Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Day Boxing's Jack Johnson Put Dada Surrealism on Dreamstreet

surreal by Stephen J. Gertz

Note Johnson in tuxedo.

On April 23, 1916, Jack Johnson, the former Heavyweight boxing champion of the world in exile in Europe after fleeing conviction for violating the White-Slave Traffic Act (aka the Mann Act), went mano a mano with modern art.

His nominal opponent was Arthur Cravan née Fabian Lloyd, an Englishman born and educated in Switzerland, who claimed to be the nephew of Oscar Wilde, a professional boxer, singer, art critic, poet - you name it. Living in Paris, he was a performance artist before the genre existed, the subject and theme of his art being himself. Creating a public spectacle was the reason he got out of bed each morning, and once on his feet was a walking happening.

From 1911-1915 Cravan published Maintenant, a literary review that lasted for only five issues but had enormous influence upon the young artists and intellectuals who had come together in Paris and were on the cusp of changing the world.

Maintenant no. 3, October-November 1915.

Cravan brazenly caused sensation wherever he went, whatever he did. In an article in Maintenant about the arts salon of 1912 he explicitly and graphically asserted that a portrait of artist Marie Laurencin suggested to him that she needed a good screwing, an opinion that her lover, poet and literateur Guillaume Apollonaire, took issue with. He challenged Cravan to a duel.

Absurdity, the ridiculous, the eccentric, the striking, the outrageous, and the shocking  were Cravan's bread and butter. His identity was whatever he decided it would be; long before Madonna made self-invention and re-invention standard operating procedure, Cravan practiced it with a vengeance. It is no wonder, then, that Cravan became the darling of Dadaists Marcel Duchamps, Andre Breton, and Francis Picabia.

In 1916, he was desperate to get to the United States (dodging conscription into the French army was nearly a full-time occupation), had moved to Barcelona and fallen in with its colony of French avant-garde artists in exile, and needed money. Whose notion it was to stage a match with Jack Johnson remains unclear but Cravan's fingerprints are all over the patently wacko and divinely nonsensical idea.

Arthur Cravan by Jean-Paul-Louis L'Espoir.

And so, "In early 1916, a frenzied group of fight promoters gathered in Barcelona to organize what promised to be a 'sensational encounter' between former world heavyweight champion Jack Johnson (the famous black fighter who was living in Europe, a fugitive from his native land because of charges of having violated the Mann Act) and Arthur Cravan, an outspoken, notoriously eccentric Englishman, who claimed not only to be a professional fighter, but also the nephew of Oscar Wilde. Posters were hung throughout the city to publicize the event. In the controversial match, which took place at the Plaza de Toros Monumental on Sunday afternoon, April 23, we can safely surmise that Cravan fought true to form, that is, leading more with his mouth than with his fists. After six rounds of what must have amounted to little more than a skillful demonstration of shadow boxing -  staged more for the benefit of a rolling camera than the disappointed audience - Johnson finally dropped Cravan with an upper-right/left-cross combination. Knockout or not, the audience smelled farce, and because of the guaranteed fifty-thousand-peseta purse, the next day the daily press proclaimed the fight 'The Great Swindle.'

"For Johnson, it was just one more relatively uneventful 'ring contest,' as he called it, arranged for the benefit of his pocketbook. For Cravan, it was the main event in his tragically short life; two and one-half years later, at the age of thirty-one, he would disappear off the coast of Mexico, leaving behind only scant traces of a fascinating and adventurous life, one that stretched from the outback of Australia to the inner circle of vanguard artists and poets on both sides of the Atlantic. Far more significant than the footnote he left in pugilistic histories was the undying legacy of his outrageous behavior, which played a unique role within the development of an artistic and literary avant-garde. Arthur Cravan was, as Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia [Francis Picabia's wife] later asserted, 'a man who personified within himself, and without premeditation, all the elements of surprise to be wished for by a demonstration that was not yet called 'Dada.'
   
"Another release announced that Cravan temporarily abandoned his post as Professor of Real Club Marítimo boxing in preparation for the big fight. He trained publicly at the Bricall Gymnasium with boxers Hoche, Pomés and Jacks. To the press, he is a 'great athlete of the white race.' In order to continue to warm the spirits, it was announced that a great night of boxing with five bouts will be held April 12: Arthur Craven and Jack Johnson will be the arbiters of the last two fights" (Naumann, Francis. New York Dada 1915-23, p.162).

Jack Johnson, 1915.

Reality check: Though he claimed to be a light-heavyweight champion (of something, somewhere) Cravan, according to Boxrec, had absolutely no competitive experience prior to the fight. Indeed, his official record notes  that he fought only three bouts: With Johnson (knocked out); against Frank Hoche (a draw, June 26, 1916); and against Jim Smith ("The Black Diamond" with only this fight to his credit) in Mexico City, September 15, 1918 (knocked out). With a record of no wins, two losses via knock-out, and a draw his only threat as a boxer was to his own safety.

In January 1917, Cravan departed for New York. His shipmate was Leon Trotsky. Upon arrival in the city he was welcomed by Duchamps (who had preceded him), and the collector, critic, and poet Walter Arensberg.

Hollywood has yet to produce a biopic about the fascinating character who was Arthur Cravan; I smell  a ripe indie flick. Johnny Depp on steroids?

The poster for the pre-fight Great Evening of Boxing with Johnson and Cravan as referees (above) with its appeal to collectors of boxing material, Black-Americana, surrealist art and literature alike, is exceptionally scarce and highly desirable. The event it documents is one of the most famous and electrifying episodes in Dada history. Surrealism didn't get much more surreal than these two giant, flamboyant characters - one a phenomenal athlete and the proudest black man on Earth, the other a human artwork in constant progress - going at each other,  two of the most outrageous and out-sized personalities of their time in slam-bang-boing surreal battle-royal theater of the absurd that rocks, Do Wah Dada-Dada Dum Dada-Do.

A fine copy of the poster has just come into the marketplace after a long dry spell. The odds of seeing another copy in similar condition are not much better than Cravan's against Johnson, which is to say, fat chance.



Above, the only known footage of Arthur Cravan "boxing," in Spain 1916, here playing Ring-Around-the-Rosie with an anonymous Mighty Mouse, to all appearances the only living creature Cravan had a chance against. This is, quite possibly (why else would it have been filmed?), Cravan "training" for the fight with Johnson, a demonstration of surreal Dada absurdity exceeded only by the fight itself.
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[JOHNSON, Jack. CRAVAN, Arthur]. Poster advertising boxing matches at Iris-Park, Barcelona, on 12 April 1916, promoting the forthcoming match between Arthur Cravan and Jack Johnson. Barcelona: (Societat Editorial Manresana), 1916.

Printed in red and black on wove stock. 3 halftone photographic illus., including a central half-length portrait of Jack Johnson. 431 x 209 mm. (c. 17 x 1/4 inches).

Provenance: Eduardo Arroyo, the Spanish artist, born 1937, whose 1991 portrait drawings of Cravan after the Jack Johnson match were published in the Strasbourg Arthur Cravan catalogue.
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Poster image courtesy of Ars Libri Ltd, currently offering this prize, with our thanks. Image of Maintenant courtesy of University of Iowa Digital Library. Lespoir portrait of Cravan courtesy Wikicommons.
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