Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes.Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks.
The lady of situations.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring,
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days.
T.S Eliot The Waste Land 1922
It is no surprise really that the Tarot are mentioned at length in the masterpiece of Modernism, T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land from 1922. The notes alone are a treasure trove of esoteric references, making mention of the Cumaean Sibyl, The Golden Bough of James Frazer, the study of Arthurian legend From Ritual to Romance by Jessie L. Weston, Buddha’s Fire Sermon, Gérard de Nerval’s densely hermetic sonnet El Desdichadoand the Upanishads.
Interest in all matters esoteric and occult had become a feature of the avant-garde ever since the later Romantics, especially Charles Baudelaire and the above-mentioned Gérard de Nerval. Later in the 19th Century there would be Arthur Rimbaud with his theory of ‘the alchemy of the word’, the Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s stint in Paris as a practising alchemist, known as the Inferno Period, and various writers and painters connected to the Symbolist and Decadent movements, most notably J.K Huysmans and my personal favourite Comte de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam (see To the Dreamers, To the Deriders).
As the century progressed the Tarot became increasingly esoteric itself. This was quite a recent development, previously the Tarot had been a card game popular in Italy, France and Switzerland, though it also undisputedly used in cartomancy as well. However it was a theologian and Freemason, the Count Gébelin who first advanced the theory in 1781 that the Tarot was a repository of lost ancient knowledge, a theme developed at length by that strange figure known as Etteilla, who added that it was initially conceived by Hermes Tristemegistus himself and was actually ‘The Book of Thoth’. When the man responsible for the French Occult Revival, Eliphas Levi incorporated the Tarot into his magical system and tied the 22 cards of the Major Arcana with the 22 characters of the Hebrew alphabet, the occultation of the Tarot was complete and it became an essential tool for any would-be magician. A quick comparison between any of the older versions of the Tarot with the most famous deck, the Rider-Waite-Smith of 1910 makes this clear, the Rider-Waite-Smith is self-consciously more “mystical”, with an over-abundance of symbolism.
In certain respects the Tarot was tailored-made for Modernism and Post-Modernism, with its emphasis on chance, interpenetration and the shifting, elusive nature of meaning. I have written previously on the Surrealist take on the standard deck of playing cards, Le Jeu Du Marseille-A Surrealist Pack of Cards, and both Salvador Dali and Ithell Colquhuon produced Tarot decks. The Italian post-modernist fabulist Italo Calvino wrote The Castle of Crossed Destinies where the entire plot is told through the Tarot. The Chilean-French film-maker Alejandro Jodorowsky has written eloquently on the Tarot de Marseille and weaves the arcana throughout the acid western El Topo (The Mole) and The Holy Mountain.
In Douglas Cammell’s and Nicholas Roeg’s midnight classic movie Performance, the on-the-run gangster Chas Devlin (James Fox) turns up at the Notting Hill home of the reclusive rock star Turner (Mick Jagger) claiming, somewhat inexplicably, to be a juggler. The first numbered card of the Major Arcana is sometimes called The Juggler, though it nowadays most commonly referred to as The Magician. This hermetic figure points both downward (to the underworld) and upwards (to the stars), a perfect illustration of as above, so below, and prefigures the merging identities towards the end of the movie. Turner seems to realise the import of Devlin’s claim to be a juggler as he immediately comments, ‘You’re a performer of natural magic’.
A quick word on the selection of images; there are thousands of variants on the Tarot available so I have limited myself mainly to the classics. My own preference is for the Tarot De Marseille and the Swiss 1JJ, however the most recognisable is the Rider-Waite-Smith. I have included selections from Dali and Colquhuon as well as the deck designed by Lady Freida Harris for Aleister Crowley. For a contemporary rendition Ulla Von Brandenburg’s excellent deck shows that Tarot continue to fascinate and inspire.
Once the grave has been filled in it shall be sown over with acorns so that afterwards the ground of the said grave having been replanted and the thicket being overgrown as it was before, the traces of my tomb will disappear from the surface of the earth, as I flatter myself that my memory will be effaced from the minds of men, except none the less from those of the small number of people who have been pleased to love me up to the last moment, and of whom I carry into the grave a most tender recollection.
Marquis De Sade-Last Will and Testament
Regardless of your opinion of the Divine Marquis, it has to be admitted that he got it spectacularly wrong in his prediction that his memory would be effaced from the minds of men. Although he certainly didn’t invent the sexual pathology that bears his name, he does hold the world trademark rights. Rarely has a writer, and a writer so rarely read, achieved such lasting notoriety far beyond the narrow confines of literature and philosophy. Sadism is an important concept in psychology, jurisprudence and is a boon to journalists, not to mention has given rise to an increasingly visible sub-culture, of which Fifty Shades of Grey is the most prominent and commercially succesful.
The pioneering sexologist Krafft-Ebing introduced the term Sadism in 1890 based on the content of his works. In many ways De Sade anticipated both Krafft-Ebing and Sigmund Freud by placing sexual desire and sexuality as the prime, motivating factor in human behaviour, and furthermore categorising all the possible aberrations inherent in humanity. It was another German psychiatrist Ewan Bloch who first published The 120 Days of Sodom, De Sade’s most extreme and surely the darkest book ever to be written, in 1904, further spurring interest in his work.
Although it was the psychiatrists who brought De Sade back to public attention in the 20th century, it was the poets who venerated him as the ultimate rebel . Apollinaire proclaimed him ‘the freest spirit to have ever lived’, and in the First Manifesto of Surrealism Andre Breton noted that ‘De Sade is surrealist in sadism.’ Georges Bataille entire oeuvre is a marriage of Sade and Nietzsche. Barthes and Foucault wrote extensively (and infuriatingly) about a figure they saw as an important post-modern predecessor.
Outside of France, Henry Miller was an early champion and a number of Beats either translated his work or produced Sadean erotica for the Olympia Press. In recent years biographies have proliferated (with good reason, De Sade’s life reads better than most novels, no matter how imaginative) and Penguin Classics just issued a new translation of The 120 Days of Sodom, the original manuscript of which was recently sold for 7 million euro at auction.
The Marquis or characters from his novels has made many a cameo in movies as well. In L’Age D’or by Luis Bunuel the coda contains the blasphemous suggestion that Jesus Christ was one of the libertines of the Chateau de Silling. Bunuel would later feature a vignette of De Sade in La Voie Lactee. A sardonic De Sade is the main character of Peter Weiss’s Brechtian film Marat/Sade, while more recently the Philip Kaufman directed Quills re-imagines the Marquis’s time in Charenton in gothic horror fashion. And one shouldn’t forget Pasolini’s highly controversial Salo or his influence upon the pornographic and sexploitation genres, especially Jesus De Franco.
Two centuries after his death it is safe to say that De Sade isn’t going away any time soon. Whether he is viewed as the destroyer of traditional values or the apostle of radical liberty, his vision of a total, impossible freedom will continue to haunt the imagination.
There is an anecdote about the young Yves Klein (see Dreams of Desire 48 (Blue) lying on a beach in the South of France with his friends, the artist Arman and the poet Claude Pascal, where they decided to divide up the universe between themselves. Arman wanted the riches of the earth and tangible, material things, while Pascal claimed words and language itself. Klein chose ‘le vide’, the void, ethereal space empty of all matter.
Klein spent his career, cut short by his early death at 34, giving pictorial representation to the void, most famously in his blue monochromes using his own patented colour International Klein Blue, but also in the fire paintings, painted in his last years. Klein was something of an esotericist and was familiar with Rosicrucian and alchemical doctrine. As he noted ‘…fires burn in the heart of the void as well as in the heart of man.‘
The above golden monochrome is part of a triptych (the other colours are blue and pink) that represents the colours seen in the heart of a flame. In a lecture given at the Sorbonne, Klein further elaborated on the transformative and unifying nature of fire . ‘Fire is both intimate and universal. It resides in our hearts; it resides in a candle. It rises up from the depths of matter, and it conceals itself, latent, contained, like hate or patience. Of all phenomena it is the only one that so obviously embodies two opposite values: good and evil. It shines in paradise, and burns in hell. It can contradict itself, and therefore it is one of the universal principles.’ Such comments are reminiscent of the patron philosopher of occultists, the gnomic Heraclitus who remarked that ‘everything is fire.’
Klein made his fire paintings using a flame thrower on specially treated cardboard. Supplementary techniques were also involved to evoke a synthesis of the four classic elements, for example a nude model would be moistened with water and directed to leave an imprint on the surface before Klein applied the flame.
“Who wants a world in which the guarantee that we shall not die of starvation entails the risk of dying of boredom?”Raoul Vaneigem,The Revolution of Everyday Life 1967
“In a world that is really upside down, the true is a moment of the false.” Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle 1967
In 1967 the French film-maker, writer and head theorist of the Situationist International (Moving Images, The Hacienda Must Be Built), Guy Debord published an influential book of Marxist critical theory, The Society of the Spectacle, consisting of 221 thesis. Within its elegantly written and rigorously argued pages Debord advanced the theory of the Spectacle. The Spectacle has degraded authentic life and replaced it with mere representation, a decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing. The Spectacle has supplanted relationships between people with relationships between commodities and we passively identify with the Spectacle. “The spectacle is not a collection of images,” Debord notes, “rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.” The Spectacle obliterates the past and annihilates the future so that we live in an never-ending present. In this affect-less neuter-time there has been a systematic degradation of knowledge and we are incapable of critical thought, unaware that we are living in a moment in history.
In 1992 Francis Fukuyama in his book The End of History, announced that Western neo-liberalism was the final point in human evolution; it wasn’t going to get better than this and that we were living in a post-historical period: the Spectacle had won.
But of course the statement by the Situationist Raoul Vaneigem quoted above holds true, and after a period when the Spectacle lacked a certain zest and an inability to hold our complete and undivided attention, the world has really turned upside down again. The true is a moment of the false. And we watch and wait with bated breath, in a rapt trance, with a horrified fascination as to what comes next. Maybe this time it will be the Ultimate Spectacle?
Some of my favourite artworks of the present century are the marvellous collages created by the Belgian artist Sammy Slabbinck (featured image for Showtime and Living the High Life). Using found images from magazines dating from the 1950’s to the 1970’s that he collects from flea markets, Slabbinck skilfully re-combines the elements to create wryly humorous, slyly subversive and sometimes unsettling, subtly horrifying works.
Citing influences from Pop Art, Dada and Surrealism, in particular fellow Belgian Surrealist giant Rene Magritte (The Object of the Eye, The Human Condition, Pleasure), Slabbinck’s frequently colour-saturated collages play with size and scale: magnified parts of female bodies form part of a landscape which tiny men journey towards or galaxies are contained within cereal bowls which the perfect 60’s mother and daughter is sitting down at the breakfast table to consume. The resultant images are startlingly lush with a trippiness that achieves the defamiliarisation that is the aim of all Surrealist art.
I have previously featured a short clip of Pollie Fallory (# 74 in the VUE directory) giving the Bird List Song socks in my post Persistent Rumours of Encroaching Ice, however I only mentioned the film it is excerpted from in a very casual aside.Well, there is a time and place for everything and a more detailed summary seems in order as part of the series on birds in art, film and literature.
The Falls is an experimental mock-documentary from 1980 and was the first feature length film of the director Peter Greenaway, who would later go onto direct A Zed & Two Noughts, The Belly of an Architect and his most famous, or rather infamous film, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.
The Falls purports to a filmed representation of the biographies of 92 (a number that recurs frequently the movie, its significance however remains unexplained, like so much else) victims of the Violent Unknown Event (or VUE for short) whose surnames begin with the letters FALL. The 92 people listed are meant to represent a cross section of the 19 million people worldwide who were affected by the VUE.
As the cause of VUE is obviously unknown, we can only gather clues from the biographies, all of which are filmed in a bewildering array of techniques, though all with a earnest, old school documentary style narration. The VUE may, or may not have been the Responsibility of Birds, but it has left those afflicted with an obsession with birds (and/or unaided flight), as well as bizarre medical conditions including six part hearts and re-opening of old wounds. The VUE also resulted in 92 new languages appearing and sexual quadmorphism (in addition to the traditional two sexes another two have come into being and accorded classification).
All in all this perplexing, brilliant and infuriating movie comes over like a cross between Borges and Monty Python, with elements of Kafka in its portrayal of bureaucracy. It does however slyly acknowledge its own limitations, with many scenes of cars or taxiing air-planes pointlessly going around in circles, and with the deadpan voice-over commenting that the various ridiculously named characters suffer from the inability to tell a good joke from a bad one.
I have included illustrations of birds drawn by Peter Greenaway (who started his career as an artist) featured in the film, along with a theatrical trailer.
The connection between Surrealism and magic realism, the narrative genre that first developed in Latin America in the mid twentieth century before becoming popular the world over, has always been hotly disputed. The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, one of the giants of magic realism, viewed Surrealism with a great measure of disdain, and other Latin American were suspicious of the European Surrealists exoticising tendencies. However one of the first magic realist novels, El reino de este mundo (The Kingdom of this World), was written by Alejo Carpentierwho was actively involved in the Surrealist Movement in the 1920’s. Mexico was to prove fertile soil for several leading emigre Surrealists, notably Wolfgang Paalen, Leonora Carrington, Benjamin Peret and Remedios Varos. The strongest link however was undoubtedly the other great Argentine writer of the Latin American Boom, Julio Cortazar.
Cortazarwrote a spirited defence of Surrealism in 1949, refuting the constant claims that Surrealism was dead, insisting that on the contrary that it was ‘Un cadaver viviente’ (a living corpse). His 1966 novel Rayuela (Hopscotch) is a landmark in Post-Modernism in its hyper-textuality (take a look at the table of instructions to see all the possible ways to read the novel), which clearly references Andre Breton’s Nadja and the artwork of Marcel Duchamp. Later in the sixties Cortazar would produce two outstanding collage books with almost infinite permutations. The greatest writer of the 21st Century, Roberto Bolano, acknowledged his debt to Cortazar, and indeed to the underground Surrealist current that he kept alive, in his writings and interviews.
Besides such Surrealist experimentation, Cortazar is one of the undoubted masters of the fantastic short story. Below is Axolotl, a Kafkaesque story of a man’s obsession with the Axolotl, the Mexican salamander, who with their Aztec faces, devour with their eyes in a cannibalism of gold.
Included as a bonus is The Veils song Axolotl. Not sure if they are familiar with the story, but it was featured on David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return recently and that is enough objective chance for me.
There was a time when I thought a great deal about the axolotls. I went to see them in the aquarium at the Jardin des Plantes and stayed for hours watching them, observing their immobility, their faint movements. Now I am an axolotl.
I got to them by chance one spring morning when Paris was spreading its peacock tail after a slow wintertime. I was heading down tbe boulevard Port-Royal, then I took Saint-Marcel and L’Hôpital and saw green among all that grey and remembered the lions. I was friend of the lions and panthers, but had never gone into the dark, humid building that was the aquarium. I left my bike against tbe gratings and went to look at the tulips. The lions were sad and ugly and my panther was asleep. I decided on the aquarium, looked obliquely at banal fish until, unexpectedly, I hit it off with the axolotls. I stayed watching them for an hour and left, unable to think of anything else.
In the library at Sainte-Geneviève, I consulted a dictionary and learned that axolotls are the larval stage (provided with gills) of a species of salamander of the genus Ambystoma. That they were Mexican I knew already by looking at them and their little pink Aztec faces and the placard at the top of the tank. I read that specimens of them had been found in Africa capable of living on dry land during the periods of drought, and continuing their life under water when the rainy season came. I found their Spanish name, ajolote, and the mention that they were edible, and that their oil was used (no longer used, it said ) like cod-liver oil.
I didn’t care to look up any of the specialized works, but the next day I went back to the Jardin des Plantes. I began to go every morning, morning and aftemoon some days. The aquarium guard smiled perplexedly taking my ticket. I would lean up against the iron bar in front of the tanks and set to watching them. There’s nothing strange in this, because after the first minute I knew that we were linked, that something infinitely lost and distant kept pulling us together. It had been enough to detain me that first morning in front of the sheet of glass where some bubbles rose through the water. The axolotls huddled on the wretched narrow (only I can know how narrow and wretched) floor of moss and stone in the tank. There were nine specimens, and the majority pressed their heads against the glass, looking with their eyes of gold at whoever came near them. Disconcerted, almost ashamed, I felt it a lewdness to be peering at these silent and immobile figures heaped at the bottom of the tank. Mentally I isolated one, situated on the right and somewhat apart from the others, to study it better. I saw a rosy little body, translucent (I thought of those Chinese figurines of milky glass), looking like a small lizard about six inches long, ending in a fish’s tail of extraordinary delicacy, the most sensitive part of our body. Along the back ran a transparent fin which joined with the tail, but what obsessed me was the feet, of the slenderest nicety, ending in tiny fingers with minutely human nails. And then I discovered its eyes, its face. Inexpressive features, with no other trait save the eyes, two orifices, like brooches, wholly of transparent gold, lacking any life but looking, letting themselves be penetrated by my look, which seemed to travel past the golden level and lose itself in a diaphanous interior mystery. A very slender black halo ringed the eye and etched it onto the pink flesh, onto the rosy stone of the head, vaguely triangular, but with curved and triangular sides which gave it a total likeness to a statuette corroded by time. The mouth was masked by the triangular plane of the face, its considerable size would be guessed only in profile; in front a delicate crevice barely slit the lifeless stone. On both sides of the head where the ears should have been, there grew three tiny sprigs, red as coral, a vegetal outgrowth, the gills, I suppose. And they were the only thing quick about it; every ten or fifteen seconds the sprigs pricked up stiffly and again subsided. Once in a while a foot would barely move, I saw the diminutive toes poise mildly on the moss. It’s that we don’t enjoy moving a lot, and the tank is so cramped—we barely move in any direction and we’re hitting one of the others with our tail or our head—difficulties arise, fights, tiredness. The time feels like it’s less if we stay quietly.
It was their quietness that made me lean toward them fascinated the first time I saw the axolotls. Obscurely I seemed to understand their secret will, to abolish space and time with an indifferent immobility. I knew better later; the gill contraction, the tentative reckoning of the delicate feet on the stones, the abrupt swimming (some of them swim with a simple undulation of the body) proved to me that they were capable of escaping that mineral lethargy in which they spent whole hours. Above all else, their eyes obsessed me. In the standing tanks on either side of them, different fishes showed me the simple stupidity of their handsome eyes so similar to our own. The eyes of the axolotls spoke to me of the presence of a different life, of another way of seeing. Glueing my face to the glass (the guard would cough fussily once in a while), I tried to see better those diminutive golden points, that entrance to the infinitely slow and remote world of these rosy creatures. It was useless to tap with one finger on the glass directly in front of their faces; they never gave the least reaction. The golden eyes continued burning with their soft, terrible light; they continued looking at me from an unfathomable depth which made me dizzy.
And nevertheless they were close. I knew it before this, before being an axolotl. I learned it the day I came near them for the first time. The anthropomorphic features of a monkey reveal the reverse of what most people believe, the distance that is traveled from them to us. The absolute lack of similarity between axolotls and human beings proved to me that my recognition was valid, that I was not propping myself up with easy analogies. Only the little hands . . . But an eft, the common newt, has such hands also, and we are not at all alike. I think it was the axolotls’ heads, that triangular pink shape with the tiny eyes of gold. That looked and knew. That laid the claim. They were not animals.
It would seem easy, almost obvious, to fall into mythology. I began seeing in the axolotls a metamorphosis which did not succeed in revoking a mysterious humanity. I imagined them aware, slaves of their bodies, condemned infinitely to the silence of the abyss, to a hopeless meditation. Their blind gaze, the diminutive gold disc without expression and nonetheless terribly shining, went through me like a message: “Save us, save us.” I caught myself mumbling words of advice, conveying childish hopes. They continued to look at me, immobile; from time to time the rosy branches of the gills stiffened. In that instant I felt a muted pain; perhaps they were seeing me, attracting my strength to penetrate into the impenetrable thing of their lives. They were not human beings, but I had found in no animal such a profound relation with myself. The axolotls were like witnesses of something, and at times like horrible judges. I felt ignoble in front of them; there was such a terrifying purity in those transparent eyes. They were larvas, but larva means disguise and also phantom. Behind those Aztec faces, without expression but of an implacable cruelty, what semblance was awaiting its hour?
I was afraid of them. I think that had it not been for feeling the proximity of other visitors and the guard, I would not have been bold enough to remain alone with them. “You eat them alive with your eyes, hey,” the guard said, laughing; he likely thought I was a little cracked. What he didn’t notice was that it was they devouring me slowly with their eyes, in a cannibalism of gold. At any distance from the aquarium, I had only to think of them, it was as though I were being affected from a distance. It got to the point that I was going every day, and at night I thought of them immobile in the darkness, slowly putting a hand out which immediately encountered another. Perhaps their eyes could see in the dead of night, and for them the day continued indefinitely. The eyes of axolotls have no lids.
I know now that there was nothing strange, that that had to occur. Leaning over in front of the tank each morning, the recognition was greater. They were suffering, every fiber of my body reached toward that stifled pain, that stiff torment at the bottom of the tank. They were lying in wait for something, a remote dominion destroyed, an age of liberty when the world had been that of the axolotls. Not possible that such a terrible expression which was attaining the overthrow of that forced blankness on their stone faces should carry any message other than one of pain, proof of that eternal sentence, of that liquid hell they were undergoing. Hopelessly, I wanted to prove to myself that my own sensibility was projecting a nonexistent consciousness upon the axolotls. They and I knew. So there was nothing strange in what happened. My face was pressed against the glass of the aquarium, my eyes were attempting once more to penetrate the mystery of those eyes of gold without iris, without pupil. I saw from very close up the face of an axolotl immobile next to the glass. No transition and no surprise, I saw my face against the glass, I saw it on the outside of the tank, I saw it on the other side of the glass. Then my face drew back and I understood.
Only one thing was strange: to go on thinking as usual, to know. To realize that was, for the first moment, like the horror of a man buried alive awaking to his fate. Outside, my face came close to the glass again, I saw my mouth, the lips compressed with the effort of understanding the axolotls. I was an axolotl and now I knew instantly that no understanding was possible. He was outside the aquarium, his thinking was a thinking outside the tank. Recognizlng him, being him himself, I was an axolotl and in my world. The horror began—I learned in the same moment —of believing myself prisoner in the body of an axolotl, metamorphosed into him with my human mind intact, buried alive in an axolotl, condemned to move lucidly among unconscious creatures. But that stopped when a foot just grazed my face, when I moved just a little to one side and saw an axolotl next to me who was looking at me, and understood that he knew also, no communication possible, but very clearly. Or I was also in him, or all of us were thinking humanlike, incapable of expression, limited to the golden splendor of our eyes looking at the face of the man pressed against the aquarium.
He returned many times, but he comes less often now. Weeks pass without his showing up. I saw him yesterday, he looked at me for a long time and left briskly. It seemed to me that he was not so much interested in us any more, that he was coming out of habit. Since the only thing I do is think, I could think about him a lot. It occurs to me that at the beginning we continued to communicate, that he felt more than ever one with the mystery which was claiming him. But the bridges were broken between him and me, because what was his obsession is now an axolotl, alien to his human life. I think that at the beginning I was capable of returning to him in a certain way—ah, only in a certain way—and of keeping awake his desire to know us better. I am an axolotl for good now, and if I think like a man it’s only because every axolotl thinks like a man inside his rosy stone semblance. I believe that all this succeeded in communicating something to him in those first days, when I was still he. And in this final solitude to which he no longer comes, I console myself by thinking that perhaps he is going to write a story about us, that, believing he’s making up a story, he’s going to write all this about axolotls.
A truly astounding and disorienting masterpiece by the German virtuoso of latter 20th and early 21th century art, Gerhard Richter. What appears to be at first glance to be an artistic photograph, albeit a sublime one, of Richter’s beautiful third wife Sabine Moritz reading a newspaper, turns to wonderment and awe when you realise that this is actually an oil painting on canvas. There is an absolute perfection of the reproduction of the original image in a different media, a dizzying illusionism that questions our perception of art and consequently reality itself . The gorgeousness of the play of light across the sweep of the neck and shoulders, combined with the serenity of expression and the unquestioned technical mastery is worthy of Vermeer, an acknowledged inspiration.
Richter, who is quoted as saying that he is a Surrealist, has painted in a bewildering array of styles during his career that has spanned over 60 years. As well as his hyper-realist and photo-realistic paintings he has painted abstracts, monochromes and landscapes. Over the last five years his work have fetched the highest prices of any living artist. The Museum Ludwig in Cologne, a city Richter has resided in since 1983 holds a large collection of his work and recently held an exhibition of a series of 26 abstracts painted in 2015.
The contemporary artist Anna Di Mezza, whose artwork I have featured several times,(Evolution, Questions & Answers with Anna Di Mezza and Double Take) has acknowledged in interviews her admiration for the Italian painter Giorgio De Chirico, whose ground-breaking Metaphysical paintings profoundly influenced the Surrealists. Anna’s latest works are firmly situated in this metaphysical tradition, where the primary focus is to raise questions regarding identity, reality and the creative process.
Transience also possesses elements of Anna’s characteristic Twilight Zone style sensibility. Toward the extreme right side of the painting a portion of a glamorous female face can be seen taking shape, emerging into being. The darker stripe of paint that converges towards the pupil is suggestive of a pencil. The eyebrow is also subject to this effect, though appropriately more reminiscent of a mascara wand. Looking at this painting I get the uncanny feeling that this is a preliminary sketch for an android; that the artist is showing this ersatz figure coming to life before our very eyes. However the reality of images is always fleeting and transitory, fading away when we stop looking, returning only as fragments that haunt our dreams.
Anna Di Mezza is an Australian artist featured in my previous post Double Take. Anna graduated from Billy Blue Design School and worked as an illustrator for Disney Studios before setting out as an independent artist.
I contacted Anna who very kindly agreed to be interviewed and forwarded me a photograph of her new painting The Elevator (see above). For further information and examples of her work please visit her website Anna Di Mezza and her representatives Saatchi Art .
AS) In your Saatchi artist bio you unassumingly state that your primary subject matter is realistic portraits and the odd landscape or two. Although you paint in the photo-realistic manner, the collage like compositions and the Alice-In-Wonderland variations in size and scale completely subvert the conventions of pictorial realism. So when you say that what you paint are realistic portraits are you having some mischievous fun or are they accurate portrayals of your subjective vision? AM) When I first started with Saatchiart my paintings were more in line with conservative renderings of people and landscapes. Later on, I started to evolve as an artist and experimented with conceptual work, which was around three years ago which brings me to where I am now.
AS) How do you select the found images that you incorporate into your paintings? AM) Most of the images I work with are found on the internet. If I am lucky, an image may come by easily, otherwise I have to work hard to look and forage through hundreds of old photos until I find the right one that would work best for my objectives. I try to look for images of anonymous people going on about their daily lives. I want to celebrate their anonymity and uproot the setting for them so they are involved in some sort of narrative that is the fine line between reality and dreams.
AS) A lot of your paintings have a limited mono-chromatic palette yet others have bold, vibrant Pop Art colours. What dictates your use of colour? AM) The photos I paint from are usually in black and white so that usually dictates the reason why I go for these monochromatic colours. I like the occasional use of colour as I enjoy colour too for added visual interest. I would like to experiment a lot more with colour in the near future.
AS).You mention Magritte and De Chirico as influences. Have other surrealists influenced you, if so, who? AM) I’m not sure they would class themselves as Surrealists, but definitely the contemporary painters Paco Pomet and Gottfried Helnwein.
AS) Is the Surrealist influence upon you confined to the works of the figurative, pictorial school or does the other aspects of Surrealism, the abstract, collage and film bear upon your paintings? AM) There is a lot of collage work by contemporary artists I have seen that I admire. They mostly make their art digitally. Some examples are Eugenia Loli and Sammy Slabbinck. Their works are to what I am doing except I paint the images. I admire a lot of left of centre films that have surreal aspects to them. Films from David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick in particular.
AS) In your painting closeencountersmashpotato there is a glitch smear in the bar-code design. Was this deliberate or ‘objective chance’. AM) The glitch smear was an experiment in design rather than an accident. It started out as an aesthetic more than anything else. What was interesting about it was hearing people’s interpretations of the work. As the glitches reminded some people of bar-codes, the painting would be about mass consumerism or tuning a TV to the correct channel until one comes upon a random image.
AS) Does the Surrealist theory of objective chance play a part in your paintings? AM) Yes, most of my work is about juxtaposing people with unrelated backgrounds to create an element of surprise so the theory is prevalent in that way. According to the concept of objective chance, it involved the most powerful imagery which caused the greatest surprise. In order to create marvelous images, Surrealist poets juxtaposed two terms that appeared to conflict with each other but were secretly related. The power of the resulting imagery was directly proportional to their apparent dissimilarity.
AS )Your paintings present a retro vision of the future that never came to pass. Do you experience (as I do) a nostalgia for a time before you were alive? AM) I definitely feel nostalgic for a time that precedes my life. The music, the fashion, the culture, the industrial design from the mid-century to me are the ideal aesthetic therefore I am attracted to this era and keep returning to it for inspiration
AS) David Lynch is quoted as saying that the fifties where a time of tremendous optimism and energy, yet frequently his films show the dark underbelly hidden beneath the shiny surface. What is your view on the immediate past (and its vision of the future) that is frequently displayed in your paintings? AM) What he says is true. At the same time the 50’s were a time when women’s roles were diminished and women were being expected more and more to stay home and be housewives. African-Americans in the South, meanwhile, were living under conditions of segregation. There will always be negative and dark aspects whenever human nature is involved. The space age era would have been a tremendously exciting time to live in thinking about the possibilities of how far humans could go thanks to the power of technology. It is also the idea of the unknown that fascinates me.
AS) Your paintings frequently feature inaccessible and inhospitable landscapes: mountains, Polar Regions and the Moon. Is this conscious romantic symbolism? AM) Inhospitable, yes and even claustrophobic. These people all seem to be caught in a moment in time that they cannot escape and are forever trapped in. The paintings make them appear as if they were meant to be there due to their seeming lack of concern . I am trying to tap into dreamlike states of consciousness in using these places one could not survive in.
AS) Finally what is your favourite movie? AM) There are several films that are superlative. My favourite movie growing up was The time machine (the original 60’s one). I was completely blown away by that film with its fantastic possibilities of ideas of fast forwarding time and the vision of the Eloi future. Other films I love are Antonioni’s “Blow up”, Kubrick’s “Space Oddyssey”, Hitchcock’s “The Birds” and “Rope”, Lynch’s “Mulholland Dr”, and more recently “Under the skin” by Jonathan Glazer.