There are fewer paintings that fully convey the peculiar quality of dreams. The clever incorporation of painted wood effects further enhances the uncanny atmosphere.
An open gate invites us in. Against a backdrop of De Chirico-esqe classical ruins and under a cloudless summer sky that is somehow too vast we see a young girl brandishing a knife to see off a nightingale, meanwhile her companion has fallen into a swoon. Dwarfing the entire landscape is a wooden shed where a strange faceless figure is clutching another young girl while reaching for the knob attached to the picture frame.
Ernst said that during a fevered hallucination the wood grain panelling took on “successively the aspect of an eye, a nose, a bird’s head, a menacing nightingale, a spinning top, and so on.”
Paul Delvaux the obsessive painter of nudes was briefly associated with the Surrealist movement in the mid 1930’s and the dream-world presented in his canvases shows the influence of De Chirico (the originator of so many Surrealist careers) and his fellow Belgian Rene Magritte in the use of a dry academic painterly style and bizarre juxtapositions. However his vision of a silent Belle Epoque city frozen in time and filled with statuesque nudes reclining or walking down colonnaded streets past skeletons or bowler hatted men is uniquely his own and produces a vague sensation of unease and anxiety.
1922’s La Nuit Espagnole (Spanish Night) marks the return to a more figurative approach for the mercurial Francis Picabia (see FOR-EVER) after a decade of experimentation with Orphism, Cubism, Proto-Dada and Dada. The previous year Picabia had broken with Dada after producing a violently anti-Dada manifesto, and he moved closer to the group gathered around Andre Breton. However such an anarchic spirit couldn’t ever be tethered down to any particular movement for long, and in 1924 he turned his back on the art world altogether, though he continued to paint in a bewildering array of styles for a number of decades.
Showing the influence of commercial illustration and graphic design, Picabia painted La Nuit Espagnole using black and white enamel paint. A silhouette of a devilish flamenco dancer approaches a naked women with suggestive targets areas reminiscent of De Chirico, who on occasion painted concentric circles on his figures (see Premonition). Both figures appear to be riddled with bullet holes. A striking painting by the most debonair, cynical and acerbic of Modern artists.
Avant-garde catalyst, the quintessential modernist and fashionable man about town, Guillaume Apollinaire saw himself as a spiritual heir of Charles Baudelaire, an urban poet who doubled up as an art critic. He coined the term Cubism and was the most impassioned and ardent of its early defenders. He also coined the term Orphism (a tendency in abstract art) and more famously, Surrealism, to describe Erik Satie’s music for Jean Cocteau’s ballet Parade.
His list of contacts within Parisian artistic and literary scenes reads as a veritable who’s who of the pre-war avant-garde and include Picasso (a particularly close friend), Andre Breton, Marc Chagall, Gertrude Stein, Marcel Duchamp, Blaise Cendrars, Jean Cocteau, Henri Rousseau, Andre Derain and Giorgio de Chirico, who painted a Premonitory Portrait of Apollinaire in 1914 that eerily predicts the wounds that he was to suffer during WW1 (see Premonition).
His 1913 collection Alcools is a landmark in literary modernism and features the important poem Zone that, while grounded in Symbolism, points towards the future in its emphasis on the energy and vitality of the modern city and engagement with (then) new, evolving technologies.
Apollinaire also wrote several erotic novels including Les Onze Mille Verges, (The Eleven Thousands Rods), and he also led to the critical re-evaluation of Marquis De Sade of whom he remarked was ‘the freest spirit to ever live’.
Apollinaire volunteered during the first WWI and was stationed, appropriately for someone who was known for his fondness of a drink, in the Champagne Region. He suffered a head-wound in 1916 that required trepanning; he never really recovered although he published in 1917 another landmark collection of poetry Calligrammes that uses typography to startling effect, poems are shaped like a mirror, heart, a watch etc.
In 1918, still weakened by his war wound Apollinaire succumbed, like 19 million others to the Spanish Flu. He was 38 years old.
After his death Andre Breton, who admired Apollinaire and was very much in the tradition of poet/critic and cultural instigator, would take his coined phrase Surrealism and make it into one of the major intellectual and artistic movements of the 20th century.
I would have liked to include his seminal poem Zone, however it is a very lengthy poem, so I have chosen instead one of his poems from his 1913 collection Alcools;Hotels.
The boss is doubtful Whether you’ll pay Like a top I spin on the way
The traffic noise My neighbour gross Who puffs an acrid English smoke
O La Vallière Who limps and smiles In my prayers The bedside table
And all the company in this hotel know the languages of Babel
Let’s shut our doors With a double lock And each adore his lonely love
Although the relationship between the Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico and the Surrealists was an uneasy one to say the least; the Surrealists were highly critical of anything he painted post 1919 and de Chirico doesn’t have a good word to say about his dealings with the group, in his memoirs he describes Breton & Co as cretinous and hostile, it was de Chirico’s paintings of the metaphysical period that were undoubtedly the greatest single influence on visual Surrealism.His eerie vision of deserted piazzas and frozen cityscapes inspired and influenced Ernst, Dali, Magritte, Tanguy and Balthus among many others.
The 1914 painting of the poet and instigator of many a avant-garde movement, Guillaume Appollinaire (who also was the man to coin the term sur-realism, which he used to describe the Cubist ballet Parade, composed by Erik Satie) conveys a sense of enigmatic menace. A classical bust of a man wears the dark glasses of a blind man. His blindness paradoxically means that he can see what others can’t. He is the poet as seer. To his right there fossils of a fish and a sea-shell stamped on a precarious column. In the background there is a shadow of a man, the poet Apollinaire with a white outline marked on his cranium and shoulder, the suggestion is unmistakably of target areas. In WWI Apollinaire enlisted and was wounded in the head by shrapnel that led to a series of operations immediately before his death from influenza.