Whitehot Magazine

Eaux d’artifice

Still from the Kenneth Anger film Eaux d'artifice (1953) by the author © Kenneth Anger


Eaux d’artifice
Le Théâtre des Expositions
Palais des Beaux-Arts de Paris (salle Melpomène)
13 quai Malaquais, 6th arrondissement
til March 28th 2021 ~ Wed. to Sun. (noon to six) ~ but until March 20th open only by appointment to professionals


It will surprise no one that I have been walking my way through the insufferable viral pandemic in Paris with the blues. Nothing changed that much until stepping left off of quai Malaquais into something I am very fond of: the precisely prancing blue radiance of Eaux d’artifice.

That is the name of a small, jewel-like, exhibition that is part of Le Théâtre des Expositions show at the Palais des Beaux-Arts. Eaux d’artifice is a play on words suggesting feux d’artifice (fireworks), best translated as artificial water works. This Eaux d’artifice pocket exhibit assumes its name ~ and its juicy jouissance ~ from Kenneth Anger’s twinkling 12 minute long, monochromatic 16mm cult film Eaux d’artifice (1953). A digitized/preserved copy is viewable online here (grace of the Library of Congress) ~ but to see its perfect harmony of image and music projected large in a dark room (as here) is to see it best; is to see it, and feel it, as chimeric cosmos.

The lighting and spacing and sound of the Eaux d’artifice installation, created by curators Victoire Mangez, Alexandre Leducq and Juliette Green, is balanced delicately between the lighting needs of film projection, drawing, and associated manuscripts and prints culled from the Beaux-Arts de Paris collection. On entering, immediately a sense of finesse and cool refinement was established ~ a sensibility in short supply in the other sections of Le Théâtre des Expositions that I will skip over here. 


Partial views of the exhibition Eaux d’artifice within Théâtre des expositions at Beaux-Arts de Paris, all photos by Nicolas Brasseur © Kenneth Anger

How susceptible one may be to the pull of Anger’s Aleister Crowley-inspired sex-magic-cosmic libertinage depends on one’s willingness to follow Anger’s visionary lead.

Anger (an inexhaustible subject, in himself) is perhaps best known (if at all) for his film Scorpio Rising (1963) ~ an early rock-era paean to sex, death, occult ritual and motorcycle fetishism. That and his associations with heroin, the Rolling Stones, and Marianne Faithful, whom he travelled with to Egypt to film Lucifer Rising (1972). But in 1950, Anger had moved to Paris at the call of Jean Cocteau, who had admired his film Fireworks (1947) that he saw in 1949 at the Festival du Film Maudit in Biarritz. He wished Anger to make a movie of Le jeune homme et la mort, for which Cocteau wrote the libretto about a young man driven to suicide by his faithless lover. Due to lack of funds, that never happened, but while in Paris Anger made, with the help of the Commedia dell’arte, the remarkably lovely (also blue) Rabbit’s Moon movie in 1950 before going south to film Eaux d’artifice in a 16th-century Italian Renaissance garden of ornamental fountains and pagan classical statuary: the Villa d’Este in Tivoli (outside of Rome). 

But Eaux d’artifice requires no knowledge of Anger’s œuvre in order to make it a joy to watch, as it is evocative of a wet dream. Water sensually spurts, pulses and flows throughout, but the occult action of Eaux d’artifice, besides the interplay of wiggling water, moody moon light, and outlandish stone figuration, is minimal-repetitive; though highly poetic. The viewer imaginatively chases or follows a mysterious masked madame (performed by Carmilla Salvatorelli) clothed in an elaborate white 18th-century dress as she strolls ~ then rushes ~ along various paths tracing a most moist moonlit mile. Everything is bathed in a very cool blue color that sets an evocative preternatural mood. This color was achieved by Anger by shooting black-and-white film stock through red filters.

The sauntering masked madame also wears a tall white plumed hat that lends her a dream-like phantasmagoric quality of ambivalent softness. As she begins hustling past the sodden grottoes, and along the dripping balustrades, she reminded me of White Rabbit going down the rabbit hole in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Certainly some sort of mythical magic seems afoot here, as at one brief moment, gesturing with her fan, a flash of green is reflected ~ as if to rouse water spirits. As the tempo mounts, the gracefully animated spray takes on aspects of bacchanalian ejaculation and our damp madame merges with the moisture just as we begin questioning her materiality. As William Butler Yeats wrote in his poem Among School Children: How can we tell the dancer from the dance? For me, this merging of madame with slippery liquescence suggests a personification of transcendent erotic ecstasy. Certainly behind this wet night lay all the complicities of sex.

 Stills from the Kenneth Anger film Eaux d'artifice (1953) by the author © Kenneth Anger

Hung next to the projection in the exhibition is a super-refined etching: Villa d’Este Gardens (ca.  1761) by Giovanni Battista Piranesi. It supports Anger’s crafty casting of Carmilla Salvatorelli (who was a dwarf he met through Federico Fellini) as her size serves to exaggerate the magnitude of the garden stairs. (Another reason mini madame’s scurry reminded me White Rabbit.) Salvatorelli’s petite size suggests here a fairylike sense of scale, whereby everything seemed bigger than normal. A technique Anger said was inspired by looking at the etchings of the villa gardens by Piranesi. Contemplating the scale and feel between the two art forms is one of the great intellectual/sensual pleasures of this exhibition. This delectation is only magnified with the accompaniment of additional prints and manuscripts of equal refinement, such as Charles Le Brun’s impressive rendering of two muscular men supporting a spurting ball, Recueil de divers desseins de fontaines (ca. 1680).

The Villa d'Este gardens by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1761) photo Nicolas Brasseur

 The Villa d'Este gardens by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1761)

  Charles Le Brun, Recueil de divers desseins de fontaines (ca. 1680) © Beaux-Arts de Paris

Eaux d’artifice is set to the music of Antonio Vivaldi’s Winter Movement from The Four Seasons. The chirpy vibrato of the music matches perfectly with the moving droplets of animated water (some captured in slow motion) and the beautiful play of light on the bubbling and cascading water. This audio visual vibrato is not easily analytically decomposable because it is tightly unified by shared rhythms sealed under a monochromatic unity.

Though very far from the dehumanizing Afro-American experience of slavery that produced the music of the Blues, this blue musical experience also has something of the psychic healing power of blues music ~ be it produced in the throat of Etta James ~ or blown through the mouth organ of Little Walter. Like these great Blues artists, and so many more, the musical experience of Eaux d’artifice stems from a place of deep desolate darkness. That is why it is cathartic and contagious and why its psychic energy speaks to the low-level depression running through society today. But despite Eaux d’artifice’s cool blue mood, it is also ecstatic and intense in its magical spiritualism. 

I consider Eaux d’artifice one of the first must-see precedents for the music clip genre. At the same time, I found it highly relevant to our viral times.  The tempo, tone, and periodicity communicate a reflection of all the changes that shape our current viral avoidance experience: looking forward to the future with one eye while getting the hell out of there.

Because Eaux d’artifice is one of those flickering ghosts that my mind drags behind me as a symbol of a sole individual’s search for visceral joy within dark blue places, its mystery-beauty seems to redeem sorrow. WM 


Joseph Nechvatal

Joseph Nechvatal is an American artist and writer currently living in Paris. His The Viral Tempest limited edition art LP was recently published by Pentiments Records and his newest book of poetry, Styling Sagaciousness: Oh Great No!, by Punctum Books. His 1995 cyber-sex farce novella ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~venus©~Ñ~vibrator, even was published by Orbis Tertius Press in 2023.

view all articles from this author