David Lynch as Artist

David Lynch in his studio ©David Lynch

[Image: David Lynch in his studio ©David Lynch]

The film director David Lynch (b. 1946) started his career as an artist and trained at art school before switched to cinema. Since his youth he has made art and in recent years this art – painting, drawing, photography and other mediums – has been recognised in numerous exhibitions. The current exhibition David Lynch: Someone is in my House at Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht (30 November 2018-28 April 2019) brings together a wide range of Lynch’s fine art from his students years up until today. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

Interested in art from an early age, Lynch studied painting at Museum School, Boston in 1964 and transferred to Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia in 1966. At this more progressive institution, Lynch developed his ambitions as a creator. He recalled in an interview that while he was painting some grass, he imagined the grass being animated. This event was something that led him towards film. His first short films varied between animation, live action and a mixture of the two. Six Men Getting Sick (1967) was an animation projected on to a painted assemblage with plaster heads, which was filmed. It is the recording of the animated painting/assemblage that has become the film Six Men Getting Sick that we know today. From this point onwards, Lynch considered painting as an approach that could include sculpture, film projection, found objects and other material. These are not so much hybrid works as mongrel ones – crossbreeds of ambiguous appearance, uncertain origin, unclear taxonomy and undeniable vitality.

David Lynch, Six Men Getting Sick, 1967, film still, courtesy ABSURDA

[Image: David Lynch, Six Men Getting Sick (1967), film still, courtesy ABSURDA]

In 1970 Lynch went to study at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. At this point his creative energy was increasing focussed on films, such as The Grandmother (1970) then Eraserhead (1977, started 1972) – projects that occupied his time at the AFI and the immediate period after he left. There is relatively little large-scale work from around 1968 up until after 2000. At this time Lynch was busiest with directing. After 2006, the time when Lynch’s last feature film (Inland Empire) was released, art became his primary field of creativity activity again. It is fair to classify Lynch of recent years as more of an artist than a director, although his recent work on the third series of Twin Peaks showed he is still as original and masterful as he ever was as a director.

The early drawings are small, in pencil or ballpoint on standard size sheets of paper. These drawings of the late 1960s are typical of the period, working along the same lines as pop artists such as Richard Lindner and counter culture art, also art made in the wake of Surrealism. The mixture of pop culture imagery and subversive counter culture/underground attitude was common at the time. The art of Francis Bacon falls into this overlap. Lynch acknowledges Bacon as a major influence on his art, especially after Lynch visited Bacon’s exhibition at the Marlborough Gallery, New York in 1968. In the art (and also cinema) of Lynch we find the following Baconian elements: isolation of figures, predominantly dark background (from Bacon of the 1940s up to 1956), use of figural deformity, an atmosphere of emotional tension or distress, cages/tanks/frameworks as devices of confinement, use of drapes as backdrops, the eruption of carnal imagery, signs of violence, combination of domesticity and theatricality, the imperative of intense psychological trauma and the spectacle of sensation. Beyond the elements described above, it was the example of Bacon as an artist willing to explore the dark and alarming aspects of human existence in a striking, sumptuous and often beautiful manner in art that created a powerful impact which gave Lynch permission to explore his dark imagination in the area of fine art.

The placing of characters on a black ground (or immersed in darkness) is something common to Lynch and Bacon. Lynch has said, “Color to me is too real. It’s limiting. It doesn’t allow too much of a dream. The more you throw black into a color, the more dreamy it gets.” This is very apparent in the paintings of 1968 and 1988, as well as the later lithographs.

David Lynch, Woman With Tree Branch, 1968, oil and acrylic on canvas, courtesy Rodger LaPelle and Christine McGinnis

[Image: David Lynch, Woman With Tree Branch (1968), oil and acrylic on canvas, courtesy Rodger LaPelle and Christine McGinnis]

The large format of the paintings and expansive areas of black in them immerse us in darkness. Lynch wishes us to be consumed by the dark. Lynch is keen to keep in touch with the basic elements of existence: darkness, fire, smoke, soil, lightning, wood, water, oil, flesh. This matter prevents visions from becoming insubstantial or capriciously fantastical. This desire to keep material real is evident in the use of found objects and non-art materials which appear consistently in Lynch’s assemblage-constructions. The incorporation of found objects into life-size assemblage-paintings makes them similar to funk-art installations by Ed Kienholz. They certainly share a (critical) fascination with Americana, centring on the seediness of common culture.

David Lynch, untitled (Lodz), 2000, archival pigment print, courtesy the artist (2)

[Item: David Lynch, Untitled (Lodz) (2000), archival pigment print, courtesy the artist]

Since the early 1970s, Lynch has taken photographs of abandoned industrial installations. He was inspired by the industry of Philadelphia and this inspirational encounter with artificial environments (contrasting so strongly with Lynch’s outdoors childhood in Montana and Idaho) carried over to the culverts and overpasses of Los Angeles which Lynch visited while at film school. These became the setting for Eraserhead. While on location in various places (including England and Poland), Lynch has recorded abandoned factories, warehouses, refineries, pumping stations and other buildings in black-and-white photographs. Some are included in this catalogue, though the photographs have previously been exhibited en masse and reproduced more extensively in other publications.

Uncanniness comes to the fore in a series of modified vintage erotic photographs. The original photographs were taken in the Nineteenth Century and have been republished since then. Manipulated by Lynch, the unclothed figures have become truncated, distorted and deformed. They engage in obscure activity, themselves obscure and sinister presences. They are ghostly – not dissimilar to spiritualist photographs of 1900-1920. These are the closest to deliberately nightmarish images, created to unsettle and disturb. In recent decades, Lynch has made a number of series of photographs of nude women. None of those photographs have been included in this exhibition.

There are two series of lithographs that Lynch has made at the Paris studio of Idem. The first was a series of abstract designs in three colours and was a short series; the second is figural and much more extensive – continuing intermittently to this day. The initial three-colour lithographs were derived from the post-it drawings of the 1980s. They have a Keith Haring feeling – a bit Pop, a bit graffiti, a bit graphic design. They are the sort of designs one would find on an inner sleeve of New Wave LP from 1989. They seem decorative and undirected. Lynch’s non-photographic art needs the compulsion of the figure, figural element or animal to be at its best. These lithographs (and related drawings) are the least successful of the series Lynch has made.

David Lynch, Someone is in My House, 2014, lithograph, courtesy the artist and Item Editions

[Image: David Lynch, Someone is in My House (2014), lithograph, courtesy the artist and Idem Editions]

The later lithographs are much more successful. In 2007 Lynch stopped Lynch making colour lithographs and started drawing on stones using only black ink; the imagery included figures, animals, buildings and shadowy landscapes. This series has continued to this day. The prints employ the full range of artistic effects that traditional lithography is capable. Lynch has developed into a skilled lithographer, exploiting the capacities of stone lithography as a platform for his imagery. The sooty washes of ink diluted by turpentine make swirling clouds of dust and smoke. The scratching out of ink gives a graphic bite of light lines and provides relief to these dark scenes. The dabbing of fingerprints impart a touch of earnestness though not clumsiness and increase our engagement by adding tactility. As with other works, fragmentary phrases – be they snippets of dialogue or authorial commentary – appear in the pictures. These lithographs fit closely to Lynch’s large paintings in terms of appearance, imagery and tone. We witness incidents of violence and human contact (humorous, passionate, bizarre, inexplicable) in shadowy settings. These black lithographs are consistently the most effective pieces of art Lynch has produced to date.

In watercolours (primarily in greys and black) bleeding and soaking treat whole sheets of papers as objects. The scratching and abrasion of paper highlight the textural qualities of the materials. The watercolour Fight on a Hill (c. 2008-9) shares certain characteristics – not least the strange ambivalent tone somewhere between horrific thuggery and slapstick knockabout – with Goya’s Fight with Cudgels (1819-23) from his Black Paintings. Goya’s Black Paintings have a predominantly dark coloration and use of black, the artist’s use of grotesque and troubling imagery and ambiguity of subject matter all parallel Lynch’s ink drawings and lithographs. It seems that Lynch has few meaningful connections to contemporary artists and that his art has developed in relative isolation, with him exhibiting relatively rarely until the 2000s. Most of Lynch’s social and artistic milieu is centred on the film world rather than the fine-art world. It would be hard to assign Lynch to any current art movement.

Comedy plays an important part in Lynch’s creative output. This comes in the form of non sequiturs, colloquial dialogue or comments laced with underlying oddness or menace. There is a terrible form of black humour in scenes of catastrophic injury or deformity accompanied by laconic commentary. Part of the humour comes from the severity of the physical evidence and the mildness of the commentary. Often it is hard to judge the tone the texts – lacking context and verbal delivery – and this makes leaves viewers feeling wrong footed. The comic precision of titles such as This Man was Shot 0.9502 Seconds Ago (2004) recalls the baroque extravagance of Dalí’s titles.

David Lynch, Change The Fuckin Channel Fuckface, 2008-2009, mixed media on panel, courtesy the artist

[Image: David Lynch, Change The Fuckin Channel Fuckface (2008-9), mixed media on panel, courtesy the artist]

Another example of black humour is Change the Fuckin’ Channel Fuckface (2008-9), where a pathetic but sinister figure of a woman seated on a bed faces us and speaks. The text in the picture reads “woman with broken neck and electric knife speaks to her husband”. We are in a scene with narrative content. We are in the position of the husband, threatened by his angry and dangerous wife. Drawing an analogy with cinema is obvious but it seems a valid approach in this case. We have characters with emotional charge between them, dramatic tension, black humour, incidental details, a domestic setting and a degree of realism.

Lynch sometimes reaches for the cosmic. This can be seen in the films Eraserhead, Dune and The Straight Story. In his art it comes in the form of vortices and starry skies. His wastelands, perhaps inspired the Californian desert near Lynch’s home, also have a timeless quality. (The haunting isolation of the desert can be seen near the end of Lost Highway.) There is certainly work to be done by researchers on describing exactly how American Lynch is as a maker of fine art. In some respects he conforms to the stereotype of an American artist – a fascination with pop culture, American vernacular speech, imagery processed through the mass media, the American landscape, casual violence – and other respects he is a European artist in his ambiguity, his allusions to past art, evident fascination with deep existential horror and his refusal to accept simple answers. In this mixture, he is close to Abstract Expressionist behaviour, tastes and allegiances, though his art has little in common with theirs.

The abstract has appeared in Lynch’s films in the form of ambiguous spaces, starry skies, unknown terrain, water, fire and smoke. Lynch uses abstract elements in his cinema for reasons of pacing, atmosphere and symbolism. This carries over into his art. One only needs to think of the interludes in Twin Peaks series one and two, when see trees in the wind or a hanging traffic light against the night sky.

David Lynch, Boy Lights Fire, 2010, mixed media on cardboard, courtesy the artist. Collection Bonnefantenmuseum

[Image: David Lynch, Boy Lights Fire (2010), mixed media on cardboard, courtesy the artist. Collection Bonnefantenmuseum]

How accomplished is the art here? Generally, the art is effective. Lynch is intelligent, thoughtful and resourceful and judges his art well. His proclivities are very individual and not every piece will please viewers – with some pieces too peculiar, forced, comic or macabre for viewers. There is art here that verges on the trivial. The drawing on the inside of matchbook covers (Lynch is a compulsive smoker) could also fall into this territory but they do not. The common imagery recurs but there seems greater attention and a willingness to reach an unexpected outcome.

One of the few direct connections to Lynch’s primary professional career is evident in the drawing on the front page of the first draft of Blue Velvet. The question arises: how does our familiarity with the films of Lynch influence our reading of the art? This is difficult to answer. If one knows the films and television of Lynch then one can find clear references in the art. The catalogue texts do not address the crossover between Lynch’s cinema and his art. This is probably wise. The important motivation behind presenting the art is to establish the seriousness of the Lynch as an artist and the nature and extent of his artistic output as an independent oeuvre.

For enthusiasts of Lynch’s films the links to his art are obvious. For example, Lynch from his earliest years not only enjoyed making props for his films but insisted on making materials for the films, treating the mise en scene as inhabitable paintings. The lamps in the exhibition are part of Lynch’s activity stretching back to Eraserhead, Elephant Man and Blue Velvet. The flickering lamp is one of the motifs of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, as found in the unwelcoming diner in Deer Meadow. The strobe effect has been a staple of Lynch’s imagery from the earliest years. Lynch made a short film of himself making a lamp in 2011. Even when Lynch the filmmaker had the funds to pay for expert prop makers, he chose to make his own, despite the heavy demands of directing. The dual practices of small-filmmaker as jack-of-all-trades and artist-as-director inform Lynch’s continuing desire to involve himself in prop making. Settings from Lynch’s films do appear in his art but those pictures have not been selected for this exhibition – perhaps because a curatorial intention to establish Lynch’s art as separate from his films.

As with his films, Lynch does not provide verbal interpretations of art works. Although he talks in general terms about how he works and his preferences, he eschews any discussion of the content of individual pictures. The catalogue authors do not examine specific works but write in general terms about Lynch’s art. That art is various, including prints (lithographs), original photographs (direct and manipulated), adapted vintage photographs, drawings, watercolours, oil paintings with assemblage, lamp sculptures and stills from films. Much of the art is undated, though it can be broken down into periods by style and material. Likewise, a fair amount is untitled.

There are a few slips in the catalogue. Idem Studio in Paris is repeatedly referred to as “Item Studio” and “Premonition Following an Evil Deed” becomes “…Evil Dead”. Generally, the catalogue is accurate and clear. The catalogue is a very informative and rounded view of Lynch’s activity as an artist and is likely to advance the cause of Lynch as an artist. Lynch is driven by deep fascinations and private engagements. The fact that this is clear in all of Lynch’s art, from adolescence to recent years, regardless of audience, demonstrates the seriousness of his practice. These are the hallmarks of a committed artist.

 

Stijn Huijts (ed.), David Lynch: Someone is in my House, Prestel, 2019, 304pp, fully col. illus., hardback, $65/£49.99, ISBN 978 3 7913 8470 2

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

See my art and books here: www.alexanderadams.art

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Gala Dalí: Between Goddess & Monster

9. eric schaal © fundació gala-salvador dalí, figueres, 2018. drets de gala i salvador dalí reservats. fundació gala-salvador dalí, figueres, 2018

[Image: Eric Schaal, Salvador Dalí and Gala working on the “Dream of Venus” pavilion, 1939. © Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres, 2018. Image Rights of Gala et Salvador Dalí reserved. Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres, 2018.]

I. The Life of Gala

Gala Dalí has had a decidedly mixed public reception. She has been seen as a muse, an enigma, a sensitive cultivator of creativity and a debauched heartbreaker. She is one of the most divisive figures among historians of Surrealism. Her shadow looms large, extending in a Dalínian fashion across the landscape of Surrealism. A number of major creative people were smitten by her – she had relationships with Dalí, Éluard, Ernst and de Chirico, among others – yet many who met her described her as difficult and demanding, commanding more respect than affection from acquaintances. Above all, she is lodged in the memories and imaginations of millions of people as the central recurring subject of the art of her husband Salvador Dalí, who was so devoted to her that he habitually signed himself “Gala Salvador Dalí”.

The English-language translation of the catalogue for a recent exhibition at Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona (5 July-14 October 2018) examines the life of Gala Dalí, showing startling photographs and private documents. This is a review of the catalogue.

10. autor desconegut. retrat de gala tête à chateau. drets de gala i salvador dalí reservats. fundaci gala-salvador dalí, figueres, 2018

[Image: Unknown author, Portrait of Gala “Tête à chateau”. © Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres, 2018. Image Rights of Gala et Salvador Dalí reserved. Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres, 2018.]

Elena “Gala” Ivanovna Diakonova Éluard Dalí was born in Kazan, Russia, 7 September 1894. Suffering at an early age from tuberculosis, Gala was sent by her middle-class family to a mountain sanatorium in Switzerland. On her arrival in 1912, she met the budding poet Paul Éluard (1895-1952). They began a love affair which would, in 1916, lead to marriage. He often wrote about her and her beauty and the hypnotic gaze which inspired many painters, photographers and writers associated with the Dada and Surrealist movements.

She was a complex character but that has often been overlooked because of how reticent she was in some respects. The common accusation that Gala was a gold-digger – in connection with relationships – is unfair. When she left Éluard for the young and poor Dalí in 1929, she took a risk and it seems a genuine emotional commitment on both sides. Her attractions to men never seem materialistic, even though she was materialistic. Gala was both emancipated by her roving eye and also ensnared by her libido. As she exercised her freedom, the more she became dependent on her erotic drive and romantic relationships. The assertion of her independence in sexual matters locked her into a life pattern which led to her being seen publicly as a muse and mistress. Although Estrella de Diego, the catalogue author, fairly notes that views of Russian women and Spaniards were bound up with the influence of Orientalism (as put forth by Edward Said), that point is belaboured. All cultures develop narratives including views of themselves and foreign cultures which assert and reiterate stereotypical traits of in-groups and out-groups. This phenomenon is not unique to Western Europe but a reoccurring universal.

Though the trope of the mysterious devouring goddess – one who charms and repulses, seduces then disposes of lovers – is a cliché it is also an accurate description of the role Gala fulfilled in the Surrealist circle. She was indeed a prolific lover, confident and assertive, frighteningly cutting, inspiring yet personally deeply private, not least about her Russian past and her innermost feelings. Although the cliché is not whole truth, it does describe well Gala’s function as Surrealist muse, whilst neglecting the truth (so far as it is ever attainable) about her inner life.

In 1929 Gala and Éluard travelled to summer in Cadaqués at Dalí’s home. (See my review of Magritte and Dali here.) Gala started an affair with Dalí which led to marriage and lasted until her death. They were constantly together in the early years, attending high-society functions, Surrealist balls and bohemian gatherings, where they partook in séances and answered questionnaires. They were a striking couple, both very attractive and stylishly dressed. When they spent time in New York in the 1930s they became an immediate hit with art collectors and the press. Dalí came to be seen as the mad Surrealist par excellence and the mysterious Gala his aloof and glamorous muse. They spent the 1940s in America, fraternising with Walt Disney and Alfred Hitchcock, with Dalí making a living painting Surrealist portraits of millionaires. When they returned to Spain in 1949, Dalí was considered a sell-out and a traitor for supporting General Franco. When Dalí announced he would paint religious pictures glorifying the divine majesty of the Catholic faith, with Gala as his model, he was dismissed as shameless publicity-seeker by the Surrealists and followers of Modernist art. In the 1960s, Dalí was considered by many to be an irrelevant clown. He found a new wave of supporters among the hippies and groupies who travelled to the Dalís’ Port Lligat home. His dreamlike imagery was the ideal accompaniment to LSD trips. Dalí’s sexual licentiousness was indulged by androgynous youths on a secluded beach while Dalí held court on a stone throne. (He preferred to watch rather than participate.)

Gala pursued affairs with younger men. Her need for seclusion – she distained the sexual antics of the beach groupies – led to the purchase of a tower at Púbol in 1969. Not far from their house in Port Lligat, this tower would be her private domain and Dalí would not be permitted to visit with written invitation from her. (This was a manifestation of his deep masochism, he declared.) Together, the couple oversaw the renovation and designed decorations, some of which Dalí painted. Others seem to be the work of his studio assistants. Instances of Dalínian inspiration can be seen in the illusionistic murals, the stuffed animals and Surrealist assemblages. This catalogue features many photographs of the tower during Gala’s time and its current state, which is largely as it was. In 1971 Vogue featured photographs of the couple in the tower and the new decorative art works. However, Gala was fanatically private and refused to allow visitors while she was away, restricting access to her tower as much as possible. Púbol is often overlooked by historians, who tend to pass over the artist’s last years in cursory fashion. It was a collaborative project though it is unclear – on the evidence here – who was responsible for which parts. Since the 1990s, the tower has been accessible to visitors.

Gala died in 1982 and was buried in the basement of Púbol tower. Dalí, already ailing with Parkinson-like symptoms and unable to walk, refused to eat and was subsequently fed through a nasal tube. He was incapable of painting due to tremors and deeply depressed. Dalí intended to be buried in the tower next to Gala. He designed the twin tombs to be linked, so that their spirits could hold hands. Upon the death of Dalí, in 1989, the mayor of Figueras stunned people by announcing that in his last days Dalí had confided to him his wish to be interred in the Teatro-Museo in Figueras, making a public announcement that caught everyone off guard. Nobody who knew Dalí believed it was Dalí’s will to be separated from Gala. The mayor had committed a cynical coup by retaining the artist’s body for reasons of civic pride. Before anyone could mount a serious protest, the funeral took place in Figueras. Today, visitors to the museum wander over his gravestone without noticing it.

Dalí should be reburied in Púbol tower beside Gala.

 

II. The Exhibition

The exhibition in Barcelona focused on the life of Gala, stressing her role as muse and collaborator. The description of Gala as a creator is contentious. (This will be discussed in part III.) The exhibition uses photographs, art and possessions from her tower at Púbol as a point of focus which typifies the interaction between her and Dalí. Dalí was only one of the artists in her life, though admittedly the most important to her. The tower is viewed by the curator as a collaboration which reflects not only Gala’s character but as a manifestation of her creativity as a co-creator.

The catalogue reproduces some of her possessions including books, mirrors and icons. She knew the poet Anastasia Tsvietáieva from childhood and in the collection is a copy of one of her books inscribed to Gala from the author, dating from 1974. Many of her books are Russian-language, mainly classics in hardcovers. These, and a few sentimental tokens from Russia, remind us of the unseen side of Gala as a Russian émigré. There are examples of the dresses and jackets that Gala wore in the 1940s and retained. Gala remained slim so the dresses fitted her even decades after she acquired them. There are photographs from her childhood right up into the 1970s. In her very last years, Gala was averse to being photographed. There are other photographs (by no means all late ones) where Gala has scratched off her face, dissatisfied with her appearance – a mark of her vanity and insecurity. Some of the most intriguing photographs are of Gala as a young woman, with Éluard in the sanatorium: standing in the dazzling snow, seated inside with fellow lung patients playing chess or reading a book. A striking couple of photographs show Gala and Éluard dressed as Pierrots. One of the photographs belonged to André Breton

The photographs here of the young couple in the 1930s show the intense affection they felt, their physical intimacy and enjoyment of each other’s company. The photo-booth strips of the couple embracing are some of the most touching instances of their personal chemistry. We see the young lovers living in domestic settings, mixing with fellow Surrealists in galleries and on the beach in Spain. There are photographs by Man Ray, which cemented her reputation as the presiding Surrealist muse. There is the famous face shot of Gala, demonstrating the “gaze that pierces walls”, as Éluard put it. There are photographs of the handsome couple by Beaton and Horst. Poet René Crevel’s close friendship with Gala makes its presence known in their photographs and letters. Crevel’s suicide in 1935 was powerfully felt by both Gala and Dalí. Such friendships make Gala appear more sympathetic than has appeared in biographies of Dalí.

Many photographs of Gala show her as a muse for fashion designers. With her good bone structure and slim yet feminine physique, not to mention her prominence in social circles, meant that she was often given outfits to wear to public events. There is a photograph of her wearing the famous Schiaparelli high-heel hat – a concept that Dalí and Gala had invented for a Surrealist ball, which was developed by the couturiere with their permission.

8. andré caillet. gala amb barret-sabata

[Image:André Caillet. Gala with Elsa Schiaparelli’s shoe-hat inspired by a Salvador Dalí design (1938) André Caillet. París. Image Rights of Gala et Salvador Dalí reserved.
Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres, 2018.]

Illustrations include sources photographs of Gala posed for Leda Atomica (1947), Galarina (1945) and other paintings. (Gala was not shy about modelling nude.) There is a 1933 profile photograph which was used for Portrait of Gala with Lobster (1933). The exhibition included many paintings, drawings and prints by Dalí. This shows how frequently Gala appeared in Dalí’s art, often as the central motif. Gala has become an entire world which Dalí’s imagination inhabits and animates. She is the Madonna who floats immaculately (Madonna of Port Lligat), the embodiment of classical grace (Leda Atomica), the eternal woman atomised (The Flesh of the Décolleté of My Wife, Clothed, Outstripping Light at Full Speed), the mysterious paranoiac apparition (My Wife, Nude, Contemplating Her Own Flesh Becoming Stairs, Three Vertebrae of a Column, Sky and Architecture), the dreamt-of woman-child (Remorse), the unknowable figure from an Old Master painting (Sugar Sphinx) and the confidently sexual modern woman (Galarina).

Many of Dalí’s art works featuring Gala were exhibited in the Barcelona display and illustrated in the catalogue. The range was good, taking work form every period. The few late works that are weak show Dalí’s tiredness in the 1960s and 1970s. There are some drawings on tracing paper, showing Dalí traced photographs while preparing paintings. Heliogravures – a method of photo-sensitive transferral of drawing on to an etching plate – show Dalí using technical means to reproduce art. Whilst this is a valid way of producing prints its use disincentives the artist learning of etching technique and developing facility in the medium of etching. Already, by the early 1930s, Dalí was employing shortcuts to create art. Increasing commercial and public pressure to produce art led Dalí to make work with less involvement, including the use of assistants, photo-reprographics and – eventually – licensing others to produce material he would endorse.

6. salvador dalí. la mémoire de la femme-enfant (monumento imperial a la mujer niña), 1929. museo nacional centro de arte reina sofía

[Image:Salvador Dalí, The memory of the woman-child. Imperial monument to the woman child (1929), Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid. Dalí bequest. © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, VEGAP, Barcelona, 2018.]

Happily, most of the art here is made well, with originality and genuine feeling. It includes loans from the Teatro-Museo and prominent museum and private collections. For fans of Dalí there is much here to enjoy, not least the source photographs of Gala that Dalí used. Dalí enthusiasts will be fascinated to see the juxtaposition of art and sources. A handful of art works not made by Dalí but featuring Gala were included.

There are a handful of cadavres exquises in which Gala participated in the display. The game consists of a folded sheet of paper which is passed around, players drawing part of a picture without knowing the rest of it. There is also a version with words. A journal illustration documents a now lost Surrealist assemblage made by Gala. Such objects were commonly made by artists and non-artists in the Surrealist group, so much so that around 1930-2 it was considered a mania. Documentary photographs of Gala, Dalí and a team of fabricators making the Dream of Venus (Dalí’s contribution to the New York World’s Fair of 1939) show Gala’s input into the creative process. The pavilion was part Surrealist environment, part theme-park attraction, part shop-window display; it was dismantled when the fair closed.

Some private cards and letters to and from Gala were exhibited. These include a draft letter to her father in Russia written in 1945. Gala maintained links to her siblings and parents despite her geographic separation. The single greatest contribution this exhibition made was to expose the aspects of Gala not present in the art of others – namely her private reading and her Russian background.

 

III. The Catalogue

This catalogue presents Gala as an active participant in the art that was inspired by her and also suggests she was a sensitive writer, on the basis of her letters and an unfinished memoir fragment. The manuscript was found only recently and published in 2011. On the basis of the short quotes presented here it is definitely an informative and engaging document. Gala acted as Dalí’s translator in their early years in the USA. She managed his career and used charm and tenacity to promote his art. However, one should not over estimate her impact here. Dalí had already achieved considerable success in Spain before he met Gala and there is no reason to think that his unique vision, eccentricity and desire for fame (all established by 1929) would not have carried on to great success without Gala. De Diego moots the possibility that Gala had a hand in Dalí’s published writing, yet beyond evidence that Gala corrected the French of The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí she presents nothing more than conjecture. No doubt some of Dali’s writing springs from conversations with Gala but – again – Dalí was already a prolific writer before he met Gala.

2.salvador dalí. gala placidia. galatea de les esferes. 1952

[Image: Salvador Dalí, Gala Placidia. Galatea of the Spheres (1952), Fundació Gala- Salvador Dalí, Figueres. Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, VEGAP, Barcelona, 2018.]

It seems that Gala was content to work with and through other creative people rather than presenting herself as the primary creator. She published very little. De Diego notes Gala’s preface to an early volume of Éluard poems. Ultimately, it seemed collaboration as a model satisfied Gala adequately. It may be that she was uncertain of her abilities and, surrounded by acclaimed authors, was diffident about presenting her writing. There certainly seems to be sufficient material of high to warrant a collection of writings including her memoirs, occasional pieces and letters being published an independent volume.

As a biographical study (admittedly not a full biography) the catalogue text by Estrella de Diego is gravely flawed. Anna Maria, Dalí’s sister, is not covered in much depth and her importance is not made clear. The siblings were very close and Anna Maria is the subject of many early portraits. Anna Maria and Gala disliked each other from that start and a mutual rift opened between (on one side) Anna Maria and Dalí senior and (on the other) Dalí and Gala. Another omission is Cécile, Gala’s daughter with Éluard, who was treated poorly by her mother: abandoned in childhood and rejected in adulthood. Following Gala’s death, Cécile traded the Dalí art she had for photographs and letters relating to her father in her mother’s estate. Gala’s dislike for her own motherhood and her coldness towards her daughter are virtually missing from this account. De Diego suggests that the complete absence of Cécile from Gala’s draft memoir text was something that Gala would have gone back and added later. One wonders though.

De Diego sets forth “Gala the creator with no apparent work”.  She also sees Gala as co-creator of Dalí’s art, partly on the basis of here presence in his art, Dalí’s signature of “Gala Salvador Dalí” and his constant references to her in public statements about his ideas and art. This leads her into ideas of devolved authorship of art and concepts proposed by Post-Modernists. These arguments are no more or less comprehensible or compelling than any other argued along Post-Modernist lines. The idea that the tower of Pubol is akin to a conceptual work of art may have validity. However, de Diego’s other claim that the Teatro-Museo is not a conceptual work of art – due to it prioritising the staging of pre-existing art and being a public space – is unsupportable. Much of the experience of visiting the Teatro-Museo is a conceptual staging of art, collaborations and assemblages made specifically for the location. Indeed, the existence of the museum, which occupies a theatre from Dalí’s childhood reconceptualised as a partially ruined, partially transformed stage for his art, is a conceptual project.

The author draws parallels between Gala and other creators in a tenuous fashion. Due to the limited public understanding of Gala, this catalogue might better have been spent describing her activities using quotes from letters and her incomplete memoirs, including the personal photographs of Gala and Dalí’s photographs for paintings, in order to expand general knowledge about Gala. There is a comprehensive chronology which will be a resource for researchers; it is an indication of what this catalogue could have been.

Perhaps one reason de Diego prefers to dwell on speculative parallels with Claude Cahun  and Georgia O’Keeffe rather than discussing Gala’s life is the moral murkiness. That is not a reference to the Dalís’ open marriage – a matter to be negotiated in private by the couple themselves – but rather Gala’s involvement in unethical behaviour. De Diego omits verified tales of Gala driving Dalí on produce more and more commercial work, with much of which he had little creative involvement. Dalí authorised sculptures of works made by craftsmen – including series of variations fraudulently produced in “extra” editions. Dalí signed tens (possibly over a hundred) thousand blank sheets for production of prints authorised, pirated and outright faked. This did immense damage to Dalí’s artistic reputation. The art world is flooded with fake Dalís, as even Dalí experts and museums admit. Gala was complicit in this fraud.

Dalí had a compulsion for debasing both himself and those around him, taking pleasure in watching associates bend their morals until they snapped, giving in to their greed. Yet, had Gala exerted her personal power, she could have prevented or curbed this. Gala was involved in fraud, currency smuggling, tax evasion and forgery. She carried suitcases of undeclared cash on flights; she travelled from Paris to New York to deposit cheques in her bank to evade Spanish tax. Gala participated at every level in Dalí’s personal, artistic and legal corruption and the subsequent defrauding of thousands of Dalí collectors.

This is only one aspect of Gala but it is central because it is tied to her acquisitiveness and selfishness. This corruption is nowhere mentioned in this book. Yes, Gala has been maligned and this book sought to bring out Gala’s creative side and her connections to artists and writers but without acknowledging the dark side of Gala’s character we get a portrait that is unrecognisable. Readers of this book will come away knowing only half of Gala.

De Diego makes a warranted case for assessing Gala in a more sympathetic and rounded manner. The letters, photographs and personal items she has encountered in the Dalí Museums collection (and presented in this exhibition) are enough to provide evidence of Gala’s complexity, cultured nature and creativity. However, on the evidence of this book, de Diego is a poor advocate. The author’s attacks on André Breton achieve the unimaginable – they make Breton appear sympathetic and dignified by assaulting him with petty criticism. Breton was an immensely flawed character: arrogant, authoritarian, aloof, aggressive, a bearer of lifelong grudges, a veritable tyrant. Yet de Diego is so intent on championing Gala (and other female Surrealists) that her arguments make – by transference – these women appear weak and shrewish, downtrodden and ireful. Anyone who has studied the female Surrealists – as I have done for numerous reviews – will know better. When your arguments drive away naturally sympathetic readers you have to examine your failings as an advocate.

De Diego is so convinced of the idea that Gala is yet another talented woman written out of history by chauvinists – and so energised by her role as Gala’s champion – that she gets carried away by the unpublished writings of Gala, seeing her as “an artist without a body of work”. We come perilously close to the Feminist fallacy: due to past injustice, today’s unworthy individual must in compensation be awarded unearned status. Being an artist requires the effort, commitment, accomplishment and concentration of an artist. Being an artist is not incidental. Gala Dalí, talented writer of occasional prose and correspondence, was no artist.

To summarise: the primary material in the exhibition and catalogue give us a Gala more complex and sympathetic than hitherto presented; the case for Gala as an independent creative artist-writer is not supported by the material and concepts put forth in the catalogue, though the material is worthy of extensive publication; the catalogue presentation of Gala’s life and involvement with Dalí is so incomplete as to be misleading. If one can set aside the author’s partisan position and blind spots, this book contains valuable source photographs and facts about Gala Dalí and the art of Salvador Dalí.

 

Estrella de Diego, Gala Salvador Dalí. A Room of One’s Own at Púbol, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya / Dalí Museums, 2018, paperback, 255pp, fully illus., €40, ISBN 978 8480 433396 (Spanish and Catalan versions available)

© 2019 Alexander Adams

See my art and books here: www.alexanderadams.art

Magritte and Dalí

 

[Images: LEFT: René Magritte, The Imp of the Perverse (1928), oil on canvas, 81.3 x 116 cm, inv. 7418, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels. © SABAM 2018 / photo: J. Geleyns – Art Photography; RIGHT: Salvador Dalí, Fantasies Diurnes (1931), oil on canvas. 81.2 x 100.3 cm, Collection of The Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, FL. ©Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, (Artists Rights Society), 2018]

A current exhibition explores the links between the two most iconic artists of the Surrealist movement. René Magritte (1898-1967) and Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) is on show at the Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida (15 December 2018-19 May 2019) and will tour to the Royal Museums of Fine Art of Belgium, Brussels, home of Musée Magritte. Curator of the exhibition, Dr William Jeffet, has assembled a group of paintings, objects, graphics and photographs that demonstrate the associations between the art of these two. Often this comes in the form of pairings of pieces by the painters; in the catalogue the direct personal interactions of the artists are discussed. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

The curation rests on the world’s two outstanding collections of these artists. The Dalí Museum has the world’s best collection of Dalí’s best paintings, better than even Dalí’s own museum in Figueras. The second venue on the tour, Musée Magritte, home of the world’s largest and best collection of the Belgian’s art, has loaned excellent paintings. There are some loans from other institutions and private collections. The selection is of top-drawer pieces from the classic periods of the two artists – all work is from 1925-48) and it is intelligently chosen and organised.

When Dalí became involved in Surrealism (in 1928), Magritte was already part of the Paris and Brussels groups. Although Magritte only moved to Paris in 1927, he was established as a serious painter among the followers of the new movement. Dalí knew of Magritte’s art and wrote about the Belgian’s painting in articles for the Spanish press before their first meeting in the late spring of 1929. Dalí was enthusiastic about Magritte’s painting in these early years and not slow to publicly praise his paintings.

They came to share the same dealer, Camille Goemans, who signed them both to contracts in 1929. A large part of Magritte’s decision to move to Paris (in September 1927) was that his Belgian dealer Goemans had relocated to Paris in April 1927. It was the failure of Goemans gallery (in the wake of the Great Crash of 1929) that caused Magritte to quit Paris and returning to Brussels, where he took up commercial work again, designing posters and adverts for the coming years. Dalí would stay on in Paris, though poor in his early years. There is one letter from Magritte to Dalí in the Teatro-Museo archives in Figueras. (Jeffet comments that Dalí’s correspondence is considerable but dispersed and only a minority of it has been published. Again, we find an absence – a book Dalí correspondence would be of great interest.)

René and Georgette Magritte would witness one of the key events in Dalí’s life. In August 1929, Goemans and the Magrittes went to visit Dalí in Cadaqués. This proved a fateful summer for Dalí. Gala and Paul Éluard joined the party. Gala and Dalí began an affair; come September Eluard left for Paris while his wife stayed on in Spain with her new lover Dalí. Gala was notorious for her many affairs and Éluard apparently expected her to return to him. He was distraught when she did not. She would go on to marry Dalí, while continuing extra-marital affairs even into old age. Magritte resented Dalí’s financial success and critical attention in the 1930s and 1940s. It was only in the 1950s that Magritte achieved a comfortable income from his sales to American collectors via Alexandre Iolas’s gallery in New York. It was in New York that Magritte and Dalí met in passing for the last time, when Magritte was there to attend his retrospective exhibition.

Jeffet and Michel Draguet, director of the Royal Museums of Fine Art of Belgium, write about the parallels and differences between the artists. Both Dalí and Magritte were well versed in art history and studied at highly regarded art schools in Brussels and Madrid. Both were part of the veristic or oneiric strand of Surrealism, which included realistic depictions of recognisable objects alongside the fantastic and impossible, as opposed to the automatist strand, which was developed by Ernst, Masson, Matta and Gorky, where forms were often abstract and generated by random factors. However, they differed in style. Magritte deployed a neutral and direct approach, akin to commercial illustration or the more stolid naturalism of Low Countries Realism of the Nineteenth Century. Dalí cultivated a virtuosic style, flamboyantly difficult derived from Italian Renaissance painting, with passages of microscopic detail and flashes of bravura brushwork, making a hyperreal but very personal style.

Various themes of the artists include dreams, the erotic, reality subverted, the symbolic portrait, the nostalgic ideal landscape, Surrealist still-lifes and the self-portrait. They drew on their home territories: the Ampurdan plain and bay of Port Lligat of Catalonia and the pastures and waterways of Brabant and suburbs of Brussels. They used a recurring set of images, which became associated with the artists. The artists developed repertoires of certain pictorial methods of achieving states of dislocation in viewers: change property (size, weight, strength, rigidity, flammability and so forth), transformation (bird into egg and so forth), replication, juxtaposition (including montage and actual collage), use of words, representation of unknown or impossible substances, titular contradiction and quotation of familiar Old Master art.

 

[Images: LEFT: Salvador Dalí, The Invisible Man, 1932, oil on canvas, 16.5 x 23.8 cm, Collection of The Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, FL. ©Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, (Artists Rights Society), 2018; RIGHT: René Magritte, The Unexpected Answer (1933), oil on canvas, 82 x 54.4 cm, inv. 7241, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels. © SABAM 2018 / photo: J. Geleyns – Art Photography]

Magritte had pioneered the motif of the inflammable object on fire. His Discovery of Fire (1936) shows a tuba burning; Dalí next year drew people engaged in fine dining at night, illuminated by burning giraffes. (Magritte despised Dalí’s burning giraffes, finding them crass and comical.) Dalí also used another of Magritte’s signature motifs, the veiled form. This veiling of the face or body is often linked to the death of Magritte’s mother, whose face (it was claimed) was found shrouded by her nightdress. The sinister aspect of the veil as shroud is apparent in The Lovers (1928), where anonymous lovers kiss while their faces are hidden from the world – voluntarily or otherwise. In Dalí’s paintings of the early 1930s there are many fantastical, sinister and erotic forms concealed by sheets. The approach held psychosexual power and a nagging mystery for Dalí. Some of Dalí’s most effective compositions involve the theatricality and tactility of sheets partially revealing and concealing objects and figures. While Dalí was clearly the borrower, his uses of the motif differed from the originator’s usages.

Both artists engaged in the craze for object construction. While Dalí’s were assemblages of found and modified objects, Magritte’s were generally bottles or plaster casts painted.  There is the comparative display of the two artist’s variations of the Venus de Milo. Magritte’s is a colour painted plaster, while Dalí’s is a painted bronze including drawers with ermine-covered handles. Minor pieces but an appealing juxtaposition. Another point of exact intersection is the Comte de Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror (1869). While the Dalí Museum has a full set of the Spaniard’s etchings (1934) (apparently not executed by him but actually a master printmaker), it only has the title page of Magritte’s illustrations (1948, here dated “1934”). Could not examples of Magritte’s interior illustrations have been borrowed to expand this display? These illustrations aptly foreground Dalí’s immersion in his own fantasies to the detriment of the illustrative function of the prints, whereas Magritte’s showcase his flexibility and versatility, using images and technique nearly unique in his oeuvre.

They were political opposites, with Magritte a member of the Belgian Communist party and Dalí supporting the Fascists and Falangists, though for both these were sentimental attachments rather than ideological positions. There were tensions between the Belgian Surrealists and the Parisian group. In Paris, Magritte was decidedly a Walloon and both more subversive and more conventional than his Parisian colleagues. Magritte bridled at the domineering style of André Breton’s leadership, the cycles of tribunals and expulsions and the endless debates over the compatibility of self-determination and political commitment inherent in the Communist basis of Surrealist thought. In that respect Magritte and Dalí both distanced themselves from Louis Aragon’s demand that Surrealist’s adherence to Communist doctrine. Aragon specifically criticised an assemblage by Dalí which included a class of milk, asserting that glasses of milk must be given to the sickly children of workers rather than wasted in art. The exhibition includes a reconstruction of the very piece – Surrealist Object (1931/1973)) – that Aragon denounced. Dalí retorted that he was in the grip of his delirious unconscious and that he must follow its most extreme and inexplicable manifestations regardless of politics. This was a stance that led to his eventual expulsion from the group. While Magritte agreed with left-wing policies, he could never bring himself to follow the dictates of Socialist Realism or the incorporation of explicit political messages into art. Magritte also found himself frozen out of the official Paris group, having fallen out with Breton several times.

Both artists collaborated with their wives as models. Gala was celebrated as a muse for a number of artists and named as a subject in Dalí’s painting titles and public pronouncements. Gala Dalí appeared at events such as society balls, exhibition openings and audiences with prominent individuals. Georgette Magritte, however, appeared often in the paintings but is only occasionally named, mostly in private portraits. Her position as a model was not made explicit during Magritte’s lifetime, probably due to propriety and modesty. Gala was a cosmopolitan exhibitionist, whilst also being extremely private; Georgette was a middle-class Catholic Walloon. Georgette was a participant in her husband’s photographed japes and short films, but this seems in the spirit of play and mischief rather than fame-seeking, as these were not intended to be public.

The book includes two essays, a chronology for the two artists, illustrations of exhibited art (and related unexhibited art) and many photographs of the artists and their wives, colleagues and collaborators. There is much more to be said on this pair of artists, particularly on their sources. The pair drew on published sources and applied Surrealist ideas to work in the commercial sphere. There is a fruitful loop between commercial sources feeding fine art and fine-art ideas appearing in commercial art. There is little discussion of the artists’ separate correspondence, which is a shame. Magritte mentioned Dalí in passing a number of times, as quoted by Torczyner, and in this catalogue there are some quotes from Magritte’s letters in the Écrits complets. The references are cutting, denigrating Dalí for his sensationalism. The extent of Dalí’s letter-writing is unclear.

This is a fascinating and approachable book for anyone interested in Dalí, Magritte or Surrealism. The exhibition is sure to attract a lot of attention in Europe when it arrives in Brussels later this year.

 

William Jeffet, Michel Draguet, Magritte and Dalí, The Dalí Museum/Ludion, 2018, hardback, 144pp, 80 col./b&w illus., $19.95, ISBN 978 949 303 9001. Available from http://www.thedali.org

© 2019 Alexander Adams

See my art and books here: www.alexanderadams.art

Remedios Varo: Letters, Dreams & Other Writings

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A new book gathers the private writings of Spanish Surrealist Remedios Varo (1908-63). The Mexico-resident artist has gained a supportive following for her paintings and this book brings her writings to new foreign audiences. The publisher is Wakefield Press, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is a specialist publishing house producing literary texts in translation, including some rarities of Surrealism. This small-format paperback edition is attractive and comfortable in the hands, with a few transcriptions of text and images. It is the first English translation of the Spanish language edition published in Mexico in 1994.

The artist was born in Anglès, Girona. She studied in the Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid, graduating in 1930, just a few years after the golden generation of Dalí, Lorca and Buñuel. In the mid-1930s Varo became engaged by the art and ideas of the Surrealist movement. She was friendly with Óscar Dominguez and had a relationship with Esteban Francés, both Spanish Surrealist painters. In 1937, concerned about the Spanish Civil War and the progress of the Falangists, Varo left her homeland and moved to Paris to join the Surrealists officially. Her art was published in journals and she exhibited at a number of major displays of Surrealist art.

In 1941 Varo fled Europe for Mexico, where she would spend the rest of her life. During her time in Mexico City she became close to Leonora Carrington. Varo’s painting and literary fantasies share much with Carrington. Although they came from different backgrounds, their outlooks largely converged and found common ground in Surrealism, fantasy, dreams, allegories and fables. Carrington appears in some of Varo’s recorded dreams and Varo is a character (Carmella Velasquez) in Carrington’s novella The Hearing Trumpet.

The texts in this collection seem to have been private writings not intended for publication. Some were found in Varo’s daily notebooks, surrounded with mundane lists and calculations, and published posthumously. There are letters to identified or unidentified recipients, logs of dreams and unpublished written interviews. Few are dated; the translator suggests that they were written in the last years of the artist’s life. Varo’s papers and art were preserved and promoted by her last partner, Walter Gruen, whose efforts have contributed to Varo’s sustained reputation. The translator’s introduction will help newcomers to Varo’s art and writing; notes identify some individuals mentioned in the texts.

Varo’s writing is full of playful wit. She sends ciphers to a painter colleague and reminds him of shared paellas past. In a letter to a stranger picked at random, she invites him to spend New Year’s Eve at another random stranger’s house. The amusing and disarmingly self-deprecating letter recalls the acts of arbitrary mischief that Surrealists advocated; the combination of precision, pointlessness and whimsicality has charm. In other letters she comments to supporters about her art.

One of Varo’s most notable art works is Homo Rodans, a skeletal construction of a fantastical creature with a wheel-like lower portion, presented as a museum specimen. Varo wrote a parodic scientific paper on the Homo Rodans, complete with Latin quotations and pseudonymous author name. Project for a Theater Piece is a story of theatrical quality and dreamlike interactions. It is regrettably short and its potential seems unfulfilled. It shares a fragmentary quality with the other pieces here. There is some automatic writing (Surrealist practice of writing images or words in free association, as derived from psychoanalytic practice) and fantastical recipes including one with ingredients of horseradish, garlic, honey, a brick and two false moustaches.

Ten dreams are described. There’s certainly more than a little curiosity value to a personal friend of Carrington and Wolfgang Paalen who records their appearances in her dream logs.

“I sat down to write two very important letters and left them (before putting them into their envelopes) on a table, and when I went back to retrieve them, I saw with annoyance that Eva’s gentlemen friends had dunked one of the letters in the oil-and-vinegar dressing of a salad they were eating and the other letter was soaking in the juices from some pieces of stewed meat on another plate.”

The most pleasing dream story is one where a condemned Varo metaphorically weaves a man into material of herself, making a woven egg-like structure, allowing her to die satisfied.

There is a compilation of allusive and short comments on the personal meaning of her paintings had for her. All of the paintings are late recently made paintings. The references Varo makes indicate the significance she attached to astrology, science, cooking, mythology, literature and history. While her literary style is not ornate or sophisticated, the writings have the appeal of being made for her own pleasure rather than being produced for an audience. They have lightness and humour without striving too hard for comic effect. This enjoyable collection will spur some readers to investigate Varo’s art and it gives us a glimpse of Varo’s character and the frames of reference for her as a creator.

 

Remedios Varo, Margaret Carson (trans.), Letters, Dreams & Other Writings, Wakefield Press, November 2018, paperback, 128pp, mono illus., $14.95, ISBN 978 1 939663 39 9

 

© 2018 Alexander Adams

See my art and books at www.alexanderadams.art

Kay Sage: Catalogue Raisonné

Kay Sage Catalogue Raisonne von

There has been a boom in publications and exhibitions relating to the female Surrealists in recent years. Leonora Carrington, Claude Cahun, Leonor Fini, Lee Miller and Aileen Agar have all benefitted from academics, curators and writers wanting to break new ground. Dorothea Tanning’s retrospective opens in London early in 2019. The latest figure to receive reappraisal is American artist Kay Sage. The imposing and lavish Kay Sage: Catalogue Raisonné finally makes available all known works by this intriguing and little understood figure.

Katherine Linn Sage (1898-1963), called Kay Sage and Kay Sage Tanguy, was born in New York State. At a young age she travelled in Europe with her family. She moved frequently, living an international lifestyle in New York, Washington DC and Rapallo and Rome in Italy, studying art as she did so. After a period of academic realism, Sage took up a Modernist style with reduced, geometric, semi-abstract forms. In 1936 she moved to Paris and committed to Surrealism. She deliberately did not meet the Surrealists in person until she considered she had painted enough work to be accepted on its merits. In 1938 she exhibited her Surrealist paintings and met the Surrealists. She was impressed both artistically and romantically by Yves Tanguy (1900-55), who was well disposed to her and her art. They began an affair. At the outbreak of war, the well-connected Sage (who knew Ezra Pound, Ford Maddox Ford and T.S. Eliot) organised a fund to support the evacuation of artists from France. The couple fled France for New York City, where they married in 1940. They later moved from New York City to Woodbury, Connecticut, where they spent the rest of their lives.

Sage’s paintings are notable for an absence of figures. Her paintings typically show unidentified geometric objects, structures of lattices and rods and drapery set in imaginary landscapes with far-distant horizons. Sometimes there are personages wrapped in rumpled drapery. Sage’s best works – the mature paintings of landscapes occupied by a few elements, lit by harsh raking light – are locations one inhabits. JG Ballard often used the landscapes settings of Delvaux and Dalí as backgrounds in his stories but in many ways Sage’s mental landscapes are ideal analogues for Ballard’s harsh alien terrains.

Sage’s visions are bleak and arid. They are neat worlds – vast expanses of immaculate desert and steppe. (As an individual, Sage was compulsively tidy.) Even the seas seem orderly and dry. (You have never seen drier water.) These are vistas that have never seen a drop of rain fall or a blade of grass grow. If any beings ever inhabited these places, they are long gone, leaving only enigmatic structures and the detritus of obscure activity. Her visions are also static. The drapery she painted never seemed to be captured in movement. Everything is frozen. There is a touch of depressive paralysis to the art – that sense that change is both impossible and futile. The pleasure one gets is the complete immersion in a world utterly fixed, clear, dry and sparse. It is asperity in paint.

The comparison with Tanguy’s lunar/submarine terrains populated by biomorphic and petrological objects is unavoidable. Sage knew Tanguy’s art before she met him and her unpeopled world is related to his vision. Both were meticulous in technique – the oneiric or veristic branch of Surrealist painting. What distinguished her art from that of Tanguy is Tanguy’s multivalence. Tanguy’s worlds could microcosms or macrocosms, desert plain or seabed, something alien, ancient or many millions of years hence in a post-human universe. Sage’s world is human-proximate: these are potentially liveable places with signs of human (or pseudo-human) activity. The very indication of human life makes these deserted settings even bleaker. Sage’s palette was drab, exploiting the emotional muteness of earth colours, half-tones and greys. Her paintings are rarely enlivened by the rich colour that one finds in Tanguy’s biomorphs, and then only in small areas. Psychological research shows that individuals experiencing clinical depression are less receptive to colour than non-depressives are and Sage’s muted palette seems indicative of psychological numbness and isolation.

Another touchstone in evaluating Sage’s art is relating it to that of de Chirico, who influenced so many of the Surrealists. In de Chirico’s Metaphysical paintings we encounter everyday objects that carry the associations and emotional connections of their usual existence. In Sage’s paintings we encounter materials rather than objects. The materials form structures that are potentially useful but their uses are obscure to us; the structures might actually be useless. There is no way for us to understand the functions of the structures. Sage shares with de Chirico a predilection for bright sunlight, long shadows, clean lines and deep pictorial recession. Sage was closest to de Chirico’s Metaphysical art in the 1937-40 when she was formulating her mature style.

Sage takes de Chirico to an extreme by mostly eliminating figures. One of the few exceptions – and it is a notable one – is Le Passage (1956). This shows an adolescent woman with her bared back turned towards us, who looks out over a strange and desolate landscape. It is probably her most reproduced work, which is understandable. However, it is atypical and anyone seeking similar works in this catalogue will be disappointed. There are no other such combinations of realistic figure and Surrealist landscape. (One suspects that had she pursued such a line she would have achieved more prominence.) There are paintings of subdued light with shreds of cloud or fog (Tomorrow is Never (1955)). The best of Sage’s paintings are already known and reproduced; most of these are in American museums: In the Third Sleep (1944), Men Working (1951), Quote, Unquote (1958). A number of paintings, which were sold from early exhibitions, have not been located or photographed, so there may be a handful of fine Sage paintings in private collections, waiting to emerge.

It is accurate to say that Tanguy’s reputation overshadowed that of Sage but it is also unarguable that Tanguy’s art was more important to Surrealism – indeed it influenced Sage’s art. Tanguy’s art was innovative and came to the fore in the mid-1920s, when the movement came into existence, therefore it is natural that Tanguy was more prominent than Sage. Sage was devoted to Tanguy’s art and seems not to have resented his prominence. After his death she spent a lot of time to cataloguing and conserving his art. She seems very proud of her association with an artist she considered great. What this catalogue confirms is that Sage was also a serious and individual artist and that her painting deserves to be more well-known. How much Sage’s own choices played in limiting the dissemination of her art is not clear. She had solo exhibitions in New York and Paris and was included in Surrealist group exhibitions. The lack of sensational content (no burning giraffes, floating rocks or somnambulant nudes) definitely meant her art was less eye catching than those of her colleagues. One could not say that Sage has been treated any less well than Wols or Pierre Roy, two other lesser known Surrealists, and there is no indication her gender has contributed to her secondary status.

Kay_Sage_spine_shot

A detailed chronology and Mary Ann Caws’s introductory essay covering the life and work of Sage are followed by the catalogue section. The art is separated into oil paintings, collages, works on paper and objects; a selection of early academic works are reproduced; the comprehensive exhibition history, bibliography and index round up the book. Illustrations of the paintings are full-page, facing catalogue data. A handful of pictures have no known illustrations or only older black-and-white photographs. Generally, the reproductions are good and data is thorough.

One usually finds that painters produce a lot of drawings – scraps of visual notation, thumbnail scratches of ideas, studies of details, technical designs, compositional sketches, fully worked compositions and so forth. Kay Sage was not that type of painter. Her drawings were independent from her painting activity. The drawings and collages catalogued function are highly finished and act as independent pictures and there are relatively few of them. No artist’s prints are mentioned in the text. The objects Sage made are small, often in frames and include found objects. Some are ludic and pleasing but none of the objects have the gravity of the paintings. The drawings and collages do not attempt to replicate the pictorial completeness of the paintings.

The chronology includes photographs of the artist and her exhibitions. The Surrealists feature largely in that chronology. Sage and Tanguy travelled to Sedona, Arizona to visit Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning. Sage and Andre Breton disliked each other. Breton and Tanguy had been close but Tanguy’s desertion of his first wife to marry Sage cooled the men’s relationship. The fact that Tanguy chose to remain in the USA after the war rather than return to France with the other formerly exiled artists was something Breton took as a patriotic slight. When, in 1953, Tanguy and Sage came to France for an exhibition of Tanguy’s art, Breton did not come to the gallery but instead rather aloofly suggested Tanguy make an appointment to visit him at his Parisian apartment. The couple did not visit Breton and never returned to France.

In 1955 Tanguy died. Sage entered a prolonged depression and this marked a long and permanent decline. Plagued by health issues, she became more reclusive than she had been. Her eyesight was seriously impaired by cataracts. Multiple operations were either unsuccessful or only partially successful. Unable to make the precise and clear paintings – the last of her around 200 oil paintings is dated 1958 – Sage turned to making sculptural objects and writing poetry. She had an affinity for verse and that verbal flair is apparent in her titles; the evolution was a natural one, albeit forced. Sage worked on an unpublished memoir China Eggs, covering her life before she joined the Surrealists. In 1962, fellow expatriate Surrealist Kurt Seligmann (the artist who introduced Sage to Surrealism) died in a hunting accident. He slipped on ice and shot himself with Tanguy’s hunting rifle. Sage took it as a premonition. Days after she had seen her third book of poems through to publication and posted inscribed copies to acquaintances, Sage locked herself in her bedroom and shot herself through the heart. Her final written words were “L’extinction des lumières inutiles” (extinction of useless lights).

A lot of care has been put into the design and production of this catalogue, which is likely to contribute to Kay Sage: Catalogue Raisonné becoming a prized collector’s piece as well as a useful reference work. The metallic-sateen-style cloth covering gives the book a touch of shimmering elusiveness, which is fitting for the artist, and the pictorial slipcase is sturdy and attractive. Sage appears to us here as a secondary but significant painter of the French Surrealist movement and this publication is sure to secure her reputation as a fastidious and imaginative creator. For any comprehensive library on Surrealism, this title should be a necessary addition.

 

Mary Ann Caws, Stephen Robeson Miller, Jessie Sentivan (ed.), Kay Sage: Catalogue Raisonné, Delmonico/Prestel, 2018, cloth hardback in slipcase, 520pp, fully col. illus., US$ 165/£120, ISBN 978 3 7913 5785 0

 

© 2018 Alexander Adams

View my art and books at www.alexanderadams.art

Frida Kahlo: You are Always with Me. Letters to Mama

You Are Always With Me

You are Always with Me. Letters to Mama 1923-1932 is a collection of 54 letters and postcards written by Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) to her mother. This is a translation of the original Spanish-language edition of 2016. They show the strong bond of the young artist and her mother and the formation of one Modern art’s greatest painters. This publication has been timed to coincide with the current exhibition of Kahlo’s art and personal possessions currently on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. For a review of that exhibition, click here.

Frida Kahlo’s father was Guillermo Kahlo (1871-1941), a German immigrant who worked as a photographer. Her mother was Matilde Calderón y González. Born in Oaxaca in 1876, she was mestiza – half Spanish-Mexican, half indigenous Mexican. The distinctiveness of Oaxaca tradition had an influence on Kahlo’s sense of herself, despite her spending most of her life in Mexico City. This appropriation of maternal lineage was reflected in the presence of traditional Oaxacan costumes in her unique fashion choices and in her art.

Kahlo suffered from polio as a youngster and was left with a deformed leg and a lifelong limp. (She may also have had hereditary scoliosis.) Kahlo was close to her father and his favourite child. When young she worked with him in the studio and was frequently his model, which gave her a reason to dress up, sometimes in masculine clothing. She was fascinated by the transformative power of controlling her own image, something that shaped her self-portraiture as a painter.

The earliest letters to her mother are written by Kahlo from her school about her social plans and disciplinary issues. We see her asking for money and excusing her mischievous behaviour at school. The first letter mentions the talk to be given at her school by Diego Rivera. Rivera was a revered artist who had just returned from an extended stay in Europe. Seen as a leader of the Mexican avant-garde, Rivera was an influential figure. When he joined the Communist Party and began a series of public paintings commissioned by the government, he became a key figure in the formation of a group called the Mexican Muralists. The group developed an approach that combined Social Realism with reference to Mexican history and traditional art. Kahlo and Rivera would later start a relationship and marry.

On 17 September 1925 Kahlo was severely injured when the streetcar she was travelling in was involved in an accident. Some passengers were killed and Kahlo was close to death and was left with serious disabilities which required repeated operations. The pain, immobility and distress caused by her conditions and surgery left her reliant on alcohol and pain medication. These early events and influences had a formative impact upon Kahlo as an artist and she sometimes returned to specific events in her life for paintings. A large part of Kahlo’s art is autobiographical but she took pains to frame her experiences in terms of universal subjects of suffering, regret, anger, pride and so forth, frequently drawing parallels to history and religious painting.

In 1929 Kahlo and Rivera married. In late 1930 the couple travelled to San Francisco, where Rivera was commissioned to paint a mural in the Pacific Stock Exchange Luncheon Club. The majority of the letters to her mother come from this period. She is excited to travel outside of Mexico for the first time. She describes her travels in California, unfavourably impressed by the wealth and luxury of the mansions of movie stars in Los Angeles compared to the housing stock inhabited by the poor. Comments on the Chinese immigrants living near her in San Francisco are frequent in the letters. Kahlo was pleased at the kindness shown to her and Rivera by the people she met in San Francisco. “The gringas have liked me very much and they are impressed by the dresses and shawls that I brought with me, my jade necklaces are amazing for them and all the painters want me to pose for their portraits.” She met the luminaries of the art scene in San Francisco and began an affair with Nickolas Muray and (probably) her doctor Leo Eloesser. While it is the case that her journals and private comments display pain caused by Rivera’s infidelities, she also had her own affairs. Their partnership was turbulent but stimulating, with deliberate provocation and selfish libido sporadically driving both Kahlo and Rivera at different times.

Translator and editor, Héctor Jaimes explains that Kahlo’s writing style was idiosyncratic. Her erratic punctuation belied her top-class education. She writes in an apparently unpremeditated way, passing on news and opinions as they occur to her. She obviously presented what she thought her mother wanted and ought to know. She asks after her relatives by name and enquires about their health. Her own health is naturally a topic which comes up repeatedly as she describes Dr Eloesser’s treatment, including endless injections. When she mentions her weight it is always to reassure her mother that she becoming less thin. Kahlo is often more concerned about her mother’s health than her own conditions. Her devotion shines out.

There are glimpses of the darkness of Depression-era USA is a description of a dance marathon that Kahlo observed. “You have no idea how interesting this spectacle was, but the most cruel and stupid; they chain the black people, a woman and a man; there was a woman with a kid in her arms; two died and an unfortunate woman became mad from walking and her husband, instead of exiting the rink, picked up another woman and kept on walking.”

There are many light-hearted moments. She describes parties, outings and airplane journeys. She makes catty comments about the gringas not being pretty and American food being not to her taste. (Not spicy enough for her.) She confesses to being an incompetent cook. Although she mentions in the letters that she is painting, she does not describe the subjects or the thinking behind the pictures. She frequently discusses Rivera’s work – which was supporting them both, with irregular payments going to Kahlo’s family – though gives few details about her husband’s art.

Over 1931 to 1932 she was in New York. Rivera was attending an exhibition of his art and was commissioned to paint murals there. Kahlo felt more at home in New York than San Francisco. She writes of the incomparable treasures of the Metropolitan Museum and watching children play in snowy Central Park. Kahlo was repelled at attending functions held by Rivera’s patron the Rockefellers at a time when the Great Depression had caused homelessness and poverty in New York. She saw the soup lines and beggars daily, something which deepened her commitment to Communism. On 15 September 1932 Matilde died of cancer. The death deprived not only the family of a beloved member but it also deprives us of more letters, including Kahlo’s period in Detroit.

You are Always with Me allows us to see the world through Frida Kahlo’s eyes. This attractive book includes a few well-chosen illustrations would appeal to anyone with even a passing interest in one of the most personal of painters.

 

Frida Kahlo, Héctor Jaimes (ed. and trans.), You are Always with Me: Letters to Mama 1923-1932, Virago, 6 September 2018, hardback, 176pp, col. & mono illus., £20, ISBN 978 0 349 01195 0

View my art and books at www.alexanderadams.art

© 2018 Alexander Adams

The Compelling Mystery of David Lynch

“A couple of years ago, it looked as though David Lynch’s active career as a director was over. After all, his then most recent movie Inland Empire had been released in 2006. This rambling, disconnected 180-minute film was by far the most obscure work he had produced. It received mixed reviews, alienated casual audiences and was disliked by even some diehard Lynch fans. He had not directed anything substantial since then. He was mainly occupied with making art (he had several high-profile and well-reviewed exhibitions in the US and Europe) and speaking about transcendental meditation. It seemed that Lynch the film director had retired for good.

Then a new, third series of Twin Peaks (featuring many of the old cast members and directed entirely by Lynch) premiered in 2017 and met a very favourable response from fans and critics alike. Lynch proved he was still able to satisfy and perplex audiences by taking genuine risks and following his personal vision.

Room to Dream is a biography formatted in an unusual way. Biographical chapters – each focusing on a particular project of Lynch’s – are written by Kristine McKenna, using interviews with friends, family and colleagues, in addition to documentary sources; these are followed by commentaries from Lynch himself, telling stories and sharing personal details relating to these projects in a conversational manner. Thus we get both a factual account that is largely neutral and Lynch’s own perspective on matters, complete with photographs showing Lynch on set and with friends….”

Read the full review online here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/the-compelling-mystery-of-david-lynch/21707#.W35Q1M5KjIU

Arshile Gorky: A Life in Documents

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Arshile Gorky (1904?-1948), born Vostanig Manoug Adoian, was an Armenian-American painter who became a seminal figure in the development of the New York School. His art fused European Surrealist painting and the art that would become American Abstract Expressionism. The Plow and The Song: A Life in Letters and Documents is a new edition of Goats on The Roof (2009). This new expanded edition collects the artist’s letters, statements and interviews, along with newspaper articles, letters, statements, memoirs and interviews with people who knew him.

Gorky was probably born in 1904 in Armenia. He and his sisters lived through the Armenian Genocide (1915-23) though his mother starved to death. In 1920 Gorky emigrated to the USA. He began studying art in Boston and later New York before being appointed to a fine-art teaching job in New York whilst still young. He worked assiduously and became technically proficient, mastering multiple techniques which allowed him to make art similar to that of the Impressionists, Miró, Cézanne, Léger and Picasso. While this ability was admired, observers had reservations. Who exactly was Gorky when he wanted to be himself as an artist? Was this uncanny ability to adopt the mannerisms of senior artists an extended apprenticeship or a way of evading committing to an individual style?

Gorky complicated matters by embroidering his past: he claimed to be born in Russia or Georgia and be a relative of Maxim Gorky, he said he was a student of Kandinsky and that he had studied in Paris and Rhode Island. Gorky became seen as a living master and romantic figure who was a link to Europe, despite the fact that he came directly to the USA from Armenia/Turkey and never visited Western Europe. He was ambivalent about his Armenian past. He loved to Armenian music and dance and to spend time with ex-patriate Armenians; he wore traditional woven garments. Yet he also hid his true origins from others. His second wife did not know he was Armenian until after his death. He was committed to being an American and achieving recognition in the USA as an American painter.

Gorky made a great impression on people he met. His imposing height, distinctive handsome features and air of tragedy struck interlocutors. He stocked his immaculate Union Square studio with masses of the finest materials, dazzling visitors such as the young Willem de Kooning. His air of foreign sophistication further impressed people. He held himself aloof from artistic groups and chose mostly not to exhibit in mixed exhibitions.

Gorky worked in the mural section of the Federal Art Project, the government programme intended to support artists during the Depression. The programme was launched in 1933 by the Roosevelt administration, with the FAP mural division providing paintings for public buildings. Gorky’s ambitious design for Newark Airport was accepted and completed in 1937. (The mural was destroyed during World War II. Such large projects by the FAP mural division met similar fates.)

The majority of Gorky’s letters were to his sister Vartush and mainly dealt with family matters and news of his latest commissions and exhibitions, taking pride in his advances through the tiny and competitive art world of New in the 1930s. Gorky also wrote to his second wife, Agnes “Mougouch” Magruder, whom he married on 5 September 1941. They had two children together. The brief notes that Gorky and Mougouch wrote to each other when apart testify to Gorky’s affection for his family but do not reveal much about his art. Mougouch’s letters to friends and patrons of Gorky give us more information.

In September 1939 the centre of the art world shifted from Paris to New York. Refugee artists and uprooted collectors converged on New York and the American artists, who until then had been outsiders, found themselves rubbing shoulders with legendary figures. Stimulated by dialogue and competition, American artists and collectors began to assert themselves as pioneers. Gorky was well placed to take advantage of the situation.

Stimulated by the art of young Surrealist Matta, Gorky changed his Miroesque abstractions into paintings that were more dynamic, organic and sensual. His biomorphic forms related to plants and animals he observed in New England and remembered from Armenia. Colours became richer and more expressive; his lines became energetic; his brushwork more varied. He did not fully back the automatist position of the Surrealists, preferring to develop his forms and compositions thoroughly in complex and heavily worked drawings, often with colour. Only now did he find a personal synthesis that marked him as unique.

A solo exhibition of Gorky’s paintings (with a catalogue written by Andre Breton) in March 1945 at Julien Levy’s gallery in New York established Gorky as a major modern painter who presented a new link, connecting American art to Surrealism. However, the succès d’estime did not translate into financial security for him and his family. Additionally, the support of Breton and the Surrealists marked Gorky’s art as French, not truly American. By allying himself to Breton, Gorky had committed himself an artist seeking the stamp of sophisticated foreign tastemakers. Fellow painters felt that Gorky’s detachment was perhaps snobbery. Although that was not the case – many close associates realised that Gorky was shy and secretive rather egotistical – the idea took root.

Financial problems, a 1947 studio fire which destroyed much of recent art, a major medical operation which permanently debilitated him, marital breakdown and a road accident that left his painting arm weakened: these catastrophes weighed down the proud and sensitive man. On 21 July 1948 Gorky committed suicide. His loss was mourned by collectors, critics and – particularly – fellow artists. Many tributes were paid in the following years.

The two versions of this collection supersede another previous publication which included passages forged by a relative and ascribed to Gorky. Gorky was powerfully influenced by childhood memories but he did not write about this much. Much of his letter writing was brief, to the point and concerned with family and career news, not dwelling upon the past. The forging of childhood reminiscences came about because Gorky is a talismanic artist for Armenians. He is one of the few Armenian artists who achieved international fame, acclaim and influence. For such a prominent figure – especially one who personally witnessed the Armenian Genocide – not to have written more directly about his homeland is a nagging absence for Armenians seeking a public voice for their history, motivated by national pride and a desire to have a cultural hero for the Armenian diaspora. Gorky’s The Artist and his Mother (two versions) has become a treasured icon memorialising the national tragedy.

It is impossible to do Gorky’s art justice in a brief review. The Plow and The Song is an authoritative source on the artist’s development. There are generous colour illustrations of art and photographs of Gorky and friends and family. This volume alone allows us an inside understanding of Gorky’s approach, sometimes seeing it through the eyes of the newspaper critics who reviewed the work as it was first exhibited. The Plow and The Song is a fitting publication documenting one of abstraction’s – and Armenia’s – most significant artists.

 

Arshile Gorky, Matthew Spender (ed.), The Plow and The Song: A Life in Letters and Documents, Hauser & Wirth, 2018, cloth flexicover, 584pp, fully col./mono illus., £40/$50, ISBN 978 3 906915 08 1

© Alexander Adams

Collectors without Remorse: Dominique and John de Menil

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[Image © Alfred A. Knopf]

Patrons of the arts are not always given the respect or understanding due to them. Although it is artists, writers, composers and other creative figures which generate cultural products, it is the patronage of others who allow them to create (by commissioning art and providing stipends) and preserve the fruits of their labours in their private collections. Very often those collections become public and enrich the life of the state and population. Much culture would never have been produced if it were not for the generosity – and acquisitiveness – of collectors and patrons. Today, those who become wealthy are often scorned as exploiters and are unfairly maligned. Yet it is only through the patronage using funds derived from base commercial transactions that the most sublime cultural products of our eras are created and shared communally – be those sources the tithes of the Medieval church, the coal barons of South Wales, rail magnates of America, shipping tycoons of Greece or the income tax of modern Europe. It is only right that many museums today bear the names of the farsighted and adventurous members of the rich.

Two of the greatest benefactors of the visual arts in America were Dominique and John de Menil. They conducted their lives with a mixture of generosity, frugality, simplicity and attention to detail. Much of that came from their upbringings.

The ancestors of Dominique de Menil (1908-1997) included François Guizot (1787-1874), the renowned lawyer, statesman and historian. His father was guillotined during the Terror. Guizot went into public life and enacted lasting educational reforms, wrote many influential histories and founded La Revue française. Another branch of her relatives included the Schlumbergers, Protestant Alsatian industrialists. It was noted that Dominque’s austere attitudes and emotional restraint was derived from her Protestant upbringing. In Dominique’s family tree commerce, culture and public service were interwoven. In character she was cautious and abstemious.

Baron Jean de Menil (1904-1973) was descended from a line of soldiers and bankers. His great-grandfather was decorated by both Napoleon and Louis XVIII and conferred the title of baron. The de Menil’s were less favoured by fortune than the Schlumbergers – financially ruined then decimated by the Great War, the de Menils were in a poor state at the end of the Great War, at which time Jean was 14 years old. Jean went to work at Banque de I’Union Parisienne and became a rising star, rising to the level of executive by 26.

In 1930 the couple met and began a relationship that last until Jean’s death in 1973. In 1931 they married, the wife remaining Protestant and the husband Catholic. Using the bride’s dowry, they set up home together. Their first artistic commission – a portrait – was inauspicious. Their architect (who was converting their new home) introduced them to Max Ernst. While they liked the artist, they disliked the portrait of Dominique that he painted. They kept it in a cupboard for over a decade.

In the 1910s, Dominique’s father Conrad Schlumberger had established a method of using electrical resistance to prospect for oil. By the 1930s, Schlumberger International was a major player in oil exploration and extraction. In 1936 Conrad died and two years later Jean joined the Schlumberger firm, bringing with him a great deal of banking and financial experience. The war forced their hands. After the fall of France, Jean travelled to Texas. Houston had become an important area for Schlumberger’s business and Jean went to head the branch of Schlumberger there. Dominique and the children soon crossed the Atlantic to join them. As soon as they arrived, Jean and Dominique (who had technical expertise in oil exploration) went to Venezuela to assist the branch there. German submarines had been sinking oil tankers heading north and this vital route of oil transportation was at risk. The de Menils did their part for the Resistance and the Free French Government by raising money.

After the war, the de Menils returned to Houston and commissioned a Modernist house. John dropped the title baron and his name was more frequently anglicised to “John”. The couple began to form an impressive collection of art, which numbered 10,000 items by the late 1970s. The core collections consist of Surrealism, European Modernism, American Modernism (including Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism), ancient art, African art and Native American and Latin American art. Out of these, the most important holdings are of Surrealism (particularly Max Ernst and René Magritte) and Abstract Expressionism (particularly Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman). The book includes colour plates of some of the best works in the collection, with many installation shots of landmark loan exhibitions they organised. They commissioned work by a range of world-class creative figures such as couturier Charles James, dancer Merce Cunningham, architects Philip Johnson and Renzo Piano and composers Morton Feldman and Pierre Boulez, among many others.

Although they agreed on all purchases, the couple’s personal tastes as collectors differed. John was the more acquisitive and enjoyed exuberant and combative art (especially Picasso). Dominique liked more meditative art, in particular Rothko and Magritte. It is curious that the de Menils formed such an attachment to Surrealism – a movement that was moribund by the time they started collecting seriously. By 1945, Surrealism looked tired, academic and meretricious, especially compared to the new American art emerging.  Moreover, a large impetus of Surrealism movement was anti-clericism, even atheist, which rather contrasted with the de Menils’ strong Christian faith. They considered collecting and supporting artists to be a moral responsibility but they did not generally judge art in moral terms. (An exception is Matta – one of the de Menils’ artists – whom Dominique considered to be borderline obscene, with all his inter-penetrating quasi-organic forms representing veritable painted orgies.)

There were sometimes gaps in the collection. Most of the best canvases by Braque, Matisse and Picasso were unavailable and the Abstract Expressionists were selling briskly by the late 1950s. “One would go to the Leo Castelli Gallery and the whole show would already have been sold,” Dominique lamented. They would buy classic Ernsts and Magrittes from New York-based dealer Alexandre Iolas, whose judgement they came to rely on. The de Menils formed personal ties to a number of artists, including Ernst and Magritte – with whom they could converse in French. Middleton includes titbits from the private notes that Dominique made when meeting artists: Brauner said Picasso’s art made him feel good and want to paint; Lipchitz was dismissive of de Chirico and Rouault; Giacometti was “exceptionally intelligent”.

In 1951 the de Menils curated a landmark exhibition of Van Gogh at a venue in Houston. The event was a sensation and established the couple as both cultural powerbrokers and curators of discernment. The de Menils became deeply involved in MoMA, with John becoming a trustee. They donated work to the museum but made clear that their civic duty was towards Houston. Dominique made a donation of major works (including The Deep (1953), Pollock’s greatest painting) to the Centre Pompidou, Paris, when it opened. The de Menils also funded research and commissioned the catalogues raisonnés of Ernst and Magritte.

The de Menils were committed supporters of civil rights, the promotion of non-Western art and inter-denominational dialogue. In 1960, the de Menils decided to build a non-denominational chapel at Rice University, Houston and dedicate it to the spiritual power of art. In 1964 they commissioned architect Philip Johnson (who later resigned over aesthetic differences with the de Menils) and interior paintings from Mark Rothko and acquired an exterior sculpture by Barnett Newman. It opened in 1971 and became a centre for art pilgrims and those in search of a contemplative sanctuary. Despite a predominance of positive reactions, opinions have varied about the success of the Rothko Chapel, though the seriousness and significance of the efforts of all involved are unquestioned. The chapel has become a centre for events relating to human rights and political dialogue, which drew Dominique towards former President Carter.

The de Menils had an interest in presenting black art, from African origins to contemporary American art. They travelled in Africa and Asia on trips that combined art buying, museum visiting and consultation with religious leaders, all part of a quest to fuse spirituality and art. Different religions derive their identities from their differences and grow through competition and suppression of competing religions; each religion claims exclusive superiority. The de Menils’ good intentions and genuine desire to harmonise discordant worldviews seem admirable but naïve.

After the death of John in 1973, Dominique continued their work and conceived of turning their art collection into a museum. The $25m museum, designed by Piano, opened on 4 June 1987. The design was a sober, discreet, elegant and dedicated to art, eschewing merchandising. Dominique was insistent it was free to entry. The Menil Collection became one of the world’s leading museums.

William Middleton has used access to the de Menil’s private papers, the Collection’s archives and interviews with colleagues and friends of the subjects to build a rich and sensitive portrait of the de Menils as public figures and private people. The book is thoroughly footnoted and illustrations are well chosen. The great diversity of activities and interests of the subjects – as well as the sheer industriousness of their collecting and curating – mean there are no dull passages or repetition in this narrative. The biography is a warm, balanced and respectful tribute to two major figures in American culture and philanthropy.

 

William Middleton, Double Vision: The Unerring Eye of Art World Avatars Dominique and John de Menil, Alfred A. Knopf, 2018, hardback, 784pp, col. and mono illus., $40, ISBN 978 0 375 41543 2

Death & Desire: Dalí & Schiaparelli, review

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(Image: details of Salvador Dalí and Elsa Schiaparelli at Chez Lopez, Neuilly, 1950, (c) Universal Photo/SIPA; Image Rights of Salvador Dalí reserved. Fundacio Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres, 2017)

Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) was the very antithesis of the peintre maudit. He came from a comfortable bourgeois family, found acclaim and acceptance early in Paris and became the toast of Surrealist circles while in his mid-twenties. Later he found fame and riches in America in the late 1930s, staying there throughout the Second World War and only returned to Europe in 1948. In both Paris and America Dalí mixed with high society, which relished indulging its decadent side by patronising and promoting Dalí’s shocking art. Dalí’s patrons lived ostentatiously, using their entrees into the art world to acquire cutting-edge art and extravagant fashion. It was only natural that Dalí and Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973) would meet and share common interests. The meeting would lead to a number of fruitful collaborations and exchange of ideas over the years.

The exhibition “Dalí and Schiaparelli” at The Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida (18 October 2017–14 January 2018) examines that collaboration between two stars of mid-century fashion and art. The exhibition includes paintings, drawings and prints by Dalí, many examples of Schiaparelli’s clothing and accessories, as well as jewellery, perfume bottles, photographs and publications relating to both of the creators. This is a review from the fittingly luxurious large-format catalogue.

Schiaparelli’s family was a line of distinguished Italian academics and scientists. After spells in Paris and London, then a period in New York (where she associated with the Dadaists who would later become the core of the Surrealist movement) Schiaparelli returned to Paris and began design work. Assisted by established couturier Paul Poiret, Schiaparelli began her solo career in Paris in 1927. Dalí’s debut exhibition in Paris, held in November 1929, with a catalogue introduction by André Breton, launched his career. Although Schiaparelli was older than Dalí, their careers in Paris commenced within two years of each other, within the world of the former Dadaists and the Surrealists.

Essayists in the catalogue point out that both her and Dalí were radicals who were devoted to the use of rigorous craft in the production of their unusual inventions. In Dalí’s case it was craft he personally learned through youthful independent studies and later at art school education; in Schiaparelli’s case she relied on the skills of craftsmen and others, as she never trained in the technical side of clothing production. Schiaparelli was an early adopter of artificial fibres and new materials, driven by the avant-garde aesthetic of her Surrealist friends. One of her closest friends was Gabrielle Picabia, first wife of the radical artist Francis Picabia.

Dalí and Schiaparelli’s first collaboration was a Schiaparelli telephone-rotary-dial powder compact, launched in 1935. The most famous collaboration was Schiaparelli’s High-heel shoe hat (1937). Dalí repurposed a high-heel shoe for his wife as a shocking novelty to be worn to a society ball; Schiaparelli refined the design and manufactured the hat in small numbers.

Gala Éluard Dalí (1894-1982), the artist’s wife, was an important link between designer and artist. Gala was obsessed with luxury, beauty and money and inevitably had a passion for haute couture. She had great influence control over Dalí, urging him to undertake work in order to make the maximum amount of money. He claimed to be financially illiterate and naïve. The evidence is that Gala was behind many of the artist’s business dealings and prompted some of the most questionable of his financially-motivated projects. While Dalí was avid for money, it seems that for him money was valuable mostly as a measure of fame, which he craved above all else. It was Gala who wanted the money for itself.

Before a social engagement, the painter introduced rips into one of Gala’s blouses and she wore it to the event. Subsequently, Schiaparelli made a dress with trompe l’oeil rips apparently revealing a pink under layer (1938). This same design was used on the cloth cover of the catalogue of Dalí’s 1979 Paris retrospective, considered to this day as one of the best publications on his art.

The intersection between art, fashion and money was the high-society ball. These lavish events allowed the aristocracy and newly rich to mix with stars and artists and to create a stir in society. Many attendees commissioned costumes from artists and a number of artists treated such occasions as a chance to make temporary art – or to become temporary art. (Leonor Fini was particularly known for her daring and beauty and used to make elaborate costumes for herself and a select few others.) The Dalís attended many society balls in the 1930s and 1940s, Gala sometimes wearing Schiaparelli couture. Gala wore a number of Dalí-inspired Schiaparelli outfits and hats and served as a proxy model, acting as a living link between artist and fashion designer. The events were covered by the press and thus acted as useful publicity for designers and artists.

Prominent photographers of the era documented the overlapping worlds of high society and fashion.  The catalogue includes a section of full-page photographs of the aristocracy, artists, actors and celebrities who the creators knew. Both creators worked with actors, Dalí painting stars (most notably Laurence Olivier) and Schiaparelli clothing stars of stage and screen. Dalí also worked sporadically on opera stage designs and costumes for performers. Included in the exhibition and catalogue are examples of the painter’s backdrops for operas, including Tristan and Isolde by Wagner, his favourite opera.

Both creators were wedded to the idea of expression through the expansion of technical parameters. Dalí experimented with early holograms, artist animation and tactile-assisted cinema. His installations, including the Bonwit Teller display and the World’s Fair of 1939, were innovatory though strictly speaking Surrealist exhibitions-cum-installations dated back to the 1920s. His lifting of imagery from the popular press and the use of ben-day dots has been led to critics hailing Dalí as a progenitor of Pop Art and Post-Modernism.

For her part, Schiaparelli was the first fashion designer to use zippers, certain artificial fibres and clear plastics. In terms of style, she introduced the wrap dress, wedge heels, power suits, jumpsuits and camouflage print as fashion. Her 1931 culotte designs scandalised Paris but soon gained a following among adventurous women. In her early career Schiaparelli favoured austere black and white. She introduced Shocking Pink in 1937 as a high-fashion colour; it would become her signature colour. Nineteen-thirty-seven was also the year she produced an organza dress in pale fabric which featured a painted lobster – a Dalinian motif.

1996.1_Aphrodisiac(Lobster)_Telephone[1]

(Image: Salvador Dalí, Aphrodisiac Telephone (1938), Plastic (Bakelite) and painted lobster, 7 x 12 x 4.5 inches, Collection of The Dali Museum, St. Petersburg, FL; (c) Salvador Dalí. Fundacio Gala-Salvador Dalí (Artists Rights Society), 2017)

The design was reissued by the House of Schiaparelli in spring 2017. The catalogue illustrates new designs by the House of Schiaparelli, allowing readers to judge the influence of Surrealism and continuity from the design ethos of the house’s founder.

Both creators used motifs of insects, including ants, butterflies and grasshoppers. Dalí had genuine obsessions with ants and grasshoppers and they appeared in many early paintings. Schiaparelli used a transparent Rhodoid collar to hold insect jewellery. Her favourite motif was the butterfly.

Some clothing items included in the exhibition are true Surrealist statements, as peculiar as anything in a Surrealist painting. Boots with long fur (1938), and the later Woman’s sweater with long fur (1948), have long fur which makes them almost as impractical as Meret Oppenheim’s iconic Fur Teacup (1938). It is possible that Schiaparelli was inspired here by Oppenheim rather than Dalí. Schiaparelli’s designs flirt with the repulsive in the way so much Surrealism does.

Although the direction of influence seems to have been predominantly from artist to designer, there are instances where the direction is the other way. A Schiaparelli-style dress with a low-cut back appears in Dalí’s Woman with a Head of Roses (1935). It is possible that Schiaparelli’s fantasy of hiding her face behind a bouquet inspired Dalí’s flower-headed women, introduced in 1936.

Surrealism sought to blur the line between art and life. The Surrealist project of disrupting everyday life included the concept of wearable art, partly as a manifestation of the subconscious influence on our lives and also as an attempt to overturn established modes of thinking and acting. The use of unexpected objects as potential clothing was part of the Surrealist outlook on life. Mannequins were a staple of Surrealist art; one group exhibition consisted of Surrealist decoration of mannequins. (Mannequins had become objects of fascination since Giorgio de Chirico’s Metaphysical paintings of the 1910s.) It is perhaps not coincidental that the ideal exemplar of Surrealist beauty was the conjunction of a sewing machine and an umbrella, two items related to the creation of clothing and the protection of clothing from rain.

Both creators viewed the woman as an exotic object to be transformed and to be revealed through transformation. In Dalí’s case, the transformation is a metamorphosis. Dalí’s versions of Venus de Milo-with-drawers and woman-with-drawers motifs show the woman’s body as complex container. In the latter motif, the woman gazes into the open drawers of her torso in an act of introspection. The motif was translated by Schiaparelli into the Desk Suite (1936/7).

3._Dali's_sketch[1]

(Image: Salvador Dalí, Anthropomorphic Cabinet (undated), pencil on paper, Collection of Schiaparelli, (c) Salvador Dalí. Fundacio Gala-Salvador Dalí (Artists Rights Society), 2017)

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(Image: Elsa Schiaparelli, Illustration of Bureau-Drawer Suit, Schiaparelli Haute Couture, (Fall/Winter 1936/7), courtesy of (c) Schiaparelli archives)

Gloves which have top tips of the fingers removed to reveal the nails below have a certain conceptual elegance, restating the idea of revealing parts which are expected to be covered by a clothing item.

There are many criticisms that can be levelled at Dalí but one of them is not lack of artistic ambition. His driving themes were beauty, temporality, fear of death, obsession with putrescence and the power of erotic desire. Comparatively speaking, Schiaparelli’s morbidity is less omnipresent. Her Skeleton dress (1938) is one of her most striking designs. A close-fitting black evening dress has ridges of padding which evoke the wearer’s bones beneath. It is a creation which fuses elegance and the macabre, something that can be seen in the work of other fashion designers including Alexander McQueen.

There are many parallels between the pair’s work in jewellery, perfumes and perfume bottles, though mostly this occurred late in their careers when they were not collaborating directly. The catalogue includes many quotes relating to the creators though there are no letters between them and one wonders what their personal relationship was and how they actually collaborated on specific projects. There is further investigation to be done in this area.

The catalogue is printed in an edition of 1,800 copies, of which 500 are hardback. Including generous illustration, essays and useful information, it is sure to become a collector’s item for committed Dalí fans, fashion aficionados and researchers on Surrealism and fashion.

 

John William Barger, Hank Hine, Dilys E. Blum, et al., Dalí and Schiaparelli, Salvador Dalí Museum, 275pp, 59 b&w/133 col. illus., paperback, $39.95, ISBN 978 0 9834799 9 4