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

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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

2019 New Year message

Happy New Year!

Many thanks to all of the regular and occasional visitors to AlexanderAdamsArt WordPress site. Unique views in 2018 totalled 9,556, which more than doubles the views in 2017. The plan for 2019 is to produce more high-quality unique content about culture, provide links to my articles posted on other websites and to give information about my publications. Culture War: Art, Identity Politics and Cultural Entryism will be published on 1 March as paperback and e-book, to be accompanied by interviews, readings and signings (which will be announced here). New articles by me are published by The Art NewspaperBritish Art Journal and The Jackdaw. For obvious copyright reasons, those cannot be posted online here.

For AlexanderAdamsArt WordPress site in the early months of 2019 we have lined up reviews of Japanese art, David Lynch, Surrealism, Blue Period Picasso, Salvador Dali, Beat writing, texts by Thucydides and Seneca and many other subjects.

If you would like support my work, please purchase a copy of Culture War via online or local stores or the publisher’s website here: http://books.imprint.co.uk/book/?gcoi=71157100083870

Once again, thank you to you, the readers.

AA

FBI surveillance of writers

“The remit of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) includes monitoring figures who potentially threaten national security. And the FBI has long included famous writers on that list. To them, writers pose a double menace: not only do they pose a potential threat themselves, they might also inspire large groups of people to undermine the status quo, which the FBI is charged with protecting. The perceived threat posed by novelists and essayists is laid bare in Writers Under Surveillance: The FBI Files, a new book comprising facsimiles of archived files on famous American authors.

“During the Cold War, when suspicion of writers and intellectuals was at its peak, the FBI was under the control of the domineering, aggressive and thin-skinned J Edgar Hoover. During his long career as FBI director, Hoover took an active personal interest in pursuing political and personal opponents. Writers Under Surveillance reveals all this in official memoranda, letters and reports, with redactions, mainly to conceal identities of informants and other intelligence agencies. The editors have selected the more complete documents….”

Read the full review on Spiked Online here: https://www.spiked-online.com/2018/12/17/writers-under-surveillance/

Looted Art & Monuments Men

Central Collecting Point_CVR

 

Iris Lauterbach (a Munich-based professor, who specialises in art and architecture in the Nazi era) has written a study of the work of the Monuments Men, basing it on extensive archival research.

In 1944 the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFA&A) section was founded. The team became known as the Monuments Men; a term made famous by the 2014 feature film starring George Clooney. Initially, it was planned that the Allies would agree a common system but there were political differences between the powers. While the American and – to a lesser extent – the British authorities were led by principles of neutrality and fairness regarding looted items on German territory, the French and Soviets were less neutral. Indeed, the Soviets were unwilling to give up much of the loot they took custody of in Germany and restored only some of it to Germany and other nations. Many items are retained in former Soviet lands and considered compensation for the massive cultural losses the USSR suffered during the Axis Powers’ invasion. This matter is still a sensitive subject for Russian and German authorities.

Founded 1944, they followed the frontline Allied forces as they fought, attempting to do what they could rescue treasures from not only the German military but also plunderers among the Allied forces and local populations. Their efforts were restricted by the strategic and material demands of a still active war. The first priority of the Monuments Men was to locate and recover art from the haphazardly improvised caches (over 1,500 of them) scattered across Germany, many in old mines and basements. Herman Goering’s lordly spoils were found in army trucks. Göring had been the process of trying to remove them from the advancing Allied forces when the convoy had been left stranded. Much of the art was not packed adequately and had been damaged by damp and rough handling. Bundles of Old Master drawings were found rotting in forests. Caches had been predated by plunderers.

Bavaria was in the American sector of occupation (comprising Bavaria, Württemberg-Baden and Hesse) and Munich was the regional capital of Bavaria. It made a natural centre for American operations. In a severely damaged city, the US Army discovered that the Nazi party building and the Führerbau (Leader’s building) to be in good condition and used them as centres for collecting, assessing, storing and administering looted art. The use of the buildings proved to be both practical and symbolic, by turning the centres of Nazi control into places were restitution of culture was administered. The buildings were designated the Central Collecting Point (CCP).

The Monuments Men pledged to act not as conquerors set on doing their own plundering but as careful stewards and impartial arbiters. It was partly their objects that led to the curtailment of a touring exhibition of “appropriated” masterpieces from Germany being returned to Germany.

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The staff was headed by qualified American art historians and curators, many of whom had studied under German art professors, some in exile from Nazi Germany. Senior officers and soldier guards were American; they were assisted by denazified German experts (including curators, conservators photographers and technicians), handymen and secretaries.

Every day precious objects (ranging from coins, books, jewellery, tapestries, furniture and historical objects to fine art of every description) were brought to the CCP. Much of it was in poor condition, damaged by theft, transportation and neglect. The art treasures that passed through the CCP were dazzling. They included the Van Eyck Brothers’ Ghent Altarpiece, Leonardo’s Woman with Ermine, Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna, Rodin’s Burghers of Calais and masterpieces by Rembrandt, Rubens, Bruegel, Cranach the Elder, Titian, Tintoretto, the Impressionists and every major European painter. Historic books and scientific archives were included, along with the Hungarian monarchical regalia. A more melancholy group of artefacts were collections of Judaica confiscated from the liquidated Jewish populations of central and Eastern Europe.

The organisation classed items into three categories: A) art looted from public organisations in outside of Germany, B) art looted from private individuals, C) art removed from German institutions for purposes of safeguarding it. The art was photographed, described, numbered and given an index card. Some cards are reproduced in the book. The workload was huge. To assist curators a 9,600-book reference library was in existence at the CCP by November 1945. Assistants trawled the extensive NSDAP archives of art acquired for German museums, in particular Hitler’s planned museum in Linz, as well as paperwork for the personal art collections of Hitler, Göring and senior Nazis. Some of the art was stolen; some of it was acquired at extortionately low prices from owners who ranged from the eager to unwilling. (The MFA&A considered any items acquired during German occupation of a country to be illegal (i.e. stolen, coerced or unfairly acquired).) Germans who had assisted in these campaigns of acquisition were interrogated. Some were careerists, others were committed. A handful apparently retained loot and were involved in the black market for art. Among others, dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt escaped serious punishment because the MFA&A did not have access to sufficient documentation to determine the extent of his involvement in dealing looted and extorted art. As we know now, he retained a horde of stolen art which was left to his son and only recently discovered. The CCP also had to contend with theft from the depot. The widespread poverty, currency suspension and unemployment meant that theft and bartering were endemic in everyday life all over Germany.

Claims for restitution to non-German owners were made via their national representatives, with a few exceptions being Jews who fled East and inhabitants of the Soviet-occupied Baltic states if the claimants were resident in the West. Otherwise, national representatives would come to the CCP and collect works claimed by their nationals. Private claimants in Soviet-occupied nations generally had their returned property possessed by their state.

Returning work to former Axis powers Italy and Austria proved more difficult, with delegations engaged in protracted wrangling and diplomatic negotiation. The Bavarian Government considered these countries to be claiming too zealously and the CCP position wavered, dependent on the views of senior officers. The US government agreed to some of these dubious claims against the objections of the CCP. German claims were considered only after foreign claimants had petitioned.

The administrative and logistical difficulties of dealing with so many claims meant that mistakes were made. One error was not the result of a slip but a crime. When a Yugoslav art dealer called Ante Topić Mimara arrived to claim items for Yugoslavia, his claims were processed and the objects were taken before it was discovered that many of the items were not from Yugoslavia at all. It seems that a female German staff member at CCP assisted Topić and left with him, later to become his wife. She had apparently secretly provided Topić with a list of unclaimed works at CCP of unclear provenance for him to claim for Yugoslavia. The MFA&A had been duped in what was effectively a heist. The only major scandal in the MFA&A’s history was covered up by the US government, which failed to recover the items. Some of Topić’s private collection is now in a Zagreb museum but much of it has disappeared.

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By August 1947 the MFA&A had restituted material appropriated by the Nazis in the following proportions: 65.4% to France, USSR 12.8%, The Netherlands 8.6%, Austria 4.5%, Hungary 3.3%, Poland 2.9%, and other countries 2.5%. Record keeping was difficult when huge quantities of materials arrived daily. Some of the items were mistaken believed to have been looted but turned out not to have been. Objects were sometimes lost (or stolen) and uncatalogued items surfaced randomly. This was in part due to the closure of other centres and the transferral of unclaimed work to the Munich CCP.

The CCP finally closed on 1 September 1951. 33,188 items were restored to claimants between August 1945 and September 1952. To put that into context one should know that the French authorities estimated that approximately 100,000 items had been stolen from French institutions and citizens, of which 61% were returned by 1950. Today Poland lists 60,000 stolen objects as still missing. (The CCP only handled objects in the American zone of occupation, with some foreign caches coming there. The figures naturally exclude looted items recovered by the other Allied powers and objects destroyed or undiscovered.) In 1952, custodianship of looted property at CCP was turned over to organisations under control of the Bavarian State. Some owners agreed to their objects being bought by the Bavarian State. Heirless items were divided up between various countries of origin, some retained in storage, some given to museums, others auctioned. Eventually, unclaimed works of little value were auctioned. The residue of unclaimed work of significance is now in the ownership of the FDR and the Bavarian State.

Chapters are short, each focusing on a different aspect of the CCP’s activity, arranged chronologically. Lauterbach includes information on the later use of the building as a venue for exhibitions of historic and contemporary art and design. This was done to promote new, non-Nazi art (most obviously abstract art, which absolutely contravened National Socialist aesthetic policy) and to foster American-German co-operation.

The book is liberally illustrated with fascinating photographs of the CCP at work. We see a Leonardo resting casually in a rack, a Titian Danaë stacked against a Claude Lorrain landscape and the Bruges Madonna being manhandled. Snapshots show smiling soldiers smoking cigarettes and posing next to Old Master portraits. Staff are shown working and relaxing and we get an idea of the conditions and attitudes towards the many aspects of the restitution of looted artefacts.

Lynn Nicholas’s The Rape of Europa (1994) is the standard account of the Nazi looting of art. The Central Collecting Point adds much detail to efforts to conserve and restitute that loot. This is a translation of the original German-language book, published in 2015. Lauterbach has extensively used the archives of various institutions – not least the Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte, her home institution – but has elected not to note precise sources for her information about the internal workings of the CCP contained in the MFA&A records. That is pragmatic but will disappoint scholars wishing to peruse the original documents. This title provides a balanced and informative overview of the subject. The prose style and numerous photographs bring the difficult and important work of the Monuments Men to life.

 

Iris Lauterbach, Fiona Elliott (trans.) The Central Collecting Point in Munich. A New Beginning for the Restitution and Protection of Art, Getty Research Institute, January 2019, 320pp, 238 mono illus., hardback, £55/$70, ISBN 978 1 60606 582 2

 

© 2018 Alexander Adams

View my books and art here http://www.alexanderadams.art

The New Berlin, 1912-32

Dodo

[Image: Dodo, Theatre Box Logic, for ULK magazine, (1929), watercolour and graphite, 40 x 30 cm, Krümmer Fine Art © Krümmer Fine Art]

The New Berlin, 1912-32 is a current exhibition which examines art that flourished in Berlin during the flowering of Modernism from 1912 to the end of the Weimar Republic in 1932 (Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, 5 October 2018-27 January 2019). The exhibition (including more than 200 works of art in all media) focuses on advanced German art that made it to Belgium in those years and the art made by Belgians in response to that art. It features many names familiar to international visitors and figures from the Belgian art world who are lesser known internationally. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

The exhibition opens in 1912, which was when (in March 1912) the Der Sturm gallery opened in Berlin. The gallery would feature much of the era’s most ground-breaking art. In collaboration (and competition) with Galerie Georges Giroux in Brussels and dealer Alfred Flechtheim, Der Sturm allowed art to reach Berliners and – through loans and publications – international audiences, including those in Belgium. Futurism, Cubist, Blaue Reiter, Expressionism and abstract art began to be diffused via publications such as Die Aktion. The influence of Expressionist woodcuts – being the most accessible and accurately reproducible art of the time – became apparent in the art of Frans Masereel and Gustave De Smet. Their woodcuts are stylistically identical to those produced by the German Expressionists.

The year 1912 was when Belgian art’s influence began to dramatically wane. Art Nouveau, Aestheticism, Symbolism, Luminism and Neo-Divisionism all had leading practitioners in Belgium, not least in the fields of illustration and poster design, and were popular Europe-wide from roughly 1890 to 1910. Belgium (particularly Brussels) was one of the artistic hubs of the period. The outbreak of the Great War decisively extinguished these movements as vital strands.

The Art Critic

[Image: Raoul Hausmann, The Art Critic (1919-20), lithograph and printed paper, 31.8 x 25.4 cm, Tate: Purchased 1974, Inv. T01918 © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2017]

Belgium was occupied by German forces from 1914 to 1918. At this point German art, through exhibition and publication, became dominant sources of new ideas in a Belgium isolated from the rest of Europe. Belgian artists exiled in the Netherlands found kinship with German Expressionists in artistic terms. Some of the Expressionists were anti-war, Socialist and internationalists, which struck a chord with foreign artists. During the war and into the 1920s and 1930s Expressionism became a distinct school in Belgium, influencing artists of École Laethem-Saint-Martin, Nervia and independent painters such as the young Paul Delvaux. Expressionism of Belgium (principally in Flanders) is characterised by its domestic subjects, muted coloration, emotional moderation and links to traditional subjects. The Belgian palette contrasts with the lurid aggression of the Germans. Belgians saw Expressionism as a way of connecting to an actual remembered past while the Germans wanted to connect to an imagined past of exotic savages. The exhibition includes paintings and prints by Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Max Pechstein, Ernst Barlach and Käthe Kollwitz. During the occupation many German artist-soldiers made the pilgrimage to the studio of James Ensor in Ostend. The elderly Ensor was considered a pioneer of Expressionism for his celebrated mask paintings, made decades earlier. While stationed in Belgium, Heckel made art and the exhibition includes one of his paintings of Bruges.

In aftermath of the war, the assertively Modern seemed the only adequate response to the horror of invasion, destruction and mass slaughter. In 1918 Art Nouveau seemed incomprehensibly archaic and Symbolism a feeble fantasy world. Art for a shattered world would have to break with tradition. Exposure to art of Germany led to many young Belgians looking East following liberation. They divided roughly into two camps: the angry Expressionists, Dadaists and satirists and the idealistic abstractionists. The former reacted to the social and emotional upheaval of the war; the latter decided to prevent suffering and disunity through the establishment of technical perfection, scientific social policy and aesthetic revolution. In Belgium over 1918-20 there was a burst of short-lived utopian artistic groups inspired by liberation and the Russian Revolution. With the ideals of pacificism, Modernism, Socialism and internationalism (advocating European unity), these groups espoused rejecting tradition rather than adapting or hybridising it. Much of the art that inspired Germans and Belgians was Russian: Naum Gabo, El Lissitzky, Alexander Rodchenko and Kazimir Malevich.

Model for 'Constructed Torso'

[Image: Naum Gabo, Model for constructed Torso (1917), cardboard. 1917, reassembled 1981, 39,5 x 29 x 16 cm, Tate: Accepted by HM Government in lieu of tax and allocated to the Tate Gallery 1995, T06972, © Tate, London 2018]

Some of the leading Belgian abstract artists were Pierre-Louis Flouquet, Victor Servranckx and Marthe Donas. The radical ideas of Soviet architects found fertile ground with German architects and Bauhaus teachers. A number of uncompromisingly modern projections for redevelopment of Alexanderplatz, Berlin are shown here.

In the 1920s Berlin became a world metropolis, the third largest in the world (behind London and New York). Berlin was a city that was uniquely divided between the advanced and the regressive. It was home of the world-class pioneering technology, architecture and arts and was beset by widespread unemployment, hunger, prostitution, poverty, political violence and the persistent effects of wartime upon former soldiers, many severely crippled. This proved a stimulating environment for new art.

Dix_01

[Image: Otto Dix, Two Children (1920), oil on canvas, 95 x 76 cm, Royal Museums of Fine Arts Belgium, Brussels, inv. 7510, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn © SABAM Belgium]

Georg Simmel described the city dweller as free from traditional constraints of religion, morality and local political affiliations. The urban person had been liberated from the constraints of custom and – newly anonymous, mobile, freely associating – was able to develop his/her talents; these tastes might reach a state of extremity. Take a look at Hans Baluschek’s printed portraits of a drunk, carnival whore and cocaine addict – victims of urban degeneracy. Criminologists in Vienna and Berlin were engaged by the question of whether or not cities caused latent criminality and moral weakness to corrupt individuals. Two paradigms were at war: the utopian (cities allowed the fusion of individuals into superhuman forces of productivity, creativity and innovation) and the dystopian (cities allowed the moral and genetic dregs of society to spawn turpitude among the masses). As one looks through the art here, one cannot help but see the abstractionists, Bauhaus teachers and city planners as utopians and the political artists and Dadaists as dystopians.

The proclivity for people to seek out likeminded others led to the acceleration of tendencies and producing ever more extreme and specialised styles. In Modernism there has always been a craving for novelty. When the style of Weimar Berlin art was not Modernist, the subject matter was often contemporary. The Neue Sachlichkeit and Magic Realist artists painted modern places (such as cabaret clubs, cinemas, streets filled with automobiles) and modern people (drag artists, homosexuals, flappers, Communist and Nazi agitators). Dodo, Lotte Laserstein, Hannah Höch and others female artists were the so-called New Women, liberated from former constraints, and they portrayed New Women. Only Laserstein could be described as a Neue Sachlichkeit painter. (See my review of Laserstein’s current solo exhibition in the Städel Museum, Frankfurt in the next issue of The Jackdaw.)  Political satire often dictated the tone, especially in the work of George Grosz, Otto Dix, Raoul Hausmann and John Heartfield. This was the time when Heartfield made photomontage into a mass art and a political weapon. His attacks on Nazism featured on the covers of AIZ and other publications and are recognised as classics today. (Read my review of Heartfield’s photomontages here.)

Berlin was home to other leading creative figures, including filmmaker Fritz Lang, playwright Bertolt Brecht and novelist Alfred Döblin. The catalogue includes an informative essay on Expressionist cinema discussing the role of Nietzsche’s thought on the films by Robert Wiene and others. Other essays cover the changing character of Berlin, photomontage, the New Women of Berlin and political art. Groups of works are illustrated in sequences with brief written summaries. The texts (which are based on research rather than theory and are admirably free of jargon) ably map the importance of Berlin as a centre for the visual arts and explain links between Belgian artists and the capital of Germany during the period of High Modernism. The profuse illustrations of periodicals show what people were reading at the time and how they consumed art. This catalogue forms a good introduction to these subjects and will be of value to anyone wanting to understand the role of Berlin in European Modernism during its heyday.

 

Inga Rossi-Schrimpf et al, The New Berlin, 1912-32, Lannoo/Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, 2018, hardback, 256pp, fully col. illus., €34.99, ISBN 978 2390 250 739

 

© 2018 Alexander Adams

View my art and books here: http://www.alexanderadams.art

Peter Kuper: Kafkaesque

Kafkaesque FINAL FINAL COVER

[Image: (c) 2018 Peter Kuper]

Kafkaesque is a new book by graphic artist Peter Kuper featuring stories by Franz Kafka. Kuper, whose previous graphic novel Ruins won an Eisner Award in 2016, has produced black-and-white woodcut-style illustrations for 14 stories by Kafka. Kafka wrote stories in different forms. There were lengthy allegories, stories in the form of dreams and short parables which were as honed as parables of Biblical character. Kafka was the sort of visual writer whose stories lend themselves to illustration – ones with lots of strong images but not overly descriptive or detailed. Interestingly enough, when Kafka discussed with his publisher the illustrations for his famous “Metamorphosis” (wherein Gregor Samsa woke one morning to find himself transformed into a giant insect) Kafka was categorically insistent that the insect Gregor not be depicted. Kuper has elected not to illustrate “Metamorphosis” – but only because he has already made his version of it.

Kuper decided to work on scratchboard, which is an inked board or paper which is scratched away with a tool. This is working in negative, a reverse of the ink-on-paper positive approach. This gives the images a starker, rawer feeling. The slight irregularities of the scratching – combined with the unreliable fidelity of the scanning technology which records it – add to the slight wavering quality of the images. This softens what might otherwise be a rather harsh mono style without mid-tones. The style also works against cross-hatching, which tends to abrade scratchboard unpleasantly and erratically. The primacy of black gives the panels an omnipresent atmosphere of impending darkness, where daylight or electric light are only brief reprieves from the natural normality of a dark universe. In Kafka’s writing, one feels the standard is ignorance, unfairness, oblivion, coldness and isolation. There is much humour in Kafka – which Kuper brings out – but that does not invalidate his bleak outlook. Humour is the spark of humanity in the cosmic expanse of indifference and darkness. It is deliberate that blank pages between stories are black rather than white.

Extracts of Kafka’s text are used as narration and dialogue. The stories are changed from Kafka’s neutral or naturalistic settings to a heightened setting, often in modern America, though never explicitly contemporary. Kuper’s art blends uses imagery of mid-century America, populated by people, drawn in a consistent and stylised manner. The stylisation is in line with the Expressionist printmakers that Kuper admires.

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[Image: (c) 2018 Peter Kuper]

The artist describes his drawn stories as translations and conversations with the original stories. Sometimes Kuper has adapted freely and imposed a distinct personal approach. For example, “The Trees” becomes a depiction of homeless rough sleepers on New York streets. “Before The Law” becomes an allegory of racial injustice, where a black man awaits admittance to the chambers of the law, guarded by a white man. To be fair to Kuper, he leaves this matter open to our interpretation but our knowledge of current political narratives suggests a political intention. “In The Penal Colony” needs no alteration to make it a criticism of the severity of judicial punishment. The story is rather complex. Kafka undercuts the obvious message extolling humanist compassion by portraying the prisoner, condemned to die on an elaborate machine, as a hardly better than an animal, a comic stooge and a fool who is both an impediment and willing participant in his execution. There are many other elements, not least of which is the story functioning as a parable critical of society. The story leaves us in some doubt about the apparent moral that capital punishment is cruel and unusual.

Bucket Rider 1112

[Image: (c) 2018 Peter Kuper]

Overall, Kafkaesque balances the humour and seriousness of the original stories. One thing that Kuper has not been able to replicate is the eeriness of Kafka’s prose and scenes, which fluctuate between the ordinary and uncanny. However, these graphic stories are translations not exact parallels or recreations and one should not expect that full richness of the sources to be present in these partial re-presentations. Kuper’s understanding of the limited capacities of art is apparent in his choices of stories. He has naturally been attracted to the ones that are most absurd, slapstick and dramatic. For example, “Gracchus the Hunter” is a personal favourite of mine but it would clearly have been unsuitable for Kuperisation.

Most of the stories are six pages long. Some are longer, such as “The Burrow” at 22 pages and “In The Penal Colony” at 46 pages. “The Burrow” is an example of effective use of double-page spreads. The cross-sections of the timid and inventive burrow-dweller’s underground network of passages and chambers incorporate multiple scenes in two-page panels. The multi-directional passages allow text and action to be broken into sequential fragments. In one image we see the burrow-dweller inhabiting the labyrinthine recesses of his own brain, hiding from potential intruders real or imagined. Kuper’s creative freedom allows him to create a parallel pictorial system which mirrors the burrow-dweller’s tunnels made with such industriousness and ingenuity.

One can say that the spirit of the originals is partially captured and enjoyably transmitted in these new versions. Kafka (who had a habit to making ludic stylised drawings) would have found many panels in Kafkaesque to admire and amuse.

 

Peter Kuper, Kafkaesque: Fourteen Short Stories, W.W. Norton & Company, 19 October 2018, £13.99/$19.95, hardback, 160pp, mono illus., ISBN 237 0000 441 560

Peter Kuper’s website: www.peterkuper.com

 

© 2018 Alexander Adams

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

Picasso and Málaga

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[Image: Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Still-life with Jar, Glass and Orange (Paris, 19 July 1944), oil on canvas, 46 x 55 cm, Fundación Almine y Bernard Ruiz-Picasso para el Arte, Madrid. © FABA Foto: Marc Domage. © Sucesión Pablo Picasso, VEGAP, Madrid, 2018]

El Sur de Picasso/Picasso’s South. Andalusian References is the current exhibition at Museo Picasso Málaga examining Picasso’s links to Andalusia, the region of his birth, and Spanish art (8 October, 2018 – 3 February, 2019). This review is from the bi-lingual catalogue.

Over the years curatorial approaches to famous artists get used up. There are only so many ways to recast a known oeuvre of a popular artist. Curators – like art historians and academics – have to find new angles to earn their laurels and gallery directors and press agents need fresh approaches to attract visitors. Of course, the greats will always sell tickets, but even their art gets tired without fresh perspectives.

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) is the most famous artist in the modern era. We have had exhibitions, monographs, biographies, documentaries, biopics and periodical articles, all offering aspects of the life and work of Picasso. We have had Picasso the Surrealist, Picasso the erotic artist, Picasso the portraitist, Picasso the sculptor, Picasso the Communist, Picasso the Mediterranean, to name just a few perspectives. While we have had Picasso much discussed as a member of the Modernismo movement of Barcelona in 1895-1900, Picasso the Andalusian is less discussed. Picasso was born in Málaga and lived there until 1891, moving to La Coruña at the age of nine. In 1895 he moved to Barcelona and that is the Spanish city he is most closely associated with, despite the fact he lived as much time in Galicia and even longer in Andalusia. Málaga was a port city that had grown prosperous and significant due to the exporting of agricultural produce, especially wine, but it was entering a period of stagnation when Picasso was born in 1881. He began art instruction under his father (an art professor and amateur painter) before the family moved to Galicia.

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[Image: Juan van der Hamen y León (1596-1631), Still Life with Boxes and Sweets (1621), oil on canvas, 38 x 45 cm, Museo de Bellas Artes de Granada, © Museo de Bellas Artes de Granada]

For this exhibition, curator José Lebrero Stals has selected Spanish works that Picasso may have seen and been influenced by, as well as art by followers of Picasso. There are numerous works by masters of the Spanish Golden Age, including Zurbarán, Cotán, Murillo, Velázquez and others. There are many Baroque still-lifes and religious scenes, which is typical of pre-modern Spanish art. There is a very fine Crucifixion by Zurbarán which balances the sentimental and pitiless in an image that is stark and tender. Establishing direct links between specific paintings selected and Picasso are rather difficult. To be fair to the curator, the aim is draw analogies rather than to delineate strict causal links.

Picasso’s art can be seen as a fusion and conflict between the ancient Mediterranean south and the modern Parisian north. We see French critics claiming that Picasso draws on a so-called primitive, atavistic Iberian heritage and Spanish critics asserting that Picasso is wedded to sophisticated stylistic devices and intellectual concerns of advanced French painting running from Poussin to Matisse. This twin heritage has two outcomes. Picasso’s art is doubly rich; Picasso the man is doubly alienated. By having two homes (one might say a home separate from his homeland), effectively Picasso fully has neither. One might further say that his mature art is also alienated by having hybrid origins; however, as all art – certainly all interesting art – derives its most essential qualities from its impurities (not its purity) we should not read too much into that.

While in Madrid as a student at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando (1897-8), Picasso made drawings of Goya prints. Picasso was an avid fan of bullfighting and it is apposite that the curators have included Goya aquatint prints of bullfights from the Tauromachie suite. If these influenced Picasso’s minotaur series from the 1930s is unclear. In terms of style and character, Picasso’s minotaur works are not close to Goya’s prints. Picasso’s appreciation of Goya extended to the royal portraits. Some of Goya’s most popular works today are the Black Paintings – murals that Goya painted for his house, made in his last years. Picasso does not seem to have responded to them directly and may not have found them to his taste. Picasso always seems to have preferred art of a fixed genre and status from historical artists and to have added his own Picassoid twist to his interpretation of such pieces. It may be that Picasso (from a purely utilitarian perspective) simply felt there was no way to approach and cannibalise the strange and obscure Black Paintings. The Black Paintings are already too full of dark humour, satire and sinister overtones for Picasso to have subverted.

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[Image: El Greco (1541-1614), Saint James the Lesser (1600-1610), oil on canvas, 34 x 28 cm, Colección Artehispania, Barcelona. On deposit at the El Greco Museum, Toledo. © Colección particular. Foto: Guillem Fernández-Huerta]

El Greco was little understood and poorly regarded at the time Picasso became attracted to him around 1899. By allying himself to this strange painter (a mystic, Mannerist, obscurantist), Picasso was transgressing the boundaries of conventional French good taste, which dominated art criticism and theory at the time. Picasso was adept at taking the style of another artist and trying it out: part emulation, part parody, part appropriation. He would use the fusion of his art and that of a master to create a mask – a way of being something or someone else in both earnest and mockery. It was a process his biographer John Richardson described as a shamanistic evocation: becoming great by invoking the spirits of the glorious masters. In the case of El Greco, Picasso parodied the religious paintings but sought to emulate the eerie spectral qualities of the portraits, as seen in Man in the Style of El Greco (c.1899).

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[Image: Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Man, after El Greco (Barcelona, c.1899), oil on canvas, 34.5 x 31.2 cm, Museu Picasso Barcelona. Gift of Pablo Picasso, 1970]

Picasso’s primitivism is well known in his use of West African tribal carvings as inspiration for very early work in the Cubist period – notable in the tribal appearance of some of the women in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Iberian primitivism was also a wellspring for Picasso during his Gósol period (1906) and early Cubism (1907-8). This exhibition includes some ancient art and religious carvings from Spain. We know that Picasso studied art like this, mainly in Paris museums, 1906-8. There is drawing of a crucified Christ, heavily shaded, almost an ersatz carved sculpture. This quality has been noticed by Stals, who has presented the drawing facing images of polychrome religious carvings. Although Picasso was nominally an atheist, he was profoundly superstitious and marked by his Catholic upbringing. His reference points in life, culture and art were those of the Christian tradition.

Spanish Cubist contemporaries of Picasso included in this exhibition include Juan Gris, José Moreno Villa, Manuel Ángeles Ortiz, María Blanchard and others. It is good to be reminded of these painters who – with the exception of Gris – are less well known than Braque, Léger and the group called the French Salon Cubists. In a sequence of Cubist paintings of guitars and still-lifes, the pictorial wit and invention are in delightful evidence.

The Vollard Suite of prints from the 1930s is classical in outlook and the project is an expression of Picasso’s affiliation with the art of Greece and Rome. One might also see Picasso’s art of 1944-53 (the Francoise period) as an eruption of Mediterranean feeling after years under occupation in Paris. The art of this time is full of fauns, nymphs and nude youths, often frolicking on the warm beaches of the Cote d’Azur.

There are some fine lesser known paintings (many lent by Bernard Ruiz Picasso), including a tiny Dinard bather scene and a wartime still-life of a skull with leeks, where the crossed leeks stand in for crossed bones. Humble home-grown vegetables became the staple of survival in straitened wartime conditions. The tomato plant that Picasso grew on a window sill appeared in many wartime pictures as a symbol of the subsistence living of Parisians during the years of occupation.

One of the more original and striking paintings in this exhibition is Vanitas (1946). It shows a carved polygon with distinct flat facets, almost tactile in quality; symbols on the faces include a skull. It plays with flat planar forms and modelling of a volumetric solid in pictorial depth. The ambiguity of conceptualisation and execution keeps the painting balanced exactly so that both interpretations co-exist simultaneously. The virtuoso painting of the picture is in a bravura manner which is both roughly painterly and veristically illusionistic. The carved stone has sheen and weight. The mystery of the symbols on the smoothed stone sides applies to the meaning of the painting itself: it contains multitudes; it contradicts itself; it is complete in itself; it is both illegible and open to interpretation.

A number of Picasso’s 350 poems from the 1930s and 1940s show Picasso under the influence of Surrealism, most especially his friend Paul Eluard. The poems are written in the automatic free-association style, dense in images and memories. These were also calligraphic works of art, placed on the page in blocks in stylised handwriting, sometimes ornamented. The text is transcribed for reading purposes.

The book reprints various articles regarding facets of Spanishness in Picasso’s art, written over the years by prominent authors such as André Breton, William Rubin, Robert Rosenblum and James Johnson Sweeney. The main text in the catalogue is in Spanish with an English translation at the end of the catalogue. Overall, this catalogue brings together Picasso and the art of Spaniards in a mix that is thought provoking and very pleasurable. Although the disparate characters of the texts mean that this is not a definitive study of Picasso and Spanish art, this catalogue is an attractive acquisition for any fan of Picasso.

 

El Sur de Picasso/Picasso’s South. Andalusian References, Fundación Museo Picasso Málaga, 2018, 386pp, fully col. ill., hardback, Spanish/English, €39.90, ISBN 978-84-946475-3-6

 

© 2018 Alexander Adams

See my books and art at www.alexanderadams.art

Frans Hals: A Family Reunion

978-3-7774-3007-2

A current touring exhibition reunites fragments of a giant family portrait painted by one of the masters of the Golden Age of Dutch painting, Frans Hals (1582/3-1666) (Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio, 13 October 2018-6 January 2019; touring to Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, 2 February-28 April 2019; Fondation Custodia, Collection Frits Lugt, Paris, 8 June-25 August 2019). This exhibition comprises nine paintings and one drawing. The exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.
Hals was born in Antwerp and was taken to Haarlem by his family, who fled the Eighty Year War in the South Netherlands. We know little of his artistic training and early career. He was principally a portrait painter. Four of his sons followed their father in the painting trade. Hals was innovatory as a portraitist, being known for the development of complex expanded multi-figure compositions, capturing informal and lifelike facial expressions and body language and for portraying the individual characters of sitters. He made his trademark the wet-on-wet finish for his paintings, although the paintings were built up in different sessions and it was only the final layer that was painted so vigorously.
Around 1623 Hals was commissioned by a Catholic wool merchant called Gijsbert Claesz of Leiden and his wife van Maria Jorisdr van Campen of Haarlem, who moved to Haarlem after their marriage. The prosperous merchant had a large family of thirteen children and could afford the grand painting that the size of his family necessitated. Only in 2013 was the family securely identified as the van Campens. The book contains a family tree of the van Campen family, documenting the individuals portrayed in the picture. The portrait was apparently commissioned after the birth of the couple’s thirteenth child. When a fourteenth (and final) child was born, it was added to the painting in 1628 but this infant was painted not by Hals but Salomon de Bray, who signed the addition. The choice of artist was a good one, as the figure is painted in a style congruent with the original.

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[Image: Frans Hals (Dutch, 1582/83–1666), The Van Campen Family in a Landscape (fragment) (ca. 1623–25), oil on canvas. 151 x 163.6 cm. Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio, inv. 2011.80]

The van Campen painting is the earliest surviving group portrait by Hals. It shows the couple Gijsbert Claesz and Maria Jorisdr van Campen and their children in an outdoor setting. One of the children is being pulled in a miniature cart by a goat. This caprice is seen in another painting of the era. The painting shows the children ranged across the painting, interacting with each other, playfully, attentively, considerately. Thus the family is seen as harmonious, achieving concert through interplay of the natural tendencies of members combining for the benefits of the group collectively. In some paintings of the time, nurses and servants were included but research shows that all of the figures here are related.
The painting shows Hals’s abilities at his best and clearest, also demonstrates the competence of the artist as a composer of complex multi-figure tableaux. The painting is full of observant touches and individuality without neglecting propriety. It is easy to see why Hals was so esteemed in his time and later. One wonders about the painter’s later poverty, whether this was down to changing fashion, financial incompetence or the effect of competition. This book does not discuss Hals career as a whole.
The principal reason the painting was dismembered was probably practicality. Originally, the canvas is estimated to have been 153.5 cm high and about 333 cm wide. Scrutiny reveals that there is also slight water damage. At some point before 1810, the canvas was cut into three or four pieces. The original group portrait was divided into at least three parts, namely The Van Campen Family in a Landscape (all c. 1623-5; Toledo Museum of Art), Children of the Van Campen Family with a Goat-Cart (Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels) and Portrait of a Boy of the Van Campen Family (private collection). There may have been a further fourth section with two children but that remains unidentified or has been lost. The exhibition reunites the three parts for the first time in two centuries. It also includes six other portraits by Hals, including the large group portrait from the National Gallery, London. The catalogue illustrates examples of Dutch painted portraits, including Rubens’s wonderful double portrait of the artist and his wife, which fleshes out the genre that Hals’s paintings occupied.

6._proposed_reconstruction_of_frans_halss_complete_the_van_campen_family_in_a_landscape._liesbeth_de_belie_and_catherine_van_herck_media

[Image: composite of full painting using 3 fragments and adapted additions]

The catalogue illustrates composites of the complete painting. A fascinating sequence of reconstructions shows how other experts have previously conjectured the original painting would have been, each limited by the circumstances. It includes forensic details that help to reconstruct the exact size of the original canvas. The authors present the current state of knowledge about the van Campen painting, discussing provenance, technical analysis, the extent of historic repainting and suggestions about the content of the lost section. This book studies Hals as a portrait painter and the practice of Seventeenth Century Dutch portraiture, with good examples reproduced. This succinct but informative title would make a good introduction to Dutch portraiture for students, as well as being an approachable addition to the corpus of Hals scholarship.

Lawrence W. Nichols, Liesbeth De Belie & Pieter Biesboer, Frans Hals Portraits: A Family Reunion, 2018, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium/Hirmer, hardback, 112pp, 70 col., £20, illus., ISBN 978 3 7774 3007 2

© 2018 Alexander Adams
View my art and books at http://www.alexanderadams.art

Bukowski: On Drinking

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drinking

for me

it was or

is

a manner of

dying

with boots on

and gun

smoking and a

symphony music

background. […]

For Bukowski drinking was heroic. It was humiliating, destructive and alienating. It was self-poisoning and an attempt to capture a fragment of the vastness of human potential in an infinite universe. It killed time; it killed sexual potency; it killed friendships; it killed friends. Drink killed Jane Cooney Baker, the great first love of Bukowski’s life. Drinking was ridiculous and a source of boundless pleasure. It freed him of his natural shyness and sensitivity; it intensified everything. It made him fat. The beer bottle became Bukowski’s personal attribute, the way Camus’s Gauloise and Burroughs’s fedora were theirs.

All of the central parts of Bukowski’s life were prominent in his writing: love (and sex), reading, writing and drinking. (Other parts which appear less often are the life of the writer, gambling, childhood experiences and his troubled relationship with his father.) In that respect, Bukowski was an autobiographical writer, using the experiences of daily life – and recalling (and transforming) anecdotes – in his writing. He did not shy away from the truth of his addiction. When asked if he was an alcoholic, he replied “Hell, yes”. “Drinking makes things happen.”

Bukowski’s early years were spent moving between major American cities. Later he returned to his native Los Angeles. Those days were filled with bar hopping, manual labour, black-market ad hoc work, drink driving, hanging out with winos and whores, participating in drinking contests and sleeping off hangovers in the drunk tank. In one column, Bukowski riffs on Chinaski (his alter ego) in the drunk tank demanding Alcoholic Liberation – freedom from cop oppression in a time of radical politics. Bukowski tells tales of dramatic fights but also confessed “That stuff gets old, gets stale – you get your eyes all cut, and your lips all puffed up, a tooth loose… There’s no glory in it. Usually, you’re too drunk to fight well, you’re starving, you know…”

Drinking almost killed the writer. In 1954 he suffered a grave internal haemorrhage. Confessions of a Man Insane Enough to Live with Beasts (excerpted here) includes a description of his emergency hospitalisation which is stark and gruesome – though not humourless; Bukowski always has a wry take on matters, the more important the topic the more trenchant and dry the humour. He characterises the staff of the charity ward in LA as a mixture of cruelly indifferent and competently professional.

He resumed drinking but (either through luck or moderation) he never became as sick again. Over the years he switched between American and German beers, Riesling wine and whiskey.

By the time Bukowski wrote about drinking he was already deeply steeped in the cults of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dylan Thomas and Li Po. He knew the stories of heavy-drinking Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec and other creative pioneers. He bellied up to the bar and squared up to his big-drinking dead colleagues, matching their ghostly legendary drinks with his own bottles of Schlitz or Miller. As a writer and a drinking man, he engaged in banter, sparring and intimate confidences with dead creators with whom he felt kinship. He did it through competitive writing, drinking and emulation. Yet, as an honest man and an honest writer, he knew the painful reality of a drinker’s life and included in his writings the humiliations and transgressions brave and selfish. He knew that drinking numbs loneliness. Although many of his stories involved barroom encounters and drunken couplings, Bukowski most often drank alone while writing and listening to symphony music on the radio, especially when he became a full-time writer in 1970. “Heavy drinking is a substitute for companionship and it’s a substitute for suicide,” he admitted. “Drinking is a form of suicide where you’re allowed to return to life and begin all over the next day. It’s like killing yourself, and then you’re reborn.”

Drinking helped Bukowski cope with public readings. He began on the reading circuit in the 1970s, invited to universities by poet-professors who were friends-cum-rivals. To deal with stage fright (“I always vomit before a reading,”) and to take the boredom out of post-reading faculty parties Bukowski drank. As his reputation grew (mainly after the publication of his first novel, Post Office, in 1971 and the appearance in underground newspapers of his bawdy column), fans expected to see him drinking or drunk at readings. The proud and sensitive Bukowski realised that some people came to see a spectacle and despised this aspect (and his willingness to perform that role) but his response to the shame and anger that provoked only made him drink harder. Later on, he drank to take the edge off interviews.

The editorial approach to On Drinking conforms to the other books in the recent series from Ecco, edited by Bukowski expert Abel Debritto. It comprises chronologically arranged selection of poems, stories, columns and extracts from letters, novels and interviews. Although some pieces are familiar from previous books, a number have only appeared in periodicals and a few are hitherto unpublished. Bukowski himself approved of a mixture of verse and prose in books, including a collection called Run with the Hunted (1993) which is the best introduction to Bukowski’s writing. Illustrations are line drawings by the writer, photographs and facsimiles of manuscripts. Debritto has – where possible – used the original periodical text or the manuscript for the text of On Drinking. This avoids the corrupted texts published by Bukowski’s former editor, John Martin. (For discussion of the posthumous editing of Bukowski, see my article here.) Paradoxically, after years of having drinking posthumously neutered in publications, this shot of drunken Bukowski feels positively healthy.

Certain stories recur in variations over the years in stories, poems and newspaper columns. The book includes one of my favourite stories, “The Blinds”, in which Chinaski volunteers to wash filthy venetian blinds in a dive bar. After hours of work, all the regulars join in to finish the job. Chinaski takes his $5 pay and buys everyone a drink. The bartender pours the drinks then tells Chinaski he owes $3.15.

In a poem entitled “shit time” Bukowski turns a shared defecation at a beachside latrine into an event of melancholy camaraderie between drunks. Afterwards, the tightness of hangover adds contrast when he confronts the grand and indifferent view:

I looked at the ocean and the

ocean looked good, full of blues and

greens and sharks.

I walked back out of there

and down the street

determined to find my automobile.

 

Some of these pieces are barroom yarns, full of improbable and seemingly exaggerated incidents. “I came up from the floor with the punch. It was a perfect shot. He staggered back all the way across the room […]” Yeah. Maybe, maybe not. Many tales are very funny. (Any poem which ends with “pulling up my pants / I tried to explain.” beats every limerick ever written.) It is hard to tell what is meant to be the humorous telling of actual story and what is a comic vignette cooked up from nothing. Ultimately, it does not matter. The point of the story is the story. Anyone dissecting Bukowski looking for truth is bound to come away vexed. Anyone who reads Bukowski for anything else will come away satisfied.

 

Charles Bukowski, Abel Debritto (ed.), On Drinking, Ecco, February 2019, hardback, 272pp, mono illus., £20

© 2018 Alexander Adams. Edited 5 December 2018 to correct two dates.

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