Kristoffer Noheden /The Artist-Magician as Filmmaker: Wilhelm Freddie’s Films and the New Myth.

A woman’s tongue cavorts against the backdrop of a painted landscape. A hand draws a mysterious symbol in a puddle of blood, before two men proceed to dig into the insides of a naked woman. A loaf of bread appears, disappears, and then splits open in half. The Danish artist Wilhelm Freddie made the two bewildering short films The Definite Rejection of a Request for a Kiss and Eaten Horizons together with the f ilmmaker Jørgen Roos in 1949 and 1950. Freddie’s sudden foray into f ilm followed upon his participation in Le Surréalisme en 1947, which had such a strong effect on him that he entered an “esoteric period.” In the talk “Why Do I Paint?,” which he gave on Danish radio in 1950, Freddie situates his films, alongside his paintings and sculptures, amid his aims of creating a form of art with mythological life.1 Freddie only produced five minutes of film, but their imagery, at once playful and opaque, is fraught with occultism and ritual and evokes the surrealist search for a new myth like few others. Like Max Ernst before him, Freddie assumes the role of a magician wielding powers of transformation through art, but this artist-magician is arguably at his most powerful when making films.2 This chapter examines Freddie’s films in relation to his participation in Le Surréalisme en 1947 and the rarely discussed 1949 exhibition Surrealistisk manifestation in Stockholm, as well as his radio talk “Why Do I Paint?” and an evocative poetic commentary that he published to accompany Eaten Horizons.3 Some suggestive claims that Breton made around the time of Le Surréalisme en 1947 are particularly telling for how Freddie decided to approach myth and magic in his films. In the catalogue essay “Surrealist Comet,” Breton states that surrealism pursues “[i]nitiation by means of poetry and art,” and in “Fronton-Virage,” he writes of his ambition to explore the unity of the pursuits of high magic and high poetry.4 Eaten Horizons, film and commentary together, pursues similar connections between art and initiation, poetry and magic, here extended to a rare interchange between moving images and verbal poetry. Freddie’s films also point to the experiential aspect of surrealist magic art, and indicate how the new myth as it takes shape in film seeks to foster a certain sensibility. These surrealist ideas about magic, myth, and art, however, do not provide a definite key for interpreting Freddie’s films. Some of the things that appear to be enigmatic about his films can be deciphered by placing them in this context, but their esoteric allusions are no mere puzzles to be solved. In that sense, Freddie’s films are similar to the writings of those poets whose esoteric leanings were so important for Breton’s conviction that there is an intimate link between poetry and occultism. Literary scholar Albert Béguin remarks that the surrealist forerunner Gérard de Nerval’s poetry does not simply constitute versified descriptions of esoteric symbolism. While the magic that Nerval creates relies heavily on the presence of alchemy and the tarot, it ultimately exceeds them. Hence, in Béguin’s view, commentaries that use these elements as a basis for interpretation “explain nothing.”5 As Béguin writes, references to alchemy are not what make poetry alchemical, as it were. It is rather the very poetic process that works as a transmutation, since it changes reality by charging it with symbolic meaning.6 Gaston Bachelard writes about the symbolists’ ambition to rekindle the symbol and its connection with occultism: “One of the characteristics of the symbol situated thus on the terrain of occultism is its ambivalence. […] Evidently symbolic powers, occult powers and poetic powers stem from the same source, rise from the same depths.”7 Surrealist evocations of occultism rely on a similar transmutation of reality enacted by the interpretative impulse triggered by confounding imagery. Freddie explores this connection with characteristic irreverence, visually in Eaten Horizons, verbally in his written commentary; together, they heighten this interplay by connecting visual and verbal images, and letting them generate new meaning between them.

(wilhelm freddie And the surreAlist short film)

Freddie’s work in film began in 1947, when Jørgen Roos approached him with a request for collaborating on a film.8 Over the following five years, Freddie completed a number of film scripts.9 Two of them were made into films, while the others joined the fertile surrealist tradition of unrealized film scenarios. Freddie’s forays into film took place some f ifteen years after he had established himself as a painter, and they are intimately related to his activities as an artist working not only with paintings but with sculptures, objects, and photography.10 Born in 1909, Freddie was drawn to surrealism in the early 1930s, a time when Wilhelm Bjerke-Petersen and his journal Linien were the most important mediators of knowledge on surrealism in Denmark.11 Freddie soon established himself as one of Denmark’s most prominent modernist artists, and, in line with surrealism’s overall scandalous nature in the interwar period, his work seemed to effortlessly provoke outrage.12 In a 1935 review, the Swedish artist Gösta Adrian-Nilsson described Freddie as “a fanatic, an anarchist, with bombs in his pocket.”13 Freddie seems to have embraced these conceptions throughout his career. In a 1946 letter to his friend Steen Colding, about the consternated reactions of a gallery owner faced with his work, he gleefully exclaims, “long live the anarchist-pornographic revolution.”14 By that point, Freddie’s propensity for using erotic motifs in his art had generated much hostility. One of Freddie’s contributions to the 1936 surrealist exhibition in London, the painting Psychophotographic Phenomenon: The Fallen of the World War (1936), did not make it past Customs, due to its perceived pornographic content.15 In Denmark, his object Sexparalysappeal (1936) was confiscated for similar reasons.16 Freddie also employed his erotomania against the threat of burgeoning Nazism. His painting Meditation on the Anti-Nazi Love (1936) displays a contorted and naked couple who embrace in the lower right hand corner, while a Hitler-like figure stands pompously far off in the background of the vast surrounding landscape.17 The Danish establishment considered Freddie’s surrealist critique of Nazism a nuisance. Come the German invasion of Denmark, the hostilities escalated and eventually led to outright threats on Freddie’s life.18 In 1944, the situation had become so dire that he had to escape to Sweden with his wife and son. They eventually ended up in Stockholm, where Freddie gained support from friends and gallery owners.19 Between the end of the war and 1950, Freddie divided his time between Stockholm and Copenhagen. During these prolific years, he turned to the film medium, contributed to Le Surréalisme en 1947, and co-organized Surrealistisk manifestation.20 As he entered his self-proclaimed esoteric period in conjunction with the 1947 exhibition, Freddie’s motifs and thought underwent marked changes. If his paintings were now shorter on explicitly political satire, he adhered to surrealism’s attempts to reconsider radical politics in a freethinking manner, riddled with a more timeless and anarchistic utopianism and receptive to myth and magic.21 At the same time, Freddie’s irreverent eroticism and oppositional black humour remained intact. All this is also evident in his f ilms.22 Freddie and Roos made The Definite Rejection of a Request for a Kiss under sparse conditions in Freddie’s apartment in Copenhagen.23 At Roos’s suggestion, they based the film on Freddie’s 1940 artwork of the same title.24 Freddie’s original mixed-media work consists of a wooden panel, on which five circles in a row depict a woman’s red lips opening, then closing, in an exaggerated and contorted manner, against a succession of backgrounds of shifting natural scenery. A remediation of sorts, then, the film version of The Definite Rejection of a Request for a Kiss is just under one and a half minutes long. Its first part replicates the visual motif of the original work. A woman’s painted lips are shown against a stylized landscape in a close-up that is masked to the shape of a circle. The film intercuts still images of collages, where photographs of the lips are pasted onto a painted background, with moving images, where the mouth protrudes from a hole in an organic-looking surrounding material. Still and moving lips alike twist into a series of grimaces, and the mouth opens up like a fleshy cavity in the scenery. The second sequence consists of a single take that shows Freddie’s own moustached face in an extreme close-up. He looks nervous and highly strung, and his eyes dart maniacally, almost rotating in their sockets. An off-screen blood-curdling scream and what sounds like swear words in Danish can be heard, and then the film is over. Eaten Horizons was made under better conditions than the first film, since the production company Cimbria Films in Copenhagen put their studio and materials at Freddie and Roos’s disposal.25 At three and a half minutes, the film is more narratively complex and technically advanced than its predecessor. Freddie and Roos now utilize camera movement, cross-cutting, interior and exterior locations, optical printing, and even a brief sequence of stop-motion animation. The scenography may be sparse, but the film is dense with poetic juxtapositions, bodily and material transformations, and a playful but convoluted symbolism, of both esoteric and mock-religious gravity. The soundtrack, too, is more complex than in the preceding film. Its jarring sounds, including occasional bursts of music, alternately work with and disrupt the rich visuals. Groaning and chanting voices intermittently contribute to create a ritualistic atmosphere, but their grainy and thick sonority render it impossible to make out more than a few specific words. The credits announce that Eaten Horizons is “a film about love and its annihilation in complete happiness.” The film is divided into two sections. Following the credits, it opens on a medium close-up of a woman with her arms stretched out, fettered to a wall with strips of paper or cloth. In a close-up, a hand with a crayfish and a moon painted on it traces two circles and a triangle in a puddle of glistening black fluid, before wiping them out. The second sequence of the film is more eventful. A dissolve leads to a room with two filthy-looking men, seated and talking to each other. One of them raises a glass containing an unspecif ied drink. The camera tilts and reveals that the other man has one bare, and dirty, foot placed on a loaf of bread lying on the floor. In a centred close-up, a sharp light illuminates the bread until, suddenly, it disappears, leaving the man’s foot suspended in mid-air. Another dissolve transports the camera to an empty street, where a cut reveals a broad, dark, tripartite door, stained with a fluid that the commentary reveals to be dog piss.26 The door is ajar, and the camera pans slowly to the right. In the darkness inside, the bread lies illuminated on the floor. A cut follows to the bread lying on an ornate silver platter, before another cut shows it between the breasts of a naked woman, her torso shown at an angle. With the camera placed in the position of her head, two illuminated white rectangles appear over her raised knees. Next, the two men approach the woman and remove the bread from her chest. They roll her over onto her stomach, and proceed to lift a surgically precise rectangle of skin from her back. Underneath it, a close-up shows that a substance that resembles lava, excrement, or mincemeat bubbles. Using teaspoons, the two men solemnly eat the substance. When they have finished, one of the men pulls up his right sleeve and reaches down into the hole in the woman’s back, from which he pulls out the loaf of bread. A jarring cut follows to what looks like a narrow white room or the inside of a box. A ball bounces frantically, and suddenly photographs of faces of several children appear, pasted to the side and back walls. After a fade to
black, the loaf of bread comes into view through a dissolve. Stop-motion animated, it rotates slightly jerkily in a medium close-up; after a cut to an extreme close-up, it opens in half, and the substance from the woman’s back pours out of it. As these descriptions suggest, The Definite Rejection of a Request for a Kiss and Eaten Horizons are enigmatic films. To begin with, they can be related to a heterogeneous lineage of surrealist short films from the 1920s onwards, including Man Ray’s L’étoile de mer (1928), Buñuel and Dalí’s Un chien andalou, Ernst Moerman’s Monsieur Fantômas, Marcel Mariën’s L’Imitiation du cinéma, and Ado Kyrou’s La Chevelure. As varied as they are, all of these films, too, were made on shoestring budgets, within or in the vicinity of the surrealist movement, and with seeming disregard for wider commercial, artistic, and avant-garde expectations. Freddie’s films above all conjure up an uneasy eroticism. Desire and its frustrations and transformations are central in Buñuel and Dalí’s canonized films. It extends throughout Moerman’s evocation of Fantômas’s frustrated pursuit of his object of desire. Desire also permeates Kyrou’s depiction of a man obsessed by the long head hair that he finds, a fetishist enthralled by the metonymic residue of an imagined Eros. Like Mariën’s blasphemous and playful L’Imitiation du cinéma, Freddie’s f ilms are also disruptive, sacrificing the sort of skilled montage employed by Buñuel, even at his most disorienting, for a disjunctive poetics. Like Mariën, Freddie also accentuates the female body and, in the case of Eaten Horizons, links it to a reimagined religious ritual. Crucially, the f ilms mentioned all feature prominently struggles of desire against the order of law, society, or religion. Freddie’s films, however, do not work through such oppositions. There are no police, priests, or patriarchs blocking the flows of desire in them. His films rather appear to be ritualistic conjurations of desire, albeit with ambiguous outcomes. Freddie’s films have much in common with the prevalent eroticism in his art.27 The Definite Rejection of a Request for a Kiss and Eaten Horizons also resonate with Freddie’s persistent tendency to depict bodies that transform and intermingle with matter and the surrounding world, as it takes expression in paintings such as The King of Kings (1934), Venetian Portrait (1942), and Thalia and Telephonia (1942). The films, then, do not so much mark a break with as a transformation of themes and topics that had preoccupied Freddie and other surrealists in the interwar era. They inhabit a landscape of ambivalent and often uncanny desire, where bodies act, transform, and want in defiance of natural and societal limitations, which can bring to mind such other surrealist eroticists as Georges Bataille, Hans Bellmer, Mimi Parent, and Toyen. The Definite Rejection of a Request for a Kiss is short on narrative content. Its connection of the female mouth and the background scenery postulates a relation between the female body and the changing seasons, but it does little to suggest the specific nature of this connection. And is Freddie’s face that of a man driven to a horrible deed because he is unable to accept the woman’s rejection of his desire? Or is he in fact the one who rejects the woman, terrified by the unpredictable will of the lips and tongue, frightened by their lack of recognition of the divide between the human and nature? In this chapter, I will suggest some venues for interpretation of The Definite Rejection of a Request for a Kiss that do not so much attempt to affix narrative as symbolic, esoteric, and poetic meaning to this brief film. There is more of a narrative progression in Eaten Horizons. The ritual in the first section seems to be directed towards unlocking the mysterious events that unfold. The opening of the woman’s eyes signifies an awakening of impulses that play out later. The second section makes the spectator the witness of another ritual: the movements and the subsequent disappearance of the loaf of bread, which is followed by its reappearance when the two men discover it deep inside the woman’s body. Freddie’s commentary calls the woman’s breasts a “dock for my, oh so heavy, bread-ship,” and hence makes it abundantly clear that the bread, not so subtly phallic in shape, signifies both the male member and male desire.28 The disappearance of the bread appears to refer to the subtitle’s “annihilation of love” in “the absolute happiness” of the sexual climax—the petite mort is troubling, and the recovery of the male drive is construed as a rather complicated affair. The sudden cut to a cramped space in which a ball bounces around and the faces of small children appear, seems like an absurd reference to conception: the ball configured as sperm riotously trying to find its way through a cramped space, and eventually causing the appearance of an imposing number of children. The final shot of the loaf of bread revolving and opening so that the lava, excrement, or meat from inside the woman pours out may signal either a revelation of the inmost nature of desire, or its unexpected transformation after the experience of absolute happiness. This interpretation appears reasonable in the light of such paratexts as the film’s credits and Freddie’s written commentary. But if it seems somewhat hollow, that is likely because it does not consider the film’s relation with Freddie’s esoteric period. Freddie’s films may appear narratively thin, but their imagery, their character of mysterious ritual, and the relations they establish between the body and the surrounding world need to be related to surrealism’s overall turn to myth and magic. Eaten Horizons, in particular, benefits from an interpretation of certain of the f irst sequence’s iconographic elements from the perspective of surrealism’s immersion in esotericism. While the second section is even more convoluted, it can be partly understood in relation to surrealism’s application of alchemy as a poetics of transmutation. The Definite Rejection of a Request for a Kiss and Eaten Horizons alike can furthermore be discussed in the light of Freddie’s and surrealism’s professed ambition to restore the magic dimension in art, in which experiential aspects come to the fore.

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