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.
Come here you, closer still,
I want you to be the first to know
That gold is all around this town
Beneath the streets & sewers,
Scattered haphazardly here there
Everywhere, enough to dazzle,
Blind the unwary with the glitter,
Shimmering dissolving glamour
When the sun shines again:
Do you have it within to dare?
To serve this magistery right?
To make the mad dream real,
Turn this place into Tenochtitlán,
Render into actuality El Dorado:
Do you possess the strength to will
Into existence all the power & glory
Of this metallic inhuman purity
The cold coalescence of stars?
After you have known, dared,
Willed these forces into being,
Now that you are experienced,
Initiated & illuminated can you
Keep a secret, will you remain silent?
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.
Max Ernst was intrigued when he first saw Dorothea Tanning’s enigmatic self-portrait, which he suggested should be called TheBirthday; she agreed that it was an apt choice.After playing chess they fell in love, as Surrealist’s were wont to do. They married in 1946 in a joint wedding with Man Ray and Juliet Browner. They remained together until Ernst’s death in 1976. She would outlive Ernst by a further 36 years, living to the grand old age of 102, the last of the Surrealists.
A writer as well as a painter, Tanning’s memoir is entitled Birthday.
Max Ernst’s 1932 collage Le Facteur Cheval is a homage to the extraordinary creator of the Ideal Palace, that marvellous folly that the Surrealists so loved: Ferdinand Cheval.
Born in 1836 in the Drome departement of France, approximately 30 miles south of Lyon, Ferdinand Cheval left school at 13 with an apprenticeship to a baker, however he eventually became a postman. One day in 1879 while doing his 18 mile round in the small village of Hauterives where he lived, Cheval in his haste stumbled over a stone. Stopping to examine the cause of his trip, Cheval was stuck by the strange shape and beauty of the stone and it reminded him of a dream that he had fifteen years previously and which he had almost forgotten. In the dream, which he found hard to express in words, he had built a palace or castle or caves. He had told nobody about this dream for fear of ridicule, it felt ridiculous to himself. However the stone had brought back the dream and he put it into his pocket to examine at leisure.
The next day he returned to where he found the stone and to his delight he found many more stones even stranger and more beautiful than the cause of his near fall. Cheval said that the stones “represents a sculpture so strange that it is impossible for man to imitate, it represents any kind of animal, any kind of caricature. I said to myself: since Nature is willing to do the sculpture, I will do the masonry and the architecture.”
For the next thirty-three years Cheval built his Ideal Palace, pushing a wheelbarrow on his postal rounds to carry all the stones he collected. He frequently worked late into the night with the aid of a oil lamp, binding the stones together with lime, mortar and cement. The images of exotic locales that he saw on the postcards and illustrated magazines he delivered on his route inspired his imagination and found expression in the eclectic mix of architecture of the Ideal Palace, where Hindu Temple, Arabic Mosque and Swiss Chalet (among others) styles somehow form a unified whole.
Cheval, as he feared, was scorned by the local community, and his visionary Ideal Palace was derided as the work of a madman. This changed however when the project was featured in national newspapers and tourists started visiting. In 1905 a tourist register was opened. Cheval declared the Ideal Palace finished in 1912 and inscribed on the building ,”The work of one man.” He also stated his desire to be buried underneath the Ideal Palace.
Although Cheval comes across as a charming eccentric he was obviously a man of dogged determination, so when he learnt that French law strictly forbade his burial upon the grounds of the Ideal Palace, he set about building his own mausoleum, at the age of eighty. He spent the next seven years building another fantastical and beautiful structure. One year after its completion Ferdinand Cheval died and was buried in the mausoleum that he had constructed.
As well as the Surrealists, who would often embark on pilgrimage to a site which they considered to be a monument to naive art and the transformative powers of the imagination, the Ideal Palace was much admired by Picasso and Anais Nin, who published an essay on Cheval. In 1969 the Minister of Culture, the novelist Andre Malraux declared the Ideal Palace a cultural landmark and later in 1986 the Facteur Cheval was featured on his own postage stamp: a touching and luminous irony.
Today the Palais Ideal Du Facteur Cheval Monument Historique receives 120,000 visitors yearly and is considered one of the most outstanding examples of Art Brut/outsider art in the world.