Elision, Excess, Parody, Disavowal: Justine Frank in the Museum

Three Museum Wall Texts
Roee Rosen Bio

This essay first appeared in AAA's previous publication Field Notes, Issue 04. To read the "Note from the Editors" for full context, please click here.



The Jewish-Belgian artist and pornographer Justine Frank (born Antwerp, 1900; died Tel Aviv, 1943) arrived to Paris in the mid-1920s. She soon mingled with the surrealists, but even within this ferocious fold, Frank's work stirred considerable unease. Her painting offered a concoction of scatological sexual motifs and Jewish imagery. While André Breton called for a radical, indeed revolutionary, investigation of sexuality, Frank's motifs almost systematically exposed the inhibitions, restrictions, and phobias of Bretonian Surrealism. The surreal privileged objects of desire—the convulsive beauty of the hysterical women—are substituted in Frank's works for a woman of voracious sexual appetites and disagreeable desires (as Dalí was quick to notice, the surrealists flinched at the site of the anus). The appearance of Jewish signifiers was no less disturbing. Breton's vehement anti-religious stance allowed assaults on Catholicism, but there are almost no representations in Surrealism of Christianity's other—the Jew. Moreover, the Frankist renditions of Jewish figures and symbols are highly ambiguous: she intently appropriated antisemitic tropes and representations of the Jew, and combined them with elements that could be interpreted as a radical form of atheistic irony, as a parodic response to the history of European antisemitism; but her ominous, oversexed Judaism was also suspected by some interpreters to hide an offshoot of black Jewish messianism linked to the school of the self-proclaimed messiah, Jacob Frank, who preached a reversal of all rabbinical law, including the practice of incest, sacrilege, and intentional deceit.1

In 1931, Frank published her only book, the pornographic novel Sweet Sweat.2 Abounding, like the paintings, with extreme scatological motifs and transgressive Jewish apparitions, the book ends with the female protagonist raping and killing her father in a synagogue. The novel betrays the clear influence of Marquis de Sade and of Georges Bataille (who was very likely Frank's lover for a short while), but it also contains an odd and recurring motif which is unprecedented in the annals of European smut: female magical powers employed at the service of debauchery, perversion, and crime.

In 1934, Frank immigrated to Palestine. Whether driven to the Middle East by the growing antagonism of Breton and his friends, or by the intensification of European antisemitism, she was even more of a social pariah in Tel Aviv than in Paris. Her vehement hostility towards Zionism found expression not only in her refusal to speak Hebrew at a time when the revival of the biblical language was instrumental for the fabrication of a new Jewish collective in Palestine, but also in actively denigrating the language: she literally revives the Hebrew letters, transforming them into engorged genitalia and hybrid grotesqueries whose combinations in words thus create perverse linguistic orgies. Moreover, Zionism was premised on an attempt to erase the figure of the diasporic Jew perceived as "degenerate" and effeminate, and replace it with a new identity: indigenous, healthy, and virile. Frank not only persisted in presenting this diasporic figure, but also engendered its androgynous nature.

Frank's clash with the local Jewish community was not merely an issue of cultural representation. She was surrounded by rumours and allegations, and felt isolated and attacked. Her situation deteriorated until she finally disappeared in 1943. Her work, as well as her life story, were ignored and repressed until the end of the twentieth century, a time when feminist critics and art historians began drawing attention to her work. Her first retrospective was exhibited at the Herzlyia Museum of Art, Israel, in 2003, and travelled a few years later to Extra-City, in her birth town Antwerp, where her work was never before shown, in part, perhaps, because she is a fictive artist.


On the occasion of Frank's retrospective, one of the artist's leading scholars, Joanna Führer-Ha'sfari, reflected upon the way in which the historical narrative spun around a dead artist, whether written or exhibited in a space, is a dynamic and polemic process that belongs very much in the present. Furthermore, she claimed, it is a process of reimagining that forges not only the historical object, but also the observing subject. Führer-Ha'sfari writes:

The unease with which [Frank was met] can be rephrased in familial terms as the troubling question of whether she is a good mother (providing a critique of antisemitic perceptions by subversive appropriation, for example), or a bad mother (subjecting herself to the worst racist preconceptions out of sheer self-hatred and destructiveness)? She is, in any case, a mother-witch conjuring uncanny, obscene specters of the Jew.

The situation is, however, even more complicated. Frank is not only a mother, but also a daughter, and not only in terms of her demonstrated and willful infantilism. Frank is a daughter because the contemporary critic who adopts her as a mother simultaneously gives birth to Frank as his or her fantasised effigy—an offspring. It stands to reason that if this critic is a man, he is thus the father of his mother, and can whole-heartedly sing the old American song: "I'm my own grandpa!"3

What Fuhrer Ha'sfari suggests here is that even as Frank is fictive, her stake at being real is viable, while reality—the reality of the institution and its spokesperson, including Ha'sfari herself—is a willfully constructed fabrication (regardless of the fact that Ha'sfari happens to be a fictive person as well).

In framing Frank within the museum, though, the challenge is not to present soundproof reasoning, but rather an experience of a disorienting realm: where the divides between past and present, real and fiction, self and other, are not being repositioned, but are elided, parodied, and disavowed, allowing that which is designated as fiction to overwhelm through its excess. Elision, excess, parody, and disavowal can thus be perceived as strategies that shape the stance of presenting Frank. Elision was, in fact, demonstrated above already. Each outing of Frank and of her creation—including this brief text—features a disclaimer regarding her fictionality. But the disclaimer is ill-set in timing, tone, and context so as to allow a fruitful confusion (all the more as the disclaimer helps little in divining fantasies from factuality). Excess has to do not only with content, but also with form—in creating a body of work whose expansive nature can create a compelling experience of a life's work. But its expansion is not only inward (that is, the psyche and aesthetics of Justine Frank), it is also horizontal (it includes other personae, ever more media), until it may also claim (as Ha'sfari does in the quote above) to encompass the venue and the spectator. Parody within the institution would mean adopting the museum's authoritative, pedagogic, and generic tools to offset and upset their habitual function—from labeling and explaining to chronological installation and conceptual framing tools: the catalogue, the explanatory wall texts, and the documentary video have all been present in Frank's retrospectives (this text is supplemented with a few examples of the exhibition's wall texts). Disavowal stems from the comic refusal to accept what elsewhere is deemed real. Freud's articulation of the term is pertinent here: the child's perception of the mother's genitalia as a lack, a gaping gash at a stage in which he identifies with her might be a traumatic castration anxiety; the masochist response is precisely disavowal, the generation of a fantasy world based on affirming the mother as omnipotent.4 And whereas parody is a comic mode to be taken seriously (think of Judith Butler's claim that "woman" can only be a parodic discursive topic), then the perverse, masochist disavowal should be understood as an expression of a comic mode. It is an expansive disavowal that yields a museum within the museum, not negating the customary spaces of contemporary art (negation, after all, is the strategy of the Sadist), but suspending their speculative capacity to be differently imagined; in the case of Frank, reinforcing her life's journey through the changing colours of the walls and the creation of smaller, maze-like, and intimate spaces inside the big halls, a state of willful self-contradictions and concrete cross-historical arguments.

Three Museum Wall Texts

From Justine Frank, a Retrospective

Frankomas, 1930, Oil on Canvas, 90X60cm
Image: Frankomas, 1930, oil on canvas.

In 1930, Frank tackled a motif dear to the hearts of the surrealists. She painted her versions of Fantomas, a hero/criminal, nocturnal dandy, and master of disguise.

In the series of pulp novels and movies that bore his name, Fantomas excelled in spectacularly atrocious and creative murders. The books, authored by Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Alain, and first published in 1911, were unprecedented in their cheap, speedy production, enormous mass-appeal, and incredulously fantastic storylines.5 The surrealist circle was a veritable Fantomas fan club. Breton concluded his Soluble Fish (appended in publication to the First Manifesto) by identifying himself with Fantomas, and among the artists who paid homage to Fantomas, there also figured a Belgian Surrealist much more renowned and important than Justine Frank: Rene Magritte. Like Frank, Magritte based his rendition on the front-cover illustration of the first novel of the series, with one change: his Fantomas holds a rose instead of a knife. In Frank's paintings, the fictive criminal undergoes both a religious conversion and a sex change, and is newly named as Frankomas. He now dons a conspicuously Jewish hat, and his face is that of the artist. Frankomas clenches an odd object that reappears in several of Frank's paintings: perhaps a shriveled carrot, perhaps a fecal spool.

While Breton and his friends called for sexual transgression, scatology repelled them, and they resented the soiling of Fantomas' glove with dung.Yet, they were even more infuriated by the figure's religious attire. Frank's "Jewification" of Fantomas was not perceived as poking fun at religion, but rather as the desecration of an anti-religious icon. The Frankomas paintings turned Frank from a marginal, somewhat exotic and eccentric foreigner, into a real persona—of the non-grata variety, "vulgar—but in bad taste," as Anne Kastorp puts it.7

Utamaro et l’hystérique (Utamaro and the Hysteric), 1936, Gouache on Paper, 37X56cm
Image: Utamaro et l’hystérique (Utamaro and the Hysteric), 1936, gouache on paper.

The sexual encounter conjoins two figures from far-removed cultural fields. The urinating woman is based on an erotic print by the eighteenth century Japanese artist Utamaro from his Kiku no Tsuyu (in the original, a man masturbates while peeping at the woman who urinates in the open air). The figure of the hysteric is based on Paul Richer's illustrations, commissioned and compiled by the celebrated psychiatrist, Charcot (this figure renders the second stage of the fit, the Clown Stage). The conversion and sex change of the hysteric—so common in Frank's work—have a special significance here, not only because Hysteria was perceived as a woman's disease, and not only because the Surrealists championed feminine hysteria as an incarnation of desirable feminine sexuality, but also because it underscores the ninteenth century psychiatric perception of the Jewish man as effeminate and prone to Hysteria.

Untitled (Self-Portrait as A Black Woman), 1938, Oil on Canvas, 65X50cm
Image: Untitled (Self-Portrait as A Black Woman), 1938, oil on canvas.

The darkened complexion along with the skullcap and the side-locks surprisingly connote a religious Jew of North African descent rather than a woman. Thus, this odd work shares some peculiarities with seminal attempts by early Zionist artists to forge authentic, indigenous "Hebraic" art. Typical of this early search, ensued with the first Hebrew art academy, Bezalel (founded by Boris Shatz), were renditions of biblical characters and themes clad in orientalist garbs (numerous period photographs attest the pleasure early Zionist pioneers took in having their picture taken in Arab costumes—a fashion statement both exotic and local, real and fantasised). In this sense, the painting is intently outmoded since in the late-thirties, local artists were heading in a different, less simplistic direction in their search for authentic local art.8

And yet a second glance at Frank's "black woman" reveals her to be even less "authentic" and indigenous, and here again, clothes are key: the dress is clearly modeled after those favored by Elizabeth Vigée-Lebrun, the gifted court painter of Marie Antoinette (to whom Frank pays the rather dubious homage, in her novel, of naming a vagina after her). Thus the "Hebrew" fantasy of a black woman who is also a young Yemenite man turns out to be a hybrid rooted in pre-revolutionary feminine vision of the natural and empowered woman. And perhaps this portrait, revealed as a multitude of superimposed masks is, in the end, the most realistic of Frank's self-portraits, given that she herself is a fictive persona (as are Joanna Führer-Hasfari, Fanja Hissin, Anne Kastorp, and Tamar Biniamini).



1. On Justine Frank's relation to Jacob Frank, see: Joanna Führer-Ha'sfari, "Things Collapse in the World, Georges Bataille with Jacob and Justine Frank," in Galit Eilat and Aneta Szyłak, eds., C.H.O.S.E.N (The Israeli Center for Digital Art, Holon, 2014), 95–112.
2. Roee Rosen, Justine Frank, Sweet Sweat (Sternberg Press, Berlin and New York, 2009). The volume contains, besides Frank's novel, her biography and an expansive essay on her work.
3. Joanna Führer-Ha'sfari, "I'm My Own Grandma, The Past and Present Life of Justine Frank," in Roee Rosen, Justine Frank, A Retrospective (The Herzliya Museum of Art, Herzliya, 2003).
4. For a reading of Freud's notions off masochism and fetishism in this context, as well as Gilles Deleuze's articulation of both sadism and masochism as comic modes, see: Roee Rosen, "Glaat-Kosher Surrealist Smut: Reading Sweet Sweat" in Rosen and Frank, Sweet Sweat, 149–221.
5. Robin Walz, Pulp Surrealism: Insolent Popular Culture in Early Twentieth-Century Paris (University of California Press, Berkley, 2000), 42–75.
6. Regarding the Surrealist's aversion to anal sexuality, Dalí would later recall: "[The surrealists] did not like anuses!" See: Salvador Dalí, Diary of A Genius (Creation Books, London, 1994), 24.
7. Kastorp, "Repulsive Beauty," 255.
8. Veteran Dadaist Janco, for instance—with whom Frank was obsessed—painted themes like The Maccabeans, ancient Jewish heroes meant both to be linked with present-day Jewish heroism as well as with their Middle Eastern territory (signified, again, through fashion statements as Janco depicts Palestinian Arabs, Jewish Yemenite immigrants, and the ancient Hebrews clad with the very same orientalist garbs). For more on orientalism in Early Zionist art, see: Yigal Zalmona, "To The East?" in: Zalmona, "To the East, Orientalism in the Arts of Israel" (The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 1998), ix–xv. The text is a synopsis of an expansive essay in Hebrew in the same catalogue.


Roee Rosen is an Israeli-American artist, filmmaker, and writer. He is a professor at Ha'Midrasha Art College, and at the Bezalel Art Academy, Israel.




Wed, 1 Apr 2015
Women in Art History Exhibition Histories Field Notes Issue 4

Relevant content

AAA Project Space, Archiving Materials
Ideas is AAA's New Online Journal

Ideas is AAA's New Online Journal

Asia Art Archive publishes new essays, interviews, and curated journeys through the research collections