Surreal Sensuality in the Works of French Artist Roland Topor
Roland Topor (1938-1997) was a multi-gifted person who showed himself as an artist, writer, performer, filmmaker. Being Jewish refugees living in Warsaw, Topor’s family unsuccessfully tried to find a safe corner in Europe when the Nazi movement began to gain its’ strength.
When they came to France, Topor’s father Abraham was arrested but fortunately escaped from a prison camp in Pithiviers. In Vichy France, 4-year-old Topor was given to another family where he took a false name and identity. Topor’s family survived and reunited after 1945.
Fig. 1. The 1980s. Topor with maquet of a penis apparently used in the TV-show “Marquis” devoted to Marquis de Sade (1988)
Fig. 2. The cover
Fig. 3. Pages from “Masochists”
Fig. 4. Pages from “Masochists”
From 1955, Topor studied at the Beaux-Arts in Paris. His first publication was a cover of Bizarre magazine, which he created in 1958. In the 1960s, Topor also contributed to newspaper Hara-Kiri, Elle journal, and Fiction magazine. In the latter, he debuted as a writer with short story L’amour fou. His first book of drawings, Les Masochistes, was published in 1960 by E. Losfeld.
Here Topor manifested himself as an imaginative artist and a master of black humor. If you’re in a bad mood, “The Masochists” and “The Death Manual” (which is a descendant of medieval ars moriendi treatises) along with Topor’s textual work “100 Reasons to Commit Suicide Right Now” can raise your spirit. Or can make it easier for you to take the right decision. Anyway, you should check it out.
Fig. 5. Left-most: Jodorowsky. With a pipe: Arrabal. Next to Arrabal: Topor.
In 1962, Topor founded the Panic movement together with playwriter Arrabal and filmmaker Jodorowsky. The Panic was an actionist group named after the Greek god of nature and fertility Pan. The performances connected with destructive and disturbing acts were a meditative practice that, as it was believed among the participants, allowed to reach liberation and mystical insight.
One of the actions, “Sacramental Melodrama,” where the central figure was Jodorowsky, involved slitting the throats of two geese, taping two snakes to Jodorowsky’s chest, his undressing, and flagellation. The group stopped its’ activity in 1973 when Arrabal released the book Le Panique.
Fig. 6. “Panic” performances.
The most famous novel of Topor, filmed by Polanski in 1976, is a story about a man whose personality was successfully substituted with the identity of the woman who lived in his new apartment earlier and attempted to commit suicide by falling out the window. Losing one’s self is an all-time topic in art. Possibly childhood memories about the time when Topor was a Catholic schoolboy with another name played a crucial role in making of this story. The doppelganger motif and the problem of individuality would appear many times in Topor’s writings.
Fig. 7. Topor’s drawing used for a cover of “The Tenant”
Fig. 8. Main character Trelkovsky as Simona Shule in the film of Polanski
The View on Sensuality
The specific sense of humor affects Topor’s understanding of eros. The depiction of sensuality is rather dark and ironic. Eroticism is a way to mark and mock human weakness, their common concerns like erectile dysfunction, unattractiveness, the size of genitalia, etc. Eros here is a power that dissolves one’s personality. Even deprivation of Trelkovsky’s identity in The Tenant begins with the feel of lust when he visits that previous resident (Simona Shule) in a hospital and meets there Stella who came to Simona too.
Fig. 16. Topor with a naked model
“The girl was wearing a green sweater, which clearly accentuated the line of her bust, and due to a soft bra, he even managed to discern her nipples slightly sticking out. Her dark-blue skirt slipped up much over knees, however, it was obvious carelessness, rather than intention. Nevertheless, over the elastic ribbon of her stockings, there a sizable piece of a naked body could be seen. This milky-white, a bit shadowed part of a thigh, which seemed strikingly shiny in contrast to the area where it verged into the darker zone, for some reason, literally charmed Trelkovsky, and he was struggling to shift his gaze from the thigh to the girl’s face with its’ absolutely banal expression.” (The Tenant)
Fig. 17. Stella and Trelkovsky in a hospital (Polanski’s adaptation)
Rops and Anti-Proust
Numerous drawings of powerful nude women with weak and skinny men trying to satisfy them sexually remind of the pictures by Felicien Rops, which we studied in one of our previous articles. The woman here is an independent femme fatale, whose image traditionally merges with nature, night, universe. She is a keeper of dangerous secrets, which are inaccessible to men, she is comparable to ancient sirens who used to kill men with their sweet songs. Topor himself was captivated by women, which can be proved by his answers to the “Anti-Proust” questionnaire of Jaque Sternberg:
Your favorite pastime? 1970: Being with women; 1976: Sleeping
What is the most beautiful natural phenomenon? 1970: Breasts of young women; 1976: The sea
What’s the most soothing thing? 1970: Money; 1976: The presence of a woman
Fig. 20. Topor and a girl with a whip
Fig. 23. “The Woman with a Golden Glove”
Eroticism and Fascism
Fig. 26. “The Wheel”
One of the most remarkable drawings of Topor is a swastika formed by female legs in stockings, which reminds both of the photos by Molinier and Bellmer’s manipulations with dolls. What does it mean? The tyranny of sexuality that we, being consumers, have to face every day as sex is the best way to sell anything? Or it’s the only kind of swastika, meditative and mesmerizing, that Topor is ready to greet and tolerate? Or it’s a symbol of lust that makes people do the most terrible crimes? The viewer puts accents himself.
What’s Common Between the Bull and the Female Delta
Topor had a sophisticated mind that he demonstrated in his novel “Princess Angina” (1967) parodying “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Some of his surreal images appear to be rebuses or have an associative connection with language. The depiction of a bull with female legs instead of horns is among the examples. The clue for this combination may be the first letter of the alphabet, which Topor calls the letter of love (amour) [Fig. 30]. The scarlet upturned “A” is similar to the head of the bull.
Dangerous Woman’s Nature
Some of the letters we use today originate from the Phoenician alphabet, which first letter was upturned “A” that meant “bull.” This explanation does not exclude interpretations of the other levels, e. g. metaphorical. The bull may symbolize a dangerous woman’s nature, which is believed to be irrational and mysterious. If so, the woman is a powerful animal that must be tamed by man, and sexual relations are comparable to corrida. However, the bull is surrounded by lustful males avidly watching the show (Fig. 27), so the image as well can tell us of the female objectification like Fig. 31 and 32.
Fig. 32. “Merry Christmas!”
Cons de Fées
Fig. 33. Cons de Fees closed (taken from kuenstlerbuecher.blogspot.com)
Fig. 34. Cons de Fees opened (kuenstlerbuecher.blogspot.com)
Pornographic collages of Topor are another interesting part of his immense legacy that is worth watching. Some of the collages made of obscene images were included in an exclusive book “The Fairies’ Vulvas” (1988) as illustrations to poems by Freddy de Vree. The triangle shape of this book apparently refers to the female delta. The “portraits” created this way are much in the spirit of “Hara-Kiri” covers that we’ll observe in our next articles.
Fig. 35. Page from the book (kuenstlerbuecher.blogspot.com)
Fig. 36. Page from the book (kuenstlerbuecher.blogspot.com)
Fig. 37. Page from the book with a poem “Gudrun” (kuenstlerbuecher.blogspot.com)
The queen of the stars, the star of insomnia, the clown of pubs, Gudrun loved to console the prisoners. The sniffing nose, which funnily crinkled, was the same to her as the scissors to the barber of Seville. Her subtle lemon smile led Chagall to the condemned and made revolutionaries dribble. She masturbated and secreted coniine of liberty, but those who ran to her, would fell if there weren’t a net, would end up under hydron (de Vree).
Fig. 38. Hand-written page of “Cons de Fees”
Fig. 39. Hand-written page of “Cons de Fees”
Fig. 40. Hand-written page of “Cons de Fees”
Fig. 41. Hand-written page from “Cons de Fees”
Fig. 42. Portrait “Frou-Frou” (1987)
Fig. 43. Portrait “Frou-Frou”
Fig. 44. Portrait “Frou-Frou”
Fig. 45. Portrait “Frou-Frou”
Fig. 46. Portrait “Frou-Frou”
Fig. 47. Portrait “Frou-Frou”
Fig. 48. Portrait “Frou-Frou”
Fig. 49. Collage by Topor
And the very last part is Topor’s linocuts….
Fig. 50. Ex Voto
Fig. 51. Polish Landscape
Fig. 52. “Le soupeur“, 1981; linocut 17/75
Fig. 53. Linocut, 1980s
Fig. 54. Linocut, 1980s
Fig. 55. “J’ai tout en double” 1, 1984
Fig. 56. “J’ai tout en double” 2, 1984
Fig. 57. «Cubist-onanist», linocut
Fig. 58. “Cubist-exhibitionist”, linocut
Fig. 63 “La Phalette”
And… six more pictures instead of P. S.
Fig. 64. “B” is for blower
Fig. 65. “I” is for indecency
Fig. 66. “V” is for verb
Fig. 67. “Deviation”, 1986
Fig. 68. Cover of the Fou parle magazine
Sources: 100 уважительных причин незамедлительно покончить с собой / Топор Ролан, Аррабаль Фернандо. М.: Опустошитель, 2014; wiki.org, vk.com, kuenstlerbuecher.blogspot.com
All images except for where is mentioned are taken from vk.com (vk.com/club44614416)
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