Félix Labisse (1905-1982) was a French self-taught surrealist painter, theatrical designer, and illustrator. In his works, there are lots of recognizable surrealist features, like adherence to Freudianism, attention to ancient mythology and subconsciousness, usage of visual illusions. Still, among other surrealist pictures, the paintings of Labisse seem to be the most shocking and unsettling.
Fig. 1. Félix Labisse (wikiart.org)
“O Captain, My Captain!”
Labisse was born in a French family that moved to Belgium in 1923. The artist studied at the Collège Saint-Jean in Douai, then at the École de Pêche (Fishing School) in Ostend. In 1924, Labisse underwent his military service in Cambrai. At those times, the artist’s father founded a sea fishing company in Zeebruges, but unfortunately for the father and fortunately for the art, this business didn’t last long. Labisse, who could become a marine merchant, decided to devote himself to fine arts after meeting notorious Flemish painter James Ensor.
Fig. 2. Medea, 1942 (emaze.com). This painting refers to the story of the granddaughter of the sun, whose powers were used by the hero Jason to get the Golden Fleece. The woman was seduced and then abandoned by Jason for the Corinthian princess. Out of revenge, Medea killed the children she had with Jason and also killed the princess sending her a poisoned dress.
Fig. 3. The Golden Fleece, 1941 (emaze.com)
Women Quelled by Terror
Labisse began painting in the early 1920s. His first exhibition praised by Ensor happened in 1928 at the Ostend Gallery of Modern Art. On the paintings of his friend, Flemish infant terrible said the following: “Extraordinary painter, your heartrending accents warp women quelled by terror.”
Fig. 4. The Strange Leda, 1950 (emaze.com)
Fig. 5. The window of the Marquis [de Sade], 1947 (emaze.com)
Fig. 6. Young fig posing for Leonardo da Vinci, 1946 (emaze.com)
Fig. 7. Ongoing Adventure, 1944 (emaze.com). The blood-handed woman with a mantis head obviously symbolizes dangerous eroticism lying in our nature. The ominousness of the picture is intensified by guts depicted in the background.
Fig. 8. The Pearls of the Crown, 1947 (emaze.com). The red woman with a Shih-Tzu head and the dying tree with slugs of the wood-borer inside in the background.
Fig. 9. Bonjour Marie, 1945 (emaze.com). The woman with a head turning into a sculpture.
The Theatrical Decorator
The 1930s were very prolific to Labisse as he manifested himself not only as a painter but also as a founder and editor of the “Tribord” literary and artistic review. In addition to this, he participated in filmmaking with his friend Henri Storck (films “Une Idylle à la plage,” “The Death of Venus“). In 1932, Labisse moved to Paris and became acquainted with the most prominent French artist of those times, like Jean-Louis Barrault, Robert Desnos, Antonin Artaud, Roger Vitrac, Germaine Krull, Jaques Prévert, etc. Three years later, he created sets and twenty-five costumes for Barrault’s production “Autour d’une mère” (“Around the Mother“) based on William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” novel.
Fig. 10. Hermeline, 1973. The woman with a vulva-shaped shell instead the head (emaze.com)
Fig. 11. Natural History, 1943 (emaze.com)
Fig. 12. Discovery of the anthropophagic tree, 1941 (emaze.com)
Fig. 13. The Explorer, 1944 (emaze.com)
Fig. 14. The baptism from the air, 1942 (emaze.com). The Golden Fleece is being destroyed, which symbolizes the end of the western world in the war.
Before and After the War
While the work for Barrault made Labisse a high-demand decorator, his second exhibition at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels in 1938 made him a well-known painter. He was mobilized in 1939 and returned to Paris a year later. In that period, Labisse painted a series of cannibalistic trees. He maintains contact with surrealist artists like Robert Desnos and René Magritte. Breton admires his work despite the difference in their political/artistic views (Labisse was a member of the Revolutionary Surrealism group along). After the war, Labisse continued his prolific artistic career. He traveled to Brazil, organized numerous exhibitions, and worked as a stage decorator.
Fig. 15. Tiresias’ Daughter, 1973 (butdoesitfloat.com). Tiresias was a blind prophet of Apollo. He had daughters Manto and Daphnae, who were prophets too. Snakes in the background probably give us a hint that depicted woman is Tiresias himself as according to some legends, he was turned into a woman by goddess Hera after he hit a pair of copulating snakes with his stick.
Fig. 16. Entrance of the wise virgins, 1963 (emaze.com)
Fig. 17. Untitled (butdoesitfloat.com)
Fig. 18. Cotyo, Perfica, Volupie, 1963 (emaze.com). These three women synonymic to three Greek goddesses of fate, represent three aspects of femininity seen by men: Cotyo (the cook), Perfica (she who completes), and Volupie (the voluptuous aspect of women).
Fig. 19. Theroigne de Mericourt, 1971 (wikiart.org). This painting represents famous heroine of French revolution Anne-Josèphe Theroigne. A bare-breasted woman with a Phrygian cap is a common allegory of the freedom in the context of French revolution (e. g. “Liberty Leading People” by Delacroix).
Fig. 20. The Three/ Le 14 juillet a pointe-a-pitre (1968). Three colored females represent the French flag.
The most famous works of Labisse are the depictions of mysterious blue women. The first one appeared in 1952 (fig. 26). The blue-skinned females with Asian or African features are witches, saints, spirits, or famous characters of mythology or history, like Judith. This series is a result of Labisses curiosity about female nature. The “disquieting strangeness” of eroticism (thesurrealists.org) finally found its’ visual expression in otherworld creatures walking in dreamy landscapes.
Fig. 21. Six Selenides (moonspirits), 1966 (wikiart.org)
Fig. 22. Le Grand Thebaide, 1978 (wkiart.com). The title is a reference to the play of Racine (the story of Oedipus’ children he had with his mother Jocasta)
Fig. 23. La Thebaide, 1978 (wikiart.com)
Fig. 24. The Reclining Odalisque, 1968 (wikiart.org)
Fig. 25. Magician of the Carribean, 1967 (emaze.com)
Fig. 26. Sahida de Socorro, 1952 (emaze.com)
Fig. 27. Veneridae, 1967 (emaze.com). The shell, which is a traditional attribute of Venus, was repeated in “Hermeline” painting (fig. 10)
Fig. 28. 1972, Semiramis. The mythological Lydian-Babylonian queen, possessed wonderful hanging gardens which existence, though, wasn’t proved by historicists.
Fig. 29. Lilith, 1974 (emaze.com). The apocryphal first wife of Adam. Refused to be under him during the encounter. Turned into a maleficent spirit.
Fig. 30. The night of 18th December, 1963 (emaze.com)
Fig. 31. Judith, Jewish widow, who uses her beauty and charm to destroy an Assyrian general and save Israel from oppression (todocoleccion.net)
Fig.33. Zénobie (1972)
The Artist as an Assembly
Although Labisse didn’t regard himself as a surrealist painter, his works with the common surrealist devices prove the opposite thing. Interestingly, his first paintings on the ancient themes unavoidably remind of those by Giorgio de Chirico. The female body reflecting in a landscape makes us recall the works of Dali. Witches with crosses can be easily compared to the nuns of Trouille. Like all surrealists, Labisse got his inspiration from psychoanalysis and modern technologies. The combination of both allowed him to create his “Libidoscaphes” (which are the genital bathyscaphes) in 1962 (fig. 38-40). However, Labisse followed not only his contemporaries. The artist’s interest in witchcraft made him refer to Bosch, who can be named the father of surrealists. Labisse’s depictions of witch sabbats are much in the spirit of the medieval artist.
Fig. 34. Left: Labisse, Iphigenie, 1940 (emaze.com). Right: de Chirico “The Archeologists”, 1927.
Fig. 35. Left: Labisse, “The same evidence”, 1952. Right: Dali, “Three Sphinxes of Bikini”, 1947
Fig. 36. Left: Labisse “The Blood Council”, 1973 (thesurrealists.org). Right: Trouille, “Madame Rosa the Clairvoyant”, 1944
The Artist as an Author
All in all, the parallels above can’t cancel the personal opinion of mine that Labisse is literally one of the most unsettling surrealists. His variation on Galateya (Pygmalion’s statue who came alive), cannibal trees, obsession with the replacement of female heads with mantis or fig fruit make the viewer feel not only curious but uneasy as well. Labisse can also be distinguished by a constant theme of his paintings, which is a woman and femininity throughout human history.
Fig. 37. The rendezvous on the Bloksberg, 1976 (emaze.com)
Fig. 38. The jubilant celebration of the great burning at Toledo, 1976 (emaze.com)
Fig. 39. Libidoscaphe de Mai, 1962 (emaze.com)
Fig. 40. Libidoscaphe nocturne, 1962 (emaze.com)
Fig. 41. Libidoscaphe nuptial, 1962 (emaze.com)
Sources: Wikipedia.org, Adam McLean “Labisse Works” (emaze.com), thesurrealists.org
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