Goya and the Enlightenment

Francisco Goya (1746-1828) is typically seen as supportive of the Enlightenment in terms of his scepticism about religion, monarchy and hierarchy. He is held up as a member (or at least fellow traveller) of the reformist liberals of Spain, who sought to reduce the influence of the Catholic Church and supported the French Revolution. It was this group that was riven by mixed responses to the Napoleonic occupation and the French-imposed client kingship of Joseph Bonaparte (r. 1808-13). Although Goya decried the sadism of the Peninsular War (1808-14) and protested the deaths of Spaniards at the hands of the French and their supporters, he also served that regime. Nonetheless, despite Goya’s late pessimism and apocalyptic visions, he is seen as aligned with the Enlightenment.

Professor Anthony J. Cascardi of University of California, Berkeley discerns contradictions in the way Goya is viewed in the context of the Enlightenment. “I take exception to the standard view that relies predominantly on Goya’s darkest images to establish his relevance for modernity, and I suggest instead that his work invites us to consider the critical role of art with respect to the modern social and historical worlds, worlds of which it is nonetheless a part.” In Francisco de Goya and the Art of Critique, Cascardi argues, “Goya’s position was one of distance both from the superstitions and backwardness of the Spanish past and from the promises offered by the Enlightenment. It seems quite plausible that the project of critique that runs throughout his work was informed by the need to maintain a distance from both these alternatives.” Cascardi detects this distance in the way Goya complicates and contradicts pictorial conventions, most particularly in the forms within which Goya worked. Cascardi takes one definition of Modernism as the critical distancing of the art from the ”social and material bases on which it is made.”

There is implicit criticisms of men who become foolish by attempting to be what they are not and cannot become – found in images of people acting in foolish ways and animals adopting pretensions to humanity. Goya’s exposure of their foolishness is an implicit rejection of the Enlightenment’s assertion that men are equal in potential and that their natures are formed by circumstance. To aspire to a station and nature that is not assigned by birth is worthy of mockery, Goya’s art asserts. While Goya may condemn the excesses of superstition and human fallibility, he recognises that they are unavoidable and not elements that can be left behind following sufficient advances in knowledge, education and social change. He is sceptical about the power of social restraint to alter man; he sees dark, destructive potential for violence latent in man, perceptible in his nightmares and his responses to crime, war and chaos.

Goya has a tragic view of man, as inherently flawed by sinfulness, weakness and mortality, doomed to fall short, never perfectible. So although Goya may have been troubled by what he characterised in his art as the excesses of religion, his outlook is closer to that of a religious person than an atheist humanist. It must be admitted that his partiality to the liberal faction situates Goya as a natural sceptic rather than a man of faith. Suspicion of the rationalisation of existence and desacralisation of human life that the Enlightenment brought may have led Goya to paint his History paintings The Second of May, 1808 (1814) and The Third of May, 1808 (1814). In the former, madrileños rise up against the mameluke cavalry supporting the Bonapartist regime and, in the latter, these rebels are executed by a firing squad by night the following day.

[Image: Goya, The Third of May, 1808, oil on canvas]

Once the human being is no longer a child of God and an ensouled being, rationalism finds no bar to the greater good being used to justify selective brutality by authorities (in these paintings), just as the absence of charity and mercy allows the savagery of extra-judicial killings and torture (in the Disasters of War).

Goya’s criticism of mindless adherence to tradition can be found in many areas of Goya’s output. In the Caprichos suite, a supercilious donkey studies a family genealogy, finding other donkeys like him. He seems to condemn corporal punishment in a an etching of a child being beaten, with a comparison between the ugly mother and the innocent boy, who (in this eternal chain) will become ugly in turn, beating his own children. Insensibility to evidence and logic leads to ignorance and baseless fears. As the title states, The Sleep of Reason Breeds Monsters, people are prey to instincts when conscious thinking is absent. This view can be both an endorsement of Enlightenment values (man must be educated and liberated from irrationality) and in conflict with them (man will never be free of ingrained fears and untrammelled imagination). Goya sees lack of self-knowledge as a key trait distributed throughout society, even in the educated classes. As critics have observed, this is perhaps more sceptical of the Enlightenment than an outright rejection of the validity of its project. As Cascardi notes, the Enlightenment itself had unresolved contradictions, so support for the Enlightenment is fraught with ambiguities. Not least, “Goya was aware of the grim irony of a situation in which the forces of “Enlightened” France were the perpetrators of bestial violence [during the Peninsular War specifically].”

Cascardi takes Kant as his exemplar of Enlightenment thought, with particular focus upon Kant’s centring of reason as essential to value judgments, specifically in art and morality. For Goya too, reason was central to his views of humanity, with a more pessimistic outlook distancing him from Kant’s idea of the primacy of rational autonomy. Goya is not only sceptical but also unruly, disrupting what is expected. His narratives often contradict the ostensible subject of the picture, not least in the way the depicted people fall short of their roles as noble, judge, priest and so forth. Cascardi notes that Goya’s sense of reason is not simply related to his social criticism but to his distanced responses to the conventions of Renaissance art, which were grounded on rationality, reason, clear narrative and illusionism.

To explain this, here is a passage on the technique distances viewer from subject:

“[C]onsider The Third of May, 1808 and some of the Disasters of War […] Through a technique that uncannily anticipates the ways in which mechanically reproduced images are cropped or cut in the photographic and cinematic fields, the effect of the frame in such works is to implicate art itself in the very violence it helps disclose. Because the perspective of the unseen perpetrators of the violence is as compelling as the perspective of the viewer external to the image the viewer is implicated in the violence of these images in a remarkably unsettling way. Thus, rather than read Goya’s efforts in The Third of May, 1808 and the Disasters of War solely in moral terms – as claiming secure access to a universal perspective on good and evil that would allow him to criticize the atrocities of history from the “outside,” it is more promising to consider the ethical challenges they pose and especially to consider those challenges as epitomized in the vexed relationship between the external spectator and the implicit violence that the exercise of any autonomous framing power seems to create.”

[Image: Goya, Witches’ Sabbath, 1821-3, oil on plaster]

For Cascardi, Goya is either the first modern artist or an analogue or prototype of the same, something he shies away from stating plainly, instead asserting this indirectly by writing, “Goya may not be described not as the first modern artist, but as an artist engaged in refusing to adopt an independent ethics for painting or, indeed, for art in general. […] A certain self-consciousness is of course integral to this effort.” The author thinks that the Black Paintings – murals made by Goya at La Quinta del Sordo, his private farmhouse outside Madrid, notable for their dramatic, brutal and pessimistic content – may have been inspired by a viewing of an early magic lantern projection device. The series may also have been painted by the artist after meditating on Burke’s treatise on the sublime, translated into Spanish in 1807. The book concludes with thoughts on Goya’s treatment of beauty, a subject much less pressing or dominant in the literature than that on ugliness. Cascardi relates Goya’s art of beauty to that of sympathy, linking Goya to Enlightenment philosophy David Hume.

The author is well informed, thoughtful and writes with the minimum of jargon. Although the ideas are perhaps a little too complex and philosophically-based to resonate with all readers (that is, the casual Goya enthusiast), readers not conversant with the ideas of the Enlightenment and later will gain more understanding of the depth and ambiguity of Goya’s art. The illustrations are plentiful, the book (with fine paper and a cloth binding) a pleasure to handle. Overall, this book can be recommended to anyone intending to investigate Goya beyond the common facts and landmark events of his times.  

Anthony J. Cascardi, Francisco de Goya and the Art of Critique, 2022, Zone Books, Brooklyn, distr. Princeton University Press, 368pp, mono/col. illus., £35, ISBN 978 1942 130697 

Zarathustra reconsidered

“Apparently, at one stage of World War I, every German soldier deployed was given a copy of Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, apparently to fortify their will. It is in some ways an odd choice. Nietzsche subtitled it “A book for all and none”, realising that many readers would be baffled by the messages. Although few would have been perplexed at the presentation of moral-philosophical issues in the form of fables – for what are fables, if not moral-philosophical issues rendered in colourful narrative form? – many would wonder what exactly those messages were. Initially, that was not a problem because there were so few readers. A long, fabulous narrative, featuring a protagonist barely known in modern Europe, split over multiple volumes, written by a little-known retired professor of philology had few takers at the time. It is hard not to think that while it might have been undervalued on first appearance, it was equally overvalued soon afterwards.

“No philosopher had greater influence on the development of modern history and Modernism in the arts than Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Of his writings, Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883-5) is unique in that it is written from the perspective of a fictionalised character, Zarathustra (or Zoroaster), founder of the Zoroastrian religion. It became the book Nietzsche was most pleased with, even though it has been criticised as verbose and overwritten. His later, aphoristic style, written in the manner of Heraclitus, is easier to follow and considered more effective as prose; as rhetoric, Zarathustra maybe carries more impact. A new translation of this, perhaps Nietzsche’s most popular book, has just been published. It joins two other related books, one a critical analysis of the text and another being a previously unseen fragment written at the same time as Zarathustra not included in other publications. This review will discuss all three.

“Nietzsche presents his thoughts through the voice of Zarathustra, acting as religious-philosophical counter to the Gospel narrative of the teaching of Christ. He wanted to bypass scholars and reach readers directly, although he had no pretensions to populism or accessibility (remember – “A Book for All and None”). For those seeking the evidential arguments of The Birth of Tragedy or the late aphorisms written in Heraclitus’s style, Zarathustra will prove a trying book. Not that it is hard to read, but rather its indirectness and intrusive imagery prove an impediment to understanding Nietzsche’s reasoning, even if it is effective rhetoric…”

To read this review in full for free on The Brazen Head visit here: https://brazen-head.org/2023/03/29/zarathustra-reconsidered/

“Kafka Revealed”

“There could hardly be a better paradigm of existential modern man, locked within his psyche, struggling to making meaning of a brutal and mechanical world, than Franz Kafka (1883-1924). The most interior form of writing is the private diary. Thus, Kafka’s Diaries should be the epitome of angst – and indeed they are – and of self-conscious fashioning of literary forms – and that is also true. But they stubbornly explain little about what drove the writer.

“In 1909 Kafka – doctor of law, employee of an insurance company, lifelong resident of Prague and aspirant writer – opened a quarto notebook and began writing a series of short entries before describing watching a Russian dancer who had recently performed in Prague. This was the beginning of a diary that he kept on and off until his death in 1924 from tuberculosis. The diaries would be his laboratory for writing. Aside from describing his day, notable events in his life and thoughts that had occurred to him, he would draft letters, test out poems, summarise plays he had seen and write fiction. He would also make some fetching faux-naïf drawings patterned on those in the German literary-satirical journal Simplicissimus (1896-1967).

“This hybrid character proved an impediment to his editor and friend Max Brod, who took it upon himself to alter the diary text for the first edition, published in 1951. He tidied up the style into plain Hochdeutsch, removing Bohemian Germanicisms, and correcting slips….”

Read the full review on The Brazen Head here: https://brazen-head.org/2023/03/27/kafka-revealed/

Zdzislaw Beksiński and the Tyranny of Taste

[Zdzislaw Beksiński, oil on panel, not exhibited]

Last week I visited the Museum of the Archdiocese of Warsaw (www.maw.art.pl), which has a varied and interesting collection of art, antiques, liturgical regalia and church-related archive material. This is a review of only two temporary exhibitions at the museum.

Beksiński from the Anny and Piotra Dmochowskich Collection (June 2021-June 2024) is the group of notable paintings by Zdzislaw Beksiński (1929-2005) paintings, owned by his French dealers. The paintings range from 1970 to the year before the artist’s murder, which was a senseless impulsive killing of an elderly man over a trivial sum. It is hard to detach appreciation of Beksiński’s paintings with the difficult life of the painter. The death of the artist’s wife, the suicide of the artist’s son and the trauma of war, economic decline and social turmoil, which spanned Beksiński’s adult life – as well as his violent death – all seem in congruence with his images of suffering, desolation and entropy. Crucifixes abound, as do mummified personages, bandaged figures. Bones of strange creatures litter misty plains, tendrils of crimson vegetation expand like bloody stains, as powerful winds shred cloths as large as buildings. Bodies exist but we have no inkling of their existence outside of the singular images. Do they have language? What do they eat and how do they reproduce? Are they in pain? Is what we see normal in their world? Who built the strange structures that fill the vistas? So alien are these personages that we cannot map on to them motivation or even agency.

Beksiński loved to describe surfaces in intricate detail, especially the vegetable, textile and petrological. The flatness of figures in the 1990s is an affinity with the immediate post-war style of Modernists, found in Poland and elsewhere. Lighting effects can be somewhat cursory and the ubiquitous smoke/cloud/mist effects are an easy way of concentrating attention on to motifs, which are the sole objects within some paintings. With Magritte, we get the mundane made magical; with Beksiński, we get the macabre made real. The fantastic has wrinkles, texture and discoloration.

Beksiński trained in architecture and the interface between buildings, plants and bodies are a staple of the paintings; they are in some ways close to his contemporary H.R. Giger, best known for his visual conceptualisation of the creatures and environments of the original Alien movie (1979). Beksiński is drawn to the monumental, with the inclusion of tiny figures or trees that turn the central personage into a giant or a structure into a colossal edifice, tall as a mountain. These are scenes that defy reason and explanation, which adds to their cheerless quality, although we may be thrilled at the sublime spectacle of strangeness and massiveness.

[Zdzislaw Beksiński, oil on panel, 1985, 100 x 98 cm, exhibited]

When intimacy appears in Beksiński’s oeuvre, it is of a particularly poignant sort. A 1984 painting here shows two humanoids embracing; they are gnarled, naked and vulnerable, finding solace in one another. We cannot help but think of them as outcasts, using our own bodies as references points. A point of comparison might be the graphic art of Hans Bellmer, whose art featured figures with rearranged anatomies engaging in sexual congress. We do best to class Beksiński as a latter-day Surrealist, as his art involves the incongruous, the fantastic, the sexual and impossible; it is troubling and opens up to us alternative worlds, drawing out unobvious connections. Connections between Beksiński and Bellmer are numerous, ones I would like to discuss at length in future.   

[Zdzislaw Beksiński, oil on panel, 1984, 100 x 97 cm, exhibited]

Beksiński’s fantastic faces with deformities or odd combinations are generally the weakest of his art; they seem five-finger exercises in variant making, with relatively little thought given to the impression of the finished painting. What are his weaknesses? Cheap sensationalism, reversion to the familiar, the tendency to obscure as a way as avoiding problem solving, a jejune proclivity to provoke. There is entropy and decay but little we can see that could be called action or dynamic energy. However, the better qualities of his art – its emotional force, inventiveness, memorability, originality, consistency of worldview, congruence of technique, image and mood – surpass those failings.

[Zdzislaw Beksiński, oil on panel, 1979, 73 x 87 cm, exhibited]

These 27 paintings are all oil on board, mainly rectangular, roughly 80 x 60 cm to 130 x 100 cm. The surfaces are quite smooth, in contrast with Beksiński’s early paintings, which were standard Modernist painterly pictures with sgraffito. The surfaces are not inert, as image-driven (rather than material-driven) art often is, with a pleasing attention to the qualities of paint – smooth but not slick. His palette is effectively varied, with earth and cold hues predominating. It is never lively or pretty. Beksiński’s art lacking all humour or wit, but that comes with a refreshing earnestness and absence of irony.

The paintings are accompanied by an exhibition of photographs, taken by Beksiński early in his career, mainly in the 1950s and 1960s (9 March-11 June 2023). These range from the quirky to bleak. There are portraits, some using special effects and montage, some head shots set against large areas on blank space. There are some female nude torsos and some images of industrial entropy, such a mangled chain-link fence. It is not difficult to discern continuation of themes, images and mood from these photographs in the later paintings. I do not know photography well enough to state whether these examples are very distinguished but they do seem typical of mid-century avant-garde photography and reference points for Beksiński’s visual thinking and preferences.  

Beksiński was relatively reclusive and did not travel much. Much of his work was sold via his Paris gallery. None of the paintings have titles and Beksiński was reluctant to discuss the interpretation of his art and here we encounter a fault line in the reception. Art critics are wary about discussing what they call art that is not truly fine art because it is too popular, too involved with traditional technique, too close to genre culture in terms of imagery (and fanbase). The interiority of Beksiński’s world – and the very fact it does seem a world – places Beksiński outside the arena of fine art. There are a number a reasons why Bosch is taken seriously but Beksiński is not. One is simply time; Beksiński is simply too close to us to have artistic weight. Another reason is that Bosch’s visions are connected to an obscure aspect of Christian theology, whereas Beksiński’s cosmology (if he has one) is private and unarticulated, without the sanction of religion or spirituality. Also, it has to be said that Beksiński’s art is limited by its lack of potential redemption, joy and emotional range.  

This is the first time I have seen Beksiński’s paintings or photographs face to face, despite him being a well-known and influential contemporary artist for decades. You would not encounter this art in any ACE-funded venue in Great Britain. The tyranny of good taste keeps from us art that has been pigeonholed as popular and genre. That might be unremarkable where you had thriving independent venues that bucked such standards and was willing to explore art not approved by the curatorial class, but in our country there is little independence, outside of some commercial galleries and a handful of co-operative spaces. Yet, viewed in its own terms, why should Beksiński be beyond the pale? I take Glenn Brown to be one of the best of living painters and there are more than a few parallels between his painting and that of Beksiński: the technical accomplishment, faultless technique, a preference for smooth grounds, a use of indeterminate pictorial depth, lack of ironic distance, a taste for the bizarre. Is it so gauche to compare the pair? Personally, I would rather spend an hour with Brown or Beksiński’s paintings than with that by any of the Turner Prize nominees of the last decade.

[Zdzislaw Beksiński, oil on panel, not exhibited]

Why should a conceptual stunt be any more highly regarded than the powerful images and strange worlds of Beksiński? Accepting the seriousness of Beksiński and H.R. Giger does not mean accepting Beryl Cook and Jack Vettriano. We should not automatically accord to the painter of fear and bleakness a greater degree of respect than that to a satirical, decorative or comfort-producing painter, that would be just another form of unthinking snobbery. We should not shy away from being discriminating and from shunning and ridiculing art that we find execrable, but only acting like so once we have thought through our objections. It is commonly assumed that we act on emotion and deep affinity and that we rationalise our taste only post hoc with intellectual explanations. That may be so, but such discussion at least helps us (and others) to comprehend what might be our values and taste, even if we come to such understanding in a veiled indirect manner.   

Is Beksiński taken less seriously as an artist because he is classed as a horror or sci-fi artist than a fine artist? Does his lack of formal training – especially when coupled with his masterful technique – irk mainstream critics? Doubtless the advent of the internet was both the best and worst thing that happened to the reception of Beksiński’s work. It allowed his imagery to circulate widely and led to recognition, but it also spawned a host of inferior imitators, most amateur (all distributing their work on social-media and art-sharing website) which led to fatigue with Beksiński-type imagery.  

It seems that not only snobbery but the self-consciousness of critics that prevents us from expanding our definitions of fine art to encompass the popular painter. “Fine Art” is now in the hands of administrators who loath technical accomplishments and consider aesthetics an imaginary game played by connoisseurs. Why not look to image makers of distinction now that State Art has adopted Amnesiac Art as its vehicle for soft diplomatic power (abroad) and demoralisation of the population (domestically)? We are despised by this cadre. We have nothing to lose in throwing off the shackles of “good taste” of those apparatchiks, if compliance means denying the better part of what art is capable, namely, its capacity to transport us emotionally, the aspiration towards beauty, the development of craftsmanship, the value of the canon, the primacy of the art not the artist (and his skin colour). All these things delighted our forebears and draw derisive coldness from apparatchiks. Keeping the self-conscious, conspicuously educated art-appreciators corralled in this zone of Fine Art (one subject to constant adjustment) is a way of preventing them from forming their own taste, expressing their values, rejecting arbitrary administrative authority and laughing at what appears in State Art venues.

We art lovers are now unpersons; it is time we took up the freedom of the unperson, that is, to have our own standards and be unafraid to express them. After all, who among us will be invited to teach at university, helm a civic museum, advise a government body or become a director of the Arts Council? Why should we care what such officials think about our views? Shouldn’t we want to distance ourselves as much as possible from those gimlet-eyed fanatics and thoughtless drones? Refusing to become independent even after the ritual humiliation of our craft and tradition is the sign of a broken hopeless people. Against all evidence, I hope we are not at that debased level.

New book “Blood, Soil, Paint” published today

At the end of last year I published two articles on Substack entitled “Blood, Soil, Paint”, which examined the links between nationalism, Romanticism (as an artistic movement) and art. It covered German, Russian and Norwegian Romantic art. Although I was pleased with the articles, as soon as they appeared, I realised how they linked up to a number of ideas and historical strands I had had on my mind, namely: parallels between Edvard Munch’s painting and Knut Hamsun’s writing, Martin Heidegger’s thoughts on art, Anselm Kiefer’s delving into German nationalism and foundational myths. There were many overlaps – and I found more while conducting research – so it seemed that the subjects wove themselves into something more surprising and complicated than was initially presented in my articles.

I included Zionist art of the Jewish diaspora in Germany 1900-1920, which offered a template of a nationalist art movement with a nation but one without land. If you want to create a state, you need a unifying set of symbols and aspirational role models (heroes, warriors, poets, thinkers) which must be concretized and transmitted in visual art. How would the dispersed, multi-tradition Jewish people do it? Not least, how could a people whose religion forbad the worship of graven images, forge a fine art? In many ways, this was the ultimate case study because it could be seen as a distillation of the urge to form a nation through art, without all the complications of existing traditions, loyalties and regional ties that exist in every other case.

In a section on Norwegian nationalism, I examined the work of anthropologists 1900-1940 who sought to define the Nordic type. This work was taken up by the Nazis and the complicated (sometimes conflicting) work by Norwegian and German race scientists produced mixed results. Munch and Hamsun offered alternative responses to German occupation, one resisting, one supporting. This has impacted the reception of their work ever since.

Imperium Press were very supportive of my idea of publishing a full extended essay in book form, including illustrations. It was very satisfying to work on the book and tie together strands of thought and research, dig out detailed data and compile an index. Available now are copies in paperback and Kindle, with a hardback edition coming within a week or so.

Buy your copy here: https://www.imperiumpress.org/shop/blood-soil-paint/

Lizzie Siddal, Pre-Raphaelite muse

[Image: John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-2, oil on canvas, Tate]

“On 10 February 1862, after dining with a friend in central London, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his wife Elizabeth Siddal returned home. Siddal, who had been feeling drowsy since before the meal, went straight to bed. Her husband went out to a club. When he returned two and a half hours later, Rossetti found her unconscious and an empty phial of laudanum on the bedside table. Despite medical attention, she died at 7:20 the following morning. This was what the inquest recorded and what was reported in the Daily News of 14 February 1862. Her body remained in their house before burial. Rossetti hoped that she was not really dead and implored her to return to life. When she was buried, Rossetti interred with her drafts of his own poems, those inspired by her and which he considered his best. 

“Elizabeth Eleanor Siddall (1829-1862), called Lizzie Siddal, was the face of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB). Siddal, daughter of a Southwark cutler and a trainee milliner by trade, was a professional model by the time Rossetti met her in 1849. She had modelled first for Walter Deverell, who met her when she was working at a hat shop near Leicester Square. She also modelled with William Holman Hunt and posed as Ophelia for John Everett Millais.

“Siddal and Rossetti met in 1849 and she posed for him on a commercial basis. They became close and there was the intimation of a marriage. Rossetti required her to cease modelling for other artists. At her request, Rossetti gave Siddal instructions on painting. (She also attended professional drawing classes, at least in 1857.) She had artistic ambitions and becoming a private pupil of a painter was a means of gaining high-level training at a time when training through art schools was scarce and limited for female students. Her surviving art shows her to have been a competent artist, working on themes of chivalry set in a Medieval world, along the lines of other members of the PRB. However, it seems Rossetti was not a good teacher, encouraging her to use imagination rather than providing her with rigorous exercises and wide-ranging instruction. (Critics contend that Rossetti was technically weak himself, so was in a poor position to instruct others.) …”

To read the rest of this article, become a paid subscriber to be Substack blog. For $5 per month or $50 per year you gain access to exclusive reviews, articles, interviews and offers. Connect here: https://alexanderadamsart.substack.com/p/lizzie-siddal-pre-raphaelite-muse

Victor Brauner, Romanian Surrealist

[Image: Victor Brauner, Totem of Wounded Subjectivity II , 4 August 1948 Oil on canvas 91,5 x 72,7 cm Legacy of Mrs. Jacqueline Victor Brauner in 1986 Collection Centre Pompidou, Paris Musée national d’art moderne – Centre de création industrielle Inventory number: AM 1987-1205 Copyright of artwork: © Adagp, Paris Filename : 4F00059 Photo credit : (c) Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI/Jean-François Tomasian/Dist. RMN-GP Copyright of artwork : © Adagp, Paris]

To mark the 120th anniversary of one of Romania’s most important artists, Timisoara is currently staging a retrospective of Surrealist painter-sculptor Victor Brauner (1903-1966): Victor Brauner: Inventions and Magic (National Museum of Art, Timisoara, 17 February-28 May 2023). This review is from the catalogue. Brauner’s life as an exile in Paris mirrored that of other Romanians, who were unwilling or unable to live under the Communist regime. Brauner’s aversion to totalitarianism and his commitment to follow his imagination, wherever that was, made him incompatible with the values of the government. It just so happened that he had left his home country before World War II to be part of the Surrealist group under the guidance of André Breton.


Born into a Jewish family in Moldavia, as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Victor Brauner was influenced by his father’s occult Hassidic practices of Kabbalah. The family believed in spiritualism and conducted seances. This would become a significant influence on his art, increasingly from 1938 onwards. His younger brother Théodore (1914-2000) became a photographer and designer. Victor became an amateur artist while a schoolboy, when his family lived in Bucharest. He went on to study at the School of Fine Arts, Bucharest (1919-22), including one year of in the sculpture studio, before being expelled for his anti-authoritarian attitude.

[Image: Man Ray, Victor Brauner (c. 1933) Silver bromide gelatin negative on flexible support 8,7 x 6,2 cm Caption : Positive image obtained by inverting the values of the digitization of the original negative Filename : 4H20453 Photo credit : (c) Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI/Dist. RMN-GP Copyright of artwork : © Man Ray Trust / Adagp, Paris Donated by Mr. Lucien Treillard in 1995 Collection Centre Pompidou, Paris Musée national d’art moderne – Centre de création industrielle Inventory number: AM 1995-281 (453) Copyright of artwork : © Man Ray Trust / Adagp, Paris]

Contact with Modernism was not strong outside of Vienna, Prague and (to a lesser extent) Budapest within the Hapsburg Empire. Whether or not Bucharest’s reception of Modernism was impaired by the independence of Romania in 1918-9 is an open question. Certainly, Romania’s backwater situation regarding Modernist art dissatisfied many of its intellectuals. In 1924 Contimporanul, an exhibition including leading Modernist artists alongside ex-patriate Constantin Brâncuşi and other Romanian artists, was held in Bucharest. The 21-year-old Brauner participated and later that year held his first solo exhibition, also in Bucharest.  

As the acknowledged capital of culture in the inter-war period, Paris drew artists from around the world. This was true for Romanians such as Constantin Brâncuşi, Tristan Tzara, Marcel Janco (Iancu), Arthur Segal, Jacques Hérold and others. Brauner stayed in Paris during 1925-7 and 1930-3, however, the dates are deceptive. From 1927 until late 1929, Brauner had to undertake national service in Romania, hence we should think of the entire as one during which Brauner was committed to both Paris and Surrealism, although it seems the rise of the nationalist parties in 1930 that pushed Brauner to leave. Poverty forced him to return to Bucharest in 1933, where he became increasing involved with the Communist underground opposition to the government (by this time evolving towards Fascism) and the monarchy. One of the catalogue essayists suggests Brauner intended to establish a Bucharest branch of the pro-Soviet A.E.A.R. (Association des Écrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires). He did less painting and more left-wing caricatures and book illustration. However, he distanced himself from the Communists after the Soviet show trials of 1937 and, when faced with new legislation that forced Jews to apply for Romanian citizenship, he left Romania in early 1938 for Paris.[ii] This time it was permanent. He would never return to Romania. In 1947 he signed the Inaugural Rupture statement, rejecting the Marxism that dominated the Parisian cultural and intellectual elite.

[Image: Victor Brauner, Self-portrait (1931), Oil on wood 22 x 16,2 cm Legacy of Mrs. Jacqueline Victor Brauner in 1986 Collection Centre Pompidou, Paris Musée national d’art moderne – Centre de création industrielle Inventory number: AM 1987-1196 Copyright of artwork : © Adagp, Paris]

On the night of 27-8 August 1938, while intervening in a fight between Esteban Francès and Oscar Domínguéz (in the latter’s studio), Brauner an lost eye. This would have a deep impact on his art. It was also seen by the Surrealists as proof of Brauner’s uncanny foresight, as years earlier (1931) he had painted a self-portrait with disfigured eye. The incident is one of the most repeated anecdotes relating to Surrealism. This perhaps pushed the artist to reconsider his family’s occult spiritual beliefs. Whatever the exact cause, throughout the 1940s there is an increased presence in Brauner’s art of religious symbolism.

Following the invasion of France in 1940, Brauner and his first wife fled to Marseille, with numerous other Surrealists. His vicious painting of Hitler (1934) was a death sentence, should the Gestapo have become aware of it and apprehended Brauner. In 1942, he moved to the Hautes-Alps region and lived undercover for three years, returning to Paris after the end of the war. He began making sculpture seriously in late 1945. In 1961 Brauner moved from Paris to Normandy (where he had holidayed in recent years). Brauner received increasing recognition nationally and internationally, particularly in Venice Biennales. He died on 12 March 1966 in Paris.


All periods, except pre-1923, are represented in the selection. The earliest works in the exhibition are from 1923 and give us an idea of what was shown in his first group and solo shows of 1924. The works are influenced by Blaue Reiter and Cubism and are highly stylised renderings of figures and verdant landscapes. This is the common path that most young painters of the time followed, working out what it meant to be “modern”. The first Surrealist painting in the exhibition is from 1928. Brauner soon took up the oneiric/veristic line of painting in Surrealism, with a collage sensibility, that places him beside Dalí, Magritte, Fini and Carrington.

The political cartoons of the 1930s (featuring a Pere Ubu-like character, called “Monsieur K”) are not so different to cadavres exquis or Brauner’s drawings of fantastic figures, also displayed. There is a painting of a head with paintbrushes extruded from eyes and mouth. There are other inventions that are similarly striking but banal. The deadening effect of a rather simplistic technique, an indifferent palette and a lack of engagement with the mise en scene combine to produce works we would expect from a bright juvenile painter.

Curators have included large numbers of drawings and prints, as well as Brauner’s best-known paintings. The famous self-portrait has travelled from Centre Pompidou, Paris, looking lighter and less ominous than it has in other reproductions. Items are from French and Romanian collections, public and private. His early Surrealist paintings are hit or miss, depending on the strength of the imagery. The technique is conventional and not especially appealing per se. The 1938-1945 works show more time taken with each picture, a strengthening ability to enter an imaginary world and a lessening of the jejune tendency to give us the image raw. The post-1945 paintings are more integrated in terms of the technique and imagery being fully congruent, so they are better as art than the earlier two periods, even if one might not warm to the pictographic character.  

The engagement with sculpture, the use of impasto through encaustic painting and the flattening of pictorial depth could be attributed to Brauner’s monocular vision from 1938 onwards. No doubt this did play a significant part in this activity, but we should not overlook the wider cultural situation. Surrealism post-1945 became increasingly attached to these currents, marking a divergence from its highly political and anti-religious pre-war stance. Brauner was one of the artists who paralleled this broad Surrealist trajectory, albeit due to personal reasons. Evidence here is that from 1938 to 1945 or so, Brauner maintained his volumetric modelling of figures and objects and his pictorial space remains as deep as previously. It is only later that we get the radical flattening of space and linearity; profiles and outlines dominate.

Non-European art (particularly North American natives) and the drawings of children come to mind when viewing the art of the 1960s. The drawing from November 1964 has heads, profiles and animals combined in a naïve manner. In 1965 Brauner was experimenting with shaped and painted frames, some up to 2 metres wide. These are particularly successful and it is a shame that this line of work was curtailed by Brauner’s illness and death the following year. Did his art improve as he took on a shamanic role? Perhaps so. Remember that shamans are also tricksters and Brauner never abandoned the comic combination, so if Brauner was a shaman-painter, he never rejected the power of absurdity.  

[Victor Brauner, The Mother of Myths (1965) Oil on canvas and painted wood on plywood 144 x 200 x 3 cm Purchase from the arrears of the legacy of Jacqueline Victor-Brauner, 1993 In storage since 1996 : Musée de l’Abbaye Sainte-Croix (Les Sables-d’Olonne) Collection Centre Pompidou, Paris Musée national d’art moderne – Centre de création industrielle Inventory number: AM 1993-86 Copyright of artwork: © Adagp, Paris]

Although Brauner is called a painter-sculptor, there is little sculpture here, even including the two carved frame. The exhibition includes only two sculptures proper and mentions five being made in 1945. So, what was the extent and nature of Brauner’s sculptural output? This goes unanswered. The famous Loup-table (1947), an assemblage which has a table converted into a fox, is absent from the exhibition and not even illustrated in the catalogue. However, the exhibition does a good job of giving a thorough overview of the artist’s output.

Reception and response

It seems reception of Brauner’s art in Romania was impeded by the double barriers of anti-Modernism and anti-Semitism. Posthumously, Brauner was rehabilitated (or actually introduced) for Romanian audiences by the nationalist reclamation by Ceauşescu’s culture ministry. The street of his birthplace was named after him. Yet his first major retrospective in Romania only took place in 2003, marking his centenary. However, he is arguably still more a part of the French cultural landscape than that of Romania.  

What are we to make of Brauner now? The wave of research into Surrealism that has continued unabated for the last 30 or 40 years has centred on marginal creators, especially women, and dissident groups (the Documents-Bataille group) and foreign arms of the movement. Brauner was a core member of the Paris group from early days. He has not been neglected but he seems only to have failed to spark excitement. Several writers in the catalogue make a push for Brauner as relevant as a trans-national artist, yet another figure legitimising the current drive in museums to embrace and promote migrants. This will not wash. From Mondrian to Picasso, from Holbein the Younger to Van Dyke, Western art is full of great artists who worked in countries other than those in which they were born and they have been amply lauded. However, in contrast to today’s tokenism, no museum ever promoted Van Gogh primarily because he was a migrant.

So, does Brauner’s art hold up as art? In parts, yes. There is some feeble stuff and that is not due to poor curation or lack of availability of sufficient works. One cannot tell the story of Brauner without including awful pictures because he was often an awful painter. There is a degree of repetition in the later pictographs but as art, they function at a higher level than the early (pre-1938) pieces, perhaps with the exception of the 1931 self-portrait. Viewing the catalogue, my opinion of him is slightly raised. I wish I had the chance to see the art in person to find out how that might alter my understanding.  

Camille Morando (ed.), Victor Brauner: Inventions and Magic, Arta Graphica/Art Encounters Foundation, Bucharest, 2023, hardcover, 208pp, fully illus., Romanian/English text, 199L/€39

“Grandmaster of Bad-Taste Art”

“There is a certain finality to the catalogue raisonné. It seals an artist’s activity, fixing it into a form that will likely never be altered. From this point on, there will be few or no revelations or chance encounters with unseen works. Once you have studied the catalogue raisonné, the pleasure of discovery in curtailed by the alternative pleasure, that of the completist, the ambiguity-averse person who seeks to pin down the exact nature of a field. Like most those seriously interested in art, these two competing traits war in me whenever I peruse a catalogue raisonné.

“Francis Picabia (1879-1953) is commonly identified as an artist and writer associated with the Pointillism and the Orphist, Dadaist and Surrealist movements, but who is mainly uncategorisable, who worked alongside these groups for a time. The fourth and final volume of Picabia’s catalogue raisonné has just been published. There is quite a lot to see. Not only was Picabia a productive artist, there is a degree of repetition in his output, so there is no reason a monographic exhibition would have included a broad selection of paintings of the same group.

“What are those groups? In Picabia’s last 13 years, he painted pin-up nudes and female heads (1940-5), followed by an abrupt volte face, when he began painting semi-abstractions that resemble carvings, which we might call paleo-painting (1945-9). His final period was Points (1949-52), a sequence of abstract paintings that resemble constellations, with coloured dots on plain or very simple grounds.   As in the previous volumes, which I reviewed for The Art Newspaper, the final volume has a chronological narrative of the period, followed by some essays on different topics. Next comes the catalogue section, with full bibliography and exhibition list…”

To read the rest of this review, become a paid Substack subscriber here: https://alexanderadamsart.substack.com/p/grandmaster-of-bad-taste-art

“Further thoughts on Vermeer”

“Further to my review of the current Vermeer exhibition (in The Jackdaw), I give some thoughts on issues the catalogue raises. A full review of the current Vermeer exhibition (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 10 February-4 June 2023; reviewed from the catalogue) will appear in The Jackdaw, May 2023 issue. (To buy that issue, subscribe here.) This present article presents further reflections on Vermeer, in the light of the exhibition.

“The large catalogue (320pp) includes an illustrated list of Vermeer’s 36 or 37 paintings. There are no known drawings. There are no particular surprises. The terrible Young Woman Seated at a Virginal (c. 1670-2; Leiden Collection, New York) is still treated as authentic, when at least some of it is not. I adjudge the head, hands and wall to be posthumously completed; remarkably, technical analysis shows that the canvas comes from a bolt that Vermeer had already used for an authenticated painting and that the wretched yellow shawl is consistent with techniques and materials common to Vermeer’s established oeuvre. Girl with a Flute (c. 1664-7) is still considered on the fringes of Vermeer’s art. It is very poor but the materials and technique are of Vermeer. There is the idea that this is a work made under his supervision. Yet the conventional wisdom is that Vermeer had no studio or assistants (other than his older children doing paint grinding), so whom does this “circle of Vermeer” consist? No suggestions are put forward…”  

Read the article for free here: https://alexanderadamsart.substack.com/p/further-thoughts-on-vermeer

Excerpt from “After/Apres Francis Bacon”


Surrounded by duns, olives, sages,

grey-browns of trampled paddocks

the alcohol-blue flame of asphyxia

burns with all the vignetting of unconscious

darkening and diffusing the periphery.

Asphyxia choking out the world:

the clatter of hooves on cobbles

the clink of bridal bits

the hare-lipped stable hand laughing equine

all grow fainter,

making you distant

making you alone

making you, then retreating

and the ceiling expands to normality.

Better outside, later lurking near the stables

loitering at the kitchen garden

catching glimpses of grooms

their boots swelling over calves

leather straps held firm

the taut forearm bulging

as the hay bale is hoisted.

There you linger fearfully

anticipating delicious discovery

and subsequent blushing

that creeps upward and down.

Always hasty clouds and threat of rain, stifled

in greenness. Smell of damp tweed, lanolin

and dogs joyous, vigorous as eels,

pushing towards food. Sentinel maids in aprons

shuttle across the courtyard.

On the threshold you are shy,

awkward, eager for experience.

To read the book Alexander Adams, Peggy Pacini (trans.), After/Après Francis Bacon (Golconda Fine Art Books, February 2022, 250 copies first edition, 60pp, 1 col. illus., English/French, 80gsm paper, A5 size, £10 + p&p (UK and worldwide shipping)) visit here: https://www.bournbrookmag.com/books/p/afteraprs-francis-bacon-alexander-adams-2022