Monday, October 15, 2012

Authors on Artists: Amy King on Leonor Fini, Leonora Carrington, and Frida Kahlo

Paint Is the Abyss’ Law, Living the Accent:
Marginalia on Absorption

by Amy King

Paint Is the Secretion of Scene on Leonor Fini’s Set    

I now confer status on you. As in, everything is as
good as the next thing. Better yet, in this season,
I am implicitly requesting your death  
on a platter. That said, should I begin without
interrogating the
great mystery that separates
dark matter from the everyday? Dive into beauty untinged by
the detritus of degenerative mechanics? But

(my own gut, packed with neurons,
neurotransmitters and proteins that learn along
a complex circuitry like and with the brain, balks
upon thinking into such chasms. To begin
in legitimacy is to acquiesce, to play like a harpsichord
down the keys of your spine a deceit –)

the great lie that lives lived are nothing
in the considerations of art made, dissected
for channels of human knowledge – That is, to instruct in
the room and board of sterilized parts. Pardon my French.                 These schools, 
            summoned by the handshakes of those
in the know, Order & brother Logic, condense
along the lines of the social paradigm of the
day’s matter. Or as Leonora Carrington
put it to a Freudian who once claimed
she was not adjusted, with bow tied on:  
“To what.”

So instead of shelving cadavers “to what,”
I’ll begin in tree time.                          When the Dogwood fell
from lightning last winter, it lay in the park for months. 
Powderpost beetles warmed, and the bark held firm. 
By April, its horizontal body bloomed full white
blossoms that met with spring’s fragrance everyone who
walked the paths along its limbs.   
The Dogwood did not know it was dead. 
It, lying in its own knowledge, was alive and did not heed
otherwise. It flowered for months its wine
with blood-tinged petals in tree time. 
Poet Paul Eluard
concurs, “When it’s Fini, it begins.”
And so the approach.  

Leonor Fini Photo by Andre Ostier (1951)
Ego & the Abyss

Where is the vapor barrier between “no children” and
“childless”?  What contains a secreting absence? 
Woman stands, at key corners and check points,
for the “(w)hole unfilled,” and makes
way in cultural stilettos daily.  As it happens,
the space of spiked nothings accommodates great deals. 
So Leonor Fini rejected marriage
as an institution and ducked the cloak of motherhood
on similar terms.                      Frida Kahlo, a continent over,
submitted, “Painting completed my life. I lost
three children… Painting
substituted for all of this. I believe work is the best thing.”  

(Crayon’s culture without adherence to social
requirements.  Breaking the seal of life without.)

When the Surrealists convened to discuss
women’s sexuality, only one man among them called
attention to the absence of women, the diva panel. 
A serious line of query: but little did they take up,
in gestures toward liberation, how they would
re-pivot the systems that position men
as the primary discussants of women’s bodies
and exactly in what way those reified daisies
should be viewed and treated, in what rows
(and how).

So what way does she make?   (How) does she
make way?
An ego may be a stand-alone smokescreen, a fiction in
translucent gauze with items carefully pinned,
presenting the world with the story of a person. 
In two-way fashion, the gauze is a lens to see through

too. (I am talking about reading lives from the master I contest.
I am writing as material interest, a gaping abyss.)

But this is only one version.  An ego is also an interaction,
an interplay of psychic forces, not in mere exchange,
but as colluding energies that manifest ghosts. 
An ego can be the plaything between, the alchemical
threshold of coming together, our third-element,
an unnamable ghost that constructs something from
us, psyches that meld and
mate, dispersing                       matter.                                  Enters, the Sphinx.

(With an insurmountable sheen, Leonor Fini
returns to the scene, with mask and breasts and spikey mane,
attaching to the roof of one’s skull, having swallowed hard
the glow of such names:  witch, sorceress, la maga, mamba,
Lilith and Eve – she sees.  Fierce and feline,
with one yawn against muse fantasy: 
the energized conquest of femme-enfant.)

The Law of Intervention

In a letter to Paul Demeny, Arthur Rimbaud submitted
that the search for a new poetic language would
be transformed if women broke from their servitude
and sought their own ideas and forms.
As such, Leonor Fini’s friend and fellow
painter, Leonora Carrington believed
in “a powerful female force rising”
but warned of “vulgarizing
interpretations,” believing
that naming a power is to reconstruct it
in the masculine. Or as may be deduced,
signifiers are as cultural as economic. 
What one crafts as the month’s aesthetic flavor,
one may also reap in readings, jobs and loot,
based on the demands of logocentrism, or what
gets rolled out in the “language of the father.”  
Or as George Carlin observed on fatherly
returns, “You don't need a formal conspiracy
when interests converge. The owners of this country
went to the same universities and fraternities,
they’re on the same boards of directors,
they belong to the same country clubs, they have
like interests, they don't need to call a meeting because
they know what is good for them...and they are getting it.”
Carrington, like Fini, play-thinged with the Surrealists,
along with a small crew of female artists and painters. 
These associations drew sideways
beyond the frame,
either as a by-product of romance
(i.e. Carrington and Ernst),
or as cloistered by Andre Breton himself, where, “The art of Frida
Kahlo is a ribbon around a bomb.”

(Despite sleight use of Surrealist-marked techniques, the women
wore the cloaks of fringe players or further erased
themselves from muses to edge their art
beyond the laws Breton & friends serialized and pounded out. 
An interloper might speculate they intuitively
excused themselves to become something the group could not delimit.)

Leonor Fini had read Freud’s inner trappings by the time
she was sixteen and was derailingly aware
of the good doctor’s theories as Surrealism’s springboard. 
Denuding said manifesto hounds, she responded, “I
disliked the deference with which everyone treated Breton. 
I hated his anti-homosexual attitudes and also his misogyny. 
It seemed that the women were expected to keep quiet
in cafĂ© discussions, yet I felt that I was just as good as the men. 
Breton seemed to expect devotion, like a pope, and wanted me
to become ‘a sheep in his gang’. I enjoyed the attention
I received, but I refused to join his group. I never
saw the point of being part of one group, and I disliked
Breton’s habit of holding tribunals, excommunicating
wayward surrealists… publishing lists of books
one shouldn’t read. I have never been very interested
in ideologies, and I refused the label surrealist….
I preferred to walk alone.” 

But she did not walk alone. 
She moved unsanctioned in Fini time.

Living Is a Corner Lens that Makes Up Space   

In this, our late capitalism cornering the market
on personal wealth and satiation,
mutual responsibility and social justice wilt
beside assertions of power positions
and their objects of inferior signification.
That is, in corners.
Systems are historical, and no group has yet
ousted the set-up to replace it
with fairness for all.  Nor free-for-all.
We call for more triumph-of-the-underdog stories
and casts and satiate ourselves cheering the imminent
winner who will clamor to next in line, top-side. 

By the measure of Real Housewives, Fini and Carrington,
both lovers of Max Ernst at opposite times,
should have hated one another.  Instead, their friendship
spurred their development as painters
at a time when an all-male revue ran the show,
war loomed and dictates of the fairer sex were to
inspire animosity, not camaraderie and nurturance.  
Fini engaged in all manner of friendships
and romances that the avant-garde Surrealists
condemned and declared distasteful. 

What gets lost, or dismissed, in the investigations
to change world orders is as obvious as that question
posed by the single Surrealist who noted the absence
of women in discussion. That which is construed
as the feminine. Here I do not refer to anything akin
to de Beauvoir’s rejection of an “eternal feminine”
through which men project transcendence as cave shadows. 
Here I do not ask for the simple exchange
of maternal metaphors to battle phallic excess. 
Here I do not ask for adherence to “woman”
as metaphor for liberation
from Western mono-logical thought, or shadow puppets.

Here I ask for something ghostly and ghastly,
that which systems of knowledge don’t notate
and attempt mockery or ignore as the phantom of. 
The real unreal.  The irrational.  An unbelievable turn
of shadow boxers to brazen beautiful fists that shape & burn. 
That which is relegated to wayward worlds
of emotion and nature, the pitiful and feared.
That which shuns complicity by complicating with ambiguity
and simultaneity. A particle in two places at once. 
The mercurial unfixed and uncertain transpiring
from consciously-crafted, studied attempts. 
Engagement with the intuitive and

what happens in the material of communication. 
That which says my gut can think
and knows that black holes are still hypothetical. 

The Accents of Collaboration

As in, assess the difference in complexities
of action with the Surrealist poet, Benjamin Peret,
yelling his hatred for the church at passing priests
on the street versus Fini donning a Cardinal’s scarlet
robes to walk about Paris in sensual fashion
explaining how she ‘loves to wear the clothes of a man
who will never know a woman’s body’.  

If “woman” is Foucault’s “discontinuous
and illegitimate knowledge” that counteracts
‘claims of a unitary body of theory which would filter,
hierarchize and order in the name of some true knowledge,’
then Jane Gallop pumps that heel:

Levi-Strauss says woman is both a sign and an exchanger of signs, thus hers is the place in organized culture that evokes another “more primitive” epistemology in which all objects were also considered endowed with subjective status. Might not one of the goals of what we so ambiguously call “women’s studies” be to call into question the oppressive effects of an epistemology based on the principle of a clear and nonambiguous distinction of subject and object of knowledge? Rather than attempt to banish it, I would like to take advantage of the ambiguity of “women’s studies,” in that it retains woman’s traditional peculiar vantage point as neither quite subject nor object, but in a framework which sees that vantage as an advantage and not a shortcoming.
The Alcove- An Interior with Three Figures (1939)

Or to put it mildly, why shouldn’t woman,
in insurrectionary fashion, embrace her enigmatic,
precarious state and confound
traditional assignments by integrating myths
of the masculine into her representations – and so forth. 
Let’s look to Fini’s The Alcove: An Interior with Three
 Women, which, with the placement of a breastplate
on Leonora Carrington, suggests the masculine   
guardian and protector, but the implications
are conflated with the feminine
in the form of confidant, lover, nurturer, etcetera,
vis-a-vis the room’s intimacy, discarded clothing,
the title’s suggestion of equal status, hands held,
gazes exchanged. Thus the scene is no easy read –
it is the setting of something indeterminate
and simultaneously intimate and monumental.

Sink into also Fini’s strategies in light
of her statement to the writer, Rodriguez Monegal:
Men are basically less masculine than they think,
or than they pretend to think. It is a very old throw-back
In The Tower (1952)
that leads them to accentuate those traits
at the expense of deeper ones ... I am for a world
of non-differentiated, or little-differentiated sexes.” 
Her emphasis in depicting delicate and androgynous
male bodies draws out the suppressed feminine
qualities in men, which are not married to biology,
as well as culling a mercurial openness and curiosity
for female guidance as suggested in her painting,
In the Tower. Fini represents herself as well
in bold dress exposing cleavage, but the typical muse
and object of desire are eradicated
by her striking raven black contrasted
with the man’s red and nudity, her height, direct gaze
and obvious command at the illuminated portal. 

Without hazarding too deeply into reductive
readings of Fini, one more footnote is in order
regarding her self-portraits as sphinxes.
In Greek mythology, the sphinx was female,
half-human and half-lion. Fini stated,
“I remember I wanted to be like the sphinx I saw
in the garden of Miramar Castle in Trieste. I wanted
to think like it, to be strong and eternal, to be
a living sphinx. Later, I felt that the combination
of half-animal, half-human was the ideal state. 
I identified with the hybrid.” The enigmatic nature
of the sphinx renders the depiction, especially
in the standard hierarchy, ever more complex. 
Similarly, Frida Kahlo has aligned herself
with such hybridity; in The Little Deer Kahlo is
severely pierced and should be death itself, but her gaze is one
Little Deer (1946)
of certainty and alignment with her solitary position,
where she dwells with the elements
(a broken limb and lightning flash) around her. 
Likewise, both painters stand keen, firm-eyed, to explore
the generative embrace of the less-than-ideal death
conditions, decay and pain. They lay claim on these liminal states
in the service of the transformation in the feminine subject.    

Further, the farther away many of these painters got
from Surrealist tendencies, the more their mastery moved,
and elaborately their vocabulary grew. 
They created beyond the stuff of Surrealist dreamscapes.
The abyss called out, and the yawns shifted on to vertiginous


Someone may ask, what does a poet read in a painting? 
Why the lives of these women
who removed themselves to gather in as from the margins? 

To which I might suggest that the margins
have gotten a bad rap. The theorist, bell hooks,
suggested their value in the 90s, that choosing to work
from the margin “shapes and determines one’s response
to existing cultural practice and one’s capacity to envision new,
alternative, oppositional aesthetic acts. It informs
the way we speak about these issues, the language we choose.” 

The margins as place of refuge have been popularly
shut down as anti-social and self-isolating. Fleeting irrelvance. But this
misnomer is based on the notion that margins
are hermitry-inducing,
if one has the privilege of choice. Some cannot choose
the margins; they are forced cages. For others, a reprieve
from which one may emerge and engage. 
Thus one refreshing aspect in the face
of these women and their rejection of the promise
of celebration and liberation by a group seemingly full
of potential to debunk historical authority. 
They made their own way, affecting social conditions,
in various fashions, in their own time, without
the authorial approval of a majority to proceed. 

(Helene Cixious from another early text, “Woman
must write her self:  must write about women and bring
women to writing, from which they have been driven
away as violently as from their bodies – for the same
reasons, by the same law, with the same fatal goal. 
Woman must put herself into text – as into the world
and into history – by her own movement.”)

The bodies left behind are painted and numerous. 
Cixous would say, an ensemble. Some ghosts seek matter,
so between us we may need a medium to matter in,
to make matter in. Bodies are borders that work
in countless registers, and I am talking about reading
lives through and into the matter I seek.

I am, at this point, unwilling, as a good citizen should be,
to divorce the lives from what is produced and proceed
in my own time, or tree or Fini time, to question that
which takes place in the many pixelated, painted, and
molecular forms mingling between us. 
Since language “takes place” in some material, I hope
to read ever more bodies and explore the transfiguration
that occurs in the “exchange” between writers, painters,
the text and the reader, in all of the ghosts
borne from such work.     

Absorption, a Postscript

The “Shocking”                      torso                                      laid claim
to the market for                                                                            eleven years.
The hourglass bottle,              woman, a                                         dress
modeled after                                            Mae West’s bodice,
full of fragrance.                                       The feminine.

                                                                           The lid of a flower bouquet works in
                                     the lilt of a woman’s for a ball of roses.
Transparent glass of                        dark                                        amber serum.
                            Fini’s adopted fetish     for mannequins,
                                                                                                                the marrying kind. Appropriately,
                                                                 her adoption shifted the misogynist symbol
                   of an armless,                faceless,               orificed body.
                                                                 Penetrable.          The Fini twist turns that form
inaccessible;                           glass holds no holes.     Transparent,
                            nothing to            witness,               nothing                        to photograph.
                            The beholder knows the interior as exterior.
                            A conflated holster that performs the gaze’s
         mechanics.                                                         Nothing but reflection.
                            An a priori looking.   The desiring knows
                                                                 only one’s own flesh through the bodice.
         With looking into          a glass bottle,                Fini shows
                                                                 them to themselves, carnivorous cavities
in action. However,

the bottle as herself is consumed
         through use, not through vision, splashing
                   essence along their torsos. The body becomes
a vacuum, and doubles, as wet presence symbolique.
         Rather than absence for the female consumer.
                   Social butterfly, Mae West, sexual, desiring and
anti-subordinate. Bottle metonymy. 
         A parody of desire with hips and breasts. 
                   (Enter Sheela na gig in Laura Mulvey fashion.)
Accessible item of whimsy, the defused bomb
         stings the unwitting grabby consumer.
                   The bottle sings of fullness, with room for absence,
in transparency, its own abyss of essence,
         a presence, this emptying vessel of beauty
                   that shocks with the art of amber darkness clearing

to a world that contains only us.


Of her most recent book from Litmus Press, I Want to Make You Safe, John Ashbery described Amy King's poems as bringing “abstractions to brilliant, jagged life, emerging into rather than out of the busyness of living.” King conducts interviews for VIDA: Woman in Literary Arts and teaches English and Creative Writing at SUNY Nassau Community College. Visit her online @ for more.