Sunday, September 5, 2010

Book Review: Exquisite Corpse (2006)

Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder by Mark Nelson & Sarah Hudson Bayliss

It's not a new book, but it's new to me. I found this at Big Lots for 50 cents! Such a steal. I've always been fascinated with unsolved murders, and the Black Dahlia case is one of the most interesting. As a bit of a background, Elizabeth Short (nicknamed "The Black Dahlia" because of her dark hair and clothing), a 23 year old aspiring actress, was found bisected in a vacant lot in Los Angeles, CA on January 15, 1947. Her body had been cleaned and drained of blood, there were shapes cut into different parts of her body, and her left breast was cut off. There were many suspects, but the case remains unsolved to this day.

"Exquisite Corpse" focuses on one suspect, George Hodel, and his connections to the world of Surrealist art, showing fascinating similarities between many artworks/photographs of leading Surrealists and the Black Dahlia crime scene. The theory presented in the book is that the killing was inspired by Surrealism and went on to inspire many Surrealist works created after Short's murder. Using photographic comparisons between crime scene photos and photos/artworks by leading Surrealists Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dali, Andre Breton, and others, the authors provide a convincing argument for the reasoning behind Elizabeth Short's brutal murder. Dr. Hodel had a close relationship with Man Ray, and through him many other artists, whose work may have been referenced through the placement/dismemberment of the body and different markings made on it.

The title of the book comes from the technique created by Surrealists in which the artists write or draw on a paper, fold it to hide what they put down, and then pass it to the next person for further contribution. The name itself is from the first time the game was played, using words instead of drawings: "Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau (the exquisite corpse will drink the new wine)." The authors suggest maybe a real-life game was played with Elizabeth Short's body, and also, the crime scene photos resemble more than one "exquisite corpse" drawing.

This was definitely the most interesting book I've read in a long time. It weaves true-crime with art history in such a way that both subjects are not overwhelming, and the authors chose to use the least-gory of the crime scene photos, which was nice because I've seen some bad ones of this case. Whether you are interested in the murder, or art, or are just looking for a fairly quick, interesting read, I highly recommend this book!

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