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).
In 1936 the painter and art dealer Roland Penrose (also later the husband of Lee Miller) and the art critic Herbert Read, who were organising the International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries, decided to pay a visit to the studios of the Irish born painter Francis Bacon in Chelsea. Bacon showed them four large canvases but the visitors were underwhelmed, to say the least. Penrose declared that they were insufficiently surreal to be included and is reported to have told Francis, “Mr. Bacon, don’t you realise a lot has happened in painting since the Impressionists?”.
However much this must have stung, Francis Bacon apparently agreed with Penrose’s assessment as he would later, when very famous, ruthlessly suppress any pieces that pre-dated his breakthrough painting Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion of 1944; that is to say, that any painting produced before he had engaged, assimilated and felt in a position to response in a highly personal way to the great Continental European avant-garde currents (including, naturally enough, Surrealism), were to be excluded from his oeuvre. Quite rightly so, as the critic John Russell noted, “there was painting in England before the Three Studies, and painting after them, and no one…can confuse the two,” which of course extended to Bacon’s own work.
Painted on Sundeala boards, a cheap alternative to canvas, used frequently by Bacon as he was often short of money due to his heavy drinking and lifelong gambling habit, Three Studies presents three nightmarish figures, Bacon’s horror take on Picasso’s biomorphs, with elongated necks and distended mouths, against a lurid, harsh, burnt orange background. Christ and the two thieves crucified have been transformed into the Furies. Bacon admitted to having been obsessed by the phrase in Aeschylus, “the reek of human blood smiles out at me”, and in a sense Three Studies is a raw, visceral, pictorial actualisation of such a striking and terrifying line. After all, Bacon was the best exemplifier of the Bataillean aesthetic in the visual arts; the body as meat, the world as an abattoir, the endless scream of being.
The Dog is one of the fourteen Pinturas Negras (Black Paintings, see Painting It Black) that Goya painted in his house outside Madrid towards the end of his life. The Dog conveys a sense of sublimity, terror and an unbearable pathos with an enviable simplicity.
The painting is divided in two unequal parts: a dirty ochre above and a dark brown below. There has been much debate regarding the origin of the shadow to the right of the painting, and whether it is intentional, however it probably was the previous design on the wall which Goya painted over. Staring upward into the vastness of the sky is the dog, alone and apparently sinking into the quicksand of the earth. All the heart-break and despair involved in terrestrial existence is concentrated in the expression of mute appeal of the dog as he searches the heavens for a sign of a return of his varnished master.
The Dog has been called the first Symbolist painting and was held in particular high regard by Picasso and Joan Miro.
Andre Breton’s apartment at Rue Fontane, above the strip clubs and clip joints of the Pigalle red light district was by most accounts almost a work of art in its own right. In 2003 the French auctioneers Calmels Cohen put over 5,300 lots under the hammer from Breton’s vast collection of books, manuscripts, works of art and objects at Drouot-Richelieu; the catalogue alone extends to 8 volumes. The sale included 150 items of Oceanic art, the most important being the magnificent Uli statue from Central New Ireland, Papua New Guinea that graced his desk for many years.
Once again it is instructive to look at the Surrealist Map of the World (reference my previous post Redraw the Map, Re-Write History and Re-Invent Reality) to see the importance official Surrealism attached to the islands of the Pacific. In this idealised rendering of how the world should be according to the Surrealists, Papua New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago is centrally located and larger than both Europe and Africa and truly dwarfs Australia.
Central to Papua New Guinea artistic reputation within Surrealist circles were the Uli, ancestor figures used for rites and endowed with immense magical powers. When a chieftain died his skull was buried and a tree planted on top of the burial place. After the tree had matured it was then cut down and the Uli was fashioned from the wood. The Uli are often bearded with protruding jaw and phallus to represent the traditional masculine attributes of strength and protection, while also possessing breasts as the ideal chieftain must maternally nurture and provide. When the Uli wasn’t participating in fertility, initiation and funerary rituals it would be kept in its own special enclosure away from prying eyes.
Breton was very taken with the Uli, naming a beloved Skye terrier Uli and dedicating a poem which I have included below. I have also included photographs for some of the most outstanding examples of this figure that Breton calls Grand Dieu, as well as the Future Sound of London’s seminal dance track Papua New Guinea, the video of which doesn’t include either the Uli or Papua New Guinea much as far as I can see, but does have some magic squares.
Surely you are a great god
I have seen you with my own eyes like no one else has
You are still covered with earth and blood you have just created
You are an old peasant who knows nothing
To recover you have eaten like a pig
You are covered with the stains of man
One sees that you have stuffed yourself to the ears
You listen no more
You leer at us from the bottom of a seashell
Your creation tells you hands up, and you still threaten
You frighten, you astonish.
They are plenty of factors that contributed to Mexico being conducive to the Surrealists. Politically there was the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920 (Pancho Villa would be honoured as the Magus of Wheels in the Le Jeu De Marseille, the deck of cards designed by the Surrealists) and the Mexican President’s support of the Republican government of Spain during the Spanish Civil War. There was the richness of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican art, mythology and culture. As a group familiar with the ideas of Hegel and Marx the Surrealists would have be aware of the theory that Cortes entry into and conquest of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan represented the true starting point of global capitalism that ushered in centuries of exploitative colonialism, slavery and imperialism. Combine the Mexican cult of death, exemplified by the Day of the Dead celebrations and its variegated landscape of mountains, desert and jungle to this already heady mix and you end up with a country more Surrealistic than the Surrealists.
The purpose of Breton’s visit in 1938 was to met with Leon Trotsky who was staying at La Casa Azul (The Blue House), the home of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Breton declared Kahlo a surrealist and promoted her work, however the respect certainly wasn’t mutual, Kahlo detested Breton and held the Surrealists in contempt. As it appears that Kahlo was having an affair with Breton’s wife Jacqueline Lamba (see Dreams of Desire 16 (Jacqueline and Frida), as well as with Leon Trotsky, maybe the byzantine personal relationships within La Casa Azul influenced her judgement of Breton.
With the defeat of the Republicans in Spain by Franco’s Nationalists and the invasion of France by Nazi Germany, Mexico welcomed a number of artists, including the director Luis Bunuel, the writer and artist Leonora Carrington, her friend the Spanish artist Remedios Varo (again Kahlo wasn’t a fan of either Carrington or Varo, she called them those European bitches), the abstract Surrealist Wolfgang Paalen, Alice Rahon, Bridget Bate Tichenor and the poet Benjamin Peret among others.
It was in Xilitla, Mexico that the eccentric English millionaire and patron of many a Surrealist, Edward James built his extravagant folly house Las Pozas amid the riotously lush fauna and flora of the jungle.
Mexico is certainly well represented in modernist literature. Mexico became the home of the mystery man of modern letters, the German (?) anarchist B. Traven, whose true identity still remains to be resolved. Author of The Treasure of Sierra Madre, which was filmed by John Huston and starred Humphrey Bogart, Traven also wrote The Jungle series about the Mexican Revolution. One of the classics of Modernist literature, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano is set on the Day of the Dead, 1938, in the town of Quaunhnahuac. The Chilean novelist Roberto Bolano’s two major (and monumental) novels The Savage Detectives and 2666 are mainly set in Mexico, particularly Mexico City and the badlands of the Sonora Desert.
Finally a brief note on the image selection; I could post a dozen articles on Mesoamerican art alone. I have confined myself to a few outstanding examples of Pre-Columbian art to allow room for Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and the Surrealists. As I have posted at length on Leonora Carrington, I limited selection of this artist to include work by Varo and Tichenor. As an added bonus there are the splendidly morbid and macabre woodcuts of Artemio Rodriguez and a statue of Santa Muerte, the Mexican folk religion of Most Holy Death.