First Day

The great French writer Jacques Prévert died April 11, 1977.

Here is one of his poems, Premier jour.
It is truly amazing to see how he manages, with minimalist touches and a masterful use of color, to plunge us into the tragedy of a death during childbirth.

And then there is that word, dans (“inside”), recurring in each verse and suggesting a strange telescope effect. One thing is always inside another, everything is connected; the event is inscribed in a wider perspective – the house, the town, the night.

This is why one should not be deceived by the poem’s apparent formal simplicity. In reality, it encompasses both joy and drama, the mystery of life and death; and a dark cosmos (the night), of which we will never know whether it is compassionate or indifferent.

Ghost Marriages

China, Shanxi province, on the nothern part of the Republic.
At the beginningof 2016, the Hongtong County police chief gave the warning: during the three previous years, at least a dozen thefts of corpses were recorded each year. All the exhumed and smuggled bodies were of young women, and the trend is incresing so fast that many families now prefer to bury their female relatives near their homes, rather than in secluded areas. Others resort to concrete graves, install surveillance cameras, hire security guards or plant gratings around the burial site, just like in body snatchers England. It looks like in some parts of the province, the body of a young dead girl is never safe enough.
What’s behind this unsettling trend?

These episodes of body theft are connected to a very ancient tradition which was thought to be long abandoned: the custom of “netherworld marriages”.
The death of a young unmarried male is considered bad lack for the entire family: the boy’s soul cannot find rest, without a mate.
For this reasons his relatives, in the effort of finding a spouse for the deceased man, turn to matchmakers who can put them in contact with other families having recently suffered the lost of a daughter. A marriage is therefore arranged for the two dead young persons, following a specific ritual, until they are finally buried together, much to the relief of both families.
This kind of marriages seem to date back to the Qin dinasty (221-206 a.C.) even if the main sources attest a more widespread existence of the practice starting from the Han dinasty (206 a.C.-220 d.C.).

The problem is that as the traffic becomes more and more profitable, some of these matchmakers have no qualms about exhuming the precious corpses in secret: to sell the bodies, they sometimes pretend to be relatives of the dead girl, but in other cases they simply find grieving families who are ready to pay in order to find a bride for their departed loved one, and willing to turn a blind eye on the cadaver’s provenance.

Until some years ago, “ghost marriages” were performed by using symbolic bamboo figurines, dressed in traditional clothes; today weath is increasing, and as much as 100,000 yan (around $15,000) can be spent on the fresh body of a young girl. Even older human remains, put back together with wire, can be worth up to $800. The village elders, after all, are the ones who warn new generations: to cast away bad luck nothing beats an authentic corpse.
Although the practice has been outlawed in 2006, the business is so lucrative that the number of arrests keep increasing, and at least two cases of murder have been reported in the news where the victim was killed in order to sell her body.

If at first glance this tradition may seem macabre or senseless, let us consider its possible motivations.
In the province where these episodes are more frequent, a large number of young men work in coal mines, where fatal accidents are sadly common. The majority of these boys are the sole children of their parents, because of the Chinese one-child policy, effective until 2013.
So, apart from reasons dictated by superstition, there is also an important psychological element: imagine the relief if, in the process of elaborating grief, you could still do something to make your dearly departed happy. Here’s how a “ghost wedding” acts as a compensation for the loss of a loved boy, who maybe died while working to support his family.

Marriages between two deceased persons, or between a living person and a dead one, are not even unique to China, for that matter. In France posthumous marriages (which usually take place when a woman prematurely loses her fiancé) are regularly requested to the President of the Republic, who has the power of issuing the authorization. The purpose is to acknowledge children who were conceived before the premature death, but there may also been purely emotional motivations. In fact there’s a relatively long list of countries that allowed for marriages in which one or both the newlywed were no longer alive.

In closing, here is a little curiosity.
In the well-known Tim Burton film Corpse Bride (2005), inspired by a centuries-old folk tale (the short story Die Todtenbraut by F. A. Schulze, found within the Fantasmagoriana anthology, is a Romantic take on that tale), the main character puts a ring on a small branch, unaware that this light-hearted move is actually sanctioning his netherworld engagement.
Quite similar to that harmless-looking twig is a “trick” used in Taiwan when a young girl dies unmarried: her relatives leave out on the streets a small red package containing Hell money, a lock of hair or some nails from the dead woman. The first man to pick up the package has to marry the deceased girl, if he wants to avoid misfortune. He will be allowed to marry again, but he shall forever revere the “ghost” bride as his first, real spouse.

These rituals become necessary when an individual enters the afterlife prematurely, without undergoing a fundamental rite of passage like marriage (therefore without completing the “correct” course of his life). As is often the case with funeral customs, the practice has a beneficial and apotropaic function both for the social group of the living and for the deceased himself.
On one hand all the bad luck that could harm the relatives of the dead is turned away; a bond is formed between two different families, which could not have existed without a proper marriage; and, at the same time, everybody can rest assured that the soul will leave this world at peace, and will not depart for the last voyage bearing the mark of an unfortunate loneliness.

Hidden Eros

Our virtues are most frequently but vices in disguise.

(La Rochefoucauld, Reflections, 1665)

We advocate freedom, against any kind of censorship.
And yet today, sex being everywhere, legitimized, we feel we are missing something. There is in fact a strange paradox about eroticism: the need to have a prohibition, in order to transgress it.
Is sex dirty? Only when it’s being done right“, Woody Allen joked, summarizing how much the orthodox or religious restrictions have actually fostered and given a richer flavor to sexual congresses.

An enlightening example might come from the terrible best-selling books of the past few years: we might wonder why nowadays erotic literature seems to be produced by people who can’t write, for people who can’t read.
The great masterpieces of erotica appeared when it was forbidden to write about sex. Both the author (often a well-known and otherwise respectable writer) and the editor were forced to act in anonimity and, if exposed, could be subjected to a harsh sentence. Dangerous, outlaw literature: it wasn’t written with the purpose of seeling hundreds of thousands of copies, but rather to be sold under the counter to the few who could understand it.
Thus, paradoxically, such a strict censorship granted that the publishing of an erotic work corresponded to a poetic, authorial urgency. Risqué literature, in many cases, represented a necessary and unsuppressible artistic expression. The crossing of a boundary, of a barrier.

Given the current flat landscape, we inevitably look with curiosity (if not a bit of nostalgia) at those times when eroticism had to be carefully concealed from prying eyes.
An original variation of this “sunken” collective imagination are those erotic objects which in France (where they were paricularly popular) are called à système, “with a device”.
They consisted in obscene representations hidden behind a harmless appearance, and could only be seen by those who knew the mechanism, the secret move, the trick to uncover them.

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Some twenty years ago in Chinese restaurants in Italy, liquor at the end of the meal was served in peculiar little cups that had a convex glass base: when the cup was full, the optic distorsion was corrected by the liquid and it was possible to admire, on the bottom, the picture of a half-undressed lady, who became invisible once again as the cup was emptied.
The concept behind the ancient objets à système was the same: simple objects, sometimes common home furnishings, disguising the owners’ unmentionable fantasies from potential guests coming to the house.

The most basic kind of objects à système had false bottoms and secret compartments. Indecent images could be hidden in all sorts of accessories, from snuffboxes to walking canes, from fake cheese cartons to double paintings.

Ivory box, the lid shows a double scene. XIX Century.

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 Gioco del domino, in avorio intarsiato alla maniera dei marinai, con tavole erotiche.

Inlaid domino game, in the manner of sailors decorations, with erotic plates.

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Walking stick knob handle.

Paintings with hidden pictures.

A young woman reads a book: if the painting is opened, her improper fantasies are visualized.

Other, slightly more elaborate objects presented a double face: a change of perspective was needed in order to discover their indecent side. A classic example from the beginning of the XX Century are ceramic sculptures or ashtrays which, when turned upside down, held some surprises.

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The monk, a classic erotic figure, is hiding a secret inside the wicker basket on his shoulders.

Double-faced pendant: the woman’s legs can be closed, and on the back a romantic flowered heart takes shape.

Then there were objects featuring a hinge, a device that had to be activated, or removable parts. Some statuettes, such as the beautiful bronzes created by Bergman‘s famous Austrian forgery, were perfect art nouveau decorations, but still concealed a spicy little secret.

 

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The top half of this polichrome ceramic figurine is actually a lid which, once removed, shows the Marquise crouching in the position called de la pisseuse, popularized by an infamous Rembrandt etching.

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Snuffbox, sailor’s sculpture. Here the mechanism causes the soldier’s hat to “fall down”, revealing the true nature of the gallant scene.

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Meerschaum pipe. Upon inserting a pipe cleaner into the chamber, a small lever is activated.

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In time, the artisans came up with ever more creative ideas.
For instance there were decorations composed of two separate figurines, showing a beautiful and chaste young girl in the company of a gallant faun. But it was enough to alter the charachters’ position in order to see the continuation of their affair, and to verify how successful the satyr’s seduction had been.

 

Even more elaborate ruses were devised to disguise these images. The following picture shows a fake book (end of XVIII Century) hiding a secret chest. The spring keys on the bottom allow for the unrolling of a strip which contained seven small risqué scenes, appearing through the oval frame.

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The following figures were a real classic, and with many variations ended up printed on pillboxes, dishes, matchstick boxes, and several other utensiles. At first glance, they don’t look obscene at all; their secret becomes only clear when they are turned uspide down, and the bottom part of the drawing is covered with one hand (you can try it yourself below).

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The medals in the picture below were particularly ingenious. Once again, the images on both sides showed nothing suspicious if examied by the non-initiated. But flipping the medal on its axis caused them to “combine” like the frames of a movie, and to appear together. The results can be easily imagined.

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In closing, here are some surprising Chinese fans.
In his book La magia dei libri (presented in NYC in 2015), Mariano Tomatis reports several historical examples of “hacked books”, which were specifically modified to achieve a conjuring effect. These magic fans work in similar fashion: they sport innocent pictures on both sides, provided that the fan is opened as usual from left to right. But if the fan is opened from right to left, the show gets kinky.

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A feature of these artisan creations, as opposed to classic erotic art, was a constant element of irony. The very concept of these objects appears to be mocking and sardonic.
Think about it: anyone could keep some pornographic works locked up in a safe. But to exhibit them in the living room, before unsuspecting relatives and acquaintances? To put them in plain view, under the nose of your mother-in-law or the visiting reverend?

That was evidently the ultimate pleasure, a real triumph of dissimulation.

Playing card with nude watermark, made visible by placing it in front of a candle.

Such objects have suffered the same loss of meaning afflicting libertine literature; as there is no real reason to produce them anymore, they have become little more than a collector’s curiosity.
And nonetheless they can still help us to better understand the paradox we talked about in the beginning: the objets à système manage to give us a thrill only in the presence of a taboo, only as long as they are supposed to remain under cover, just like the sexual ghosts which according to Freud lie behind the innocuous images we see in our dreams.
Should we interpret these objects as symbols of bourgeois duplicity, of the urge to maintain at all cost an honorable facade? Were they instead an attempt to rebel against the established rules?
And furthermore, are we sure that sexual transgression is so revolutionary as it appears, or does it actually play a conservative social role in regard to the Norm?

Eventually, making sex acceptable and bringing it to light – depriving it of its part of darkness – will not cause our desire to vanish, as desire can always find its way. It probably won’t even impoverish art or literature, which will (hopefully) build new symbolic imagery suitable for a “public domain” eroticism.
The only aspect which is on the brink of extinction is precisely that good old idea of transgression, which also animated these naughty knick-knacks. Taking a look at contemporary conventions on alternative sexuality, it would seem that the fall of taboos has already occurred. In the absence of prohibitions, with no more rules to break, sex is losing its venomous and dangerous character; and yet it is conquering unprecedented serenity and new possibilities of exploration.

So what about us?
We would like to have our cake and eat it too: we advocate freedom, against any kind of censorship, but secretely keep longing for that exquisite frisson of danger and sin.

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The images in this article are for the most part taken from Jean-Pierre Bourgeron, Les Masques d’Eros – Les objets érotiques de collection à système (1985, Editions de l’amateur, Paris).
The extraordinary collection of erotic objects assembled by André Pieyre de Mandiargues (French poet and writer close to the Surrealist movement) was the focus of a short film by Walerian Borowczyk:
Une collection particulière (1973) can be seen on YouTube.

Lanterns of the Dead

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In several medieval cemeteries of west-central France stand some strange masonry buildings, of varying height, resembling small towers. The inside, bare and hollow, was sufficiently large for a man to climb to the top of the structure and light a lantern there, at sundawn.
But what purpose did these bizarre lighthouses serve? Why signal the presence of a graveyard to wayfarers in the middle of the night?

The “lanterns of the dead”, built between the XII and XIII Century, represent a still not fully explained historical enigma.

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Part of the problem comes from the fact that in medieval literature there seems to be no allusion to these lamps: the only coeval source is a passage in the De miraculis by Peter the Venerable (1092-1156). In one of his accounts of miraculous events, the famous abbot of Cluny mentions the Charlieu lantern, which he had certainly seen during his voyages in Aquitaine:

There is, at the center of the cemetery, a stone structure, on top of which is a place that can house a lamp, its light brightening this sacred place every night  as a sign of respect for the the faithful who are resting here. There also are some small steps leading to a platform which can be sufficient for two or three men, standing or seated.

This bare description is the only one dating back to the XII Century, the exact period when most of these lanterns are supposed to have been built. This passage doesn’t seem to say much in itself, at least at first sight; but we will return to it, and to the surprises it hides.
As one might expect, given the literary silence surrounding these buildings, a whole array of implausible conjectures have been proposed, multiplying the alleged “mysteries” rather than explaining them — everything from studies of the towers’ geographical disposition, supposed to reveal hidden, exoteric geometries, to the decyphering of numerological correlations, for instance between the 11 pillars on Fenioux lantern’s shaft and the 13 small columns on its pinnacle… and so on. (Incidentally, these full gallop speculations call to mind the classic escalation brilliantly exemplified by Mariano Tomatis in his short documentary A neglected shadow).

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A more serious debate among historians, beginning in the second half of XIX Century, was intially dominated by two theories, both of which appear fragile to a more modern analysis: on one hand the idea that these towers had a celtic origin (proposed by Viollet-Le-Duc who tried to link them back to menhirs) and, on the other, the hypothesis of an oriental influence on the buildings. But historians have already discarded the thesis that a memory of the minarets or of the torch allegedly burning on Saladin‘s grave, seen during the Crusades, might have anything to do with the lanterns of the dead.

Without resorting to exotic or esoteric readings, is it then possible to interpret the lanterns’ meaning and purpose by placing them in the medieval culture of which they are an expression?
To this end, historian Cécile Treffort has analysed the polysemy of the light in the Christian tradition, and its correlations with Candlemas — or Easter — candles, and with the lantern (Les lanternes des morts: une lumière protectrice?, Cahiers de recherches médiévales, n.8, 2001).

Since the very first verses of Genesis, the divine light (lux divina) counterposes darkness, and it is presented as a symbol of wisdom leading to God: believers must shun obscurity and follow the light of the Lord which, not by chance, is awaiting them even beyond death, in a bright afterworld permeated by lux perpetua, a heavenly kingdom where prophecies claim the sun will never set. Even Christ, furthermore, affirms “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn 8:12).
The absence of light, on the contrary, ratifies the dominion of demons, temptations, evil spirits — it is the kingdom of the one who once carried the flame, but was discharged (Lucifer).

In the Middle Ages, tales of demonic apparitions and dangerous revenants taking place inside cemeteries were quite widespread, and probably the act of lighting a lantern had first and foremost the function of protecting the place from the clutches of infernal beings.

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But the lantern symbology is not limited to its apotropaic function, because it also refers to the Parable of the Ten Virgins found in Matthew’s gospel: here, to keep the flame burning while waiting for the bridegroom is a metaphor for being vigilant and ready for the Redeemer’s arrival. At the time of his coming, we shall see who maintained their lamps lit — and their souls pure — and who foolishly let them go out.

The Benedictine rule prescribed that a candle had to be kept always lit in the convent’s dorms, because the “sons of light” needed to stay clear of darkness even on a bodily level.
If we keep in mind that the word cemetery etymologically means “dormitory”, lighting up a lantern inside a graveyard might have fulfilled several purposes. It was meant to bring light in the intermediary place par excellence, situated between the church and the secular land, between liturgy and temptation, between life and death, a permeable boundary through which souls could still come back or be lost to demons; it was believed to protect the dead, both physically and spiritually; and, furthermore, to symbolically depict the escatological expectation, the constant watch for the Redeemer.

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One last question is left, to which the answer can be quite surprising.
The theological meaning of the lanterns of the dead, as we have seen, is rich and multi-faceted. Why then did Peter the Venerable only mention them so briefly and in an almost disinterested way?

This problem opens a window on a little known aspect of ecclesiastical history: the graveyard as a political battleground.
Starting from the X Century, the Church began to “appropriate” burial grounds ever more jealously, laying claim to their management. This movement (anticipating and preparing for the introduction of Purgatory, of which I have written in my De Profundis) had the effect of making the ecclesiastical authority an undisputed judge of memory — deciding who had, or had not, the right to be buried under the aegis of the Holy Church. Excommunication, which already was a terrible weapon against heretics who were still alive, gained the power of cursing them even after their death. And we should not forget that the cemetery, besides this political control, also offered a juridical refuge as a place of inviolable asylum.

Peter the Venerable found himself in the middle of a schism, initiated by Antipope Anacletus, and his voyages in Aquitaine had the purpose of trying to solve the difficult relationship with insurgent Benedictine monasteries. The lanterns of the dead were used in this very region of France, and upon seeing them Peter must have been fascinated by their symbolic depth. But they posed a problem: they could be seen as an alternative to the cemetery consecration, a practice the Cluny Abbey was promoting in those years to create an inviolable space under the exclusive administration of the Church.
Therefore, in his tale, he decided to place the lantern tower in Charlieu — a priorate loyal to his Abbey — without even remotely suggesting that the authorship of the building’s concept actually came from the rival Aquitaine.

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Cellefrouin, lanterne des morts

This copyright war, long before the term was invented, reminds us that the cemetery, far from being a simple burial ground, was indeed a politically strategic liminal territory. Because holding the symbolic dominion over death and the afterworld historically proved to be often more relevant than any temporal power.

Although these quarrels have long been returned to dust, many towers still exist in French cemeteries. Upright against the tombs and the horizontal remains waiting to be roused from sleep, devoid of their lanterns for centuries now, they stand as silent witnesses of a time when the flame from a lamp could offer protection and hope both to the dead and the living.

(Thanks, Marco!)

Paul Grappe, the diserter transvestite

Sometimes the most unbelievable stories remain forever buried between the creases of history. But they may happen to leave a trail behind them, although very small; a little clue that, with a good deal of fortune and in the right hands, finally brings them to light. As archaeologists dig up treasures, historians unearth life’s peculiarities.

If Paul Grappe hadn’t been murdered by his wife on the 28th of July 1928, not a single hint to his peculiar story would have been found in the Archive of the Paris Police Prefecture. And if Fabrice Virgili, research manager at the CNRS, scrutinizing the abovementioned archives almost one hundred years later to write an article about conjugal violence at the beginning of the century, hadn’t given a look at that dossier…

The victim: Grappe Paul Joseph, born on the 30th of August 1891 in Haute Marne, resident 34 Rue de Bagnolet, shot dead on the 28th of July 1928.

The culprit: Landy Louise Gabrielle, born on the 10th of March 1892 in Paris, Grappe’s spouse.

This is how the life of Paul Grappe ended. But, as we go back through the years starting from the trial papers, we discover something really astonishing.

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In the 1910s Paris sounds like a promise to a young man coming from Haute-Marne. It was mainly a working-class context and like everybody else the twenty-year-old Paul Grappe worked hard to make ends meet. He hadn’t received a proper education but the uncontrollable vitality that would mark out his entire existence encouraged him to work hard: with stubborn determination he obliged himself to study, and became an optician. He also attended some mandolin’s courses, where he met Louise Landy.

Their modest financial means didn’t interfere with their feelings: they fell in love and in 1911 they tied the knot. Shortly afterwards, Paul had to leave for military service, but managed to be appointed to stand guard over the bastions of Paris, in order to be close to his own Louise. Our soldier was a skilled runner, he could ride, swim (which was quite uncommon at the time) and he quickly distinguished himself until he was appointed corporal. Having spent the required two years on active service, Paul thought he was finally done with the army. But the War clouds were gathering, and everything quickly deteriorated. In August 1914 Paul Grappe was sent to the front to fight against Germany.

The 102nd Infantry division constantly moved, day after day, because the front was not well defined yet. Then gradually came the time to confront the enemy: at the beginning there were only small skirmishes, then came the first wounded, the first dead. And, finally, the real battle began. For the French, the most bloody stage of the entire world war was exactly this first battle, called Battle of the Frontiers, that claimed thousands of victims – more than 25,000 in one day, the 22nd of August 1914.

Paul Grappe was at the forefront. When Hell arrived, he had to confront its devastating brutality.

He was wounded in the leg at the end of August, he was treated and sent back to the trenches in October. The situation had changed, the front was stabilized, but the battles were not less dangerous. During a bloody gunfight Paul was wounded again, in the right index finger. A finger hit by a bullet? He was strongly suspected of having practiced self-mutilation, and in such situations people were not particularly kind to those who did something like that: Paul risked death penalty and summary execution. But some brothers in arms gave evidence for him, and Paul escaped the war court. Convalescent, he was moved to Chartres. December, January, February and March went by. Four months seemed to be too much time to recover from the loss of one single finger, and his superiors suspected that Paul was willingly reopening his wounds (like many other soldiers used to do); in April 1915 he was ordered to go back to the front. And it was here that, confronted with the perspective of going back to that horrible limbo made of barbed wire, mud, whistling bullets and cannon shots, Paul decided that he would change his life forever: he chose to desert.

He left the military hospital and, instead of going to the barracks, he caught the first train to Paris.

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We can only imagine how Louise felt: she was happy to learn that her husband was safe and sound, far from the war, and afraid that everything could end at any moment, if he was discovered. During the spring of 1915 the army was desperately in need of men, even people declared unfit for military service were sent to the front, and consequently the efforts to find the missing deserters were redoubled. For three times the guards burst into the home of his mother-in-law, where Paul was hidden, but couldn’t find him.

As for Paul – that had always had a wild and untamed temper – he couldn’t stand the pressure of secrecy. He was obliged to live as a real prisoner, he didn’t dare stick his nose out of the door: simply walking down the streets of Paris, a young man in his twenties would have aroused suspicion at that time because all the young men – maybe with the exception of some ministry’s employees – were at the front.

One day, overcome by boredom, joking with Louise he chose one of her dresses and wore it. Why not dress up as a woman?

Louise and Paul took a turn. He had a careful shave; his wife put a delicate make-up on him, adjusted the female clothes, put his head into a lady’s little hat. It wasn’t a perfect disguise, but it might work.

Holding their breath, they went out in the streets. They walked down the road for a little while, pretending to be at ease. They sat down in a café, and realized that people apparently didn’t notice anything strange about those two friends that were enjoying their drinks. Coming back home, they shivered as they noticed a man that was intensely gazing at them, fixing them… the man finally whistled in admiration. It was the ultimate evidence: disguised as a woman, Paul was so convincing that he deceived even the attentive eye of a tombeur de femmes.

From that moment on, to the outside world, the two of them formed a couple of women who used to live together. Paul bought some clothes, adopted a more feminine hairstyle, learnt to change his voice. He chose the name of Suzanne Landgard. For those who take on a new identity, it is very important to choose a proper name, and Landgard could be interpreted as “he who protects (garde) Landy?”.

Now Paul/Suzanne could go out barefaced, he could also contribute to the family economy: while Louise worked in a company that produced educational materials, Suzanne started working in a tailor’s shop. But maybe she struggled to stay in her role, because, as far as we know, she frequently changed job because of problems concerning her relationship with her colleagues.

War was over, at last. Paul wanted to stop living undercover, but he was still in danger. Like many other deserters used to do at the time, also our couple left for Spain (a neutral country) and for a short time took shelter in the Basque Country. They returned to Paris in 1922.

But the atmosphere of the capital had changed: the so-called “crazy years” had just begun and Paris was a town that wanted to forget the war at any cost. It was therefore rich in novelties, artistic avant-gardes and unrestrained pleasures. Louise and Suzanne realized that after all they may look like two garçonnes, fashionable women flaunting a masculine hairdo and wearing trousers, shocking conservative people. Louise used to paint lead toy soldiers during the evening, after work, to make some extra money.

Paul couldn’t find a job instead, and his insatiable lust for life led him to spend some time at the Bois de Boulogne, a public park that during those years was a well known meeting point for free love: there gathered libertines, partner-swappers, prostitutes and pimps.

Did Paul, dressed as Suzanne, whore to bring some money home? Maybe he didn’t. Anyhow, he became one of the “queen” of the Bois.

From then on, his days became crowded with casual intercourses, orgies, female and male lovers, and even encoded newspaper ads. Paul/Suzanne even tried to convince Louise to participate in these erotic meetings, but this only fuelled the first conflicts within the couple, that was very close until then.

His thirst for experience was not yet satiated: in 1923 Suzanne Landgard was one of the first “women” that jumped with a parachute.

You are not tall enough, my dear, I am a refined person, I want to get out of this mass, this brute mass that goes to work in the morning, like slaves do, and goes back home at evening”, he repeated to Louise.

In January 1924 the long awaited amnesty arrived at last.

The same morning in which the news was spread, Paul went down the stairs dressed as a man, without make-up. The porter of the apartment building was shocked as she saw him go out: “Madame Suzanne, have you gone crazy?” “I am not Suzanne, I am Paul Grappe and I am going to declare myself a deserter to apply for the amnesty.” As soon as the authorities learnt about his case, even the press discovered it. Some newspaper headlines read: “The transvestite deserter”. Prejudices started to circulate: paradoxically, now that he was discovered to be a man (so the two supposed lesbians were a married couple) Paul and Louise were evicted. The Communist Party mobilized to defend the two proletarians that were victims of prejudices, and in a short time Paul found himself at the core of an improvised social debate. The little popularity he gained maybe went to his head: believing that he may become a celebrity, or have some chance as an actor, he started to distribute autographed pictures of him both as a male and as a female and went as far as to hire a book agent.

But the more prosaic reality was that Paul told the fantastic story of his endeavours mostly in the cafés, to be offered some drinks. He showed the picture album of him as Suzanne, and also kept a dossier of obscene photographs, that are lost today. Little by little he started to drink at least five litres of wine per day. He lost one job after another, and turned aggressive even at home.

As he recovered his manhood – that same virility that condemned him to the horror of the trenches – he became violent. Before the Great War he had shown no signs of bisexuality nor violence, and most probably the traumas he suffered on the battlefield had a share in the quick descent of Paul Grappe into alcoholism, brutality and chaos.

He used to spend all the salary of his wife to get drunk. The episodes of domestic violence multiplied.

In a desperate attempt of reconciliation, Louise accepted to participate in her husband’s sexual games, and in order to please him (this is what she declared later in her deposition) took an attractive Spanish boy named Paco as her lover. But the unstable Paul didn’t appreciate her efforts, and started to feel annoyed by this third party. When he ordered his wife to leave Paul, Louise left him instead.

From that moment on, their story looks like the sad and well-known stories of many drifting couples: he found her at her mother’s home, he threatened her with a gun, and begged her to go back home with him. She surrendered, but she quickly discovered she was pregnant. Who was the father? Paul, or her lover Paco? In December 1925 the child was born, and Louise decided to call him Paul – obviously to reassure her husband about his fatherhood. The three of them lived a serene life for some months, like a real family. Paul started again to look for a job and tried to drink less. But it didn’t last. Crises and violence started again, until the night of the murder the man apparently went as far as to threaten to hurt his child. Louise killed Paul shooting twice at his head, then ran to the police headquarters to give herself up.

The trial had a certain media echo, because of the sensationalist hues of the story: the accused, the wife that shot dead the “transvestite deserter”, was represented by the famous lawyer Maurice Garçon. While Louise was in prison, her child died of meningitis. Therefore the lawyer insisted on the fact that the widow was also a mourning mother, a victim of conjugal violence that had to kill her husband to protect their infirm child – on the other hand he tried to play down the woman’s complicity in her husband’s desertion, transvestism, and shocking behaviours. In 1929, Louise Landy was declared innocent, which rarely happened in the case of trials for murder of the spouse. From that moment on Louise disappeared from any news section, and there was no more news about her except that she got married again, and then died in 1981.

The story of Paul Grappe, with all that it suggests about those troubled times, the traumas of the soldiers, the inner conflicts implied by gender, was discovered by Fabrice Virgili who told it in his book La garçonne et l’assassin : Histoire de Louise et de Paul, déserteur travesti dans le Paris des années folles (the title is ironical, and the garçonne is obviously Paul, whereas Louise is the murderer), and also inspired the comic strip by Chloé Cruchaudet entitled Mauvais genre.

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The Postman’s Palace

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Ferdinand Cheval was born in 1836 in Charmes, a small village in the commune of Hauterives, a little less than one hundred kilometres from Lyon. Ferdinand’s mother, Rose, died when he was only eleven; as his family was very poor, a year later the little boy left school and started working with his father. The latter died a few years later, in 1854. Therefore Ferdinand Cheval, at the age of twenty, became assistant baker. After marrying the young Rosalie Revol, who was just 17, for a few years he went far from the country in search for a job, and accepted various occasional employment offers; he rejoined his wife in 1863 and their first child was born in 1864. One year later, the boy died.
Two years went by and their second child was born. In 1867, at the age of thirty-one, Ferdinand Cheval pledged to become a postman.
In 1873, his wife Rosalie died.

An ordinary life, afflicted by pain and job insecurity. Those were times of extreme poverty, in which hunger and diseases never ceased to claim victims. And yet the nineteenth century was also marked by the modernist turn – monarchy gave way to republic, sciences and medicine made progress in leaps and bounds, industry was just born, and so on. And the echo of these revolutions reached the French countryside. Ferdinand used to handle the first illustrated gazettes, namely the Magasin Pittoresque or La revue illustrée, but also the first postcards coming from all over the world; under the eyes of a poor delivery man from the countryside an exotic world opened up, made of super-fast railways, heroic colonization in Africa and Asia, spectacular and unbelievable discoveries presented at the first International Exhibitions… in other words, daily life was hard as usual but there was still plenty of fuel for dreams.

Ferdinand Cheval used to stack up thirty kilometres a day, always the same way. At that time a postman’s pace was very different from the current “motorized” one. In his journal he wrote:

What shall I do, perpetually walking through the same landscape, but dream? To take my mind off, I used to dream of building a fantastic palace…

But the eccentric daydreaming of this humble postman from the countryside would have stayed as such, if Nature hadn’t sent him a sign.
On the 19th April 1879 Ferdinand Cheval was 43 years old, and his life was about to change forever.

One day of April in 1879, while I was carrying out my usual tour as a countryside postman, a quarter-league before arriving at Tersanne, I was hastily walking when my foot stumbled on something that made me slide a few metres further, and wanted to know the cause. In a dream, I had built a palace, a castle or some caves, I cannot express it properly… I never told it to anyone for fear to seem ridiculous, and felt ridiculous myself. After fifteen years, when I had almost forgotten my dream, and didn’t think about it at all, my foot made me remember it. My foot had bumped into a stone that almost made me fall. I wanted to know what it was… The shape of the stone was so bizarre that I put it in my pocket in order to admire it whenever I liked. The day after, I went through the same place. I found more of them, even more beautiful, I picked up them all on the spot, was enchanted by them… It is a molasse worked by waters and hardened by the force of time. It becomes hard like rocks. It represents such a bizarre sculpture that it can’t be reproduced by any human being, you can read all kinds of animals, all kinds of parodies in it. I told myself: if nature wants to be a sculptress, I will deal with masonry and architecture.

The stone which awoke the sleeping dream.

That stone, discovered by chance, was something like a conversion on the road to Damascus for the postman. And Cheval didn’t draw back, in front of this obvious call to action: little by little, he started to set up his building site – although he had no education, nor the least idea about how a house should be built, let alone a fairy castle.
The country people started to take him for a fool. But all of a sudden life had presented him with a grandiose purpose and, although everyday he made his usual thirty kilometres on foot, there was a new sparkle in his eyes. The weight of the mail to be delivered was increased by that of stones: during the outward journey he selected and positioned them along the road and, on his return, he picked them up with his loyal barrow. Postman Cheval and his barrow became a true icon for the inhabitants of Hauterives.

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During his time off, every evening and every morning, Cheval continued to build the structure; he went ahead off the cuff, as a perfect autodidact, adding decoration after decoration without a real planning. Tireless, feverish, possessed by the grandeur of the task he was accomplishing.

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Postman Cheval started his work with a fountain, the “Source of Life”, then added the so-called “Cave of Saint Amadeus”, the Egyptian Tomb, and a series of pagodas, oriental temples, mosques, and other representations of sacred places, on show one besides the other; the Three Giants (Caesar, Vercingetorix, Archimedes) were in charge of mounting guard over the sculptural complex.

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The postman never had a rest. In 1894 Cheval saw another of his children die, the fifteen-year-old daughter he had by his second wife. Overwhelmed by this new loss, he retired after two years but continued to devote himself to his Palace. He was half the battle, he couldn’t stop.

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The Ideal Palace was not conceived as a real building, inhabitable, but as a monument dedicated to the brotherhood that unites people, regardless of their creed or origin: a mix of western and eastern forms and styles, an elaborate syncretism inspired by nature, postcards and the magazines that Cheval used to deliver. Sculpted figures, concrete palms, beasts, intertwined branches and columns decorated in arabesque surrounded the sacred representations or buildings; messages and poems by the builder should be reproduced on inscriptions and signs; finally, in the crypt, a small altar was dedicated to his inseparable barrow, that made all this possible and that Cheval used to call “my faithful mate of misery”…

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Postman Cheval achieved his Ideal Palace in 1912, after having devoted thirty-three years of his life to it. He commemorated it with a writing, visible under a stairway that runs along the Temple of Nature towards the Northern Façade:

1879-1912: 10,000 days, 93,000 hours, 33 years of obstacles and trials. The work of one single man.

Satisfied, Cheval announced that the monument would also be his tomb; but, surprisingly, authorities denied him the permission to be buried there. What should he do? Cheval didn’t lose heart.

After having achieved my dream Palace at the age of seventy-seven and after thirty-three years of hard work, I discovered I was still brave enough to build my tomb by myself at the Parish cemetery. There I worked hard for eight more years. I was lucky enough to complete this tomb called “The Tomb of Silence and endless rest” – at the age of 86. This tomb is about one kilometre from the village of Hauterives. Its manufacturing makes it very original, almost unique in the world, but its beauty comes from originality. After having seen my dream Palace, a high number of visitors go and see it, then they go back to their country in amazement, telling their friends that it is not a fairy-tale, it’s reality. See it and believe it.

In that same mausoleum Ferdinand Cheval obtained his well-deserved rest in 1924.

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“Le Tombeau du silence et du repos sans fin”.

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Shortly before his death, facteur Cheval had the satisfaction of seeing his Palace acknowledged by some artists and intellectuals as an extraordinary example of architecture, without rules or structures, a spontaneous and unclassifiable artwork. In 1920 André Breton brought him to attention as the pioneer of surrealism in architecture; then, as the concept of art brut emerged, Cheval was even more admired for his work; nowadays people prefer to use the term outsider art, or Naïve art, but the concept stays the same: as he didn’t have an artistic culture, Cheval took the liberty of making impulsive and non-academic choices that made the Palace a unique work in its own way. Picasso, Ernst, Tinguely, Niki de Saint Phalle all loved this crazy and incredible place, that – more or less explicitly – inspired several other fictitious “citadels”.
In 1969
André Malraux decided to protect the Palace as a historic monument, against the opinion of many other officials of the Ministry of Culture, with these motivations:

In a time when Naïve Art has become a remarkable reality, it would be childish not to protect – when we French are as lucky as to possess it – the only naïve architecture in the world, and wait for it to be destroyed.

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The small town of Hauterives is still there, between the hills and the fields, at the foot of the French Alps. And yet only in 2013 almost 160,000 visitors went on a pilgrimage to the Ideal Palace, today completely restored and in whose frame art exhibitions, concerts and events are organized.
And, as our gaze is lost for the umpteenth time in the tangled stone doodles, we are astonished by the idea that they have really been created by a simple postman who, with his barrow, scoured the countryside in search for bizarre stones; you can’t help thinking about the sardonic provocation that Cheval himself wrote on the front of his Palace:

If some of you is more stubborn than me, then set to work.

But this ironic remark, we like to read it also as an invitation and a challenge; an exhortation to cultivate stubbornness, madness and temerity – necessary for all those who really want to try and build their own “Ideal Palace”.

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Here is the official site of the Ideal Palace.

Bizzarro Bazar a Parigi – I

View on Paris

Qualche anno fa avevamo pubblicato due articoli-reportage su New York (li trovate qui e qui), dedicati a musei, negozi e luoghi insoliti della Grande Mela. Quest’anno, invece, il vostro fedele esploratore del perturbante si è diretto a Parigi, dove ha scovato per voi alcuni fra gli angoli meno battuti della capitale francese.

Già nel XVIII secolo Francesco Algarotti sentenziava “molti vanno a Parigi, ma pochi ci sono stati“, e forse questo è ancora più vero oggi che il turismo di massa detta le regole per visitare qualsiasi città, imponendo al viaggiatore tutta una serie di tappe obbligate da spuntare come caselline della tombola. Questa esperienza di superficie certamente rassicura il pellegrino di aver visto “tutte le cose più importanti”, ma rischia di farlo tornare a casa con l’immagine della città che già aveva prima di partire. E invece anche Parigi, come tutti i luoghi ricchi d’una storia antica e travagliata, nasconde un volto sconosciuto ai più.

Dimenticatevi quindi – o, meglio, date pure per assodati – i fasti di Versailles, le folle che risalgono la Torre Eiffel, gli assiepati scalini di Montmartre, il sorriso beffardo della Gioconda o lo shopping di lusso sui Champs-Elisées; e preparatevi per un viaggio alla scoperta dei meravigliosi gioielli che le luci della Ville Lumière hanno lasciato nella penombra.

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Come prima tappa partiamo dalla banlieue a sud-est di Parigi, a soli tre chilometri dalla capitale, visitando a Maisons-Alfort il Musée Fragonard, che si trova ospitato all’interno della Scuola Veterinaria. Qui un’immensa collezione di ossa e di scheletri animali si contende la scena con dei modelli in gesso degli organi interni, a grandezza naturale oppure in scala notevolmente maggiore, a fini di studio.

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Le cose cominciano a farsi più impressionanti quando si raggiunge la sezione teratologica del museo, che espone le diverse malformazioni, mutazioni genetiche e mostruosità. Preparati a secco, mummificati, oppure in soluzione ci presentano la versione animale dei “gemelli siamesi”: agnelli craniopaghi e toracopaghi, maiali con sviluppi fetali parassitari e galline con arti in sovrannumero si alternano a feti ciclopi, vitelli idrocefali e capre nate senza testa (anencefalia).

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Ma è nell’ultima stanza che sono contenuti i reperti più straordinari. Si tratta dei celebri écorchés di Fragonard, di cui abbiamo parlato in questo articolo: duecento anni prima di Gunther Von Hagens e del suo Body Worlds, e senza alcuna delle tecnologie ultramoderne disponibili oggi, l’anatomista francese era riuscito a preservare perfettamente alcuni cadaveri sezionati e fissati in modo da esporre l’anatomia interna a beneficio degli studenti.

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In alcuni casi disposti in pose artistiche, come “l’uomo con la mandibola” o i “feti danzanti“, i preparati anatomici sono ancora perfetti, con le loro vernici lucide e brillanti e un’espressività per nulla diminuita dal passare dei secoli.

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Difficile non rimanere a bocca aperta di fronte al più incredibile fra tutti i pezzi conservati qui: il “Cavaliere dell’Apocalisse“, montato su un vero e proprio cavallo, a sua volta sezionato.

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Spostiamoci ora nel cuore della città.
Quartiere un tempo malfamato, divenuto iconico per i suoi spettacoli osé, per il Moulin Rouge, i bordelli, il Grand Guignol e i cafés a tema, Pigalle si è oggi adeguato ai tempi e alle esigenze turistiche, reinventandosi come paradiso dei locali di lap dance e dei negozi del sesso. Lungo il Boulevard de Clichy le vetrine propongono, senza censure o pudori, una costellazione di futuristici sex toys, coadiuvanti, afrodisiaci, ritardanti, arditi capi di lingerie affiancati al consueto armamentario BDSM fatto di cuoio, borchie, scudisci e ball gag.

Proprio al centro di questa esibizione del sesso fatto spettacolo e merchandising, si apre il Musée de l’Erotisme. Anche ad Amsterdam, nel Red Light District, ne esiste uno di simile, ma quello di Parigi si distingue dal suo omonimo olandese per almeno tre motivi: il primo è la ricchezza della sezione antropologica, che conta svariate decine di manufatti provenienti da diverse epoche e latitudini.

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Dalle terrecotte etrusche ai feticci africani, dalle colorate statue balinesi agli avori cinesi, la collezione dimostra come il tema erotico sia stato affrontato senza particolari inibizioni da quasi tutte le culture tradizionali e spesso proprio nel contesto dell’arte sacra (come simbolo/auspicio/invocazione di fecondità e fertilità).

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Il secondo punto di interesse è la parte dedicata alla storia e al costume delle case chiuse dalla fine del I secolo al 1946, con fotografie d’epoca, documenti vari e perfino un bidet in porcellana originale (come è noto, questo accessorio da bagno si diffuse proprio nell’ambito della prostituzione).

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Infine, ai livelli più alti (il museo si sviluppa su ben sette piani!) vengono ospitate mostre temporanee di artisti internazionali, le cui opere esposte sono in alcuni casi disponibili per l’acquisto.

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Ben più dei sexy shop che lo circondano, il Museo rimanda un’immagine dell’eros che un po’ si è andata a perdere nel tempo: attraverso queste varie declinazioni artistiche, raffigurazioni antiche e contemporanee, il desiderio sessuale viene riportato alla sua originaria dimensione mitologica, archetipica e sacra.

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Dall’Eros passiamo a Thanatos, e addentriamoci nei labirinti sotterranei che si snodano sotto le case di Montparnasse.
Nonostante il loro nome ricordi quelle romane, le Catacombe di Parigi erano in realtà le antiche cave da cui veniva estratta la pietra per costruire la città: quando nel 1785 il Cimitero degli Innocenti nel quartiere delle Halles, che era stato in uso per quasi dieci secoli, venne evacuato a causa del pericolo d’infezione, si decise di spostare i resti nelle cave ormai abbandonate. Consacrate nel 1786 come ossario municipale, le Catacombe ospitarono fino al 1814 le salme traslate da tutti i cimiteri della capitale, mano a mano che questi venivano chiusi per insalubrità. Oggi si stima che vi siano raccolte le ossa di circa sei o sette milioni di parigini.

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Fermati, qui sta l’impero della morte“, avverte un verso inciso all’entrata dell’ossario.
A venti metri sotto il suolo, sui lati degli stretti corridoi e delle gallerie oscure, sono disposte le une sulle altre migliaia e migliaia di ossa, a formare una scenografia macabra impressionante.

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Talvolta il muro di teschi e tibie si apre su camere più larghe, piccoli altari, croci o altri luoghi di raccoglimento. Lungo tutto il percorso (di ben due chilometri) sono disseminati poemi, aforismi, testi sacri e profani che esortano a meditare sulla propria mortalità.

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Questi morti accerchiano il visitatore, lo soverchiano in numero schiacciante – è davvero l’Impero della Morte, con le sue armate silenziose, che ci attende quaggiù: eppure, paradossalmente, non ci si può sentire dei veri e propri intrusi in questo mondo senza luce, perché il destino che attende tutti gli uomini accomuna l’ospite a questi resti anonimi. Fra le ossa vi sono, probabilmente, anche quelle di Rabelais, La Fontaine, Perrault, così come i ghigliottinati Danton e Robespierre, eppure nulla ormai li distingue dai loro coetanei. Mai come quaggiù l’égalité del motto nazionale francese assume una sfumatura beffarda e, al tempo stesso, stranamente rassicurante.

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MUSEE FRAGONARD
7, avenue Général-de-Gaulle
Maisons-Alfort
Apertura: mercoledì e giovedì, sabato e domenica
Orari: 14-18

MUSEE DE L’EROTISME
72 Boulevard de Clichy
Apertura: tutti i giorni
Orari: 10-02
Sito web

CATACOMBES DE PARIS
1, avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy (place Denfert-Rochereau)
Apertura: da martedì a domenica
Orari: 10-20
Sito web

(Questo articolo è il primo di una serie dedicata a Parigi. Gli altri due capitoli sono qui e qui.)

Reportage Bizarre

Quest’anno al Festival di Cannes il cinema italiano emergente è stato ben rappresentato da un cortometraggio intitolato Lievito madre, che si è aggiudicato il terzo premio fra i sedici corti presenti nella sezione Cinéfondation, dedicata alle scuole di cinema del mondo. Si tratta del saggio di diploma del giovane regista e fumettista romano Fulvio Risuleo, 23 anni, realizzato all’interno del prestigioso Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia di Roma.

Lievito madre racconta il più classico dei triangoli – lui, lei, l’altro; eppure la vicenda acquista toni fantastici e grotteschi in quanto l'”altro” non è in questo caso umano, bensì fatto di acqua, farina e lievito… e dotato di una sua particolare “vitalità”.

[vimeo https://vimeo.com/95212092]

Prima di Lievito madre, Risuleo aveva diretto nel 2013 il cortometraggio Ghigno sardonico, che prende spunto dalle tecniche di ascolto della presunta “voce delle piante” negli anni ’70 (ne avevamo parlato in questo articolo) per arrivare a un violento e comico climax.

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Se già questi primi cortometraggi dimostrano uno spiccato gusto per il surrealismo, Fulvio Risuleo conferma la propria idea di cinema con il suo ultimo lavoro, intitolato Reportage Bizarre.

[vimeo https://vimeo.com/95174388]

Si tratta di un progetto cinematografico per il web, girato nella più totale indipendenza produttiva e creativa, che si propone di esplorare una Parigi inconsueta e sconosciuta. Reportage Bizarre è composto di 20 diversi video-frammenti che lo spettatore seleziona “alla cieca”: il percorso casuale può inizialmente far sembrare il tutto una sorta di disorganico archivio di found footage, finché non si cominciano a notare alcuni personaggi ed oggetti che ricorrono con frequenza sempre maggiore, costruendo diverse, intriganti linee narrative.
Un misterioso uomo claudicante che compare in diversi punti della città, un investigatore alla ricerca di un assassino, una ragazza con un cerotto blu sulla fronte che si ritrova alla fine di una relazione sentimentale, l’onnipresenza del durian (frutto esotico di cui avevamo parlato qui), strani dinosauri-giocattolo di plastica rosa che spuntano nei momenti più inaspettati, una setta di artisti underground con un’ossessione segreta… a poco a poco si delinea un affresco misterioso e per certi versi lynchiano, in cui Parigi disvela il suo volto simbolico sommerso.

Ecco la nostra intervista a Fulvio Risuleo.

Innanzitutto, com’è andata a Cannes?

I francesi mi hanno accolto bene. È stato bello vedere centinaia di persone alle proiezioni e rispondere alle domande dei curiosi. Cannes è un gran festival perché ha in sé la cultura ufficiale e le ricercatezze di nicchia; il tutto presentato con la stessa importanza e visibilità.

Quale tipo di cinema ti interessa?

A me interessa il cinema con delle idee in grado di mostrare la realtà in maniera diversa. Se per realtà si intende la vita di tutti i giorni. Quando mi capita di pensare una storia, alla fine succede che contiene sempre qualche elemento surreale o strano. Non ci posso fare nulla. Quello che mi sforzo di fare è renderlo più credibile possibile per poter arrivare meglio nella testa dello spettatore.

Puoi parlarci dei tuoi referenti (letterari, artistici, cinematografici)?

Le idee sono alimentate per lo più dal quotidiano. La lingua italiana è piena di elementi figurati che sono miniere di storie. Aprono molto la testa… ecco, per esempio, già la frase “aprono molto la testa” dimostra come un’espressione figurata possa suggerire un’idea splatter. Altre ispirazioni me le danno i mostri, quelli dentro di noi e quelli che ci sono da sempre e vivono liberi nel mondo esterno. In più, tutte le volte che qualcuno mi dice “non sai che mi è successo oggi”, oppure “ma lo sai cosa ho letto ieri”, ecco, tutti i racconti che seguono mi ispirano molto.
Credo che anche Roland Topor ragionasse così, e lui è un artista che stimo e studio.

Da dove nasce il tuo evidente interesse per l’assurdo e il bizzarro? Come lo coltivi?

Ignoro da dove nasca. Quello che so è che spesso con un’idea bizzarra, assurda, si possono affrontare questioni difficili da mostrare realisticamente. Spesso si riesce ad essere anche meno retorici con un’immagine o un suono che appartiene al mondo dell’insolito. Sicuramente è un bel modo per essere universali, perché tutti sognano, tutti hanno fobie, tutti hanno dei feticci. A patto che anche nell’idea più strana si possa trovare intimità e calore.

Come è nata l’idea di Reportage Bizarre? E come sei riuscito a realizzarlo?

Dopo tre anni di Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia passati a esercitarmi con corti cinematografici professionali, ma dal processo creativo abbastanza lento, volevo fare qualcosa di completamente diverso. Tanti motivi mi attiravano verso Parigi, molti dei quali inconsci. L’idea era quello di fare un reportage mostrando le miei sensazioni in quella città che conoscevo solo per il riflesso della sua fama. Per poco più di un mese ho vagato a caso per i quartieri, tanta gente mi ha aiutato consigliandomi le cose più strane da vedere. Ho trattato questo progetto come un taccuino di appunti filmati, esplorando Parigi come fosse un paese esotico. Atmosfere, idee a cuore aperto, pezzi di film, scene scartate e visioni varie. Poi tornato a Roma un gruppo di fidati collaboratori mi ha aiutato a dare una forma a tutto ciò.

Questo progetto, libero e sperimentale come solo un lavoro indipendente si può permettere d’essere, mostra insieme ai tuoi due corti una linea definita, un progetto ben preciso – insomma, una tua “missione” cinematografica e artistica.

Personalmente mi interessa continuare una ricerca sul linguaggio e sui diversi modi per narrare. Ma mi interessa anche che qualcosa possa cambiare in un futuro prossimo nel nostro paese. Mi piacerebbe contribuire a far ritornare il fermento in Italia. Questo, al di là di essere un momento di crisi economico, è un momento di crisi degli umani: i registi, i produttori e tanti artisti in generale sono diventati egoisti, poco interessati alla ricerca di strade meno facili, e soprattutto poco curiosi. Personalmente non mi riesce di stare fermo, e certe volte è proprio una dannazione.

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Ecco il sito ufficiale di Reportage Bizarre.
Fulvio Risuleo, in qualità di illustratore, ha partecipato anche al progetto Parade.

Sade, diamante oscuro

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Dopo trent’anni di battaglie legali, il manoscritto delle 120 giornate di Sodoma del Marchese de Sade è ritornato in Francia. Si tratta di un rotolo di foglietti incollati l’uno all’altro, come un antico libro sacro (o, meglio, sacrilego…), lungo 12 metri e largo 11,5 centimetri, vergato in una calligrafia microscopica sul fronte e sul retro. Un’opera colossale, lunghissima, composta di nascosto dal Divin Marchese mentre si trovava prigioniero alla Bastiglia. E proprio durante l’assalto alla prigione, quel famoso 14 luglio del 1789, nel trambusto il manoscritto scomparve. Sade morirà convinto che l’opera che riteneva il suo capolavoro fosse andata perduta per sempre.
Il manoscritto, invece, ha percorso l’Europa fra rocambolesche peripezie (ben riassunte in questo articolo), fino alla notizia di pochi giorni fa dell’acquisto per 7 milioni da parte di una collezione privata e del suo probabile, prossimo inserimento all’interno della Bibliothèque Nationale. Questo significa che il libro – e di conseguenza il suo autore – saranno presto dichiarati patrimonio nazionale.

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Questo riconoscimento arriva nel duecentenario della morte dell’autore: tanto ci è voluto perché il mondo si accorgesse appieno del valore della sua opera. Sade ha pagato con il carcere e con l’infamia postuma la sua ricerca artistica, ed è per questo il caso più interessante di rimozione collettiva della storia della letteratura. La società occidentale non ha infatti potuto tollerare i suoi scritti e, soprattutto, le loro implicazioni filosofiche per ben due secoli.
Perché? Cosa contengono di tanto scandaloso le sue pagine?

Chiariamo innanzitutto che non sono le scene erotiche il problema: la tradizione letteraria libertina era già ben solida prima di Sade, e contava diversi libri che si possono certamente definire “crudeli”. Sade, in effetti, era un ben mediocre scrittore, dalla prosa ripetitiva e noiosa e dall’originalità linguistica limitata; ma anche questo è un elemento importante, come vedremo più avanti. Allora, perché tanta indignazione?
Ciò che risultava inaccettabile era la totale inversione filosofica operata da Sade: inversione dei valori, inversione teologica, inversione sociale. La visione sadiana, molto complessa e spesso ambigua, prende le mosse dall’idea del male.

Il problema del male attraversa secoli e secoli di filosofia e teologia cristiana (nel concetto di teodicea). Se Dio esiste, come può permettere che esista il male? A che fine? Perché non ha voluto creare un mondo privo di tentazioni e semplicemente buono?

Secondo gli illuministi, Dio non esiste. Esiste soltanto la Natura. Ma il bene e il male sono comunque chiaramente definiti, e per l’uomo tendere al bene è naturale.
Sade invece fa un passo ulteriore. Guardiamo, suggerisce, cosa succede nel mondo. I malvagi, i violenti, i crudeli, hanno una vita più prosperosa delle persone virtuose. Indulgono nel vizio, nei piaceri, a discapito delle persone deboli e virtuose. Questo significa che la Natura è dalla loro parte, che anzi trova giovamento dal loro comportamento, altrimenti punirebbe le loro azioni.
La Natura dunque è malvagia, e fare il male significa accordarsi al suo volere – cioè in realtà far cosa giusta. L’uomo, secondo Sade, tende al bene soltanto per abitudine, per educazione; ma la sua anima è nera e torbida, e al di fuori delle regole imposte dalla società l’uomo cercherà sempre e solo di soddisfare i suoi piaceri, trattando i suoi simili come oggetti, umiliandoli, sottomettendoli, torturandoli, distruggendoli.

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La ricerca di Sade è stata paragonata a quella di un mistico; ma laddove il mistico si dirige verso la luce, Sade cerca al contrario l’oscurità. Nessuno prima o dopo di lui ha mai osato scendere così in fondo alla parte tenebrosa dell’uomo, e paradossalmente egli vi riesce spingendo fino alle estreme conseguenze il pensiero razionalista. Torna alla mente il famoso dipinto di Goya, Il sonno della ragione genera mostri: leggendo Sade, si ha la netta impressione che sia invece la ragione stessa a crearli, se portata all’eccesso, fino a mettere in discussione i valori morali.

Ecco quindi l’ultima spiaggia: non solo non condannare più il male, ma addirittura promuoverlo e assumerlo come fine ultimo dell’esistenza umana. Ovviamente, dobbiamo ricordare che Sade passò in carcere la maggior parte della sua vita proprio per queste idee; così, man mano che gli anni passavano, egli diveniva sempre più amaro, furibondo e carico d’odio verso la società che l’aveva condannato. Non sorprende che i suoi scritti composti in prigionia siano quelli più sulfurei, più estremi, in cui Sade sembra prendere piacere a distruggere e scardinare qualsiasi codice morale. Ne risulta, come dicevamo, una totale inversione dei valori: la carità e la pietà sono sbagliate, la virtù porta sventure, l’omicidio è il bene supremo, ogni perversione e violenza umana non solo è scusata ma proposta come modello ideale di comportamento.
Ma ci credeva veramente? Era serio? Non lo sapremo mai con certezza, ed è questo che lo rende un enigma. Di sicuro possiamo solo dire che nei suoi scritti non c’è quasi traccia di umorismo.

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La sua personalità era fiammeggiante e mai doma, perennemente inquieta e tormentata. Impulsivo, sessualmente iperattivo, anche la sua scrittura era febbrile e senza freno. Ne Le 120 giornate di Sodoma, Sade si propone di declinare tutte le possibili perversioni umane, tutte le violenze, catalogandole con precisione maniacale: un romanzo enciclopedico, colossale anche per dimensioni, compilato di straforo perché ad un certo punto le autorità gli proibirono penna, carta e calamaio. Sade arrivò a scriverlo con un pezzetto di legno utilizzando inchiostri di fortuna, e talvolta perfino con il proprio sangue, pur di non interrompere il flusso di pensieri e parole che da lui sgorgavano come un fiume in piena. Per un personaggio così, non esistevano le mezze misure.

La sua opera è contro tutto e tutti, di un nichilismo talmente disperato e terminale che nessuno ha mai avuto il coraggio di replicarla. È il nostro specchio nero, l’abisso che tanto temiamo: leggerlo significa confrontarsi con il male assoluto, la sua opera sfida continuamente qualsiasi nostra certezza. Scriveva Bataille: “L’essenza delle sue opere è la distruzione: non solamente la distruzione degli oggetti, delle vittime messe in scena […] ma anche dell’autore e della sua stessa opera.”
La sua prosa, dicevamo, non è elegante né piacevole; ma credete davvero che, viste le premesse, a Sade interessasse essere raffinato? La sua opera non è pensata per essere bella, anzi. La bellezza non gli appartiene, lo disgusta, e quanto più rivoltanti sono le sue pagine, tanto più sono efficaci. Quello che gli interessa è mostrarci il marcio, l’osceno.

Ignoro l’arte di dipingere senza colori; quando il vizio si trova alla portata del mio pennello, lo traccio con tutte le sue tinte, tanto meglio se rivoltanti. (Aline e Vancour, 1795)

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È comprensibile quindi perché, a suo modo, Sade sia assolutamente unico in tutta la storia della letteratura. C’è bisogno anche di lui, c’è bisogno della sua crudeltà, è il nostro gemello oscuro, il rimosso e il negato che tornano a galla per perseguitarci. Possiamo rimanere scandalizzati dalle sue posizioni, anzi, dobbiamo scandalizzarci: è ciò che vorrebbe anche il Divin Marchese, in definitiva. Quello che gli artisti veri fanno da sempre è appunto proporci dei dilemmi, dei dubbi, delle crisi. E Sade è un problema dall’inizio alla fine, che ha spiazzato per lungo tempo anche gli studiosi. Bataille ha paragonato l’opera sadiana a un deserto roccioso, riassumendo splendidamente il senso di smarrimento che ci fa provare:

È vero che i suoi libri differiscono da ciò che abitualmente è considerato letteratura come una distesa di rocce deserte, priva di sorprese, incolore, differisce dagli ameni paesaggi, dai ruscelli, dai laghi e dai campi di cui ci dilettiamo. Ma quando potremo dire di essere riusciti a misurare tutta la grandezza di quella distesa rocciosa? […] La mostruosità dell’opera di Sade annoia, ma questa noia stessa ne è il senso. (La letteratura e il Male, 1957)

All’inizio del ‘900 Sade è stato finalmente riconosciuto come una figura a suo modo monumentale, e la sua riscoperta (ad opera di Apollinaire, e poi dei surrealisti) ha dominato l’intero XX Secolo e continua ad essere imprescindibile oggi. L’acquisto del manoscritto diviene quindi simbolico: dopo due secoli di oscurantismo, Sade rientra trionfalmente in Francia, con tutti gli onori e gli allori del caso. Ma sarà molto difficile, forse impossibile, che un testo come Le 120 giornate venga metabolizzato nello stesso modo in cui la nostra società riesce a inglobare e rendere inoffensivi tabù e controculture – si tratta davvero di un boccone troppo indigesto. Un grido di rivolta contro l’universo intero, in grado di resistere al tempo e alle sue rovine: un nero diamante che continua a diffondere la sua luce oscura.

L’Angelo Francese

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Nato negli Urali nel 1903 da genitori francesi, Maurice Tillet aveva un’intelligenza viva e un fisico atletico invidiabile. Gli amici erano impressionati dalla sua abilità nel parlare diverse lingue, e a causa dei lineamenti dolci del suo volto l’avevano soprannominato “Angelo”. Durante la Rivoluzione Russa la sua famiglia ritornò precipitosamente in Francia, stabilendosi a Reims. E lì cominciarono i problemi.

All’età di 17 anni, Maurice cominciò a notare dei dolorosi rigonfiamenti sul suo corpo. Si trattava, come avrebbe purtroppo scoperto in fretta, dei primi sintomi di acromegalia. Ma se la malattia causa talvolta stature gigantesche, in Maurice operò un cambiamento differente: la statura rimase normale, ma il suo torace divenne cilindrico e, oltre alle mani e ai piedi, la parte del corpo che cominciò davvero a crescere a dismisura fu la faccia. Proprio quel volto un tempo angelico che gli era valso il soprannome, ora lo faceva assomigliare a un orco o un uomo delle caverne.

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A causa del suo nuovo aspetto, Maurice dovette rinunciare al suo sogno di una carriera da avvocato, e per cinque anni lavorò nella Marina come ingegnere. Mentre era imbarcato nell’esercito, a Singapore, Tillet conobbe un promoter di wrestling che lo convinse a provare ad entrare in quello sport. Maurice scoprì di avere del talento nell’arte della lotta, e sicuramente il suo aspetto incuteva un certo timore negli avversari, avvantaggiandolo. Con il nome d’arte di “Angelo Francese”, disputò incontri di grande successo in Europa, e quando si trasferì in America, a causa della Guerra, cominciò ad inanellare una serie di vittorie impressionanti. I fan del wrestling erano elettrizzati dalla sua figura così come dalla sua tecnica potente, anche perché il suo personaggio sembrava collegare due mondi che finora erano rimasti distanti: quello dello sport e quello dei fenomeni da baraccone, i freak ammirati nei sideshow itineranti di mezzo mondo.

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Nel 1940, Tillet venne esaminato dall’antropologo Carleton Coon (autore di alcune sfortunate teorie sull’origine e la storia delle razze), mentre le macchine fotografiche di LIFE seguivano l’incontro: l’etnologo annotò le misure della mandibola, della testa, dei piedi e delle mani giganteschi, e concluse che Maurice potesse rappresentare “una regressione all’uomo di Neanderthal”. Per quanto ai nostri occhi oggi possa sembrare una diagnosi assurda e infamante, per un atleta che combatteva quotidianamente (gli avversari sul ring, la sua malattia fuori dal quadrato), il servizio fotografico gli regalò un’immensa notorietà, tanto che Tillet cominciò a sfruttare a suo favore il personaggio dell’uomo preistorico.

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Sulla scia della sua fama, cominciarono a spuntare come funghi gli imitatori: tutti dall’aspetto di cavernicoli, e tutti con il suo stesso nome d’arte. L’Angelo Russo, l’Angelo Canadese, l’Angelo Irlandese, il Polacco, il Ceco, e poi l’Angelo d’Oro, quello Nero e perfino una Lady Angel. Qui sotto, una foto dell’Angelo Svedese.

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Nel frattempo, Tillet continuava a vincere e nei primi anni ’40 divenne uno dei wrestler di prima categoria, vincendo il titolo mondiale dei pesi massimi e restando imbattuto per 19 mesi consecutivi. Poi, lentamente, la sua gloria cominciò a declinare di pari passo con la sua salute, nonostante egli continuasse a lottare. Ma ormai non era più un campione: disputò il suo ultimo incontro nel febbraio del 1953.

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Maurice with Two Gals

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Uno scompenso cardiovascolare mise fine alla sua vita, un anno dopo; ma non prima che uno scultore divenuto suo amico riuscisse ad eseguire dei calchi in gesso e a scolpire alcuni busti a grandezza naturale, uno dei quali è esposto al Museo Internazionale di Scienza Chirurgica di Chicago. L’anno scorso Maurice Tillet è stato introdotto nella Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame.

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French Angel and Canadian writers l. to r. Ralph Allen, Johnny Fitzgerald, Joe Perlove, and Hal Walker.  Frank Tunney.

Oggi molti siti internet lo ricordano quasi esclusivamente per la diceria secondo cui gli artisti della Dreamworks si sarebbero ispirati ai suoi lineamenti per il personaggio cinematografico di Shrek – tralasciando di menzionare il vero esempio che Tillet ci lascia: quello di uno strano gigante gentile, un angelo che si disvelava soltanto a chi sapeva guardare oltre l’apparenza fisica. E, soprattutto, un uomo che aveva imparato l’essenza spirituale della lotta, che consiste nello sfruttare a proprio favore la forza dell’avversario. Tillet era riuscito, con determinazione, a trasformare un destino crudele nella migliore delle opportunità.

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Ecco un sito inglese interamente dedicato a Maurice Tillet, contenente articoli e foto d’epoca.

(Grazie, Giulia!)