Tag Archives: surrealism

Person of Interest – Desmond Morris

This is the first entry for a monthly series about artists, writers and thinkers who have had an impact on me at some time in my life.

The_Selfish_Gene3

This starts with the cover of Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene (1976) because of the cover the book stood out amongst the rest of the books on my father’s bookshelf. I was eleven years old; I liked the colours and the biomorphic creatures. The cover is a reproduction of a painting by Desmond Morris “The Expectant Valley”, 1972.

The painting is a of colourful biomorphic creatures on a strange verdant landscape. The largest of these creatures has a large red body and with a purple head of four soft antlers and a black curl; as a child I identified this as the central character of the narrative. It is like the paintings of Miro; Morris exhibited with Miro in 1950 at the London Gallery in an exhibition organized by the Belgian Surrealist Edouard Mesens.

Biomorphs were invented by Jean Arp in 1915 or 1916 and are influenced by the microscopic animal and plant world. William Rubins observed that biomorphs are “the nearest thing to a common form-language of the painter-poets of the Surrealist generations.” (Rubins, Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage, p.42)

I really liked the cover of The Selfish Gene and as a child expected that the book would contain a story about these biomorphic creatures on the cover. I was disappointed to find that there were no more images inside the book. In a way Morris’s biomorphic creatures are the perfect illustration for The Selfish Gene and Morris has painted a picture based on Dawkins’ book The Blind Watchmaker, 1986.

Richard Dawkins owns “The Expectant Valley” and another painting by Morris, “The Titillator”. David Attenborough also owns a couple of Morris’s paintings – none of Morris’s paintings are in public collections.

Surrealism was slow to catch on in Anglophone countries and the British Surrealists have largely been ignored in even histories of Surrealism. Desmond Morris was part of the Birmingham Surrealists along with Conroy Maddox, Oscar Mellor, Emmy Bridgwater, John Melville and William Gear. The interest in Surrealism by eminent British scientists (Morris, Dawkins and Attenborough) continues to renew my interest in the art and philosophy of Surrealism. Surrealism was profoundly influenced by the sciences (physics and biology) in more ways than any of the other modern art movements.

Desmond Morris never really decided between a career as an artist, as a scientist, a science writer or a television presenter. Morris even managed to combine his interests studying and exhibiting “picture-making behaviour of the great apes”. This diversity of activities makes Morris an interesting person – his new publication The Evolution of Art will include image-recognition technology that will allow readers to see animations and other extra content.

Morris’s painting “The Expectant Valley” was one my earliest taste of Surrealism; I will following up my interest in Surrealism in other posts about persons of interest. Following up on my interest in his painting I read Desmond Morris’s books, The Secret Surrealist (Phaidon, Oxford, 1987), The Naked Ape (1967) and Peoplewatching (1978) and this is why I am recommending Desmond Morris as a person of interest.


Anti-Catholicism & Surrealism

He who sleeps with the pope requires long feet.

If you see a priest being beaten, make a wish.

For good luck, nail up consecrated hosts in the bathroom.

- Benjamin Péret

Surrealist’s anti-Catholicism needs to be re-examined in the light of the increasing evidence of the extent of paedophile Catholic priests. In the past the anti-Catholic aspects of Surrealism were regarded simply as a provocations designed to annoy the establishment but what if they were expressions of serious revenge fantasies?

The Surrealist most noted for expressing his dislike for Catholics is Benjamin Péret (4 July 1899 – 18 September 1959). There is the famous photograph of Péret insulting a priest in the street. Although most of the Surrealists were raised as Catholics this left them with a low opinion of it. Benjamin Péret received little education due to his dislike of school. Did he dislike school because he was he abused in school?

Marquis da Sade was a favourite of the Surrealists and De Sade’s stories are full of Catholic clergy engaged in sexual abuse. He was educated by his uncle, Abbé de Sade and later at a Jesuit lycee. Was the Marquis de Sade sexually abused as a boy?

There are so many examples of anti-Catholicism amongst the Surrealists that this can only be a small sample. Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali were anti-Catholicism and both were raised as Catholic in Spain. As a youth, Buñuel was deeply religious, serving at as an altar boy, but at age 16 he grew disgusted with the Church. There are many reasons why a 16 year old would become disgusted with illogical religious dogma but the prevalence of sexual abuse by the Catholic clergy can no longer be ignored as a reason for anti-Catholicism amongst the Surrealists.

The denial and cover up of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church makes it is difficult to properly assess the significance of the Surrealists. It is further complicated by the religious and political judgements interfering (subverting and misleading) with the aesthetic and historic assessments of Surrealism.

Take a very small example of the Viennese Fantastic Realists distancing themselves from Surrealism. Two of the Viennese Fantastic Realists Rudolf Hausner and Ernst Fuchs both moved to Paris in the late 1940s and had contacts with the French Surrealists. Michael Messner writes about Hausner’s “problems subjugating himself to the strict dogma of the unreflected, sub-conscious act of painting as espoused and propagated in the form of manifestos by Breton.” (Michael Messner, Visionary Art, v3 p.28) However, by the late 1940s the dominance of automatist Surrealism was long over. Breton had only just returned from America in 1946 and by 1951 the ‘Carrouges Affair’ had further isolates Breton. Blaming Andre Breton, the Pope of Surrealism is a popular excuse but his influence at the time was limited to Paris and there are likely to have been other reasons. The obvious but un-stated reason is that Ernst Fuchs, a Catholic convert, must have had problems with the Surrealist’s anti-Catholicism.

Earlier this year I attended a free mini-conference at Melbourne University: “Dispersed Identities – sexuality, surreal and the global avant-gardes.” Juan Davila’s gave the opening address of the conference with a talk and slideshow. David Lomas looked at the Linaean botonical introduction of the word “sexuality” and how this related to Duchamp’s “The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even” and Max Ernst’s floral paintings. Michael Richardson carefully dissected Breton’s attitude to homosexuality and his alleged homophobia. Janine Burke looked at the influence of Surrealism on two female artists and Natalya Lusty spoke about Surrealist masculinity. Sexual abuse and Surrealist anti-Catholicism were not mentioned in any of the papers given at the conference – there is room for much more research than I can do in this post on the subject.


The End, this art style is over

When ever hear someone say something like: “street art is over” I think about the end of Surrealism, if Surrealism really is over. I am sceptical of claims that a particular art movement is over, especially when artists make the claim as they have a clear financial motivation for an end limiting the supply of authentic x art. I’ve heard that graffiti art was over before, back in the 1990s after the death of Keith Haring and Michael Basquiat.

In Cold War both sides took critical shots at the Surrealists. Surrealism was dismissed as a spent force or even a curious sideline to the mainstream of art history. The historic end of Surrealism is important to a number of concerned parties, including the Surrealists, the Soviets, the Americans and a few European countries. Both the Soviets and the Americans wanted Surrealism out of the way at the end of World War II in order to further their own art histories. Maurice Nadeau claimed in his 1945 Histoire du surrealisme that Surrealism ended with WWII. And Surrealism was the obvious hole in Clement Greenberg’s attempt to rewrite a progressive modern art history for Cold War propaganda purposes.

The Surrealists themselves, along with a few countries, like Belgium and Czechoslovakia, want a continuing history of Surrealism to establish the pedigree of contemporary Surrealist artists. “Surrealism in Belgium” was at an exhibition tracing Belgium Surrealism from 1924-2000.  Also advancing the history of Surrealism is Alyce Mahon, Surrealism and the Politics of Eros 1938-1968, (Thames & Hudson, 2005). Mahon argues that the Surrealists, especially in post-WWII, used the unconscious to focus on an exploration of Eros. As a history of the little discussed post-war French surrealist movement Mahon’s book is a fascinating read and clarifies the confused time line of French Surrealism. Mahon points out that as a result of the post-colonialism advocated by Surrealism meant that many of the following generation of Surrealist artists were not from Europe and their activities have been largely ignored in US/European art history.

Further confusing the history of Surrealism are the schism and scissions of the Surrealist movement itself. These are movements as diverse as the Viennese School of Fantastic Realism and CoBrA. And the Paris Surrealists under Andre Breton expelled many of its own members, most notably Salvador Dali. The internal politics of such art movements are often of little concern to many editors and curators although the participating artists vigorously defend the differences. For example, Wolfgang Hutter and Rudolf Hausner from the Viennese School of Fantastic Realism are both included in Alfred Schmeller Surrealism (Methuen, 1956) although neither considered themselves surrealists.

It would be better to say that a particular phase of an art movement is over, “the heroic phase of x is over”. Even better to use more specific terms like “old school x is over.” And it is worth waiting for a couple of generations and getting a complete autopsy report before believing a claim that a style is over. Until then I’ll remain sceptical.


Meet the Forsters

At Anita Traverso Gallery there were two solo sculpture exhibitions by husband and wife, Hendrik and Kerryn Forster. In Gallery 1 there was Kerryn Forster’s “Found + Fabricated II” and, in Gallery 2, there was Hendrik Forster’s “Domus”. The game of identifying the artist’s gender from their art is too easy with these two sculptors.

Kerryn Forster’s sculptures have a lyrical surrealism and the objects and the found wooded branches used in them have been delicately treated. In “The Offer” a delicately carved arm and hand reach out from the end of a poplar tree branch.  There are lots of trees in the sculptures of Kerryn Forster; there is a tree house, trees with birds with rusted washers for heads. There are contrasting textures and emotions in her sculpture, the smooth waxed wood and the rough found objects, hope and sorrow. Her work is informed by Surrealist sculpture, like Giacometti, Miro and Ernst, but also other sculptures, like an early Christo piece of a stack of 44-gallon drums.

Kerryn Forster’s use of rusted metal objects for bases for her sculpture is the only obvious similarity with her husband’s sculptures which also shows a love of rust. It is less obvious that both of them are jewellers; Hendrik Forster is notably for his design of the Helpmann Trophy for live performance in Australia.

Hendrik Forster’s iron sculptures have a beautiful patina. The oxidizing agent has been splashed on creating various effects, dappled, running down from the roofs in streaks, dripping on the walls. The series of twelve sculptures are formal exploration of architectural forms of the domus (or “house” for you plebeians who don’t savvy Latin). Actually not all the sculptures are of houses there are also churches and factories with sawtooth roofs. The architectural forms have been simplified, there are no doors, windows or other details – these are not models of buildings but sculptures about the space that buildings occupy. Only on the roof of “Himmel Street Houses” there is the repeated pattern of bombers, a reference to Markus Zusak’s novel The Book Thief (Picador, 2008).

The Forsters live in East Gippsland and were, coincidentally, visiting the gallery at the same time that I was there. They were checking on the exhibition at the halfway point and I got a chance to speak with Hendrik Forster about his wife’s sculpture. He told me about searching through rural junk shops for the found materials and the aura of reused materials.


Platform – September 10

“The Resistance of Memory” by Paul J. Kalemba is a surreal underground garden is installed in the last vitrine at Platform (in the Degraves St. underpass at Flinders St. Station). Fruits preserved in jars holding the preserved memory of the last harvest. The peaches, pears and plums glow in the half buried wooden cabinet as moss and herbs, mostly thyme, grow around it. The wine bottle and glass are empty – the party has been over for some time. But how long? The broken clock, full of more thyme is dripping destroying part of the wooden base of the cabinet as the real and unreal merge. Kalemba has created a fantastic surreal garden capable that feeds the imagination images and ideas that confound each other. The title refers to Rene Magritte’s surrealist painting “The Persistence of Memory”.

Paul J. Kalemba describes himself as “an urban edible®evolutionary” and has exhibited in Platform’s “Underground Garden” before but this is his best garden yet.

In Platform’s main series of glass cabinets there are Kieran Stewart & Stone Lee. On one side there are Stone Lee papier-mâché versions of Australian animals. On the other side is Kieran Stewart exhibition of series of small sculptures made from wood, steel, glass and black powder. The wood and steel forms hold glass containers of black powder in a range of formal variations. These engaging sculptures reminded me of the functional elegance of machines used to demonstrate physics principles.

In the large “Vitrine” space there “Voyeurism” by Bernadette Burke combining figure painting and video with videos for faces. The combined images are very effective but I don’t think that they say anything about voyeurism as the figures all look as if they intend to be seen.

In “Sample” there is an exhibition by Merryn Lloyd, curated by Patrice Sharkey as part of Platform’s Emerging Curator mentorship program, which really needed more substance and interest.

In the cabinets at Majorca Building (out of the underpass, up Degraves St, across Flinders Lane and in Centre Place, with “Bellevue Jewellery” in gold letters above them) are two photographs by David Mutch – “The Tourists”. Previously exhibited at Seventh Gallery earlier this year, these two archival inkjet prints show a figure in bare, desolate landscapes; one landscape looks urban, the looks rural both were photographed on the banks of the Yarra River.


Exhibitions – September & October

I have managed to see a few exhibitions on Flinders Lane (Arc One and forty-five downstairs) in the city and Albert St. in East Richmond (Karen Woodbury Gallery, John Buckley Gallery and Shifted) in between the many meetings, emails, phone calls and wrangling with the Melbourne Stencil Festival website.

David Ralph exhibition ‘Extension’ at Arc One’s small “and” gallery space is just a couple of small paintings but Ralph’s paintings are always worth seeing. David Ralph’s painting is a marvel of contemporary techniques, drips and scraps and squeegeed of paint scatter the canvas. The images appear to be cut into the surface of the paint. The eccentric temporary imaginary architecture, tree houses with a space shuttle built on the back, the caravan for which Ralph is becoming known. The scenes are like something from Wm Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. “…houses in trees and river boats, wood houses one hundred foot long sheltering entire tribes, house of boxes and corrugated iron where old men sit in rotten rags cooking down canned heat, great rusty iron racks rising two hundred feet into the air from swamps and rubbish with perilous partitions built on multi-levelled platforms, and hammocks swinging over the void.” (p.90) Ralph could have found his palette of iridescent and nitrous colours on the pages of the Naked Lunch too.

“Tiny Tunes for Wee Australians” is an exhibition of small works on paper by Mexican artist Roberto Márquez at forty-five downstairs in Flinders Lane. Roberto Márquez has created an exhibition of Mexican surreal comments on Australia in mixed media collages with added illustrations. His tiny paintings of skeletons on pressed tree leaves are very Mexican.

Megan Evans “The Fall” in the side gallery at forty-five downstairs was using more dried leaves arranging them in post-minimalist ways in wall pieces, a framed arrangement and in a DVD.

The AK44, the Blackwater AR15, the Saber Defense Elite 5.56 and the Patriot P414 (US$1,125 RRP) sounds like the catalogue of a gun show rather than a description of an art exhibition. eX de Medici exhibition, “sweet complicity” at Karen Woodbury Gallery features delicately drawn images of all of these weapons. The pictures are drawn in a mixture of ink and mica that creates a thick and glittery line. The machineguns are set amidst neo-Rocco tattoo influenced background and wrapped in garlands. The background luxuriates in an excess of detail, dragons and waves or swallows and stars, completely fill the large sheets of paper. eX de Medici is a tattoo and fine artist which explains the tattoo motifs and the ironic machismo of titles, including “American Sex/Funky Beat Machine”.

Janenne Eaton’s “Bella Vista” is a fun exhibition at John Buckley Gallery. Janenne Eaton is Head of Painting at the Victorian College of the Arts. I thought that I was going to get away from the Melbourne Stencil Festival but there was more stencil and enamel aerosol paint in this exhibition. In “Only sleep cures fatigue” (2009) Easton uses a real bamboo blind as a stencil for the image of a window blind. Eaton also uses vinyl and decal bullet hole decals, LED lights and even rhinestones in her paintings contributing to their fun.

Shifted had two exhibitions Paul Batt’s “Mountain Portrait Series” and Andrew Gutteridge’s “A Linear Collection”. Batt’s “Mountain Portrait Series” is a series of photographs of the back of different peoples heads as they looked out over a view. It is a study in looking at someone looking at a landscape. Andrew Gutteridge’s “A Linear Collection” is a scatter of minimalist sculptures and or paintings. And it was hard to tell the Gutteridge’s sculptures from his paintings, a canvas with a twisted corner or another with diagonal cut into the surface. Lots of vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines that Gutteridge has collected together and played with. Much of this play is about perspective and the illusion of three dimensions on a two dimensional plane.


Surreal Bondage

“The fact is that it is in eroticism – and doubtless in eroticism alone – that the organic bond, increasingly lacking in art today, has to be established between showman and spectator by means of perturbation.” A. Breton, 1959

“Neuropsychosis’, an exhibition of oil paintings by artist and illustrator Karl Persson at 696, explores eroticism with dark visions of S&M, bondage and mutilation, along with a couple of truly surreal visions. In his ‘Shiny Chicken’ a raw chicken is morphed into a toothy grinning fleshy orifice is a surreal study of castration anxiety. Another of Persson’s erotic surreal images is that erect penis nipples enjoying sadistic polymorphic arousal.

The surreal eye of the Marquis de Sade shapes Persson’s goth imagination. It brooks no idealism; it is a materialistic world where happiness lies in the imagination.

Persson’s images are disturbing in that they are private, there is only one implied spectator viewing the subject, the other isolated body. The bound figures twist in the baroque empty darkness. These are alienated lonely isolated visions where all interactions are bound in an S&M relationship. Persson’s self portrait shows the artist struggling to remove the mask of his image from himself.

The many threads depicted in Persson’s paintings are a figurative painter’s bondage theme. The thread is tied tight to the victim just as the painter is tied to the lines being painted. Concentration focused on a single line that separates one area from another and bound to painting it over and over again until the fully realized image appears. For there is bondage and masochism in creating such beautiful, meticulous and technically excellent works in oils on canvas.

696 back gallery room has been transformed for this exhibition. A Turkish carpet lies on the floor. The paintings are hung in dark old rococo style frames on a grey band of paint on the gallery wall. The grey walls bring out the colors in the paintings and the usual sterile white gallery walls would be totally inappropriate for Persson’s style.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,032 other followers

%d bloggers like this: