Battling Horror With the Absurd

Surrealists Fought Nazis With Nose, Teeth and Transvestism

Exposed To Capture: Heisler alluded to the Holocaust with ghostly figures and bodies in distress.
Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago
Exposed To Capture: Heisler alluded to the Holocaust with ghostly figures and bodies in distress.

By Menachem Wecker

Published April 25, 2012, issue of May 04, 2012.
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Another Heisler work, a collection of poems titled “Only the Kestrels Piss Calmly on the Ten Commandments,” might be the second most blasphemous surrealist work after Max Ernst’s 1926 painting “The Virgin Spanking the Christ Child before Three Witnesses.” Though not a Jew himself, Ernst was at one time the husband of Peggy Guggenheim and was denounced by the Nazis as a Jew. Heisler’s poems, meanwhile, which he published in 1939 with drawings by Toyen (born Marie Čermínová), were intended to be subversive texts to be handed to conquering German soldiers so that they would be led astray.

“That Heisler could react with defiant wit to such poisonous pressure makes his work not just original but exemplary for modern times,” Toman and Matthew Witkovsky, curator and chair of photography at the Art Institute, wrote in their catalog’s introduction.

Defiance aside, Heisler’s life ended early, despite his having evaded Nazi capture and moving to Paris after the war. He registered with the Prague Jewish community after the war, but in perhaps the most surreal moment of his life, his name was erroneously added to the more than 77,000 victims of the Holocaust listed in Prague’s Holocaust memorial, Pinkas Synagogue. Suddenly, in 1953, the artist died of cardiac arrest at the tender age of 38.

Cahun, meanwhile, was born Lucy Schwob in 1894 to a French-Jewish family. She assumed the pseudonym Claude Cahun at age 22. In 1944, the Nazis arrested Cahun and her partner, Suzanne Malherbe, for their political activities — which had included producing anti-Nazi fliers — and placed them in solitary confinement for a year.

Cahun was perhaps most subversive in her self-portraits, in which she often blurred gender boundaries by representing herself as a man. In a self-portrait from about 1928, for example, Cahun appears twice (once in a mirror), dressed in a checkered shirt and sporting a short haircut. The “real” Cahun meets the viewer’s gaze, while the reflected Cahun looks away. From viewers, the artist simultaneously demands attention and makes them feel like voyeurs.

In her February 1945 self-portrait — some nine years before she died — Cahun posed soon after being released from jail. A fellow prisoner gave her a badge from a Nazi uniform, which Cahun “promptly stuck in her mouth,” according to a 2006 article in The Telegraph. In the photograph, Cahun — whose hair is covered and who stands in a doorway with her hand in her pocket and her coat unbuttoned — looks directly at the camera. It would be a stretch to suggest that the photograph captures a subject that had not suffered a good deal, but Cahun also seems to be smirking.

Heisler’s works also marshaled absurdity to address the Holocaust. Nowhere is that more apparent than in a work that references Alfred Jarry, the bizarre French artist who invented the opaque, pseudo-science pataphysics and whose “Ubu” plays were so controversial (and dirty) that they started riots. Surrealism often addressed tyranny through the absurd, but there is a particularly creative absurdity about Heisler’s spring-in-nose shenanigans that makes us wonder what he might have achieved had he lived a little longer.

Menachem Wecker, who is based in Northern Virginia, blogs and reports on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at blog.chron.com/iconia.


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