Affair of the art
Neil Cooper explores the relationship between poet and painter Paul Eluard and his wife and muse Nusch, which forms the basis of a new show at Dean Gallery
Every movement needs its muse. So it was with the surrealists’ boys club, whereby Picasso, Man Ray, Max Ernst and co turned the art world upside down while leading equally tempestuous private lives. Take poet and painter Paul Eluard, for instance, whose letters, photographs, collages and book collaborations form the basis of the Dean Gallery’s summer show. Eluard’s second marriage in 1934 to Maria Benz, aka actress, model, acrobat and ‘hypnotist’s stooge’, Nusch, was immortalised in words and pictures, not just by Eluard, but others in the gang as well.
With a name tinged with the exotica of a latter-day supermodel or pop icon, Nusch posed nude for Man Ray in pictures that would illustrate Eluard’s book, Facile, dedicated to the woman introduced to him by Ernst in ’29 in Paris. While producing her own set of photo-collages, Nusch went on to pose for Picasso, with whom she is reputed to have had an affair.
Nusch was somewhat patronisingly regarded as ‘a mascot’ of Eluard and co. Yet, Benz was no hanger-on of the surrealist scene: prior to her death of a stroke, aged just 40, she became the inspiration for some of Eluard’s most tender love poems, and a woman who could more than hold her own with the boys.
The Dean’s show is culled from the Roland Penrose Archive, purchased from Eluard in 1938 and acquired by the Dean in 1995. It was Penrose’s association with the surrealists that helped the movement gaining attention in Britain. The focus on the relationship between Nusch, Eluard and co forms the very human heart of the show.
‘By all accounts Nusch was a very tough lady,’ curator Anne Simpson points out, ‘but she had a physicality that was very fragile. She looked very thin and ill. But she really made her mark on the surrealists. Her features crop up again and again, and in photographs focus on her body and not her face.’
Eluard and co had always kept things in the family. Eluard’s first wife, Elena Ivanovna Diakonovna, reinvented as Gala, had left Eluard for Salvador Dali. Other schisms would follow when, with both Eluard and Nusch active in the French resistance, shifting allegiances led to Eluard departing the surrealists to join the Communist Party in 1942.
After Nusch’s death, however, Eluard forsook over-hasty eulogies to Stalin for Le Temps Déborde, dedicated to his late wife, and by 1948 was part of the Congress of Intellectuals for Peace. It was at a Congress in Mexico that Eluard met his third wife, Dominique Laure, with whom he remained until his own death in 1952, dedicating The Phoenix to her. Eluard’s influence would go on to inspire nouvelle vague film director Jean Luc Godard’s 1965 postmodern noir, Alphaville.
‘It’s a very multi-faceted show,’ Simpson maintains. ‘Eluard is somebody we’ve wanted to focus on for years. He’s a major figure of French literature, whose ideas at the time caused a real sensation.’
Not for nothing, one suspects, did Eluard once observe, ‘There is another world, but it is in this one.’
Paul & Nusch Eluard and Surrealism, Dean Gallery, Edinburgh, Sat 27 Jun–Sun 27 Sep.