I have previously highlighted the influence of the Surrealists and Pop Artists upon J.G. Ballard, one of the few modern writers whose name is now an adjective; the word Ballardian conjures up visions of dystopian modernity, denuded man-made landscapes, the all-consuming nature of mass media, entropy, psychological withdrawal and anomie.
This most visual of writers has been a source of inspiration to artists in his turn, either directly referencing his work or by touching upon Ballardian themes.
I have taken liberties with this selection of ‘Ballardian’ imagery. Obviously Rousseau pre-dates The Drowned World and Warhol is directly stated by Ballard as an influence in The Atrocity Exhibition, but in some sense they seem to me Ballardian. The unconscious forms its own connections, there are no accidents and there are no coincidences.
Between 1967 and 1970 J.G. Ballard placed five ‘advertiser’s announcements’ in Ambit, New Worlds and various continental alternative magazines. Although he was the editor at Ambit and heavily involved in New Worlds he paid the going rates out of his own pocket. Ballard stated that he wanted to eventually place them in Vogue, Paris-Match and Life magazines and even applied for an Arts Council grant to provide the necessary funding, but the idea was summarily rejected by the council. Ballard believed that the refusal was occasioned by their sniffy attitude towards advertising as an art-form: still the hesitancy to pony up public funds is understandable on several counts. Would those august publications have published the adverts considering their bizarre and controversial nature? Is advertising a suitable area for an Arts Council grant? And most pertinently of all, what exactly is Ballard selling?
The adverts feature a black and white image of a woman; the first and final photographs are of his partner Claire Churchill, later Walsh, the second is a still from Steven Dworkin’s film Alone about a woman masturbating, the third is a photograph of a woman in bondage gear that his friend the British Pop Artist Eduardo Paolozzi took and the fourth is by Les Krims; with accompanying text taken and on occasion somewhat re-worked from various chapters of The Atrocity Exhibition. As always with Ballard the motivation and effect is ambiguous. The use of the Situationist International technique of détournement would appear to place them as satires, but Ballard always had a tendency to embrace what was commonly held in contempt by the establishment. Regardless of their overt meaning we can be sure that their latent manifestation is of a deeply subversive nature.
J.G Ballard, the genre busting English science fiction writer responsible for such novels as The Drowned World, Crash, High Rise and Empire of the Sun as well as some of the finest short stories in world literature, frequently remarked that he really wanted to be a painter in the surrealist tradition that he so loved instead of a writer.
This deep reverence and constant engagement with the visual arts can be most clearly seen in his demented and wildly perverse cult classic collage novel The Atrocity Exhibition. Referencing Ernst, Dali, Magritte, Dominguez, Matta, Bellmer, Delvaux, Tanguy as well as Pop Artists Tom Wesselman and Andy Warhol in the frequent free association tests and ‘condensed novels’ that comprise the text, The Atrocity Exhibition could easily be used as a textbook primer on surrealism and popular culture in the sixties.
In 1990 RE/Search Publications issued an expanded edition with four new stories, Ballard’s bizarre yet illuminating annotations, disturbing illustrations by the medical illustrator/graphic novelist Phoebe Gloeckner and photographs by Ana Barrado of brutalist buildings and weapon ranges. It also features a preface by the Hitman for the Apocalypse himself, William S. Burroughs.
Below are some of the many paintings mentioned in the text, some of which are very well known and others less so.
Alfred Hitchcock’s horror movie The Birds from 1963 is very loosely based on Daphne Du Maurier’s novella of the same name. Hitchcock’s first American film and international success had been an adaption of her Gothic melodrama Rebecca, and later Nicholas Roeg would adapt du Maurier’s eerie story Don’t Look Now, which became a staple on the late-night movie circuit in the 70’s.
du Maurier’s original story is more concerned with the revenge of nature, exemplified by the suddenly hostile birds working in concert to punish humanity for its hubris and arrogance. As such it can be seen as a fore-bearer of a particularly English sub-genre of ecological apocalyptic fiction, John Wyndham, J.G Ballard and Anna Kavan all produced work in this vein.
Hitchcock told the screenwriter Evan Hunter to keep the central premise of unexplained bird assaults but to develop new characters and expand upon the plot. Given the end result it is hard not to see The Birds as a symbolic take on the ungovernable nature of female sexuality, in all its myriad forms.
The Birds centres on the character of Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hendren), a chic and irresponsible socialite who becomes a cuckoo in the nest when she impulsively follows love interest Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) to his home in the small coastal town of Bodega Bay, California with a pair of caged lovebirds in tow. Mitch is defined solely in relation to the women in his life; his overbearing and jealous mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy), his younger sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright) and his ex, the local school teacher Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette). Soon after the birds begin to inexplicably attack the residents of the town, massing, with even birds of different species flocking together to launch aerial invasions. At one point a hysterical mother in the diner expressively connects the menacing behaviour of the birds with the arrival of Miss Daniels. Somehow her presence upsets a delicate balance, unleashing all the forces in nature inimical to humanity.
Below is a short clip of the school scene, a masterclass in suspense.
In the late thirties the Chilean Surrealist artist Roberto Matta painted a series of large canvases that he called inscapes: imaginary landscapes that were a projection of the internal psyche. Using the techniques of surrealist automatism and displaying his interest in non-Euclidean geometry Matta’s inscapes are vast, visionary cosmic dramas.
Along with many other Surrealists he emigrated to the United States in 1939 to escape WWII and would live there until 1948. While in New York he would, along with his fellow Surrealist Arshile Gorky (see Nighttime, Enigma and Nostalgia) influence an emerging generation of young American artists, the Abstract Expressionists, including the pioneers Robert Motherwell and Jackson Pollack. Matta would be expelled from the Surrealists due to his affair with Gorky’s wife, which the Surrealist believed contributed to Gorky’s tragic suicide.
The cosmic dimension of Matta’s painting evokes certain elements of science fiction. His influence can definitely be felt and is in fact name-checked (along with many other Surrealist artists) by the great English writer J.G Ballard, who said that science fiction should concentrate, not on outer space, but on the inner space of the mind.