The art of Jewish Belgian painter Justine Frank has long been neglected, suppressed and forgotten. Frank first worked among the Parisian Surrealists and later in Zionist Palestine. Her work combines erotic motifs and Jewish imagery – a disturbing, hallucinatory combination, quite unlike anything else in the Surrealist or the Zionist context. The same troubling mixture of smut and Jewish tropes appears in the only book she authored, the pornographic novel Sweet Sweat (1931).
As soon as Frank emigrated from Antwerp to Paris, she mingled with members of the Surrealist movement. While the Surrealists advocated a radical investigation of sexuality, the place allotted for women-artists in this enterprise was rather scarce, and the desires celebrated were primarily those of men. The Jewish tropes in Frank’s paintings were an anomaly as well. While a sacrilegious assault on Catholicism was a staple of Surrealism, Jewish Surrealists abstained from addressing this facet of their heritage and identity in their art – and Frank’s spectacle of Judaism was far too baffling to be understood as merely satirical (nor is it clear in her art – and this is crucial – whether she asserts her “Judaism” from within a traditional Jewish perception, as an empowered, self-willed and individualistic stance, or as a cultural construct devised, for the most part, by European, Christian culture). The merging of these two realms – Judaism and sexuality – simply has no parallel in the period’s cultural scene.
Frank first exhibited her work in 1928, and the reactions, accepting at first, were to swiftly chill, until the outright anger stirred by her ‘Fantomas’ paintings of 1930. Her career was also hindered by her intimate relationship with controversial author Georges Bataille, who at that time was having a veritable war with Surrealist leader André Breton. These would turn out to be the last paintings Frank would have the privilege of exhibiting during her lifetime. In twenty-seven years of laborious and ambitious art production, the window of opportunity opened for a few years. To top it all, her relations with Bataille were to end soon after.
Frank’s personal, financial and professional difficulties, along with the ominous intensification of anti-Semitism in Europe, finally brought the artist to emigrate to Palestine in 1934. She settled in Tel Aviv, hometown of her best friend, Fanja Hissin, a kiosk owner widowed a year earlier. And yet, opting for Tel Aviv was odd, if not tragic. Frank had always disavowed nationalist ideologies; once in Tel Aviv, her attitude became one of manifested, outspoken hostility towards the values of the Zionist society. She persisted with her disagreeable artistic amalgamation of erotica and Judaism in the context of a puritan culture, whose ‘melting pot’ ideology called for the suppression and negation of the diasporic Jew that Frank was so adamantly rendering.
Frank was living virtually as an untouchable. But the social banishment did not prevent an unremitting buzz of ill-willed gossip around her. Some of these rumors were patently false. But as the years went by and her financial, physical and mental condition further deteriorated, her behavior did indeed become more disconcerting. In the late 1930’s, complaints abounded that Frank was stalking and harassing artists, poets and even one gallerist in Tel Aviv. In 1940 she began to persistently pester Marcel Janco, the venerated artist and recent immigrant. For her, it seems, Janco was simultaneously an alter ego, a nemesis, and a traitor, exchanging the radical stance of the avant-garde for nationalist local patriotism.
On April 22nd, 1942, Frank arrived as an uninvited guest, at the opening of an exhibition entitled Desert Light and Light Unto the Nations. According to most accounts, Frank attempted to assault Janco and was arrested. Frank herself later told Hissin quite a different story: a number of angry men assaulted her, tore off her dress and beat her severely. Whatever truly happened, the event had doubtlessly scarred Frank. After Fanja Hissin bailed her out, she moved in with the widower. In the early afternoon hours of April 12th, 1943, Justine Frank left Hissin’s apartment. She was never seen again.
This expansive dossier of drawings and sketches – all stained (probably by ink) – is the earliest extant work by Frank. The assumption that the sheets were accidentally stained seems farfetched, as some of the blots clearly suggest figurations. Intentional staining also seems typical of Frank’s artistic antics; a bent for illusion and deceit, a scatological compulsion, and also a self destructive tendency, which might have found expression in the willful desecration of this exceptionally labor-intensive work.
But the stains are not the only anomalous trait of the portfolio. Unlike any known sketchbook in art history, the portfolio contains a preparatory study for each and every painting Frank was to produce later on. This fact, considered along with the early date, gave rise to two contradictory theories. According to the first theory, which perceives the dates as genuine, Frank planned her creative development in advance. The portfolio thus enables us to perceive Frank’s oeuvre (and, indeed, her life), as a single gesamtkunstwerk of monstrous scale. If so, Frank’s leitmotif is a parodic reversal of accepted notions concerning artistic inspiration and creation. This interpretation seems all the more stunning as Frank’s style evolved substantially over the years, and clear connections between biography and subject matter in her art can easily be traced.
Another possibility is that Frank backdated the drawings later on, perhaps even into the 1940’s. This stipulation would explain the portfolio’s singularity more plausibly than other artists (such as, Malevich and de Chirico back-dated works, an act motivated either by a better market for early works or by the will to retrospectively revise the artist’s history). Regardless of the answers to these questions, the comprehensive scope of the portfolio offers an excellent introduction to the work of Justine Frank. It provides not only a window into the violence and expenditure characteristic of her art, but also a lexical key to her themes, symbols and tropes.
This series, the first work ever to be exhibited by Frank, originally consisted of ten gouaches, three of which have been purchased by the legendary gallerist Julien Levy, and subsequently lost.
In Physiognomies animals and objects are doubled by simple mirror symmetry to produce a small archive of animated faces. The title, Physiognomies, must have struck a morbid chord with the work’s audience, as the times – the period of European anti-Semitism’s most disastrous fermentation – saw the proliferation of related disciplines, such as eugenics and phrenology, all attempting to categorize criminals, the mentally-ill and racial types, and all resulting in extraordinary visual lexicons.
Frank’s series is also a visual reflection on the genre of portraiture. The tradition of portraiture is premised on the belief that external appearance reflects depth, the soul or the psyche; that Rembrandt’s visage, for example, conveys his inner being to the viewer. Frank’s paintings, having no interor identity to begin with, are a travesty of the ambition to read the face, but this travesty is ambivalent.
The Physiognomies also demonstrate Frank’s penchant images with double and triple meaning (a landscape which is also a face, which is also a body). This aspect of her work is reminiscent of Dalí, but while her object-faces were perceived as a rather contrived and idiosyncratic, Dalí’s imagistic condensations were realized in a more flamboyant manner, and theorized in a number of brilliant texts, with an ambitious appropriation of Freudian ideas; what he penned Critical Paranoia.
The vaginal clefts make of these paintings a rather obscene variation on German Romantic landscapes in the vein of Casper David Friedrich and lampoon the analogy between land and body. And while the cleft marks the landscape as feminine, the tree – doubling as a holy Menorah – designates it as Jewish.
These canvases have numerous studies in The Stained Portfolio, wherein the landscape changes gradually in a sequence reminiscent of animation cells. The tree maintains its symbolic number of branches throughout.
In 1930 Frank tackled a motif dear to the hearts of the surrealists. She painted her versions of Fantomas, a hero/criminal, nocturnal dandy and master of disguise.
In the series of pulp novels and movies that bore his name, Fantomas excelled in spectacularly atrocious and creative murders. The books, first published in 1911, were unprecedented in their cheap, speedy production, enormous mass-appeal and incredulously fantastic storylines. The surrealist circle was a veritable Fantomas fan club, and among the artists who paid homage to Fantomas there also figured a Belgian Surrealist much more important than Justine Frank: Rene Magritte. In Frank’s paintings, the fictive criminal undergoes both a religious conversion and a sex change – and is newly named as Frankomas. Frankomas clenches an odd object that reappears in several of Frank’s paintings: perhaps a shriveled carrot, perhaps a fecal spool.
While Breton and his friends called for sexual transgression, scatology repelled them, and they resented the soiling of Fantomas’ glove with dung. Yet, they were even more infuriated by the figure’s religious attire. Frank’s ‘Jewification’ of Fantomas was not perceived as poking fun at religion, but rather as the desecration of an anti-religious icon. The Frankomas paintings turned Frank from a marginal, somewhat exotic foreigner, into a real persona of the non-grata variety: “vulgar – but in bad taste”, as Anne Kastorp put it.
Hebrew letters appear on the upper corner of each board. The pedagogic pretense and the faux childishness are defied when the letters transform into animated entities in the center of each composition. When the letters are combined – creating words – their joining is rendered as miniature orgies. Thus, for instance, the letter “נ” (Noon), a headless, limbless masculine torso, anally violates the letter “מ” (Mem), a forward-leaning figure positioned sideways to accommodate the intercourse.
A page from The Stained Portfolio presents the entire obscene alphabet Frank designed, and many of its other sheets exploit the infinite lexicon of perverse postures bred by the various letter-combinations. Considered in the Surrealist context Frank’s life-swarming words are a visual realization of Belgian-Surrealist poet Camille Goemans’ suggestion that “…words are not mere signs but, in a certain sense, organic bodies.”
Executed two years before her emigration to Palestine, the Boards foretell Frank’s antagonism towards the nationalistic implication of the revival of Hebrew as the language of the future Zionist State. Frank ‘revives’ her Hebrew quite literally.
Most Frank scholars view these canvases as a diptych. The 1936 gouache doubles the double-noosed guillotine. The enigmatic juxtaposition of Hebrew with an emblem of revolutionary horror has led to the boldest and most controversial theories on Frank. Anne Kastorp perceives the paintings as evidence that Frank is a descendant of the infamous Sabbetaian mystic Rabbi Jacob Frank, whom Gershom Scholem called “the most horrifying and terrible figure in the entire history of Jewish Messianism.” Kastorp believes the Alphabet and double guillotines allude to a relative of Jacob Frank, one Jacob Dobruschka, whose head was guillotined alongside his brother’s (and Danton’s) in 1794. Dobruschka’s biography is made of a dizzying collection chock-full of name and identity alterations next to which the most outlandish of fictions seem to pale. The Jewish mystic reinvented himself as a nationalist German poet, converted to Christianity, bought himself a nobility title, became a key figure in an esoteric Christian sect, and then became a Jacobin under the name of Junius Frey.
Associating Justine Frank with Dobruschka yields a comprehensive, if sordid, interpretation of Frank’s life story and her work. Her pornographic novel, with its scene of incest and parricide, is thus reread according to the blasphemous dictum “righteousness through transgression,” the radical and paradoxical logic that propelled the Frankists to intentionally commit extreme acts of sin. Furthermore, the assimilation of Frank’s parents into gentile Belgian society is revealed as a cunning cover for a sect that was persecuted to extinction. The artist’s licentious, lawless and capricious behavior is clarified, according to Kastorp’s theory, as a willful and calculated personal practice intended to hasten a third Messianic coming (after those of Sabbetai Zevi and Jacob Frank). While Kastorp’s rendering of the artist as a black mystic should be read skeptically, as these paintings are its only material evidence. It does seem as if Scholem’s description of Dobruschka might have well been applied to Justine Frank: “We are faced with a person who wears several costumes at once and disavows them all, according to circumstances, and whose intent one can never fully comprehend – the complete person of the Frankist (…).”
The sexual encounter conjoins two figures from far-removed cultural fields. The urinating woman is based on an erotic print by the Eighteenth century Japanese artist Utamaro from his Kiku no Tsuyu (in the original, a man masturbates while peeping at the women who urinate in the open air). The figure of the hysteric is based on Paul Richer’s illustrations, commissioned and compiled by the celebrated psychiatrist Charcot. This figure renders the second stage of the fit, the Clown Stage. The conversion and sex change of the hysteric – very common in Frank’s work – have a special significance here, not only because Hysteria was perceived as a woman’s disease, and the Surrealists championed feminine hysteria as an incarnation of desirable feminine sexuality, but also because it underscores the Nineteenth century psychiatric perception of the Jewish man as effeminate and prone to Hysteria.
The darkened complexion along with the skullcap and the side-locks surprisingly connote a religious Jew of North African descent rather than a woman. Thus, this odd work shares some peculiarities with seminal attempts by early Zionist artists to forge authentic, indigenous “Hebraic” art. Typical of this early search and ensued with the first Hebrew art academy, Bezalel, were renditions of biblical characters and themes clad in orientalist garbs (numerous period photographs attest the pleasure early Zionist pioneers took in having their picture taken in Arab costumes; a fashion statement both exotic and local, real and fantasized). In this sense, the painting is intently outmoded, since in the late 1930’s local artists were heading in a different, less simplistic, direction in their search for authentic local art.
And yet a second glance at Frank’s ‘black woman’ reveals her to be even less ‘authentic’ and indigenous, and here again, clothes are key: the dress is clearly modeled after those favored by Elizabeth Vigée-Lebrun, the gifted court painter of Marie Antoinette (to whom Frank pays the rather dubious homage in her novel, of naming a vagina after her). Thus the ‘Hebrew’ fantasy of a black woman who is also a young Yemenite man turns out to be a hybrid rooted in pre-revolutionary feminine vision of the natural and empowered woman. And perhaps this portrait, revealed as a multitude of superimposed masks, is, in the end, the most realistic of Frank’s self-portraits, given that she herself is a fictive persona.
A number of variations on the central image of these paintings appear in The Stained Portfolio: a self-portrait in profile, whose symmetric doubling creates a pseudo-abstract blot, with a star of David at the central negative space. The paint drips, ubiquitous in Frank’s late period, first appear here.
In the Surrealist context, dripping was one of the techniques employed by Max Ernst, but in modern art, drips are the staple of Jackson Pollock. There is, however, hardly anything in common between Pollock’s drips and Frank’s. For Pollock, the drips are, on one hand, a trace of a vigorous, heroic bodily action of making the painting, and on the other, a radical means, in contemporary terms, of articulating abstraction. Frank’s dripping gesture seems almost devoid of energy (Pollock splatters paint around in a forward movement, echoing masculine ejaculation and urination; frank drips downwards, with no apparent body movement. The gesture remains that of the wrist, and is restrained by the small scale of the canvases). The paintings are – indeed – as close as Frank gets towards abstraction, but whether one considers the bold brushstrokes of An Expressive Jewish Hole or the geometric skein of The Celestial Coiffure, the abstract ground always remains subjugated to the central figure. Nonetheless these paintings attest to a new direction of painterly experimentation that Frank lacked the time to explore.
Of Frank’s entire oeuvre, it is the late work, circumstances notwithstanding, which is relatively tranquil, balanced and airy. It appears that the confrontational imagery has been pushed aside, but a second glance reveals that the Frankist expression has remained erotic and morbid, for in all three paintings the clouds’ symmetric formation is legible as a big, rather grotesque visage. The nose-cloud is shaped as a Star of David, while the mouth’s grin doubles as an ejaculation sprouting from the erect organs of two hunchbacked figures bracketing the face whose profiles recall witches in fairy-tales illustration, or of the Jew in anti-Semitic caricatures. The skeletal quality of these bodies, and the pair of large circles protruding from their skulls – part coiffure part animal ears – transform them into entities aloof and hallucinatory, yet also fragile.
The color scheme of these paintings is odd: in one, pink and deep brown drips stain skies in realistic colors; the two other works have the skies themselves in silver brown, and the drips, again, in pink and dark brown. The titles leave little doubt that the colors were not chosen on purely aesthetic grounds. The drips pollute the heaven with bodily secretions and – concurrently – the pink body itself liquefies and ‘drips’ unto the skies (or, if you will, heaven itself becomes an ethereal incarnation of manure). The late Frankist preoccupation with the skies might be read as a sign of the artist’s awareness of nearing doom, her willful detachment from the mundane, earth-bound being. But the abject, somatic character of her sky defies any attempt to draw from these works an experience of spiritual exaltation or a true renunciation of corporeality.
Project realised for Liaux in December 2016
Graphic design Systems Studio
Web development Alberto Arlandi