop-like lens: insofar as it is autobiographical in any conventionally literal or direct sense, which in her case is simultaneously inevitable and doubtful, Szapocznikow’s work refracts her wartime experience, and the Holocaust itself, through a distorting mirror, rendering her own near-miraculous continued existence as a species of unsettling hallucination.
“[Szapocznikow] brought an unabashedly feminine sensibility, coupled with a hard-won contempt for traditional pieties”, writes Traps. “[Hers is] the vision of one who has witnessed the dismantling of the world and improbably lived to tell of it. Like Kurt Vonnegut’s narrator in Slaughterhouse-Five, Szapocznikow’s response to the atrocities she had lived through seems to have been “So it goes.” Like Kurt Vonnegut, who witnessed the firebombing of Dresden and who concluded that writing an anti-war novel would be not unlike writing a book against glaciers, she seems to have realized that, even without wars, without human cruelty, “there would still be plain old death.” Such knowledge was, as it tends to be, hard won: Szapocznikow was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1951, and died, at the age of forty-seven, from breast cancer. The tuberculosis perhaps helps explain the artist’s apparent obsession with the consumption of bodies, as does the cancer. One of Szapocznikow’s most striking pieces is Tumeurs Personnifiées (Tumors Personified), made in 1971, using polyester resin, fiberglass, paper, and gauze: a series of faces laid out on the gallery floor, suggesting decapitated heads, washed up on some seashore like small dead creatures…” [Traps, The Paris Review, January 2013]
Szapocznikow’s works have tended, when they were ‘placed’ at all, to be discussed in relation to those of such American artists as Lynda Benglis, Louise Bourgeois and Eva Hesse, but while there are certainly shared concerns, materials and techniques with such artists (and some temperamental similarities to others, not least Paul Thek, George Segal and Ed Keinholz), the question of actual influence in either direction is (as always) fraught and complex. Szapocznikow’s interest in the dismantling of the body, in particular, seems in her case a highly specific, if not at all dogmatic, anti-fascist gesture: as the Marquis de Sade understood perfectly, the sensibility that produces fascism is fundamentally rooted in attempts to eradicate the ‘soft’ body from its armour, to erase difference, to impose abstractions on the mess of actual bodies. Fascist mentalities seek to cleanse the world and people it with uniforms filled with marble and machinery instead of actual flesh and organs, since the vulnerabilities and unpredictabilities of human presence have been made philosophically, politically and viscerally intolerable. Szapocznikow’s response to this cleansing tendency invites very particular responses, notably that instinctive but extremely contradictory convulsion that occurs in human perception when an image of startling visual beauty – perhaps something suggestive of Islamic tile patterns or a plant-form, a nebula or stone, a sexual trigger, a breast or vagina or some juicy, edible fruit – suddenly reveals its true identity on second glance: what we see is now a fungal growth, a tumour, a fold of cut skin, a cluster of cancer cells or an excised liver. The response turns abruptly from desire to disgust: a muscular contraction, an affective revulsion in which the ghost of that initial desire disturbingly remains.It’s on the ground of a shared interest in the literally ‘convulsive’ physical and psychological response that an image or object of this ambiguous kind might trigger – the ‘convulsive beauty’ that Breton’s 1928 text, Nadja, declares an archetypal surrealist effect – that it seems Alina Szapocznikow may, or may not, have entered into a brief but significant dialogue with the entirely fictional British artist Robert Dennis Holcombe in Paris sometime during 1963. Robert Holcombe, born in Leeds in 1923, and so only three years older than Szapocznikow herself, had served and was injured in Malaya during the war and in 1948 gone on to study printmaking at the Slade in London alongside contemporaries like Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi and other early architects of the Independent Group. Yet instead of pursuing a career in art, or assuming any public visibility during his lifetime, he maintained these contacts at a distance after returning to Leeds in 1955 to work in the city’s municipal planning office while making his own collage works as a mostly private activity.
In works like Holcombe’s The Passageway (1966) we can see immediately how close some of his concerns were to Szapocznikow’s during this period, despite the very different materials and methods used. The fragmented and disordered body, the convergence in one image of attraction and revulsion, some inheritance, conscious or otherwise, from the formula for ‘convulsive beauty’ described by Andre Breton in 1928, all are present and foregrounded in Holcombe. As with an line like Angela Carter’s “his wedding gift, clasped round my throat…a choker of rubies, two inches wide, like an extraordinarily precious slit throat…” the impact of an image like The Passageway is crucially dependent on a double-take: a simultaneity of perspectives that strikes when we see the image. The body is well-proportioned and classically beautiful, but the skin is diseased. The pubic hair is concealed, in accordance with academic decorum, but with a fig-leaf of fertile spawn. A simple response appears to have been made deliberately impossible.While The Passageway post-dates Holcombe’s possible meeting with Szapocznikow, and may well have been influenced by his encounter with her work a few years earlier, these concerns do appear in his output earlier and independently, albeit in very different forms to those manifested by Szapocznikow. In 1961 Images Portugaises [Secretariado Da Propaganda Nacional], an explicitly anti-fascist portfolio, was constructed from a book of propaganda images published to sell Salazar’s Portugal to the world: Holcombe had acquired the book on a visit to Lisbon in 1960 as part of a delegation sent to view and study the construction techniques used for system built public housing.
In relation to a possible link with Szapocznikow, we know that Holcombe was in Paris at some point during the winter of 1963, as part of a small team sent on a similar architectural research trip to visit new buildings on the city’s outskirts. Because of this, we also know that he was in Paris at a point in time when Szapocznikow maintained a studio near the Pere-Lachaise cemetery, a studio where she remained until her move to a house on Rue Victor Hugo in 1964, so it’s perfectly possible for a meeting of some kind to have taken place. What isn’t clear is how Holcombe’s decision to specifically dedicate a series of 26 images, Krakow (1964), to Alina Szapocznikow on his return to Leeds came about.
It seems most likely that he met Szapocznikow herself, and perhaps visited her studio, as there are no records of her taking part in public exhibitions in Paris or elsewhere during Holcombe’s time in the city, and the works that his series references were not, at that stage, featured in any periodicals as reproductions that could otherwise have been available prior to or during 1964. The monochrome photographs used as background for the 26 images comprising the series also show locations in and around Krakow, often places linked to local legends, ghost stories and uncanny tales, so the Polish material and very clear allusions to Szapocznikow’s sculptural work suggest a very conscious kind of homage was being undertaken. The question of why Holcombe made it, and how he came to at least appear to know of work by Szapocznikow that had yet to be publicly seen, may never be fully explained.
The possibility of an undocumented meeting would be the most likely explanation but beyond the internal evidence of Holcombe’s own Krakow series and the speculation it encourages, no account of Holcombe’s activity during his 1963 visit to Paris, beyond the basic work itinerary of site visits and municipal meetings, has yet surfaced to cast any further light on the origins of this particular series, or indeed any other influence Szapocznikow may have had on his work during the 1960s and 70s. Despite these uncertainties, there’s an undeniable logic to Holcombe’s interest in the assemblage methods and surreal and anatomical themes that surface in Szapocznikow’s works even more often than they do in his own typical output: a temperamental affinity seems very likely to have been quickly established in any circumstances which might have led to a 1963 meeting between the two.
In this light, it may be worth reconsidering some examples of Holcombe’s 1950s and early 1960s work in the light of both Szapocznikow’s aesthetic sensibility and Breton’s concept of ‘convulsive beauty’. Perhaps these might be considered useful keys to understanding both the nature of the shifts in his own work between and the middle and later 1960s and the general shift in visual culture that took place, in England, at least, under banners usually somewhat reductively labelled ‘Pop’ or ‘Social Realism’. In a journal entry, written just the year before his visit to Paris he was already considering ideas that might almost have been written by Szapocznikow herself, suggesting a shared aesthetic and mutual fascination with material liable to produce contradictory (and ‘convulsive’) responses: “I have been thinking increasingly about what we consider with disgust; how such things seem if we can only forget what they are. From the jewel-boxes of diseased cells under microscopes and the soft furs of black mould on decayed meat, to the ripe blood-fruit of internal organs and the exotic fauna of physical decomposition, there is beauty in all those things from which we instinctively recoil…” [Robert Holcombe: Unpublished Journal,, 1962]
Like Alina Szapocznikow in the Polish context, Holcombe’s work at this point seems to have become increasingly politicised but resists obvious routes of social protest and activism while insisting on absurdity and humour, albeit of a markedly dark variety on both counts. Even in works of the 1950s like Garden (1953), in which a sliced-open internal organ is framed as fantastical garden seemingly filled with stars and microbial plants, or Feast (1953), which places a digestive tract into a Buckingham Palace stateroom to mark the Coronation, these interests are present in embryonic form. As he wrote in 1962, making explicit the political point he may have intended the otherwise uncanny or surreal image of Feast to communicate during the coronation year of 1953: “If the State or Nation is a body, as many insist, then the place where all its wealth and produce ends up after the other organs have done their work should not be considered the head, as is commonly suggested, but the arse…” [Holcombe: Unpublished letter to Cy Albertine, August 1962]As de Sade wrote in 120 Days of Sodom, almost two centuries earlier, “Beauty belongs to the sphere of the simple, the ordinary, whilst ugliness is something extraordinary, and there is no question but that every ardent imagination prefers in lubricity, the extraordinary to the commonplace…”. It is not so much that, as Angela Carter’s explicitly Sadeian narrator says in her 1972 novel The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffmann, “everything it is possible to imagine can also exist” but that, as Szapocznikow’s interest in the dismantling of the body and embrace of fluidity, slippage, softness, mutation and vulnerability tells us, that “everything that exists is open to imaginative transformation”.
Isn’t this exactly what Szapocznikow’s Personified Tumours do, embracing even her own lethal illness in pursuit of an imaginative immersion in the transformed matter of the world? And if Szapocznikow immerses herself in the uncomfortable pleasures and unpredictabilities of real bodies, Holcombe, around the same moment, is seeking visual analogues for a sense of entrapment (and constructing small portals of escape) from our wider immersion in a consumer culture whose boundaries, even in the later 1960s, were felt to be tightening, holding the emergent consumer somewhere between a new plenty and too-much, a dream and a nightmare, convulsive beauty and convulsive disgust. That both artists draw on these convulsive strategies, where boundaries implode, categories shift, the world undergoes mutations and our own responses slip easily between glimpses of beauty and visceral recoils from bad taste, only heightens a sense of frustration that any actual connections between them remain highly tenuous and entirely undocumented.