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Exquisite CorpseReview - Exquisite Corpse
Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder
by Mark Nelson and Sarah Hudson Bayliss
Bulfinch, 2006
Review by Marysusan Noll
Jan 22nd 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 4)

The authors of Exquisite Corpse, Mark Nelson and Sarah Hudson Bayliss, posit an extremely interesting hypothesis: that the murderer of the "Black Dahlia" was inspired by, and intimately involved with, the surrealist art movement.  This in and of itself is an extraordinary claim, which unfortunately relies on too many layers of assumptions and suppositions to be held truly credible in anything but the realm of pure theory.

The core of the text makes the basic assumption that the murderer of Elizabeth Short, a.k.a. The Black Dahlia,was George Hodel.  This information is relied upon as if it were fact in this book, which unfortunately, it is not.  There is one major source that proposes Hodel is the Black Dahlia killer, and that is his own son, Steve Hodel.  Exquisite Corpse fully hangs its hat on this idea of Hodel being the killer.  If this were not the case, their hypothesis would crumble like the walls of Jericho.  Once one buys the idea of Hodel as the killer (largely based on the presence of two pictures of a pretty young unidentified woman in a Hodel family photo album, which Steve Hodel identifies as Elizabeth Short, frankly, I don't see the resemblance), then the connections to the surrealist movement can be made. 

There are distinct connections between George Hodel and major movers and shakers in the Surrealist movement in the 1940s and beyond.  He had direct connections to Man Ray, and indirect ones to Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst.  All three of these artists were known to portray women in dehumanized or hyper-sexualized manners in their art.  This is very well documented in the book.  An admirable number of plates are provided which compare crime scene and autopsy photos of Elizabeth Short to the work of these three men, both before and after the crime occurred in 1947.  The connection between images in surrealism (or Dadaism if one wants to quibble) where women are dissected and rendered as less than alive bear a striking resemblance to the images of the Black Dahlia murder.  Who inspired whom is never made quite clear, or fully supported.  The images would better support the argument that portrayals of women in surrealism were degrading and dehumanizing by comparing them to these crime photos, rather than saying that they were co-inspiration for one another, or that the murder was a surrealistic artistic statement by a frustrated individual.

I find it particularly interesting that since the lynchpin of Nelson and Bayliss's text is the idea that George Hodel committed the Black Dahlia murder, at the end of the text, they admit that they also did not believe that the photos in the Hodel family album (upon which Steve Hodel based his evidence for his father being the killer) were of Elizabeth Short.  If they truly felt that the photos were to be disregarded, then how could they believe that George Hodel committed the crime?  It was almost as if in the last page of their book, they sought to take everything back. 

© 2008 Marysusan Noll

Marysusan Noll teaches high school biology and forensics in Long Island, NY, and makes her own art.


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