Various Artists: Dada, Pansaers et Correspondance; Volume 1 (1917-1926)
Meet James Ensor. Meet the people who came after him. But first, learn French.
Dada, Pansaers et Correspondance; Volume 1 is a compilation of interviews, speeches, and readings that deal, in chronological order, with two movements in the Belgian avant-garde: Dadaism and early Surrealism. Paris was the centre of the art world during the nine years this disc covers, which makes the focus on Brussels unusual enough to be interesting. Belgian Surrealism was less outgoing than its French partner, and its character is best summed up by the behaviour of its most famous proponent, René Magritte, a monogamous bourgeois who painted disquieting visions peacefully at home in his dining room.
The Belgians were, however, not ignored. The leader of the Paris Surrealists, cantankerous André Breton, spent time travelling to Brussels and speaking to his comrades there. He mentioned them more than once in his writings, drawing on the name of Paul Nougé, a writer who collaborated with Magritte, and also on the name of Magritte himself.
Nougé appears on this disc in person, once, in an excerpt from an interview. He discusses the "Correspondance" project that signalled the beginning of a distinctly local Surrealist group. Other people refer to him several times, Marcel Mariën in "Paul Nougé, l'opposition à André Breton", for instance, and the avant-garde composer André Souris in "Lettre de Paul Nougé à André Breton". Magritte's name is brought up during some of the recordings, but he doesn't receive the same attention as Nougé. My guess is that they're saving him for Volumes 2 and 3, along with a few other absent artists, such as E.L.T. Mesens, who hit his stride a little later than the period this compilation covers.
The surprise inclusion on this disc is James Ensor, who was neither a Dadaist nor a Surrealist and produced all of his significant work well before 1917. Yet it makes sense that his should be the first voice we hear. He was a presaging spirit, and a uniquely Belgian one, unlike other proto-Dada/Surrealists, such as Raymond Roussell, who tended to be French. Ensor was recorded giving a speech at a 1929 exhibition of his work. It was probably the same retrospective exhibition that prompted King Albert to make him a baron, although the notes I've got here don't confirm it. His voice has a ringing, bottled sound, as if he's talking through a loudhailer.
It should be pointed out that the events are in chronological order, but the recordings themselves are not. Ensor's speech might have been recorded in 1929, but the important works in his exhibition were painted prior to 1900, which puts them before the Dadaist material that comes next on the disc, starting with the poet Pierre Bourgeois and "Clément Pansaers, 1919, les roses rouges". In fact, some of these recordings were made decades later than the events the artists are discussing. The most recent one that I've got a date for is an interview with Paul Neuhuys that took place in 1982; and there's some forceful material from Souris that was recorded in 1970, the year of his death. Not that this spoils the compilation, but don't go into it thinking that you're going to hear a collection of crackly remasterings from the 1920s, because you're not.
Bourgeois' short track is followed by a slew of other references to Clément Pansaers, an ex-Egyptologist who co-founded a paper called Résurrection that acted as a kind of avant-garde propellant. If Nougé is this compilation's star Surrealist, then Pansaers is its star Dadaist. We don't hear from the man himself because he died in 1922, too early, it seems, to provide our compiler with material, but eight of the disc's 25 tracks have his name in the title. ("Clément Pansaers à Paris", "Je pense à Clément Pansaers", "Clément Pansaers, et James Joyce", and so on.) If you understand French and want to know more about Clément Pansaers, then this is a super resource.
That's another thing that needs to be pointed out: everybody on this CD speaks French. If your French is as bad as mine, then you're going to be spending your time listening to men earnestly explaining themselves in words you don't understand, and trying to convince yourself that it's a Dada thing to do. In the end, the voices began to seem like the toenail clippings or letters that people collect from the dead, sympathetic evidence that the vanished person once had their own existence. Dada, Pansaers et Correspondance is not only a collection of documents, it's also a memorial, and if you don't understand French then the background sounds begin to take on as much importance as the voices. It's not only a memorial to the artists, but also to the slam of a door, to the audience who laughed along with Andre Souris in "L'événement de la salle Mercelis et ce qui s'en suivit", and to the bored dog that starts barking persistently behind Neuhuys as he's being interviewed.
You can look up these artists on the internet, and you can hunt down books about them. Here is the only sentence that will ever be dedicated to that dog.