by Britten Chroman, Cohort ’20
The final destination of our summer residency included an incredible day at the 2022 Venice Biennale, titled “The Milk of Dreams.” One of the rooms in the main pavilion at the Giardini was devoted to women artists who were instrumental in the birth of the Surrealist movement. The room created a space for and shined a rapturous light on female creativity— particularly works of art overlooked or lost as fragments amidst the prominent canon of male Surrealist artists. La fleur des amants (Figure 1), by Nadja, is precisely one of these fragments, an ephemeral drawing that radiates anew in the context of this show.
Readers of André Breton might be familiar with La fleur des amants, “The Lover’s Flower,” as it appears in his book Nadja, which chronicles his encounters with the artist. In the text, Breton recalls the conception of the drawing: “Nadja has invented a marvelous flower for me: ‘The Lovers’ Flower.’ It is during a lunch in the country that this flower appeared to her and that I saw her trying—quite clumsily—to reproduce it” (Breton 116). In his text, Nadja herself is silent, the reader only gets Breton’s perspective. What is astonishing about seeing this piece outside of Nadja and in the context of other Surrealist women artists is that the work, essentially set free from Breton’s narrative, begins to speak, lyrically, for itself.
In this room painted gold with a plush ochre carpet that curves upwards as it meets the walls (eliminating hard linear edges) Nadja’s marks appear more fantastically whimsical and unabashedly feminine. In the center of the page, she sketches a flower whose petals are two hearts and four wide-awake eyes. The flower’s stem ends in the tip of an arrow that points downwards into a snake’s parted mouth. In the upper right corner of the drawing, Nadja writes, in a very curly script, “l’enchantement de Nadja.” The drawing belongs to a set of mementos Nadja sent Breton before she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in 1927. “The Lover’s Flower” is about the blossoming of love and pleasure, but it is also about madness; madness linked to enchantment; to be in love is a kind of mad/magic state that often involves seeing in a new light.
It is fascinating to compare La fleur des amants with an illustration by the ancient Arab scholar, Abū’ Alī al-Hasan ibn al Haytham, the founder of modern optics (showcased in a collateral exhibition at the Prada Foundation) (Figure 2). There is a subconscious resonance between Ibn al Haytham’s almost floral ink drawing of optic nerves and Nadja’s oneiric sketch. The text accompanying Ibn al Haytham’s diagram is a poem that ties seeing to madness, “They say madmen are the ones who can truly see…If this is madness, then let me dwell here until the world loses its senses. Then, perhaps, they too shall see” (Uzodinma Iweala, 16). The serpent symbolizes poison and deception but also speaks to opening the eyes to knowledge. Does enchantment entail losing one’s senses in order to see? Is one permutation of madness love as an overwhelming sensation of feeling combined with a too-muchness of seeing? To see La fleur des amants is to hear Nadja whisper that love mixed with madness delivers a fantastical experience of the too-muchness of being.
Breton, André. Nadja. Translated by Richard Howard. Grove Press, Inc. 1960.
Uzodinma Iweala. Booklet with the text accompanying the exhibit, Human Brains: It Begins With An Idea, Prada Foundation, 2022.