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Georges Hugnet The seventh face of the die

Georges Hugnet was an artist, poet, historian and publisher associated with French Surrealism. Born in 1906, he was too young to be part of the Dada movement, but his work is very much indebted to Dada and he met many of the central figures of the Parisian avant-garde, including Marcel Duchamp, Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, Man Ray and Tristan Tzara. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Hugnet collaborated with writers and artists including Gertrude Stein and Jean Cocteau on various publications, but it was the 1936 book of his own poetry and collages, La septième face du dé (The seventh face of the die), that became his best-known work.

The cover of La septième face du dé was designed by Duchamp and features a photograph of his readymade Why not sneeze Rrose Sélavy?, 1921, above the title. In the book Hugnet describes something impossible: an additional side or dimension to the six-sided die. This typically Surrealist conundrum sets the tone for the following twenty chapters, each of which features one of Hugnet’s poems and an accompanying collage. This type of collage, which combines text with images cut from newspapers and magazines, creates new meanings through unexpected juxtapositions. Like many Dadaists and Surrealists, Hugnet exploited this technique for its potential to disrupt and subvert social conventions and norms. Many of the collages are explicitly sexual: photographs of women’s bodies are cut up into fragments, becoming fetishised through the repetition, layering and juxtaposition of body parts and objects. Text fragments are positioned within and around the pictures, and the final composition is reproduced as a collotype in the book. The poems on the adjacent page are also ‘collaged’, combining words into nonsensical phrases, such as ‘perfumed eyes’ and ‘his insolence was the snow of his blood’.

The book was published in an edition of 250, and this copy newly acquired for the National Gallery of Victoria features an original gouache by the artist on the frontispiece. Hugnet also inscribed this page with a dedication to his friend André Beaudin, who ‘understands the language of the universe and the silences of nature with all his heart ’. A long with the book, the NGV has also bought the collage La seule nuit (The only night), 1935, which depicts a child with an octopus entangled in her clothing, positioned alongside two obscured figures that appear to be unconscious or dead, and are preyed upon by two oversized animals. La seule nuit is one of several collages made in preparation for La septième face du dé, which were not included in the final publication. Both items were purchased from the artist’s widow Myrtille Hugnet, whom Hugnet married in 1950, with funds generously donated by Cheryl Thomas.

Dr Petra Kayser, Curator, Prints and Drawings, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2015)