The Belgian Symbolist James Ensor macabre vision of the Second Coming, 1888’s Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889 is generally considered his masterpiece and with its densely crowded canvas, vivid use of colour and grotesque caricatures clearly pointed the way towards a new art: Expressionism.
With all the distorted clarity of a nightmare Ensor portrays a heaving mob that includes skeletons, clowns and masked figures drunkenly await the entrance of the Messiah. Several banners line the processional route, however the leering faces in the foreground suggest that Christ’s entry will not be a triumphant one but will turn into a second Calvary.
Jean-Marie-Mathias-Philippe-Auguste, comte de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, the writer of my favourite world-weary bon mot, ‘Living? Our servants will do that for us.’ was, as the name and quote suggests, of impeccable aristocratic lineage: the family name that Mathias (as he was known informally) so proudly bore had been ennobled for at least eight centuries and had included a Grand Marshall of France and the founder of the Order of the Knights of Malta. However the Revolution and his father’s madcap get rich quick schemes had emptied the families coffers. His relatives decided that Mathias was the one to restore the lustre and fortune to the line with his writings and by marrying a rich heiress.
Unsurprisingly, given the nature of his genius and his other-worldliness neither plan came to fruition. For his friend Stephen Mallarme, Villiers was, ‘The man who never was, save in his dreams’, and as Villiers himself comments in his mighty Symbolist drama Axel, that he existed merely ‘out of politeness’. His trip to London to woo a wealthy English lady was an unmitigated disaster; he borrowed heavily to pay for the boat over and a set of outlandish clothes only for her to quickly flee Covent Garden when faced with the over ardent declarations of eternal love from the strange foreign gentleman.
His writing showed a complete and utter disregard for the commercial market. He achieved some recognition with his collection Contes Cruel and he was certainly possessed some influential friends, as well as Mallarme, Villiers could count Baudelaire, Wagner, Leon Bloy and Huysmans as close personal acquaintances. It wasn’t enough however, even when he secured a commission his savage satirical edge meant that no further work was forthcoming for a long while. His astounding early science fiction novel L’eve future, was serialised and then dropped midway by two different newspapers. One wonders what the readers thought of its dizzying imaginative leaps, its jaw-dropping virulent misogyny that dissects the female form body part by body part to illustrate its inherent flaws and how man can improve on nature to create the perfect woman,and the dense imagery culled from many varied disciplines including but not limited to; the Bible, Hermeticism, Cabbala, medicine, anatomy, psychology and science.
After the death of his aunt who had kept him somewhat afloat Villiers found himself penniless, a state that was to continue without remittance until his death at 51. Frequently homeless and always hungry his fierce pride refused any offers of assistance. One winter he slept on a construction site only to find one early morning a watchman’s boot grounding down on his face. He worked for a time as a sparring partner at a boxing gymnasium, basically being a human punching bag for sixty francs a month. Four days before his death he married the mother of his only child, an illiterate charwoman. On his deathbed, Villiers, a devout though frequently heretical Catholic was busying preparing his lawsuit against God.
Although Anna Kavan is primarily remembered (when she is remembered at all) for her extraordinary apocalyptic novel Ice, shealso wrote a number of remarkable short stories and novels, including the compellingly grim Who Are You?and her most surrealistic work, the dream narrative Sleep has his house from 1948.
Taking its title from a poem by the medieval English poet John Gower, Kavan states the works intention in the brief introduction:
LIFE IS TENSION or the result of tension: without tension the creative impulse cannot exist. If human life be taken as the result of tension between the two polarities night and day, night, the negative pole, must share equal importance with the positive day. At night, under the influence of cosmic radiation quite different from those of the day, human affairs are apt to come to a crisis. At night most human beings die and are born.
Sleep has his house describes in the night-time language certain stages in the development of one individual human being. No interpretation is needed of this language we have all spoken in childhood and in our dreams; but for the sake of unity a few words before every section indicate the corresponding events of the day.
Sleep has his house raised little comment upon publication. Traditional English fiction of the time was obsessed by character and the class structure, concerns that Kavan didn’t share in the slightest. Here we are in the realm of universals and archetypes. As well as exploring the nature of dreams, Sleep has his house primarily deals with the mother-daughter relationship (it is safe to say that Kavan had mummy issues) although in the most abstract fashion possible. Kavan’s dream surrogate is simply named B while the mother is just A.
Dream narratives are notoriously difficult to sustain; dreams are by their very nature elusive, incoherent and intensely personal, however Kavan, in prose that is poetic, painterly and cinematic manages to achieve this near impossible feat.
Below is a short excerpt that gives a flavour of Kavan’s night-time language. Although she rarely directly addressed her heroin addiction, the preference for fevered, apocalyptic and macabre imagery shows her kinship with other opiated writers, namely Coleridge, De Quincey and later, Burroughs.
Sleep has his house
Are you afraid of the tigers? Do you hear them padding all round you on their fierce fine velvet feet?
The speed of the growth of tigers in the nightland is a thing which ought to be investigated some time by the competent authority. You start off with one, about the size of a mouse, and before you know where you are he’s twice the size of the Sumatra tiger which defeats all corners in that hemisphere. And then, before you can say Knife (not a very tactful thing to say in the circumstances anyhow), all his boy and girl friends are gathered round, your respectable quiet decorous night turns itself into a regular tiger-garden. Wherever you look, the whole night is full of tigers leaping and loping and grooming their whiskers and having a wonderful time at your expense. There isn’t a thing you can do about it apparently.
The wilder the tricks of the tigers, the more abandoned their games and gambols, the more diversely dreadful become the dooms of the unfortunate A in this dream. Her fugitive shape, black-swathed, varnishes at the end of every cul-de-sac. Through the cities of the world she pursues her fate, in streets where the dead eyes of strangers are no colder than the up-swarming lights which have usurped the brilliance of the stars. From shrouded platforms among the clouds she hurtles down. She plunges from towers strict and terrible in their fragile strength, delicate as jerboa’s bones on the sky, perdurable with granite and steel. Slumped on his stained bar, Pete the Greek, beneath flybown Christmas festoons which no one will ever remove, hears the screaming skid of wheels spouting slush with her blood. Limp as an old coat not worth a hanger, she is to be found behind numbered doors in hotel bedrooms; or dangling from the trees of country churchyards where leaning tombstones like feeble-minded ghosts mop and mow in the long summer grass. The weeds of lonely rivers bind her with clammy skeins; the tides of tropical oceans suck off her shoes; crabs scuttle over her eye sockets. Sheeted and anonymous on rubbered wheels she traverses the interminable bleakness of chloroform corridors. The sardonic yap of the revolver can be taken as the full stop arbitrarily concluding each ambiguous sentence.
The British directorial team Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, known collectively as The Archers had spent WWII producing odd, idiosyncratic propaganda movies for the British war effort, mainly in black and white (a notable exception was The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp of 1942, which Winston Churchill had hated for its civilised, sympathetic portrayal of the German best friend of the Colonel).
With the end of the war The Archers changed direction and produced a series of sensuous fantasies filmed in the most glorious Technicolor by Jack Cardiff, intuiting that the British public, still in the midst of wartime rationing and austerity, longed for something more than the standard dourly realistic fare then be served. This led to the hallucinatory Black Narcissus in 1947, a melodrama full of simmering tension and repressed eroticism, followed by their most famous film a year later, the ballet movie The Red Shoes. As Michael Powell noted , ‘For ten years we had all been told to go out and die for freedom and democracy; but now the war was over. “The Red Shoes” told us to go out and die for art.’
As the above quote illustrates this is a movie about the primacy of art over life. Indeed it could be argued that The Red Shoes is a Symbolist movie, though it is a rather late arrival to the party. Drenched in aestheticism, with a curiously timeless fairy-tale ambience and the rarefied, hothouse ballet setting, TheRed Shoes is valiant attempt at a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art, an important concept in Symbolist aesthetics). However it also owes as much to Hollywood, especially the extravaganzas of Busby Berkeley, as it does to the various European avant-gardes.
The story is simplicity itself. Aspiring, ambitious ballet dancer Victoria Page, (unforgettably played by ballerina Moira Shearer, surely the most gorgeous red-head to ever grace the silver screen), comes under the auspices of Boris Lermontov, (an outstanding performance by Anton Walbrook) the impresario of the Ballet Lermontov who is clearly modelled on the legendary Sergei Diaghliev of the Ballet Russes. At the party where they first meet Lermontov asks Vicky, ‘Why do you want to dance?’ to which Vicky replies, ‘Why do you want to live?’ Quite.
At the same time Lermontov, who has an eye for talent, employs the young composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring). The scene is set for a particularly bizarre love triangle. For Lermontov isn’t just a Svengali, the demands he places upon his company shade into the Mephistophelian. When his current prima ballerina Irina (another ballerina Ludmilla Tcherina) decides to marry he remarks, ‘You cannot have it both ways. A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer. Never.’
Irina’s leaving opens the way for Vicky to become prima ballerina in a new ballet that the company is producing, The Red Shoes:
Boris Lermontov: The Ballet of The Red Shoes” is from a fairy tale by Hans Andersen. It is the story of a young girl who is devoured with an ambition to attend a dance in a pair of Red Shoes. She gets the shoes and goes to the dance. For a time, all goes well and she is very happy. At the end of the evening she is tired and wants to go home, but the Red Shoes are not tired. In fact, the Red Shoes are never tired. They dance her out into the street, they dance her over the mountains and valleys, through fields and forests, through night and day. Time rushes by, love rushes by, life rushes by, but the Red Shoes go on. Julian Craster: What happens in the end? Boris Lermontov: Oh, in the end, she dies.
Craster is the composer of the score and The Red Shoes premieres in Monte Carlo, Monaco. Daringly The Archers interrupt the narrative to present the centrepiece of the movie, a stunning seventeen minute ballet sequence exactly half-way through the movie. Both expressionistic and surrealistic, with scenery (designed by Hein Heckroth) and effects that could be never replicated in any theatre anywhere at anytime, the ballet is a phantasmagorical tour-de-force.
Vicky and Craster fall in love while working on the ballet, with dramatic and indeed tragic consequences as life grimly mimics art. During the delirious final scenes Lermontov says to the sobbing Vicky:
Vicky…Little Vicky…There, there. Sorrow will pass, believe me. Life is so unimportant. And from now onwards, you will dance like nobody ever before.
The ending is entirely appropriate for this lush fever dream of a film. For The Red Shoes isn’t just a movie you watch, it is a film to be surrendered too, and once you have surrendered, to luxuriate in.
Anthony Burgess, the author of A Clockwork Orange, considered J.G Ballard’s early short story The Garden of Time one of the most beautiful stories in the world canon of fiction.
An evocative, elegiac fantasy of two aristocrats in a remote castle with the barbarians looming menacingly on the horizon, The Garden of Time knowingly references the classic of Symbolist literature, Axel by the incomparable Villers de L’Isle-Adam (see my post To the Dreamers, To the Deriders for further information on a tragic life that was truly stranger than fiction).
The header image is from the original art-house head-scratcher Last Year inMarienbad, directed by Alain Resnais with a screenplay by the creator of the nouvelle roman Alain Robbe-Grillet. Ballard frequently cited Last Year in Marienbad as one of his favourite films. With his usual insolence he suggests that it is a science fiction movie, dealing as it does with time, space and identity.
The Garden of Time
Towards evening, when the great shadow of the Palladian villa filled the terrace, Count Axel left his library and walked down the wide rococo steps among the time flowers. A tall, imperious figure in a black velvet jacket, a gold tie-pin glinting below his George V beard, cane held stiffly in a white-gloved hand, he surveyed the exquisite crystal flowers without emotion, listening to the sounds of his wife‟s harpsichord, as she played a Mozart rondo in the music room,echo and vibrate through the translucent petals. The garden of the villa extended for some two hundred metres below the terrace, sloping down to a miniature lake spanned by a white bridge, a slender pavilion on the opposite bank. Axel rarely ventured as far as the lake, most of the time flowers grew in a small grove just below the terrace, sheltered by the high wall which encircled the estate. From the terrace he could see over the wall to the plain beyond, a continuous expanse of open ground that rolled in great swells to the horizon, where it rose slightly before finally dipping from sight. The plain surrounded the house on all sides, its drab emptiness emphasising the seclusion and mellowed magnificence of the villa. Here, in the garden, the air seemed brighter, the sun warmer, while the plain was always dull and remote. As was his custom before beginning his regular evening stroll, Count Axel looked out across the plain to the final rise, where the horizon was illuminated like a distant stage by the fading sun. As the Mozart chimed delicately around him, flowing from his wife‟s graceful hands, he saw that the advance columns of an enormous army were moving slowly over the horizon. At first glance, the long ranks seemed to be progressing in orderly lines, but on closer inspection, it was apparent that, like the obscured detail of a Goya landscape, the army was composed of a vast confused throng of people, men and women, interspersed with a few soldiers in ragged uniforms, pressing forward in a disorganised tide. Some laboured under heavy loads suspended from crude yokes around their necks; others struggled with cumbersome wooden carts, their hands wrenching at the wheel spokes; a few trudged on alone; but all moved on at the same pace, bowed backs illuminated in the fleeting sun. The advancing throng was almost too far away to be visible, but even as Axel watched, his expression aloof yet observant, it came perceptibly nearer, the vanguard of an immense rabble appearing from below the horizon. At last, as the daylight began to fade, the front edge of the throng reached the crest of the first swell below the horizon, and Axel turned from the terrace and walked down among the time flowers. The flowers grew to a height of about two metres, their slender stems, like rods of glass, bearing a dozen leaves, the once transparent fronds frosted by the fossilised veins. At the peak of each stem was the time flower, the size of a goblet, the opaque outer petals enclosing the crystal heart. Their diamond brilliance contained a thousand facets, the crystal seeming to the drain the air of its light and motion. As the flowers swayed slightly in the evening air, they glowed like flame-tipped spears. Many of the stems no longer bore flowers, and Axel examined them all carefully, a note of hope now and then crossing his eyes as he searched for any further buds. Finally he selected a large flower on the stem nearest the wall, removed his gloves and with his strong fingers snapped it off. As he carried the flower back on to the terrace, it began to sparkle and deliquesce, the light trapped within the core at last released. Gradually the crystal dissolved, only the outer petals remaining intact, and the air around Axel became bright and vivid, charged with slanting rays that flared away into the waning sunlight. Strange shifts momentarily transformed the evening, subtly altering its dimensions of time and space. The darkened portico of the house, its patina of age stripped away, loomed with a curious spectral whiteness as if suddenly remembered in a dream. Raising his head, Axel peered over the wall again. Only the furthest rim of the horizon was lit by the sun, and the great throng, which before had stretched almost a quarter of the way across the plain, had now receded to the horizon, the entire concourse abruptly flung back in a reversal of time, and now appearing to be stationary. The flower in Axel‟s hand had shrunk to the size of a glass thimble, the petals contracting around the vanishing core. A faint sparkle flickered from the centre and extinguished itself, and Axel felt the flower melt like an ice-cold bead of dew in his hand. Dusk closed across the house, sweeping its long shadows over the plain, the horizon merging into the sky. The harpsichord was silent, and the time flowers, no longer reflecting its music, stood motionlessly, like an embalmed forest. For a few minutes Axel looked down at them, counting the flowers which remained, then greeted his wife as she crossed the terrace, her brocade evening dress rustling over the ornamental tiles. “What a beautiful evening, Axel.” She spoke feelingly, as if she were thanking her husband personally for the great ornate shadow across the lawn and the dark brilliant air. Her face was serene and intelligent, her hair, swept back behind her head into a jewelled clasp, touched with silver. She wore her dress low across her breasts, revealing a long slender neck and high chin. Axel surveyed her with fond pride. He gave her his arm and together they walked down the steps into the garden. “One of the longest evenings this summer,” Axel confirmed, adding: “I picked the perfect flower, my dear, a jewel. With luck it should last us for several days.” A frown touched his brow, and he glanced involuntarily at the wall. “Each time now they seem to come nearer.” His wife smiled at him encouragingly and held his arm more tightly. Both of them knew that the garden was dying. Three evenings later, as he had estimated (though sooner than he secretly hoped), Count Axel plucked another flower from the time garden. When he first looked over the wall the approaching rabble filled the distant half of the plain, stretching across the horizon in an unbroken mass. He thought he could hear the low, fragmentary sounds of voices carried across the empty air, a sullen murmur punctuated by cries and shouts, but quickly told himself that he had imagined them. Luckily, his wife was at her harpsichord, and the rich contrapuntal patterns of a Bach fugue cascaded lightly across the terrace, masking other noises. Between the house and the horizon the plain was divided into four huge swells, the crest of each one clearly visible in the slanting light. Axel had promised himself that he would never count them, but the number was too small to remain unobserved, particularly when it so obviously marked the progress of the advancing army. By now the forward line had passed the first crest and was well on its way to the second; the main bulk of the throng pressed behind it, hiding the crest and the even vaster concourse spreading from the horizon. Looking to left and right of the central body, Axel could see the apparently limitless extent of the army. What had seemed at first to be the central mass was no more than a minor advance guard, one of many similar arms reaching across the plain. The true centre had not yet emerged but, from the rate of extension, Axel estimated that when it finally reached the plain it would completely cover every metre of ground. Axel searched for any large vehicles or machines, but all was amorphous and uncoordinated as ever. There were no banners or flags, no mascots or pike bearers. Heads bowed, the multitude pressed on, unaware of the sky. Suddenly, just before Axel turned away, the forward edge of the throng appeared on top of the second crest, and swarmed down across the plain. What astounded Axel was the incredible distance it had covered while out of sight. The figures were now twice the size, each one clearly within sight. Quickly, Axel stepped from the terrace, selected a time flower from the garden and tore it from the stem. As it released its compacted light, he returned to the terrace. When the flower had shrunk to a frozen pearl in his palm he looked out at the plain; with relief saw that the army had retreated to the horizon again. Then he realised that the horizon was much nearer than previously, and that what he assumed to be the horizon was the first crest. When he joined the Countess on their evening walk he told her nothing of this, but she could see behind his casual unconcern and did what she could to dispel his worry. Walking down the steps, she pointed to the time garden. “What a wonderful display, Axel. There are so many flowers still.” Axel nodded, smiling to himself at his wife‟s attempt to reassure him. Her use of still had revealed her own unconscious anticipation of the end. In fact, a mere dozen flowers remained of the many hundreds that had grown in the garden, and several of these were little more than buds – only three or four were fully grown. As they walked down to the lake, the Countess‟s dress rustling across the cool turf, he tried to decide whether to pick the larger flowers first or leave them to the end. Strictly, it would be better to give the smaller flowers additional time to grow and mature, and this advantage would be lost if he retained the larger flowers to the end, as he wished to do, for the final repulse. However, he realised that it mattered little either way; the garden would soon die and the smaller flowers required far longer than he could give them to accumulate their compressed cores of time. During his entire lifetime he had failed to notice a single evidence of growth among the flowers. The larger blooms had always been mature, and none of the buds had shown the slightest development. Crossing the lake, he and his wife looked down at their reflections in the still, black water. Shielded by the pavilion on one side and the high garden wall on the other, the villa in the distance, Axel felt composed and secure, the plain with its encroaching multitude a nightmare from which he had safely awakened. He put one arm around his wife‟s smooth waist and pressed her affectionately to his shoulder, realising that he had not embraced her for several years, though their lives together had been timeless and he could remember as if yesterday when he first brought her to livein the villa. “Axel,” his wife asked with sudden seriousness. “Before the garden dies … may I pick the last flower?” Understanding her request, he nodded slowly. One by one the succeeding evenings, he picked the remaining flowers, leaving a single small bud which grew just below the terrace for his wife. He took the flowers at random, refusing to count or ration them, plucking two or three of the smaller buds at the same time when necessary. The approaching horde had now reached the second and third crests, a vast concourse of labouring humanity that blotted out the horizon. From the terrace Axel could see clearly the shuffling, straining ranks moving down into the hollow towards the final crests, and occasionally the sounds of their voices carried across to him, interspersed with cries of anger and the cracking of whips. The wooden carts lurched from side to side on tilting wheels, their drivers struggling to control them. As far as Axel could tell, not a single member of the throng was aware of its overall direction. Rather, each one blindly moved forward across the ground directly below the heels of the person in front of him, and the only unity was that of the cumulative compass. Pointlessly, Axel hoped that the true centre, far below the horizon, might be moving in a different direction, and that gradually the multitude would alter course, swing away from the villa and recede from the plain like a turning tide. On the last evening but one, as he plucked the time flower, the forward edge of the rabble had reached the third crest, and was swarming past it. While he waited for the Countess, Axel looked down at the two flowers left, both small buds which would carry them back through only a few minutes of the next evening. The glass stems of the dead flowers reared up stiffly into the air, but the whole garden had lost its bloom. Axel passed the next morning quietly in his library, sealing the rarer of his manuscripts into the glass-topped cases between the galleries. He walked slowly down the portrait corridor, polishing each of the pictures carefully, then tidied his desk and locked the door behind him. During the afternoon he busied himself in the drawing rooms,unobtrusively assisting his wife as she cleaned their ornaments and straightened the vases and busts. By evening, as the sun fell behind the house, they were both tired and dusty, and neither had spoken to the otherall day. When his wife moved towards the music room, Axel called her back. “Tonight we‟ll pick the flowers together, my dear,” he said to her evenly. “One for each of us.” He peered only briefly over the wall. They could hear, less than a kilometre away, the great dull roar of the ragged army, the ring of iron and lash, pressing on towards the house. Quickly, Axel plucked his flower, a bud no bigger than a sapphire. As it flickered softly, the tumult outside momentarily receded, then began to gather again. Shutting his ears to the clamour, Axel looked around at the villa, counting the six columns in the portico, then gazed out across the lawn at the silver disc of the lake, its bowl reflecting the last evening light, and at the shadows moving between the tall trees, lengthening across the crisp turf. He lingered over the bridge where he and his wife had stood arm in arm for so many summers – “Axel!” The tumult outside roared into the air; a thousand voices bellowed only twenty or thirty metres away. A stone flew over the wall and landed among the time flowers, snapping several of the brittle stems. The Countess ran towards him as a further barrage rattled along the wall. Then a heavy tile whirled through the air over their heads and crashed into one of the conservatory windows. “Axel!” He put his arms around her, straightening his silk cravat when her shoulder brushed it between his lapels. “Quickly, my dear, the last flower!” He led her down the steps and through the garden. Taking the stem between her jewelled fingers, she snapped it cleanly, then cradled it within her palms. For a moment the tumult lessened slightly and Axel collected himself. In the vivid light sparkling from the flower he saw his wife‟s white, frightened eyes. “Hold it as long as you can, my dear, until the last grain dies.” Together they stood on the terrace, the Countess clasping the brilliant dying jewel, the air closing in upon them as the voices outside mounted again. The mob was battering at the heavy iron gates, and the whole villa shook with the massive impact. While the final glimmer of light sped away, the Countess raised her palms to the air, as if releasing an invisible bird, then in a final access of courage put her hands in her husband‟s, her smile as radiant as the vanished flower. “Oh, Axel!” she cried. Like a sword, the darkness swooped down across them. Heaving and swearing, the outer edge of the mob reached the knee-high remains of the wall enclosing the ruined estate, hauled their carts over it and along the dry ruts of what had once been an ornate drive. The ruin, formerly a spacious villa, barely interrupted the ceaseless tide of humanity. The lake was empty, fallen trees rotting at its bottom, an old bridge rusting into it. Weeds flourished among the long grass in the lawn, over-running the ornamental pathways and carved stone screens. Much of the terrace had crumbled, and the main section of the mob cut straight across the lawn, by-passing the gutted villa, but one or two of the more curious climbed up and searched among the shell. The doors had rotted from their hinges and the floors had fallen through. In the music room an ancient harpsichord had been chopped into firewood, but a few keys still lay among the dust. All the books had been toppled from the shelves in the library, the canvases had been slashed, and gilt frames littered the floor. As the main body of the mob reached the house, it began to cross the wall at all points along its length. Jostled together, the people stumbled into the dry lake, swarmed over the terrace and pressed through the house towards theopen doors on the north side. One area alone withstood the endless wave. Just below the terrace, between the wrecked balcony and the wall was a dense, six foot high growth of heavy thorn bushes. The barbed foliage formed an impenetrable mass, and the people passing stepped around it carefully, noticing the belladonna entwined among the branches. Most of them were too busy finding their footing among the upturned flagstones to look up into the centre of the thorn-bushes, where two stone statues stood side by side, gazing out over the grounds from their protected vantage point. The larger of the figures was the effigy of a bearded man in a high-collared jacket, a cane under one arm. Beside him was a woman in an elaborate full-skirted dress, her slim serene face unmarked by the wind and rain. In her left hand she lightly clasped a single rose, the delicately formed petals so thin as to be almost transparent. As the sun died away behind the house a single ray of light glanced through a shattered cornice and struck the rose, reflected off the whorl of petals on to the statues, lighting up the grey stone so that for a fleeting moment it was indistinguishable from the long-vanished flesh of the statues originals.
Another one of the drawings that can be definitely attributed to have come from the hand of the master, The Tree-Man is also a figure that features prominently in the right panel hellscape of the triptych TheGarden of Earthly Delights.
As the date of composition of The Garden of Earthly Delights cannot be determined accurately beyond the range of 1490 to 1510, it is a matter of conjecture as to whether the drawing of The Tree-Man is a preparatory sketch or a later variation on this most memorable, nightmarish character.
Although not situated in hell, the landscape of The Tree-Man is nevertheless rather bleak and blighted. In the centre of the foreground a stunted tree sits near the bank of a river that has inundated a large part of the background land. Various species of birds feature, including a stock, a pair of swimming ducks and an owl.
Dominating the scene is the Tree-Man, a monstrous hybrid of human face, rotting tree stumps, broken eggshell and boats. Inside the hollow cavity of the body a group of people (surely damned) appear to be involved in drinking, gambling and whoring. Also a crescent moon flag juts from this unusual posterior opening. The Tree-Man sports extraordinary headgear on which a large pitcher is balanced. Inside this vessel is a small blurry figure that is pointlessly dangling a fishing line and another man precariously clings onto a ladder while reaching out to a line that is attached to the flag.
It has been suggested that the Tree-Man’s face in both this drawing and in The Garden of Earthly Delights is a possible self-portrait of Bosch. In the triptych the headgear closely resembles an artist’s palette and the sideways, conspiratorial expression of rueful resignation that greet the viewer do point towards the Tree-Man being an elaborate, knowingly ironic signature.
Salvador Dali’s arresting photo-montage The Phenomenon of Ecstasy which features the photographic studies of Charcot’s female hysterics, originally accompanied the artist’s essay on the irrational aspects of art nouveau architecture; in particular the buildings of fellow Catalan Antoni Gaudi, in the magazine Minotaure. His contention that “the repugnant can be transformed into the beautiful” through an ecstasy achieved by continuous erotic activity and that the sexual abandon resulting from hysteria leads to a transformation of perception in art, architecture and indeed modern life markedly shows the influence of the Symbolist and Decadent movements of the latter 19th century upon the Surrealists.
Following my recent post and interview with the exciting Australian artist Anna Di Mezza, I am delighted to share Anna’s wonderful new painting Evolution.
Like all art worthy of the name, Evolution raises more questions and possible interpretations then it is prepared to answer. The following analogies are my subjective opinion alone, which Anna (thankfully) wishes to neither confirm or deny.
In the blanched, washed out afternoon light, three wavering, ghostly young women are in the process of a mysterious dissolution; of being rubbed out, literally erased from the picture. The source of the irradiating unreality is a rip (a tear in the space-time continuum?) in the centre of the composition which is half filled with a column of paint and has almost obscured completely one figure, the remaining lower part of her body is elongated and distorted. The two figures to the right are blurring proportionally to their nearest to the tear.
To deepen the mystery further the only spot of bold colour to be seen is the red in the corner of the cut-off doorway. At first glance the ball (or apple) seems to be floating but upon closer examination appears to actually be in place of a head. At the bottom left of the painting an oddly shaped shadow that apparently belongs to a figure outside of the frame can be seen. The relationship between the main group of three figures, the red ball in the doorway and the shadow is ambiguous and unresolved.
Although it appears to me that Evolution presents a scene of disappearance, the title contradicts this interpretation and suggests that actually the figures are evolving into being. Whether it represents a coming into being or an after-image of an hallucination , Evolution is a vivid snapshot from the kind of nightmare you have while falling to sleep watching a late night movie.
One of the best examples of the Surrealist ‘cult of the object’ which transformed everyday found objects in strange, suggestive ways by placing them into unlikely convergences and chance juxtapositions, My Nurse by the Swiss artist Meret Oppenheim, famous for her fur-lined tea-cup is a disturbing, subversive work with marked fetishistic overtones.
An up-turned pair of white leather high-heeled shoes are placed on a platter, bound and trussed up like a turkey. Oppenheim commented on this work that ‘…it evokes for me the association of thighs squeezed together in pleasure. In fact, almost a “proposition”. When I was a little girl, four of five, we had a young nursemaid. She was dressed in white (Sunday Best?). Maybe she was in love, maybe that’s why she exuded a sensual atmosphere of which I was unconsciously aware.’
Oppenheim’s comments and the fact that it is shoes bound in such a manner shows that she was fully aware of Freudian psychology. Another, quite clear implication, is that women are not supposed to move.
Georges Bataille in the article Big Toe in Documents magazine outlined his view on shoe and foot fetishes. Because the foot is what treads on the ground and connects us to base reality it is despised, whereas the head, which is nearest to the sky and clouds is venerated. Of course some people will take the contrary view and worship what is generally held in contempt. Luis Bunuel took a rather more straight-forward delight in his shoe fetish as can be witnessed in the extraordinary tracking shot of Catherine Deneuve’s elegant black pumps as she climbs the stairways to Madame Anais brothel for the first time in Belle Du Jour.
Along with the Irish writer and wit Oscar Wilde, whose play Salome he illustrated to astonishing effect, Aubrey Beardsley is the key figure in the English 19th Century fin-de-siecle.
In his precocious, short lived yet immeasurably influential career Beardsley started out as a follower of Aestheticism, England’s anaemic version of the international Symbolism/Decadent movement. At the age of twenty his art implicitly rejected the insipid romantic cliches of the Pre-Raphaelites, which Aestheticism was still in thrall to, and concentrated on the grotesque and the erotic. Inspired by Japanese woodblocks and the poster art of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, he was one of the first artists to exploit the new process of ‘line-block’, which enabled unlimited prints to be made without losing the clarity of the original drawing. Beardsley’s most important contribution to the history of drawing was, however, the value he attached to line. Beardsley noted that artists “are in the habit of using thin lines to express backgrounds, and thick lines to express foregrounds.” His simple yet revolutionary idea was that he could achieve a greater effect if “the background and foreground are drawn with lines the same thickness.” The importance of Beardsley on the sinuous curve of the then nascent Art Nouveau style is hard to over-estimate.
Beardsley’s first commission in 1893, at the age of twenty-one, for the Everyman edition of Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur caused quite a stir with its languid atmosphere of androgyny and perversion. He was a co-founder of The Savoy magazine, where parts of his unfinished erotic novel Under the Hill (with illustrations) were published, and the first art editor of TheYellow Book. Beardsley is credited with the distinctive yellow cover, daringly associating it with the tradition of bounding illicit, pornographic books in that colour in France. Along with the illustrations for Salome, this would prove to be problematic for Beardsley at the time of Wilde’s trial for gross indecency in 1895 and the publishers of The Yellow Book gave in to demands for his dismissal.
Beardsley would continue to illustrate books, notably Lysistrata, Pope’s The Rape of the Lock and selected tales of Edgar Allan Poe, before moving to the South of France in 1897 due to his deteriorating health. He died the following year at the age of 25 from tuberculosis.