Isidro Hernández Gutiérrez, curator of the Óscar Domínguez Collection, Tenerife, and the Comisión Consultiva de Expertos y en Defensa de la Obra de Óscar Domínguez (CEDOOC), confirmed the authenticity of this work.
Unseen in public for over eighty years, Oscar Domínguez’s absorbing and enigmatic painting Violette Nozières (Elle rêve) was purchased directly from the artist shortly after its creation and has remained in the same family collection ever since. Among the artist’s early surrealist masterpieces, the composition is imbued with the raw sexuality and violence so characteristic of Domínguez’s oeuvre, combining elements of semi-automatism with precisely rendered details and figures to create a powerfully fantastical, dream-like image. At the heart of the composition, a majestic lion appears in a cloud of ethereal, fluid strokes of paint, boldly staring down the shadowy faceless figure of a soldier, who raises his arm as if to shoot at the defenceless young woman that lies in the beast’s stomach. Filled with a seemingly endless array of mysterious vignettes and symbols, connected through oblique visual hints, Violette Nozières (Elle rêve) is a surrealist tour-de-force that captures the potency of Domínguez’s unique creative vision.
There is a continual sense of metamorphosis within the composition, as objects change and shift before our very eyes - the barrel of the soldier’s gun appears to travel through the eye of the lion, before turning into the handle of a guitar, which simultaneously becomes one of the vertebrae in the animal’s back. Above, the lion’s mane dissolves into a desert-like landscape, through which angelic beings appear to drift, half submerged in the rippling, golden waves of pigment as they flow across the canvas. Considered from a different angle, the undulating strands of hair may in fact represent an ocean, the ethereal winged creatures swimming across its sun-drenched surface rather than sinking beneath layers of sand, while the bank on which the lion stands becomes a seafloor, the plant-life and objects buffeted by the underwater currents. Echoing the submarine dreamscapes of Yves Tanguy’s paintings from the late 1920s, this complex illusionistic environment slips in and out of our mind’s eye, constantly shifting, never fully revealing its hidden mysteries to us.
While for the most part its symbolism remains determinedly elusive, Violette Nozières (Elle rêve) draws inspiration from the notorious scandal of the same name, which had gripped France throughout 1933 and 1934. The Nozière affaire had erupted one late summers day, when young Violette, barely eighteen years old, had poisoned both her parents with a concoction of sleeping pills that killed her father, and left her mother severely ill. After her parents had collapsed, Violette famously went on a shopping spree, and then spent the evening dancing, before returning home and attempting to disguise the crime as an apparent double suicide. Though the newspapers first reported the event as a ‘mystery,’ Violette’s elaborate web of lies quickly unravelled, and she was arrested. There was a voracious appetite for the story amongst the general public, fed by the extensive coverage of the scandal and the ensuing trial in the French press. Violette’s name and face were emblazoned across every front page, the various twists and turns of the case reported with a feverish urgency, their details picked over and examined obsessively by journalists and the public alike. The majority of reports condemned her motives, accused her of flagrant promiscuity, and admonished her extravagant lifestyle, portraying Violette as a dangerous, cold-hearted killer, unremorseful for her actions, who callously sullied the names of her victims with her claims that her father had abused her for years. As the melodrama escalated, the scandal became a topic of debate and gossip in French society, as revelations and rumours made it increasingly difficult to assign blame solely to the young Violette.
Living in Paris at the height of the scandal, Domínguez would have been intensely familiar with Violette Nozière and the endless reports of her crime. There was a distinctive allure to the young woman, with her fashionable dress sense, lithe body and striking good looks. In the dramatic photos from the courtroom, Violette appears every inch the stylish femme fatale, her attire often including a black, fur-lined coat and an elegantly arranged beret, the hat tipped gently to the side to reveal her carefully coiffed hairstyle. The effect was at once alluring and demure, carefully curated to appeal to the judge, the press and the general public alike. In the present composition, Domínguez focuses squarely on the sexual appeal of Nozière, her nude body placed on display, as it were, the sinuous curves of her form and the porcelain colour of her smooth skin celebrating her youth and undeniable beauty. Such details as her precisely painted fingernails and the bold dash of crimson lipstick across her mouth, along with her distinctive hairstyle, emphasise the fact that she is a thoroughly modern woman, though perhaps one of ambiguous morals. In choosing Violette as his subject, Domínguez was not only tapping into the cultural zeitgeist of the times, but also aligning himself with the interests and obsessions of the group of Surrealists which he now found himself at the centre of.
Though the artist had been living in Paris for several years and working in a Surrealist vein since 1929, it was not until 1934 that Domínguez became personally acquainted with André Breton and the circle of artists, poets and writers that surrounded him. Attracted to the inventiveness of Domínguez’s imagery, the Surrealists quickly embraced the young Spaniard, incorporating several of his works in their earliest exhibitions abroad. He rapidly became a key player in the movement, one of an important new generation of artists that Breton believed would revitalise Surrealism. Nicknamed ‘le Dragonnier des Canaries’ by his new acquaintances, Domínguez cut a powerful figure within the group, not least following his development of the automatic painting technique known as decalcomania. Domínguez in turn, threw himself into the movement, engaging enthusiastically in their discussions and debates, even going so far as to organise an exhibition of Surrealist pictures in his native land of Tenerife. Several of the paintings he produced during this period contain clear echoes of key surrealist concepts and ideas, most notably Machine à coudre électro-sexuelle, which appears to be a twisted re-imagining of the celebrated phrase, ‘Beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table,’ which had become something of a mantra for the movement. Similarly, the Nozières affaire had provoked strong reactions within the group, inspiring one of their most controversial collective artworks.
Breton had been deeply affected by the scandal, and became convinced of Monsieur Nozière’s guilt. Attracted to the dark, salacious details of the case, he convinced fifteen of his fellow Surrealists – writers, poets, and artists – to join him in a collective tribute to Violette. Published in December 1933, in the quiet months between the accused’s arrest and the commencement of her trial, Violette Nozières featured eight poems and eight illustrations by such luminaries as Paul Eluard, Benjamin Péret, Max Ernst, René Magritte, Salvador Dalí and Yves Tanguy, as well as a cover illustration by Man Ray. For Breton, Violette was fundamentally a victim of the prevailing social order which sought to oppress women, and thus deserving of praise for her willingness to speak out and challenge the status quo. In his opening poem, he boldly praises Violette’s wish for a life different to those of her parents: ‘All the curtains of the world drawn across your eyes/ Try as they may/ Breathlessly before their mirror/ To draw the arc of forebears and descendants/ You look like nobody dead or alive/ Mythological to the tips of your fingernails’ (Breton, quoted in S. Maza, Violette Nozière: A Story of Murder in 1930s Paris, Berkeley, 2011, p. 215). Others, including Éluard, criticised the shameful culture of silence that was threatening to quash Violette’s accusations against her father, whilst the illustrations vacillated between disquieting realism and enigmatic abstraction. Fearful of the publications reception by the French authorities, Breton proposed that it be published in Belgium, by the Surrealist writer, artist and collector, E. L. T. Mesens, who established the Éditions Nicolas Flamel for the occasion. Despite these precautions, the book was confiscated by French customs upon its arrival, prosecuted and effectively banned, ensuring that the publication remained unknown by all but a handful of people for many years.
In his new role at the centre of the movement, Domínguez must have been acutely aware of his fellow Surrealist’s fascination with the Nozière case, and the drama surrounding Breton’s publication – indeed, he may even have been one of the few people to see a copy of the work. Though it remains unclear when exactly the artist began Violette Nozières (Elle rêve), the symbolism of the painting itself may suggest that the composition was created either during or in the immediate aftermath of the trial. The lion, often a symbol of justice, appears to shelter Violette from the wrath of the authorities, while the array of motifs that float around the scene, from the safety pin to the handkerchief, to the stream of jumbled numbers that mark several of the objects, appear like pieces of evidence, plucked from the newspapers’ detailed reports into the minutiae of the trial. These innocuous elements, seemingly so ordinary and familiar, attain a sinister quality by their very association with the case, transformed into eerie harbingers of the potential violence that lies beneath the surface of everyday life. In choosing such a topical theme, Domínguez clearly aligns himself with his fellow Surrealists, offering his own dream-like musing on the controversial case, whilst also capturing a sense of the fervid appetite with which the country followed the scandal.