Author Marijke Peyser
Prior to the staging of the Félix Labisse retrospective in Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in 1973, the artist explained the titles of his paintings in a letter to the director, J.C. Ebbinge Wubben: ‘In general the titles of my paintings do not directly refer to what is depicted. They are more like written additions to what has been painted; often associations of ideas or very old and dazzling reminiscences. In any case it is the subconscious that is in charge and it says what it wants’.
This is why L’état d’urgence is unfathomable at first glance. The meaning only becomes clear by studying other paintings from the same year. The titles which feature the word ‘libido’ always refer to an instinctive quest for sexual gratification: Libidoscaphe méditant une action indirecte, Pseudolibidoscaphe, Libidoscaphe de mai, Libidoscaphe dans la baie de Rio and Libidoscaphes en état de veille. The word scaphe comes from the Greek skaphê and means ‘vessel’. The Belgian art historian Emile Langui maintained that the ‘libidoscaphes and other flying saucers were nothing but magic symbols for the sweet game of Eros. They spiral around the world like ‘émissaires ultra-zodiacaux’ of a mysterious cult that strives to sublimate the sexual urge’. Another connoisseur of Labisse’s work, Jean Cassou, described the journeys in libidoscaphes as ‘stranger than the Voyages extraordinaires by Jules Verne’. Thanks to the libidoscaphe they enable the traveller to dwell in the unreal world of the imagination and to surrender to the pleasurable feelings that his imagination dictates.
L’état d’urgence hung in the Félix Labisse retrospective in 1973. In the foreword to the catalogue Renilde Hammacher-Van den Brande, senior curator of modern art and compiler of the exhibition, placed it in the series of exhibitions exploring various aspects of Surrealism: ‘And so you find yourself in the company of your colleagues and friends: Man Ray, René Magritte, Salvador Dalí, Paul Éluard, who were your predecessors in our rooms’. Labisse was never officially a member of the Surrealist movement. Nevertheless his work is regarded as Surrealist because his attitude was informed by fantasy, magic, eroticism, the supernatural and mystery. The correspondence between Hammacher and Labisse reveals that the artist wanted to give one of his exhibited works to the museum. However Le bain turquoise (ou Hommage à Monsieur Ingres) (1968) was not as ‘surreal’ as other works. It would be hard to present ‘with our Dalís, Max Ernsts and Magrittes’, as Hammacher wrote to Labisse. In a letter dated 11 March 1973 Labisse proposed giving the museum L’état d’urgence instead. This proposal was met with enthusiasm. On 29 March 1973 Ebbinge Wubben wrote that this acquisition truly enhanced all the Surrealist works in the museum.