Double Take

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Anna Di Mezza-Birth of Currency
The intriguing work of Australian artist Anna Di Mezza achieves a synthesis of disparate styles and techniques that requires a double take from the viewer. Collages of found images from vintage magazines are taken out of their original context and then rendered in a meretricious photo-realist manner using a largely mono-chromatic colour palette, with, as Anna notes ‘occasional pops of colour.’

Di Mezza stages strange tableau of suspended narratives. Gigantic women recline or roam across mountain ranges; people emerge from bar-codes; sets of well coiffured ladies gather around mysterious crystals or point excitedly to a lone astronaut while on the moon. Di Mezza’s paintings suggest stories that fascinate while ultimately eluding explanation.

Di Mezza cites influences as diverse as the Surrealists, especially Magritte and De Chirico, Pop Art, filmmakers David Lynch, Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick and the classic fifties TV series The Twilight Zone. While her art clearly references her influences Di Mezza skilfully creates her own unique otherworldly vision.

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Anna Di Mezza-Memory’s Persistence
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Anna Di Mezza-Matter of Time
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Anna Di Mezza-The Three Graces
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Anna Di Mezza-The Visit
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Anna Di Mezza-Lucy
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Anna Di Mezza-Memory Portal
 

 

 

 

Welcome To The Jungle

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The Jungle-Wifredo Lam 1943
The masterpiece of the exceptional Surrealist Wifredo Lam, The Jungle from 1943, presents in its densely populated canvas a nightmarish, claustrophobic  vision of riotous growth and rapid decay. Blending the human, animal and vegetation within his totemic masked figures with their proliferation of limbs and orbed protuberances, The Jungle exudes a sinister atmosphere of ritualised aggression and menace.

Lam was born in Cuba of mixed Chinese and African descent. His godmother was a famed Santeria practitioner and both his Afro-Cuban  heritage and the orisha (the spirit deities of Santeria, the Cuban equivalent of Vodou) would play an integral part in his mature work. His association with Andre Breton would led to Lam illustrating Breton’s collection of poems, Fata Morgana and Lam was one of the artists and intellectuals that would contribute to the Surrealists re-design of the card deck (see Le Jeu Du Marseille-A Surrealist Pack of Cards) while holed up in a Marseilles mansion while awaiting to escape Europe after the Nazi invasion of France. Lam would also accompany Breton and his wife Elise on his visit to Haiti (see Desire in a Different Climate).

Desire in a Different Climate

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Maitresse Erzulie-Hector Hyppolite 1948
In 1945 on their return voyage to France, Andre Breton with his new wife Elise and the Cuban artist Wifredo Lam in tow stopped in Haiti where their friend and Surrealist contributor Pierre Mabille was culture attache. Mabille arranged for the Surrealists to observe a vodou ceremony and it was here that Breton first noticed the work of Haitian artist Hector Hyppolite. Hyppolite was a third generation vodou houngan (priest) and self taught artist who started painting late in life; lacking materials Hyppolite initially used chicken feathers and his fingers to compose his work which centred on the loa, the spirit deities of vodou.

Breton and Lam brought several pieces and Breton wrote about his work in Surrealism and Painting. Although Hyppolite paintings are more religious in nature than Surrealist, the support and recognition from Breton helped Hyppolite in particular and Haitian art in general find a wider audience. Hyppolite’s work was included at the UNESCO exhibition in Paris in 1947 and received an enthusiastic reception.

Erzulie is the loa of love  and sexuality. In the complicated syncretic spirit religion of vodou she is associated with flowers, jewelry and luxury; however in other aspects Erzulie is also identified with the Mater Dolorosa, while at the same time being the patron loa of lesbians.

As for Andre Breton, after his visit to the ceremony events in Haiti took a dramatic turn, however that is a whole other story.

The Flowers of Evil: Litanies Of Satan

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Eliphas Levi-Baphomet Goat-1856

As well as containing erotic poems that led to Baudelaire being prosecuted for insulting public decency, Les Fleurs du Mal contained the blasphemous Les Litanies de Satan (The Litanies of Satan). The English Pre-Raphaelite poet and pornographic writer Algernon Charles Swinburne cited it as the key to Les Fleurs du mal.

Ever since John Milton had cast Satan as the sombre, brooding, archetypal rebel in Paradise Lost, writers had begun to show more than a little sympathy for the devil. Blake had shrewdly remarked ‘The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it.’  Gothic novels and the Romantic writers, in particular Lord Byron, produced one Satanic hero after another to great popular demand. The apotheosis of this trend can be seen in the unforgettable character of Heathcliff in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.

What is remarkable in Baudelaire’s poem is the presentation of Satan as the Lord of the despised and oppressed, or to use Marx’s memorable phrase in The Communist Manifesto (published in 1848), ‘the wretched of the earth.’

The above illustration is from Dogme et Rituel la Haute Magic (Dogmas and Rituals of High Magic) by the French occultist Eliphas Levi, a contemporary of Baudelaire who is justifiably known as the father of modern occultism. It is not known, though it is often rumoured, whether they ever met. They certainly shared affinities and both would greatly influence the Symbolist and Decadent movements.

Litanies of Satan

Wisest of Angels, whom your fate betrays,
And, fairest of them all, deprives of praise,

Satan have pity on my long despair!

O Prince of exiles, who have suffered wrong,
Yet, vanquished, rise from every fall more strong,

Satan have pity on my long despair!

All-knowing lord of subterranean things,
Who remedy our human sufferings,

Satan have pity on my long despair!

To lepers and lost beggars full of lice,
You teach, through love, the taste of Paradise.

Satan have pity on my long despair!

You who on Death, your old and sturdy wife,
Engendered Hope — sweet folly of this life —

Satan have pity on my long despair!

You give to the doomed man that calm, unbaffled
Gaze that rebukes the mob around the scaffold,

Satan have pity on my long despair!

You know in what closed corners of the earth
A jealous God has hidden gems of worth.

Satan have pity on my long despair!

You know the deepest arsenals, where slumber
The breeds of buried metals without number.

Satan have pity on my long despair!

You whose huge hand has hidden the abyss
From sleepwalkers that skirt the precipice,

Satan have pity on my long despair!

You who give suppleness to drunkards’ bones
When trampled down by horses on the stones,

Satan have pity on my long despair!

You who, to make his sufferings the lighter,
Taught man to mix the sulphur with the nitre,

Satan have pity on my long despair!

You fix your mask, accomplice full of guile,
On rich men’s foreheads, pitiless and vile.

Satan have pity on my long despair!

You who fill the hearts and eyes of whores
With love of trifles and the cult of sores,

Satan have pity on my long despair!

The exile’s staff, inventor’s lamp, caresser
Of hanged men, and of plotters the confessor,

Satan have pity on my long despair!

Step-father of all those who, robbed of pardon,
God drove in anger out of Eden’s garden

Satan have pity on my long despair!

Prayer

Praise to you, Satan! in the heights you lit,
And also in the deeps where now you sit,
Vanquished, in Hell, and dream in hushed defiance
O that my soul, beneath the Tree of Science
Might rest near you, while shadowing your brows,
It spreads a second Temple with its boughs.

The Flowers of Evil: The Balcony

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Frederic Bazille-La Toilette 1870
It is impossible to overestimate the influence  of Charles Baudelaire upon modernity. The entire Symbolism/Decadent movement that so dominated the 19th Century fin-de-siecle in Europe owed its very existence to Baudelaire.

Baudelaire’s importance extends  far deeper that the creation of one transitory artistic school however. Although he didn’t invent the concept of dandyism (that honour belongs to Beau Brummel), his example gave it a wider cultural currency that eventually resulted in the carefully constructed persona of the ultimate aesthete and wit, Oscar Wilde. His wanderings around the Parisian streets led to Walter Benjamin formulating a new type of man, the flaneur. The figure of the flaneur  recurs frequently in Benjamin’s massive, unfinished magnum opus The Arcades Project. The spirit of the Baudelairean flaneur guided the Surrealists in their impromptu flea-market jaunts and nocturnal adventuring. The Situationist International (see Moving Images) took the flaneur a step further and the central tenets of the SI, Unitary Urbanism and psycho-geography are based upon the needs of this recently evolved city-dweller.

Beyond shaping some of the major artistic and intellectual currents of the 19th and 20th Century, Baudelaire presence can be felt in Punk (with his dried green hair and urgent provocations) and dominated Goth (Dreams of Desire 5 (That Look).

His influential art criticism (and the inspiration he provided to visual artists, see The Sleepers) and his re-definition of the poet as cultural agitator and arbitrator paved the way for Guillaume Apollinaire (In The Zone) and Andre Breton (The Pope of Surrealism).

Baudelaire’s fame largely rests upon his volume of poetry, Le Fleurs Du Mal. First published in 1857 it immediately caused a scandal. Baudelaire’s originality lay not in the versification (which is traditional) but in the explicit, morbid subject matter.

Below is a translation of one of his finest love poems, Le Balcon, inspired by his muse and mistress of twenty years, the ‘Venus Noire’, Jeanne Duval (she was a Creole of Haitian-French heritage).

The Balcony

Mother of memories, mistress of mistresses,
you who are all my pleasures and all my duties,
you will remember the beauty of our caresses,
the sweetness of the hearth, the charm of the evenings,
mother of memories, mistress of mistresses.

On evenings lit by the glowing coal-fire
and evenings on the balcony, veiled with pink mist,
how soft your breast was,
how kind to me was your heart!
Often we said imperishable things
on evenings lit by the glowing coal-fire.

How beautiful the sun is on warm evenings!
How deep is space! How powerful the human heart!
As I leant over you, oh queen of all adored ones,
I thought I was breathing the fragrance of your blood.
How beautiful the sun is on warm evenings!

The night would thicken like a wall around us,
and in the dark my eyes would make out yours,
and I would drink your breath, oh sweetness, oh poison!
And your feet would fall asleep in my brotherly hands.
The night would thicken like a wall around us.

I know how to evoke the moments of happiness,
I relive my past, nestling my head on your lap.
For why would I seek your languid beauties anywhere
except in your dear body and your oh-so-gentle heart?
I know how to evoke the moments of happiness!

Will those sweet words, those perfumes, those infinite kisses
be reborn from a chasm deeper than we may fathom
like suns that rise rejuvenated into the sky
after cleansing themselves in the oceans’ depths?
Oh sweet words, oh perfumes, oh infinite kisses!

 

Translation Peter Low 2001

The Friends

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Les Amies-Germaine Krull 1924
While searching for work by the excellent photographer Germaine Krull (see Dreams of Desire 18) who Man Ray highly admired, I came across her extraordinary series Les Amies (The Friends) which features pairs of female lovers in an intimate setting. The photographs are unashamedly erotic, however unlike similar images taken by Man Ray where the women are objects of the male gaze, here the women are actively involved in acting upon their own sensual desires for themselves.

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The All Seeing Eye

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Aurora-Jacob Boehme
No wonder the Surrealist’s found inspiration in old alchemical and occult engravings as its strange symbolism hints toward a deeper reality that cannot be comprehended by reason alone but only in the recesses of the unconscious.

The illustrations to Boehme’s Aurora are a particularly fine example of the early theosophical tradition. Boehme was a German shoemaker and mystic who one day while contemplating upon the exquisite beauty of a beam of sunlight reflected in a pewter dish fell boehme[1]into a visionary state which he believed revealed the spiritual structure of the universe.

His work was a direct influence upon the great English visionary, painter and poet William Blake.

The Ten Largest

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Hilma af Klint-The Ten Largest Childhood No 1 1907

The Swedish abstract painter Hilma af Klint (see Occult Abstraction) frequently divided her Paintings for the Temple into thematic groups, including The Swan, The Dove, Altarpieces and Primordial Chaos. One of the most stunning groups is The Ten Largest, so called because of their truly monumental size, each canvas is over 10 foot tall. The Ten Largest is an abstract, spiritual rendition of a persons life from Childhood to Old Age.

The Ten Largest with their bold colouring and joyful unfettered line displays an exuberance reminiscent of Matisse, yet Hilma’s mediumistic work painted in secret preceded the acknowledged modern master by a year. Thankfully her canvases survived being stored in frozen Swedish attics for decades and we can now marvel at the splendour of Hilma’s esoteric creations.

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Childhood No 2
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Youth No 3
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Youth No 4
 

 

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Adulthood No 5
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Adulthood No 6
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Adulthood No 7
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Adulthood No 8
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Old Age-No 9
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Old Age-No 10
 

Occult Abstraction

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What a Human Being Is-Hilma af Klimt 1910
Hilma af Klint raises many questions concerning the history of modern art. Wassily Kandinsky’s untitled watercolour of 1910 was long considered to be the first abstract painting, a turning point in the course of Modernism. Abstraction was to influence, and at times dominate the art of the entire 20th Century. Yet this tidy version of events was upset to a certain extent by the discovery of the private abstract paintings of Hilma af Klint, some of which predate Kandinsky’s watercolour by 4 years.

Hilma af Klint was born into a naval family in the Karlberg Palace just outside of Stockholm, Sweden in 1862. After an idyllic childhood she studied at Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm where she graduated with honours and as a post graduate scholarship was awarded an atelier. She made a living as a conventional landscape and portrait artist, occasionally supplanted by botanical and technical drawings

af Klint had developed an abiding interest in Spiritualism and the Theosophy of Madame Blavatsky at an early age after the death of her younger sister in 1880. She formed a group called ‘the Five’ with four other women artists with the expressed intention of contacting the ‘High Masters’. The group met weekly to conduct seances and in 1896 experimented with automatic drawing and writing, a full twenty years before the Surrealists. During one seance in 1905 she received instructions from a spirit named Amaliel that she was to execute  the’Paintings for the Temple’. af Klint said she had no idea what the Temple was but from 1906 to 1915 (with a four year hiatus between 1908-1912) she completed 193 large scale paintings , some as large as 10 foot tall, a remarkable work rate, especially considering her petite stature (she was 5ft on the dot).

af Klint was in no doubt that she was receiving assistance from the beyond. Commenting on the Temple paintings she noted, “The pictures were painted directly through me, without any preliminary drawings, and with great force. I had no idea what the paintings were supposed to depict; nevertheless I worked swiftly and surely, without changing a single brush stroke.”

In 1915 the guiding spirit left, but af Klint continued painting in the abstract vein, though on smaller canvases. The paintings of this period show the marked influence of the ideas of Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Anthroposophy. Upon meeting Steiner, Hilma showed him the Temple paintings, however he said that the world wasn’t ready to see them for at least another fifty years, which may have influenced her decision to stipulate that the 1,200 paintings and many notebooks (which explains in depth the complex letter and colour symbolism of the paintings) wouldn’t be made public until twenty years after her death.

After her death in 1944 her nephew Erik af Klint, Vice-Admiral of the Swedish Royal Navy complied with her wishes. He offered the Swedish Moderna Museet Hilma’s complete archive in 1970 but they declined. In wasn’t until 1986 that an exhibition of her work was held. af Klint’s work is held in by a foundation so none of her work is on the market or held by museums. There are plans however for an exhibition centre dedicated to af Klint just south of Stockholm.

The question whether af Klint or Kandinsky was the first abstract painter is largely academic. af Klint abstracts were created in isolation and remained private until 80 years after they were painted. They show an urgent spiritual need to fashion a personal mythology in the manner of Blake or Goya’s Pinturas Negras. Interestingly the recognised pioneers of abstraction,  Kandinsky, Malevich and the unknown af Klint were all immersed in esoteric and  Theosophical doctrine.

In upcoming posts I will discuss the symbolic system as outlined by af Klint to shed further light on these mysterious paintings as well as a feature on her major series, The Ten Largest.

 

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Primordial Chaos no.17 1906
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The Swan No.17
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Altar No 1
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The Swan No 1
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Buddha’s Standpoint In The Earthly Life
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The Swan No. 18
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Primordial Chaos No 7