Tag Archives: Surrealists

Person of Interest – Salvador Dali

When I was a student at Bendigo High School I found a copy of The Secret Life of Salvador Dali (1942) in the library. Reading it made my life in Bendigo bearable for two more years. I was aware of Dali’s paintings from earlier art classes, when we had briefly looked at Surrealism, but the reading his book was a great experience at that time in my life. “’Do not commit suicide, for surrealism has been born’, might well be the phrase cried in the night to a desperate civilisation.” This quote from James Gleeson explains my situation in Bendigo as alienated 16 year old yearning to escape from the small rural city. As a solution to adolescent angst Salvador Dali was better than Bowie.

Dali in aerosol in the Collingwood Underground

Dali in aerosol in the Collingwood Underground

Dali’s creation of a surreal self was one of the archetypal images of the 20th Century. Subsequent pop stars, like Bowie, would follow the process of egotistical autobiographical creation, the cultivated image and eccentricities that was Dali. However, Dali is a complex character not just a superficial attention-seeking artist; I understood this when I read his essay on art nouveau, it was the most intelligent and concise analysis of the style I had read. His interest and understanding of both science and mythology are far from superficial.

Dali’s technical mastery of painting and drawing is amazing and is this technique that accounts for much of Dali’s mass popularity. Later I read his book 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship (Dial Press, 1948) it was useful to me as a painter but like a book of arcane knowledge you have to be wise enough to see the nonsense scattered amongst true information. But there is more to Dali than artistic technique; he co-wrote with Luis Buñuel, the landmark Surrealist film Un Chien Andalou.

Travelling in Spain I took the opportunity to see Dali’s hometown of Figeros and the museum that he created in his last years. From my travel journal: “ 27/4/2000 I don’t believe it but I made the 7:50am Figeros express and I’m on my to Dali territory. It just shows how easy it is to get around in Barcelona. The weather is a bit overcast and clouds shroud the mountains. I’m still having very strange dreams and waking up a couple of times a night…jetlag? … I was very glad that I visited the Barcelona Museum of Modern Art to understand Dali’s early influences and references… Museum Dali-Gala is full of moving sculptures, coin operated moving sculptures and optical viewers (25 pestas), peepholes and cues of people waiting for a particular view… Fortunately there is a garden to relax in because the crowds are worse than the Uffizi or the Vatican Museum.” It was the most fun museums that I ever visited, if Dali knew how many visitors would come he would have installed a fair-ground cars like a ghost-train.

I really think that Dali believed that art was equal to spiritual salvation. As Gainsborough said on his death bed: “We are all going to heaven and Vandyke is of the company.” Painted on the ceiling (1100 x 575cm) of one of the rooms the Museum Dali-Gala is a vision of the apotheosis of Gala and Dali, the huge feet on their foreshortened bodies is most of what that we mortals can see as they ascend to a Dali heaven. The painting might appear egotistical, grotesque and even kitsch but what of its message: if prodigious artistic talent doesn’t make you immortal then what does?

Over my life I have sometimes tired of all images of Dali that are commonly repeated, the commercial industry built around his art, sometimes he has been too much, but there are so many aspects of Dali that I keep on returning to him as a person of interest.

This is part of a monthly series about artists, writers and thinkers who have had an impact on me at some time in my life and have continued to have an impact.


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.


Gustave Moreau Museum

Every time I have visited Paris (all 3 times in my entire life) I have visited this small museum, a favourite of the French Surrealists, the home and studio of Gustave Moreau. Visiting the museum is a great experience and an education for any painter. The Surrealists were the first to recommend the museum but their advice wasn’t popular. When I first visited in the winter of 1984, there were prostitutes working the street and I was the only visitor at the museum. But now the area is more sedate and the museum is even crowded with groups of art students.

Moreau’s symbolist paintings may be less out of fashion now but his fantastic visions of Biblical and classical scenes are still strange. His paintings are bejewelled, ornate, detailed and full of strange symbolist psychological overtones. For this reason his paintings are sometimes included in books of fantastic art but Moreau is a conventional late 19th century painter, a professor at the Paris’ École des Beaux Arts, who lived a comfortable bourgeois life.

In his formal parlour, located underneath the two floors of studio. There is his own art collection, works by Tournour, Burne-Jones, Berchere, along with a portrait of Moreau by Degas. There is also his collection of butterflies, tiger cowrie shells, stuffed birds, a few books, medals and his personal effects. The clutter and extravagance of late 19th Century taste. You can even use his neo-classical toilet with pull-chain to flush; the original ceramic bowl and hand basin are still functional. It is a unique toilet experience.

Toilet at Gustave Moreau Museum

Handbasin at the Gustave Moreau Museum

The studio is hung salon style full of finished and unfinished paintings. It shows every stage of the development of his paintings. You can follow the development of paintings from plaster casts and preparatory drawings, through the rough studies, clay or wax models to sketch figures from, half finished and on to the finished full sized paintings of the same composition. I am particularly interested in his underpaintings that are often wildly different in technique from the carefully finished work.

unfinished painting by Gustave Moreau

To visit the studio is an education in 19th century painting techniques. His importance as a teacher continues after his death in this museum; during his lifetime he taught at the École des Beaux-Arts.

In many it is clear that Moreau starts his paintings on canvas onto which he draw the outline in charcoal or pencil. He then adds the basic colours of the underpainting in a bold manner, although light areas remain untouched to allow the white gesso to reflect light back through the semi-transparent oils. After this he adds his black line drawing, or a white line if the background is very dark, fills in colours and glazes, working from the background to the foreground. However his technique varies between detailed classical colouring in of ink underpainting to loose impressionist brush and palette knife work. In these variety of techniques there are the beginnings of all kinds of modern figurative techniques. It is worth considering that his most famous students were Henri Matisse and Georges Rouault.

There is so much to see in this small museum that it would take days to see all the drawings, to take in the meaning of huge clutter of objects, to absorb the painting techniques. It is part of rare type of art gallery that is the work of one person: in London the equivalent is the Sir John Soane’s Museum (amazing architectural ideas), in Milan the Fondazione Artistica Poldi-Pezzoli (with collections of art, lace, watches and more) and in Dijon the Musée Magnin (home of a family of art collectors). These former residences show art in a more intimate manner, surrounded by period furniture and other collections. They show a particular tastes and interests and not the work of curatorial committees. They may not contain the most famous works of art in Europe but they are amongst my favourite museums.


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