Dubbed ‘Queen of Chicago’ by her intimates, Gertrude Abercombie was a mid 20th Century bohemian, saloniste, jazz devotee and Surrealist painter. The weekly salons she held with her second husband, the music critic Frank Sandford, in a large house in Hyde Park neighbourhood of Chicago, was frequented by such jazz luminaries as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan and Dizzie Gillespie, who was a particularly close friend.
The improvisational techniques of be-bop certainly seemed to have influenced her paintings, which feature a small number of elements and motifs repeated throughout her career in an unusual and innovative manner. Cats, snail shells, owls, doors, leafless trees and a solitary female figure, always a hypercritical self portrait, frequently recur against a somber night sky barely lit by the distant moon. The mood is usually mysterious and elusive with occasionally a hint of Southern Gothic, however Design for Death, which apparently was Charlie Parker’s favourite painting is quietly chilling in its representation of a staging for a lynching.
When asked why she painted in the Surrealist manner, Abercrombie stated, “Surrealism is meant for me because I am a pretty realistic person but don’t like all I see.”
Below are a selection of artworks from throughout Abercrombie’s career, hopefully some people will like her re-arrangements of reality as much as I do.
During the late 1960’s/70’s Dorothea Tanning creating her ‘soft sculptures’, pieces of fabric sewn together to create eerie cuddly toys from hell, resulting in perhaps the final masterpiece of Surrealism, the truly unsettling installation Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202.
In a seedy hotel room with wallpaper that emanates despair (remember the only thing going on in Tanning’s childhood was the wallpaper), soft but disturbingly visceral bodies burst from the wall or merge with the furniture. Inspired by a song from her childhood about the gangsters moll Kitty Kane who poisoned herself in Room 202 because the walls were talking, I don’t ever want to check-in into that room at the Poppy Hotel. The whole malevolent atmosphere is reminiscent of David Lynch, though Lynch wasn’t to make Eraserhead until 1977.
The painter, writer and occultist Ithell Colquhoun became acquainted with the Surrealist movement in 1938 and it was to forever change her direction as an artist, even though she was only formally a member of the British Surrealist Group for one brief year before being expelled for her refusal to quit several secret societies that she belonged to.
After her encounter with Surrealism Colquhoun would experiment with several Surrealist automatic techniques including decalcomania, fumage, frottage and collage, as well as inventing new techniques such as entopic graphomania and parsemage. Her painting Scylla makes use of Dali’s paranoiac-critical method, resulting in a double image that is both a painting that references the Greek legend of the sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis and a phantasmagorical vision of Colquhoun taking a bath.
The multi-talented Dorothea Tanning is primarily known for her paintings and sculpture, however she was also an excellent poet and writer. Below is a piece first published in 1943 in the American Surrealist magazine VVV.
It must have been a very bleak winter that year. I have no recollection of the weather, only the marvellous and relentless order in which everything occurred. It was the time that the sewing machine broke loose; nothing could have been more inopportune or diabolically calculated-the leaves had been carefully gathered and stored and now they were to be sewn together. They were particularly good leaves, I remember, sere and thin, each with the track of the snail on its under side, exactly the kind of leaf for a birthday. And now the sewing machine had gone, fled without a word of warning. Chagrined, unnerved, and with an inexplicable feeling of portent, it was I who set out in hopeless search. The month was November but the day had no date.
You, casket of the terrible jewel, cove of the silent finless fish, empty socket of the absent eye, today you shall encounter your mirrored image unaware. But you must know that at the moment of occurrence you shall be absorbed utterly, utterly and finally. Speak not of will. Your will is a frail delusion. Once confronted by the image you are like a beam which is projected and withdrawn by the flame. If it is the true, the inconceivable image, then the veil is irreparably rent, and you have achieved the incomparable.
Rain, a gray steady soaking rain. And this demoniacal wind! It heaves and subsides, raves, moans and vomits and then, remembering something, screams. We meet in the street, in a block of elegantly respectable residences, houses inspired by Beckford and those inconsequential romantics who built “ruins” of brownstone and golden oak. And in this flange of dreary facades is one drearier than the rest, because it is the most idiotic in design and because it is abandoned. The rain beats at our raincoats, trickles down between our breasts and up between our toes, and we run up the curving flight of abandoned steps. Here is not simply a momentary shelter, for the door swings open and we are upon the threshold.
Approach, my child, my diabolical daughter of the veiled eye. Reach into that cunning reticule of yours, give me the onerous instrument. You open your eyes so wide, your eyes with the veil lying on them? Do you pretend you have not disposed of the beautiful beloved, the beautiful ones and the dull? Draw nearer, my child of the fateful mouth . . . .
We push our way through a tangled paludine growth which is rooted in the sweating ceiling of the foyer. The rooms are bare, the doors ajar. The silence breathes on our faces, draws blood from our ears and I am aware of a numbing melancholy, that wide featureless melancholy that includes everything and explains nothing. Hand in hand, then, (because that is how such things are done) we traverse the silent empty rooms and, nearing the end, we encounter a sleeping gray-faced man in a panama hat. He is a little like Sasha Guitry, the same bloated look, the same gash for a mouth, the same watch-chain, only instead of the soft belly he has embedded just under his diaphragm, an aquarium. It is filled with a thick slime, pale yellow, in which writhes our runaway sewing machine. Quickly, I thrust my hand into the warm ooze and withdraw the gasping object.
“Listen to me; have I not already told you what to do here?” says the gray-faced man, waking up “How extraordinary!”
Without further hesitance I reach into my robe for the beautiful shining implement and, with one hand, perform my inevitable task. A final glance at the tangled heap of vine-twisted human wreckage and I perceive that I am now completely and finally alone. That is as it should be. Too late now for the leaves; they have shrivelled and ignited. There will be no sewing now, for the landscape is laid waste, burnt to a cinder, cratered and truncated as far as they eye can see.
Woman, when you lie with the cat who grins obscenely, the red-eyed dog with the hairless human arms, when you gaze with your veiled eyes at the many-armed calamary and helplessly desire him, when you swoon at the thought of the exquisite wound carved in the light of a phosphorous moon, do you then imagine you are sleeping? Is it possible each night to embark on that motionless viscious lake, to roam the interstices of that melancholy, monster-ridden park and still refuse to accept the name that guides your steps? Beware the sickly nobility of conscious will! Beware, my hard-eyed hard-eyed daughter, of the definitive hypodermic!
Arriving at the last room, I feel no pain. The white tossing foam of my sensations covers and intoxicates me like some inexhaustible nepenthe. (How innocent is black as compared to that arch-color, white!) I see, calmly now, that the trap is set. The paralytic moment has come and I am to lose my castle or my king. But, as always in this precious instance, there is no choice. I am one vast fiery wound, closed and healed with a hardness impossible to the untouched. There is only a marvellous kind of synaesthesic awareness that the wallpaper is singing to me. And this is the song of the wallpaper.
Stitch the leaves then, stitch them carefully and with regard for the isolated time-beat. Tremble a little upon the threshold. One feigned tremor flung magnanimously to that enormous sloth which is legion. Today you have been born, out of abysmal sorrow and knowledge, out of warnings, wounds, pestilence, obscene, spasms, defilements; out of hates, and holocausts, guts and gothic grandeurs, frenzy, crimes, visions, scorpions, secretions, love and the devil. Today you shall be married to your future.
My thoughts and as a consequence my dreams have been occupied by Prague lately, (a place I have never visited, incidentally), the city of Emperor Rudolf II with his court of alchemists, magicians, scientists and artists; where Dr John Dee and his medium Edward Kelley conjured up a vast array of angels in a Aztec obsidian mirror and Guiseppe Arcimboldo painted his bizarre composite portraits of visages made of fruit, branches, flowers and books. The city (fast forwarding three centuries) of Meyrink and his Golem haunting the ghetto; of Kafka and his monstrous metamorphoses, bewildering reversals and byzantine bureaucracies. The city of the incomparable Toyen.