"I believe in the speculative emancipation art can offer."

[PL]

Roee Rosen talks with Kamila Wielebska about Surrealism and Justine Frank (1900-1943), a Belgian Jewish artist present in his oeuvre.


Roee Rosen, „Justine Frank: Frankomas, 1930”, olej na płótnie, 1998-2005
Roee Rosen, „Justine Frank: Frankomas, 1930”, olej na płótnie, 1998-2005

According to Professor Anne Kastorp of Brown College in East Orange, New Jersey, Frank is descendent of the mystic Jacob Frank who lived in 18th century and was a bizzare and controversial person1. This is interesting for me because in my opinion Jacob Frank was a typical Roccoco personality. And I think about Roccoco as a kind of origin of Surrealism. So it's quite amazing because you are doing actually very similar thing, you found a Roccoco ancestor for a surrealist. What do you think about it?
Perhaps Jacob Frank can be thought of through a kind of schizophrenic model. Roccoco or even parodical aspects can be construed in his writing and thinking on the one hand. On the other hand, Gershom Scholem at one point compares him to Marquis de Sade. In a way, we can say that maybe these are two forms of humour or comicality because Roccoco can be perceived as a sort of parody while Gilles Deleuze writes about Sade as a model of irony. In fact, what Kastorp claims in her essey is that for Justine Frank, Surrealism was nothing other than a very Frankist practice. Kastorp bases her claim on an essay Gershom Scholem wrote about a relative of Jacob Frank named Dobrushka, who changed identity many times, became a fake German nobleman and later moved to France to become a Jacobin by the name of Junius Fry - and was finally beheaded. This constant change of identities not only serves as a cover for the mystic, but is a realization of Frank's negatibe theology, the turning upside down of the law, so that similarly for Justine, it is suggested, Surrealism itself was only a disguise. This connection to the beheading of Fry is supported through the element of a double guillotine which appears in Justine Frank's painting. But we should remember that this is only late Anne Kastorp, because earlier she had a very different concept of Justine Frank. She saw her work as a sort of proto-feminist stance against stereotypes of feminity and masculanity...

Roee Rosen, „Justine Frank: Gildia Franka (Frank's Guild), 1933”, olej na płótnie, 2002
Roee Rosen, „Justine Frank: Gildia Franka (Frank's Guild), 1933”, olej na płótnie, 2002

But Marquis de Sade also trying to escape from the stereotypical division between men and women.
Yes, absolutly. But I think that with Sade we have an absolute system of negation of the ideology of the age of reason by employing the same rethoric, principles and structures of Rationalism and the Enlightenment. If you read, for instance, Juliette, much of the book is like a philosophical discourse only everything is reversed. The blindspots and the opressive asspects of humanism are exposed by this reversal. So the orgies, the pornographic ascpect, represent demonstrations or empirical proof for this reversal of the humanistic laws. Perverse variations become possible as if through a matemathical logic: a man can be both the bride and the groom, and if he is marrying his daugther, the dauther can play the groom, while a son can be the bride, and so on.

Roee Rosen, „Justine Frank: fotografia, Paryż, 1928”, 1998-2005
Roee Rosen, „Justine Frank: fotografia, Paryż, 1928”, 1998-2005

Marquis de Sade is also an important Roccoco person. The end of Roccoco was when during the French Revolution the people of Paris destroyed the Bastille and the only prisoner was him, so they liberated Sade and the modern era began. Humour takes an important role in his writings, which is maybe not so obvious for many people. Camille Paglia reads him in this way for example.
Yes. In the third part of the book Sweet Sweat2 I refer to a book Deleuze wrote about Sacher-Masoch and Sade, suggesting masochism is humouristic and sadism is ironic, both demostrating what Deleuze calls 'the comic mode,' which, Deleuze claims, is the only mode that can transgres the law. The simplest way to explain this claim is that the criminal, in fact, colaborates with the law; the law is written for the criminal. The prohibition on killing presupposes that there is a killer and it will make no sense as a law without the killer. So there is a reciprocality between the killer and whoever punishes him. But with the masochist, who desires to be punished even though he committed no crime, the very notion of punishment is confused and the law thus loses its stability. In that sense I think that Deleuze belongs to a geneology of thinkers who assign the 'comic mode' with a strongly transgressive or defiant role vis-à-vis the law. It's a tradition that includes Sigmund Freud, and André Breton of The Antology of Black Humor...
I also believe in the power of the 'comic mode' and laughter is related to tears as well. When you cry, as when you laugh or sweat, the body reacts without your willful intention. The body responds to something even though you may not rationally wish this reaction. Something is being touchted. So humour in its more interesting forms is not really something like a lighthearted whim but to the opposite, it points in the presence of profoundly disturbing and problematic issues.

Roee Rosen, „Justine Frank”: z cyklu „Splamione portfolio” („Stained Portfolio”), 1998-2005
Roee Rosen, „Justine Frank”: z cyklu „Splamione portfolio” („Stained Portfolio”), 1998-2005

You wrote about Justine Frank that she was searching for „an impossible state of existence: autonomy without territory"3. I think that the notion of territory is very important both in Jewish and Polish culture and tradition so it's quite a provocative idea.
For me it is both polemic and foundational. First of all, it is interesting in relation to Jacob Frank who said that the real Jsrael after the coming of the Messiah will be Poland (which is again a Sade-like reversal vis-à-vis the tradition of Judaism, where the return to The Holy Land is a topic of prayer etc.). I live this self-contradictory existence of being the result of emigration to Palestine that has been framed by Zionism. So I am implicated by territorial ideology, even if already as a child I felt a strong suspicion towards the idea that your identity has to do with a specific territory. One of the paradoxical results of Zionism was the strange relation between religious heritage and nationalism. Historically, Zionism was, for the most part, a socialist and a secular movement, but in order to assert its claim for the right of the Jews to settle in that particular territory, it had to revive the biblical past. So, when it came to the democratic separation between religion and state, Zionism was schizophrenic - it was secular, socialist, radical in many ways, but on the other hand it asserted religion as part of its system. In fact, the existence in Israel of a legally binding rabbinic authority is contradictory to the Jewish tradition in which polemics played such a major role. There is a saying in Hebrew: „Asseh Le-kha Rav," which means 'You decide for yourself who is your rabbi'. So the talmudic tradition is one of arguments and different opinions. But my objection to a cohesive and singular claim of what is „really" Jewish is also an objection to the assumption that Jewish identity is inherently forged - that is, that you as a Jew decide what it means to be Jewish. I felt that identity is constituted from without. To put it in a vulgar way: during the Holocaust it was not a rabbi who decided who is a Jew and who isn't, but Joseph Goebbels. But Joseph Goebbels is merely an extreme example, a late offshoot of the gentile European constitution of the Jew, initially in theological thought and later in scientific and psychiatric thought. There is an interesting book by Sander Gilman in which he suggests that when Freud came to be educated at the Salpêtrière by Charcot, he faced a situation wherein Judaism was perceived objectively, scientifically, as a kind of pathology with a variety of somatic syndroms (like speech defects, flat feet, an inclination to histeria etc.). The Jew's body was inscribed by those objective symptoms and Freud in that sense was both a patient and a doctor. The difference at the time between liberal psychiatrists like Charcot and Krafft-Ebbing, and between harsher positions was that the liberals believed that the otherness of the Jew can be cured, while proto-nazi psychiatrists saw the Jew's otherness as irreversible, something that cannot be changed. Gilman's claim is that Freud's invention of psychoanalysis was in fact a universalization of the symptoms of the Jew. That's the solution Freud to his own paradoxical state: the notion of neurosis applicable to every man and woman and taking many of the symptoms that were projected onto the Jew. Going back to the Zionist discourse, when I was forging Justine Frank it was important for me to polemical assert such external notions of Jewich identity even though in many ways I find what Frank is doing to be empowering. It's not merely a disavowal of Jewish identity, it is just asserting that you never have the complete freedom to decide for yourself your own identity.

Roee Rosen, „Justine Frank”: z cyklu „Splamione portfolio” („Stained Portfolio”), 1998-2005
Roee Rosen, „Justine Frank”: z cyklu „Splamione portfolio” („Stained Portfolio”), 1998-2005

It's a bit like we are sentenced to our identity.
Yes, but I don't want to suggest a view of one's identity as a victim-like experience inscribed by history and ideology, but to reclaim a sort of emancipatory power of self-reinvention - not by dening, negating or turning a blind eye to what is given to us from the outside, but rather by performing the notion of identity as a sort of a battle zone. It is never resolved, we never reach a passive, static state where identity is cohesive; it is always dynamic, fluid. A notion that is simultaneously troubling and restrictive, but can also employ elements like fantasy, imagination, specualtion. That is the state of mind behind this figure of Justine Frank.

Roee Rosen, „Justine Frank, Untitled (Self-Portrait as a Black Woman), 1938”
Roee Rosen, „Justine Frank, Untitled (Self-Portrait as a Black Woman), 1938”

Yes, let's come back to Justine Frank. She could be seen as a kind of tragic figure but her situation was actually quite paradoxical and just funny as we remember that she was actually looking for an autonomy without a territory. So while she was without a territory and it seems that no place was right for her, she actually wasn't looking for a place.
Yes, but this is the paradox which we all perhaps should feel. I mean, we are all born to the reality of the nation states but I think that many of us sense that there is something highly artificial and limiting about this territorial way of thinking. I'm far from being unique in that sense: there are so many people who would like to think of other models of communities not confined to territory or to national ideology.

Roee Rosen, „Unknown Photographer, Justine Frank, 1933”
Roee Rosen, „Unknown Photographer, Justine Frank, 1933”

But it seems that among the Surrealists as well there wasn't a place for Justine Frank.
Well, she was contentious to say the least, and many aspects of what she did were troubling even in that context. We are speaking now about Bretonian Surrealism, where, for example, women had a major sexual role, but it was the role of the object of desire, particularly the hysterical object (as Breton and Aragon wrote in their famous celebratory text marking the 50th anniversary of the invention of hysteria), and Breton famously said that the only possible beauty is convulsive beauty4. So women were assigned this role on the verge of insanity and always as an object to be observed and consumed (Interestingly, Dada, which was so related to Surrealism,was much more radical in that sense and it is not surprising that it featured more women as practising artists). The surrealists did allow a little role to women like Meret Oppenheim and Cloude Cohun, but it was relatively marginal. And not only did Frank asserted female sexuality, it was a sexuality of the kind that Breton felt very uneasy about. Breton was a strange character; on the one hand he was celebrating Marquis de Sade and calling for open sexuality, but on the other hand he believed in monogamy and was quite homophobic.

Roee Rosen, „Fanja Hissin with Justine Frank, 1938
Roee Rosen, „Fanja Hissin with Justine Frank, 1938

Many of the Surrealists were homophobic...
Aragon wasn't. But many of them were. To go back to Breton's problem with Frank's sexuality - scatology disturbed him especially. Dalí writes in Diary of a Genius (1952-63) that the Surrealists were afraid of rectums, so he painted as many as he could. And Justine Frank shared this rectal predilection with Dalí: her sexual texts and images were highly scatological. And another thing: The Second Manifesto of Surrealism (1930) ends with an attack on Georges Bataille by Breton. Justine Frank was close to Bataille, so that made her a persona non grata. The other aspect was explicit presence of Judaism in her art. You can observe references to Catholocism in Surrealism but always as an attack on religion. Most of the Surrealists came from oppressive Catholic upbringing which they openly rebeled against. But interestingly, most of the Jewish Surrealists did not explicate any sign of Jewish identity in their art (if we take as an example the most famous Jewish Surrealist, Man Ray, I don't think we can find any trace of Jewish identity in his entire oeuvre). In that sense, Frank was very much an exeption, as Jewish signs and images are ubiquitous both in her paintings and in her pornographic writings. So it was an extremely uncomfortable combination, she was very young, merely 24 years old when she arrived in Paris, and was a very strange concoction for someone like Breton. She was not immediately ostracized, they tolerated her for a few years but it became for her more and more difficult.

Roee Rosen, „Justine Frank, The Birth of Rabbi Frank, 1937”, 2002
Roee Rosen, „Justine Frank, The Birth of Rabbi Frank, 1937”, 2002

And you confront her with some tradition like Surrealism in order to show what is hidden, what isn't shown in the culture and to reveal some lack. Maybe these kinds of things are even more important when you want to understand the culture.
I agree. The famous Lacanian statement that the unconscious has the structure of language can seem counterintuitive at first because we use language and have a sense of control over it, while the unconscious is supposed to be the locus of the id, preverbal desires, etc. But in fact we understand perfeclty what Lacan means, because we know that we have a native tongue, which we did not make up ourselves or chose by ourselves. And when we have dreams or desires we already have them structured in that particular way. In that sense language creates us, and not vice versa. And when you look back at what defined you the most, the moulds in which your identity was shaped, like your language and culture, you realise those moulds are not only about what there is but also with what isn't there, what was missing and excluded from these moulds. So: being a native Hebrew speaker born in Israel and being an artist for whom Surrealism is a crucial source I can disavow neither Surrealism nor Zionism. I cannot disown those paternal scenes. But I can look at them critically and expose their blank spots.


It also seems that Justine Frank is very much addressed to women.
For me that's the ultimate complement. Irony, pessimism and critical thoughts aside, I'm romantic in the sense that I believe in the speculative emancipation that art can offer. So becoming a woman is an option I don't want to give up my claim for, it is something I deserve.

April-August 2011


Roee Rosen's exhibition in Warsaw entitled The Dynamic Dead Roee Rosen is a presentation of his key projects which took place at the Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle from April 20 to July 3, 2011 (curated by Stach Szabłowski). Films made by the artist were also shown during the 11th International Film Festival New Horizons in Wrocław, Poland (21-31 July 2011).

Roee Rosen, „Hilarious”, wideo, 2010
Roee Rosen, „Hilarious”, wideo, 2010
  1. 1. See: Roee Rosen, Stained Portfolio. On the Life and Work of Justine Frank, in: Justine Frank, Roee Rosen, Sweet Sweat, (Berlin, New York: Sternberg Press, 2009), p. 16
  2. 2. Sweet Sweat is the scandalous book written by Justine Frank in 1931 and published as: Justine Frank, Roee Rosen, Sweet Sweat, (Berlin, New York: Sternberg Press, 2009).
  3. 3. Ibidem, p. 19.
  4. 4. The sentence ‘Either beauty will be CONVULSIVE, or it won't exist at all' is the final line of Nadja (1928), and also appears at the end of the first chapter of another book by Breton: Mad Love (L'Amour Fou, 1937).