Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes was born in 1884 at Montpellier, France and showed an early interest in both classical music and art, turning his attention solely to painting early in his life. He studied at the Jullian Academy, then attended the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. His paintings were influenced by Impressionism, then the Nabis group. However, in 1913 at the age of 29 years old he abruptly abandoned painting entirely. After the cataclysm of World War I he became a pioneering figure in the Dada movement, joining European literary figures and artists who reacted to the horrors of WW I by rejecting rational thought and logic, which they believed inadvertently resulted in deceiving the masses into starting and supporting wars. The Dadaists prized chaos, irrational thought, and were as much a political movement as an artistic movement. The Dada movement was overtly angry and sarcastic, as much anti-bourgeois society as it was anti-war. This is encapsulated in Ribemont-Dessaignes’ poem, “A Dadaist Manifesto” (1920):
TO THE PUBLIC
Before going down among you to pull out your dealing teeth, your running ears, your tongues full
Before breaking your putrid bones,
Before opening your cholera-infested belly and taking out for use as fertilizer your too fatted liver,
your ignoble spleen and your diabetic kidneys,
Before tearing out your ugly sexual organ, incontinent and slimy,
Before extinguishing your appetite for beauty, ecstasy, sugar, philosophy, mathematical and poetic
metaphysical pepper and cucumbers,
Before disinfecting you with vitriol, cleansing you and shellacking you with passion,
Before all that,
We shall take a big, antiseptic bath,
And we warn you
We are murderers.
With the decline of Dada, Ribemont-Dessaignes joined the Surrealist movement founded by Andre Breton, focusing on his writing and no longer painting. He continued writing from 1928 to 1945, only returning to drawing and painting after World war II.
Max Ernst (1891 – 1976) was a German-born painter and sculptor who was also a pioneer in both the Dada and Surrealist movements. He began his academic career enrolling at the University of Bonn in 1909 studying a wide variety of disciplines in addition to art history — philosophy, literature, psychology and psychiatry — completing his undergraduate work in 1914. He did not, however, receive formal art training and his techniques and ideas were self-taught. In his early career as an artist he was deeply influenced by the works of Pablo Picasso and the Post-Impressionists at the Sonderbund exhibition of 1912 in Cologne. In 1919 he was part of a group that founded the German Dada movement in Cologne and first began using the technique of collage to produce fantastical images. In 1922 Ernst entered France illegally, eventually establishing his own studio in 1925, developing the frontage (pencil rubbings of objects as a source of images) and grattage (scraping of paint across a canvas over objects placed below the canvas) techniques that would become essential to his art. Ernst also became a founding member of the Surrealist movement in France after 1924 where he probably first encountered and began a lifelong friendship with Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes.
‘La Ballade du Soldat’ is a collaboration between two pioneers and founders of the Dada and Surrealist movements, a collaboration between two old friends undoubtedly shaped by their experience in the two World Wars. The book is a true livres d’artiste work and both the number of original color lithographs (34) and their quality indicate that this was an important project for Ernst, undoubtedly a reflection of his unpleasant experiences in both of the Great World Wars, first as a young combatant in WW I and later as a mature artist living in France during WW II. Ernst was drafted in WW I and served on both Western and Eastern fronts leaving a lasting impact that influenced and informed his surrealistic works with both absurdity and horror. In his autobiography he wrote: “On the first of August 1914 (when he was first drafted into the army) Max Ernst died. He was resurrected on the eleventh of November 1918 ( his discharge and demobilization).”
While living in France during WW II he was arrested at the outbreak of World War II in September 1939 and sent to an internment camp as an “undesirable foreigner”, then released several weeks later after several friends interceded. His freedom was short-lived, however, because after Germany quickly defeated France and began its occupation he was once more deemed “undesirable” by the Nazi regime, this time based on political and philosophical considerations, and arrested again by the Gestapo. Eventually, he was able to escape and flee to the United States in 1941 with the help of Peggy Guggenheim, scion of a wealthy New York family and a noted patron of avant garde art and artists.
Ribemont-Dessaignes’ long poem is certainly Dadaist in spirit, filled with anger and sarcasm. The officers are seen as inconsequential men in civilian life who now assume an inflated and belligerent sense of self-importance as officers in the army:
The voice of Private Zero calls:
Sergeant, who are you, Sergeant, huh?
Sergeant, who are you, huh?
Okay, says the Sergeant, who am I them?
I am Sergeant Ulysses S. Neverquit Hardbit Chickenshit Bull.
Oh what fine names, what fine Christian names!
In other words, I’m a bastard
A bum and
A son of a bitch!
MY Mom was a Mother Superior
In a convent of love and delusion
In the Order of Ovary St. Mary
Hard by the Loop in Chicago
Lived her mother Our Lady A-Gogo,
A strapping Diana, a storm in her breast,
Possessed by saints then re-possessed.
And from this great parade of whores
With loud fallopian trumpeting
This strumpet’s child
This kid was born
Yours truly, Bull.
Ribemont-Dessaignes is equally unsparing in his description of the common soldier and does not succumb to characterizing them as unwitting, powerless pawns. Rather, they are all-too-willing participants in war who justify their role with similar arrogance. When a soldier enters a family’s home uninvited one evening to force himself upon them and have dinner:
He turned into the nearest house
Carefree, fancy free.
He found the family gathered there
And he said: Hi, folks! Hero is here
Zero is here.
He kissed the daughter of the house,
He took a chair to have his share
Of pork and beans and beer……
But they were good folk after all
So he said again: I’ve come to call, Not to foster revolution
But defend your institution,
A draftee filled with resolution.
Hooray, God bless the Constitution !
And by the way I’ll fight as well
To save your souls from going to hell !
He said all this to make them smile,
To give them pleasure for a while,
Because he was a soldier boy
Trained in the manual of joy,
Bearing murder in his hand
For the happiness of man.
To Ribemont-Dessaignes, the soldier initially sees war as a grand adventure and enters as a willing participant:
The fighting man is free as air
When he’s killing for the flag
He laughs, he cries, without despair
He’s proud to sacrifice his life
What the hell, c’est la guerre!
Play the war game, take the dare
Draw your cards and bet your ass
Plastic Soldier, do your share
You’ll be someone, mister no-one
What the hell, c’est la guerre !
All too late, after eagerly participating in the carnage, the soldier slowly understands he is simply an accomplice to murder and not a defender of morality or God:
But what is it to kill after all
What is it to a frightened man once he’s begun
What is death and fury
And the furious power that blazes and roars…..
But they’re uneasy and who brings bad luck on you
If not yourself?
So look who’s left
The criminal is you.
In the end, war and destruction do not have a winner for the common soldier —- he is always the loser:
Then a butterfly flits from flower to flower
See, see it says, just see what they’ve done to the poor human race….
There’s no longer a difference between them, the killer’s as dead as his prey.
Max Ernst’s illustrations are cooler in tone yet they have a disquieting effect. His surrealist images have a detachment which echoes the dehumanizing effect of war described and his images are carefully anchored to the text of the long poem.
La Ballade du Soldat was originally printed and published by Pierre Chave / Kenneth Nahan (Paris) in 1972. Both French and German language editions were published, 199 copies of each. Although the English translation was prepared at that time (1972) by Nicolette Bernard, Peter Leslie and George Kimball, it was not actually printed until 1989, also at Atelier Chave, in an edition of 199 copies. The translation is by Nicolette Bernard, Peter Leslie and George Kimball.
Pictures of the Edition
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