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Fantômas & The Avant-Garde
Listen up... Hey quiet down!...
To this sad and mournful list
Of endless and horrid crimes,
Tortures and brutalities
Ever unpunished, alas!
By the criminal, Fantômas. —Robert Desnos, The Ballad of Fantômas Fantômas—a figure of unmotivated evil, moral transgression and diabolical perversity—exerted a powerful fascination for avant-garde painters and writers for three decades. Juan Gris's cubist still-life Fantômas (Pipe and Newspaper) (1915), above, depicts a Fantômas novel among a number of everyday objects scattered about a café table (including Le Journal, a daily newspaper which prominently featured sensationalistic crime stories). Click on the image for a close-up of the novel.
René Magritte returned to the iconography of Fantômas repeatedly. The composition of a 1926 painting, The Threatening Murderer (L'assassin menacé), in which two criminals lie in wait for their victim on either side of a doorway, is taken from Louis Feuillade's third Fantômas film Le mort qui tue (The Murderous Corpse). In his 1926 painting Man of the Open Sea (L'homme du large) he employs elements from the final image of Feuillade's second Fantômas film Juve contre Fantomas, in which the Man in Black raises his arms in triumph after throwing the lever that destroys a house in which Juve and Fandor are trapped. In The Barbarian (Le barbare, 1928) Magritte painted a portrait of Fantômas fading in and out of a brick wall. Both Difficult Crossing (La traversée difficile, 1926) and One Night's Museum (Le musée d'une nuit, 1927) prominently feature severed hands, an image from Gino Starace's cover for La main coupée (The Severed Hand). And Backfire (Le retour de flamme, 1943) is a copy of the original cover for the first novel in the series, only in Magritte's painting Fantômas grasps a flower instead of a dagger. Magritte also wrote several texts featuring the Lord of Terror; this one was published in the journal Distances in March, 1928:
Other surrealists also incorporated Fantômas into their literary productions. Max Jacob, who together with Guillaume Apollinaire founded the Societé des Amis de Fantômas, included two Fantômas prose-poems in his 1916 collection Le Cornet à dés ("The Dice Cup"). (Apollinaire himself wrote a review of the Fantômas novels for the literary journal Mercure de France, praising them as among the most imaginative works in existence.) Blaise Cendrars wrote a "Fantômas" poem in 1914 in which he proclaimed the popular series "The School Hymn of Brutish Humanity" ("Alma Mater Humanité Vache") and drew parallels to the epic poems of antiquity, calling it "the modern Aeneid." And Robert Desnos's 25-stanza poem La Complainte de Fantômas (The Ballad of Fantômas), quoted above, was dramatized and broadcast throughout France and Belgium in November 1933. According to Daniel Gerould's Guillotine: Its Legend & Lore (New York: Blast Books, 1992) it was "a monumental production with a cast of over one hundred, including cabaret and music hall artists, buskers, accordionists, whistlers, and clowns, as well as opera singers and recitalists. Organized by Le Petit Journal to publicize the paper's new serial 'Could It Be Fantômas?' by Marcel Allain, this celebration of the Emperor Of Crime created an unlikely meeting of artistic talents. Antonin Artaud directed, Kurt Weill composed the music, and Cuban musicologist and author Alejo Carpentier, who twenty years later would write the extraordinary guillotine novel Explosion In A Cathedral, conducted the ensemble." The poem closed with an image taken from the original book cover:
Julio Cortázar, the expatriate Argentinian writer living in Paris, wrote a novella in the mid-1970s inspired by the Mexican superhero comic-book version of Fantômas (see The Mexican Comic Book). Cortázar, who was also undoubtedly aware of Fantômas's original incarnations in the Souvestre-Allain novels and Feuillade's films, wrote a highly self-reflexive story in which panels from the comic book alternate with the narrator's encounters with Fantômas. In the story, entitled Fantomas contra los vampiros multinacionales (Fantomas versus the multinational vampires), the narrator (named Julio Cortázar) has been collecting testimony on human rights abuses in Latin America, including the 1973 CIA-sponsored coup in Chile against the democratically elected Marxist government of Salvador Allende. He buys a copy of the Fantômas comic book in which the world's libraries are being destroyed by a nefarious conspiracy. Soon the worlds of the comic book, the novella, and reality have completely interpenetrated, and Fantômas discovers that those responsible for the destruction of the world's cultures are also those responsible for the poverty and political repression in Latin America. Bringing these men to justice is a task too great for any one man, of course, even Fantômas. For the Spanish-language text of Cortázar's novella, go to Literatura Argentina Contemporánea.
The figure of Fantômas continues to inspire contemporary artists as well. Czech artist Adolf Lachman has painted a portrait of Fantômas based on the Jean Marais portrayal in the Andre Hunebelle films from the 1960s. For more information about this aritist and the connecting-art group to which he belongs, go to connecting-art.
Vocalist Mike Patton, guitarist Buzz Osborne, bassist Trevor Dunn, and drummer Dave Lombardo have formed a dada-metal band that takes its name from the Lord of Terror. The band Fantômas puts film soundtracks, dada poetry and thrash metal into a blender, and has spewed the brilliant/twisted results onto three albums to date. For more information on the band go to Ipecac Records. Return home