Body Parts: Surrealism and the Reconstruction of Masculinity

by Amy J. Lyford

Phd Dissertation, Department of History of Art
University of California, Berkeley

This text represents a small portion of Chapter Two, "Legs, Arms and Torsos: Advertising, Identification and the Creation of a Surrealist Subjectivity in the 1920s."

Although the mechanics of looking which mark the character of Kertèsz's photographs were more likely experienced on the streets of Paris than in surrealist images of fragmented female bodies, it is important to understand the ways in which such a process of seeing deeply informed surrealist thought and activity. From the advertising posterís role in L'Age D'Or to the posterís appearance in some of Kertèsz's photographs, the poster could not only show difference within masculinity (as well as difference between masculinity and femininity), but it could also produce a male subject whose desire was figured as the product of his exclusion from the eroticized female body. The strain placed upon masculinity by the notion of bodily fragmentation was produced in the filmís ìstreets of Romeî sequence as a metaphor for the experience of male inadequacy in the face of female self-sufficiency and erotic power. Written by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí (and directed by Buñuel), L'Age D'Or told a story of two lovers and their uncontrollable (and presumably perverse) sexual desires. After the viewer witnesses a series of anti-social activities--attempted rape, assault, cruelty--by the male protagonist (played by the actor Gaston Modot, whose familiarity to the viewing public from official government films made his selection for the role doubly scandalous), Modot's character is shown being escorted down a city street plastered with advertising posters (figs. 20.1-20.11 below).

Each of the posters receives careful attention by the camera in a sequence intercut with images of Modot's face actively looking at them. As Modot spies at the first one (a poster promoting "Leda" facial powder for women), the film cuts to the image, which is presented in a state of pictorial transformation. In its initial form, the poster shows an image of a woman's hand and a fuzzy powder puff, each of which is dramatically emphasized by the poster's dark background. Slowly, as if the viewer were watching the image entering Modot's mind, the poster shifts and oscillates so that the previously immobile hand and puff begin to move. Through a successful dissolve, the printed hand in the poster eventually turns into a moving one whose activity suggests the motions associated with female masturbation. 37

Soon after his visual experience of the hand and puff's masturbatory activities, Modot's experience of the poster's rhetoric shifts first to a photograph in a windowof a woman with her head thrown back; and then, quickly, a dissolve to another "scene" in which his lover's body appears lying on a couch. With her head thrown back and her face carrying a look of erotic pleasure that is accentuated by her hand's position between her legs, Modot's experience of the poster has generated an associational chain whose end result is an image of his lover's self-sufficient erotic activity. And it was the fragmented female body initially displayed on the poster which drew Modot to this fantasy. Even if this particular fantasy is one that male-oriented pornography often accentuates, Lis' activity also emphasizes the power of female sexuality. Put into the hands of the surrealists, the advertising poster thus depicts a particular form of fragmentation to which erotic suggestion can be expected to attach. The poster in L'Age D'Or thus visually suggests a chain of associations in which the male subject's desire is shown to be dependent upon the individualís unconscious transformation of the imagery of advertising into a script about erotic play. Through his glance at this poster, Modot is psychologically stimulated to see his own exclusion from his lover's erotic desires. The advertisement's sexualized rhetoric, in other words, embodies Modot's psychological experience of his own lack. L'Age D'Or thus presents a concise, yet powerful visual example of how surrealism's appropriation of the techniques of advertising might actually function in practice. 38


37. This association between the hand's movements and those of female masturbation was acknowledged at the time of the film's initial screening, as we can see from the attention paid to this motion as it was finally enacted (at the end of Modot's visualized fantasy) by Lya Lys in the censor's report. This "Rapport des renseignements généraux" of 10 December 1930 preceded the film's interdiction by only two days: "...le film représente une jeune femme (Lya Lys), habilée, surétendue sur un divan, une jambe pendante, la main écartée à hauteur du pubis, remuant doucement le doigt du milieu comme se livrant sur elle-même à des attouchements obscènes." See L'Age D'Or,"Les Cahiers du Musée National d'Art Moderne" (hors-série / archives, 1993): 97.

38. For a nearly complete documentation of the film and its reception in 1930, see "L'Age D'Or. Correspondance Luis Buñuel - Charles de Noailles. Lettres et Documents (1929-1976)," Les Cahiers du Musée National d'Art Moderne (hors série / archives, 1993).

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