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).
The German artist Max Ernst who has been the subject of a number of posts here, was one of the key figures linking Dada to Surrealism. A founding member of Cologne Dada in 1919 Ernst titled himself Dadafex Maximus; Dadamax for short. Ernst experimented with photomontage during this period, the favoured medium of the Dadaists, before switching to collage and painting. Moving to Paris in 1922 he was a prime mover of the transitional period between the dissolution of Paris Dada and the start of Surrealism proper in 1924 with the publication of the First Surrealist Manifesto, known as the mouvement flou.
Above and below are works created in the Dada period, including The Elephant Celebes of 1921, a painting that combines the dreamlike composition of De Chirico with Dada collage techniques and thus anticipating the style so favoured by later Surrealists.
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 intriguing work of Australian artist Anna Di Mezza achieves a synthesis of disparate styles and techniques that requires a double take from the viewer. Collages of found images from vintage magazines are taken out of their original context and then rendered in a meretricious photo-realist manner using a largely mono-chromatic colour palette, with, as Anna notes ‘occasional pops of colour.’
Di Mezza stages strange tableau of suspended narratives. Gigantic women recline or roam across mountain ranges; people emerge from bar-codes; sets of well coiffured ladies gather around mysterious crystals or point excitedly to a lone astronaut while on the moon. Di Mezza’s paintings suggest stories that fascinate while ultimately eluding explanation.
Di Mezza cites influences as diverse as the Surrealists, especially Magritte and De Chirico, Pop Art, filmmakers David Lynch, Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick and the classic fifties TV series The Twilight Zone. While her art clearly references her influences Di Mezza skilfully creates her own unique otherworldly vision.
A superbly disturbing painting by De Chirico that had an immeasurable impact upon the Surrealists, The Disquieting Muses presents us with the proverbial riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. But is there a key? If so, do we really want to open the blue box (a version of which is at the heart of the conundrum in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr, see Dreams of Desire 6 (Mulholland Dr.), for fear of what it may be contained inside?
Painted during WWI in the Italian town of Ferrara where De Chirico lived, it features a piazza bordered by the imposing medieval fortress of the Castello Estense and industrial brick chimneys. The only figures within the square are faceless mannequins; the muses of tragedy and comedy, Melpomene and Thalia with their traditional attributes scattered around, and the God Apollo on a pedestal in the shadow. The perspective and the long shadows add to the air of frozen stillness and uneasiness.
Several Surrealists were directly inspired by exposure to De Chirico’s early metaphysical work including Max Ernst (see the series of posts starting with A Week of Max Ernst: Sunday), Yves Tanguy (Time and Again), and Kay Sage (Surrealist Women: Kay Sage). Sylvia Plath also wrote a poem of the same name that was inspired (in part) by the painting and which is included below.
The Disquieting Muses
Mother, mother, what illbred aunt
Or what disfigured and unsightly
Cousin did you so unwisely keep
Unasked to my christening, that she
Sent these ladies in her stead
With heads like darning-eggs to nod
And nod and nod at foot and head
And at the left side of my crib?
Mother, who made to order stories
Of Mixie Blackshort the heroic bear,
Mother, whose witches always, always,
Got baked into gingerbread, I wonder
Whether you saw them, whether you said
Words to rid me of those three ladies
Nodding by night around my bed,
Mouthless, eyeless, with stitched bald head.
In the hurricane, when father’s twelve
Study windows bellied in
Like bubbles about to break, you fed
My brother and me cookies and Ovaltine
And helped the two of us to choir:
“Thor is angry: boom boom boom!
Thor is angry: we don’t care!”
But those ladies broke the panes.
When on tiptoe the schoolgirls danced,
Blinking flashlights like fireflies
And singing the glowworm song, I could
Not lift a foot in the twinkle-dress
But, heavy-footed, stood aside
In the shadow cast by my dismal-headed
Godmothers, and you cried and cried:
And the shadow stretched, the lights went out.
Mother, you sent me to piano lessons
And praised my arabesques and trills
Although each teacher found my touch
Oddly wooden in spite of scales
And the hours of practicing, my ear
Tone-deaf and yes, unteachable.
I learned, I learned, I learned elsewhere,
From muses unhired by you, dear mother,
I woke one day to see you, mother,
Floating above me in bluest air
On a green balloon bright with a million
Flowers and bluebirds that never were
Never, never, found anywhere.
But the little planet bobbed away
Like a soap-bubble as you called: Come here!
And I faced my traveling companions.
Day now, night now, at head, side, feet,
They stand their vigil in gowns of stone,
Faces blank as the day I was born,
Their shadows long in the setting sun
That never brightens or goes down.
And this is the kingdom you bore me to,
Mother, mother. But no frown of mine
Will betray the company I keep.