Borin Van Loon: Robert Desnos 2015
Robert Desnos 1900-1945 (oil on blackboard)

Born in Paris, Desnos was author in 1922 of Deuil pour deuil. Noted for his automatic writing, his 'sleep period' saw some superbly successful examples of his verbal and graphic work. Pure psychic automatism was considered by the early Surrealist group the direct way to expression of desire: ' which an attempt is made to express, either verbally, by writing or in any other way, the true functioning of thought. The dictation of thought, in the absence of all control by the reason, excluding any aesthetic or moral preoccupation.' (First Manifesto [of Surrealism], 1924). Borin has written a review of the Autumn 2001 Tate Modern exhibition 'Surrealism: Desire Unbound'; for the full text see the Freelance website listed in our Links

In 1929 he was among those whom the Second Manifesto separated from Surrealism. During the Occupation of France by the Nazis he was deported to Buchenwald, then to Terezin in Czechoslovakia where he died of typhus. It was a group portrait photograph by Man Ray which inspired this large painting. The louche features of Desnos stare insolently out directly at us from the centre of a small group. It was the decadent, positively wasted character of the features which attracted me. I tackled the work in, for me, a unique manner (I certainly don't intend to repeat the experience): by priming a board with blackboard paint, so that the dark depth of the piece was there from the start. The face is in sharply lit detail at the tip of the nose and rapidly recedes and softens, blurring at the modelling of the ears, throat and pomaded hair and disappearing into shadow. Largely monochrome, the eyes and lips are accentuated and the surrounding gloom suffused with indigo. The intense absorbancy of the ground sucked up the plasticity of the oil paint, vehicle and medium, causing drag and great difficulty in blending and modelling surfaces. However, the end result is a testimony to the life of one of the lost victims of Nazi persecution. At the core of the Paris Surrealist group which was born out of Dada (and thus the horrors of the Great War), Desnos has left us some beautiful verse as an epitaph.


I've dreamed of you so much that you're losing your reality.
Is it already too late for me to embrace your literal, living and breathing physical body
and to kiss that mouth which is the birthplace of that voice which is so dear to me?
I've dreamed of you so much that my arms - which have become accustomed to lying crossed
upon my own chest after attempting to encircle your shadow - might not be able to unfold again
to embrace the contours of your literal form, perhaps
So that coming face-to-face with the actual incarnation of what has haunted me and ruled me
and dominated my life for so many days and years
Might very well turn me into a shadow.
Oh equilibriums of the emotional scales!
I've dreamed of you so much that it might be too late for me to ever wake up again.
I sleep on my feet, body confronting all the usual phenomena of life and love and yet
when it comes to you - you, the only being on the planet who matters to me now -
I can no more touch your face and lips than I can those of the next random passerby.
I've dreamed of you so much, have walked and talked and slept so much with your
phantom presence that perhaps the only thing left for me to do now
Is to become a phantom among phantoms, a shadow a hundred times more shadowy
than that shifting shape which moves and which will go on moving,
stepping lightly and happily across the sundial of your life.

Translated by Michael Benedikt


Far from me and like the stars, the sea and all the other traditional trappings of poetic mythology
Far from me yet present nonetheless although you're unaware of it
Far from me, and even more silent than you are distant, since I keep on endlessly imagining you
Far from me, my gorgeous mirage and my perpetual dream, in ways you just can't know.
If you only knew.
Far from me and perhaps all the more so because you not only ignore me, but ignore me more each day.
Far from me because undoubtedly you don't love me or, what amounts to the same thing,
because I doubt so strongly that you do.
Far from me because you so methodically ignore my each and every desire.
Far from me because you're so cruel.
If you only knew.
Far from me, O blissful as a flower dancing in a river at the tip of its underwater stem, O melancholy
as 7 pm and sunset in a mushroom-cellar.
Far from me and therefore still more silent than if you were actually present, yet more blissful still
than some lucky, stork-shaped hour that falls down from above.
Far from me at that moment when the stills are singing, at that moment when the silently foaming sea
curls back up on its white pillows.
Far from me, O my ever-present, constant torment, far from me and lost in the magnificent noises of
oyster-shells, crushed by footsteps of some night-owl at the harborside, passing cafe-doors at dawn.
If you only knew.
Far from me, O my deliberate, material mirage.
Far from me there's an island turning around as ships pass.
Far from me, a herd of docile cattle wanders off a path, then obstinately stops at the edge of a steep cliff,
far from me, O cruel one!
Far from me a shooting star lands in the poet's nightly bottle. He promptly corks it up again, and for a
long time afterwards gazes through its glass at the captive star, glimpsing constellations
forming within its walls, far from me, you're that far from me.
If you only knew.
Far from me a house long under construction has just finally been completed.
At the top of a scaffold a bricklayer in dusty white overalls sings a sad little song to himself and then, in the
leftover cement in his mortar tray, sees the entire future of the house: the kisses the lovers and the
suicide pacts, nakedness in the bedrooms of beautiful strangers and their most intimate midnight
dreams, together with various voluptuous secrets caught in the act and revealed by squares of polished
Far from me,
If you only knew.
If you only knew how I love you and - even though you don't love me - how happy I've become,
how empowered and proud, for being able with your image in my mind to step out into this world,
and able even to step out of this entire universe,
And for being so happy, moreover, even to die for this.
If you only knew how I've conquered the world.
And you, so beautiful, and so seemingly unconquerable too, how completely you've become my prisoner.
Oh you, who from so far away, completely conquer me!
If you only knew.

Translated by Michael Benedikt

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