Dubbed ‘Queen of Chicago’ by her intimates, Gertrude Abercombie was a mid 20th Century bohemian, saloniste, jazz devotee and Surrealist painter. The weekly salons she held with her second husband, the music critic Frank Sandford, in a large house in Hyde Park neighbourhood of Chicago, was frequented by such jazz luminaries as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan and Dizzie Gillespie, who was a particularly close friend.
The improvisational techniques of be-bop certainly seemed to have influenced her paintings, which feature a small number of elements and motifs repeated throughout her career in an unusual and innovative manner. Cats, snail shells, owls, doors, leafless trees and a solitary female figure, always a hypercritical self portrait, frequently recur against a somber night sky barely lit by the distant moon. The mood is usually mysterious and elusive with occasionally a hint of Southern Gothic, however Design for Death, which apparently was Charlie Parker’s favourite painting is quietly chilling in its representation of a staging for a lynching.
When asked why she painted in the Surrealist manner, Abercrombie stated, “Surrealism is meant for me because I am a pretty realistic person but don’t like all I see.”
Below are a selection of artworks from throughout Abercrombie’s career, hopefully some people will like her re-arrangements of reality as much as I do.
The entire text of the spell dedicated to Roger Blin (recto and verso) reads; ‘All those who have gotten together to keep me from taking HEROIN all those who have touched Anne Manson because of that Sunday May 1939 I will have them pierced alive in a Paris square and I will have them perforated and their intestines burned. I am in a Mental Asylum but this dream of a Madness will be enacted and enacted by ME-Antonin Artaud.’
In 1937 the French writer, actor and dramatist Antonin Artaud landed in Cobh, Ireland with a letter of introduction from the French Embassy. Without that letter the Irish officials would have denied Artaud admittance. From Cobh he travelled to Galway where he holed up in a hotel room he couldn’t pay for. The purpose of this strange odyssey was to return a walking stick he had acquired which he believed was the staff of St Patrick, as well as being previously owed by both Jesus Christ and Lucifer. After a brief stint in Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison Artaud was deported as a ‘destitute and undesirable alien’. On the return ship voyage he attacked two crew members and had to be restrained and put in a straitjacket.
The previous decade Artaud had been one of the leading lights of the first phrase of Surrealism, writing addresses to the Pope, Chancellors of the European Universities, the Dalai Lama and the Buddhist Schools. In January 1925 Andre Breton announced that Artaud was assuming direction of the Bureau of Surrealist Enquiries, cryptically commenting that ‘The Central Bureau, more alive than ever, is henceforth behind closed doors, but the world must know that it exists.’ However after the bitter criticisms Breton levelled against Artaud (along with many, many others) in the Second ManifestoArtaud left the movement, aligning himself somewhat with the renegade Surrealists who published in Georges Bataille’s Documents.
The return from Ireland brought about for Artaud a period of confinement in different asylums which ended only with his death in 1948 from an overdose of choral hydrate. 1938 saw the publication of his most famous work The Theatre and Its Double where he outlined his vision for the Theatre of Cruelty but he wrote little again until 1946, instead concentrating on writing up spells, casting horoscopes and drawing disturbing pictures.
But then Artaud would have doubtless have approved of Mick Jagger’s character Turner’s paraphrase of the central tenets of the Theatre of Cruelty in the 1970 movie Performance, ‘The only performance that makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness. Am I right?’ Judging by those lights Artaud made it all the way.
In 1938 the Swiss clairvoyant and telepathic healer Emma Kunz began to channel large scale drawings on graph paper using coloured pencils, crayons and a pendulum. During the creation of a piece, which could take up to 48 hours, Kunz neither slept or ate, subsisting entirely on liquids. Neighbours commented that the light was always on at her home. The drawings were then used as a therapeutic tool for her patients, whom she would encourage to meditate upon the mandala-like patterns.
I was first led to this astonishing artist by a comment about my post on the Swedish artist Hilma af Klint, (thank you herongrace). There are indeed similarities, both were female abstract artists with an all consuming interest in mysticism and spiritualism, whose mediumistic art goes far beyond aesthetic formal concerns. Both Klint and Kunz were only discovered after their deaths, and indeed were two-thirds of an exhibition on leading female abstract artists, the other being Agnes Martin. However Klint was a professional artist who kept her groundbreaking innovations a secret, while Kunz had no formal artistic training but thought highly enough of her work (and rightly so) to publish two books.
Since the first exhibition in 1973, ten years after her death, Kunz’s work has been show around the world, including a joint show with Joseph Beuys and Rudolf Steiner. The Emma Kunz Museum in Wurenlos, Switzerland houses 70 of her most important artworks.
In 1931 the Armenian born (though he often told people he was Russian, his age also varied upon his mood) American painter Arshile Gorky saw Giorgio De Chirico’s 1914 painting The Fateful Temple. De Chirico’s painting featuring a portrait of his mother next to a head with a dissected brain which resonated with Gorky, who was working at the time on a mother and child portrait, and over the next three years he would produce two paintings and over eighty drawings in his variant series of The Fateful Temple; Nighttime, Enigma and Nostalgia.
Gorky and his mother had fled the genocide of Armenians instigated by the Ottoman Empire to Russia, where she died of starvation in 1919. He subsequently escaped to America and after experimenting with different styles embraced Surrealism in the 1940’s. His increasingly abstract paintings were a major influence on the Abstract Expressionists. In 1946 his studio barn burnt to the ground, he was diagnosed with cancer and his wife had an affair with the Chilean Surrealist painter Roberto Matta. In 1948 Gorky was involved in a car crash that broke his neck and left his painting arm temporarily paralysed. His wife left with the children and Gorky hanged himself at his Connecticut home at the age of 44 (or 42 or 46).
I am bored with symmetry, logic, systems, and rationales
Please don’t bother yourself to explain the why where or how,
Whatever happened to losing ourselves in some threatening city?
The thrill of taking a wrong turning and sensing the shadows shift-
Shape into lives that only in this moment have any relation to our own:
Becoming unmoored from our painstakingly constructed personas,
Thinking acting dying in the vertigo inducing deep instance.
Please don’t tell me where I am going or where you have been,
The only maps I read fringe the expanse of blank space with monsters:
I have always searched for a location with ill defined co-ordinates,
A place where the boundaries are frangible or porous,
Here I can stage the break out, the break in, the break through,
A clue to the exit, entrance, waiting room or maybe terminus,
It’s been said before but I will say it again: existence is elsewhere;
In the recessed wardrobe in some forgotten attic spare room;
Down a rabbit hole in a field or through a silvered looking glass;
At the opening of the hidden eye or the tingle at the base of the spine;
A broken lift stuck between floors high up in some sink estate;
In the pressure on the solar plexus, in the hollow nexus of flesh;
Or a graffitied toilet cubicle in some abstract hotel of the future;
The cellar of a church scrawled with incantations, exorcisms and veves;
In an abandoned concrete bunker on a desolate stretch of shoreline;
Beneath an island of black sand and volcanic glass in a complex of caves;
Or the receding house in the borderlands shifting in the distance;
Somewhere or there if you say the right words at the appointed time
You could find yourself in some subterranean underworld or Wonderland,
To re-encounter all the savageries of childhood games and innocence,
Meet the chthonic deities, secret rulers, invisible masters, sovereigns
Of all they survey in these latter days of the Fourth Decadency.
I have heard a rumour that they are hiring, press-ganging, shanghaiing,
Suitable personages, help is always wanted, space can sure be found
For lieutenants and officers of a studious and introspective disposition;
Rehabbing Ingénues resting in between a succession of difficult roles;
Be-bop gynaecologists smoking before inserting a fist into localized wombs;
Free-styling surgeons coming hard and fast as they make the cut into flesh,
But remember that incision is always first, anaesthesia only ever after:
For Sisters of the Immaculate Silk Stocking and Perpetual Pain
Raptly murmuring well sorry but you to me are just a pigeon;
Purveyors of all kinds of reprocessed filth and high spin deviation;
Hard noise volatilized followers of sinister charismatic cult leaders;
Aberrationist lexicographers in league with heretical cartographers;
Natty dogs with polka dot ties telepathically communicating weather reports;
Architects and designers specializing in the style of the Neo-New Brutalism
Or are actively working towards the Retro-Chaldean-Rococo-Monstrosity;
Procurers of contraband urine analysis and recondite pharmacopeia;
Contortionist courtesans of a pan-dimensional renown and fame;
Deep cover agents that have forgotten that they are in fact agents
Subverting the suburban norms that they ostensibly embody.
In the presence of the sublime and the grotesque our eyes will dilate
As we experience the miserable miracle beyond all artificial paradises;
But it is the only destination worth setting out for so let’s carry on
Without lodestones or compass, no navigation aid beyond still beating hearts.