Millet: Sowing the Seeds of Modernism

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[Image: Jean-François Millet, The Gleaners (1857), oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris (donation subject to usufruct of Mrs. Pommery)]

One of the leading French painters of mid-19th Century was Jean-François Millet (1814-1875). He was hailed as a realist, a champion of rural France, ally of the peasant and aesthetic pioneer. The current exhibition Jean-François Millet: Sowing the Seeds of Modernism (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 4 October 2019-12 January 2020; touring to Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, 16 February-17 May 2020) situates Millet at the root of much of what became known as French Modernism. It includes works by artists influenced by Millet’s example, with special attention paid to his seminal influence on Van Gogh. This review is from the catalogue.

For the average viewer Jean-François Millet (1814-1875) is as unknown as he is famous. His life and oeuvre – beyond a handful of famous works – are shadowy. It is Courbet and Manet who are revolutionary painters of modern life in the country and town respectively; it is Géricault and Delacroix who are the adventurous titans developing sophisticated hybrid styles; it is Moreau who is a mysterious hermetic artist in dialogue with an imagined Orient; it is Degas who is the multifaceted technical chameleon; it is Ingres who wrestles with reinventing history painting whilst finding new ways to paint distinguished portraits. All of these artists excite scholars and curators set on proving theories and overturn art historical assumptions. One artist who does not command frequent monographic publications and exhibitions is Millet. Why should that be so?

It may largely be down to taste. Millet’s art so comfortably fits the mould of the anecdotal illustration or idealised pastoral that our sensibilities are left cool and unengaged. This is perhaps an incorrect appreciation, as noted later in this review, but it is an understandable conclusion. On a casual level judging themes and motifs, Millet seems a serving of stodgy worthiness drenched in saccharine sentimentality. On a technical level, Millet presents us no problems. He is not an artist of fragments; he is not wracked by doubt and his paintings are not conspicuously hard wrought. Although he is a painter of working people, his art is not overtly reformist. For the leftist, he is not radical enough politically. For the critic and student, his art is certainly rich veins of social and artistic material but offers few clear new “angles”. His art has seemingly nothing to say about the industrial revolution, the growth of the cities or the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars. One would search in vain for signs indicating his sympathies regarding the uprising of February 1848 and the Paris Commune. Quite the contrary – Millet appears to revel in the timeless and universal. Again, that is not quite so but superficially there is nothing particularly contemporary to his art.

Millet’s art is a place people retreat to, turning their back on novelty and difficulty. Millet, being a serious artist, has more to him than that but that part is there. One can decide the see the eternal peasant in harmony with the land he cultivates tirelessly and nothing else. Those people are not wrong and – if one is conservatively minded – Millet’s art does provide comfort in its stability and conventionality. Hence it is intriguing to anticipate what curators and scholars of today have to say about this artist to an audience who may be indifferent or even hostile to his vision of rural life.

During his lifetime and for decades after his death, Millet was a hugely popular figure domestically and internationally. His art was widely reproduced. Artists frequently copied Millet’s compositions from original paintings and prints or reproduction prints. A sale of a collection of pastels soon after the artist’s death garnered high prices. On 1 July 1889 The Angelus (c. 1857-9) sold for 553,000 francs, the highest ever price in France for a modern painting. The following year it was sold again for 750,000 francs.

Millet was born in the Normandy countryside. He pursued traditional academic training, and worked in Cherbourg and Paris. Millet was one of the most prominent figures in the Barbizon School, located in the Barbizon region, dedicated to the cause of realist depictions of landscapes and people. They advocated plein air painting and are best known for their naturalistic landscapes.

Simon Kelly states that “by the late 1850s, Millet was supplanting Gustave Courbet as the most subversive painter of peasant life as the latter turned to landscapes and hunting scenes.” Although at least one writer claimed him as a political radical upon his death, most judged him in retrospect as a link in the chain of French art. A key example is the painting that made his name at the 1857 Salon, The Gleaners. It seems that conservatives reacted against The Gleaners for the artist’s apparent sympathy for the workers gathering grain for free after a harvest, at a time when farmers had begun selling the right to glean. He did however not shy from depicting women agricultural workers (fruit pickers, shearers, milkmaids, field hands, sewers). Such unvarnished portrayals of the physical toil and the occasional indignity – particularly upon the fairer sex – drew criticism from more conservative critics when the art appeared in Salons. The ugliness of the figures was caricatured in newspapers.

Late in life, the painter turned to the creation of unpeopled landscape. These were unusual in some respects, departing from the Barbizon credo of composing from direct observation. These are manipulated compositions. One influence on these landscapes was of Japanese prints. The dramatic cropping, high horizon, aerial perspective, tonal recession, blocks of pattern without features all indicate Millet in his last decade drew upon Japanese woodblock prints the way the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists did after him.

His drawings in conté crayon were considered more modern than his paintings. They were looser in execution and less finished; some of them were studies of individual figures. The building of modelling through dense shading prompted much later art, for example Redon and the smoky sfumato of Carrière. Rightly selected for this exhibition are drawing by Georges-Pierre Seurat (1859-1891). The conté drawings of Seurat are wonderful – atmospheric, stark and deeply ambiguous.

The pastels are more vigorous and brightly hued than his paintings. It may be that the pigments of the pastels have fared better than the oils, which is often the case when the oils, siccatives, fillers and adulterants of oil paint deteriorate over time in comparison to the more pigment-heavy medium of pastel. For whatever reason, viewers of a more modern aesthetic temperament may find themselves responding more strongly to the pastels. The Plain (c. 1868) is a fantastic example of tonal recession in a pastel landscape of a featureless expanse of land. The flatness of the ground is contrasted with the dramatic cloud and shafts of sunlight breaking upwards. The grey-blues and pale browns flicker across the depiction, becoming thicker at the horizon and starting to dematerialise the earth and vegetation. It conveys the impression of fine mist gathering between the tussocks of grass. For those who think of Millet as a painter of hearty peasants and sentimental family vignettes, this landscape alone will dispel their assumptions. It is easy to see why Monet revered him. The pastel paintings of sea cliff done by Millet in the 1860s and early 1870s may have been direct influences on Monet, prompting him to tackle the same subject at Honfleur and elsewhere in the 1880s. The pastels where the black conté outlining is too prominent in the landscapes the effects are less successful. These are coloured drawings, rigid and fixed by the demands of “colouring inside the lines”. Recession is diminished, energy confined, immersion broken. The two versions of The Cliffs of Gréville (1871 and 1871-2) have all the tedium of a diligent book illustration.

His great painting Haystacks: Autumn (c. 1874) has travelled from New York. It shows what Millet might yet have developed upon had he not died so soon after finishing this masterpiece. It is a painting full of excitement – the massive alien bulks of haystacks dwarfing the sheep, shepherd and buildings. The transporting inversion is the light lower area and dark sky during daytime, with heavy clouds threatening rain and dramatic shafts of direct sunlight illuminating the ground. In temperate zones we commonly encounter (and hence instinctively understand) landscapes to be dark material below a light sky. With the regular exception of winter snow, this is a rule that holds true almost all the time. When we find the rule inverted, with a dark sky and light ground, it is unusual and striking. Millet did this more than a few times (Spring (c. 1868-73)) and he must have instinctively understood the drama of the inversion even if he did not understand its perceptual basis.

Reproduction prints of Millet by Alfred Delauney (1830-1894) and Jacques Adrien Lavieille (1818-1862) are exhibited. They form an important link because it was frequently the intermediation of illustrators who summarised and transmitted Millet’s art to the broad public, including artists. One of the artists who spent more time with illustrations of Millet than with originals was Van Gogh. The catalogue contains a long essay by Nienke Bakker about Van Gogh’s veneration of Millet and numerous ways he emulated the master: copying directly in sketches, fuller drawings and paintings; adapting Millet’s motifs; adopting Millet’s manner and the peasant genre; invoking his spirit. Van Gogh decided to live in a rural agricultural setting to be closer to working life and garner material for his art. His Potato-Eaters (multiple versions; 1885) was a homage to Millet but envisaged in Dutch chromatic terms.

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[Image: Vincent van Gogh, The Siësta (after Millet) (1889-1890), oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris (gift of Mrs. Fernand Halphen, née Koenigswarter, 1952)]

 

Painting prints after Millet’s compositions in colour oils was a therapy for Van Gogh while recovering in the asylum of 1889-90. These 20 paintings were a way of forming an emotional bond with common people and families while Van Gogh was deeply depressed and isolated in the asylum, coming to terms with the fact his illness (whatever exactly it was) was serious, chronic and incurable. Abandoning his dream of marriage and fatherhood, realising that he would be forever cut off from ordinary people by his behaviour and the severity of his mental collapses and mania, Van Gogh’s paintings after Millet were a way of adjusting to a radically curtailed future. It was both a way of assuaging his loneliness and finding models when there were few people around him to pose. None of the Millet translations are great paintings. None has the spark of even one of the painted wheat fields, yet the Millet translations are heartfelt and painted with gusto and accomplishment.

Millet’s paintings of country people appealed to Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), who was enamoured by the idea of primitivism revitalising art. For that reason he looked to the “less advanced” civilisations, such as those of Panama, Martinique and Tahiti, and also to the less urban, least cosmopolitan parts of France, such as Pont-Aven, Brittany and Arles, Provence. Related to this search for raw authenticity in the nativist French culture and its people, Millet’s art seemed to offer an approach that seemed fruitful for Gauguin. It may be that Millet’s influence was also transmitted to Gauguin via his mentor Pissarro. Art by Post-Impressionists Émile Bernard (1868-1941) and Paul Sérusier (1864-1927) is exhibited and discussed in relation to the model of Millet and his ideas.

Maite van Dijk writes of the influence that Millet had around 1900, at a time when Neo-Impressionism was exhausted and Symbolism and Post-Impressionism were giving way to the radical movements that largely disposed of naturalism (Suprematism, Cubism, Surrealism). Art included in Jean-François Millet: Sowing the Seeds of Modernism is by Degas, Giovanni Segantini, Angelo Morbelli, Jan Toorop, Edvard Munch, Ferdinand Hodler, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and others.

 

[Image: (left) Jean-François Millet, The Angelus (1857-1859), oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris (bequest of Alfred Chauchard, 1910); (right) Salvador Dalí, Archaeological Reminiscence of Millet’s Angelus (1933-1935), oil on panel, © Salvador Dali, Fundacion Gala-Salvador Dali, c/o Pictoright Amsterdam 2019]

One of the more notable inclusions is Salvador Dalí (1904-1989). His attachment to the art of Millet may have been part emotional, part fealty to the traditional art of his childhood, but it is in part perverse. What could be more subversive in an avant-garde than to praise pompier painters, academicians and a beloved old warhorse such as Millet? We could say that Dalí was embodying the true spirit of perversity and rebellion that Surrealism demanded by flouting every norm of Modernity. To give his perverse attachment a further twist, Dalí opined publicly about his sexual complex regarding the The Angelus. Dalí’s delirious fantasies fused the personal and universal, the nobility of religion and the animal desire of sex. He interpreted the couple as praying over the body of their son and that the woman was a praying mantis, about to devour the man. The pitchfork in the earth, Dalí saw as a Freudian symbol of copulation. The Angelus was quoted or copied by Dalí in a number of striking paintings and seems to have been a genuine obsession for the artist. The outcome was a sequence of paintings and drawings in the early 1930s. These turned out to some of the best works made during his prime period (roughly 1929-1936, at a stretch up to 1938) and have become art that is fully integrated into Dalí peculiar cosmology and expressed through his “paranoiac-critical method”. Dalí’s responses to Millet are some of the strangest and fertile in this survey.

The absence of Constantin Meunier (1831-1905) from the exhibition and catalogue is a peculiar and serious omission. Meunier is one of the most influential artists of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. His working figures were the template for the realism, social realism and Socialist Realism that dominated the period. Indeed, if we were to measure importance according to the quantity of art that followed his lead directly and indirectly, we might say Meunier was much more influential that Van Gogh or Picasso. It may be that Meunier’s preference for the miners, ironworkers, stevedores and other workers in the heavy industries of coal country may have made his art appear dissimilar to Millet. Far from it. Meunier comes directly from Millet. Woman Baking Bread (1854) is a direct forerunner to Meunier’s scenes of workers at a furnace. One does not need to know his bronze reliefs of scything peasants (Musée Meunier, Brussels) to recognise the artistic and temperamental debt that Meunier owes Millet. Surely one of the tangentially related artists could have been dropped from this exhibition to make space for Meunier.

While Millet may never be considered as revolutionary as Courbet, as daring as Gericault and Delacroix, as frank as Degas or as sophisticated as Ingres, this exhibition makes a cogent and carefully presented case for Millet being an important early pioneer of Modernism and one who had a deep influence on the artists who came directly after him. (In much the same way the recent Daubigny exhibition restored his reputation as an innovator in landscape painting.) It is most fitting that this exhibition brings Millet to Van Gogh’s museum. One can imagine the pleasure such an event would have brought Van Gogh. In a way the community of artist he longed to bring together around him has indeed happened posthumously and in his own museum in Amsterdam.

 

Simon Kelly, Maite van Dijk (eds.), Jean-François Millet: Sowing the Seeds of Modernism, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam/Saint Louis Art Museum/Thoth, October 2019, paperback, 208pp, 192 col. illus., €29.95, ISBN 978 90 6868 796 5  (Dutch version available)

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art

Lee Miller: Surrealist, Photographer, Cook

Lee Miller (1907-1977) was an American Surrealist photographer and photo-journalist. She lived in Paris, London and New York and is most famous for her collaborations with the photographer Man Ray. Although successful and respected, in her later years she preferred to underplay her achievements, however since her death the standing of her photography and interest in her life has increased. These three books overlap to a degree but they also feature three different periods of Miller’s life and output. Surrealist Lee Miller covers Miller’s photography from the 1920s to 1960s but centres on the 1929 to 1945 period, which was her most creative period as an artist. The Home of the Surrealists covers the period 1949 to the 1960s, when Miller was living in Sussex and in contact with fellow artists and writers, frequently welcoming them to her home. A Life with Food explains her connection with Surrealism and how this fed into her preoccupation with making unusual and arresting dishes inspired by Surrealism, which was her focus in her last decades. All three books have value and offer unique material.

Surrealist Lee Miller is a short guide to the life and work of Miller and an excellent selection of photographs. It presents the most famous pieces and photographs that straddle the line between her private life and the milieu within which she lived. The breadth of her life is seen in the glamour photographs of her as a model in Art Deco New York, picnics with Picasso and the suicided Nazi officials of the defeated Third Reich.

Miller was born into a comfortably off middle class family in New York State. Her father was a keen amateur photographer and instilled in her a love of photography and an understanding of the techniques. In the 1920s she worked as a model for Condé Nast. A trip to Paris led her to think of becoming a photographer and working in the art world. She moved to Paris in 1929 and immediately sought out Man Ray, the American Surrealist photographer. They began a close and fruitful collaboration, with Miller working as muse, model, assistant and – ultimately – partner. At the same time they had a romantic relationship. Miller became a significant but somewhat fugitive presence in the Surrealist movement, mingling with luminaries who would become her friends.

Man Ray trusted Miller enough to deputise her to work on his commissions, relying on her judgment and her understanding of his approach to Surrealism to produce photographs that seamlessly blended with his autograph work. The portfolio L’Electricité (1931) contains pieces by Miller but we do not which. Although some works attributed to Ray were by Miller, it seems that attribution was not automatically a source of conflict. When Ray specifically allocated assignments to Miller (in order for him to concentrate on other projects), it was understandable that Ray was accorded authorship. When it came to the innovation of the solarisation technique, the development seems to have been collaborative but with Miller making most of the situation and recognising the value of the technique. It is understandable that she would want (and rightly deserved) credit for the creation – or at least the recognition and exploitation – of this radical technique. If one has to talk of that advance having a single author then that must be Miller. This matter caused notable friction between the pair.

In 1932 Miller left Paris in order to establish herself as a photographer in New York. The majority of her work was portraits of prominent people in the arts and commercial advertising photography, some of it in early colour processes. Some of the portraits were commissioned but others were unpaid and taken by Miller because she found the subjects engaging. The portrait photographs of Joseph Cornell and documentation of his assemblages are a rare record of Cornell before he became well known. Many of the delicate boxes that Cornell made in the 1930s no longer survive, so it was Miller’s keen eye for the spirit of Surrealism that has provided us with these photographs.

In 1934 Miller married businessman Aziz Eloui Bey and went to live in his native Cairo. The selection of photographs from her Egyptian period in Surrealist Lee Miller is especially rewarding, as this tends to get covered less in general selections that the Surrealist and war periods. Her eye for the incongruous and haunting meant that she produced good work throughout her life but the Paris and Cairo periods are high points in terms of art photography. The life experiment was not a success however. The couple separated soon. By 1937 Miller was chafing at the lack of artistic stimulation, notwithstanding the opportunities to take some remarkable photographs. She met English artist, writer and collector Roland Penrose (1900-1984) in 1937 and they began a romance. Penrose was one of the few early Surrealist acolytes from Britain. He had been married to French Surrealist poet Valentine Boué, though they were separated by the time Miller and Penrose met. In 1939 she moved in with Penrose in his London house.

The war provided Miller was a chance to work as a photo-journalist for American publications, notably for British Vogue. Her documentation of the Blitz is some of the best photography of the period and the natural incongruous juxtapositions of war and destruction mirror her Surrealist outlook. Keen to document the war first-hand, Miller gained press accreditation from the US Army, allowing her to a change to cover the Normandy campaign. She photographed the siege of St Malo and the Liberation of Paris. There are joyful photographs of her reunited with her artist friends, in particular Picasso. On the 30th of April 1945, Miller entered Dachau concentration camp one day after liberation. Miller photographed the scenes of starved survivors, bodies of the dead inmates and the crematorium with remains. She also photographed the corpses of killed camp guards and the beaten camp guards held in custody by the Americans. That afternoon Miller and fellow journalist David Scherman found a place to rest. It was Hitler’s flat in nearby Munich. Scherman photographed Miller washing in Hitler’s bathtub; her boots – next to the tub – are covered with the dirt and human ash of Dachau. That day Hitler committed suicide in Berlin. Subsequently she photographed the burning of Hitler’s Berchtesgaden residence and then travelled to Austria. One of the most powerful sets of photographs is of infants dying in a Vienna hospital – their medicines had been stolen and sold on the black market. She was already suffering from PTSD and sinking into depression. When she returned to England to re-join Penrose, Miller was compensating for her internalised distress through heavy drinking, an activity that would continue for the remainder of her life.

After the war, the couple divided their time between a London house and Farley Farm, near Chiddingley, Sussex. The country house became a haven of Surrealist, Modernist and European culture, with the couple’s artist, writer, journalist and intellectual friends visiting. Penrose became a founding member of the ICA in London just after the war. It meant devoting more energy to other people’s art than to his own. He later wrote one of the first important monographs on Picasso’s art. Penrose had to choose between being an artist and an enabler and ultimately chose the latter; at the same time Miller had also to choose between being a mother and being a professional photographer. In 1947 the birth of Anthony, her only child, put a full stop to Miller’s travelling and marked the end of her career as a professional photographer. When offered uninspiring commissions she preferred to decline rather than engage in journeyman activity, though with her connections she could surely have found more challenging options had she pursued them.

Lee Millers desk p99 © Lee Miller Archives

[Image: © 2019 Lee Miller Archives]

Motherhood (for which she was not suited), isolation from much cultural life, PTSD, depression and heavy drinking took their toll on Miller. Her final years were more sober although she never returned to photography in a sustained manner. There are some photographs of artist friends, many of which are included in the books, especially The Home of the Surrealists. Visitors included Ray, Miro, Picasso, Ernst, Tanning, Eluard, Leonora Carrington, Masson, Matta and their partners. Miller and Tanning were particularly good friends and the photographs of Miller, Penrose, Tanning and Ernst taken in Arizona, 1946 show a natural rapport. Miller and Penrose were generous about allowing students and scholars access to their collection – something that had to be restricted when the art became more valuable. The artworks were gradually sold and donated over the years. Some of the art (including many murals painted by Penrose) are still in the house, which has been restored and is available to tour.

Scherman claimed that cooking saved Miller’s life. A Life with Food, Friends & Recipes informs us that together with the reassuring rhythm of the seasons and the delights of nature (generally viewed from a comfortable chair – Miller was not much of a rambler), cooking helped Miller to cope. Miller found the role of grandmother suited her better than that of mother. (Anthony described her as an “arch child-hater”.) The elaborate meals and company of artist friends allowed her to allay boredom and anxiety. Miller and Penrose had a gift for friendship, staying friends with ex-lovers, colleagues and artists who had long left the Surrealist fold.

Dining Room p100 © Lee Miller Archives

[Image: © 2019 Lee Miller Archives]

In 1953, Miller lost out to Elizabeth David for the position of leading cookery writer for Vogue. They had a common love of French cuisine, recommending olive oil for cooking, but David had greater knowledge of Italian cuisine, which would prove to be so influential in post-war British culture. Miller’s wild imagination and shocking combinations would probably have tested her editor’s patience to the limit. In the late 1950s Penrose paid for Miller to attend a 6-month Cordon Bleu course in Paris. She accumulated a library of over 2,000 cookbooks, won prizes for her dishes and became an acknowledged expert.

A Life with Food, Friends & Recipes reproduces the text of an unpublished cookery article from 1951 (including Picasso’s response to Christmas pudding) and a 1973 article on Miller’s cookery from House & Garden including the photographs. A section of the book includes the recipes in full and there are photographs old and new of the food and convivial meals at Farley Farm. Recipes include champagne and camembert soup, fig and Pernod ice cream, marshmallow-cola ice cream and carrots in whiskey. There is chicken in edible gold and pink cauliflower breasts. Miller’s visual sensibility led her to make dishes that were highly original. Less outlandish dishes include Cretan lamb, summer pudding and olive and mint salad. For modern tastes the cooking may seem at times labour intensive and elaborate but Miller the cook is not overall too controlling and gives readers leeway on many aspects. Miller’s philosophy as a cook is to surprise and delight her guests – engaging all their senses. Tableware included a platter looted from Hitler’s apartment and vases decorated by Picasso.

There is a question about the seriousness with which Miller’s cooking has been treated. Although her cookery is relatively well known there is a common resistance regarding her cookery. Perhaps that is a reluctance to associate a female creator with a minor genre – especially a field associated with women’s domestic activity. Although we should not make too much of this point – for the cookery of any artist and their gastronomical proclivities are not matters of great attention generally – it is worth considering. It is hard to parse the free-wheeling Surrealist, the hard-bitten war journalist and the mischievous cook – with these three roles seeming to undermine each other.

Cookbook 5 v2 © Lee Miller Archives

[Image: © 2019 Lee Miller Archives]

Whenever she was asked about her early work, Miller claimed all the photographs had been lost and was evasive about the past. Following the death of Roland Penrose, Anthony Penrose recovered a horde of photographs, documents and possessions belonging to his mother – material that Miller had insisted no longer existed – and began to reconstruct his mother’s remarkable life and creative output. It is only since then that the extent of Miller’s art has become apparent. Anthony Penrose has written a number of books about his mother. Credit must be paid to the tireless stewardship of Anthony Penrose, only child of Miller and Penrose. His care and candour over the years regarding his mother’s art has been exemplary. He has allowed scholars and the public access to material that frankly shows the difficulties that his mother faced, especially during her years in England. It is Anthony Penrose’s honesty, his intelligent choices about exhibition and publication of Miller’s art which have together allowed Miller’s achievements to come to be fully recognised. Anthony Penrose has fully complemented his mother’s great abilities and unique character. Any artist would wish to have such a judicious legatee. There would be value in a dedicated book of Miller’s letters. The examples quoted are full of vigour, wit and unexpected views of major historical events and figures.

 

Anthony Penrose, The Home of the Surrealists: Lee Miller, Roland Penrose and their circle at Farley Farm, Penrose Film Productions Ltd, 2016, paperback, 144pp, fully illus., £19.95, ISBN 978 0 9532389 1 0

Anthony Penrose, Surrealist Lee Miller, Lee Miller Archives, 2019, paperback, 159pp, fully illus., £15, ISBN 978 0 9532389 34

Ami Bouhassane, Lee Miller: A Life with Food, Friends & Recipes, Grapefrukt Forlag, 2017, hardback, 352pp, fully illus., £29.95, ISBN 978 09532 38927

(Books distributed by Unicorn Books and www.leemiller.co.uk)

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

 

New York Mid-Century Women Printmakers

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Artist Stanley William Hayter (1901-1988) founded his printmaking workshop Atelier 17 on the Left Bank of Paris in 1927/8. Hayter as an artist and teacher was close to Surrealism, particularly the practice and theory of automatism. He encouraged students to experiment but accepted artists of outlooks contrary to his. At the outbreak of war, Hayter left Paris. In October 1940 he re-opened Atelier 17 in New York. Christina Weyl’s The Women of Atelier 17: Modernist Printmaking in Midcentury New York is a new study of women who trained in Atelier 17 in its New York incarnation. It focuses on eight of the most adventurous and committed women artists who worked at the studio: Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010), Minna Citron (1896-1991), Worden Day (1912-1986), Dorothy Dehner (1901-1994), Sue Fuller (1914-2006), Alice Trumbull Mason (1904-1971), Louise Nevelson (1899-1988) and Anne Ryan (1889-1954).

Hayter moved back to Paris in 1950 to re-establish his studio there. A number of replacement directors maintained the New York studio. The New York studio closed for financial reasons in September 1955. The Paris studio of Atelier 17 only closed in 1988, upon Hayter’s death; a replacement studio has since been run under the name Atelier Contrepoint.

Weyl’s thesis is that the activities of Hayter’s studio allowed women in the 1940s and 1950s to develop proto-feminist practices and associations. “My reading of women artists’ affiliation with Atelier 17 and their experiences both inside and outside the studio is shaped by feminist art history and gender theory. The scaffolding provided by theorists and feminist scholars such as Judith Butler, Elizabeth Grosz, Griselda Pollock, Rozsika Parker, and Lucy Lippard allows for a more sophisticated analysis of this moment in history and of this particular group of women artists and makes it possible to reframe Atelier 17 through a feminist lens.” Weyl says she intends to continue “the scholarly trajectory of decentering and demythologizing [American modernism] that began decades ago”.

Weyl admits her thesis is partial. “Giving women artists a space in which they could flex their artistic muscles was radical for the 1940s and 1950s.” This is followed by an admission that often women outnumbered men at art school and that the WPA in the 1930s provided equal treatment of women artists. Weyl overlooks Black Mountain College, Hans Hofmann’s studio and any number of places where women could train without sexist prejudice. When Weyl writes about the limited career options open to women artists, she could just have easily written the same about male artists. There was great competition and few opportunities for all young artists and they had difficulty selling any non-traditional art. At the outset, one senses that Weyl has overstated her case to prove a point and by the mid-point of the book this judgment seems well founded.

The residual fallacy persists throughout the book. Whenever female artists do not pursue their studies, are discouraged, fail to exhibit, leave the studio prematurely and so forth, Weyl’s first resort is to explain this as the outcome of sexist obstruction. Environments are “coded masculine”; “ambivalent attitudes” are “largely unspoken but no less impactful”, nonetheless Weyl seems to be to unerringly identify it at a distance of seven decades. “Given the prevalence of wartime and postwar messaging about personal hygiene and hand care, female members of Atelier 17 had to be cognizant that their ink-stained hands were nonconforming to gender norms.” This sums up the approach and tone of The Women of Atelier 17.

When Hayter was peremptorily dismissive of some applicants (whom he disparaged as dilettantes), Weyl interprets this as sexism rather than impatience with less dedicated artists. Whether or not Hayter was fair in his assessments is not easy to weigh. This was a question of reciprocal respect – not just the master printmaker judging the seriousness of prospective students but of students realising that by studying with Hayter but not treating the work seriously they would be wasting the time of a busy teacher who could have been expending energy on more receptive students. Teachers such as Hayter had justifiably little patience for students who were dabblers. This was a serious problem for artist-teachers, who needed to guard their reputations and to assess how best to apportion limited resources and spaces. When Weyl chides Hayter for being too domineering, this contrasts with the reader’s sympathy regarding Hayter’s protectiveness towards his materials and tools, which were shared and sometimes expensive to replace. The author displays a measurable deficit of empathy towards Hayter, the individual who provided so much support, encouragement and opportunity for women artists.

The place of women in Atelier 17 is an interesting subject worth studying. Simply reviewing commonalities between eight female printmakers and discussing how their working approaches overlap and diverge is worthwhile. The illustrations are numerous and important, as many of these prints are obscure and rarely exhibited or discussed. There is also a useful guide to the societies, open exhibitions and co-operatives that were used by printmakers of the period. Notes of sources and summary biographies of artists will be of use to researchers. Weyl identifies a verifiable case of a woman being overlooked by colleagues. Fuller revived the sugar-lift technique detailed in E.S. Lumsden’s The Art of Etching, which went on to be a popular technique in the 1940s.

The author’s vexation with the two most prominent women artists of Atelier 17, Bourgeois and Nevelson, is apparent. “[They] had indecisive relationships with feminism. Though often touted as the two greatest women artists of the second half of the twentieth century, Bourgeois and Nevelson were not overly supportive of other women artists and treated those from younger generations, especially, with suspicion or ambivalence.” Weyl has a very definite idea that women artists are by nature more collegial than their male colleagues. Therefore great women artists should be greatly collegial. Why would they be?  Wouldn’t unusually competent, ambitious and individualistic artists act in ways that are the opposite of collegial? Why would tough exceptional female artists act any different from tough exceptional male artists and why would those female artists be feminists?

Weyl is insistent on the importance of group solidarity between women artists. “Women taught women, women promoted their fellow sisters’ new editions or current gallery exhibitions, and they supported each other’s business ventures in the print world.” Networking happens at all levels. The most successful artists will tend to network with their successful peers but not be dependent on those connections. One suspects that class solidarity tends to appeal to less competent and less successful practitioners who profit from pooling resources. It is not a matter of gender or temperament but of success. In a modern age when artists do not have or need apprentices, very successful artists usually do not teach. It is less successful artists who teach, print other artists’ editions, promote each other’s work, share studios and form co-operative groups. We might posit that the success of Bourgeois and Nevelson caused them to be less in need of group activity.

Worryingly, there are a number of statements that are inaccurate. “[…] transitioning from social realism to abstraction was not as simple or seamless for women as it was for their male colleagues (think of [Camilo] Egas or someone like Jackson Pollock).” This is overlooks the resistance that Pollock faced as a former student of Regionalist Thomas Hart Benton from that trained by European abstract artist Hans Hofmann. Lee Krasner commented – as did a number of other artists of the time – that Pollock was taken less seriously precisely because his background was in realism and American art rather than European Modernism. One way in which Egas and Pollock earned a degree of respect from the Modernist camp was having worked with the Mexican Muralists, who were seen as the acceptable face of realism. The Muralists blended social realism with Modernism. Formerly realist artists (male and female) faced resistance from the influential New York School supporters of Surrealism, abstract or Modernist sympathies if they had not displayed some sort of engagement with a “more advanced” semi-Modern form of realism before they came to abstraction.

“At Atelier 17, women artists not only upended centuries-old gender boundaries guiding the division of labor within printmaking, but also participating in redefining beliefs about men’s and women’s work in American society  at midcentury.” Setting aside the second clause, the first clause can be identified as absolutely false. Not only have women have been engaged in every part of printmaking since the Middle Ages, it is widely known to be an area where they practiced effectively in every area of workshop activity. Weyl will be aware of the New York Public Library’s exhibition Printing Women: Three Centuries of Female Printmakers: 1570-1900 (October 2015-January 2016) which covered just this topic. Exaggeration, distortion or falsehood – the quoted statements deserve no place in a reputable study.

Weyl, who has done enough research to know the common sources that I am familiar with, must know that such aspersions of sexism are unfounded. The authority of her statements relies upon the unfamiliarity of general readers with the wider body of literature. Additionally, there are errors of fact (such as technical descriptions on pp. 79, 156, etc.).

The persistent political direction of interpretation distorts the subject. When Nevelson was criticised for using too much ink, it was not a critique of her violating gender roles but of using too much communal material and creating mess that inconvenienced others. “Though Citron ultimately admired Nevelson’s resulting prints, she, Grippe, and others perceived Nevelson’s methods as slapdash and, implicitly, inappropriate for a woman.” Or colleagues may have found her use of shared materials reckless and a bad example to other students. “[…] she was unwilling to concede to postwar expectations and instead transgressed feminine norms with her bold and outsized personality.” Or she was thoughtless, egocentric and entitled. “Citron asked her friend, the sculptor Ibram Lassaw, to solder the plate parts back together. (Her aversion to the soldering gun is revealing because it follows the post-war taboo against women embracing home repair equipment.)” Or Citron was unfamiliar with a dangerous tool and asked an expert to perform the work for her using his tool. You see how hopeless the “gendered reading” is in practice. The best work in the book is in the second half, which contains an informative discussion about the market, distribution, exhibition, collection and status of Modernist prints in the period – material that is unrelated to gender.

The Women of Atelier 17 is a title that should be treated as partial and in some respects misleading. It is likely to cause of much misunderstanding if it is used liberally by writers unaware of the wider art historical scholarship on this period.

 

Christina Weyl, The Women of Atelier 17: Modernist Printmaking in Midcentury New York, Yale University Press, 2019, hardback, 296pp, 76 col./63 mono illus., £50, ISBN 978 0 300 238501

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Claude Cahun

IMGS009-001

The artist-writer Claude Cahun was born Lucy Renée Mathilde Schwob in 1894. She grew up in a middle-class family in Nantes. In some respects her childhood was conventional – financial security, good education – but Cahun (as she called herself from 1919 onwards) felt disturbed by undercurrents at home, which intensified over the years. Her father was Jewish at a time when the Dreyfuss affair was dividing the nation. Her mother was mentally ill and for some of the time confined a mental asylum.  Her mother was finally committed to an asylum permanently, with family visits forbidden. She and her brother were moved between relatives who were not always affection or considerate towards them.

Slight of build, not pretty, burdened with a Jewish surname at a time of anti-Semitism, disturbed by the emotional extremities of her parents and troubled by the spectre of hereditary madness, Cahun developed feelings of inadequacy. She found refuge in books. She had access to the books in her father’s office (a journal publication house) and read the classics to her blind grandmother, which gave her unusually broad exposure to literature. She began to write fiction. While a teenager she began a lifelong love affair with Suzanne Malherbe, who later changed her name to Marcel Moore (called Moore hereafter). The two women would be inseparable companions and collaborate in the production of books, photographs and artistic projects. Despite certain misgivings, their families tacitly approved of the unconventional relationship.

Cahun went to study philosophy and letters at the Sorbonne and Moore studied fine art in Nantes. Cahun conceived of herself as a failure in any of the available roles open to women of the time. In 1919 she changed her name to Claude Cahun partly to use as a nom de plume but also as a way of breaking with femininity. She shaved her head. She took as her heroes the Symbolist and Decadent writers, as well as André Gide. Their subjects of forbidden homosexual love, the morbid and grotesque, the renegade and flâneur, struck a chord in her. Her admiration for Oscar Wilde, Lord Alfred Douglas and John Addington Symmonds was related to her Anglophilia. The family holidayed in Jersey, she was schooled in England for a time and spoke English fluently. (When, a few later, Malherbe adopted the name “Moore” it may have been a conscious expression of affiliation for non-French culture.) Moore’s illustrations for Cahun’s first book (a restrained, stylised story about forbidden love) are derived from Aubrey Beardsley.

Moore was providing illustrations to journals and Cahun at that time was writing journalism. Cahun was following the Dada movement, which blew away the cultivated cobwebs of decadence. She dabbled in Buddhism and Eastern spirituality, something that was particularly current in the inter-war period, when people disgusted with the horrors of war turned their back on the traditions of their parents. Cahun became friends with Henri Michaux, René Crevel and André Breton. She met Gertrude Stein, Natalie Barney and Chana Orloff, as well as visiting Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare & Co.

The most important work of the 1920s was the commencement of a series of photographs of Cahun by Moore. It is this for which Cahun has become recognised posthumously. It seems that both Cahun and Moore worked to arrange the striking images, with Cahun alone as the subject in various incarnations: as a marionette, schoolgirl, clown, androgyne, mime, swimmer, dancer, Buddhist nun, scientific exhibit and other less identifiable types. Most of the photographs were only seen after Moore’s death, found as unprinted and untitled negatives. Some prints were marked with crop lines, others exist in unedited sequences. Some were published and displayed during Cahun’s lifetime – some in collage form – but it seems closer to a private project that occasionally bore fruit only to be exposed selectively. How serious are these works? What degree of importance did Cahun and Moore accord to them? The very fact that these questions are so important yet so unanswerable makes the asking significant.

The authorship issue is pertinent. Whose work is this: the subject’s or the photographer’s? Who came up with the ideas? Cahun and Moore are given joint credit but it is Cahun’s name on the book. Shaw points out that in early publications and posthumous exhibitions Cahun was credited as sole creator. “The perception that Disavowals [Aveux non avenus] and all of the photographic work associated with Cahun were the product Cahun’s singular vision was, for a long time, reinforced by the fact that the photomontages and photographs were attributed solely to Cahun in museum entries, catalogues and essays.”

More elaborate photo-collages (using original photographs, found photographs and handwritten texts) from the Aveux non avenus (1930) Shaw attributes to Cahun and Moore together, though she acknowledges that other experts believe Cahun was the principal creator. Shaw attributes to Cahun solely the photographs of temporary assemblages and miniature dioramas. They show serio-comic figures, toys, trinkets, plants and so forth in improvised settings. The photographs are jaunty and unsettling, adding a touch of the uncanny to assemblages that are childish. Other than photographs and photo-collages, the only other art Cahun produced were a few drawings and objects.

As the 1930s progressed greater political engagement was demanded of alert artists. Impelled by political commitment and artistic proclivity, Cahun became ever more closely involved in the Surrealist movement, specifically the circle around Breton. In 1932 Cahun and Moore joined the Association des Écrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires, an organisation for Communist-supporting writers and artists. AEAR was anti-Fascist, pro-Communist and non-Surrealist. Relations between the PCF and the Surrealists were complicated and shifting. The Surrealists could not fully reconcile their search for freedom with the PCF and the USSR’s increasingly conservative artistic policy. Over the next few years the division between Trotsky and Breton’s position of free creativity by politically alert artists and the PCF and USSR’s directives enjoining adherence to Socialist Realism. Cahun found it difficult to align herself with a political organisation, as she admitted, and left in 1933.

In 1935 the group Contre-Attaque was co-founded by Cahun, alongside Breton, Bataille and others. It was an attempt to provide a unified front of Surrealists against Fascism. Breton and Bataille had different temperaments. Bataille has been characterised as a proponent of “Left Fascism” – essentially Socialism achieved through Fascist methods of force, not dissimilar to Strasserism – whereas Breton was a more conventional Marxist. Breton was also an authoritarian who saw Surrealism as his personal fiefdom and he mistrusted the group centred on Bataille’s Documents journal. Cahun, Moore and Breton resigned from Contre-Attaque due to the group’s “super fascist tendencies”.

Cahun seems to have been omitted from early retrospective monographs on Surrealism due to multiple reasons. First, much of her photography was unpublished and unexhibited, thus unknown to historians. The public works – seen in isolation and detached from the body of her work – might have seemed slight to critics. Second, with the exception of Man Ray, photographs have been assigned a supplementary role in histories of visual Surrealism behind paintings, sculpture and the graphic arts. Third, she did not sign many manifestoes, therefore is easy to overlook in compilations of official documents.

In 1937 Cahun and Moore moved to Jersey. In 1940 the British government demilitarised the Channel Islands as indefensible and evacuated much of the population. Cahun and Moore remained in the expectation of German occupation, with the intention of performing active resistance. Their house was requisitioned by the German army, yet still they engaged in small acts of subversion which carried a severe penalty. They distributed written propaganda to undermine occupiers’ authority and confidence; they smuggled food to starving slave labourers building defences. They retained a radio after a ban was imposed and passed on war news.

The couple were arrested whilst carrying anti-German propaganda. They attempted suicide but their overdoses were non-fatal. Their deportation to the continent was forestalled by the Allied victory in Saint-Malo. The German occupiers were now cut off from mainland Europe. They both attempted suicide again, believing the other to be dead. They were tried for listening to the radio, having a weapon and camera and distributing anti-German propaganda. Found guilty, they were sentenced to death. It seems that the Germans did want to carry out the execution and that there was no expectation that so late in the war two elderly women would be executed.

Much of the personal archive and collection of art, books and letters were burned by the Gestapo. Disillusioned by the perceived passivity of islanders to the occupation, the couple lived on in Jersey, with Cahun health failing. She died in 1954. Moore died in 1972.

Shaw is thoroughly familiar with her subject and intelligently guides us through the writing, art and life of Cahun and Moore. She is careful not to adduce an autobiographical reading of the photographs and does not over interpret the writings. She draws parallels between Cahun’s ideas and later gender theory without interpreting Cahun through that lens, though she has been and will be subject to such treatment. She summarises Cahun’s writings, which are not widely available in English. Appendices include translations of selections from Cahun’s writing. The book is thorough, sensitive, informative and absorbing. Shaw’s Exist Otherwise makes an important addition to Surrealism studies.

Cahun has in recent decades become one of the most influential photographers for a generation of artists and it is easy to see why. Alongside Francesca Woodman and Cindy Sherman, Cahun is seen as the supreme exponent of the ambiguous, elusive, disruptive photographic featuring the artist as subject. Cahun is a lodestar for women photographers, the ultimate trickster. Her collaborative mode of art creation is a very current concern, with more and more artists seeking to sublimate their identities in partnerships. Her roleplaying seems grist to the mill of gender-studies students and professors concerned with Judith Butler’s ideas of gender as performance.

Cahun’s work is liminal. It crosses boundaries between the performative and autobiographical, private and public, male and female, art and documentation, personal and political, singular and collaborative, serious and humorous, professional and amateur. It is unstable and unclear, sometimes existing in binary states simultaneously. This is why it appeals to artists and critics in the Post-Modernist age with its insistent fetishisation of boundary-breaking and genre-bending. What makes Cahun’s art better than the art that emulates it is a lack of affect, a genuine fascination with ambiguity and an absence of self-consciousness. There is a real question about whether this is art or not, whereas the knowing art students of the 1990s never intended anything other of their activities, realising that everything could be fed into the voracious, undiscriminating, unobjecting, uncritical maw of art exhibition and publication. Cahun’s art has a magical risk that is missing from the activities of the 1990s. It also has that now mocked attribute of originality.

 

Jennifer L. Shaw, Exist Otherwise: The Life and Works of Claude Cahun, Reaktion Books, 2017, hardback, ISBN 978 1 78023 728 2

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

René Magritte, Philosopher Painter

04. R. Magritte_La m├®moire_1948

[Image: René Magritte, La mémoire (1948), oil on canvas, 60 x 50 cm. Collezione della Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles (FWB) Ministère de la Communauté française, Bruxelles
© 2018 Prolitteris, Zurich]

Magritte: Life Line is catalogue is produced for the solo exhibition of René Magritte (1898-1967) at Amos Rex, Helsinki (8 February-19 May 2019) and Museo d’arte della Svizzera italiana, Lugano (16 September 2018-6 January 2019). The basis of this exhibition is a lecture given in 1938 by Magritte. The curator and writers have taken his biographical lecture as a starting point for the selection of art by Magritte, using it to illustrate the themes he identified as his most important ones.

The lecture “Life Line” was delivered on 20 November 1938 at Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp. The text is reprinted here in full. The artist greeted his audience with the words “Ladies, Gentlemen, Comrades” and included a swipe at Hitler. Magritte’s political commitment was never entirely full and it fluctuated. His support always seemed more an expression of anti-authoritarianism and opposition to Fascism rather than any desire to see a dictatorship of the proletariat. Surrealism implied members’ allegiance to Communism, as repeatedly stated in the movement’s manifestoes and statements. The speech was more about an undermining of our assumptions regarding reality and the natural laws than anything more polemical. He talks about the origins of his fascination with painting.

In my childhood, I used to enjoy playing with a little girl in the old disused cemetery in a small provincial town. We visited the underground vaults, whose heavy iron door we could lift up, and we would come up into the light, where a painter from the capital was painting in a very picturesque avenue in the cemetery with its broken stone pillars strewn over the dead leaves, the art of painting then seemed to me to be vaguely magical, and the painter gifted with superior powers.

For Magritte, art was bound up with magic and eroticism. His wish to make himself and others wonder in order to experience the world anew and the erotic impulse were twin motivations for Magritte as artist during his whole life.

Encounters with paintings by first the Futurists and then Giorgio de Chirico inspired Magritte to turn away from realism. When Magritte read the manifestoes and saw the art of Surrealism, he located a means of combining wonder and eroticism. In 1925 he began to explore the terrain which would come to be considered typically and uniquely Magrittean. Through inversion, metamorphosis, replacement of images by words and juxtaposition Magritte transformed aspects of the real world into something remarkable. In the early years unknown and impossible substances and painterly effects were part of his repertoire but in the years after 1930 this part diminished and Magritte dealt henceforth mainly with materials and objects that we recognise.

One night in 1936, I woke up in a room with a bird asleep in a cage. Due to a mahnificent delusion I saw not a bird but an egg inside a cage. Here was an amazing new poetic secret, for the shock I felt was caused precisely by an affinity between the two objects, cage and egg, whereas before, this shock had been caused by bringing together two unrelated objects.

Hereafter, Magritte treated his ideas as more consistent and less arbitrary. In Hegel’s Vacation a glass of water is balanced on an open umbrella. The conjunction is between an object which is used to contain water and one that is designed to repel water. This is typical of the newly refined process of image creation.

Magritte goes on to give some examples of his paintings as representative of his thought, rejecting the idea that painting was to give sensual pleasure. This was a position he temporarily reversed in the Second World War, creating paintings in the Impressionist style of Renoir to delight the senses in delicate brushwork and spectacular warm colour. The lecture text is accompanied by the original glass slides that the artist projected on the evening.

The catalogue includes an interview with Suzi Gablik. She stayed with the Magrittes in 1960 while preparing her landmark monograph on the artist. She discusses her memories of the Magrittes domestic life. Other texts analyse Magritte’s interest in Futurism, his relations with the Paris Surrealists and his partnership with his America-based dealer Alexandre Iolas. There is a bibliography and chronology.

There are versions of famous paintings included in the exhibition. Among these are The Red Model (with boots metamorphosing into feet), The Castle in the Pyrenees (a castle on a rock which floats over a sea), The Listening Room (a giant apple fills a room), Memory (a plaster cast of a woman’s head is splashed with blood), The Son of Man (a man in a bowler hat, face obscured by a hovering apple) and other compositions. The Marches of Summer (1938) has the awe-inspiring conceit of the sky and earth broken into giant perfect cubes, turning the world into a puzzle for titans.

Le grand Siècle

[Image: René Magritte, Le grand siècle (1954), oil on canvas, 50 x 60 cm. Kunstmuseum Gelsenkirchen. © 2018 Prolitteris, Zurich]

The exhibition also features less familiar paintings that are arrested and absorbing. The Great Century (1954) has a man looking across a sunlit park and a grand villa, all of which are under a vast ceiling. It gives us a strange sensation of contained in a building so vast that encompasses – perhaps – the entire world. (Something of a parallel to concept of existence as a simulation within an incomprehensibly sophisticated computer.) Countryside (1927) shows an irregular flat fragment of tree foliage dissipating, smoke-like, into the air; it is a placed in an alien landscape and under a cloudless sky. Celestial Muscles (1927) is a torn part of grey mist (or cloud) intruding into a room. The mist has a lovely silvered-lead quality and its formlessness is contrasted with its crisp arabesque outline; the conjunction creating a delicious frisson. These paintings appeal due to its combination of colours, textures and shapes, demonstrating how Magritte’s early period was largely intuitive rather than reasoned. These are examples of the sensual appeal of Magritte’s art, despite his avowal of a detached intellectual manner of creation. Magritte also talked of art showing us the poetry of the world and we can think of Magritte’s pre-1930 art as poetry without metre, with his art after 1929 (and especially after 1935) a more structured form of poetry.

One example of Magritte’s art entering the territory of the crime story (a genre Magritte enjoyed) is The Night Walker (1927-8). A man in hat and coat is strolling through a normal dining room which is lit by a streetlamp. It is a poetic rendering of the strangeness of our everyday world rearranged, drawing attention to a threat and mystery of the ordinary.

01. R. Magritte_Le noctambule_1928

[Image: René Magritte, Le noctambule (1927-8), oil on canvas, 55 x 74 cm. Museum Folkwang, Essen. © Museum Folkwang Essen – ARTOTHEK / 2018 Prolitteris, Zurich]

The famous “Words and Images” illustrated text is included in its original manuscript form. This short explanation of Magritte’s ideas was published in La Révolution surréaliste in December 1929 and has since been frequently reproduced. His paintings with words substituting for images provide further demonstrations of the ideas in “Words and Images”.  Art by Giacomo Balla, Max Ernst and Giorgio de Chirico puts Magritte’s practice into perspective.

The selection is excellent and enjoyable. It is representative of Magritte’s main themes and includes pictures from his Impressionist phase and the Vache period, when he painted pictures that were crude, scatological and bawdy. Prints, painted bottles and bronze sculptures show Magritte’s work outside conventional picture-painting. The pairing of drawings and paintings with sculptures allows us to judge how satisfactory the translations into three dimensions for bronze casting by Italian craftsmen are. This catalogue is a fine book for anyone wanting to gain a general understanding of Magritte, as well as providing thoughtful analyses and a key text by the artist.

 

Xavier Canonne (ed.), Magritte Life Line, Skira, 2018, hardback, 176pp, 120 col. illus., £32.00/$40.00, (Italian version available), ISBN 978 88 572 3897 5

* * * *

9781138054271

 

In René Magritte and the Art of Thinking Lisa Lipinski situates Magritte’s art in the context of phenomenology of Merleau Ponty and other thinkers of the Twentieth Century. Lipinski, assistant professor of art history at George Washington University, presents Magritte’s use of pâpier collé and words as an extension of the inventions of the Cubists. The introduction of extrinsic elements of language into the field of painting opens up questions regarding semiotics and linguistics.

[Cubist] collage was a way of probing not only the reality or relationship of signifier and signified, but also the differences between words and images in terms of meaning, which according to structural linguistics is a function of the system rather than of the world. Unlike some kinds of images, words possess no natural relationship to the things to which they refer.

This has been subject of study by Foucault and other philosophers already. Lipinski presents a summary of the conclusions that she finds most salient. Instances of trompe l’oeil painting are discussed in terms of Deleuze and Guattari’s proposition of “becoming-imperceptible”. For the artist his “painting has to resemble the world in order to evoke its mystery.” Summoning the mystery of the world into existence in his art required the quasi-deception of illusionism – a compact entered into by artist and viewer with the understanding that their suspension of disbelief will be mutually beneficial. Bloodletting (1939) – which shows a painting of a section of brick wall hanging on an interior wall – becomes a locus for examining the literalness of Magritte’s talk of the visible concealing the visible in levels. It makes us aware of the way signifiers in pictures relate to signified subjects and thus refer to the absent subject. Magritte’s art makes this matter the subject of a picture by playing with such notions of absent signified and by revealing of the should-be-hidden matter makes apparent the codes of representation that we accept.

The Human Condition is a series of paintings which use the motif of the painting mirroring the reality around it in a way that makes it indistinguishable from the surroundings. The surface of the depicted painting becomes as one with the surface of the actual painting, toying with ideas of verisimilitude, semiotics and language. The recurrent use of the picture as subject, the view seen through a window and the empty frame are other types of analysis of visual language.

There is some discussion of the Renoiresque paintings but Lipinski seems to misunderstand the rejection of these pictures. Viewers rejected the art because the style was incongruent with subject and in fact detracted from the legibility that Magritte’s art required to function effectively. The viewers may not have termed their unease and impatience in such terms but this was what caused these pictures to be rejected. Inside of the controlled dissonance and incongruity that Magritte habitually deployed, he was prey to unconscious dissonance by taking up a position where his language and subject short-circuited each other. The paintings fail to be pleasurable because the viewers intuit their inherent and unhelpful internal inconsistency. The Vache period is discussed briefly. The book concludes with a discussion of the photograph portraits of Magritte as indicative of the painter’s ideas.

This book provides a digestible overview of the Magritte’s themes as considered in the light of philosophy, semiotics and post-structuralism and will be of most value to university students.

Lisa Lipinski, René Magritte and the Art of Thinking, Routledge, 2019, hardback, 140pp, 14 col./40 mono illus., £115, ISBN 978 1 138 05427 1

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

 

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

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.

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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