The masterpiece of the exceptional Surrealist Wifredo Lam, The Jungle from 1943, presents in its densely populated canvas a nightmarish, claustrophobic vision of riotous growth and rapid decay. Blending the human, animal and vegetation within his totemic masked figures with their proliferation of limbs and orbed protuberances, TheJungle exudes a sinister atmosphere of ritualised aggression and menace.
Lam was born in Cuba of mixed Chinese and African descent. His godmother was a famed Santeria practitioner and both his Afro-Cuban heritage and the orisha (the spirit deities of Santeria, the Cuban equivalent of Vodou) would play an integral part in his mature work. His association with Andre Breton would led to Lam illustrating Breton’s collection of poems, Fata Morgana and Lam was one of the artists and intellectuals that would contribute to the Surrealists re-design of the card deck (see Le Jeu Du Marseille-A Surrealist Pack of Cards) while holed up in a Marseilles mansion while awaiting to escape Europe after the Nazi invasion of France. Lam would also accompany Breton and his wife Elise on his visit to Haiti (see Desire in a Different Climate).
After finally emerging into the daylight from the scrum and press of the ticket barriers, Margot immediately declared that they couldn’t possibly go to Kubla Khan’s at this early hour. The shutters may have been lifted, but nobody who was anybody would be caught dead there at this time of day.
‘Besides Max, you are looking as peaky as I feel,’ she said. ‘I think that we are both in need of some refreshment. Yes, a little pick-me-up would act as a tonic, do us both a world of good. So what do you say to that?’ Margot asked, more to herself than to Max.
Max nodded absently. ‘Sure.’
He’d been so absorbed in the act of putting one foot in front of the other, suppressing the nausea brought on by the sight of the grey concrete towers dissolving in the sickening heat haze, that he really hadn’t been paying close attention. Now, though, he wondered where exactly they were walking to.
‘I know. Let’s go to that new place,’ Margot said, answering his unspoken question. ‘You know, that place they spent a fortune on? It was in the news. They called it the beginning of an urban renaissance or some such public relations nonsense.’
She stopped, lifted her sunglasses and rubbed her eyes in an effort to jog her memory. ‘Oh what’s it called?’ she asked aloud. ‘The Babylon. No. That’s not it. Something like it though. Babylon, Babylonia, Bethlehem, Bedlam…’ She shook her head. Then clicking her fingers, she said, ‘The Babel, that’s it. Let’s go there.’ With a look at their surroundings, she added, ‘Though I’m sure we’re headed in the completely wrong direction.’ When her gaze landed on a cluster of buildings that had briefly obscured the sun, she pointed. ‘There. Let’s go that a way instead.’
Again Max just nodded. He tried to speak but discovered that his swollen tongue was incapable of forming words. They had to get somewhere soon though, he thought. As Margot’s mind spiralled in ever decreasing, tightening circles, his limbs and extremities were being overtaken by a debilitating leadenness. Soon, very soon, he sincerely and desperately hoped, they would find this damned hotel and be seated in a dim nook with tall, long glasses of some refreshing, viscous, alcoholic drink. He could see it so clearly. He could almost taste it. Why were they not there already?
These thoughts were familiar. Memories, perhaps? Thoughts he’d had before? Glancing out of the corner of his eye at the mirrored, reinforced, window of the shop-front they were passing, he realised his mind was like that sheet of glass —reflecting everything and yet remembering nothing. The images that appeared before his eyes made a momentary impression, then moved off and vanished forever.
They scurried down empty avenues designed to disabuse anyone of the quaint notion that streets were for pedestrians to stroll upon. It simply wasn’t the case, especially not these days and not here, of all places. No, an avenue was a place for traffic to tear down, brakes untouched —woe betide anyone stupid enough to try to cross the road. Getting to the opposite side required being born there. And so they turned up sinister, dead-end alleys built primarily to facilitate robbery and rape, emerging finally, on the canal area. Margot immediately perked up, remarking that it couldn’t be far away now.
‘Thank God, I thought we were well and truly lost there for a while,’ Max said, finally finding his voice again.
‘Dearest Max, your lack of confidence in me is simply appalling,’ she said. ‘Though, I believe we are both on a bit of a come-down, which simply won’t do. But never fear. I believe I have the solution to having peaked too soon. I just never expected it to be such a long day. Anyway, all’s well that ends well, isn’t that so?’
‘I realize you have some master plan in the works, Margot. I just wish you would enlighten me a little.’
‘Oh Max,’ she said, smiling. ‘That would just spoil the surprise. Where’s your sense of adventure? When you woke up this morning, I bet you never thought you’d end up lost in Birmingham, did you?’ She gestured to a squat, low-rise, balconied building which had BABEL TOWERS emblazoned across the entrance. ‘Look, that must be it.’
‘It must be indeed, though it’s not really a tower, is it?’ Max remarked.
‘Not to worry, I am sure they will add bits onto it later. It does look shiny and new, though, doesn’t it?’
‘Sure does. Anyway, I couldn’t care less. I just want to get inside and take the weight off and have a drink. I’m completely parched’
‘Come on, then, stop dawdling and we’ll be there right quick.’
‘Coming, Margot,’ he said, pouting. ‘Are you just going to get bossier and bossier as this day goes on, or what?’
‘You’d better believe it, darling. You ain’t seen nothing yet. Besides, that’s the reason why you love me so,’ Margot suggested rather tartly.
‘Oh, you think so?’ Max replied, though he had to admit that she probably had a point on this score.
And as she marched up to the bar —with its space-station curves and mirrored surfaces— and commandingly ordered two gin and tonics with a squeeze of a lime, he felt just a little bit more in love, if such a thing was possible. The fleeting thought of his somnolent father finally waking to discover their absence entered his mind and was dismissed straight away. Hadn’t he already had that thought before?
They slid into the seats of a banquette in a shadowy nook, just like he had envisioned. Suddenly awestruck, he wondered if he was now psychic. Had the drugs Margot so thoughtfully provided unlocked a hitherto unused portion of his brain to reveal everything in the world in all its essence? He sipped the viscous gin that wonderfully refreshed his parched mouth and throat.
‘We really shouldn’t be mixing drink with what we took earlier —not really the ideal combo, but what the hell. I really needed this. Besides we are definitely on the comedown phrase, and that certainly won’t do if we are really to make a night of it,’ she said. ‘And I really want to make it a night we will never forget, don’t you, Max?’
Max sipped his drink. ‘Of course.’ Though, it was already a day that would live long in the memory.
‘Anyway, so,’ Margot said, pausing to rummage in her handbag. She withdrew her hand to present two sugar-cubes in her open palm. ‘This may be too much, but too much of everything is just enough, don’t you think?’ She laughed. ‘Though it may be in this case just too much. What do you say?’ She handed him one of the sugar-cubes.
‘I say yes. Thanks, Margot,’ Max said as he swallowed and reached for his drink.
‘Good boy, hopefully we can expect fireworks very shortly.’
‘No doubt. Do you want another drink?’ Max asked as he rose.
‘Absolutely, same again. Here, take some of your Dad’s money to pay for it.’
‘Cheers,’ Max said, smiling as he accepted the ten pound note.
Then cash in hand, Max wound through the crowd toward the glowing Shangri-La that was the bar. As the drug took effect, he felt the resurgent joy that had been slipping away, slowly return.
Spain produced some of the finest surrealist visual artists, all of whom gravitated to Paris in the twenties. Picasso, although assiduously courted by Andre Breton was never officially part of the movement, however he remained a sympathetic fellow traveller, contributing to Surrealist periodicals and drawing inspiration from Surrealist techniques. Other heavyweights more directly involved were Joan Miro, an important innovator in pictorial automatism; the Surrealist film-maker par excellence Luis Bunuel, and of course the most outrageous Surrealist of them, Salvador Dali. Continue reading →