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Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder    by Mark Nelson & Sarah Hudson Bayliss order for
Exquisite Corpse
by Mark Nelson
Order:  USA  Can
Bulfinch, 2006 (2006)
* *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Mark Nelson and Sarah Hudson Bayliss introduce their work saying: 'This book is a hypothesis, built from a wealth of visual and factual material.' They borrow from Black Dahlia Avenger (2003) by former LAPD homicide detective Steve Hodel, who asserts that his father George Hodel committed the gruesome 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short. (Hodel reached his conclusion from photos, that appear to be of the victim, in his father's collection.) Short's dismembered body was found by a woman walking by an undeveloped (at that time) lot on Norton Avenue in the Leimert Park area of Los Angeles. The body was displayed in a surrealistic manner, which is the main theme of Nelson and Bayliss's account. The authors write, 'passages from 'Black Dahlia Avenger' acted as the initial catalyst for our inquiry into whether there might be a broader dialogue between art and the killing. In order to further explore this link, it is essential to consider a general overview of surrealism - its origins, imagery, and ideas.'

Law officials and the media labeled Short's murder atypical - she was apparently killed in another location, then her body rearranged in a specific pattern to be purposefully discovered. The body had been drained of blood (none was found at the scene), bisected and surgically incised, resulting in the appearance of a mannequin. The title Exquisite Corpse is the moniker of a parlor game, and one may have been played to a grisly ending. Nelson and Bayliss exhibit never-before seen photographs of the crime scene and Short's body on both the property lot and autopsy table, with nothing left to the reader's imagination. Comparative surrealistic art is shown from such artists as Man Ray, Salvador Dali, Max Ernst and his spouse Dorothea Tanning, Rene Magritte, and Marcel Duchamp. The authors also explore the social circles surrounding George Hodel, among whom are filmmakers John Huston and Henry Miller, surrealist art patrons Louise and Walter Arensberg, artist and art dealer William Copley, filmmaker and surrealist patron Albert Lewin, collectors and actors Vincent Price, Edward G. Robinson, and Fanny Brice.

The surrealism movement is covered well by Nelson and Bayliss, in particular aspects which connect to the crime and George Hodel's life. The Black Dahlia murder has been the subject of many books, including Donald Wolfe's Black Dahlia Files (2005). There have been various (TV and theater) movies and documentaries over the years. I found it interesting that Nelson and Bayliss used Steve Hodel's book as the backdrop of their speculations, yet write in the Afterword that 'we have made every effort to view Steve's assertions objectively, challenging him when necessary. Neither Sarah nor I believe, for instance, that the unidentified women pictured in his father's photo album are Elizabeth Short. Steve Hodel's attribution to his father of the murders of many other women, with little presented evidence, is provocative but highly questionable, in our view.' Sarah Bayliss has written on art and culture for ArtNews, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and Conde Nast Traveler, among other publications. Mark Nelson is the design director of Anthony McCall Associates in New York City, where he designs books for prominent museums, galleries, and artists.

Nelson and Bayliss's Exquisite Corpse - a tabletop book of surrealism art, connecting to a murder - will certainly provoke conversation, though it does not prove that George Hodel (dandy man, physician, photographer, psychiatrist, and surrealism enthusiast) committed the crime. I recommend the book as a well-displayed representation of the 1940s Black Dahlia murder, related by the authors to the surrealistic art form.

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