Publication: “Dali”

I am pleased to announce publication of my new book “Dali”, published by Prestel. It presents an overview of Dali’s career, integrating his films, performances and writings into the story of his life and presenting the best of his paintings, including iconic works such as “The Persistence of Memory”, “The Christ of St John of the Cross” and “The Madonna of Port Lligat”, it includes extracts of his writings. In French-fold covers, 112pp, 50 col. illus., $14.95/£9.99. A German-language edition is also available.

Page on this book on the Prestel website:

Zdzislaw Beksiński and the Tyranny of Taste

[Zdzislaw Beksiński, oil on panel, not exhibited]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Zdzislaw Beksiński, oil on panel, not exhibited]

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

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

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

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

Victor Brauner, Romanian Surrealist

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reception and response

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

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

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

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

“Grandmaster of Bad-Taste Art”

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

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

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

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New publication “Magritte” (Prestel)

I am pleased to announce the publication of my new book “Magritte”, published by Prestel (Penguin Random House), 2022, 112pp, fully col. illus., paperback, £9.95/$14.95. Available for order now.

“This revelatory examination of the Surrealist master updates prevailing theories about Magritte’s life and beliefs, and offers a surprising new assessment of an artist who strived for anonymity rather than fame.

“Throughout his career, Magritte subverted expectations about artists in the world by disguising himself as an unremarkable member of the bourgeoisie. While the public mined his work for symbolism and deep meaning, the truth is, that with Magritte, what you see is what you get. What readers will get with this gorgeous volume is a deeply engaging overview of Magritte’s entire career, and an eloquent argument that his Surrealist masterpieces were simply an extension of the Romantic tradition.

“Chronologically arranged, this volume features fullpage reproductions of thirty-five works, each paired with a concise text that highlights its significance in Magritte’s catalog. In addition to greatest hits, such as Time Transfixed, 1938; The Treachery of Images, 1929; and The Lovers, 1928, the inclusion of several lesser-known works provides an overview of the range and character of Magritte’s art. Readers will become acquainted with the main figures in the artist’s life, including relatives, colleagues, rivals, and they will see how Magritte’s relationships with collectors and dealers led to the production of particular works, as well as how his theories about painting evolved over the years. Across this compact but utterly satisfying book, Magritte’s exquisite use of color, his grasp of collage and composition, and his superb gifts for invention and mood are luminously and thrillingly in evidence.”

Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Letters

Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889-1943) was a multi-disciplinary Swiss artist who worked in painting, sculpture, dance, architecture and applied arts. She trained art schools in Switzerland and Germany before World War I. In 1922 she married German-French Surrealist sculptor Jean Hans Arp (1886-1966).  

Twenty-four letters and eleven postcards sent by the artist to the Basel art collectors Annie (1893-1964) and Oskar (1887-1956) Müller-Widmann are reproduced and translated into English. The correspondence commenced in 1932 and ends in 1942, the year before the artist’s accidental death, due to carbon-monoxide poisoning. The replies were not preserved. It seems most of the correspondence was addressed between the wives.

The Müller-Widmanns were collectors and patrons of the arts. They bought a painter by Taeuber-Arp and met the Arps in Basel. The couple were taken with Taeuber-Arp’s design of her home in Meudon, France and consequently commissioned her to design a house for them. A drawing for the house is illustrated, but the project never got further than the planning stage. The Müller-Widmanns subsequently paid Arp a monthly stipend to support his art.

In the letters, which grow increasingly friendly, the artist discusses art by herself and husband and makes passing comment on other artists – Picasso, Kandinsky, Mondrian and others. “Last Saturday we were with Man Ray in St. Germain, where he has a charming country house, full of ingenious inventions; he is the only surrealist who has a sharp sense for modern furnishing. We saw Duchamp and Picasso the other day, they are all hard at work.”[i] At this time, Taeuber-Arp was the editor of the journal plastique plastic, featuring abstract and Surrealist art and literature, so she was closely involved in the trends of the Modernist art world. As expected, exhibitions and catalogues are frequently mentioned. Taeuber-Arp touches upon current events by criticising the Nazis, who had put her and her husband on a list of entartete Kunst (“degenerate art”). She passes cutting comment on the quality of the Paris World Fair of 1937.

Correspondence was disrupted during the war. “[Hans] was inconsolable as he had to leave his sculptures and everything he’s been working on for fifteen years without knowing when or how we’ll see these works again. The air raid alarms disturbed him a lot less than they did me, but all this destruction, all these horrors, are extremely distressing to us. Hans has lost a lot of weight […]”[ii] The Arps relocated from Paris to Grasse, Southern France, then to Switzerland to escape potential internment by the occupying Nazis, following the fall of France. Fascinatingly, she discusses the fact that the Arps had a passage to America booked. The evacuation of Modernist artists was arranged by the U.S. Emergency Rescue Committee and the Arps were granted visas, although they ultimately decided to remain in Europe.      

The book reproduces the paintings that the collectors acquired, photographs of the couples together and facsimiles of some of the letters and cards. Included is a brief chronology of the artist’s life, as is an index. The introduction and extensive footnotes are invaluable, helping the reader understand the glancing references and circumstances of correspondents. Overall, this attractive book will be of interest to those researching the life of Sophie Taeuber-Arp, the inter-war abstract art scene and Modernist-art collecting culture in the 1930s.

Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Waldburga Krupp, Fondazione Marguerite Arp (eds.), Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s Letters to Annie and Oskar Müller-Widmann, Scheidegger & Spiess/Fondazione Marguerite Arp, 2022, paperback, 128pp, 32 col./7 mono illus., $30, ISBN 978 3 03942 068 1

© 2022 Alexander Adams

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Toyen, Magnetic Woman

The first English-language overview of Czech Surrealist artist Toyen (Marie Čermínová, 1902-1980) corrects a longstanding lacuna in English literature on Surrealism. Surrealism studies has been expanding its range over decades. Central and Eastern Europe have been poorly served however, particularly because of lack of access to records during the Communist era and the relative dearth of Surrealist scholars able to speak the relevant languages.

As Karla Huebner, associate professor of art history at Wright State University, explains in her monograph Magnetic Woman: Toyen and the Surrealist Erotic, neglect of Toyen’s art is in part her own making. Toyen was not keen to commit her artistic ideas or biographical information to paper, leaving many admirers in her lifetime unclear about the artist’s intentions. André Breton was an admirer of her art and she was involved in post-War Surrealism in Paris – she fled to Paris after the Iron Curtain fell – but she is seen as, if not second rank, certainly second generation. Huebner correctly discerns that post-War Surrealism was (and is) considered a spent force. Even in official histories of the movement, comparatively little attention is paid to the Paris group after 1945. Other reasons are discussed later.

Toyen was born Marie Čermínová, in Prague in 1902, to Catholic parents from Bohemia. Huebner sets out what little she can glean of Toyen’s early life, which (apart from official records) amounts is almost nothing. Between 1919 and 1922, Čermínová attended the Artistic-Industrial School, which was the applied art school in Prague. Her teacher was Emanuel Dítĕ the Younger was an academic painter, but Heubner points out that some notable Czech modernists started their careers under him, so his teaching must not have been deadening. In later years, the artist did not discuss her background with anyone, though it seems she was not estranged, simply keen to protect her privacy (or control public perceptions of her).

Čermínová dressed ambiguously, not presenting as a man but in working clothes more common for men than women. She also wore conventionally feminine clothes. She cut her hair short. Rather than intending to pass as the opposite sex, Čermínová’s diverse styles of dressing suggest variable intentions and moods, an understanding of appropriacy and a studied disregard for convention. “Descriptions of the artist as androgynous or of mutable gender identity emphasize four general characteristics: 1) cross-dressing, especially in rough and working-class manner; 2) walking with an unusual, apparently unladylike, gait; 3) use of the masculine gender in Czech (though not, apparently, in French); and 4) attraction to women.”

Image: “2.1 A studio photograph used for publicity. Toyen, circa 1928. Photographer unknown. LA PNP.”

Čermínová was a successful and prolific designer of book jackets and illustrations, starting in 1923. That was the same year she joined the Devĕtsil Modernist movement, which Huebner describes as an avant-garde movement with cosmopolitan attitudes, which saw itself as internationalist – partly to step outside the Czech nationalist revival (Nationalist Awakening), that had begun around 1900. The Devĕtsil members had their roots in the Decadent Movement of the 1890s. It was upon her joining the movement that she was given the name “Toyen”, which she would use for the rest of her life, personally and professionally (if not legally).

From 1922 until his death in 1942, Toyen was the partner of Jindřich Štyrský (1899-1942). Štyrský started as a latter-day follower of the Decadents. He had an interest in potent provocative literature, dreams and occultism – a good grounding for a future Surrealist. He was a painter with a pronounced preoccupation with death, decay, ruin, as well as the erotic. He worked as a painter, although it is for his montages – especially with pornographic elements – that he is best known for today. The couple apparently collaborated on different levels, consulting each other about choices and sometimes working on pieces together. They frequently exhibited together, with prices comparable. Štyrský and Toyen were considered a social and artistic pairing, Toyen not as a junior partner or follower. Magazine spreads show that their art was given equal prominence. There seems to have been no condescension towards women in the Devĕtsil group, though (again) apparently few participated.

Huebner describes how the Prague proto-Surrealists were a vital force in the mid-1920s, just as the Paris group was graduating from Dadaism to Surrealism. (This was despite the fact that the Prague group was not officially founded until 1934.) There was apparently rivalry between the groups for intellectual leadership of the movement. In 1925 Toyen and Štyrský moved to Paris. The book contains much discussion of the pair’s personal and artistic fascination with sex, so much more easily accessible and public in Paris than elsewhere. Sex was a major theme of the pair’s art. Toyen’s paintings and sketches include revue bars, prostitution, lesbianism, orgies and other sexual imagery, made in a naïve style.

Image: “0.2. Toyen’s work began to signal an interest in androgyny by the early 1930s. Toyen, untitled drawing in the Erotická revue 2 (1932).”

Toyen’s erotic illustrations are playful and vary in detail, ranging from the primitive to the sophisticated over-layering found in Surrealist photomontages. The lines can be sensitive and elegant. The imagery includes the ribaldry of pornography, the sophistication of Beardsley and the juxtapositions of Surrealism. The sheer amount of work indicates Toyen’s serious artistic investment in this field. Toyen and Štyrský published illustrated erotic books and her illustrations in Štyrský’s Erotická Revue (1930–33). Štyrský was sympathetic to Bataille’s dissident Documents group, which focused on the power of sex, the concept of the informe and the concentration on sadism. This book should establish Toyen as a major artist of the erotic.

The pair’s work earliest art in Paris was semi-abstract paintings, influenced by Cubism and Purism; it was described as “artificialist”. It is tepid fare. The ambivalence of Breton and the Surrealist poets towards art meant that painting in early Surrealist period was ancillary. Breton started writing in 1925 of “Le surréalisme et la peinture”, distinguishing and dividing the two entities with the conjunctive “and”. Toyen and Štyrský spent the late 1920s resisting Surrealism, all the time becoming more familiar with it, swimming in the waters of the movement that dominated inter-war Paris. Huebner says that once Toyen committed to Surrealism, she did it wholeheartedly and became the central figure of Czech Surrealism – its unofficial leader. By this time, she was back in Prague. She and Štyrský had returned from Paris in 1928.

This book acts as a survey of Czech Surrealism. It explains the significance of major actors, important events and the tensions between Surrealism and Communism. The paucity of personal papers means that Toyen disappears a little in some sections. She comes back into focus during the Occupation and World War II, during which she stayed in Prague, sheltering a half-Jewish artist Jindřich Heisler (1914-1953) from Nazi arrest and transportation to concentration camps. In 1942, Štyrský died of pneumonia, exacerbated by alcoholism. It was in 1944 that Toyen produced Hide Yourself, War!, nine ink illustrations featuring animal skeletons in devastated landscapes. They are by far Toyen’s best art. The powerful bleakness, graphic crispness and wonderfully modulated shading give these apparitions tremendous impact.

Image: “5.22a–i Skeletal figures on flat expanses warn of war’s destruction. Toyen, Schovej se, válko! [Hide Yourself, War!/Cache-­toi guerre!], 1944 (Prague: F. Borový, 1946).”

Occupation of Prague by Soviet forces following the war and the artistically deadening influence of Czech Communists meant that Toyen, despite being politically left, realised her art had no future in her home country. In 1947, Toyen and Heisler (her new partner) moved to Paris. She would reside in France until her death.

It is a little ironic (given the author’s identification of the critical neglect Surrealists after 1945) that relatively little space is given to Toyen’s post-War production. This does turn out to be justified. The author describes how Toyen’s art became more diffuse, mystical in mood, suffused by darkness. This was congruent with Surrealism as a whole, as Breton directed followers to embrace the occult and mysticism. Single hybridised humanoid forms float in stygian voids. Collaged elements (such as mouths and hands cut from magazine pages) are incorporated into painted personages. It is hard not to think of this era as a decline. Toyen’s art was at its best with a sharp graphic bite and limpid clarity. We do find some flickers of success in her post-1945 line drawings but even these are less concisely arranged than her early Surrealism. Toyen’s painting (always weak) becomes forgettable. There is the implicit suggestion of laziness – covering backgrounds and settings with darkness, failing to resolve compositions, not fully articulating motifs. Viewing these pedestrian efforts, is it any wonder Toyen is considered a third-rate painter, when she is considered at all?

There are unanswered questions. Huebner does not discuss how the paintings were made. Did Toyen make preparatory drawings or were the paintings designed on the canvas? Hide Yourself, War! presumably had sources for the skeletons – were they taken from textbooks or drawn from museum specimens? Did Toyen keep sketchbooks? Did she write letters mentioning her technique or including thumbnail sketches? Also, Toyen’s income goes undiscussed. Did she make a living income from fine art or was she obliged to do book-design work? We do not know anything about her living arrangements or daily routines. Did she travel? This is no criticism of the author. It may be that such information is entirely lost. Huebner has rightly discerned that the main priority is to outline Toyen’s art and summarise methods of critiquing it.   

Pick up any large book on Surrealist art and you will find Toyen’s art, but rarely represented by more than a drawing or two or maybe a painting. Little text is given to her. (Less is given to Štyrský.) So, for what reasons (apart from neglect of the post-War period of Surrealism) are Toyen’s art not more reproduced or discussed?

Refreshingly, for an author writing on a female Surrealist, Huebner admits that gender is not the primary reason for the neglect of her subject. “The scholar in pursuit of Toyen encounters some of the usual problems in studying a female artist – the relative paucity of critical sources, the need to research her via male associates – yet not entirely for the usual reasons. Indeed, Toyen’s two artistic partners, Štyrský and Heisler, have received no more attention than she. It is less that her gender has obscured knowledge of her work than that historical circumstances – primarily arising from the Cold War – have obscured her from view.” This point is outlined in the second paragraph of this review.

The frankness of Toyen’s erotic art may have put off some publishers and art historians. The subject of sex is not unknown to the movement (Hans Bellmer made it his central concern), but mainstream publishers can be wary of unambiguously explicit art in titles intended for libraries and schools. The erect phallus (which one does not find in the art of other female Surrealists) is definitely on the indecent side of the line that separates mainstream publishing from specialist publishing. The compiler of any monograph on Toyen cannot avoid including her erotic pictures.

Huebner identifies a key difference between Toyen and other female Surrealists. There is lack of personalisation and a lack of personae in her art. There are no self-portraits, no alter egos and no glamorous avatars in Toyen’s dreamscapes. “Toyen’s avoidance of [the face of the artist] does not negate the possibility of self-referential imagery in her work, but indicates that she did not care to represent herself in an obvious way or as the kind of wild and beautiful woman found in the work of Carrington, Remedios Varo, Frida Kahlo, Dorothea Tanning, and even Valentine Hugo.” This is definitely to Toyen’s disadvantage in terms of popular reception. There is no accessible entry point and no character upon which the female viewer can project herself. Toyen was an attractive woman but unlike the other women Surrealists, she did not model nude for herself or anyone else. Toyen’s aversion to (even disguised/transposed) literary and pictorial autobiography makes her art less attractive to audiences and academics.

Image: “Plate 18. Does the gymnast emerge from or disappear into the wall? Toyen, Relâche [After the Performance], 1943, oil, 109 × 52.5 cm. Alsova Jihočeska galerie, Hluboká nad Vltavou.”

As already described, a strike against Toyen is the fact that she was not a natural painter, being better suited to collage and illustration. Her skill was for graphics – line, composition, reduction – rather than colour, texture and brushwork. This puts her at an immediate disadvantage compared to the major Surrealist artists, who (with the exceptions of sculptor Giacometti and photographer Man Ray) were all painters. Next to the paintings of rich patterns and colours of Leonor Fini, the fairy-tale characters of Leonora Carrington and the haunting plains of Kay Sage, Toyen’s paintings feel a little thin, a touch flat, even drab. The best of Toyen’s art is her illustrations. However unfairly, line drawings and illustrations are judged minor art forms and treated accordingly.  

I disagree with José Pierre’s assessment of Toyen, quoted by Huebner, as “the least acknowledged of the great surrealist painters”.Toyen is not a great painter; she is barely a competent painter. She is a very accomplished draughtsman – at times reaching true greatness. However, due to the minor status of drawing and the other limitations outlined above, Toyen will never be counted as a Surrealist of the highest level by the public. Huebner has very well evaluated and presented the case for Toyen and readers benefit from knowing Toyen and her unique contribution to Surrealism. Magnetic Woman is a major achievement, very enjoyable and greatly informative. The author’s diligence and the clarity of her writing are of the highest standard. The author is well informed about Surrealism and current discussions in gender theory.

For those claiming Toyen as a “transgender” artist, there is disappointing news. Huebner nowhere cites Toyen describing herself as anything other than a woman. Despite using both male and female pronouns regarding herself in Czech, for the majority of her life she spoke principally French. In French, she never used a male pronoun regarding herself. While there is evidence of cross-dressing and some linguistic reframing in one of her two languages, there is nothing here to suggest she considered herself in identity terms such as transgender, transman, transvestite, intersex or anything else. The most that can be said of her is that (at times) she did not act in ways that were considered normatively female – along with a number of other women in that era, who likewise did not consider themselves transgender. It seems that Toyen did not want to be thought of by others as a woman because that might limit her; there is no evidence in this book that she thought of herself as anything other than a woman. She was a woman who acted the ways she wanted to. That in itself is noteworthy and does not need embellishing.

This publication is a rare foray into art history by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Let us hope it will not be the last. The book is well illustrated and handsomely bound in buckram, doing both subject and author credit. A word of advice for anyone who is a devotee of Surrealism, Czech Modernism, erotic art and female Modernist artists: buy this book. Magnetic Woman: Toyen and the Surrealist Erotic is certain to become an essential source book, much sought after and expensive. Buy it now, while you can.

Karla Huebner, Magnetic Woman: Toyen and the Surrealist Erotic, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020, cloth hb, 408pp, 28 col./many mono illus., $100, ISBN 978 0 8229 4647 2

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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Character agency in David Lynch’s cinema

The films, television series and video projects of David Lynch have vexed and stimulated viewers since the 1970s. Authors James D. Reid and Candace R. Craig have taken of the films and one television series by Lynch as subject for their discussion about agency in Agency and Imagination in the Films of David Lynch. Each chapter relates to Lynch’s films Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Lost Highway, The Straight Story, Mulholland Drive, INLAND EMPIRE and the third season of the television series Twin Peaks. Twin Peaks season 1 and 2, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Dune and the short films are excluded. (On the absence of Dune, they write: “[…] we both find the film to be unwatchable.” Many viewers find INLAND EMPIRE far more unwatchable.)

They point out that Lynch does not seem to be setting forth a coherent articulated philosophical worldview in his films. “However, the search for thematic coherence in the director’s body of work need not entail a unified philosophical position in evidence throughout Lynch’s oeuvre.”[i] This comes position comes as a relief, as attempts to present any body of complex cinematic work as a fixed, purposeful, consistent and didactic system seems a chimera, more of a projection of a need for certainty and confirmation on the part of the interpreter than any empirically derived assessment of the work as it is.

Lynch’s background as an artist, his absolute control over most of his projects (as writer, director and editor, as well as his contributions to the music and occasionally acting of his films) make Lynch an archetypal auteur and (as such) an ideal subject for an assessment of overarching ideas and themes. His freedom in combining disparate imagery, genres, tones and themes means his work is very rich. Within films, even within scenes, Lynch juxtaposes (rather than blending) humour, eroticism, the aesthetically striking and the unsettling in ways that allow the exploration of deep emotions, contradictory feelings and rarely posed philosophical questions, particularly regarding reality, desire, memory and understanding.

Alvin from The Straight Story is attributed a high degree of agency because of his active participation and pursuit of self-determined goals in his quest to travel to see his sick brother. The story centres on Alvin driving hundreds of miles with a tractor because he has no driver’s licence and features the encounters he has along the way. In some respects, The Straight Story is judged an atypical Lynch film in that it features little eroticism, horror, gore and Surrealism; what is not mentioned is that the protagonist is atypically assured and purposeful, also able to enact his aims in a straightforward manner. It is uncharacteristically straight. The authors demure at the suggestion that Alvin’s quest is an embodiment of the value of rugged individualism, mentioning the assistance he gets and the framing of his journey as an act of recuperation.

Eraserhead’s Henry Spencer is a character with weak agency. Henry evades responsibility, avoids making firm decisions, initiates little, is passive in most situations and thereby gains his classic Kafkaesque character of the man buffeted by circumstance. He seems barely in control of anything yet is held responsible for the burden of fatherhood to a creature which is not human but has human traits. He fails as a husband and provider and ultimately catastrophically fails as a father by inadvertently killing his “child” whilst trying to alleviate its suffering. He seems to have gained little understanding of his world or what is expected of him, surrendering his agency through ignorance and timidity than any sort of malice. The authors write of Henry as an example of Aristotle’s akrasia (weakness of will), as he is man stuck in stasis which seems (at least in part) of his own doing. Yet, as the authors note, Henry’s infanticide is an act of liberation for him, displaying some agency, perhaps a powerful subconscious selfishness. The problem of drawing any line between reality and fantasy in Lynch’s works means it is not clear whether of not Henry commits infanticide or merely imagines doing so. The deliberate ambiguity of the director leaves the matter in irresolvable doubt.

John (Joseph) Merrick of The Elephant Man is a case of a person whose agency is limited by environment. In that film, based on the true story of a Victorian Englishman afflicted by a severe deformity, Merrick is unable to test his intellectual and emotional capacities due to the cruelty and hostility of a society repelled by his ugliness. His life is so circumscribed by his medical condition, which left him seriously disabled, and by the rejection of society that it is only the intervention of an enlightened surgeon, Dr Frederick Treves, that Merrick is permitted to engage in polite society rather than being confined to a freak show. Ironically, it is through the intervention of another that the character achieves limited liberation from societal hostility, though his medical condition remains unchanged.   

Merrick’s situation and his ability to further his desires rests upon eliciting the empathy of others. Merrick’s intelligence and sensitivity are revealed through the charity and compassion of the high society people who were introduced to him through his guardian, Treves. Once enabled by this, Merrick can explore new experiences and develop his artistry (his ability to construct elaborate architectural models). It is seems slightly off the mark to critique The Elephant Man for taking “considerable liberties with historical fact and seems to ignore the ways in which socioeconomic forces govern human lives, presenting the viewer with stark moral alternatives more in keeping with bad Hollywood Westerns. If there is exploitation to be addressed, its proper target is something larger, and more impersonal, than the individuals directly involved in Merrick’s fate.”[ii] The authors seem to have pre-judged how any socio-economic critique might lay blame. Such matters are not cut and dried and it is unwise to assume their views to be objective and universally shared. Lynch is not an analytical or especially socially-directed creator, so expecting any approach of this type is puzzling.  

In Blue Velvet Jeffrey Beaumont investigates and becomes sexually entangled with club singer Dorothy Vallens and thereby incurs the wrath of Frank Booth. For the first time in Lynch’s work, there is an active antagonist, one who exercises powerful self-directed agency. Frank threatens Dorothy and Jeffrey, kills Dorothy’s husband, kidnaps her son and dominates the crime scene of Lumberton. Jeffrey overcomes his own weak agency and the opposition of Frank to defeat Frank and restore order to Lumberton, returning a degree of comfort to Dorothy by (indirectly) freeing her son. In the film, Dorothy and Sandy have the least power of control or self-actualisation, limited by the actions of others. However, significantly, it is Dorothy’s command of sexual attractiveness that is used to dominate Jeffrey and to demand of him sexual violence against her.  

Blue Velvet is a film about seeing and, importantly, about seeing as an instrument of knowing. This is a film that asks obsessively what it is to know something, how vision enters into the search for truth, and how far the capacity to see reaches in the work of acquiring knowledge, in a Kantian register what the scope and limits of vision can be said to be.”[iii] In the most famous scene, Jeffrey secrets himself in a closet in Dorothy’s flat to avoid discovery and inadvertently observes her unawares. He inadvertently witnesses the emotional abuse and sexual assault of Dorothy by Frank. What was intended as an enactment of a mystery investigation – a staple of detective novels and old films – becomes a shocking insight into depravity and the depths of the human psyche, something for which Jeffrey is completely unprepared. The authors examine the difference between experiencing and understanding. “One of the central events of Blue Velvet boils down to the unmasking of a misguided conception of what it is to come to know. Jeffrey is, it seems, actuated by curiosity, the desire to know simply for the sake of knowing, and, more specifically, as we saw, by the desire to see.”[iv]  

Wild at Heart is a violent road movie with two main protagonists, Sailor and Lula. “If Sailor and Lula frequently appear to be failing as agents, this is partly because they bring with them all the existential anxieties associated with their pasts, in the shape of experience, but also in the guise of significant others, whose lives, past and present, form a web into which their current efforts invariably fall. Sailor and Lula cannot easily escape (or escape too easily in spurious forms of release) because they carry with them the potent influences of those responsible for helping create the contexts out of which they grew and developed and against which they now struggle.”[v]

Interpretation of Lynch’s subsequent films Lost Highway, INLAND EMPIRE and (to a lesser extent) Mulholland Drive is complicated by structural and character ambiguity. It is harder to discuss the characters in these films because disentangling fact from fantasy in these (fictional) films is almost impossible. The reality of the characters resides both in their actions and dreams; their actual selves and their imagined selves (including doppelgangers and alternate selves) overlap. The authors do their best but much of what they conclude is necessarily more debatable due to the complications the material presents. I contend that the discussion of the third season of Twin Peaks is flawed because it does not sufficiently incorporate an analysis of the first two seasons and (especially) Fire Walk With Me. Although Twin Peaks Season 3 has many aspects that make it self-contained, a discussion of character agency cannot be understood without recourse the viewer expectations and experiences of the excluded material, and the way pre-experienced tropes are extended and subverted by the third season.  

The book is readable, with a minimum of jargon is used. In its seriousness, the authors do not sacrifice accessibility. The authors apply philosophy and philosophy of cinema at various points whilst not making such discussion too intrusive. They compare Lynch’s cinema to films by others and refer to cinema-theory writings. This title will be most value to students of cinema theory and those analysing Lynch’s unique contributions to film.   

James D. Reid and Candace R. Craig, Agency and Imagination in the Films of David Lynch, 2020, Lexington Books, hardback, 267pp + xi, £69, ISBN 978 1 4985 5593 7  

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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[i] P. 3

[ii] P. 79

[iii] P. 98

[iv] P. 102

[v] P. 129

Notice: Leonor Fini: Catalogue Raisonné

NB: This is a notice, not a review. It is derived from the final version on PDF, not a published copy of the book. Hence, I cannot provide a complete review as I am unable to discuss print quality, binding, etc. All information below is accurate to the PDF I have viewed.

Leonor Fini (1907-1996) was an Argentinian-born Italian Surrealist painter. She grew up in Trieste and received no formal training as an artist, teaching herself. She joined the Surrealists in 1933. She was part of the oneiric (or dreamlike) strand of Surrealism, led by Dalí, who became a friend, although it would not be until 1938 that she would produce her first mature Surrealist paintings. These feature women in elegant dresses inhabiting fantastic invented settings, with mythological references. Throughout her career, invented female portraits and self-portraits would be a major part of her oeuvre. Her art would centre on women, sensuality and sexuality. She portrayed male lovers nude and painted scenes of lesbianism in later years. The atmosphere of her scenes is mysterious and often sinister. Her art developed through different phases. In the 1950s, her art became more decorative and abstract, with figures floating in fields of organic patterning. These verge on the psychedelic. In the 1960s and 1970s, Fini’s figures become paler and less modelled. The increasing stylisation, flattened forms, area of strong colour and shallower picture plane indicate the influence of Pop Art. In the 1980s the backgrounds darkened and her art becomes more serene and less playful. She painted until a few months before her death in 18 January 1996.    

This catalogue raisonné is in two volumes. The first volume contains essays on various aspects of the life and art of Fini, with illustrations including photographs of the artist, her famous ball costumes and sketches, along with a selection of colour plates of paintings. The second volume contains a catalogue of all Fini’s known paintings, with colour images and information, concluding with a detailed chronology, bibliography, exhibition list and other source data. The texts are informative and thorough, with Overstreet and Webb already proven Fini experts. The bibliography is extensive but not complete. The illustrations (judging from the digital file) are high quality. This publication will be a vital resource for collectors and dealers, though its price will put it out of the reach of many enthusiasts.

Richard Overstreet and Neil Zukerman (eds.), with Peter Webb and Rowland Weinstein, Leonor Fini: Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil Paintings, Scheidegger & Spiess, 2021, hardback, 2 vols. in slipcase, 648pp, 1082 col., 339 mono illus., €350, ISBN 978-3-85881-843-0

(c) 2021 Alexander Adams

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Claude Cahun: Paper Bullets

he life stories of Suzanne Malherbe (1892-1972) and Lucy Schwob (1894-1954) are the stuff of fiction. Jeffrey H. Jackson’s Paper Bullets: Two Artists Who Risked Their Lives to Defy the Nazis is a new telling of a tale that has received increasing attention in the last two decades.

The Schwob and Malherbe families were friends and their daughters played together. Suzanne was a talented artist and Lucy wrote prolifically from childhood onwards. They collaborated on a book of drawings (Suzanne) and poems (Lucy), published in 1919. The book was published pseudonymously.

Professionally, Schwob adopted the gender-ambiguous name Claude Cahun; Malherbe chose the masculine nom-de-plume Marcel Moore. They would be professionally known by those names, though their everyday and legal names remained unchanged. As this review is biographical rather than artistic, I, like Jackson, will use their given forenames. Jackson is alive to the way the pair have been appropriated as cons of transgenderism. He points out that although they presented themselves in ambiguous ways (Cahun shaving her head), “they always talked about themselves as women” and used female pronouns. Suzanne and Lucy arrived in the early 1920s from Nantes in search of fulfilment; mainly artistic and literary….

Read the full review of Jeffrey H. Jackson, Paper Bullets: Two Artists Who Risked Their Lives to Defy the Nazis, Algonquin Books, 2020 here: