Fantômas — a figure of unmotivated evil, moral transgression and diabolical perversity — exerted a powerful fascination for French avant-garde painters and poets 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:
And Robert Desnos's 25-stanza poem La Complainte de Fantômas ("The Lament 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." Weill's score has unfortunately been lost. The poem closed with an image taken from the original book cover (translation by Robin Walz):
For more about the French avant-garde's fascination with Fantômas, see Robin'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.
Julio Cortazar, 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). Cortazar, who was also undoubtedly aware of Fantômas’ original incarnations in the Souvestre-Allain novels and Feuillade’s films, wrote a highly self-reflective 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 Cortazar) 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 Cortazar’s novella, got to http://www.cbc.umn.edu/~ernesto/Cortazar/Fantomas/f1.html .
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 (http://www.connnecting-art.com)