In Oscar Domínguez's painting Machine à coudre électro-sexuelle, a complicated operation is under way: a cycle of transformation appears to be taking place, as materials fuse and flow, each becoming another. The animal is represented by the woman on the slab, into or onto whose back some blood-like liquid is being poured, which at the same time doubles as the thread that is implied by the title. Her feet are absorbed by a plant which itself is linked to the mineral background against which is the device that is feeding the red twine. And so the composition comes full circle, taking in the various elements on the way.
Machine à coudre électro-sexuelle is one of Domínguez's masterpieces, dating from 1934-35, at the watershed point just after the exciting beginning of his association with André Breton and the Parisian Surrealists. This picture is filled with the unique atmosphere of sexuality and brutality that characterise the greatest of Domínguez' paintings, reflecting on his own troubled life and character while chiming perfectly with the weird and warped world of the Surrealists. The importance of Machine à coudre électro-sexuelle is reflected in its extensive exhibition history, which begins just after it was painted and which has led to its being one of his most recognised works. It is a mark of the importance of this picture that it was initially owned by Eduardo Westerdahl, the main figure in the small Surrealist movement that had grown in Domínguez' native Canary Isles and the publisher of the Gaceta de Arte which was one of the central focal points for the avant garde in the Canary Isles and beyond. Only shortly after Machine à coudre électro-sexuelle was painted, Westerdahl's exhibition of Surrealism would be organised with the contribution and the accompanying visit of Breton himself.
The relationship between Machine à coudre électro-sexuelle and the Parisian Surrealists is clear from the theme itself, for this picture appears to be Domínguez' own twisted re-imagining of the celebrated phrase, 'Beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table.' These words, taken from the Chants de Maldoror, the poems by the nineteenth-century writer Isidore Ducasse, the so-called Comte de Lautréamont, were considered a vital precursor of the Surrealist spirit. In Machine à coudre électro-sexuelle, the dissection appears to be under way. There is a strange abusive surgery being undertaken, the thread of the sewing machine replaced with blood which is being funnelled onto the woman's back. The plant itself may even echo de Lautréamont's umbrella. Domínguez has taken one of the central mantras of Breton's Surreal universe and has pushed it, through a combination of painterly skill and semi-automatism, in order to create an absorbing and haunting vision that cuts to the quick of the movement's spirit.
Domínguez had only come into contact with the Surrealists in Paris in 1934, but he had been living there some of the time and already making his own investigations in that area following his initial meeting with Westerdahl in 1928. Domínguez's background, including the unique landscape, the moon-like topography and alien-seeming plants of the Canaries, came to inform many of his pictures, as is evident in the strange green that appears to be consuming the partially visible body of the woman; when, just after this picture was painted, Domínguez helped to organise a visit to the Canary Isles for several members of the Surrealist group, including Breton, to allow them to participate in the exhibition being largely arranged by Westerdahl, they were astonished to find the strange almost lunar volcanic landscape and the alien-seeming Dragon Trees. The Surrealist landscape had somehow bled into reality. In Machine à coudre électro-sexuelle, the Dragon Tree is devouring the human figure, more Dragon than Tree.
When Domínguez joined the Surrealists in Paris, he reinvigorated the movement, not least with some of his new ideas. Domínguez was one of the great pioneers of the objet surréaliste. He was the inventor of the velvet-padded wheelbarrow, itself a sensual combination of utility and luxury. He also contributed one of the most famous mannequins to the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme in Paris in 1938, which decorated the corridor peopled by other such transformed figures. This interest in the objet surréaliste is reflected in the enigmatic arcade-game-like device that is shown in Machine à coudre électro-sexuelle, with its grapple claw and bizarre arrangement of objects, including the incongruous magnet hanging from a plant on the top. Teetering on the brink of our understanding and yet remaining determinedly elusive, this slanted approximation of an object form our own universe heightens the sense of the uncanny that is at work in the picture.
Domínguez was also the inventor of the decalcomania technique that would result in some of Max Ernst's greatest paintings and which was so wholeheartedly embraced by André Breton, who wrote about it with great enthusiasm. This was a technique that involved the application of paint, often gouache, to glass. This was then pressed to create a print-like pattern that had a sepulchral atmosphere and which could then be adjusted by the artist according to his or her own interpretation of the various billowing forms that appeared there. Originally developed in 1934, around the time that Machine à coudre électro-sexuelle was painted, that technique reveals the combination of chance and interpretation that underpinned many of Domínguez's paintings. In Machine à coudre électro-sexuelle and many of its sister-pictures, there is a strong sense of sweeping landscape elements which appear to have possibly been the result of some almost random painting techniques. It is as though Domínguez has first created the 'broad brushstrokes' of his motif and has then added the finer details, gradually allowing a mysterious, oneiric image to emerge.
This may explain the incredible, idiosyncratic display of contrasting textures that often distinguishes his paintings. That quality is visible in works such as Papillons perdus dans la montagne of 1934, now in the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, or L'épingle de sûreté in the Nationalgalerie, Berlin. In the latter in particular, whisps of landscape appear to have emerged as though by hazard from Domínguez's application of paint to the surface, and yet they have been almost sculpted to create a pictorial narrative. This manner of using what appears to be chance formations of paint as a springboard for entry into a dream-like world of blending, melding imagery is clearly apparent in Machine à coudre électro-sexuelle in the difference between the rock-like shelf formation in the background, as well as the whirlpool-like and sweeping areas of brushwork that have created the woman's body and the plant, and the finer details of the arcade-game-like device in the background, to which the artist has paid incredible attention, filling it with jewel-like detail. Similarly, the almost abstract curves of the sheet covering the woman's head appear to have transformed enough to suggest a monstrous, dolphin-like creature with eyes and protruding tongue, adding to the sense that this really is a vision of an incredible chimera.