Brion Gysin, artist, traveler, writer and alchemist; one of the unsung English painters of the 20th Century, expelled by Breton from the Surrealists, and the seminal influence who introduced William Burroughs to the use of permutations and cut-ups in writing. He remains today one of the unsung prophets of this century, a master magician whose methods can be applied by anyone, in any time and in any place.
John Clifford Brian Gysin was born at Taplow House, England, a Canadian military hospital. His mother, Stella Margaret Martin, was a Canadian from Deseronto, Ontario. His father, Leonard Gysin, a captain with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, was killed in action eight months after his son’s birth. Stella returned to Canada and settled in Edmonton, Alberta where her son became “the only Catholic day-boy at an Anglican boarding school”. Graduating at fifteen, Gysin was sent to Downside School in Stratton-on-the-Fosse, near Bath, Somerset in England, a prestigious college known as “the Eton of Catholic public schools” run by the Benedictines.
In 1934, he moved to Paris to study La Civilisation Française, an open course given at the Sorbonne where he made literary and artistic contacts through Marie Berthe Aurenche, Max Ernst’s second wife. He joined the Surrealist Group and began frequenting Valentine Hugo, Leonor Fini, Salvador Dalí, Picasso and Dora Maar. A year later, he had his first exhibition at the Galerie Quatre Chemins in Paris with Ernst, Picasso, Hans Arp, Hans Bellmer, Victor Brauner, Giorgio de Chirico, Dalí, Marcel Duchamp, René Magritte, Man Ray and Yves Tanguy. On the day of the preview, however, he was expelled from the Surrealist Group by André Breton who ordered the poet Paul Éluard to take down his pictures. Gysin was 19 years old. His biographer, John Geiger, suggests the arbitrary expulsion “had the effect of a curse. Years later, he blamed other failures on the Breton incident. It gave rise to conspiracy theories about the powerful interests who seek control of the art world. He gave various explanations for the expulsion, the more elaborate involving ‘insubordination’ or lèse majesté towards Breton”.
In 1954 in Tangier, Gysin opened a restaurant called “The 1001 Nights”, with his friend Mohamed Hamri, who was the cook. Gysin hired the Master Musicians of Jajouka from the village of Jajouka to perform alongside entertainment that included acrobats, a dancing boy and fire eaters. The musicians performed there for an international clientele that included William S. Burroughs. Gysin lost the business in 1958, and the restaurant closed permanently. That same year, Gysin returned to live in Paris, taking lodgings in a flophouse located at 9 rue Gît-le-Coeur that would become famous as the Beat Hotel. Working on a drawing, he discovered a Dada technique by accident.
A consummate innovator, Gysin altered the cut-up technique to produce what he called permutation poems in which a single phrase was repeated several times with the words rearranged in a different order with each reiteration. An example of this is “I don’t dig work, man/Man, work I don’t dig.” Many of these permutations were derived using a random sequence generator in an early computer program written by Ian Sommerville. Commissioned by the BBC in 1960 to produce material for broadcast, Gysin’s results included “Pistol Poem”, which was created by recording a gun firing at different distances and then splicing the sounds. That year, the piece was subsequently used as a theme for the Paris performance of Le Domaine Poetique, a showcase for experimental works by people like Gysin, François Dufrêne, Bernard Heidsieck, and Henri Chopin.
With Sommerville, he built the Dreamachine in 1961. Described as “the first art object to be seen with the eyes closed”, the flicker device uses alpha waves in the 8-16 Hz range to produce a change of consciousness in receptive viewers.
Made an American Commander of the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1985, Gysin died a year later of lung cancer on July 13, 1986. An obituary by Robert Palmer published in The New York Times fittingly described him as a man who “threw off the sort of ideas that ordinary artists would parlay into a lifetime career, great clumps of ideas, as casually as a locomotive throws off sparks”.