Marcel Duchamp by Dawn Ades, Neil Cox and David Hopkins (1999)

God, he was gorgeous!

Marcel Duchamp in New York (1917) by Edward Steichen

Marcel Duchamp in New York (1917) by Edward Steichen

This is a really thorough, scholarly and in-depth biography-plus-analysis of the life and works of the godfather of conceptual art, Marcel Duchamp, part of the Thames and Hudson ‘World of Art’ series.

We are told that it was ‘written with the enthusiastic support of Duchamp’s widow’, and sets out to ‘challenge received ideas, misunderstanding and misinformation.’ No doubt, But to the casual gallery-goer like myself Duchamp is a ‘problem’ because his oeuvre seems so scattered and random: its three main elements are the Futurist paintings (chief among them Nude descending a stair); the readymades (like the bicycle wheel (1913), wine rack (1914), snow shovel (1915), or urinal (1917)); and then the obscure late works, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors and the even more obscure, Etants donnés.

This is the first and only account I’ve ever read which shows how these apparently very diverse products all arose naturally and consecutively from Duchamp’s artistic and philosophical interests. It creates a consistent narrative which explains and makes sense of them.

1. A crowded context

A common error in thinking about history – in thinking about the past generally – is to pick out one or two highlights from history – or ‘major’ writers or artists – and focusing on them alone, Picasso, the Holocaust, whatever.

But of course the past was as densely populated and packed with myriads of competing people, ideas, headlines, events, political parties, issues, theories and ideas, was as contingent and accidental – as the present. These ‘events’, these ‘great artists’, were intricately involved in the life of their times. Duchamp’s career more than most benefits from the thorough explanation of his historical context which the authors provide, because his artistic output is so ‘bitty’ and fragmented.

Thus the book begins by locating Duchamp’s life within a large family itself made up of artists (his grandfather was a well-known artist in Rouen, two of his brothers and one sister became artists). I particularly enjoyed the account of the art world of Paris circa 1905, when young Marcel moved there to join his brothers. It was fascinating to learn about the various ‘movements’ or clubs of artists famous in their own day, who have now completely disappeared from the historical record. In particular, it was news to learn that young Marcel initially made his way as a caricaturist, a cartoonist and illustrator for magazines.

Regarding caricature and humour, the book goes to some length to describe the intellectual life of the age, dwelling at length on theories of humour developed by writers like the poet Charles Baudelaire (On the essence of laughter, 1855) and Henri Bergson (Le Rire, 1900). Baudelaire thought comedy stemmed from the abrupt undermining of humanity’s aspirations towards goodness and angelic grace by moments of earthy reality or brute clumsiness. Pratfalls. Laurel and Hardy. On a verbal level, this structure is enacted in the double entendre or double meaning, which nowadays has come to mean saying something ‘respectable’ which also has a sexual interpretation or undertone.

Bergson thought humour was the result of perceiving people as machines or types, rather than individuals. In his view, lots of humour comes from an expectation of someone behaving with mechanical routine which is somehow undermined, or continuing to behave with routine nonchalance after some disaster. The example given is of a boring office functionary who every day dips his quill in the inkpot until one day his naughty colleagues fill it with mud. Ha ha.

Freud wrote an entire book giving a psychoanalytic theory of humour (Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, 1905) speculating that they are socially acceptable ways of sharing socially unacceptable base drives, like sadism (cruel humour) or sex (dirty jokes).

The juxtaposition of the cerebral and the coarse; the role of mechanism in humour; the fundamental primacy of the erotic. These are contemporary ideas which the intellectual Duchamp would have been familiar with and fed into his work and worldview.

1. The authors are just warming up with these early theories of humour; later the book will bring together a mind-boggling array of references to explicate Duchamp’s mature works.

2. This sequence is an example of what you could call the teleological approach of so many biographies of great personages – the tendency to find the seeds of later works in the personage’s earliest experiences and sayings, a direct line from infant, childhood or earliest experiences/productions to the adult’s life and work.

One example among many: the authors relate the fact that one of his earliest surviving sketches is of a lamp (Hanging glass lamp, 1904) to the fact that a gas lamp appears in both of his monumental late works, The Bride Stripped Bare and Étant donnés. Maybe, who can say.  But it makes for an entertaining game of ‘sources and origins’.

2. Cubo-futurism

My favourite works of Duchamp’s, more than the readymades or the two big weird works, are his early semi-abstract paintings of walking human figures. I have always loved the energy of Italian Futurism and Wyndham Lewis’s Vorticism, so I love Duchamp’s masterly paintings of walking people turning into machines.

Nude descending a staircase number 2 (1912)

Nude descending a staircase number 2 (1912)

Or are they revealing the machine within the human; or showing the multiplicity of realities which the human mind converts into sequence but which, in an Einsteinian universe, may be permanently present; or his copying of the secrets of movement which in his day had only just been captured by pioneering photography. Or all four.

It’s fascinating to watch the progression in these paintings from the depiction of a kind of mechanised human through to full machine. It’s hard to see the last two of these paintings as human in any way.

And it’s here that the book makes the big link for me, because it shows in great detail how Duchamp, by 1913 completely disillusioned with painting, nonetheless used sketches and designs for the bride paintings as the basis of the strange, enigmatic and over-determined big work, The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even which he would devote the next 15 years to creating, and tinker with for the rest of his life.

3. The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even

This is divided into two parts (top and bottom) with the top depicting the ‘bride’ in an extremely abstract, semi-mechanical form, and the bottom half originally showed the ‘bachelors’ competing for her favours. Apparently, at a very early stage, this was partly inspired by a fairground attraction where you could throw balls at puppets of a bride and groom, if you hit the bride she fell out of the bed stark naked (well, as naked as a puppet can be). Duchamp was attracted to the mechanical aspect, the puppet/mannequin aspect, the game aspect, and the sudden shock of nudity aspect. All four are recurrent themes.

By the time he painted the design onto this big glass sheet, the bride has evolved into a peculiar set of shapes in the top section, while the bachelors have evolved into a rack of male suits, now known – in the extensive mythology which Duchamp spun around the piece – as the ‘Malic Moulds’.

The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915-23) by Marcel Duchamp as reconstructed by Richard Hamilton

The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915-23) by Marcel Duchamp, as reconstructed by Richard Hamilton

But that makes it sound too rational and understandable. The authors devote tens of pages to analysing the slow evolution of his sketches and thinking. For example, the way the whole thing is painted onto a big sheet of glass undermines the idea of the canvas as an opaque object. Now it can be seen from both sides and changes aspect (and mood and meaning) depending on what it is placed in front of.

It’s really the steady abstraction and stylising of the images which takes some explaining. It’s part of Duchamp’s reaction against what he called retinal painting i.e. he lamented the way all painting from the impressionists onwards was made to be judged purely on its appearance, devoid of intellectual or symbolical meaning.

Duchamp found this retinal superficiality distressing and thought he could escape from the entire artistic trend of his day by moving towards a more scientific type of technical drawing (technical drawing having made up, as the authors point out in their thorough opening chapter, part of the school education of Duchamp’s generation).

Thus he made extensive preparatory sketches for all the different parts of the mechanism. Not only that, but he wrote an extensive set of notes, known as the The Green Box. Like T.S. Eliot’s contemporary Modernist poem, The Waste Land, The Bride Stripped Bare is designed to be read with its notes, the notes are an integral part of the understanding. In Duchamp’s case, the Green Box notes are more like a manual for understanding, a user’s guide. Thus the book includes a detailed analysis of every aspect of the mechanism, numbering and identifying all the parts, and explaining their derivations.

The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) Marcel Duchamp (1915-1923) with annotated parts

The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) by Marcel Duchamp (1915-1923) with annotated diagram of the parts

The authors go into rather mind-boggling detail in their analysis of the work. We learn the relevance of Einsteinian physics (is The Bride depicting a fourth dimension?), of medieval alchemy (note the design of the pipes and limbics of the mechanism), of Surreal theories of the erotic (for a start the way bride and bachelors are trapped in different quadrants of the work), and many other ideas and illusions. There is  he importance of engineering design, technical drawing, the influence of Hertz’s discoveries about radio frequency, and so on and so on.

For once this isn’t a case of critics over-analysing a work of art because Duchamp himself, in his notes and in numerous interviews throughout his life, invoked a wealth of ideas, sources, and ideas which all contributed to manufacturing The Bride. Here’s a sample paragraph from the hundred or so about The Bride which make such bewildering and strangely gripping reading.

Attempts have been made to construct a narrative of the implied mechanical functioning of the Glass: to make visible the ‘cinematic blossoming’, as Duchamp put it, of the Bride and her interaction with the Bachelors. However, to succeed, these attempts would require the application of a consistent logic to operations that remain notional, inconsistent or at least multiply determined. The erotic is not rational. It is, perhaps, only a sexual encounter in the terms in which Breton saw it, as an extra-terrestrial observation of the inconsistencies, non-reciprocities and ambiguities of human sexuality. (p.107)

But:

The fascination with kinetic energy and ‘fields of force’ in both visual and linguistic terms runs throughout the Large Glass and the notes,  which together form a fantastic catalogue of forms of propulsion and motion, and of the more invisible source of energy and modes of communication. For instance, the Bachelor Machine is powered by steam and is also an internal combustion engine; it includes gas and a waterfall, springs and buffers and a hook made of a substance of ‘oscillating density’. This was, Duchamp noted, a ‘sandow’, initially the name of a gymnastic apparatus made of extendable rubber, and by analogy a plane or glider launcher. The Bride runs on ‘love gasoline’; she is a car moving in slow gear; her stripping produces sparks; she is a 1-stroke engine, ‘desire-magneto’; the 2nd stroke controls the clockwork machinery (like ‘the throbbing jerk of the minute hand on electric clocks.’)

I began to find the authors’ extended investigation of the Bride, their exposition of Duchamp’s vast catalogue of ideas and interpretations, horribly addictive. Is the bride an avatar of Diana, Roman goddess of virginity? Or the Hindu goddess of destruction, Kali? Or is she the Virgin Mary, undergoing a secular apotheosis?

The discourse generated by this one intensely intellectualised piece will go on growing forever. It is a dizzying, terrifying and strangely reassuring thought…

4. Dada and the readymades

Once clear of the hermeneutic jungles of the Bride Stripped Bare, the book goes on to investigate Duchamp’s association with the anti-art movement, Dada, founded in Zurich in 1916 and which opened offices in Paris and even distant New York – and in his arm’s length relationship with Surrealism.

The key events of this period (1913 to 1923) is the invention of the readymade. At various points he selected a wine rack, a public urinal, a bicycle wheel on a stool, and a number of other everyday objects to exhibit in various art exhibitions in New York and Paris. The urinal is one of the most iconic works of the art of the century because thousands of conceptual artists have looked back to it for liberation, although the story of its exhibition is rather complicated (the way Duchamp signed the urinal R. Mutt, titled it Fountain, and anonymously submitted it to a art exhibition whose board of judges he himself was sitting on. When it was rejected by the others he resigned for the board and wrote a letter complaining about the outrageous treatment of Mr Mutt. And so on.)

Fountain (1917 / replica 1964) by Marcel Duchamp

Fountain (1917 / replica 1964) by Marcel Duchamp

The point was rather simple. What is art? When Duchamp posed this question, art theory was dominated by notions that the work of art had some kind of moral or spiritual or social purpose. The Victorians thought Art should portray The Beautiful. Mathew Arnold thought Art could protect and elevate the Imagination, protecting it from the brutal vulgarities of industrial society. Duchamp’s contemporaries in Soviet Russia thought Art could help bring about a new revolutionary society. The Surrealists’ leader, André Breton, thought Surrealism was a literary and artistic movement which would give people direct access to the unconscious mind and so liberate society from its repressions.

Everyone believed Art should do something.

Duchamp stands to the side of all this angsting and stressing. His readymades say that Art just is. One of the big things I’ve learned from this book, and from the Dali/Duchamp exhibition I recently visited, is the way Duchamp thought the key ingredient in a readymade was that it must not be beautiful. He was trying to get away from any idea whatsoever of ‘the aesthetic’.

While the nihilists of Dada tried to create a kind of anti-art, Duchamp spoke about creating an a-art, in the same sense as amorality doesn’t mean moral or immoral – it means having no morality at all. So a-art (or an-art, it doesn’t really work in English), means Art which has completely ceased to be Art. He wanted to evade the whole question of ‘aesthetics’ and ‘taste’, of ‘style’ of the special agency of the artist’s ‘touch’ – all of it. Hence:

  • a snow shovel (1915)
  • a ball of string between metal plates (1916)
  • a comb (1916)
  • Underwood typewriter cover (1916)
  • a urinal (1917)
  • a coat rack nailed to the floor (1917)
  • a hat rack (1917)
  • 50cc of Paris air in an ampoule (1919)

As regular readers of my blog know, I think all of these attitudes have been completely swallowed, subsumed and assimilated into our modern consumer capitalism. All art – whatever its original religious, spiritual or revolutionary intentions – is now just a range or series of decorative, ornamental and amusing brands in the Great Supermarket of life. Thus Duchamp’s great ‘revolutionary’ and ‘subversive’ icon is now available in any number of formats and channels, about as subversive as a Beatles T-shirt.

And as to ‘What is Art?’ Art is whatever art gallerists, art curators and art critics agree to call art. Simples.

5. Tinkering

By the mid-1920s Duchamp wasn’t painting and had finished The Bride. He was happy for word to go around that he had abandoned art for professional chess. Other Dada artists gave up altogether; it was the logical conclusion of their anti-Art stance.

But Duchamp in fact continued a career of low-level tinkering, especially in Surrealism (which he was never officially a member of. He:

  • served on the editorial boards of the Surreal magazine, Minotaure and the New York magazine VVV
  • designed the glass doors for Breton’s gallery Gradiva
  • arranged a New York exhibition for Breton
  • arranged the New York publication of Arcane 17 and Surrealism and painting
  • designed the cover of Breton’s volume of poetry, Young cherry trees secured against hares
  • served as ‘producer-arbitrator’ for the Exposition internationale de Surrealisme in 1938
  • decorated the ‘First Papers of Surrealism’ exhibition in 1942 with reams of string and suggested the contributors’ faces in the catalogue were replaced by random photographs from the papers
  • was co-presenter, with Breton, of Le Surrealisme en 1947 in Paris
  • hand-coloured 999 fake plastic breasts to be included in the catalogue
  • helped organise the 1959 Exposition internatoinale du Surréalisme with the theme of eroticism. Entry to one room was through a padded slit shaped like a vagina (Rrose Sélavy – Eros c’est la vie – was, after all, the punning meaning of the female drag identity Duchamp jokily created in the 1920s. Maybe Eros c’est mon oeuvre would have been more accurate.)

Retired from making, maybe, but quite obviously still involved with the art world.

6. Étant donnés

In fact, in secret, in the last twenty years of his life Duchamp was working on an even weirder piece, titled Étant donnés (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas, French: Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau / 2° le gaz d’éclairage).

The viewer has to look through two pinhole cracks in an old door to see a tableau of a nude woman lying on her back with her face hidden, her legs spread wide apart to reveal her hairless vulva, while one outstretched arm holds a gas lamp up against a landscape backdrop.

Étant donnés (1946-66) by Marcel Duchamp

The view inside Étant donnés (1946-66) by Marcel Duchamp

Duchamp prepared a ‘Manual of Instructions’ in a 4-ring binder explaining and illustrating how to assemble and disassemble the piece. It wasn’t displayed to the public until after Duchamp’s death in 1968 when it was installed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, also home to the Bride.

What on earth is it about, and how does it relate (if at all) to Duchamp’s earlier pieces?

Well, for a start, both rotate around naked women (hardly a very ‘revolutionary’ or ‘subversive’ subject – arguably the exact opposite). This takes us right back to the opening chapters where the authors had pointed out how many of Duchamp’s early cartoons and illustrations took the mickey out of the French feminist movement of 1905, and of women’s rights and aspirations, in general.

  • Femme Cocher (1907) Marcel Duchamp Women had recently been allowed to drive hansom cabs. This cartoon, showing the absence of a woman driver parked outside a hotel which could be rented by the hour, suggests the woman driver is picking up extra money by popping in to ‘service’ her customer. Misogyny?

Moreover, before he adopted the Cubo-Futurist style, many of Duchamp’s earliest paintings depicted women stripped bare (aha) as they will appear in The bride and Étant donnés – walking, stretching, sitting – all naked. What is happening in an early painting such as The Bush (1911)?

In the same year, Portrait (Dulcinea) is an early attempt at portraying movement, the same woman appearing five times, each time progressively more undressed (though admittedly, this is not easy to make out).

So, naked women were a recurrent theme of his career. Indeed, one of the more easily readable exhibits at the current Dali/Duchamp exhibition is a photo of Duchamp playing chess with a naked lady in the 1960s. Old man and naked young woman. Hmm.

But this is just the obvious place to start, with the shockingly crude image of a naked woman. As with The Bride the authors t go on to use Duchamp’s own writings to bring out the dizzying multiplicity of meanings and interpretations which this strange, unsettling piece is capable of, for example reviewing the fifteen ‘operations’ in the instruction manual he wrote, which explain how the object was to be assembled.

As I read the densely written chapter about it, I realise that the detailed, hyper-precise instructions surrounding Étant Donnés, which all lead to a frustrating, flat, unemotional and profoundly disturbing outcome – all this reminds me of the detailed instructions which Samuel Beckett included in the texts of his carefully constructed artifice-plays. Same fanatical attention to detail for a similarly bleak and deliberately emotionally detached product.

Having finished the book and looking back in review of his career, the readymades seem almost the most accessible part of it. These two big works are genuinely subversive in the sense that, while invoking a kaleidoscope of interpretations, they continue to puzzle and baffle rational thought.

7. Duchamp cartoons

Which thought – possibly – brings us back to the very beginning of Duchamp’s career. His first exhibited works were shown at the 1907 Salon des Artistes Humoristes and his earliest paid work was as colleague to a gang of caricaturists and cartoonists who worked for Parisian magazines with titles like Cocorico, Le Rire (the Laugh) and Le Courrier français.

More than his interest in sex, or machines, or even chess, it is arguable that this taste for the drily humorous is the central spindle of his oeuvre.

Is the idea of the urinal not funny? Is he not, as thousands have pointed out before me, taking the piss out of the art world? Are not all his Surrealist interventions, ultimately, comical? And isn’t his last, great, puzzling work, in effect — a peep show of a naked lady? And the fact that so many critics have written about it with such po-faced seriousness, isn’t that itself comical?

You can’t help feeling all the way through, that Duchamp was having le dernier rire. After all, why shouldn’t modern art be itself funny, or the subject of humour?

Toilet humour

1950s revival

Lastly, in a very useful coda, the authors explain how Duchamp really had gone largely into retirement, living in a small New York apartment with the last of his many companions, when the 1950s dawned and with it the birth of an American avant-garde scene.

The Black Mountain College poets and writers and composers – John Cage the composer, Robert Rauschenberg the painter and Merce Cunningham the choreographer – took inspiration from Duchamp to oppose the intensely male and retinal work of the then dominant Abstract Expressionists, to kick back in the name of a dance and art and music which questioned its own premises, questioned its own ‘coherence’ and – in Cage’s music in particular – sought to escape the control and input of the composer completely, just as Duchamp had sought to escape the controlling influence of the artist in his readymades.

Rauschenberg’s close friend Jasper Johns used deliberately ‘found’ motifs like the American flag, numbers, letters, maps to depersonalise and demystify his art, and also combined it with readymade artefacts, just as Duchamp had. (As can be seen at the current Royal Academy exhibition about Johns.)

By 1960 his example was being quoted by all sorts of opponents of Abstract Expressionism, and his influence then spread across the outburst of new movements of the 60s – Fluxus, Arte Povera, Minimalism, Conceptualism, Land Art, Performance Art and so on. And is still very much with us today.

If the first half of the twentieth century belonged to the twin geniuses Matisse and Picasso, the second half belonged to this idiosyncratic, retiring but immensely intellectual and thought-provoking genius.

Conclusion

Duchamp’s greatest hits are summarised in the book’s promotional blurb:

  • The originally controversial Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 was a vital inspiration to the Futurists and remains a cubist classic.
  • Fountain (a ready-made urinal) continues to inspire conceptual artists of all stripes.
  • Large Glass (1915- 1923) continues to beguile.
  • Duchamp’s last work Étant Donnés (1946-1966) continues to disturb.

His achievement was to produce works and critical writings, ‘provocations and interventions’, which made innumerable artists, critics and curators reconsider their whole idea of what a work of art could be and mean. He opened up whole new vistas of the possible, and this is without listing some of the other ‘interventions’ the authors cover, like his half-serious financial ventures, his attempts to design and sell a rotorelief machine or – most teasingly of all – his teasing theory of the ‘infra-thin’.

It’s hard to imagine a one-volume book about Duchamp which could both cover the nuts and bolts of his biography and career, and also follow him out into the more vertiginous aspects of his relentless theorising about art in general and his own peculiar masterpieces in particular, better than this one.

Tu m' (1918) Duchamp's last work, painted as a commission to go above shelving in a New York apartment

Tu m’ (1918) Duchamp’s last work, painted as a commission to go above shelving in a New York apartment. In French the phrase requires a verb to complete it, so it’s unfinished. Pronounced in English it sounds like ‘tomb’ i.e. the summary and end of his painting career.


Related links

Surrealism-related books

Surrealism-related exhibitions

Dalí: Genius, obsession and lust by Ralf Schiebler (1996)

Sex sells. The first documented use of the phrase ‘sex appeal’ dates from 1924 in America, which just happens to be the same year the first Surrealist manifesto was published. Apparently, Dalí was among the first to use a French version of the phrase in France. He knew which way the cultural wind was blowing.

‘People are hard wired to notice sexually relevant information, so ads with sexual content get noticed.’ (Magazine trends study finds increase in advertisements using sex)

Dalí the showman harnessed his own sexual obsessions and fears into his earliest fully surreal paintings. Later, this declined into a habit of including breasts as one of his random design elements in his post-war works. Nonetheless, in puritan America, the inclusion of highly realistic sexual elements guaranteed his work notice, attention and ‘controversy’, keeping his brand in the public view. And, in our time, modern curators and art critics obsessed with bodies, gender, desire and eroticism have found in Dalí’s paintings a goldmine of ‘issues’.

So a book about Dalí which focuses on his use of sexual imagery plays to everyone’s worst instincts.

Small but with photos

Like Edmund Swinglehurst’s book on Dalí, this one has about 120 pages, but is significantly smaller, at 17.8 cm x 25.4 cm. This means the colour reproductions of Dalí’s work make a lot less impact and some of the fine detail, which characterises so many of his paintings, is all-but-indecipherable. In other words, go elsewhere if you want big reproductions of the paintings.

Where this book scores is in the inclusion of lots of photographs from all periods of Dalí’s life, from childhood to senescence. Newspaper and publicity photos from the 1930s, 40s and 50s really bring out what a genius Dalí had for creating sensational pictures, objects, shop windows, opera sets and publicity stunts. You can either be sternly censorious about his ‘selling out’ (as the other Surrealists were) or relaxed, seeing him as a precursor to later artist-publicists like Warhol, Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst, all of whom, like Dalí, made or are making fortunes from their ‘art’.

Business art is the step that comes after art. I started as a commercial artist, and I want to finish as a business artist. Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. During the hippie era people put down the idea of business. They’d say ‘money is bad’ and ‘working is bad’. But making money is art, and working is art – and good business is the best art. (Andy Warhol)

There’s nowhere to go after that. Warhol helped modern art disappear up its own fundament. Saying a work of art challenges anything is like saying the latest novel by x, y or z challenges language and revolutionises society. Quite obviously it doesn’t, it just adds itself to the already vast, huge, teeming overwhelming plethora of entertainments and distractions which swamp the modern world.

It’s for every individual to make their own way through this overcrowded emporium of art music videos photos movies plays books TV shows and so on.

If I am reading a book about Salvador Dalí it isn’t to find secret channels into my unconscious or to be scandalised by his sexual imagery or to have my view of rational society overthrown; it’s to be informed, entertained and amused, just like all the other comfortably-off, middle-class white people I joined at the Royal Academy’s Dalí/Duchamp exhibition a few days ago.

Key photos

As I mentioned, one of the pleasures of the book is the range of photos covering the old showman’s life and times.

Psychoanalysis

This book is translated from the German and occasionally shows it. Its weakest feature is its highly speculative use of Freudian psychoanalysis to interpret the pictures. It seems to be biographical fact that Dalí masturbated a lot, felt guilty about it, had a powerful castration complex, hated his father, especially after he a) married his mother’s sister, soon after his mother’s death in 1921 b) threw him out of the family home for consorting with Gala (still married to Paul Eluard). Only when he began the relationship with Gala did his anxiety and panic attacks cease as a result of the immense flood of relief, gratification and comfort he found with her.

Thus the early paintings give themselves up fairly easily to Freudian readings: there are soft sexual symbols aplenty in these earliest works: lots of boobs, but also fingers representing phalluses, men turned towards walls symbolising solitary masturbation, a bearded figure who ‘might be’ Freud in The first days of spring, the lion with a big red tongue which is a sexual symbol, and so on.

Schiebler interprets one of Dalí’s most explicitly sexual paintings (i.e. it contains an actual penis) William Tell and Gradiva (1931) in Freudian terms. Obviously a man is masturbating over the exaggerated naked female form, but the point of the William Tell legend is that Tell almost kills his son by firing an arrow at an apple on his head i.e. it is a deflected version of Freud’s Oedipus Complex (the unconscious rivalry between father and son for possession of the mother).

The man’s beard is the giveaway. This is not Dalí masturbating over Gala, it is his father. Schiebler is quick to speculate that Dalí’s aggression against his father wasn’t based just on the fact that he remarried so soon after his mother’s death (like Hamlet’s surviving parent does) and that his father banned him from the family home – but a Freudian reading that his father was angry at him for dating another man’s wife (Gala) because he – his father – wanted her, sexually.

This example shows how psychoanalytic literary and art criticism can stretch small elements of a work of art, especially if it is actual sexual in nature, into almost indefinite layers of complexity. Thus Schiebler spends three pages going into great detail about the case of Gradiva, the 1902 novella about an archaeologist who has dreams and visions which eventually turn out to conceal a hidden love, which Freud dedicated a long, pioneering work of psychoanalytic interpretation to in 1907.

Dalí immediately recognised the power of this story and projected it onto his love for Gala. He gave her the nickname Gradiva, which explains its presence of the name in so many paintings of this period – Freud and his true love intertwined.

Schiebler uses the sketch and explanation given in the book co-authored by Gala, La femme visible, to focus attention on the complex family group tucked away in the bottom right of The invisible man, bringing out how each figure is part of Dalí’s complex family romance – the two mothers, the dead older brother – and how the entire thing seems to depict the castration of the baby Dalí.

This is the tone of the book. It is most useful when covering psychoanalytic material directly invoked or quoted by Dalí himself, and also when it ties visual motifs in the paintings to Dalí’s complex life and personal obsessions, less useful the further it veers into psychoanalytic speculation.

Money

There’s a short (three pages) chapter about Dalí’s reputation for greed, for which the leader of the Surrealists, André Breton, famously satirised him, nicknaming Dalí ‘Avida Dollars’. Schiebler’s prose, or the translation, and the fatuous nonsensicality of the underlying thought, come to the fore.

Dalí’s ways with money were certainly chaotic and unfortunate. But the claims that he lusted after money are not convincing, particularly those made by people faring less well themselves and whose socialist options hold little hope for the future either. And in view of the current value of  his works – estimated with increasing objectivity thanks to the number and expertise of those who judge these matters one would have to rate as modest the prices that Dalí charged when he created those works. (p.72)

Science

In one of his countless later interviews Dalí said the two men who influenced him most were Freud and Einstein. The two can be allotted to two halves of Dalí’s career which splits neatly down the middle with the dividing line being the detonation of the atom bomb at Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. As Schiebler’s book makes abundantly clear, the works from the mid-1920s till well into the second World War are redolent of sex, sexual obsession, phobias and a range of imagery deriving from or nodding at Freud’s psychoanalytical theories.

But the advent of the nuclear age really struck Dalí to the core, and almost all his post-war works reference nuclear physics with its vision of an atomised universe, of matter broken down into multitudes of sub-atomic particles, of the stunning discovery that almost all of the observed world is in fact empty space – though, as with Freud, this vision is filtered through a peculiarly Dalí-esque vision. Hence:

Schiebler tells us that, as soon as he could really read English, Dalí took out a subscription to Scientific American and used the flood of post-war scientific discoveries as subject matter. Thus, DNA:

Ambition

Dalí was keen for approval from boyhood. He was convinced he was destined for great things. He was invincibly ambitious. No surprise that his cubist self-portrait contains the word publicidad, publicity.

His first published writing (1919) was a series on the Great masters of painting. In 1944 he made a league table of painters based on criteria like originality and technique, leading to a table headed by Vermeer, Raphel, Velasquez, Leonardo da Vinci and… himself!

He was aware of his own staggering virtuosity at an early age. By 19, 20, 21 and still at art academy, he had mastered all existing styles. Besides cubism (see above) he could do:

What a prodigy!

Grace notes

He had an older brother, also named Salvador, who died aged just 21 months before he was born. Later he made much of this, claiming his parents never loved him as much as the dead brother, and that he spent his whole life trying to live up to the ghostly dead.

His father was notary of Figueres, the head man of the town. His mother let the teenage Dalí take over the laundry ‘tower’ at the top of their house, overlooking the bay, to paint. King of the Tower, a sense he never lost, as he later proclaimed:

It is difficult to hold the world’s interest for more than half an hour at a time. I myself have done so successfully every day for twenty years.


Credit

Dalí: Genius, obsession and lust by Ralf Schiebler was published by Prestel as part of the Pegasus Art series in 1996.

Related links

Dalí-related blog posts

Surrealism-related book reviews

Surrealism-related exhibition reviews

Salvador Dalí: Exploring the irrational by Edmund Swinglehurst (1996)

This is one of those large-format art books (30 cm x 21.8 cm) which doesn’t have many pages (128) but is packed with good quality colour reproductions which you can spend all day gazing at, and also contains a surprising amount of text when you actually start to read it.

Art criticism is difficult, much harder than literary criticism (though not as impossibly difficult as music criticism). A writer can fairly easily weigh up how another writer uses words, it’s not that technically complicated. But describing a painting in technical terms i.e. the precise use of oil or acrylic or gouache or watercolour and how the artist deploys them or overcomes specific technical problems relating to them, this is not only a complex subject – potentially required for a critique of each individual work – but modern artists i.e. 20th century artists, tended to work across a broad range of media and channels, often deliberately transgressing traditional techniques, making the technical knowledge required to really assess their aims and achievements very complicated.

Therefore it is always easier to fall back on the notion that the Great Creator was obsessed by a number of ideas or ‘themes’ and to relate them both to his or her times, and to their personal biography, particularly – yawn – their sex lives.

So it is that you hear infinitely more about Picasso’s love life than you do about his innovations in print, lithography, or oil painting. It is easier to tell stories than to analyse. We like stories. We especially like stories about sex. Sex sells. Thus on page one of his text Swinglehurst explains that Dalí’s subjects were ‘sex and the subconscious’ (p.4) and his text goes on to bear this out with repeated analyses of the paintings in terms of their (often pretty obvious) sexual imagery or titles, underplaying Dalí’s phenomenal technique and inventive composition.

Dalí and Eliot

Now although there are some paintings with titles like ‘The Great Masturbator’, although Dalí (apparently) had an obsession with masturbating and feeling guilty about it, and although he had a consequent haunting fear of being castrated — all in the approved Freudian fashion – in actual fact, when you look at the 100 or so Dalí paintings gathered here, I don’t really think that summary – ‘sex and the subconscious’ – is true. Or not adequate.

There is generally a lot going on, visually, in any individual Dalí painting, and a review of these 100 works suggests that, although bare breasts are often present, there isn’t in fact a lot of sexual symbolism.

Indeed, you could argue the sex is the least interesting part of any of his compositions and of his oeuvre as a whole. Take Soft construction with boiled beans: premonition of civil war (1936).

Sure there’s a sort of female body and a soft female breast being squeezed by a craggy old man’s hand. Sure Dalí liked to brag that he ‘foresaw’ the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War (in July 1936) in this and a few other paintings from earlier that year.

But, to put it politely, isn’t there a hell of a lot more to the painting than these overt and obvious meanings? The bodies make no anatomical sense. Why does smooth white flesh keep turning into gnarled old wrinkly hands and feet? Why is the body balanced on a chest of drawers? Who is the totally realistic figure of a man walking behind the hand at bottom left? Why are there perfectly conventional village buildings visible in the far distance? Why is there a sprinkling of beans on in the foreground and in the title?

It’s 80 years since the great Modernist poet T.S. Eliot wrote an essay on poetry in which he suggested that:

The chief use of the ‘meaning’ of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be … to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him: much as the imaginary burglar is always provided with a bit of nice meat for the house-dog. (The use of poetry and the use of criticism)

Eliot thought that poetry was in the music of words: the ‘meaning’ is just there to distract the higher, restless, journalistic parts of the mind, to keep your attention long enough so that the music can do its subtler work at a deeper, rhythmic, unconscious level.

Something similar can be applied to Dalí. The sexual images and all the other wildly improbable melting metamorphosing imagery he concocted is the stuff thrown at the busybody journalistic mind to hold its attention – while the real work of the painting is going on at a deeper level. I would argue that this real work, the real impact of Dalí’s paintings, comes from their tremendous technical facility, their finish and their completeness.

Dalí studied the Old Masters assiduously, not for their subject matter but for their technical mastery of painting with oil. He venerated the European tradition. He made a list of great artists which was topped by Vermeer, the Dutch master of exquisite finish and detail.

Certainly, a biographer and critic has to deal with the ‘sex and subconscious’ stuff, with the way some personal phobias seem to run through many of the works, and with Dalí’s overt references to Freud – in the works themselves, but also in the many essays, comments, catalogues and interviews he gave.

But, having assimilated all that, you could put it all to one side and argue that Dalí’s main achievement was continuing the Old Master tradition of classical painting well into the second half of the 20th century, well after almost all other major artists had long dropped it.

Surely it’s this – his technical mastery, the sense of astonishing, overwhelming perfection given by so many of his pictures, the complete command of the medium, the dizzying use of traditional perspective, the minutely realistic details  – that is the real secret of his enduring success.

This book includes plenty of examples but I was really electrified by the glasses on the table in Sun table (1936).

In one of his few comments on Dalí’s technique Swinglehurst says he used specially prepared canvases and a watchmaker’s eyeglass to paint in the finest of fine details. The tiles, the table and the three glasses are quite stunning, justifying the word the adjective super-real, not just surreal.

Similarly, although a naked woman is always distracting, for me the best bit of Leda Atomica is the beautifully depicted set square and its shadows, at the bottom right.

Gala and the 30s

Dalí’s life was transformed when in 1929 he met Gala (born Elena Ivanovna Diakonova) who was at the time married to poet Paul Éluard. She became his lover, muse, mistress, erotic subject, and – on the practical front -his business manager, home-maker, press and PR agent.

In the same year he officially joined the Surrealist movement and, from 1930 to the outbreak of the Second World War (the thirties, basically) was by far Dalí’s most creative and innovative period (i.e. from age 26 to 36).

The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 coincided with a highpoint of paranoia, anxiety and inspiration. These were the years when his commanding technique and weird visions of melting forms set on immaculately painted, clearly lit perspectival plains, established Surrealist visual style, all accompanied by sundry publicity stunts which got him into the public eye (like giving a lecture at the Surrealist Exhibition in London dressed in a diving suit – that would get your photo in the London papers even today).

America loved reactionary technique

Dalí and Gala fled to America at the outbreak of the second World War, basing themselves in California with frequent trips to New York. He ended up staying in the States for eight years, crystallising and congealing ‘Part Two’ of his life & career, creating the Salvador Dalí that I grew up knowing about in the 1970s, the millionaire showman and professional eccentric.

In America Dalí discovered that he was famous and popular and set about becoming more famous and more popular. And a key reason for his popularity was the conservativeness of his technique. The Abstract Expressionists and confident arrival of a new American art movement hadn’t happened yet. Instead, rich Americans were still buying up traditional European art. But whereas a lot of the modernism which had been coming out of Paris for thirty years or more was tricky and challenging, to millionaire businessmen from the mid-West, Dalí’s art – even if the subject matter was strange and unnerving – his technique, his polish and finish, spoke of the great European tradition and the valuable Old Masters. In America:

where traditional European art was sought after by the millionaire barons of commerce, Dalí was greeted with enthusiasm. (p.85)

Though their combinations may be outlandish, a lot of Dalí’s objects are themselves clear and accessible – and his pictures contain (mostly) recognisable objects placed in a (and here’s the key thing) recognisable perspective. His paintings are exactly the kind of ‘window on the world’ (albeit a deliberately weird world) which almost all other modern painters had rejected. He did perspective so well and painted the objects so immaculately, that the painted finished feel of them reassured rich Americans.

And then Dalí was a born self-publicist in a country obsessed with publicity and celebrity. Dalí threw himself into it with gusto and Swinglehurst lists an impressive range of activities, designing jewellery, high class shop windows, collaborating on movies (like Hitchcock’s Spellbound), designing sets for operas and ballets, and establishing a lucrative practice painting portraits of the American super-rich.

He stayed in America for eight years, hosting Hollywood parties, churning out works in an increasingly smooth and finished style, selling to naive Yanks who paid top dollar for anything he would produce.

Even before Europe went to war the leader of the Surrealists, André Breton, had expelled Dalí from the group for his divergence from Surrealist doctrine and his refusal to condemn Franco’s right-wing coup in Spain. Now Dalí’s long sojourn in America cut off his roots with European painters, writers, gallery owners, collectors, critics and curators. It is from his period that the divergence sets in between Dalí’s growing public popularity, becoming the king of student posters, appearing on game shows and numerous celebrity interviews – and his rejection by the ‘serious’ academic art world.

He continued painting prolifically into the 1970s and this book shows there were about four types of work:

Over-fluent surrealism Some of his most famous posters have an almost too-perfect fluency. Swinglehurst uses the expression ‘advertising graphic’ as a term of abuse for these.

Dalí’s involvement with so much commercial work in the United States did little for his imagination and affected the quality of his painting, which sometimes began to look like advertising graphics. Dalí himself referred to his work at the time as hand-made photography. (p.92)

Nazi kitsch The kind of super-realistic depictions of the human figure which are unsettlingly similar to the hyper-realism demanded by the totalitarian dictatorships of the mid-century, Hitler, Stalin. For some reason many of the later works featuring Gala have this feel of hollow perfection.

Physics The detonation of the atom bomb really traumatised Dalí and from 1945 onwards the problem of physics appears in many paintings, envisaged as the atomisation of reality, the disintegration of reality into atoms or particles. It coincided with a resurgence of his Catholic faith. The two are connected: a world blown apart by new nuclear knowledge also reveals hitherto unknown complexities, mysteries, spaces, in which maybe a subtler form of religious mysticism can take root.


Miscellaneous notes

His father was the town notary of Figueres i.e. the most important man in the town. Presumably this taught the young Dalí the workings of authority, power. His mother was a strict Catholic and brought her children up accordingly.

1904 born
1922 starts studying at  Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid
1925 holds  his first one-man show
1926 expelled from the academy for fomenting student unrest

1929
* collaborates with friend and fellow-Spaniard Luis Buñuel (b.1900) on the deliberately shocking b&w film Le Chien Andalus
* meets Gala his wife and muse-to-be
* paints some of the earliest works with the flat plane extending to the horizon, the plastic completeness

Swinglehurst points out the figures in the bottom right of invisible man denote Dalí’s lifelong guilt about masturbation and fear of castration (the benefits of a good Catholic upbringing), dealt with in numerous paintings of the time. No doubt. But isn’t the glaringly obvious thing about this picture not some aspect of his personal mythology, the staggeringly fluent use of trompe l’oeil optical illusion, which would become a massive part of his style?


Elements of Dalí’s vision

Trompe l’oeil Dalí early on developed a taste for clever and beautifully worked-out optical illusions in his paintings, cunningly constructed images which can be interpreted in either of two ways. He wrote that the use of optical illusion revealed the hidden meaning latent (to use Freud’s technical term) behind everyday images, or just the dual nature of the human mind, divided – in Freud’s theory – into conscious rational perception and unconscious, hidden desires. Examples include:

Crutches Nowhere in this book does it suggest what the crutches mean but they appear in loads of his 1930s paintings as a fundamental design element.

Lions heads Why?

Ants are a symbol of bodily decay and physical corruption.

Woman with desk drawers

Technical perfection But above all the superlative, breath-taking technical achievement and finish of his oil painting at its stunning best.

Brown After reviewing all hundred paintings I realise that brown is the dominant colour in his palette, especially in the post-war period. Consider the two religious paintings, above, and his masterpiece:


Credit

Salvador Dalí: Exploring the irrational by Edmund Swinglehurst was published by Tiger Books in 1996.

Related links

Dalí-related blog posts

Surrealism-related blog posts

Surrealism by Michael Robinson (2005)

This is an almost square, thick, glossy art book (17.1 x 16.1 cm) whose 384 pages – after the brief foreword and introduction – contain nearly 200 colour reproductions of Surrealist works of art. Each one gets a 2-page spread, image on the right, text giving the artist, title, medium and some interpretation, on the left. A kind of flip book of Surrealist painting, divided into four sections – Movement overview, Influences, Styles & techniques and Places.

The left-page analyses vary widely in quality, some telling you really insightful things, others little more than recaps of so-and-so’s career or an anecdote behind the picture. There is an obtrusive political correctness in many of them – Robinson is the kind of white man who has to make it quite clear he is on the side of feminists in their struggle against the patriarchy, and regrets the cultural misappropriation of colonial exploiters like Picasso, Matisse and the rest of those awful white men.

Here he is discussing Meret Oppenheim’s Occasional Table (1939):

Occasional table (1939) by Meret Oppenheim

Occasional table (1939) by Meret Oppenheim

In this work Meret Oppenheim continues with a number of Surrealist preoccupations, the most significant of which is the preconception of specific gender roles and stereotyping in a patriarchal society. At first this object may appear as an opulent or even decadent excess of Art Deco design for the bourgeois market, particularly in its use of gold leaf. Oppenheim is, in line with Dada and Surrealist ideals, commenting on bourgeois excesses, as well as on gender stereotypes.

Let’s just stop here and ask if you, the reader, can identify specifically how this work of art is tackling ‘the preconception of specific gender roles and stereotyping in a patriarchal society’. Spotted it? Good. Now, read on:

As a (male) viewer one is drawn to the legs to consider their shape before considering their functionality. There is an obvious parallel here with women being viewed in the same stereotypical manner. The viewer is also being denied access to the rest of the body, emphasised by the flatness and width of the table’s top. (p.224)

So, if I’m reading this correctly, Robinson is claiming that if you are struck by the fact that an ordinary-looking table is being supported by a pair of bird’s legs, this is not because it’s rather unusual and incongruous – in the deliberately disconcerting Surrealist/Dada fashion – it’s because you are always looking at legs and sizing them up, because you are a misogynist member of a patriarchal society guilty of gender stereotyping. Unless you are a woman. In which case you just see a pair of bird’s legs.

I hope all my male readers have gone away suitably chastened and reformed.

Here he is preparing to talk about a work by Wifredo Lam:

At the turn of the nineteenth century many modernists adopted and adapted ritualistic or totemic motifs from Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Oceania – in fact from most places that were European colonies. The use of these misappropriated motifs can be found in the so-called ‘primitive’ aesthetics of Paul Gauguin’s Post-Impressionism, the Cubism of Picasso and Georges Braque, much of German Expressionism and some of the Fauvism of Matisse. However, Surrealism differed in this regard thanks largely to the multi-ethnicity of its group and a genuine interest in anthropology. (p.184)

Will all those white European artists who ‘misappropriated’ motifs from non-European cultures please stay behind after school and write out one hundred times ‘Michael Robinson says I must only use subjects and motifs from European culture and not misappropriate motifs from any other source’. Naughty Picasso. Naughty Matisse. Unless you’re black or Asian or non-caucasian, in which case it’s fine: you can use any motifs and imagery you like.

Your use of non-European motifs is cultural misappropriation; our use of non-European motifs is different, because we have ‘a genuine interest in anthropology’. Michael says so.

Some notes

The sheer number and variety of art and artists tell their own story about the Surrealists’ broad-spectrum dominance of the inter-war period.

First conclusion is there were so many of them – Paul Éluard, Benjamin Péret, René Crevel, Robert Desnos, Jacques Baron, Max Morise, Pierre Naville, Roger Vitrac, Gala Éluard, Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, Luis Buñuel, Man Ray, Hans Arp, Georges Malkine, Michel Leiris, Georges Limbour, Antonin Artaud, Raymond Queneau, André Masson, Joan Miró, Marcel Duchamp, Jacques Prévert, and Yves Tanguy – just for starters.

Surrealism followed on from Dada, founded in 1916 in Switzerland as a really angry response to the pointless barbarity of the Great War.

By 1920 a lot of former Dadaists had gravitated to Paris and were experimenting with Freud-inspired ideas of accessing or depicting the unconscious, via stream-of-consciousness prose or automatic writing. One of them, the bullish, domineering poet André Breton, decided the trouble with Dada is it had been too anarchic, chaotic, unfocused – which had led to its eventual collapse.

Breton decided to form a real movement, not just literary but with social and political aims. This led in 1924 to the publication of the first of numerous Surrealist manifestos.

It was primarily a movement of writers – poets and novelists – not artists. Artists came later. Ironic, because now we are soaked in the artists’ imagery and I wonder if anyone reads the old surrealist prose works, or could name any.

And Surrealism was political, designed to undermine and overthrow the existing scheme of things, opposing traditional bourgeois values (kinder, küche, kirche), religion, the rational, the scientific – all the things which, it was claimed, had led Europe into the inferno of the Great War.

Breton conceived of Surrealism as a philosophy and a way of life, rejecting the stifling repression of bourgeois society, setting free our deep inner selves. It wasn’t just teenage rebellion for its own sake. Breton and many of the others thought that Western society was really seriously crippled and doomed by its steadfast refusal to acknowledge the most vital part of the human being – the unconscious, source of all our creative imaginative urges, which can only be accessed via dreams and other specialised techniques.

Only if we can tap into our unused creativity, into our irrational minds, into the sensual part of our psyche, can we ever hope to change the repressed, uptight, bourgeois, scientific, technocratic society which is leading us to destruction.

You can see why this genuine commitment to radical social change led many Surrealists, as the 1920s turned into the Fascist 1930s, to declare themselves communists and how this led to numerous splits and bitter quarrels among them.

In his rules Breton declared that surrealist writers and artists (and film-makers and photographers) could work in any medium whatsoever, depicting any subject whatsoever, with only one golden rule – it must come from inside, from the unconscious, from the free imagination untrammeled or restricted by conscious thought or tradition. You could use realistic figures and objects from the real world – but only in the service of the unconscious.

Of the scores of artists connected the movement, probably Dalí and Magritte created the most widely recognized images of Surrealism. Dalí joined the group in 1929 (after  his brief abandonment of painting for film and photography) and played a crucial role in establishing a definitive visual style between 1930 and 1935.

Outliers

Assuming we’re all familiar with the usual suspects – Dali, Miro, Ernst, Arp, Magritte, Ray – one of the interesting facets of the book is how widely it casts the net, to include artists never part of the official movement but clearly influenced by it. I enjoyed the inclusion of English artists like Henry Moore, Paul Nash, Edward Wadsworth and, especially, Roland Penrose.

The real pleasure of the book was coming across quite a few artists I’d never heard of before:

Women

There were quite a few women surrealist artists and it was genuinely interesting to a) learn about them and their work, considered purely as artists b) to learn how many of them really were feminists, how many disliked the bullying male environment created by Breton, how many of them tried to develop an aesthetic which escaped male stereotyping and the sexualising of women’s bodies. From a crowded field I think Dorothea Tanning stood out for me.

Lee Miller was an important muse for many of the male Surrealists. She had an intense affair with the photographer Man Ray, who taught her photography as well as making her the subject of many of his greatest works. Later she married Roland Penrose, the English Surrealist painter. His painting, Bien vise, above, depicts her naked torso. But Miller also painted, created surrealist objects and took surreal photos in her own right (as well as her later, awesome, war photos).

Surrealism and gender

The gender issue with Surrealism strikes me as simple enough: all these men thought they had a duty to express the unconscious; the dominating master and ‘discoverer’ of the unconscious was  a man, Sigmund Freud; Freud insisted that the unconscious was drenched in repressed sexuality (only later adding aggression and violence in the form of the Death Wish); which meant that this large and influential group of male artists felt it was their moral and artistic duty to be as frank as possible about sex and sexuality, to be as shocking and provocative as they could be; and so they saturated their works with erotic images and symbols; and, being men, these tended to be images of women, their own objects of desire.

And almost all the women, in one way or another, reacted against this use of women as sex objects, as objects of desire, in male painting, and tried to redress the balance by painting women fully dressed or in poses where they obviously dominate men or as girls on the cusp of adolescence (or abandoned figuration altogether to paint abstracts).

The really interesting biological-anthropological question is about the difference in ‘desire’ which this tends to bring out. Men paint women, but women paint women, too. Everyone seems to take ‘women’ as a fit subject for painting. Very few of the women artists paint pictures of big naked men or fixate on the penis in the same way that men paint countless breasts and vulvas. Why? Broadly speaking, feminists from de Beauvoir onwards say that gender differences are entirely due to social conditioning; the vast majority of the population and all the biologists and evolutionists I’ve read point out that there are certain unavoidable differences in DNA, physiology and behaviour between males and females of almost every species: why should we be any different?

All that said, I’ve just flicked slowly through the nearly 200 images in this book and only a handful of paintings – about ten – actually depict realistic images of naked women (and some of those are by women e.g. Dorothea Tanning’s Birthday; among the men Paul Delvaux had the most persistent in (admittedly dreamy zombie) naked women e.g. The Sleeping Venus).

If you go looking for naked women to support this thesis, they are in fact surprisingly absent from the classic surrealist images (by Magritte, Dali, Ernst).

Surprise

I had no idea that Desmond Morris, author of the immensely popular Naked Ape/Manwatching books, was an official member of the Birmingham Surrealist group while still an undergraduate studying biology. This work, painted when he was just 21, is immediately pleasing, in colour, design and the formal symmetric arrangement. It also demonstrates the general rule that Surrealism, which set out to turn society upside down, ended up producing charming and delightful images which could safely hang on the walls of any investment banker or corporate lawyer. Art changes nothing.

Conc

This book is a useful reservoir of some classic Surrealist images, but its real value is as a stimulating introduction to a far wider range of less well-known artists.


Credit

Surrealism by Michael Robinson was published by Flametree Published in 2005.

Related links

Surrealism-related blog posts

Arp: The Poetry of Forms @ Turner Contemporary

Turner Contemporary

Turner contemporary art gallery is on the beachfront at Margate in East Kent. It was opened in 2011, allegedly on the site of a boarding house where the great Victorian painter, J.M.W. Turner, used to stay on his frequent visits to Margate.

Exterior of Turner Contemporary, Margate

Exterior of Turner Contemporary, Margate

Inside the main atrium-reception space-cum-shop is one of the best views I think I’ve ever seen from any building anywhere, better than Tate Modern’s boring view over London, better than the view from the Rockefeller Centre over New York. which I visited a few years ago. The high windows create a frame through which you see the ever-changing movement of the grey sea, the surf-capped waves, the enormous blue sky puffed with clouds and seagulls swooping and wheeling. Apparently, Turner wrote to Ruskin that ‘the skies over Thanet are the loveliest in all Europe’, and on the day I visited it was a believable claim.

View out of Turner Contemporary over the sea

View from the ground floor of Turner Contemporary over the sea

The gallery contains a main exhibition space, a smaller space, and education and kids’ spaces. When I visited a ballet/contemporary dance class for under-tens was in action, watchable through big sheet glass windows. The whole place feels big and open, family-friendly and happy.

Jean Arp: the poetry of forms

Hans Jean Arp was born in 1886 and lived till 1966. He was a draughtsman, painter, sculptor and printmaker as well as a notable poet. He was born in Alsace-Lorraine, the disputed borderland between France and Germany, which was seized by Prussia in 1870, taken back by France in 1918, and seized again by the Germans in 1940. His mother was French, his father German and he grew up speaking both languages, using Hans or Jean as necessary, or just ‘Arp’, writing poetry fluently in both languages.

Installation view courtesy of Turner Contemporary, photograph by Stephen White

Installation view courtesy of Turner Contemporary, photograph by Stephen White

Dada

Arp was associated with the Dada movement of the 1910s and then surrealism in the 1920s and 30s. Dada was founded in 1916 by a group of writers and artists as a reaction against the senselessness of the Great War. Arp wrote:

Revolted by the butchery of the 1914 World War, we in Zurich devoted ourselves to the arts. While the guns rumbled in the distance, we sang, painted, made collages and wrote poems with all our might.

Arp contributed drawings and illustrations to Dada magazines (included here). He also contributed his distinctive free verse poems. These were written in French or German, with a high degree of dada/surrealist no-sense, but have been well translated into English and are strangely persuasive.

kaspar is dead (1912) by Hans Arp

Kaspar is dead (1912) by Hans Arp

Object language

Throughout the show are many of Arp’s woodcuts, often in relief, as he laid one outline of wood over another. They are abstract shapes rather than realistic depictions. There are plentiful references in titles to natural objects like birds, cutlery or people, but always these figures have undergone substantial transformation towards abstract shapes and patterns – he seems to have been a natural abstractionist from the get-go. Everything has been alchemised into purer, simpler shapes.

Static composition (1915) by Jean Arp

Static composition (1915) by Jean Arp

The exhibition includes this set of seven ‘Arpaden’ which represent pictograms of simple everyday objects which he suffused with his own meanings and became the basis of an object language which he used for the rest of his life. In particular, the navel (a ring shape) represents nature and the cycle of life, whereas the moustache (apparently copied from images of Kaiser Wilhelm) represents pomposity.

Arpaden (1923) by Jean Arp

Arpaden (1923) by Jean Arp

For such a revolutionary in style is is surprising that he had a surprisingly conservative worldview, a strong belief in nature, believing that art is an extension of natural processes like growth and decay. He was seeking new forms and shapes which gave the sense of having grown, of revealing the essence of life. There are a lot of reliefs made from painted wood which somehow combine the curves of life forms with the hard edge of the wood into a kind of biomorphic modernism.

Der Pyramidenrock (1924) by Jean Arp

Der Pyramidenrock (1924) by Jean Arp

Arp’s titles are playful. They share the same enjoyment of language, of mixing incongruous words and ideas, as his dadaist poetry, examples of which are scattered liberally and amusingly throughout the exhibition.

The cloudpump (1920) by Jean Arp

The cloudpump (1920) by Jean Arp

In fact playfulness and humour, a lightness of touch, are in evidence throughout.

Plates, fork and navel (1923) by Jean Arp

Plates, fork and navel (1923) by Jean Arp

Surrealism

In 1925 Arp’s work also appeared in the first exhibition of the surrealist group at the Galérie Pierre in Paris but this attachment didn’t significantly alter his well-worked out visual language. From the same time he began to experiment with converting the wood-reliefs into free-standing sculptures. The sculptures included in this exhibition appear fully-formed and highly finished, utterly abstract if vaguely zoomorphic blobs, very smooth and self-contained and complete.

Three disagreeable objects on a face (1930) by Jean Arp

Three disagreeable objects on a face (1930) by Jean Arp

In some of these bronze sculptures the smaller blobs are moveable so they can be rearranged to create new works. Très moderne.

In the early 1930s Arp developed the idea of ‘constellations’, using the same shapes or patterns in a limited set of variations and combinations. In his poetry this meant using the same constellation of words in different contexts, to explore new meaning combinations, echoing the endless metamorphoses of the natural world.

Surrealism in service of the revolution (1933) by Jean Arp

Surrealism in service of the revolution (1933) by Jean Arp

In the 1930s Arp also coined the term ‘concretion’ for his zoomorphic sculptures. With typical fluency Arp wrote:

Concretion signifies the natural processes of condensation, hardening, coagulation, thickening, growing together. Concretion designates the solidification of a mass. Concretion designates curdling, the curdling of the earth and the heavenly bodies. Concretion designates solidification, the mass of the stone, the plant, the animal, the man.

You can see how the poetry comes from this fondness for repetition and recombination.

Human concretion (1933) by Hans Arp

Human concretion (1933) by Hans Arp

Way back in 1915 Arp had met the artist Sophie Taeuber, who was also involved in Dada, designing costumes and scenery for their wacky theatrical productions, as well as herself dancing and performing. During the war Taeuber taught weaving and other textile arts at Zurich Art School, and from early on she influenced Arp towards abstract design and encouraged the practical handicraft aspect of the woodcuts and his sculptures. They married in 1922 and lived and worked closely together till her tragic accidental death in 1943.

Arp’s art and poetry isn’t usually very moving. The dry outline of the wood reliefs, the smooth globular shapes of the sculptures, the restrained colouring of his prints, all create a kind of mood of tranquillity, a contemplative, relaxed vibe, which he would presumably have said stems from nature, the source of all creativity.

Coloured prints by Jean Arp

Coloured prints by Jean Arp

Which is why it was a surprise to come across some rather tear-jerking late works. He had previously torn up stuff in the Dada years, and during the war was so hard-up he produced minimal sculptures from waste paper (papiers froissés). But after Taeuber’s death, Arp embarked on a series of papiers déchirés (torn drawings) in which he ripped up and repositioned fragments of drawings by his wife and soul mate. As the wall label says:

The act of tearing Taeuber’s works may be seen as an attempt by Arp to come to terms with his loss and to renew, posthumously, the collaboration that had been such an important part of their life together.

All the more moving for being so under-stated and unemotional.

Collage of torn-up drawing by Sophie Taeuber (1939/47)

Collage of torn-up drawing by Sophie Taeuber (1939/47)

Also during this period Arp came across some drawings which had developed mould. He realised there is no stopping the natural processes of degeneration and death. His poems express the same sense of despair and dereliction, the futility of striving for any kind of artistic ‘perfection’, acceptance of mutability.

On my way (1948) by Jean Arp

On my way (1948) by Jean Arp

Summary

I had only a vague sense of Arp before visiting this exhibition, but now feel I know a lot more about his work, his key ideas and motivations, about his personal life and – the biggest surprise of the show – the fact that he wrote poetry, and really enjoyable poetry at that. Thanks to Turner Contemporary for including the translated poems on the walls rather than just in the catalogue – giving them the same size and priority as the art works.

Installation view of Arp: The Poetry of Forms at Turner Contemporary

Installation view of Arp: The Poetry of Forms at Turner Contemporary

This is a lovely show, a revelation for anyone who, like me, wasn’t that knowledgeable about Arp. It’s unbelievable that such a thorough and interesting survey is FREE!

And, after being lulled into a zoomorphic, nature-inspired, seraphic mood – you step out of the gallery and into the first floor landing where this amazing view awaits. It’s an all-round lovely experience.

View from the first floor of Turner Contemporary over the sea

View from the first floor of Turner Contemporary over the sea

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Abstract Expressionism edited by David Anfam (2016)

This is the catalogue or book of the 2016 Royal Academy exhibition of Abstract Expressionism – ‘arguably the most significant movement of the twentieth century’ (Christopher Le Brun) – the first large retrospective in this country since 1959.

It’s a massive hardback book, 320 pages long, and containing:

  • four long essays – by exhibition curator David Anfam, Susan Davidson, Jeremy Lewison, Carter Ratcliff
  • a twenty-page chronology of the movement
  • followed by 200 pages of illustrations of paintings and sculptures, then a further section of watercolours and sketches, and then key photographs from the era

Several thoughts arise from a slow careful perusal of this enormous tome.

Earlier than realised

Although I associate it with the 1950s, and the style did indeed dominate that decade, the creation, labelling, and publicising of Abstract Expressionism all happened in the 1940s. It was as early as 1946 that the art critic Robert Coates, writing in The New Yorker, first used the term ‘Abstract Expressionism’, perceptively describing how the new school took the anti-figurative aesthetic of modernist French and Dutch artists but combined it with the emotional intensity of the German Expressionists.

It was even earlier, in 1943, that Jackson Pollock was talent spotted by the rich heiress Peggy Guggenheim, signed up to her gallery and given his first one-man exhibition, invited to paint a mural in the entrance to her New York apartment (Mural – ‘the first outstanding large-scale painterly abstraction ever created in America’, p.33). This was seen by umpteen influential visitors including the critic Clement Greenberg who promptly wrote an article declaring Pollock ‘the greatest painter this country had produced.’ To step back a bit, this was all happening in the same year as the Battle of Stalingrad i.e. the first decisive defeat of Nazi Germany, and the Allied invasion of Italy. The Second World War hadn’t even finished yet. Nobody knew about the Holocaust.

It was still only in the 1940s that Abstract Expressionism was reaching a mass audience – August 8, 1949 to be precise – when Pollock was given a four-page spread in Life magazine that asked, ‘Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?’ and which projected him to nationwide superstar-artist fame. The next year he dropped his trademark ‘drip’ technique, which in fact only lasted the short period from 1947 to 1950, in order to explore new styles. Neither the critics nor buyers were interested. They wanted more drips. ‘Play us the old songs, Jackson.’ Given the pressures and the spotlight, it’s surprising that he soldiered on till 1956 before dying in a drunken car crash which might have been suicide.

This all lends support to the revisionist view of Stephen Polcari, that the Abstract Expressionists were not responding to the crises of the Cold War – though that is how they were marketed and perceived at the time – but in fact had their roots in the social, economic, and political crises of the 1930s, when they were all impressionable young men. If they shared a tragic sense it was shaped by the Great Depression, the rise of Fascism, the war in Spain and then the descent into darkness of the entire continent whence ‘civilisation’ supposedly originated.

It was well before the Cold War and the A-Bomb, way back in 1943 that Rothko and Gottlieb wrote a letter published in the New York Times which expressed the kind of doom-laden intensity which all the AEs seem to have shared, asserting that:

the subject matter is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless. (quoted p.21)

Is Abstract Expressionism a good label?

As usual with many art ‘movements’, many of the key players weren’t particularly happy with the label imposed on them – Abstract Expressionism – and others went the rounds, like ‘the New York school’ or ‘Tenth Street painters’. But AE stuck. They never produced a manifesto or exhibited together, and there’s no one photo with the main players together. But people – curators, collectors, galleries, journalists, and us – the poor uninformed public – we all need labels to hang on to, especially in the middle of the century when art movements came and went with such dizzying rapidity.

And the artists certainly all knew each other, lived in the same area of Downtown Manhattan, hung around in the same taverns and bars, and were subject to the same washes of influence as America experienced the Depression, the great influx of refugee artists from the Nazis, reacted (in different ways) against the naive nationalist art of the 1930s, against Regionalism and Social realism, but engaged in highly individual struggles to find a new idiom, new ways of seeing and doing art.

The paintings

This brings us to the actual art and the obvious conclusion that the mature styles of the four or five main players were very different and extremely distinctive. There were a lot of second string artists floating around, who produced good work or influenced the Big Boys in one way or another – and the generous selection in the RA exhibition and this book goes out of its way to include works by Adolph Gottlieb, Richard Pousette-Dart, William Baziotes, Joan Mitchell, Conrad Marca-Relli, Jack Tworkov, Milton Resnick, some 20 artists in all.

But leafing through the beautiful reproductions, again and again the works of five key names stood out for me, emerging as titans above the crowd. (In essay four, the gallery owner Betty Parsons who played a key role in promoting AE, is quoted describing Pollock, Rothko, Still and Newman as ‘the Four Horsemen’.)

A word about aesthetics

It’s challenging and entertaining to try and put into words what it is that makes some paintings canonical and some redundant or not-quite-there. The latter phrase gives a clue to my approach. I find that, for most art or museum objects I see, some give the sense of being finished and completely themselves. Thus among my favourite works of art anywhere are the Benin bronzes at the British Museum. They seem to me to have set out to do something and to do it perfectly and completely. They are completely themselves, impossible to alter or improve. Similarly, the famous helmet from Sutton Hoo completely (ominously, threateningly) says what it sets out to, bespeaks an entire world and civilisation.

So if I have any aesthetic theory it is not the application of any external guidelines of beauty, requiring a work of art to conform to this, that or the other rule. It is something to do with a work coming entirely into its own, its own space and design. Having suggested a certain form or subject or shape, then delivering on that idea, completely. Fulfilling its premises.

Jackson Pollock (1912 – 1956)

Pollock’s best drip paintings dominate the era and all his contemporaries as clearly as Andy Warhol dominated Pop Art. Possibly others were better artists, showed more consistent artistic development and certainly others have their fans and devotees – but nobody can deny Pollock and Warhol’s works are immediately recognisable not just as art, but as icons of a particular period and place.

And, in my opinion, they fulfil my theory of completeneness – that an artist has a moment when they crystallise a signature style by fully developing the tendencies implicit in their approach (as discerned in their earlier developing works).

Thus it is very obvious that there is a long run-up of pre-drip Pollock (Male and Female 1942, Eyes in the heat 1946) as he groped his way in the dark from works whose size and shape was influence by his mentor, Thomas Hart Benton the mural-maker, but whose content is often dominated by Guernica-period Picasso — and there is a hangover of post-drip Pollock (when he experimented for a while with just black – Number 7, 1952). Both of them are interesting, but so-so.

But then there is drip PollockBlue Poles (1952) is a masterpiece, a completely immersive experience, as completely itself as the huge lily ponds of Monet. Immersive because it is vast and its size is an important factor. After splatting the surface with a preliminary network of black, white, yellow and red loops, Pollock used the edge of a plank dunked in blue paint to create the eight poles. Like Matisse’s dancing cutouts, this is an example of perfect taste, perfectly ‘getting’ the possibility of a visual rhythm. It isn’t classical or symmetrical or figurative of anything – it is a pure design which, for some reason to do with perceptual psychology, just works. Close up you can appreciate the extraordinary lacework of other colours dripped across the canvas, trademark yellow, red and whites, to create a dense tapestry weave of texture and colour. It is entirely itself. It is a summation of everything implicit in the drip approach to painting. And it is this sense of completing all the potential of the method which gives it its thrilling excitement, which makes it a masterpiece, and also a ‘classic’ of this style.

Along with works like Summertime (1948) and Number 4 (1949) these seem complete expressions of what they’re meant to be, of a certain Gestalt. Once you’ve thought of dripping raw paint across the canvas, then it turns out that certain levels of complete coverage and a certain level of complexity of the interlinking lines is somehow optimum, others less so. Too much and it is just mess; too little and it looks empty. At his peak Pollock produced a string of works which experiment with colours, shape of canvas and so on, but which all display an innate feel for just how to do this kind of painting.

Mark Rothko (1903 – 1970)

Rothko, also, is up there in the recognisability stakes in the sense that his final, achieved style is instantly distinctive. He too struggled to find his way from a sort of blocky blurry realism (Interior, 1936) on a journey via a completely different look in a work like Gethsemane (1944), which looks like washed-out surrealism, before coming to the brink of his mature style with experiments in big blotches of soft-edged colour (No.18 1948, Violet, Black, orange, Yellow on White and Red, 1949).

But then – bang! – he hits it, he finds his voice, he claims his brand, he crystallises his vision, he stumbles upon the formula of big rectangular blocks of shimmering colours which will last the rest of his life, what Anfam calls his ‘chromatic mirages’ (p.21).

Rothko left the murals he’d prepared for the restaurant in the new Seagram building to London’s Tate Gallery. There’s a darkened room containing all of them in Tate Modern and you can sit staring into them for hours. Critics saw in them the same kind of existentialist anxiety (all those massive blocks terrifying threatening the viewer, all the anxiety of those unknown fraying edges) that they saw in Pollock — but these days they are more like aids to calm reflection and meditation, and the audioguide plays very quiet meditative music by American experimental composer Morton Feldman. From Cold War angst to post-modern pleasure.

But however you read them, there’s no denying that Rothko stumbled upon (worked his way through to) an entirely new way of conceiving of coloured paint on canvas, a discovery and a formula – and then spent twenty years working through hundreds of variations, exploring and stumbling across further discoveries. Big, bright, abstract, moody. And a world away from Pollock’s splats. the casual viewer could be forgiven for asking how the two could ever be bracketed together, where the one is very much about the dynamic power of vibrantly interlacing lines and the other is very much about the calming meditative effect of enormous blocks of shimmering colour.

Clyfford Still (1904 – 1980)

The much-told story about Still is that he was prickly and difficult, went his own way, argued with all the other AEs, in the early 1950s terminated his contract with a commercial gallery and ended up neither exhibiting nor selling any of his pieces, but working away steadily in provincial obscurity in Maryland. He died in possession of 95% of everything he’d ever painted and made a will leaving his life’s work to whichever organisation could create a museum dedicated to housing and showing it. After numerous negotiations this turned out to be the City of Denver and it was only in 2011 that there finally opened a museum dedicated to Still, and that this vast reservoir of work was made available to critics and the public. In the short time since then his reputation has undergone a major revaluation and the room devoted to his work at the Royal Academy exhibition was, arguably, even more impactful then the displays of Pollock and Rothko. Still was a revelation.

Like the others, Still took a long journey, and his early work is represented by another semi-figurative work from the 30s, PH-726 (1936). But by 1944 he has stumbled upon his formula – sharp rips or tears against solid fields of colour, PH-235 (1944), all done in a really thick impasto or thick layer of paint which adds to the sense of presence and impact.

What are they? Wikipedia says his mature works ‘recall natural forms and natural phenomena at their most intense and mysterious; ancient stalagmites, caverns, foliage, seen both in darkness and in light lend poetic richness and depth to his work.’ Because the commentary goes heavy on his upbringing in the mid-West and of the associations of Denver, Colorado, I saw in several of them the pattern of cattle hides, the tans and blacks and beiges which you see in some Indian art, teepees, shields. Just a fancy.

Barnett Newman (1905 – 1970)

Newman had his first one-man show in 1948, the year he broke through to his mature style with the Onement series. Again, his was a long journey out of 1930s figurativism, until he made a discovery / stumbled across an idea / achieved a mature style (delete as applicable), creating what Anfam calls his ‘transcendent spatial continuums’ (p.21). Once he’d found it, repeated it through countless iterations.

A classic Barnett Newman has a vertical line – or ‘zip’ as he himself called them – dividing a field of colour – initially drab colour but becoming brighter and brighter as the 1950s progressed. The zip defines the picture plane, separates the composition yet binds it together, sunders it yet gives it a weird tremulous unity.

Why does it work? I’d give good money to read an analysis by a psychologist or expert in the psychology of perception, of shapes and colours, who could explain the effect they have on the mind of the viewer.

According to this book, among the big-name AEs, Newman was rather overlooked in favour of the brasher bolder works of his peers. Also, Pollock and Still, to name two, used highly expressive brushwork and thick or spattered layers of paint. Standing close you can see the thick clots of oil on the surface. Newman’s paintwork is flat and restrained. In fact his colourfulness and geometric designs link him more to the school of ‘post-painterly abstraction’ which emerged in the 1960s and are almost connected to the cool understatement of minimalism.

Franz Kline (1910 – 1962)

Kline’s breakthrough moment is much mythologised. Working as a commercial illustrator in New York while struggling to work his way towards some kind of abstract language, Kline was visited by Willem de Kooning who suggested he use a projector to blow up & project his complicated paintings onto the wall and then select small details to reproduce as full scale canvases. Taking this insight, Kline quickly worked out a style of broad black brushstrokes on white, which continually seem to gesture towards something yet are abstract. Are they fragments of larger designs and shapes? Or references to Japanese calligraphy (which Kline always denied)? Or dramatic actions in themselves?

Like all the other AEs, Kline’s work is big, really really BIG. Whatever the differences in style and approach, the AEs had this one thing in common – their work is huge and immersive. (A sign at Barnett Newman’s second exhibition at the Betty Parson’s Gallery in May 1951 actually requested visitors to stand close up to the picture; visitors had been requested to do the same at the Pollock exhibition which immediately preceded it – p.93.)

Kline is further evidence for my theory that artists often reach a recognisable defining style and produce a number of works which somehow express the quintessence of their voice or vision, only after a journey upwards and, alas, sometimes a later decline or wandering away… Having perfected the black and white calligraphy style – so instantly recognisable – by the time he was just 40, after a while at the top of his game, Kline had nowhere to go except back into colour, and these later colour works, although fine in their own way, represent a really noticeable falling away of the energy which the stark black-and-white contrasts produced. For some reason this style looks terribly dated, very late 50s early 60s, whereas the black and white calligraphic works look timeless to me.

Willem de Kooning (1904 – 1997)

De Kooning is the one big AE I couldn’t get on with at all, and the more I saw the more I disliked his stuff. Partly because I think he never did develop a defined style. To me, all of his stuff looks like messy sketches on the way towards something better, they all look like the dispensable journey works on the way to… nowhere. The same horrible messy scrawl effect is his one signature effect.

All the other AEs strike me as having a purpose, a direction. Pollock’s works are far more artful than they appear, Rothko’s are careful experiments, Newman achieved a kind of classic restraint and Still’s jagged compositions are unerringly ‘right’, conveying something much bigger than the images seem to warrant.

Only de Kooning’s works, out of the whole show and this long book, consistently look to me like a slapdash mess, a dog’s dinner, victims of what Anfam calls his ‘lacerating sweeps’ (p.21). And the series of depictions of women  – his ‘wrenching engagements with the female sex’ (Anfam, p.22) – which are often singled out by the critics for praise, to me could hardly be uglier and more repellent if they tried.

Adolph Gottlieb (1903 – 1974)

Apparently Gottlieb is perceived as a second string AE, his career weaving through a series of styles, including surrealism in the 1930s, a spell in the Arizona desert simplifying images to a primal essence, and the development of ‘pictographs’ representing psychologically charged shapes and patterns. It was as late as 1956 that he developed the ‘burst’ style, dividing the canvas into two halves, with a round sun-like object above and a busy earth-like mass below – creating a dialectic between calm and busy, with the use of bright colours to interfere and resonate.

Hundreds of bursts resulted and I can see why critics looking for world-shattering angst and grand existentialist statements might deprecate them, but I like him for devising a new ‘look’ and then producing fascinating variations on it.

Neglected women

One of the most pressing concerns of our times, in the arts and elsewhere, is restoring the reputations, the overlooked achievements and untold stories, of neglected woman. Four women artists worked in and around Abstract Expressionism and are included here:

Janet Sobel (1894 – 1968) began painting at the mature age of 43 when her son left home leaving behind his copious art materials. She progressed from figurative paintings featuring dreamy rather Chagall-like faces enmeshed in zoomorphic patterns, through to pure abstraction and eventually the technique of dripping paint. Some scholars claim it was Sobel who arrived at the drip technique before Jackson. That’s one for the scholars. All her works have a lightness. Maybe it was the light decorative effect as opposed to the Big Boys’ existentialist histrionics more than the fact she was a woman which wrote her out of the story for so long.

Lee Krasner (1908 – 1984) Krasner evolved through a series of styles. During the heyday of the AEs she tended to be overlooked by virtue of the fact that she was married to the top dog, Jackson Pollock. But the works included here show she had a related but distinct vision of her own.

Just living with Jackson sounds like a demanding job, but creating alongside him, in a related but clearly distinctive style, is little less than heroic. The next two are to one side for the simple reason that they were of a younger generation

Joan Mitchell (1925 – 1992) You can see the importance of the gesture but, a little like de Kooning, I don’t see it going anywhere.

They’re big, one of the simplest criteria for being an abstract expressionist. But arriving at Salut Tom at the end of the exhibition felt like we’d moved a long way from late-40s existentialism into a brighter more decorative world. Same style, different world.

Helen Frankenthaler (1928 – 2011) She painted onto unprimed canvas so that the paint soaked into it, thus creating a very flat surface.

Peggy and Betty

The fourth essay in the book is in many ways the most interesting, telling the complementary stories of two hugely important gallery owners who promoted the work of the Abstract Expressionists from the first – the Jewish millionairess Peggy Guggenheim and the scion of a wealthy WASP family, Betty Parsons. Peggy lived in Paris between the wars, becoming fantastically well-connected among the city’s avant-garde, arranging exhibitions and starting her own staggering collection, before fleeing ahead of the Nazi invasion in 1940, back to New York, where in 1942 she set up The Art of This Century Gallery.

Like Peggy, only without the millions, Betty went to live in Paris, where she herself pursued a career as an artist, taking lessons, before losing her money in the Wall Street Crash and being forced back to the States, to teach, and then to work in commercial galleries. She learned the trade, becoming popular among artists for her good taste and business sense (i.e. selling their pictures and making them money). In 1945 she set up the Betty Parsons Gallery which ran till her death in 1982. When Guggenheim returned to Paris after the war, Parsons took on many of ‘her’ artists, and the article turns into an impressive roster of the exhibitions she put on for one after another of all the key artists of the time, working hard to promote them and get them sales.

The essay is a fascinating insight not only into the achievements of these two vital women, but into the art world in general. It’s shocking to learn how little the artists sold at these shows – they’d display a dozen or 16 new works, for between $250 and $1,400 – and quite frequently none would sell at all. Or only small watercolours would sell to what turn out to be friends of the artist or the gallery owner herself. Works which now fetch tens of millions of dollars at auction.

In a fascinating detail, the book mentions several times that one problem was the paintings’ sheer scale: it was one thing to create a fourteen foot square canvas in the space of a half derelict loft-cum-studio, quite another thing to expect even quite rich people in New York to find enough wall space to hang it, back in the cluttered 1940s and 1950s. It was only well into the 1960s and more so in the 1970s that ideas of interior design changed significantly, that clutter was thrown out and rooms knocked together to create large airy spaces, often painted white, in which the vast canvases of the Abstract Expressionists suddenly made sense.

But by this point the AEs were up against the equally large creations of Post-painterly Abstraction, Pop Art, Op Art, Minimalism and so on and New York was established as the centre of a fast-moving, big money art culture.


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Reviews of other American art exhibitions and books

The Radical Eye @ Tate Modern

In 1990 Sir Elton John went into rehab and completely dried out, abandoning all intoxicants and stimulants. He began to look for a new hobby or activity to focus his, now completely sober, energies on. He’d always liked fashion photographs and had himself been snapped by some of the most famous fashion and music photographers of the 60s and 70s – but a chance encounter with a collector of older works opened his eyes to the dazzling world of classic Modernist photos from earlier in the twentieth century.

He bought some examples, read up on the subject, and soon he was hooked. Over the past 27 years, Elton has built up one of the greatest collections of modern photographs anywhere in the world, which stretches from the start of the twentieth century right up to the present day, including colour and digital photography.

Elton’s collection now exceeds 8,000 prints. He and the curator of what is now known as the Sir Elton John Photography Collection – Newell Harbin – and his photography consultant and first director of the collection – Jane Jackson – worked with Tate to select some 170 images for this show. They are all from the heyday of ‘Modernist’ photography, around 1920 to 1945.

The result is this wonderfully enjoyable and thought-provoking exhibition.

Themes

The exhibition is pure delight. It is divided into seven themed sections – portraits, bodies, experiments, objects, perspectives, abstractions, documents.

The sudden burst of creativity at the end of the Great War partly reflected the collapse of old traditional values in every sphere of life, but especially in art, which abandoned 19th century realism for an explosive diversity of new ways of seeing. It also reflected new technologies, such as the arrival of the Leica camera in 1927 which could contain a whole roll of film and so allowed a sequence of shots of the same object, thus allowing the taking of much more documentary or narrative photographs. At the same time many of the blurrings or odd effects created by photography which had been rejected by the Victorian forebears as aberrations from decorous realism now became actively sought after as striking visual experiments.

Above all, 20th century photography pioneered a revolution in seeing, an entirely new way of valuing the visual impact of all sorts of objects previously overlooked. If shot properly the stamens of a flower or a cluster of pots can look like objects from outer space. If made-up and shot crisply, the human face can have the other worldly clarity of a god.

Portraits On the one hand improved cameras enabled portraits to be created with a dazzling crispness and focus; on the other, modern art had liberated artists to find new ways to crop, angle and compose the human face, bringing out the geometry of lines and shapes buried in it, or creating new and challenging moods.

There’s a wall devoted to a sequence the photographer Irving Penn made in his studio in 1948 when he stumbled across the idea of pushing two background flats together to make a very acute angle for the sitters to pose in. To his surprise, instead of feeling cramped and stressed, many of the sitters felt comfortable and secure and visibly relaxed.

Bodies Unconventional composition and framing, experiments with lighting and focus are just some of the novel techniques used to show the human body in a completely new light, part machine, part god, part zoomorphic architecture.

  • Movement study by Rudolf Koppitz A shot like this demonstrates the way almost all the modernist affects are based on the notion of bringing out the geometric substructure in objects or people (although, as in Art Deco generally, background women here form a kind of curved geometry. The stylisation of their hair and eyes made me think of Sir Edward Burne-Jones’s willowy women – e.g. The Golden Stairs (1880) – but the differences highlight the way the interest has shifted from feminine ‘delicacy’ in the Victorian image, to an entirely new aesthetic which emphasises lithe muscularity. The naked woman is sensual, yes – but like a panther!)
  • Nude by Edward Weston (1936) The tendency of the age, of the Art deco 1920s and 30s to seek out the geometric in the organic is particularly obvious in this stunning photo. 1) The female body is turned into an almost abstract shape. Compare and contrast Matisse’s blue nude cutouts from 20 years later. 2) As with so many of these images, the closer you look, the more you see, including the hair on her leg, the sharpness of the toenails, loose threads from the rug.

Experiments shows various photographers playing with collage, distortion, montage, colouring some but not all of the image. The standout is probably –

Objects includes stunning still lifes, converting everyday objects into vibrantly sharp and vivid images.

Documents A million miles away from the Hollywood glamour of Gloria Swanson, the New York stylishness of Duke Ellington or the fashion magazine styling of Norman Parkinson, is the section devoted to the socially conscious photos of the 1930s Depression in America. The most famous photographers form this era are:

  • Migrant mother (1936) by Dorothea Lange Super famous image of the 1930s Depression, but in the flesh it has much more immediacy than any reproduction can convey.
  • Floyd Burroughs by Walker Evans (1936) Ditto. Both Evans and Lange were employed by the Information Division of the Farm Security Administration which was set up in 1935 to combat rural poverty. The administrator, Roy Stryker, in a much-quoted phrase, aimed to ‘show America to Americans.’ A laudable aim but these images are now 80 years old, from the year when Nazi Germany reoccupied the Rhineland. Are they documentary resources, liberal propaganda, publicity stills, historical records, works of art? Apparently, some 200,000 photos were taking during the existence of the Administration: are they all works of art?
  • New York by Helen Levitt (1940) She took many snaps of street life in her native New York City.

Abstraction and perspective I found some of the documentary photos a little sentimental and a little patronising. A bit uncomfortable about the image of a homeless, impoverished, desperate migrant mother being converted into an object to be owned by a multi-millionaire, displayed in London’s most popular tourist attraction, for a paying audience of well-heeled visitors, to swoon and feel sorry about.

I preferred the anonymous power of many of the abstractions, and especially the place where the human and the abstract meet – in photos of amazing works of architecture and engineering converted, by characteristically modernist perspective and the use of highly focused black-and-white, into works of stunning abstract beauty.

I grew up in a gas station amid the smell of petrol and tyres. I’ve always loved industrial art. I’ve always preferred the rainbow sheen of oil on dirty puddles to vases of flowers in nice front rooms.

The Ullberg was hanging next to a street scene by English photographer, Norman Parkinson.

This is good, but I much preferred the Ullberg. Although it has the components of a modernist photo, Parkinson’s shot lacks the precision and intensity. The puddles are a bit blurry. Fine. But compare and contrast with the super-clarity of the Ullberg, which is sharp enough to cut you, and also presents a far richer depth of information for the eye and mind.

Both reminded me that, at the wonderful 2011 Royal Academy exhibition of Hungarian photography I learned that to make a classic Modernist street photo you need to do just three things: it must be in black and white – take it from above – and have diagonals in it – lines of paving, tramlines, people marching, or just one person at an angle. Voila!

The curator commentary

The audioguide is worth buying as much for its occasional descent into art bollocks as for its information and insights. How the heart sinks when you see some photos depicting models with masks – you know the curator will be unable to resist talking about the usual antonyms of ‘appearance and reality’, ‘art and artifice’, ‘identity and anonymity’, and so on. Photos of the naked human body will trigger a torrent of verbiage about artists exploring ‘issues’ of sexuality. Worst of all, any female photographer will prompt the usual vapourings about ‘subverting’ gender stereotypes and the pain of being a pioneer in a male-dominated blah blah.

It’s not that these thoughts are particularly wrong, it’s just that they’re so bleeding obvious, and so thumpingly predictable. Almost every exhibition I’ve ever been to sooner or later reveals that the artist was ‘exploring issues of sexuality’ or ‘subverting gender stereotypes’.

It’s a constant source of wry humour that the very art critics and curators who are so keen to talk about art being ‘revolutionary’ and ‘radical’ and ‘subverting’, ‘transgressing’, ‘confronting’ and ‘interrogating’ this, that or the other social convention, are themselves so staggeringly limited in the way they think about art, so repetitive and predictable, are such tame conformists to the narrow and well-trodden themes of ‘radical theory’.

Elton John as critic

All of which highlights the biggest single revelation of the exhibition, which is: What an extraordinarily sensitive, insightful, thoughtful and articulate man Sir Elton John is! Every photo singled out for an audioguide commentary by the curators also features some words from Sir Elton -and Elton’s thoughts are consistently more informative, insightful and memorable than the scholarly version.

This, you can’t help feeling, is because they are born out of love. Elton’s deep and genuine passion for modern photography shows in everything he says about it. Sometimes it’s just putting into words an impression which was hovering in the viewer’s mind, such as when he points out that the more you look at Edward Weston’s White door the more pregnant with meaning it becomes, the more ominous and mysterious, the more you want to know what’s through the door. It could be the start of a novel or a movie.

For me his most insightful comment was how classic photographs bear looking at again and again and again, each time noticing something new. These works are hung all around his Atlanta apartment so that he passes by them all day long. And each time he looks and pays attention to one of his photographs, he sees something new in it.

I know this could also be said of painting, drawings, a lot of other forms – but, being here, you can see what he’s driving at because photography, almost by definition, contains more information than any other art form. In a photograph nothing is left blank: the entire visual field is capturing whatever was there in front of the camera. Even the white spaces are recording a reality which often, when you look closer, has something in it. Whereas the white space in a painting might just be white.

Having visited the enormous David Hockney exhibition last week led me naturally to compare these classic photos with the painter’s works.

For a start almost all Hockney’s paintings are ginormous, wall-size, whereas all the works here are small, most are the size of an A4 sheet of paper or smaller.

But to return to Elton’s point, whereas the closer you looked at many of, say, Hockney’s later paintings of the Yorkshire landscape, the less detail there is to see in these enormous broad-brush swathes of paint -here, in these small and exquisite classic photographs, the closer you look, the more there is to see.

Take Man Ray’s photo of an ostrich an egg. Seen at the distance of a few yards, it looks round and smooth with a nice reflected shine on the surface to give a sense of depth and curvature. But the closer you get, the more you can see the fine pores pitting the surface of the egg, which are brought out by the little patch of reflected light; until only a foot from the image, you realise the surface is completely pocked with holes, almost like a miniature moonscape. And then there’s the detail of the wooden surface it’s on: the closer you get, the more you can see the grain of the wood and the straightness of those lines plays off against the curvature of the egg. And so on.

A lot of this detail doesn’t really come over in any reproductions you see, even in the catalogue of the exhibition itself, which is printed on matt paper and nowhere nearly as attractive as the originals.

None of the reproductions are as grippingly dynamic as the real prints. Only in the flesh can you look closer and closer and closer and see more and more detail. Only in the flesh do you start to get really hooked and really start to see what Elton is on about.

Another example is Dorothea Lange’s famous image of the Migrant woman. It was only looking at the print really close up that I realised that she is holding an infant child whose white corpse-like face is almost hidden by the tree or vertical line on the right hand side of the photo. I thought I knew this image inside out, but seeing a print this close up made me realise I was wrong.

Lots of the photos are like this, revealing depths and then further depths.

This also makes sense of another of Elton’s comments – that photographs tell the truth, whereas paintings lie. There are all kind of political and aesthetic objections to that statement and yet, like everything else the man says, it is persuasive because it carries the conviction of his obvious love and care for these marvellous images.

After all, there is an extraordinary power and depth and truthfulness to these photos. Maybe it’s something to do with their brightly-lit clarity – and that this crisp clarity of image results in a greater density of information per square inch. There is just more going on in a good photo than in most paintings of a comparable size. Subconsciously the mind is registering a whole host of detail, the kind of extraneous detail which most painters consciously leave out, but which are often here to distract and illuminate and shed new perspective. I keep thinking about the woman’s toenails in Edward Weston’s fabulous nude. Or Duke Ellington’s shirt cuffs.

It’s the sheer amount of visual information which a camera captures which both explains why they really do repay repeated viewings, and why so many of them give the impression of flooding and gratifying the eye and the viewing mind.

What great photographs! What a great exhibition! What a great guy!

Glass Tears (Les Larmes) (1932) by Man Ray. Collection Elton John © Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2016

Glass Tears (Les Larmes) (1932) by Man Ray. Collection Elton John © Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2016

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Paul Nash @ Tate Britain

The nine rooms in this show comprise a major exhibition of the life’s work of the painter, illustrator, sculptor, photographer and art critic, Paul Nash. The show proceeds in simple chronological order and, as well as oil paintings and watercolours, includes display cases containing letters, photographs, magazine articles, book illustrations, collages and sculptures, as well as two rooms putting his work into the context of contemporaries and collaborators. It is a comprehensive overview of a much-loved English artist.

Mysterious landscapes

Nash was born in 1889. He spent his early life in Iver Heath in what was then rural Buckinghamshire and early on developed a special feel for the modest highlights of the Home Counties landscape. He felt trees so powerfully that he thought they had almost human personalities – he depicted a particular stand of three trees near his home again and again, in different lights – and he was much taken with nightscapes and the moon and mysterious winged figures. He wrote poems and illustrated them in the manner of William Blake or Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Room 1 is dedicated to these, many of which felt childish and immature to me.

The great exception is a watercolour of Wittenham Clumps, in Oxfordshire, one of the oldest planted stands of beech trees in England, set atop an Iron Age fort. It is, in fact, only a very gently sloping hill, but in these pictures you can see his interest in pattern and linear shapes emerging from his not particularly accurate landscape technique.

The Great War

Nash was 24 when the Great War broke out. He was called up but not actually sent to France until 1917, when he saw the devastated landscape left after the Third Battle of Ypres, also known as Passchendaele. For such a sensitive man, so in tune with the special meaning of natural landscape, the war was a terrible blasphemy. He wrote blistering attacks on the war leaders in letters to his wife (on display here).

‘I am no longer an artist interested and curious, I am a messenger who will bring back
word from men who are fighting to those who want the war to go forever. Feeble,
inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their
lousy souls.’

In terms of technique, the war inspired him to start using oil (as opposed to his previous light watercolours) and speeded his tendency to find simplified geometric shapes in landscape.

Spring in the Trenches, Ridge Wood 1917 by Paul Nash (1917) Imperial War Museum, London © Tate

Spring in the Trenches, Ridge Wood 1917 by Paul Nash (1917) Imperial War Museum, London © Tate

He was always poor at depicting the human figure. Not many appear in the early watercolours, and the few soldiers in the war paintings are weak compared to the soldiers of C.R.W. Nevinson or Wyndham Lewis or John Singer Sargent or William Orpen. His most famous war painting contains no humans – the shattered tree stumps represent the countless blighted lives – and highlights the new more abstract vision.

Vying with it is Menin Road 1917, in which the soldier figures have successfully blended with the design, appearing as just another set of angled lines in a composition dominated by verticals and diagonals.

Nash began his career as an illustrator and a display case here shows the pen-and-ink illustrations he did for a book of poetry by war novelist Richard Aldington. These are cleaner and sparer than the big oil paintings. I’m a sucker for strong outlines and silhouettes, so I really like them.

The 1920s

Nash emerged unharmed from the war and came back to live in a succession of rural locations. His paintings reflect pastoral views at Whiteleaf in Buckinghamshire or Dymchurch in Kent, but now done in an unapologetically modernist style.

I’ve always liked the Dymchurch paintings. They have a peculiar understated ominousness about them. Now I learn from the audio-commentary that shortly after moving there in 1924 Nash had a nervous breakdown, probably a delayed reaction to the war.

He has converted the ungainliness which characterises all his work into Unease. They are English landscapes, southern English landscapes, with the flatness and homeyness and boredom that implies but with… edge, disquiet, pregnant with some unspoken meaning…

Discovering de Chirico

In 1928 Nash visited an exhibition of works by Giorgio de Chirico, an Italian artist more or less his contemporary. De Chirico’s empty piazzas and abstract architecture had, by  his own admission, a dramatic impact on him. Nash wrote a lot about his own practice and phrases like ‘the power of abandoned objects’, ‘dreamlike ominousness’ and ‘isolated architectural elements’ begin to enter his prose.

Some of these paintings look Mediterranean, as if Nash has swallowed de Chirico whole. Others are still set in the English landscape but now seen in a completely new way, where isolated objects somehow bring out meanings which were always latent but not expressed in ‘reality’.

Nash trained as an illustrator, was at one time art critic for the Listener and became an avid photographer, as well as designing fabrics and china, so he had many strings to his bow. He was also involved in set design for contemporary theatre and some of the post-de Chirico works take his existing interest in the geometric aspect of landscape and add a new element, imposing frames within the frame to create angles and perspectives and plonking down abstract features in landscape as if they’re stage sets incongruously abandoned in a field or wood.

Unit One

In 1933 he joined forces with a host of other modern British artists to create ‘Unit One’, a movement he helped publicise. They held an exhibition which went on tour round the country in 1934 and 35. The exhibition devotes a room to Unit One and it is very useful to see works by other artists alongside Nash, very illuminating, clarifying what visual elements he shared with his contemporaries and what made him different. Works on display include:

I realised what all his peers have in common is that their works are very finished, with sharp lines, smooth paint surfaces or – in sculpture – the smoothly modelled shapes of Moore and Hepworth. By contrast, most of the half dozen or so works in this room by Nash seemed rough and scrappy, on canvas where you can often see the fabric of the canvas showing through the oil, where colours deliberately don’t go up to the edge of others colours, leaving canvas showing through, and where the oil is applied with thick strokes which are visible from even a few yards away. This scrappiness and lack of finish is really obvious in a work like Pillar and moon (1932) but it’s present in all his work, something photographic reproductions smooth out but which seeing them in real life makes really apparent.

This patchiness extends to entire compositions, which are clearly not interested in either crispness of outline or really pure, mathematical geometry. Although they make an impact, I don’t really like them, they make me feel uneasy.

Although they’re obviously landscapes and presumably come out of Nash’s lifelong numinous sense of place and nature, they actually remind me of early Francis Bacon in the sense of lumpish unhappiness they convey.

Alongside these blotchy works, Nash had another style which was much more precise and seems to stem from his training in graphic illustration. From his flat in St Pancras he looked out onto an advertising hoarding kept in place by multiple struts. Combine this with the strong de Chirico influence and you get images which are interested in line and intersection (like the window frames used in ‘Month of March’):

The background is pure de Chirico, no?

Swanage

In 1934 Nash moved to Swanage in Dorset. His wife gave him a camera. And he met the artist Eileen Agar. The result was an explosion of activity recorded in a fascinating room containing scores of works by both artists. As surrealism took hold of his imagination he became fascinated by the juxtaposition of objects found along the seashore and then, by extension, anywhere.

As the audio-commentary points out, the sea, in itself, is a surrealist work – an improbable realisation of our weirdest dreams, and the evocative driftwood, stones, fossils and human detritus it washes up are ready-made objects which only need to be placed on pedestals to become works of art.

He and Agar photographed incongruous objects placed together, experimented with photo-collage, made reliefs and sculptures and assemblages – boxes containing mixed media, seashells, driftwood, stones, eggs, fabric. In fact, as with the Unit One room, I was more taken by the non-Nash – in this case Agar’s – work than by Nash’s. For me her stuff has a crispness and sharpness which contrasts with his vaguer, unfinished feel.

Eileen Agar in Swanage

It amused me that, like so many women artists, Agar was interested in depicting her own naked body. But – like so many woman artists – only when she was young and nubile.

Nash got some of Agar’s pieces into the landmark 1936 exhibition of Surrealist art in London, making her the only woman artist represented.

Nash in Swanage

One of the many display cases has a magazine open at an article by Nash entitled ‘Swanage or Seaside Surrealism’. This title somehow captures the slightly amateurish modernism of these suburban surrealists, a slightly shamefaced English provincialism which has more in common with Philip Larkin’s down-at-heel Hull than Louis Aragon’s glamorous Paris.

The surreal landscape

The Swanage experiments helped crystallise the Surrealist message that one or two carefully placed objects somehow bring out features of a landscape, which are otherwise left implicit and unobserved.

As usual I felt there was a big difference between the deliberately unfinished feel of most of these works and his other style, which is much more rectilinear and complete and – to me, as a fan of clean lines and sharp draughtsmanship – more immediately enjoyable. Such as:

Equivalents for the Megaliths by Paul Nash (1935) © Tate

Equivalents for the Megaliths by Paul Nash (1935) © Tate

The Surrealist exhibition 1936

Nash was one of the curators of the 1936 Surrealist Exhibition in London, which caused a sensation and aligned him in the public mind with the movement. All his influences came together in a series of works in which mysterious objects, sometimes with stage set framings, appear in otherwise placid landscapes. What do they mean? The most famous is Landscape from a dream.

Landscape from a Dream by Paul Nash (1936-8) © Tate

Landscape from a Dream by Paul Nash (1936-8) © Tate

The Second World War

And then – war again. Nash was invited to be a war artist. The Ministry wanted him to depict our heroic pilots in their gleaming Spitfires – but Nash found himself attracted to the wrecks of airplanes – German fighters and bombers, so cruelly yanked out of their element, their mangled metal wreckage looking like so many of the found objects he had been studying and creating over the previous decade.

The war was Surrealism come true. Many of the works here are watercolours again, showing the same lightness as the early Wittenham Clumps watercolour back in 1912.

Near his home in Oxford was a vast dump of wrecked German planes, the Cowley Dump. The exhibition features many b&w photos Nash took of the wrecked masters of the sky, and includes b&w film footage of our hero looking out over the vista of twisted metal. The result was what is often regarded as one of his masterpieces, Totes Meer (German for ‘dead sea’).

By this stage, after looking closely at 50 or 60 paintings by Nash I had developed a feel for what I liked and what I didn’t, and to my surprise I’d come to dislike paintings like this and prefer the more geometric works. Thus I find the arrangement of elements in the equally famous Battle of Britain (not included in the exhibition, for some reason) much more pleasing.

Last works

Nash only lived a year after the war, dying in 1946 at the early age of 56 from the complications of the asthma which had dogged him with ill health for much of his life. In these final years he returned to landscapes but now pregnant with obscure symbolism. The final room includes several of the series of works he painted which feature enormous sunflowers – a symbol of life when in its prime or, when dead and dessicated, of mortality.

Artists’ last works often reveal new knowledge; they have achieved everything and feel liberated to say what they want. According to the audio-commentary, the Queen Mother liked Landscape of the vernal equinox enough to buy it. She is quoted as saying you can almost imagine an animal or spirit emerging from the woods.

Thoughts:

1. Right to the end he keeps the scrappiness I noticed in room 2 or 3, in fact it is exaggerated, with white gaps between areas of paint forming holes in thickly covered paint through which something – what? – might emerge…

2. No people: early on he realised people weren’t his thing and so hardly any of his paintings, after a few war ones, feature them – the humans are implied by the objects, in the collocations of objects and landscapes from the 1930s, in increasingly subtle, complex and mystifying ways.

3. Pink-peach-apricot: a lot of these last works feature variations on apricot or peach colours, applied to skies, sometimes to other objects, even to shadows. As I strolled back through the show I realised this unreal peach-apricot crops up throughout the work from the beginning – for example, it’s there (improbably enough) in the wartime setting of Spring in the trenches, or in the 1930s surrealism of Landscape from a dream. 

In some way I can’t quite define I think that if you like Landscape of the vernal equinox, its patchy design, blotchy paintwork and apricot coloration – I think you will have penetrated Paul Nash’s mystery.

In these last works I can sort of see it, but I don’t quite get it. Why did he paint giant magnolias in the sky in his final paintings? I think it takes time to feel your way into Nash’s world, and this big thorough exhibition is an excellent place to begin…


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Paul Klee by Susanna Partsch (1993)

Taschen produce large format art books with high quality colour reproductions. The text is often foreign – I think this one was translated, not always fluently, from German. Who cares. It gives a good brief overview of Klee’s career with lots of full-page colour illustrations.

Early life

Born into a musical family, Klee was a prodigy on the violin who eventually plumped for the visual arts but, in his earlier career, made more from performing in concerts than by selling paintings. (Interestingly he was a conservative in his musical taste, devoted to Bach and Mozart, with no time for Schoenberg and his circle, which is odd considering he became good friends with Kandinsky who knew and had an important correspondence with Schoenberg.)

Paul Klee, photographed in 1911 by Alexander Eliasberg (Wikimedia Commons)

Paul Klee, photographed in 1911 by Alexander Eliasberg (Wikimedia Commons)

Die Blaue Reite

Having developed a distinctive early style which combined detailed draughtsmanship of often grotesque and fantastical creatures, Klee was experimenting with a more abstract approach to design and layout of paintings when he was invited to join the Blaue Reite group – including Russians like Wassily Kandinsky and Germans like August Macke and Franz Marc – in 1911. In 1912 he exhibited with them. In those brief years before the War all sorts of influences were exploding across the European art world: in Paris they saw Robert Delaunay experimenting with colour, Picasso and Braque’s cubism ripping up perspective, along with the other post-Impressionist experimenters about to be dubbed the Fauves.

Die Blaue Reite group were interested in the liberation of colour (many of the group produced detailed writings investigating the psychological and aesthetic impact of colours and colour arrangements) and in freedom of inspiration (in art produced by children, primitives, the mentally ill) both of which left traditional Renaissance ideas of figurative representation in a fully-worked out perspective far, far behind.

Epiphany in Tunisia

Klee and Macke along with fellow painter Louis Moilliet visited Tunisia in June 1914 and forever afterwards Klee mythologised this trip as the moment when pure colour took control of his soul, when he realised the power of colour alone in painting.

‘Color possesses me. I don’t have to pursue it. It will possess me always, I know it. That is the meaning of this happy hour: Color and I are one. I am a painter.’

Tunisia, 1914

Tunisia, 1914

The ‘reality’ of the scene is metamorphosing into a matrix of colour possibilities, squares and square-ish blocks of colour, whose sharpish juxtaposition creates a ‘feel’, an affect. In the next few years Klee quickly grasped the opportunities presented by this ‘Move to Abstraction’; henceforth colour and line are to be deployed for their psychological affects, not for any relation they have to an external ‘reality’:

‘Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.’

Colour, tone, shapes, squares, triangles, lines, columns, circles, cones – all will be deployed as experiments, to see what affects they produce on the viewer. From this date stems Klee’s lifelong interest in analysing all the various components which go toward a painting – line, colour, shape, form and so on.  He constantly tried this, that or the other in order to hone his judgment on how to deploy them.

The book very usefully includes paintings by his colleagues on the trip, Macke and Moilliet, allowing us to see how very similar their thinking about colour and design were during this intense period of debate and experiment.

The Great War

The Blaue Reite published one almanac – containing reproductions of art works and key essays on form and colour and spirit – and organised two exhibitions, before the Great War broke out and was a catastrophe for them. Kandinsky was forced to go home to Russia and Macke and Marc were drafted into the German Army, Macke killed in September 1914, Marc at Verdun in 1916. Klee managed to sit out the war in a series of administrative jobs well away from the Front.

Experimentation

Klee had a lifelong dedication to experimenting with technique. According to Wikipedia Klee “worked in many different media – oil paint, watercolor, ink, pastel, etching, and others. He often combined them into one work. He used canvas, burlap, muslin, linen, gauze, cardboard, metal foils, fabric, wallpaper, and newsprint. Klee employed spray paint, knife application, stamping, glazing, and impasto, and mixed media such as oil with watercolor, water color with pen and India ink, and oil with tempera.”

An early example is the technique of ‘oil transfer’ which he developed, which produced a highly characteristic fragmenting the lines of his fantastic doodles, giving them an eerie remoteness, as if degraded images recovered from a remote past or intermittent signals from a distant universe.

They're biting by Paul Klee

They’re biting by Paul Klee (1920)

The German army and navy mutinied at the end of the 1918, the government collapsed and the Kaiser abdicated. In 1919 a Bolshevik republic was declared in Bavaria and Klee volunteered to be art delegate (rather like Daumier volunteering to serve on the Paris Commune, 1871) but it was quickly repressed by the Army and some 500 comunists were gaoled or executed, Klee escaped.

Breakthrough exhibition

The following year, 1920, came Klee’s breakthrough exhibition, in which he exhibited 362 pieces in a wide range of media including oil paint, oil on glass, prints, drawings, plaster casts, sculptures. It made his reputation and the next 20 years he was acknowledged as a major European painter and pioneer.

Of the exhibition and the power of his fantastical draughtsmanship, his colleague Oskar Schlemmer commented: ‘In a minimum of line he can reveal of his wisdom, this is how Buddha draws’.

The Bauhaus

In 1921 Klee was invited to join the Bauhaus where he was to become one of the most respected teachers, teaching a wide range of course, for the next 10 years. His technical experiments continued apace as did his writings leading up to publication of the Pedagogical Notebook in 1925 with its famous opening about taking a line for a walk. Throughout his life he experimented and recorded his technical experiments so that, at his death, he left some 3,000 manuscript pages on art theory.

Fish Magic, 1925

Fish Magic, 1925

Magic squares

Another exhibition of 1923 showed a series which became known as Klee’s ‘magic squares’, for example Architecture, an uncharacteristic palette of purple and yellow, its juxtaposition of rectangles of vivid colours cemented a certain classical ‘look’ of Klee’s. The squares which represent areas of light and shadow, colour and white light in the Tunisia paintings, have now become almost abstract arrangements of colour and tone.

Static-Dynamic Intensification, 1923 Watercolour and transferred printing ink on laid paper with gray and green gouache and black ink mounted on light cardboard 381 x 261 mm Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Static-Dynamic Intensification, 1923 Watercolour and transferred printing ink on laid paper with gray and green gouache and black ink mounted on light cardboard 381 x 261 mm Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

But Klee never quite becomes completely abstract. In even the most pure paintings you can, maybe, just about, make out reference to an origin in organic shapes or landscapes. And in most of them there is some kind of reference to observed reality. And others of them happily incorporate human or animal shapes.

Combining the use of squares with his lifelong ability to produce fantastical versions of the human figure, Battlescene from the Seafarer is a lovely hymn to the quirkiness and humour and strangeness of the human imagination.

Battle scene from the comic fantastic opera 'The Seafarer'

Battle scene from the comic fantastic opera ‘The Seafarer’

Surrealist?

In the mid-20s the French intellectual world discovered Klee especially the Surrealists and, like Picasso and de Chirico, he was adopted as a precursor. The Surrealists associated his dreamlike forms with their own attempts to capture the unconscious via automatic writing or painting. Klee didn’t mind but he never became a party member of the Surrealists.

Portrait of an Equilibrist again shows Klee’s cartoonish imagination, his sense of humour, along with his feel for the arrangement of colour and line. It can be read both as a rudimentary cartoon face, and as an actual stick figure holding a balancing pole weighted with two round red weights. At the bottom left is the ladder the equilibrist used to climb up onto his high wire. Possibly.

Portrait of an Equilibrist

Portrait of an Equilibrist

When the Bauhaus moved to the industrial city of Dessau, Klee and his wife moved into the hypermodern Master’s House designed by Walter Gropius. His studio was described as being like a magician’s lair where multiple canvases were on numerous easels at any one time, and the master magician quietly contemplated them, occasionally stepping forward to paint a detail or finetune the patterns.

From the 1920s come hundreds of images using the oil transfer technique such as Comedy which combines characteristic humorous cartoon-like figures, the oil transfer technique which gives them such a wavering, hesitant finish, and a new technique he experimented with, ‘gradation’, dividing the space into bands and giving the first one layer of paint, the second two layers and so on, thus creating a stylised background, which achieves a sense of depth, but completely different from traditional notions of perspective.

Comedy 1921 Watercolour and oil on paper support: 305 x 454 mm on paper, unique Tate. Purchased 1946

Comedy 1921
Watercolour and oil on paper
support: 305 x 454 mm
on paper, unique
Tate. Purchased 1946

Pointillism

In the late 20s and early 30s he experimented with a form of abstract pointillism and with the shapes and shades he saw on a trip to Egypt. The pointillism is just about the only one of Klee’s styles I don’t like. they are too light without any of the quirky inventiveness of everything else he did.

Clarification, 1932

Clarification, 1932

The Nazis

By 1932 Klee found his teaching duties taking up nearly all his time and so he quit the Bauhaus and moved to a job as professor of Art at Düsseldorf. However, early the next year the Nazis came to power, immediately rounding up communists, socialists, liberals, artist and writers and beginning to persecute Jews. The Bauhaus was closed and Klee fled to Switzerland.

Degenerate Art

In 1937 the Nazis held an exhibition of Degenerate Art which featured 17 pieces by Klee. The Wikipedia article says it all.

Later, bigger

In 1935 his supporters organised a big exhibition at Bern, though Klee insisted it only feature work from the past 5 years, but it was to prove a turning point. In the same year he felt increasingly ill and was diagnosed with an incurable disease. For a few years his legendary productiveness dwindled to a handful of paintings. However, from 1937 he got a second wind and became more prolific than ever.

In this final phase, as his body failed him, Klee painted larger and larger abstracts, the scale becoming larger, the gestures bigger and clearer. The tiny etching-like detail of the 1920s seem a long way behind. For example, the wonderful Forest Witches.

Forest Witches, 1938

Forest Witches, 1938

Or Blue Night. Not only is this a new, more rough and striking type of design, but Klee continued his experiments with surfaces and media, this one painted on burlap or sacking, a rough grainy surface further textured with plaster. Quite apart from the image itself, all Klee’s work repays really close-up scrutiny to enjoy the highly textured surfaces of the pieces, which adds tremendously to their sense of urgency, modernity and wistful fragility.

Blue Night

Last show and death

In 1940 fans and curators organised a last exhibition in Zurich – Twilight Flowers was among his last works, and a has completely new feel. Who knows where these new impulses would have taken him, but Klee died in June 1940. One of his last paintings is the eerie and moving Outbreak of Fear III.

Outbreak of Fear III

Tribute

Klee invented a way to be hugely varied within a distinctive style. So many images, each so vivid and inventive and imaginative and stimulating. I much prefer his quiet, unshouty, consistently strange and quirky and funny and vibrant work to Picasso’s or Matisse’s. He lived though the worst years of the century producing countless works of wistful grace and haunting beauty.

Angelus Novus, 1920

Angelus Novus, 1920

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