Dorothea Tanning remarked on her childhood in Galesburg, Illinois that nothing happened but the wallpaper, however everything, even wallpaper, is grist to the true artists mill and she succeeded during her long and incredibly productive life to create memorable works set in conventional domestic spaces filled with mystery, confrontation and revelation.
Family Portrait was painted in Sedona, Arizona, where Tanning lived with her husband Max Ernst for part of every year until they moved to France permanently in 1957 . The painting is dominated by the huge father (or husband) figure wearing sinister mirrored round glasses in the background. The size of each figure seems entirely dependent on their status within the family group. The perky daughter (or wife) with her large and expressive eyes sits level at the table with its crisp linen and strange dishes, dwarfing the housekeeper who is little bigger than the small dog on its hindquarters begging for its dinner. The muted colours add to the ominous and oppressive atmosphere. Family Portrait is a suburban Gothic drama of hidden tensions and Wonderland-like changes in scale that lingers unnervingly in the memory.
-I’m going to be late
-You’re always late
-Have we met before?
-You have always known me
Since the end anyway
-Quick hurry hurry quick
Up up and away
This is a bird
This is a train
This is a bullet
-I would like to propose
A dialectic of chance
-Rather a toast
To the innumerable charms of women
Jade eyed goddess spare ribs
Heavenly portraits exquisite sculptures
-Hang on that is rather rich
Coming from you that gives
A whole new world of meaning
To every derogatory term I can think of
-Blue blue neon blue
Flashes and blinks the colour
Of my mid-morning dreams
-Too many voices
Subject to a savage distortion
Sending the cats and dogs
Of the neighbourhood into
A barking yowling frenzied cacophony
-Of course this is utterly without consequence
-But it may in fact be highly significant
-I will give you sixty seconds of pleasure
A moment outside time
A concentration of experience
The naked truth the bare essentials of existence
I’ll open your eyes when you spread those legs
-Droning on vocals fried
Ante post meta
Morpheus alpha omega
-The legends of a life
-Monsters behind the myths
-Cutting scratched breaking
A chorus echo of amens
-Immobile face and as heavy featured
As an Easter Island stature
Watching waiting before turning away
-Now I’ll never make it intime
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,'” Alice said. Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t – till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!'” “But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,'” Alice objected. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There-Lewis Carroll 1871
Alice’s encounter with the proud and doomed egghead philologist Humpty Dumpty, who is naturally sitting on a wall, is one of the most memorable scenes from her visit to the Looking Glass world. Humpty’s practise of assigning private meanings to words raises a whole series of puzzling and unsettling philosophical questions which have only gained in urgency over the last century with its ever greater linguistic and moral relativism.
Carroll, as a philosophical Nominalist (the belief that universal terms do not refer to objective existences, they are mere verbal utterances) and a writer of childrens nonsense books and comic poetry, affirms Humpty’s dictum that a word means just what you choose it to mean in his Symbolic Logic:
…I maintain that any writer of a book is fully authorised in attaching any meaning he likes to any word or phrase he intends to use. If I find an author saying, at the beginning of his book. “let it be understood that by the word ‘black’ I shall always mean ‘white’, and that by the word ‘white’ I shall always mean ‘black’, I meekly accept his ruling, however injudicious I may think it.
While private meaning is an acceptable, even a necessary principle in fiction and poetry, it is far more problematic in other areas. Surely politicians, journalists and judges, for example, are under a moral obligation to avoid weighting words with hidden meaning. Unfortunately many unscrupulous leaders has perverted language in this fashion and imposed the new meaning upon the people. One of the hallmarks of totalitarian regimes is the power of propaganda to re-define reality; black will indeed become white, a fall from the heights is actually glory. Another technique is of bland technocratic euphemism, making even genocide seem merely a matter of bureaucratic and administrative procedure.
As we drift rudderless in this post-factual, post-truth age with its unprecedented information overload and polarities, we would do well to do the exact opposite of Humpty (after all, he lives on the other side of the mirror), and remember that words are our master, otherwise communication will eventually become impossible.
I previously wrote about the illustrations that have graced the Alice books over the years, with a special emphasis on the Surrealists (see my post Illustrating Alice). However this generated such a large response from readers that I soon realised that I had barely scratched the surface, as Alice has been published in thousands of editions in over a hundred languages, with a myriad of differing artistic interpretations worldwide and therefore a follow up post was very much in order.
Several Australian readers mentioned the paintings of Charles Blackman featuring Alice which certainly possess intensity and verve. Also noted was another artist from the Antipodes, (or the Antipathies as Alice called the Land Down Under during her descent down the rabbit hole), Donna Leslie and her brilliant illustrations for the bilingual adaption Alitji In The Dreamtime in Pitjantjatjara and Australian English, that drew heavily on her Aboriginal artistic heritage.
Perhaps unsurprisingly Alice is somewhat of a cultural icon in Japan and Yayoi Kusami, one of Japan’s leading contemporary artists illustrated the recent Penguin Classic edition with over a hundred drawings in her characteristic hallucinogenic dot style.
Sir Peter Blake, the leading exponent of Pop Art in the U.K illustrated the Alice books and also painted watercolours of certain celebrated scenes in a rather groovy, psychedelic style (see header image and my post Glory).
The noted Bulgarian illustrator Iassen Ghiuselev drawings for the Alice books combine a Central European folkloric sensibility with paradoxical perspectives reminiscent of Escher.
Finally featured are two American artists, Barry Moser whose sharp, dark engravings illustrated the Pennyroyal edition of 1982 and the vibrant semi-abstract paintings of Deloss McGraw.
On a trip to Rome I visited the Balthus retrospective at the Scuderie del Quirinale. Although frequently included in books on Surrealism, Balthus was never affiliated with the Surrealists. However as an art world insider he was friends with several prominent figures including the sculptor Giacometti and the writers Artaud and Bataille. More importantly he shared with Surrealism a preoccupation with the oneiric state and the same literary influences, particularly Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and Lewis Carroll’s Alice books.
The exhibition includes the 14 remarkable ink illustrations for Wuthering Heights. Emily Bronte’s classic was much admired by Bataille and Bunuel, who filmed his own idiosyncratic version set in Colonial Mexico as well as quoting the novel at length in his excellent autobiography My Last Sigh. It is not hard to see why the novels would appeal to the Surrealists with its tempestuous romanticism and its insistence on the primacy of childhood and nature against civilisation and maturity. And, of course, it is the culmination and pinnacle of the Gothic novel which Breton placed above all other literature in the Manifestos. Balthus perfectly captures the intense and sombre atmosphere of the novel which he clearly identified closely with as his Heathcliff is also a self-portrait.
The influence of Alice is even more marked. The exhibition includes several witty anthropomorphic drawings and absurdist caricatures that show the influence of both Tenniel’s illustrations and the Alice books. However it is the unsettling, decidedly ambiguous paintings of young girls often sleeping and frequently observed by slyly inscrutable cats that spanned his career that show the depth of the fixation with Alice. In 1933 Balthus painted Alice Dans le miroir and a quarter of a century later he returned to Alice to paint Golden Afternoon.
Balthus paintings have aroused considerable controversy for their subject matter and its not hard to see why. A previous exhibition was titled Cats and Girls and that neatly sums up his twin obsessions. However saccharine sounding there is nothing cutesy about Balthus eerily frozen and silent domestic universe. The knowing cats, that together with the very young girls that populate his paintings appear to be stand ins for the artist; after all he was the self proclaimed King of Cats, therefore placing himself squarely within the frame of his paintings, adding a further disturbing voyeuristic subtext.