The Queer Psychoanalysis Society

Archive for January, 2012|Monthly archive page

The Surreal Sex of Beauty: Jean Cocteau and Man Ray’s “Le Numéro Barbette”

In Freud, Kant, Lacan, LGBT, Masquerade, Performativity, Transvestite Souls on January 23, 2012 at 11:23 am

by Chase Dimock

In 1923, the American acrobat Vander Clyde better known by his stage name “Barbette” made his theater debut in Paris at the famed Moulin Rouge and the Folies Bergère and captivated the French artistic community with his show. Yet, his success was not merely due to his death-defying high wire or trapeze acts. Rather, what built his reputation and fame was his uncanny female impersonation as he performed his stunts. Most who saw Barbette for the first time were completely unaware of his true sex, but as Barbette’s renown grew in Paris, audiences poured in knowing they were witnessing the feminine graces of a man, yet captivated by how willingly they bought into the artful deception. During his days on the American Vaudeville circuit, Barbette’s revelation of his male gender at the end of his show may have shocked the audience, perhaps with laughter and the occasional moral offense, but in Paris, his act transcended the carnival aesthetic of oddities and shock value and was appreciated more as an art akin to ballet.

This appreciation for Barbette’s artistic sensibilities came as his act was embraced by the Parisian avant-garde and explored in the works of two surrealist artists, the French writer Jean Cocteau and the American photographer Man Ray. In 1926, Cocteau commissioned Man Ray to take a set of photographs chronicling Vander Clyde’s physical transformation into Barbette before a performance. In these photos, Man Ray presents Barbette in a stage half-way between average man and the over the top show girl outfit that completed Barbette as a character. Barbette’s wig is on and his face is made up, but his chest is bare and unmistakably a man’s. For Jean Cocteau, this state in between genders, in between sexes constitutes the essence of Barbette as neither a man impersonating or transformed into a woman, but instead as a being that takes advantage of the fluidity of aesthetics and theatrics to render gender and sex amorphous, constantly in a state of movement. I examine how surrealism supplied a discourse for theorizing an aesthetics for visualizing the possibilities of Barbette’s play of gender and yet how Cocteau and Man Ray had to work against the conventions of this fundamentally masculinist movement by examining the long repressed queer dimensions of the unconscious that even surrealism feared to unleash.

Vander Clyde was born in 1904 in Texas where he first saw trapeze artists in the circus and as an adolescent began to recreate their acts on his mother’s clothesline. By his teenage years, he was already touring with the circus, most notably as a replacement for one of the “World Famous Arial Queens”, the Alfaretta Sisters after one of them had died. It was as a member of this act that Vander Clyde first performed dressed as a woman. Later, as Vander Clyde developed his solo act, he chose the name “Barbette” because it sounded exotic and could be a first or a last name and thus also could signify both genders. By the time Barbette had achieved international fame and had taken his act to Paris in the 1920s, his performance appeared generally as Frank Cullen describes it in his entry on Barbette in his encyclopedia of Vaudeville:

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The Newborn Aestheticization of Brazilian Misery

In film, Mythology, Polymorphous Perversity, Primitive Traumas on January 15, 2012 at 11:08 pm

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by Diego Costa

The film is “Vidas Secas”, or “Barren Lives.” The director is Nelson Pereira dos Santos and it’s 1963. The black-and-white film stock seems to crackle along with the drought-stricken land on which the characters step. They are a family searching for water, food, maybe even work. The dog is a barely animate sliver of flesh, the children not that much different. They make their way through the arid backlands of Northeastern Brazil as if obeying some kind of ontological compass one would reach if all of the ideological and historical gunk could be physically deconstructed. A kind of desperate drive stuck on the last bit of brittle bone before whatever humanity was left melted back into the earth. This isn’t the allegorical “becoming animal” borne out of the kind of existential wretchedness in the last scene of Béla Tarr’s “Damnation” (1988), when a man in a suit in the middle of nowhere ends up getting down on all fours and barking back at a stray communist doomsday dog in some kind of recoupling. The scenes also bear none of the spent humanity-cum-figurative bestiality of the horny garbage man in a rubber cat-suit finding solace in a no-man’s-land garbage dump in Joao Pedro Rodrigues’ “O Fantasma” (2000). This is misery so de facto that representing it requires a good bit of perversity. The kind of misery that is as abundant in certain corners of the world as it is perennially projected into an elsewhere that “Africa,” “Haiti,” or “developing world,” seem increasingly unfit to single-handedly contain.

ImageAt the same time “Barren Lives” was being made a brand new city, Brasília, was being built from scratch (with a manmade lake and all) in the middle of Brazil. The parallels couldn’t be more contrasting: the frail bodies of the Northeasterners headed to some elsewhere/nowhere and the modernist edification of large phallic structures for the new Brazilian capital. The irony seems more narrative-friendly once so many of the hungry travellers end up electing Brasília as the promise-land and populating not the city itself, but the slew of unaccounted-for slum-like “satellite cities” surrounding it.Who could have known, then, that five decades later, the city spawned as artificially as the Northeasterners’ misery was thought to be “natural,” would be home to Mangai. A branch of a restaurant that already exists in the Brazilian Northeast itself, Mangai is nothing short of a spectacle normally reserved to countries whose ethos is more imbricated in artifice. Mangai is outrageous bad taste of the Americana sort, a cartoonish appropriation akin to Mall of America’s Rainforest Café in which servers introduce themselves as tour guides of the amazing “adventure” patrons are about to embark in. Located in a new development by the (manmade) lake Paranoá, alongside several extravagant restaurants and the popular food kiosks selling hot dogs and corn-on-the-cob that such things beget, one has to climb a few flights of stairs to arrive at Mangai’s entrance. There one finds a collection of hammocks, as if the thematic substitutes of comfy couches for waiting or a babysitting-like McDonald’s playground. Read the rest of this entry »
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