Fantômas & The Avant-Garde

Fantomas Still-Life
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.

Barbarian 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:

A THEATRICAL EVENT. Juve has been on the trail of Fantômas for quite some time. He crawls along the broken cobblestones of a mysterious passage. To guide himself he gropes along the walls with his fingers. Suddenly, a whiff of hot air hits him in the face. He comes nearer...His eyes adjust to the darkness. Juve distinguishes a door with loose boards a few feet in front of him. He undoes his overcoat in order to wrap it around his left arm, and gets his revolver ready. As soon as he has cleared the door, Juve realizes that his precautions were unnecessary: Fantômas is close by, sleeping deeply. In a matter of seconds Juve has tied up the sleeper. Fantômas continues to dream—of his disguises, perhaps, as usual. Juve, in the highest of spirits, pronounces some regrettable words. They cause the prisoner to start. He wakes up, and once awake, Fantômas is no longer Juve's captive.

Juve has failed again this time. One means remains for him to achieve his end: Juve will have to get into one of Fantômas's dreams—he will try to take part as one of its characters. (Translation by Suzi Gablik, from Magritte. Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1976)

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:

His immense shadow spreads out
Over Paris and the world,
What is this grey eyed specter
Who surges through the silence?
Might it be you, Fantômas,
Prowling on the high rooftops?

For more about the avant-garde's fascination with Fantômas, see Robin Walz's article "Serial Killings: Fantômas, Feuillade, and the Mass-Culture Genealogy of Surrealism" from The Velvet Light Trap: A Critical Journal of Film and Television.

For more about Fantômas and the Surrealists, read interviews and reviews about Robin Walz's Pulp Surrealism: Insolent Popular Culture in Early Twentieth-Century Paris.

Vampiros 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.

LachmanThe 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.

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