The Black Dahlia: A Work of Surrealist Art?

WARNING: The Black Dahlia murder was gruesome and disturbing.  This entry goes into some detail about her murder.  To prevent any unwanted unpleasantness, I have included a link to an image for those interested in viewing a photograph of the crime scene.  I encourage a view, so to better understand the argument made in the book.

On January 15th, 1947 a mother and her daughter were walking near an area slated for more of the “tiny boxes” of post-war suburbia in Los Angeles and what they came upon was a sight like never before.  Laying in the grass was a nude woman’s body, severed at the waist, a breast cut away, several other gashes flecked her body, and her mouth had been slashed on either side.  Additionally, her body had been deliberately posed in a grotesque fashion instead of simply dumped.  Her name was Elizabeth Short and her eerie murder has been left unsolved.

In the book Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder, authors Mark Nelson and Sarah Hudson Bayliss argue that Short’s death was an act of art or that at least her murder was influenced by the surrealist movement.  Their argument is based upon the similarities between multiple pieces by various surrealist artists such as Man Ray, Salvador Dali, Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp and the damage done and arrangement of Short’s body. To view an image of her body click here. A reminder, it is graphic.

Much of the surrealist art during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s included images of nude women, some of which were bisected, like Short’s body, as well as images of odd doll and mannequin art that often did not include all body parts.  The book also discusses the imagery and story of the minotaur, frequently used by surrealists, and draws lines of comparison to how Short’s upper body was laid out.  The second half of the book goes into surrealist art that produced after Short’s murder, implying that many artists were aware and inspired by the murder, even implying that some artists may have known who the murderer was.  Exquisite Corpse makes a very compelling argument using a combination of many pieces art that were visible prior the the murder, and a web of connections placing many artists or friends of the artists in the Los Angeles area at the time of the murder.

Exquisite Corpse is not a book for someone who is a novice to the Dahlia murder.  General knowledge of the murder, as well as surrealist art, is preferred, if not necessary in order to understand the book.  So thank goodness for all those art history courses I took in college!

While Exquisite Corpse does not directly point the finger at a singular suspect, it does heavily lean toward one person who is also the most likely suspect.  That person is George Hodel, a doctor who had a possibly murdered his secretary just two years prior to the Dahlia murder, and later had sexual relations with his own daughter.  In 2003, Steven Hodel, George Hodel’s son, wrote the book The Black Dahlia Avenger (which I highly recommend) where he named his father as the killer.  Additionally, Hodel was close friends with artist Man Ray, and was active in the surrealist art scene.

In James Ellroy’s novel, The Black Dahlia, he also tackles the art angle, but points to a fictional perpetrator.  The book was unsuccessfully turned into a film in 2006, despite what should have been a stellar cast, including Hilary Swank, Aaron Eckhart and Scarlet Johansson.  I hated the film, due to its lack of believable characters and an unnecessary play up of a pornography angle.  However, if you would like to view the film, it is available for instant watch on Netflix.

3 thoughts on “The Black Dahlia: A Work of Surrealist Art?

  1. I consider myself a pretty advanced “armchair” historian–I nearly majored in history in college (only to be swayed to pursue Creative Writing) and continue to, a creative non-fiction writer, be influenced by the bizarre twists and turns of history (translation: I write historical-based non-fiction). As such, I’m on the fence about this book–it sounds really fascinating but seems to toe a very dangerous line. Specifically (based on what I’m reading here, as I have not read the book yet) toes that line where we accuse pop culture and media for criminal decisions and actions. It’s the “Marilyn Manson made them do it” argument. Even in a historical context, I’m a little uncomfortable with that argument as it takes ownership of the crime–in this case an extremely depraved and heinous crime–away from the perpetrator. That being said, I’m going to reserve further comment until I actually read the book. Now here’s hoping the library has it!

    • P.S. I find the Black Dhalia Murder fascinating and tragic. It really high lights the seedy underbelly of the Hollywood during it’s “golden” years and is something I think that the population of the time wasn’t incredibly aware of in ways that we are now (and almost seem to revel in–the seediness that is–in this day and age).

  2. I am weirdly fascinated by old crime stories – I will have to read all those books. The Taman Shud case in Australia is another amazing vintage unsolved case.

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