El hombre elefante

New Year’s? I don’t much care for it.

The idea of it – fine. The sense of a new start, a clean slate, a moment of reflection and hope, resolutions – no matter how unrealistic – all of that I can deal with.

It’s the “celebration” I can do without, if indeed you can find a celebratory quality in the brawling, puking, pissing, weeping, staggering, shrieking, exploding, shivering miasma of mandatory merriment, freighted with ridiculous expectations, which seems to define New Year’s. If this night were a person it would be that boorish arsehole of your acquaintance who invites friends to a bar and keeps a tally of how much everyone has drunk, publicly shaming those lagging behind, and whose vocabulary finds room for the word “woo”. New Year’s, as a wise person once so rightly pointed out, is going-out night for amateurs. Or could it be that I’m just getting auld?

But loath as I am to step out into the cold and run the gauntlet of apprentice drinkers, pre-teen pyrotechnicians and oversharing strangers, I’m not contemplating an evasion technique as drastic as that practised by Spanish Surrealist painter Oscar Dominguez. On this night in 1957, Dominguez’s lover Marie-Laure de Noailles, celebrated patron and muse of the between-the-wars Parisian avant-garde, was waiting with friends for the painter to show up for the countdown to midnight.

Dominguez, however, was busily engaged in opening his wrists.

What happened immediately thereafter is a matter of contention. Several accounts have him expiring in a reddening bath, while Janet Flanner churlishly conjectured that he “lay down on the floor, being a dirty, untidy man…and bled all over everything”. Composer Ned Rorem, however, describes a scene of high gothic intensity in which Dominguez lavishes his gushing vital fluid on a canvas to make one last artistic statement. Truman Capote, in his book Answered Prayers (which came up just recently) further clouds the issue by describing a lover of Noailles, who though clearly based on Dominguez is described as “a hairy Bulgarian painter” who slits his wrists, and then “wielding a brush and using his severed artery as a palette, covered two walls with a boldly stroked, all-crimson abstract mural”.

Whichever variation was actually true, the violence which marked Dominguez’s passing, and which had slashed through many of his works, apparently had its origins in his Canary Islands childhood, if not before. As Dominguez himself told it, his father, a rich plantation owner, had an affair with a neighbour, and the adulterous pair attempted to poison Dominguez’s mother. She discovered the ploy and presented his father with a lab analysis, at which point the couple separated.

Señora Dominguez was clearly a very forgiving woman; a few years later she took the father back and Oscar was, as he puts it, “the fruit of their reconciliation”, born in 1906. Unfortunately she died while giving birth to a subsequent child, but not before making her husband promise that “the fruit of their reconciliation” would never be unhappy. Señor Dominguez was truer to his word than to his wife, and little Oscar grew up indulged in his every whim, a stranger to discipline or reproach. And so when in 1929, the adult Oscar announced that he was going to pursue a bohemian existence as an artist in Paris, there were no objections.

It was a heady journey, from the outermost periphery of Europe to its (then) cultural capital. Dominguez befriended André Breton and hitched his wagon to the Surrealist movement then in the ascendant. He exhibited in most major Surrealist exhibitions throughout the 1930s and, apart from canvasses, produced such items as the Brouette. A common workman’s wheelbarrow customised with satin upholstery, it was the perfect conjunction of the banal, the beautiful and the bizarre which characterised the best Surrealist objects. Dominguez remained in France during the Occupation, selling fake Picassos to the Germans, and broke with Breton shortly after the war.

Consensus suggested the loss was Dominguez’s rather than Surrealism’s. Opinions of his work remain lukewarm, never failing to point out his slavish copies of Picasso; when he wasn’t actually forging the painter’s works he was helping himself to his techniques and motifs. That’s when he wasn’t copying Dalí instead. The result, at the very worst, is a kind of junk-shop Surrealism; poorly executed bad-dreamscapes bristling with thuggish violence, untroubled by wit, flair or daring.

But in one area, at least, Dominguez was an innovator rather than a follower. He pioneered a new version of an old technique, decalcomania, where a thickly painted canvas is pressed down with another surface and then uncovered, the resulting play of textures often suggesting blasted landscapes or microscopic matter. This method produced his best work, evocative and mysterious, but hapless Dominguez saw more talented contemporaries, such as Max Ernst, run off with this technique.

In any case it wasn’t his oeuvre that got le tout Paris talking as much as his appearance and behaviour, both of which were repellent. His unfortunate physiognomy was caused by a milder yet still disfiguring form of the condition which afflicted Joseph Merrick, the “Elephant Man”. For art historian John Richardson, Dominguez was a “satchel-faced” man “of surpassing ugliness”, ; Francine du Plessix Gray describes “a man whose face resembled that of an Easter Island statue” while fellow Surrealist Dorothea Tanning refers to him simply as “a hulk”.

Tanning was also witness to some of the artist’s most offensive behaviour, rooted in that early parental indulgence, including a memorable amuse-bouche Dominguez dished up during a dinner party: “rising and opening his fly, he had taken out its shy but immense occupant and laid it on his dinner plate”. Elsewhere he interrupted a private dance performance by removing his trousers and underwear and stomping about the dance floor; on another occasion he disrobed at a dinner given by Carlos de Beistegui.

But these compulsive displays were more than just bad-boy art-punk pranks. Dominguez was considerably unbalanced and spent several stays in asylums in the 1950s. It was during this time that he met Marie-Laure de Noailles (“one of the few heterosexuals she ever took up with” as Plessix Gray archly notes), but her  love and patronage was of little help. As Flanner notes “he wasn’t much to ruin as an artist…but she ruined him”. According to which report you believe, Noailles either turned a blind eye to his forgeries or actively colluded in them, recognising that Picasso was “the living symbol of his artistic failure”.

That failure was likely the overwhelming factor in his decision to take his life. Posterity has made little effort to rehabilitate him; a 2008 biopic attracted scant attention outside Spain, and so Dominguez remains a footnote to the Surrealist movement.

Anyway, dear readers, enough morbidity! I’m sure your New Year’s will be at the very least better than Oscar’s and I wish you much joy and fulfilment in 2011. See you on the other side!


  1. Pingback: Dress-down Friday: Janet Flanner (repost) « Strange Flowers

  2. Pingback: Circles: Natalie Clifford Barney « Strange Flowers

  3. Pingback: Oscar Dominguez | decalcomania « Strange Flowers

  4. Pingback: Circles: Charles Henri Ford « Strange Flowers

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: